Barbarian Gyms: Portals to Wonder (Drawn to Iron - Part 2)
Updated: Feb 14
Hardcore gyms offer a portal to escape the malaise of modern life. Inside these power plants of iron and effort, we can be heroes.
“I have some of my most romantic thoughts when I am with the iron.”
- Henry Rollins
Last week, I wrote about a friend who introduced me to the Vigor of lifting weights. This week, I discuss the Wonder I felt tiptoeing into my first hardcore gym at age 15.
If weightlifting and gyms aren’t your “thing,” read these articles with “your thing” in mind because the lessons are all the same: To flourish, we need activities (and places) that bring us Vigor, Wonder, and Fellowship.
As a teenager working out for months in my basement, the little weight set could no longer contain my iron addiction. I needed something more – something heavier, louder, and more intense. It was time, as Arnold told his lifting partner, to “get serious.”
Confident I could lift just enough weight to escape laughter, I headed to my first gym. Like many iron sprouts before me, I entered this castle of steel with trepidation.
Against the cold hard winds of Rhode Island’s Narragansett Bay on the naval base where my dad worked, “Gym 109” stood like a relic of Cold War construction. (Each building on a military base has a different number and this building’s number was 109.)
The structure stretched about 200 yards in length and 40 yards in width, a drab government building crowned by a curving cylindrical roof. Far from the basketball and racquetball courts at the gym’s opposite end, a narrow hallway led to a 1500 square foot weight room that would change my life forever.
On my first day at Gym 109, I signed the military logbook and stepped towards the weight room entrance. Staring through the tiny holes of the black metal-screened perimeter, I saw blurry images moving inside. I smelled the hard rubber floor absorbed by sweat and brushed with disinfectant. And I heard the iron symphony of steel plates, woofing grunts, and booming rock and roll.
Creeping around the metal-screen perimeter, I entered the weight room and saw a black man with the biggest, most shredded arms I’d ever seen. In cut-off sleeves with a shaved head and Oakley Blade sunglasses over his eyes, he looked like he just stepped out of a comic book. Gripping a pair of giant dumbbells, he began cranking through a set of alternating bicep curls. With every rep, he exhaled “tis” through gritted teeth and a twitching face.
Laboring through additional reps, his biceps bulged like orbs pushing against his thin dark skin, while an estuary of veins roped down his swollen forearms. After racking the weight, he stood like big men do with his arms throbbing full of power. Ten minutes later, I saw an intensity to match his superhero strength.
On a nearby bench, another barbarian -- less graceful than the Oakley clad superman -- grunted like a blacksmith’s pet ogre. Pale with pinkish-red skin, sunken eyes, and a close-cropped receding hairline, he looked close to 40 years old. Sitting at the edge of the bench, leaning his torso forward, he wore a leather harness around his head with a 3-foot chain attached to anchor points near his left and right temple. Hanging from the chain was a 45-pound plate. He began moving his head back and forth, pulling the weight up and lowering it down. With each rep, the cords of muscle around his neck bulged like vines around a tree. After the set, he rotated his body 90 degrees and completed three more sets, strengthening all four sides of his neck as a pool of sweat formed beneath him. With my eyes wide as yoyos, I thought, “I gotta start training my neck!”
Gym 109’s thick ogres and sleeveless supermen roamed the gym like pagan gods. I’d entered a portal back in time. Back to a time of iron, blood, and neck-yoked savages. Back when borders were mountains, rivers, and curtains of fog. I’ve been a Romantic all my life, and Gym 109 gave me the Wonder I needed. Pacing around that weight room, I felt like an anthropologist who’d just emerged from the jungle to find a lost tribe of barbarians.
Who knows what those two barbarians – Thick Neck and Oakley Man -- did for a living. Maybe they were Green Berets, or maybe they were civilian bureaucrats on that tiny base. I didn’t know and I didn’t really care. All that mattered was that inside Gym 109 they were barbarians. And so was I.
Training for years at Gym 109 transformed me. It’s where I weighed 200 pounds for the first time. Where I first benched 300 pounds and squatted 400 for the first time. It’s where I puked after a volcanic set of squats for the first time. The great Ray Bradbury often said, “I discovered me in the library.” Well, I discovered me in the gym -- Gym 109 to be exact.
Thirty-one years have passed since I first stepped into that gym. Since then, I’ve been on the prowl for other iron portals north of the wall. I’ve ventured into hardcore gyms along the boulevards and down the back alleys of every type of city -- from Dushanbe and Jeddah to San Diego and Sydney. I’ve trained in a former textile factory, a converted aircraft hangar, and inside the giant vault of an old bank. Muscle Beach, Barbell Brigade, Metroflex, Powerhouse, Gold’s, and a hundred others.
No matter where they are, hardcore gyms offer a portal to escape the malaise of modern life. That's because inside these power plants of effort, we can be heroes. Watch a man or woman give their last full measure on squats or deadlifts and you will see exactly who they are -- their ancient and authentic-self -- flourishing with every rep.
When I walk through a gym door, sign the release form, and smell the junkyard fumes of exhausted metal and hear the clanks and thuds of men and women getting after it, I enter a new realm. And when I do, I’m 15 again at Gym 109 -- dreaming of strength, glory, and a thicker neck.
Find your portal to wonder. A place you can be feral and free. A place you can sharpen your existence and ignite the barbarian in you.