Auto-ethnography – written 2010
Gary Walsh (60) – married to Julie 37 years – 3 children – 4 grandchildren.
Gary – Born 1959 – in Luton, an industrial town, to an Irish father and a Lutonian mother with one older sister. Luton’s main industry was Vauxhall motors and associated businesses at this time. As a youngster, I was always very active, quite quick and very sporty. No computer games and not much television then so I was always out and about being active as were most of the kids of my generation. Much more open space and places to play out as kids. I grew to my adult height well before the rest of my body caught up and as a result I considered myself very thin and was very self-conscious. I was always very popular, my personality was very shy but always friendly and if a girl as much as looked at me I would go bright red. I was in the top form at school but never really fulfilled my potential and my sport was always a priority. By today’s standards I would be diagnosed with ADD I am sure of it. I Realise now that no human beings ever reach their full potential and that is what life is about. Constantly improving who you are. I excelled in soccer, basketball, hurdling, the sprints and triple jump, which were the sports available at the local comprehensive school. I loved the challenge of the training and the buzz of the competition although at times the moments in the spotlight were a bit too much for a shy young boy. One memorable incident was when we travelled to Kimbolton to run cross country against a private school. We found the sports kit and general attire quite a joke, not to mention the way they spoke. We all had named brands whereas they just had bulk standard what we thought was “OLD FASHIONED” kit. I do remember we lost and were very surprised that such geeks could have beaten us but at the time never really gave the matter any deep thought. I never had the opportunity to play rugby at school because there were no teachers either willing or qualified to coach a team for us. One of the maths teachers did take one session but the behaviour was so poor that he wouldn’t waste his time again after that. He actually had his tracksuit trousers pulled down during the session.
From an early age I worked, fully paid with my Father in the school holidays and weekends. If you did man’s work you got mans wages. My father placed much importance on physical strength, toughness, winning and if I am honest he was a racist and a homophobe. I don’t mean that he was a nasty man just that the generation he was from in Ireland had little contact with Black people or other races and that being gay was something to joke about for his generation. I did see him come to terms with all of the above before he passed away. He was a kind intelligent man. The ideologies that controlled his thinking were that of masculine hegemony. I was expected to be strong, tough, aggressive, a winner and heterosexual. Luckily I managed to tick all the right boxes, although I do believe my father would have been wise enough to come to terms with most eventualities. I will never really know, and it suits me to believe he would. Looking back I would say I found it very hard to live up to my father’s expectations, I was never able to really just be “ME”. I am no psychologist but I wouldn’t mind betting that my drive, discipline and dedication for the last 35 years in the gym is thanks to having to live up to an ideal rather than be allowed to develop naturally. This is not portioning blame, that was just the way it was for me. My childhood and adolescence were good, successful, a winner, pretty much a star but I can’t help wondering if it was really me. I was quite strong but very lean. I remember buying a bullworker to try to develop my body as like most boys in my social world I wanted to be more muscular. I wanted to fill out as quickly as possible. The Bullworker was the home use muscle-building gadget of the day and I realise now that it used isometric contractions to work the muscles, which still today is a valid technique for development. At the time I didn‘t care I just believed the sales jargon because I wanted to believe it. I guess I got lucky, my gadget worked and added to the fact that I was growing naturally anyway I gained limited results. I can’t help but wonder now if middle-class young men would have felt the desire to respond to this marketing as I did. At about that time I saw an advertisement for some back issueBodybuilding magazines in The Exchange and Mart newspaper. Again I seriously doubt that any young men from the middle or upper-class backgrounds would be thumbing through a copy of exchange and mart. I sent for them and if there was a defining moment for setting my gym future maybe this was the time. The physiques in the magazines were amazing, more than Greek God-like to a young impressionable man. This body would give me cultural capital in my world, a world where muscles were, and still are capable of elevating a male to near-celebrity status. Any ladies reading this probably won’t fully appreciate the drive to be muscular that a young guys hormones dictate to them at a certain point in their lives. In fact I bet a lot of you girls think it quite funny but let me tell you it is a very real inner drive and fuelled by Mother nature, at times out of control and animal-like in the instincts it produces in us poor helpless creatures. What no sympathy? Ok! thought not. Human nature even now for all of our civilised behaviour still has some obvious animal traits and try as we might they betray us under times of stress and when society allows us to release our primal urges. For men testosterone has a lot to answer for.
