“A love letter to the grotty gym I didn‘t expect to miss”

Stylist’s fitness writer Chloe Gray often complained about her budget gym – until it was taken away from her due to lockdown. In Fighting Fit: Lessons While WOFH (working out from home), she writes about why she can’t wait until gyms reopen. 

We can universally agree that moving house admin is the worst, right? Changing bill providers, redirecting post and working out a new commute are nasty jobs. So when I moved nearly two years ago, feeling overwhelmed by my to-do list, I simplified one of my decisions: moving gyms. My very official way of deciding where to sign up involved typing ‘gym’ into Google Maps, finding the few closest to my new house, then selecting the cheapest option. I ended up with a membership at a well known budget brand, 15 minutes from my house.

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My new workout home was a confusingly designed four-story, windowless building. It smelt sweaty (which gym doesn’t?) but the broken air con system upstairs really encouraged the salty aroma. Yet the downstairs was so cold I had to wear a jumper, even during the most intense of workouts. 

The members left weights everywhere. Finding a pair of dumbbells was nigh-on-impossible,so much so that I became a pro at single arm and leg moves because I had no option but to use one weight at a time. The labels on the cable machine had fallen off, so the amount you were pulling was anyone’s guess but for the sake of my ego, I liked to overestimate. The lockers in the changing rooms could barely fit my winter puffer jacket, and there wasn’t nearly enough space forall the women trying to shower and change before work. In short, it was a bit gross.

Missing the gym during lockdown: “I could never find a pair of dumbbells or the plates I needed”

Yet a year into lockdown, as I long to be sunbathing in the park, going to nightclubs with friends, chatting in the office with my colleagues, sharing a sofa with my mum, I also find myself missing this gymthat I joined on a whim. The same oneI sit and moan about for their broken equipment and bad smells. Why?

Let’s go back to the beginning. You might think that someone who takes their training seriously should be more fussy about where they sign up to workout. I think quite the opposite. I know what I’m doing and so I know that, aside from a barbell, some plates and a good dumbbell selection, I don’t need faff or fancy things. In fact, the masochist inside me quite likes a grubby, run down place where I can letmy anger out. Unlikethe boutique classes where I’m scared to touch the white towels or sweat on the fresh yoga mats, at my gym I found a place where I feel comfortable with scarecrow-like bed hair and an awful mood at 6AM. 

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That’s what strength training does for me, and right now the overpriced 9kg dumbbells that I panic bought on the night Boris Johnson announced gyms were to close, aren’t cutting it. There is, and always will be, a happiness boost I can only get from lifting heavy. From shocking myself at the amount I picked up, to the point that I’d re-count the number of plates on my bar to make sure that I hadn’t made it up. From knowing that someone will probably offer to help me with a suitcase/box/food shopping bag when I’m on the tube and all five 5”1” of me could give them a metaphorical middle finger as I hauled onwards without them.

But then there’s the people. Oh, the people. I joined as an in-and-out-er. I wanted to smash my session, avoid distractions, and leave. I watched the greasy men take up space, the people hogging equipment (and the lurkers waiting to steal mine) and thought about how lucky I was that I didn’t have to talk to any of them. Working out was my time, I didn’t need anyone else. But in the dark rooms of my grotty gym, I just so happen to have found four of the most like-minded people I’ve ever met. We bonded over a broken hairdryer around 18 months ago and, since then, I had to factor an extra half an hour into my workout routine for chatting time.

Missing the gym during lockdown: Chloe and her workout buddies

I’m currently at a point where my exercise motivation has hit an all time low, and right now I’m in need of Claudia or Charlotte, the women who used to force me to train with them whenever I was feeling lazy, moany or making excuses. They’d tell me what my next exercise was, handing me the heavy weights as I gravitated towards the lighter ones. I would do anything to have Jules watching as I squat, giving her signature motivational cheerlead. “You’re so strong!” she used to cry as I told her I couldn’t do anymore reps. I miss watching Vicky return from the treadmill dripping with sweat and motivating me, a self-confessed cardio-phobe, to throw some burpees into the end of my workout.

I miss the personal trainers, too, who seem to have become such close friends despite the fact that I have never once paid for a session and have taken one class in the entire time I’ve worked out there. Right now, I need Harry to have a client cancel last minute and use the hour to put the five of us through our paces or teach us new exercise variations (while telling us off for talking too much between sets). I also need Pennie, who checked in on my ankle injury every day, even months after I stopped limping, to tell me to slow down.

I’d do anything to lie on a bench that the previous user hadn’t wiped down. I’d do anything to be waiting frustratedly between sets for a plate that I need. I’d do anything to attempt to hold in a laugh as the guy next to me grunts during his bicep curls. To my run down, gross little gym: it’s been a wild ride, but I really want you back.

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