In high school sociology class we had to read “Clan of the Cave Bear” and dissect the various social mores of the clan. We also had to then pick a clique within our school to study and discover the rules of how their tribe worked. High school is filled with factions: jocks, geeks, drama club, druggies, outcasts, sluts, lone wolves, mean girls, etc., etc. It was a fascinating assignment and I never really looked at social circles the same way again.
In the adult world we name these tribal rules “corporate culture” and “social climbing.” The gym is no different. People who work out all the time are the tribal elites. I refer to them as the Gym Rats. Gym Rats only respect two things: 1) a fit body, 2) evidence of an improved body.
As a newbie to the gym, you can immediately identify the Gym Rats because they are 1) incredibly ripped and 2) will completely ignore you if your fitness level is less than theirs.
Each January a fresh crop of newbies enter the tribal gyms in an effort to lose weight and follow through with their New Year’s Resolutions. Gym Rats are vaguely annoyed by this annual ritual because it means the parking lot is crowded and they have to wait for their favorite equipment. But they will give a cursory glance at the newbies and place bets on how long each will last.
People who really don’t want to be at the gym are the first victims in the evolutionary process. You can tell they won’t last past January 5, because they are the ones who are reading books on the treadmill. Another general tell-tale sign of someone about to get voted off the island is the person who wears jeans and flip flops to work out in.
By mid January the crowds have thinned and you begin to recognize other people who consistently take fitness classes with you. You mentally note who is fatter, thinner and the same size as you so you can begin to compare your fitness progress.
People who know they need help will hire a personal trainer. People who are serious about getting healthy show enthusiasm trying to keep step as their trainer moves from one machine to the next. (It seems like trainers enjoy running from one area of the gym to the next just to see how winded they can get their clients.) The people who just aren’t into it can be spotted easily too. They are the ones who show up late to their sessions and seem to talk more than train, probably about why it’s too hard for them to train.
Do It Yourselfers will stand behind people lifting dumbbells and try to mimic the exercises being done. But being newbies, their form will be completely wrong and the Gym Rat will try very hard to not laugh at them. (After all – the newbie is trying, and this is respected by the Gym Rat…subject to certain provisions.)
The Gym Rat will give a perfunctory nod of approval to newbies showing up to the gym consistently at 5 a.m. But if the newbie’s body has not improved within a one month time frame all respect is lost, because a Gym Rat knows that the newbie might be exercising but is not eating “clean” which is why the newbie is still fat.
The first hint that you are moving up the ranks is when you can identify all the tribal elders and they are willing to glance at you as you walk by. If you are sweating profusely they might even show the hint of a smile as you pass. But you have still not earned the right to talk to them. They will keep their iPod headphones locked in their ears to avoid unwanted conversations with you.
The second hint is when the receptionists at the front desk learn your name (and you learn theirs.)
But the real sign that you are in middle ranks is when a fresh crop of newbies comes to the gym after a membership discount mailing has gone out and they begin to ask you questions. (Elite Gym Rats are still too scary to talk to, but you seem like a safe bet.) They will ask you how to use the machines and why you wear a sweatshirt when you run. They will watch you when you stretch.
And then one day it happens. You are fit. You see newbies in the periphery of your vision try to mimic the ab routine on the stability ball you just completed. You go to the locker room and see an Elite Gym Rat and she takes off her headphones and talks to you for the first time.
“I see you’ve been working hard,” she says.
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