My first visit to a gym was at 15 years old with my best friend Peter McNulty. The local sports centre had a weights room, it was nothing special just a few benches with lots of free weights but at the time in 1974, it was as close as you got to a fitness centre. A few places were high tech and owned a multi gym but they tended not to have any free weights, it was very much an either one or the other situation. All very primitive by today’s standards but the tools are only a means to an end and the job they were doing was no different than today’s expensive centres. In fact I would be so bold as to say that the meagre facilities made the users think more and use more ingenuity in order to gain the results they demanded. Having to gain knowledge to improve probably gave the users more longevity with regards to adhering to programmes and routines. All fitness clubs that began to appear at this time were run by enthusiasts for little or no profit. Large companies didn‘t get interested until they could see large profit potential and then the centres we have today began to spring up. The result was a loss to the industry of some of the most passionate and knowledgable trainers and facilities that had the heart and soul that is missing from many clubs today and can never be replaced. The new centres were to attract new customers they were plush and well-appointed but in my opinion we lost some very special people from the industry over the next 10 years as big business inevitably took over from the small personal gyms we had taken for granted. A familiar story can be told for many successful industries though.
I remember even in the early days I made sure I worked my entire body, maybe not as disciplined as I do now but the advice from the gurus of the day stood me in very good stead for the rest my training life and good habits can take a while to manifest. The same remains true today. No gadgets just good people, hard work, self-discipline and the all-important warm glow of personal and peer success. I possibly gave chest and arms priority, the guys reading this will relate to that. I remember times when we even got trapped under bars because we were giggling and other times losing the weights off the bar because we forgot to use collars. Looking back we made every mistake possible, but as with any learning process there are no better lessons than learning from your experiences. With the expertise, health and safety available today, these problems are largely avoided and only tend to happen to young men in a hurry for muscles and lifting too much weight too soon. We had to learn quickly when we trained at the sports centre as there were no staff to teach us. Those magazines came in very handy. We also used to copy the bigger guys in the gym, theorising that they must be doing something right and if we copied them we would get big as well. Looking back again those guys weren‘t really that big, but to us at that time they seemed huge and served to spur us on at that time in our development. I came across many of them in later years and eventually through good habits and never quitting I reached their level and beyond, making some good friends in the process. Pete eventually quit training in the gym, many guys try for a while and then get out of the habit or maybe their testosterone levels balance out. He went to do more distance running and he competes in Triathlons now. The good thing is that because of our early training Pete developed a healthy outlook that now influences his family and everyone that he knows. I had no problem training alone and carried on, making lots of new friends along the way. Contrary to popular belief a gym is a very friendly place most of the time providing you make the effort, like most of life. Gym users are generally positive people that have decided to take control of their fitness. I discovered very early that I was not genetically predisposed to gaining muscles. I was what you would call a ―hard gainer‖. This meant that I had to eat crazy amounts and train very heavy just to gain a small amount of muscle.
We are all dealt a genetic hand by Mother Nature and we work within that to reach our genetic potential. Progress would be slow for me but maybe that is why I have kept at it and persistently chased more knowledge to make improvements. Looking back, it didn‘t help that I was out with my mates drinking lots of beer on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday and in the gym training hard Monday, Tuesday, and Wednesday. Nothing worse for hampering testosterone and muscle growth than copious amounts of alcohol and 40+ pints of beer a week was most definitely copious. We all have stages in life and for me that was a stage and like most single guys bought up in a British industrial town, I went through and came out the other side much stronger for it. With no more than the usual dysfunctions that we all carry through life. I wonder at times if I hadn’t had my fitness lifestyle where would my life have lead me? Maybe more time for drinking and socialising, that would not have been a good thing. We all need to discover contentment away from the momentarily pleasurable pursuits that can be so very addictive. Today, I am not tea total but only maybe have a drink once a month at the most and never have alcohol in the house. That way we don‘t form the habit of drinking every day. Hand on heart, I don‘t miss it all. Think of the money we save and the calories we never have to lose and the benefits to our health.
