Shocking Pink (fionnghuala) wrote,
Shocking Pink

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Gym machines and fragmented bodies.

As usual, I was at the gym and it made me think of something I want to post about. These days I'm at the whizzy grown-up gym, rather than the down-at-heel university gym. So rather than classes, which I probably prefer and might go back to, I'm on the crazy arsed machines. And the machines have always freaked me out, particularly the aerobic ones; stepper, cross-trainer, treadmill, rowing machine. It's all a bit too much like a hamster wheel. You plug yourself into this high technology object, and it gives you a perfect imitation of doing something real out in the world, but completely distilling it from actually accomplishing anything. Very brain-in-a-jar.

But I kind of like the weights ones. Well, actually, I don't like them. I'm waiting for the day when I'm 'ard enough to ditch the weight machines and go into the free weights room and lift weights like a real man. But I like lifting weights, so I like the principle. Now, I've done a bit of lifting with barbells and stuff in the past, so I'm finding the machines a bit hard to get my head round. The way you have to strain and apply force etc feels more complicated than when it's just you, a bar, weights, and gravity. Although my personal trainer friend tells me actually it's a lot easier to use machines, because all the thinking has been done for you. Idea being that the movement that loads the muscle you want to load (loading muscles is what weight-lifting is all about) has been perfectly abstracted out, so that there's no extra movement or muscle-use recruited besides the one you want to get benefit from the exercise.

So I kind of know all this stuff... but yesterday I made a silly mistake which I think has fucked up my ankle a bit. I was on a machine that imitates a squat. I'd just increased the weight I was doing, and was feeling hardcore. When I got to the final rep, I wasn't as tired as I really should be. So, in a half-second of foolishness, I pushed my legs completely straight, and then effectively pushed off my toes to be standing on tiptoes on the plate, as a kind of triumphant gesture that I could lift the weight a bit higher than I was supposed to. Instantly my achilles tendons were in pain. Because actually this was a fucking heavy weight I was lifting using the big muscles in my thighs, and here I was using some tiny little muscles to make a frivolous gesture, and they couldn't stand the pace.

And this really brought home to me how specific the movements the machines allow are. Part of the deal of this huge, elaborate system of pulleys and plates and pins and gears, which completely isolates a movement for you, is that you can't mess with that. If you start trying to do strange, other movements, you get strange other results. But also, the weights themselves are invisible, and your understanding of them also becomes very abstract. On the machines, the decision about what weight to lift is a matter of sticking a pin into a hole next to a number. To make it heavier all you do is pick a higher number. With free-weights, if you want a heavier weight you have to go over to where they're stored, do a bit of maths to work out which actual weights you can combine to get the value you want, pick them up, perhaps one at a time, perhaps searching for where some fool has discarded them on the floor, carry them over to a bench, find yourself a bar, fiddle with the fiddly thing that attaches the weights to the bar, wrestle the weight onto the bar, invariably in some really awkward position and finding that your wrists are having difficulty manipulating this massive weight at the weird angle necessary to get it into place, get yourself and the bar into the position necessary to start the lifting, which again is probably quite tricky to do as you find yourself using smaller weaker muscles to get into position, and then you have to do all that in reverse when you've finished.

And this is where I start getting all pretentious about it...
So with free weights you have a really visceral, embodied sense of what that weight is. And frankly you then don't mess with them. You don't want that mother-fucker to land on your toe, or suddenly be supported by your lower back or some other delicate part of your body. But the machine removes a lot of that knowledge. Strangely, if it could be possible, it removes the embodiment from the situation. So that your body is completely fragmented into an abstract string of movements, all of which have the illusion that they can be perfectly isolated from one another. And then just one of those fragments is delivered back to you by each machine as you go around. It resembles the idea that your mind can be abstracted off and go into the internet without you, or into a maths book without you. In this case your quads go off and lift some weights without you. The rest of you is left behind, reclining in an ergonomically designed seat to wait for them.

And of course it is an illusion. Actually the rest of your body works as you lift, and there are even handles to grip to keep yourself in position. And you're still plugged into tons of other relations... wondering if other people are watching you, keeping an eye on the person on the machine you want next and planning to dart in as soon as they've finished, the significance of the amount your pressing, and the long-term trajectory of increasing the weight you can lift, the financial and time cost of being in this privileged place, working your gender identity and all that stuff. But it is an illusion that is powerfully constituted through the configuration of these machines, and even played out through the growth of the muscles you're training which are being efficiently worked through the science and engineering knowledge that has produced them.

So... yea... cool.
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