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….