The only serious gym in the area at the time was The East Midlands Weightlifting and Bodybuilding Club. It had power-lifters, weight lifters and Bodybuilders all training in the same building and it worked perfectly. It really was a spit and sawdust venue but the crossover in training cultures and techniques and camaraderie was intoxicating and the perfect grounding for a good fit, muscular physique. All of the users were working-class and distinctly rough around the edges. In their minds many had allowed their impressive physiques to elevate themselves above any person not so well endowed and as such had developed an ugly judgemental personality that separated them from mainstream society. In a situation where body alone can separate you from society norms, the last thing needed was an ugly attitude to match. As such many strength athletes miss the chance to act as ambassadors for their chosen sport. I remember the first time I walked in if I thought the guys at the sports centre were large these new guys were monsters, superheroes on my doorstep. There were quite a few local lifting champions and the expertise in the building at any one time could never be replicated these days.
There was help and education everywhere, didn’t matter if you were a beginner or how big you were everybody helped each other, nobody was viewed as insignificant. The talk was training and nutrition and as a learning experience for me those years at this club have and never will be surpassed. This gym was a goldmine of information, enthusiastic members and passionate staff and owners. I smile as I recall there was not one piece of cardiovascular equipment in the building and here‘s food for thought, there were very few people carrying very much body fat. Why? The reason for this has become my philosophy for success but the gist of it is that a good progressive resistance programme with sensible, not spartan nutritional habits is paramount to success. If you then add a sensible amount of cardio you have a winning combination. In this book I will attempt to furnish you with both the motivation and knowledge you need to progress as far as your dreams take you.
Another observation worth mentioning is that adherence to a fitness lifestyle depends on how pleasurable the experience is, so if you are that person with your i pod on not talking to anyone and keeping your head down then you are not really going to get the most out of your experience. It really does help to create your own ―Cheers(bar) – Where everyone knows your name. Remember it is the people that create the experience, not the surroundings, look up and take it all in and you might be surprised at the characters you find. That will then give you another reason to attend the gym, other than the gut-wrenching, lung-busting, result-producing workouts you already perform or are about to learn. Whenever I attend a new gym, no matter how uncomfortable it may be at first I always talk, all be it briefly, to as many people as possible in passing. All of a sudden the place takes on much more character. What makes a house a home? What makes a gym your second home?
Only kidding about the second home but you get my point?
In 1981 I began dating Julie and she immediately took to my health and self philosophy, training together where possible but never becoming so reliant that if we couldn‘t make the gym together we missed that session. We were both comfortable training alone. We had friends in the gym, friends that we only ever talked to at the gym, rarely seeing them outside of that world but that was fine. In 1983 we were married and in the next years I went through many career changes and Julie and me, but mainly Julie had three children. We went through all that life holds for a developing young family. There were ups and downs and training was not always convenient but remained our one constant through times of change. We had to be flexible and more dedicated and disciplined than ever but we both credit our fitness lifestyle for keeping us sane through the years. We heard all of the usual from our families ―you do too much, you should take it easy‖ but needed to still be ourselves and maintain some of who we are when we were always bottom of the priorities list.
For seven years I worked for an exhibition stand building company all over the world. I always took the opportunity to experience the local gyms. Destinations such as Paris, Rome, Frankfurt, Dusseldorf, Essen, Salzburg, Florida, Washington, LA and Sydney. The experience for me was akin to a child in a sweet shop. I loved every second. All of the time dreaming and wishing I had my own gym. For now, it would remain a dream. I became qualified as a personal trainer, first with The British Amateur Weightlifting Association and then with The National Amateur Bodybuilding Association sanctioned Focus training which included – Fitness instructor – advanced fitness instructor – personal trainer – nutrition management – sports injuries. At the risk of further boring you! I also qualified as an aerobics teacher gaining my RSA exercise to music certificate and teaching many classes over lots of years at the gym I opened in 1992 The Lifestyle Club. Although most of these were taught unqualified – qualifying later post lifestyles club. There was nothing I learned from the qualification – apart from the fact that qualifications are not as valuable as many in society think and seem to be more a matter of social control and a vehicle for profit-making.
