Gym Rat Factors: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

Okay, folks. Time to confess. In this context, the ugly is me. I’m bad about exercise, no gym rat (believe me), yet there’s good to be had from forcing oneself to hit the weights. Or in my case, the weight machines. I work out alone, starting around midnight, three nights a week. That means I get the entire place, or at least most of it most of the time, to myself. Why the weight machines? Simple. Without a spotter, pushing personal limits with free weights would be just plain stupid.

Not that stupid ever stopped me in the past. Think professional rodeo saddle bronc and bull rider, back in the day, racking up injuries ranging from a dented and cracked skull to a punctured lung, various broken ribs, the usual for a rough stock rider. But “back in the day” means 1959-1970. Been a while. I turned seventy-five last month. Fortunately, getting back into shape from a low point is still possible. Sort of. What used to take thirty days, tops, now requires closer to thirty weeks. Improvement shows up in tiny increments, not great iron-gobbling leaps. More than ever, “sticking with it” takes determination at this age, especially since it sometimes seems like there’s been no improvement at all since day one.

Yet is that really true? I found out today.

My last trip to Arizona from Deer Lodge, Montana, 1,325 miles each way, took place last April (this is now December). I’d been sick. Really sick. Really, really sick. After getting my wife Pam set up for living in her new-to-her rental, necessary for medical reasons (long story), I headed back north. Though suffering from the second variation of winter flu and adding more than a little GI tract stress (another long story), I thought things were going fairly well–until one of the huge rear tires on the Class B (glorified van type) motorhome blew out on the freeway. The spare tire mount proved to be obstinate; only the help of an outstanding Highway Patrol officer made getting it down from the rack possible. Later, after purchasing new rubber for the van, I made no attempt to hang the spare back up on that nasty rack. Just threw it into the little cargo trailer and boogied on to Montana.

What does that have to do with gym memberships and weight machines? Hang on. We’re getting there.

The spare tire rack had a problem. Two half-inch bolts jut forward, extending out through the wheel rim’s center hole, which on this vehicle measures around five inches in diameter. Since the bolt mounts are 3 3/8″ apart on center, there’s plenty of room for the bolts to fit through the rim. Once the tire is more or less in place, a flat piece of strap steel (with two holes bored through it) is fitted over the exposed bolt ends. Nuts then screw the holding system down tight and…good to go.

Except…those spare tire mounting bolts turned out to be carriage bolts, held snug to back-iron mounting holes by stab-you thin flexy-nasty lock washers. Supposedly.

What’s a carriage bolt? There must be a word play joke in there somewhere, but basically, carriage bolt designs date from the time of horse drawn carriages. A century ago, these bolts were everywhere. Today, they’re about as hard to find as black-and-white television sets. Each bolt has a round, low-profile head that looks a bit like a flying saucer UFO had been sawed in half. Below the head, there’s a square neck, made that way to fit through a square hole in fairly thin steel. When carriage bolts work right, they’re awesome as can be, providing no-snag heads perfectly suited for the exteriors of, well, carriages. Sadly, these two bolts and their square-hole counterparts no longer fit together snugly on the motorhome, or perhaps never did fit right from the factory. Try to turn a tight nut loose or a loose nut tight, and guess what happens? Yep. You got it. The low profile, round bolt head spins around and around, sort of like a dead redneck grandfather in his grave who just found out his only grandson is gay and hates firearms.

And you cannot put a wrench on that roundy bolt head to stop the spinning.

Had the officer not been helping me, that spare would still be stuck on the rack on the freeway shoulder in southern Arizona. In the end, that day, I was jamming my leather-glove-encased thumb and forefinger against that sneaky round head as hard as I possibly could while the Highway Patrolman worked the nut loose with a socket wrench. Ghost, even at his weakest, still a functional friction wrench.

Didn’t want to try that again. Those carriage bolts had to go. The solution? Regular hex head bolts, held tightly to the rack by square nuts cinched down hard on the wheel rim side of the mounting strap steel. Once that’s done, lift the tire into place. Add outer lock-tire-in-place piece of strap steel over the bolt ends. Add lock nuts. Cinch down hard and…done.

Bored yet? Hey, we’re still getting there. It won’t be long now. There really is a point to all this.

Before heading to ACE Hardware for new bolts and then to Deer Lodge’s local ace machinist’s shop for locking-strap steel (I’d lost the original), one question needed to be answered. Could I, alone, lift that monster tire-and-wheel up there to hang on the rack? Because last summer, oh weak and wimpy wounded warrior that I was, I could not, would not, did not manage to lift it even close to the rack. But (finally he gets to the point) I’d done a few calisthenics at home for a while and then, on August 21st, took out a membership at our local fitness club. Sometimes it seemed almost pointless and unrewarding, yet I’d been consistent with my three workouts per week. Could there perchance be some positive results?

