More than 20 year ago I read a line in an interview with the bodybuilder Milos Sarcev that stayed with me ever since. He said, “a true bodybuilder can work out in an empty room.” This was before calisthenics made that seem more self-evident, of course. What he was talking about was what bodybuilders call the mind-muscle connection.
It’s that mind-muscle connection I want to talk about. Because it’s at the heart of what has always made gyms feel unlike other spaces — and not just gyms, but all those “empty rooms”, whether they’re woodland trails or towpaths, or patches of deserted concrete under bridges where I know I’ll not be disturbed, or even a corridor in an empty building before the people behind the office doors arrive.
As an author, I write mainly “magical realism.” That’s the genre where things are basically like they are i our world only sometimes they’re not. They’re sometimes what we might call “uncanny.” Think talking cats, like you get in Murakami — or doors that seemingly open onto one place but come out somewhere wholly different, like the changing room in Mr Benn.
In my books, I reserve this uncanniness for particular places where the rules of physics become slightly fuzzy, boundaries between worlds become porous. There are two types of place this applies, and it’s no coincidence they are the two kinds of place that in real life I find magical (I’ve avoided libraries as a third, not because I don’t find them magical but because everyone always sets these scenes in libraries) — art galleries. And gyms.
Limiting the context like this is really effective — my readers know that if my protagonist finds themselves in a gym or a gallery, they need to look carefully. They are likely to encounter something or someone who’s not quite what you would expect and doesn’t make sense by the strict logic of the world outside that space — but that doesn’t matter. And they have the reassurance that when the protagonist leaves everything will be back to normal, and they will be left to reflect on what happened from a safe place. It’s a bit like the way the desert, or caves, or mountains, are used in many ancient stories — an encounter with something slightly otherworldly allows a character to discover something about themselves that they can bring back to the everyday world.
That gives a hint of what it is that makes gyms feel like such special places. But let me go back to my “first time” to bring the story round full circle. This is taken from my (non-fiction) book “Lift” and describes the first time I ever went inside a gym, in the basement of my collage building:
One night when I got into my building, instead of going to my room for too much coffee, I decided to head down the stairs to the basement. Every day I passed the sign for the 24 hour gym, but I’d never been to a gym in my life. At school I’d been bullied relentlessly during games lessons and that had taught me a deep fear of and hatred for sport, especially team or social sport, and gyms had always seemed like the embodiment of sport as social activity. But it was past 2am. How many people could there be? Maybe a gym at that hour was just like any other empty city space, and if it was then I was curious to explore.
The spiral staircase down into the depths made me feel like I was corkscrewing into some Dante-like belly of who knows what. This wasn’t what I’d expected — some antiseptic, bright, open-plan welcome full of machines and large screens and design features meant to remind you that you were part of something bigger, part of a community of happy healthy people. Instead, when I opened the door, there were just…weights. Racks full of dark metal dumbbells. Long, thick, gnarled metal bars and piles of thick round plates, threaded onto giant metal spikes and scattered over the floor.
Yes, there were a few machines — three rowing machines and an exercise bike were hidden away in the corner, and there were two giant metal skeletons whose bellies were filled to overspilling with black metal plates. But the room was built around barbells and dumbbells, and what I could only assume were the platforms from which they were to be lifted — a series of benches and metal cages rammed through with dull metal pins. This really was a scene from the imagination of a Dante — or worse.
I stepped into the guts of this metal beast, picked up a long iron bar by the carefully milled rough patches spaced out from the centre that were clearly meant for hands to grip, and carried it to a giant mat in the centre of the room. There was a pleasing heft and balance in my hand like holding an expensive fountain pen. It moved as I walked, pulling at the ligaments in my arms, almost as if it were guiding me. I fetched two round plates from one of the metal spikes, covered with black rubber presumably, I imagined, to deaden the sound. I recognised the word written in raised rubber — Eleiko, a name I’d seen during late nights spent watching Olympic weightlifting. Each plate proclaimed it was 20kg. I had no idea what kind of weight people lifted but that sounded like more than a bag of potatoes I bought from the supermarket but slightly less than the sacks of potatoes one of my former housemates used to bring back from his family’s farm.
I put the plates on the barbell and attached spring loaded collars that were sitting nearby, and stood in front of the bar. Even then, having just wandered down in the most casual clothes stumbling into position almost by accident, I checked myself, did an automatic double take, shuffling my feet into the ground to secure my balance, holding my back straight before doing anything. Even though it was just me, the early morning, and a bar I’d loaded with a random weight, I felt something I can only describe as excitement. I squatted, coiled my fingers round the bar, feeling every contour of the rough, grippy surface, tightened and lifted. It was a single, simple movement. But it pulled my body in ways and places I had never felt. My lower back and the backs of my legs tightened, and the skin on the palms of my hands fought against gravity, cradling the rough metal cutting into them. I lowered the bar to the floor and repeated. Loaded more weight, and repeated. And repeated till I was dizzy and my hands refused to close into a fist.
And then I just stood in the badly lit room, surrounded by shaped iron and grubby walls and a scarred floor. And I was happy. Truly happy. Not, I realised immediately, despite the fact it was just me, the early morning, a bar loaded with weight and a move so simple I could master the mechanics in seconds. But because that’s all there was.
And it’s that sense of a world absolutely zoomed in to just the few inches around me that makes training feel so magical. And the heavier the weight, the more this occurs. Because putting a weight on your back so heavy that one unsteady move will break it focuses the mind the same way Alex Honnold describes free soloing. You cannot lift like that and think about anything else. It’s “flow” mainlined into your system. Stretch, load, lift, rest, stretch, time, lift, repeat. Nothing. Else. Exists.
That level of focus also makes you intensely and acutely aware of your body. That, for me, is the real mind-muscle connection. I am aware of what every tendon, every ligament, every fibre is doing. I have to be. Because if I’m not then poor form or a cry for help from an undertrained body part, any kind of nascent injury or tear, could sneak up on me unawares at any moment. I have to be to judge that tightrope between working a muscle to “exhaustion” and working a muscle to injury.
So it makes sense that in my fiction, gyms are places where reality gets distorted, places where characters encounter things they then take away with them into the world, things which change not only their knowledge of themselves but how they move through the world, through life. Because that’s what gyms are in real life. And not just gyms, but anywhere we train at the edge of our limits — anywhere our attention has to be totally given over to the tiniest movement of our bodies.
As a mental health campaigner, I don’t like mental health memes. And I really don’t like memes and platitudes about exercise. For many people medication is essential and more important than anything else. Many others do not have the privilege of a body that can take what my body, after 50 years of abuse, will still let me do to it. For others still, exercise just isn’t their thing. And that’s fine.
But for me, being so completely aware of my body that I am no longer aware of my mind is like spending a few moments in a beautiful oasis.