I am a big advocate of the autodidact as in my experience they are much more motivated through a genuine passion for learning as opposed to ticking boxes laid out by capitalist society. I have a passion for learning – a love that no qualifications can justify or replace. It is, in fact, my top character strength. We built the Lifestyle Club up from 10,000 sq ft of empty office space to a state of the art health and fitness club, containing an aerobics studio, fitness suite, comprehensive free weights area, saunas etc. We were the first independent centre in the area to contain both an aerobics studio, two actually and a free weights area. We completed the work, much of it ourselves in about 1 month. At this time sleep was bottom of our list. After seven good years at Lifestyles all the fitness industry heavy hitters moved into the area opening up centres, all part of massive chains and we could no longer compete, moving on to the more specialist personal training studio, The Fitness Wizards.
Worth a mention here is how I interpret the term Bodybuilding. To me somebody that intends to change the shape of their body by refining it with muscles to whatever degree is Bodybuilding. Personally for me at this point in my life competitive Bodybuilding is a step too far due to the risks to your health however I have nothing but respect for the men and women that choose to compete. This all changed in 2011 in my 51st year as I decided for research purposes to compete for the first time. Julie had already completed the year before. The discipline, knowledge and dedication that competitive bodybuilders have to exhibit often in the face of extreme prejudice from ignorant people are very impressive. So come on guys if you see a bodybuilder, recognise the dedication. My decision to compete was a long-overdue experiment really as that is all that is missing from my involvement with the lifestyle/sport and there is a nagging background noise to take the plunge each time somebody says that I should.
For me, moving forward and always having a definite purpose in life and all that includes has eventually become a life philosophy. The desire to grow as a person and to continue to learn whilst staying happy in the present is ideal. Writing a book on fitness is (was – mission accomplished with the great body bible)) another of my life’s ambitions. This year will be 37 years since I first set foot in a gym. The industry has changed over the years but the human body has not. I am using my experience to write a no-frills practical manual for fitness and body sculpting whilst at the same time exploring some myths that many have chosen to believe or hoped were true over the last 30 years. I hope it helps people that may be drowning in a sea of diet and fitness confusion.
Still totally unaware of the influence I was having on people and just doing what I enjoyed doing, the next family member to benefit from the spread of positive influence was Julie. I would say here though it is not possible to influence anybody if they don‘t believe in you or respect you or have the open-mindedness to accept changes. I think often I am just confirming what they already know and being a living example that they can relate to as opposed to celebrities and soap stars churning out videos for cash and then months later being pictured for the hypocrites they often are. When a friend or relative refers you to any idea or new practise that has given them results and they are enthusiastic about you will often want the same for yourself.
Enthusiasm is contagious but I know I would never have had any influence if I had been judgemental and insistent that all should follow my lead. I was always quite happy to live my exercise lifestyle on my own. It was not about telling people, it was about showing them. Nag somebody to the gym and you will get them for months at best. Be an example with your habits and let them decide in their own time and you will have a strong foundation for life. Not all people want to go to the gym, not all people like salad, with the right example all people will find what is right for them with regards to exercise and nutrition. I like to think I can control my obvious passion for fitness and never preach. Only three of my family are regular gym users, the others have chosen to deal with health and fitness in their own unique ways and I believe that will be typical for most families. A life out of the gym doesn’t condemn you to a life of poor health and lousy fitness. A healthy attitude to your fitness can bring results from many different approaches if you tailor your routines to reach your goals. The most important aspect of this is that you are happy.