Wary, cautious, I picked up an unmounted tire. Huh. Felt like not that much, maybe 35 pounds. Most of the weight must be in the rim. Okay. Next, I picked up the spare tire itself, lifting it from the top of the rubber pile in the garage so it wasn’t a deadlift from the floor. Huh again. The total, rim included, felt like…maybe 75 pounds? Which would put the sizeable rim at about 40 lbs., including lugs and free air. How high could I lift it? Let’s see, top of center hole is about level with the top of my brush jacket pocket. As awkward as a fully inflated tire of that size is to hold, I certainly couldn’t press it over my head or anything like that.

Out to the van goes me. Wha–wow. The top of the rim hole (i.e. the upper edge of the upper rack bolt) only came up to–ahem!–my belly button, a good ten inches lower than I’d just test-lifted the tire.

Weight lifting point being this: At age 75, I’d gone from not being able to lift this particular rubber-and-steel awkward weight more than a few inches off the ground…to launching it chest-high with no problem whatsoever. Repeatedly, because there were a couple of test-hangings involved before the final bolt-down. The spare tire is mounted, boys and girls. The little project that intimidated me for nearly eight months is done. The motorhome is once again good to go, needing only an oil change before hitting the road.

Tire back on rack, thanks to gym-induced human strength improvement.


Have there been measurable strength improvements in the gym? Sure. My bench press, which for some unknown reason had taken a nosedive right into the toilet, is pushing twice the total iron it was when I began working out in earnest in August. A horrifying weakness in the left-leg curl was discovered and corrected. The first few assisted chin-ups are only requiring 25 lbs. of boost, compared with 100 lbs. less than four months ago.

But the proof is in the pudding, as they say. Being able to get work done makes the ugly go away and the bad disappear. It’s all good.

Now, for my 80th birthday, we have planned….

6 thoughts on “Gym Rat Factors: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly

  1. Good to know you are back to being fit as a fiddle again. I have worried about you lately. Not the same guy that dug ditches to redo my plumbing, when you can’t lift a tire. I guess you are back to being in shape again.
    I have to admit that I can’t lift one of those tires any more. I have been walking around a little better lately, but I still am having the back problems that keep me from getting more exercise done. Hurts so bad that I can’t go very far, without starting to hunch over.

  2. Ouch. Your back pain, I mean. Been there, done that, once had spasms so bad that I had to sit in a chair next to my infant daughter’s crib to change her diaper. Didn’t dare bend at all while standing.

    Yeah, I do seem to be back in shape enough to dig ditches if they had to be dug. Not that I’m volunteering. Admittedly, one of the tires for the motorhome van is a lot burlier than what your van carries, though much smaller than a big rig tire–which I used to change for a living, but that was when I was in my twenties.

  3. My van tires are smaller than the ones on the Explorer. 15 inch on van, 16 on the Explorer. I think the thickness of the ones on the back of the van make them heavier though. I have those all terrain tires on the back of the van. The same ones I bought 3 years ago, when I got a blowout on the way to see Dennis. They are awesome tires and still have plenty of tread. I will not replace them when they wear out though. If Katy wants those, she will be responsible for them.
    I wouldn’t mind having them on the Explorer though. Price of those things, it will be awhile. I have all new tires on it now anyway. The ones it came with started to leak badly, and I had to replace them last month. I was hoping to just replace 2 one month and do the other 2 the next month, but it couldn’t happen that way.

  4. The thickness does make them heavier, yes. The motorhome van also has sixteens and I was surprised to discover they’re a smaller version–245s–than those on the truck, which are 265s. But I suspect they’re about equal in weight, just because of the difference in construction.

    On the van, the rear tires and wheels are oversized custom order jobs I had to get to keep the heavy PleasureWay body from overheating things, which it had been doing. So only the front pair and the spare are sixteens, with the rear pair being both taller and wider. (Six inch wide rims in front, eight inch in back.) The monsters do have aluminum rims rather than steel. And I have to carry a set of original stock lug nuts in case of a rear flat, as those rims have their own unique lugs as well.

    One thing for sure. I’d rather rassle oversized tires any day than drive a vehicle with itty bitty donuts. Had one of those once, a four-lug Chevette. Scared me half to death. No matter how tight the lug nuts were cinched down, they’d start to loosen up on at least one tire every 400 miles max. I was out there jumping on the end of a tire iron in the middle of the night many a time. There are even some mini-cars that go with only three lugs. Spooky.

