At the tail end of summer 2009 I decided to lose weight. There was no scare or event that preceded the decision and I wasn’t cajoled into it by somebody else; I simply stepped on the bathroom scales, didn’t like what I saw and apropos of nothing else, decided to do something about it.
Losing weight was easy enough at first. Those first few weeks I lost pounds so easily I felt they should have been visible: little fat monsters rolling off my body like in an episode of Doctor Who. Though my weight never stagnated I became so used to such large drops at every weigh-in that when the loss slowed down I was disappointed, and felt I needed something else to coax it along. A couple months after I’d begun dieting–and with a little birthday money in my pocket–I bought something that surprised everyone who knows me: weights.
Hell, I surprised myself. Rather than books, games, music or chocolate I spent £34.99 on a York cast iron dumbbell kit–heavy lumps of metal.
They arrived by the end of the week. I imagine the delivery man was extremely put out; he was red in the face, his chest heaving by the time he’d lugged them up to the front door.
I felt much the same as I carried them through the house–well, not so much carried, but dragged them step by step as if I was pulling a dead body behind me. In the world of weight training 20kg is hardly heavy, but to arms more used to pushing a mouse around I might as well have been raising the Titanic by hand.
I started small, screwing the light and mid-weights onto the bar and securing them in place with a stop-lock. The weights smelled terrible and it’d be some weeks before I could use them without the room filling up with smell of a garden centre fertiliser section. Cast iron, it seems, smells like grave dirt.
I lifted them, and my body hated it. My muscles shrieked for days and I hobbled about crab-wise, tottering in circles and taking forever to reach my destination. If anything the weights seemed to become heavier the next time I lifted them–like a faulty T-1000, touching them had made my limbs heavy. Never the sprightliest of fellows my movements became leaden, and every part of me ached.
But I kept lifting.
You first notice your ‘new muscles’ two or three weeks into lifting weights. It’s not new muscle of course: simply those you already had, now swollen through strain. Exhausting muscles draws water into the tissue; a fortnight of training had stretched my biceps just enough for them to take on board more water than it usually would, resulting in a bump like a mosquito bite I was nevertheless extremely proud of. I’d never had visible muscle mass before: this was a first.
As well as stretching the muscle, every time I lifted weights I tore the fibres that made it up. Like a worn shoelace those minute fibres, stretched to breaking point, became frayed through overuse; I was deliberately damaging my muscles so my body would repair them, making them stronger to accommodate their new stretched length. You might have seen martial arts movies where the hero spends his youth punching walls, fracturing the bones in his knuckles so they might grow back denser, harder, stronger–this is the same principle, and it works.
All I was doing was lifting heavy lumps of metal. There was no greater secret here: I wasn’t on a miracle diet; I wasn’t studying ancient Chinese texts. My form was probably terrible and I didn’t have a trainer to put it right, but I kept lifting, becoming ever stronger.
I also became thirsty–a terrible thirst that plagued me throughout the day. My muscles were soaking up water so fast I drank constantly to keep them satisfied. My throat was dry and I had to take frequent toilet breaks as the liquid passed through me–the urine I passed was just as clear as the water I’d drank, as if my intestines were nothing but a biological crazy straw. So thirsty and desperate for the toilet I became worried; I looked into my problem and discovered while lifting weights–or exercising in any manner–you must stem your water intake unless you want your body to become a churning water wheel spitting it out as soon as you drink it in. Suddenly all those Lucozade Sport adverts with fit young things sipping from nozzeled squeezy bottles made sense; I drank water in moderation and my thirst decreased.
One of my neighbours was throwing out an old exercise bike; I snapped it up and cycled every day. Cycling, it turned out, built leg muscle even faster than performing squats. With my body fat dropping and my muscle mass increasing, for a time my thighs sprang out in angular box-shapes, making me look like a Transformer whose alternate form was a crate.
My legs are, alas, now shadows of their former selves, as through overuse and after a long time left in a dank garage the exercise bike’s limiter band snapped and, unable to replace it, I had to throw the whole thing out.
By this point I was lean–athletic even–and though my body became less tapered without cycling the weight stayed off and my muscles kept growing. I noticed strange hard lumps in my sides and arms, places that had previously been soft and marshmallowy but now felt like they concealed large polyps that were, in fact, hitherto unknown muscle. I could flex my chest muscles independently like a talent show strongman; they looked like subcutaneous eels thrashing as their pond dried up. Perhaps the most unsettling–and for me, dramatic–changes in my physiology were my triceps. Thanks to countless kickbacks they curled in a line around the sides and backs of my upper arms. They’re not particularly noticeable–none of my new musculature is particularly noticeable, hidden as it is beneath loose skin and depending on my recent diet, a little subcutaneous fat–but these muscles hadn’t been visible at all before I started lifting weights, and might as well have not existed. That there’s anything visible on my arms where there once was nothing is a triumph of man working against iron; I lifted weights in such odd configurations I sculpted parts of my body that were never meant to be sculpted.
To look at me now you’d never know how much work went into raising these muscles. I’m no chiseled-jaw man mountain, a nor Bruce Lee killing machine–to be perfectly honest, after a fortnight living off butterscotch muffins and home made Thai food I’ve become quite doughy. My loose skin doesn’t hug the fat to me but holds it sling-like, leaving it drooping in a most unpleasant fashion.
But I’m much stronger than I was. Lifting those early weights that made me ache is nothing to me now. I’m by no means super-strong, but compared to my former self I might as well be Charles Atlas. Back then any strength I had came from the momentum of my bulk; now, with that bulk gone, it’s muscle power that drives me. After a decent workout it can be frightening seeing myself in a mirror: plump with water my shoulders are wider, my chest broader, and my biceps look like hams swinging in a butcher shop window. The effect might be brief, but while it lasts I look at the little pin head trapped between all this improbable muscle and wonder just how I got myself into this mess.
My nephew thinks I’m strong. When he’s not transfixed by video games he’s obsessed with superheros, and wants to be as strong as them. He half puts out his back trying to lift a one of my dumbbells, before asking my wife if he’s as strong as Uncle Campfire is yet. It’s funny watching him try to lift anything too heavy for him: he tugs with all his might grunting “Strong!” as if it’s a magical power word, and the item remains in place while his arms stretch like Mr. Tickle’s.
I don’t enjoy lifting weights but it’s something I’m worried I’ll always have to do. If I leave them alone for a few days I shrink visibly; the muscles are still there, and it’ll only take two or three workouts to return them to their full glory, but still, seeing so much hard work vanish over the course of a few days is upsetting.
But perhaps the hardest thing about inhabiting this new, stronger body is knowing how weak I still am. All my fears remain–more muted than they once were, but still there. Physical strength means little in this world: it’s for little boys who want to stand up to bullies in the playground, not for those for whom the damage has already been done. No matter how strong I become or how my body changes, inside I’m still me.
Some people would say that was a good thing. They’d be wrong, of course.
I’ll keep lifting for now, increasing the weight, tearing the muscle and rebuilding it stronger, but I can’t help feeling sad about it. If only there was a way of strengthening that indefinable inside that lays beyond the muscle and tissue. If only a stronger heart meant a stronger heart.