For any guy that thinks I have been lucky and genetics are responsible for my physique. My top muscular weight has been 276lb‘s. Averaging out my gains since I first started lifting weights that was a mere 3lbs per year. If you take into consideration that when I first started I was still growing anyway, it probably equates to a gain of 2lb or less each year. That‘s over 200 gym sessions a year and a fortune on protein and good eating habits for just 2lb‘s gain. Lucky? I think not. I have loved every minute in and out of the gym and value everything I have learned along the way. I am well aware I could have taken short cuts to gain that muscle but I am so glad that I decided to stick to the hard work and good nutrition trail.
In 2010, Julie and I both attended Bedfordshire University. We each feel that when we were young university was not for the likes of us and only the extra brainy kids attended, that was even though I spent all of my school life in the top forms, I somehow managed to distance myself from being in that category. I still exercise every day both by walking the dogs and going to the gym. Currently, we use Gold’s gym which is close to the university but not very close to home. Julie is preparing for her first-ever Bodybuilding competition. I am helping her as much as possible, I would say it has turned into as much my project as hers. Julie’s motivation for the show has rubbed off on me and our workouts are incredibly intense and regular.
Often I hear people that know me try to get me to compete as for them that is the whole motivation to train. I explain that for me every single session in the gym is competition a performance the only difference is that it is me against the iron, me against my last performance. Onlookers would probably question why any person would put themselves through such intense workouts for so many years, we are known for never taking it easy on ourselves. I would answer that the intensity has evolved and the day to day challenge is rewarded enough for me. The same people would envy our physiques and want to know how we stay in such good shape at 50, the answer is right before their eyes in the passion and intensity, a price few 50-year-olds (or any other age) are willing or able to pay.
What is my motivation? A good question and one that would take another 3,000 words to answer. I really can’t imagine living my life with the average body of a man my age, why do that when the tools are available to shape a muscular, athletic body at any age. Life is about choices and I choose work my body to its full potential. I have now discovered that same strategy for my mind and the work has begun. For years I blindly lived my life to match society and family expectations, now that has changed. My view is that you can just sit on a wave of conformity and let society and lifestyle shape your body and mind or you can stop conforming and dare to create your own path. Bodybuilding had, in fact, separated me from the social norm physically and I actually loved that liberation, but for years didn’t get why I loved my sport so much. Now I have liberated myself similarly in other areas of my life and the feeling of release is immeasurable.
To summarise, for me I chose Bodybuilding because it was flexible enough to fit my needs at any time in my life and gave me positive changes to my body and mind. I have never had any injuries in Bodybuilding, I can’t say the same about my basketball, soccer and track. I am lucky enough that my sport does not have a sell-by date and I can work out as long as I am physically able. This is unlike many sports where athletes finish and have no activity replacement and so health and fitness suffers. If I chose to compete there are masters categories of over 50 and above. For me, natural, non – competitive daily Bodybuilding is the perfect sport for a life that can be physically easy and psychologically hard.
I mentioned to Peter Craig (uni lecturer) that I couldn’t really explain why I do what I do in the gym? Writing this has put a few of the pieces together for me. The drive and discipline have come from attempting to please my father. I would thank him for that, I like being disciplined and driven in times when that is a rare commodity. I now know how to relax and with age have added some much-needed perspective to my drive and discipline. I enjoy being in control and I enjoy feeling the aliveness of every single body-part as I work them hard. I also enjoy the fact that our high tech, high fat, junk food, lazy arse, computer game, television society has no control over my body and little over my mind. I still possess values that my father unwittingly passed on, all of which are an asset. I suppose I have discarded any traits that did not suit me. Just to put the record straight my father did not die a racist homophobic, he had long since discarded any such damaging ideologies from his psyche as do any intelligent right-thinking human beings.
Knowing what I know now, being a big muscular man and in control of myself physically gives me cultural capital in today’s society. My biggest fear now would be to live my life comfortably conforming to any society ideal of the body or thought that meant I had to be less than authentic to myself. I have to add that since this radical turnaround some years ago, my life has become exciting and vibrant, with me looking forward to every moment with renewed anticipation.
Most of this – Written a decade ago – wow! Time flies