  5. Thanks for the memories, Ghost. I was actually going to the gym regularly in 2010, also doing machines only, since the gym trainers wanted to push me beyond my safety limits, and this saved me from a cardiac medicine I was wrongly prescribed, that almost killed me. After months of that fiasco (and a new cardiologist) I went back to the gym, but abandoned it when a “well meaning gym friend” pushed me to try the weight room and misjudged my capacity. Sadly, some machines were broken and the gym didn’t want to repair them, and after a few weeks I needed to work on my arms. And all of a sudden I found myself with more weight than I could handle over my head and my “spotter” just ignoring my requests to get the weights off of me before my arms gave out.
    I left the gym and have been working out at home gently, recovering my health, strength and stamina slowly. Your midnight run to the gym sounds like an attractive alternative solution, but my wife would not approve … 😉

    Problem with weight rooms is that everyone is looking at being better than the other guys, not at improving gradually. And my experience is that weight rooms are useful only if you keep up the discipline with the weights. A stationary bike and calesthenics are a simpler routine that can be fit in before the wife wakes…
    I’m glad the gym is working out for you, though, since it is great to have lots of machines available.
    As for monster tire issues… the worst for me is the under-car spare tire storage solutions that corrode with winter salt, and don’t let you get the spare tire out when you need it! Had to rip one out once, and repairing it cost way too much to be worth it…

    Take care!……… Manny

  6. Great comment, Manny. Responding in reverse order:

    Yeah, I’m not thrilled about those under-vehicle spare tire carriers either. My 1996 GMC Sierra pickup truck has one. Another bad thing about them is that they’re so inaccessible it’s seldom (if ever) that the tire in the carrier is checked for air. No fun lying under there in slush or snow, either, should a flat happen on a less than fair-weather day–or night. The one under the truck is stout enough I couldn’t tear it out if I wanted to, but it’s certainly capable of being rusted and/or salt-corroded shut.

    Stationary bikes and calisthenics do make sense up to a point. Without the calisthenics I did for a month or two prior to signing up at the gym, I’d have been in a lot more trouble than I was. But for me personally, cardio exercise (such as a bike or treadmill) present a couple of serious downsides. For one, my #1 concern involves mostly upper body strength. For another–and this came as a nasty shock–I had an experience in the early nineties that flat-out scared me away from any extreme repetitive motions. I’d been using my then-wife’s treadmill for some time–weeks at least, maybe a few months. One afternoon (I’d worked out in the morning), I went out to coach a youth soccer team. I’m no soccer expert, but the head coach was out of town and it was up to me.

    As it happened, the day turned off gloomy and chilly with light-mist rain. Nobody wanted to do boring drills in that, and I didn’t blame them. So I decided we’d stick to scrimmage. But a couple of the kids hadn’t showed up for practice (fair weather players) and we were one short of being able to make up two full teams for a full-on scrimmage. Well, hey, I figured goalie was a position I could handle for this purpose–not much running, got to use my hands, piece of cake, right? And it was. I’m not fast on my feet but my instinct for defense is just fine and I was defending against twelve year old boys. Worked beautifully…until at one point I made an aggressive goaltending move a bit farther away from the target than usual, ran just a bit, and–BAM! POW! It was like somebody had taken a sword and sliced me right across the front of both quads. I knew instantly what had happened. The treadmill work had tightened up my quads way too much, the chilly rainy day had added its bit of magic, topped off with moving faster than a walk, and I was out of action.

    End of practice.

    I managed to hobble to my car and drive home, but I was in agony. What finally saved me was remembering some sports supplement capsules (don’t ask about the ingredients because I don’t remember) my even-then-ex had sent for me to try out. So I tried them out, swallowed four, added a hot-soak bath, and all was well. But the bath wouldn’t have done it alone. The pain was already receding, thirty minutes after taking the supplement but before climbing into the tub.

    I’ve never touched a stationary anything since, and won’t, except for the weight machines, and those I use to cross-train. I’m settled into my current routine, which involves 17 different machines. “Warm up” on the first 6, doing a single set of 10 reps on each. Followed by multiple reps to failure on just 2 machines, the bench press and assisted chin-up. Then “cool down” on the “back 9” machines. That way–it’s working for me, anyway–if certain muscle groups do get over-tight, it’s only for a minute or two before they get hit from another angle and loosen right back up.

    I agree 100% with your weight room analysis. The first couple of times there was somebody else on the floor–using free weights, across the aisle from the weight machines–I found myself “showing off” a little. Not upping the weights; I’ve gotten a little smarter than that. But smoking through the sets at a noticeably faster pace. Especially when my “audience” was young, pretty, and female, so I guess there’s still an echo of those teenager hormones in there somewhere. But I ALWAYS have to work “heavy stuff” if I’m going to keep in any kind of shape. It can be regular labor–I certainly did not need a fitness center when I was building the Border Fort–or a gym routine.

    I’ve never believed in gym trainers for myself. Somebody tries telling me how to handle my own business, I’m gone. Same for “friends” who think they know my body better than I do–not that I’ve ever had one of those, but your fiasco sounds pretty unpleasant.

    May the blessings be.

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