I have a lifetime's worth of flab. Can I turn it into muscle in four months?
I admired the inventiveness of people who designed exercise devices. Mercy had me step into a circle of tubing, which came with strips of Velcro to wrap around my ankles. This contraption restricted my ability to move my legs more than a few inches apart, and Mercy made me walk, crablike, up and down the gym. It was like a combination thigh slimmer and chastity belt. One night, I saw a trainer put a client on the slant board, then make him do sit-ups while holding about 50 pounds of chain mail. If Torquemada were alive today, he wouldn't be a torturer, he'd be a trainer.
I often went to the gym at off hours—10 p.m. during the week, 7 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays, times that appeal to social misfits. Now that I was a regular, I began to see regulars, and though I never interacted with them, I felt part of a community of familiar strangers and gave many nicknames. There was the Shvitzer, the man who sweated copiously and never wiped off the equipment; Dr. Nipples, the guy with the artificially orange hair and skin who wore very skimpy shirts; and Seething Man, who didn't work out much but walked the periphery of the gym floor muttering curses at unseen enemies.
Then one night, after six weeks of serious effort, I was pulling down on a triceps machine when I caught sight of my upper arm in the mirror and saw a long, diagonal bruise running across it. I didn't remember hurting myself, so I examined my arm and realized I wasn't seeing a bruise, but a shadow cast by my deltoid—my first "cut." Later that week, my husband came into the bathroom while I was brushing my teeth and said, "Hey, look at your arm! You've actually got some muscles—for the first time in your life."
The rest of my body was lagging behind my arms, but something was definitely happening. My skin was starting to feel more snug around my bones, like a leather jacket left out in the rain, and I liked the tighter fit. But there were other side effects of my new routine. Around month four, getting in shape reminded me of pregnancy: the feeling of my body changing in peculiar ways; the sudden, ravenous hunger that I couldn't help but sate; the upward creeping of the number on the scale. I started out at about 123 pounds, but now I weighed 127.4 pounds. This was the most I had weighed in years, and since I wasn't pregnant, the trajectory was alarming. My husband said it was because muscle weighs more than fat. That's true, and that's why incredibly fit Olympic shot-putters could be considered overweight according to their body mass index. But in Ultimate Fitness, science writer Gina Kolata explains that the average person who starts working out is not putting on enough muscle to explain a weight gain.
Mercy was not concerned that I was having trouble zipping my pants. She was excited that she was able to press ever-heavier weights into my hands. "It's working," she said. "With my clients, it's rare that I say to do it and they do it."
There was proof it was working one night at the gym when someone tried to pick me up—the first time this has happened since well before the end of the 20th century. As I did some stretches, a man who had seemed to be staring while I hoisted my weights came over and said, "You do quite a workout!" then creepily asked me to repeat some of my stretches. When I got home, I told my husband what happened, but after he asked me to describe the man, he said he would remain unconcerned about any potential suitors who were over the age of 75.
While a lot of women went to the gym, few had the kind of buffness I was seeking. I had noticed a petite redhead who was always there before I came and was still there as I left, and I finally approached her to discuss her muscles. Fanny Barrett is a Frenchwoman who works for the World Bank, and although she wouldn't give her age, she has two grown children. She has been seriously lifting weights for almost 20 years, and her arms are so toned that sometimes in the summer she keeps her jacket on to avoid questions and stares. Following her around one night, I realized why I will never really be in shape. For me, a complete workout was a hard 45 minutes. Fanny works out 5 days a week for about 2 hours at a time. She weighs 110 pounds, and I watched as she bench-pressed 100 pounds. I was microwaving, when what it really took was hours of basting.
Finally, it was time for Mercy to compare my before and after. I was still a tube: My measurements didn't really change. But where the calipers had pinched 10 millimeters of fat on my arm, now there were 8; my stomach went from 13 to 10 millimeters; and my thighs from 18 to 11. (I found this change in my pulkes hard to believe.) I started out being able to do five push-ups, now I did 20; I went from 15 dips to 22; I could do a chest press with only 7.5 pound weights, now I was using 20 pounders.
I never got in bathing-suit shape (unless the suit is the Speedo LZR Racer)—the blubber content of my stomach could be used to prove that humans once shared a common ancestor with cetaceans, and I still avoid three-way mirrors. But sometimes when I'm brushing my teeth, I'll flex my arm and thrill that it almost looks scary.