I have a lifetime's worth of flab. Can I turn it into muscle in four months?

Humiliating myself for fun and profit.
Aug. 13 2008 1:13 PM

Spandex Fantasy

I have a lifetime's worth of flab. Can I turn it into muscle in four months?

Emily Yoffe & Mercy Gonzalez. Click image to expand.
Trainer Mercy Gonzalez (L) and author Emily Yoffe

There are all kinds of vanity, and one of them is not wanting to know. This is the type that has kept me from looking at my backside in a three-way mirror for years to avoid finding out if, in the words of Elmore Leonard, it looks like it has been strafed with buckshot. But then a Slate colleague offered this challenge for my next Human Guinea Pig: to see if I could get in shape for the summer. Usually in Human Guinea Pig, I do outlandish things—like make my singing debut or become a paparazzo. But maybe trying to firm up, the kind of firm in which my skin becomes like human spandex, was the most outlandish experiment of all.

Emily Yoffe Emily Yoffe

Emily Yoffe is a regular Slate contributor. She writes the Dear Prudence column. 

Sure, I belong to a gym; according to an industry trade association, about 40 million Americans belong to a health club of some kind. Considering how Americans look, obviously many of us use this membership as I have, paying the monthly fee as a kind of offering to the gods of fitness. But now I needed to go to the gym and do something strenuous while I was there. Lacking a superego of my own, this would require the external motivation only a personal trainer could provide.

Slate V: The Human Guinea Pig: Mercy

I have always felt sorry for personal trainers. What an awful way to earn a living, I thought, spending your days trying to carve muscles out of butterscotch pudding. (And occasionally having to hook up with wealthy, disturbed clients such as Heather Mills.) I also wondered why the clients, who must be able to function independently in the rest of their lives if they could afford a personal trainer, needed to pay a small fortune to get someone to tell them to squat.

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But now here I was being assessed by my new trainer, Mercy "No Mercy" Gonzalez, 41, a champion Ecuadorian body builder and mother of a 2-year-old. Mercy's body has the sleek smoothness of a Brancusi. She's been sculpting it for 15 years and is able to lift 200 pounds. She started our session with both the dreaded tape measure and by pinching my flab with calipers. "We're figuring out the measurements of your old body," she explained. I liked the optimism behind that statement. I was just temporarily stuck in this decaying thing, and soon I would be walking around in my new, better body. My old body was depressingly tubelike: 35 inches, 28 inches, 37½ inches.

Then she put me through a basic workout. It was clear that what I considered a workout was a lip-synced version of what Mercy had in mind. She said machines had their place, but to really get in shape I needed to enter the sanctum of the free weights. She stuck 7.5 pound weights in my hands and had me do a series of chest and shoulder presses. Then lats, sit-ups, and dips. Within a few minutes, I was dripping and huffing.

Next up, legs. My grandparents used to love to recall how cute my pulkes once were; I was about 2 years old at the time. In the decades since, I have adopted the Hillary Clinton approach to thighs—keep them hidden in pants. But now Mercy forced me to do an endless series of squats. And if I hadn't been paying her $55 to supervise me for a half- hour ($80 for an hour), I never would have done one.

We agreed to meet twice a week and that I would work out on my own three other days. She said seriously remodeling my body would take a year, but I would see significant results after about 4 months. Results were immediate in my case. The next day, I woke up with a throbbing in my right scapula—my old routine may not have been doing any good, but at least it didn't cause any pain. This put me off embarking on my new program, and though I kept meeting with Mercy, for the first three weeks I rarely got to the gym on my own. Mercy was getting frustrated, "If you don't do it, we can't make a miracle here," she said, adding what has been a lifetime consensus about me, "You have potential, but you need to work harder."

I like having a body; it's a convenient way of getting myself from place to place. But there always seemed to be more things to do in life—doing nothing being among the appealing options—than trying to perfect it. Perfection was never going to happen, but at the end of this experiment I didn't want to end up being the same flabby tube that I started as, so I committed myself to try.

Exercise is supposed to improve your mood, but I found myself getting more depressed the more often I did it. I used to feel so good when I entered the threshold of the gym. Just arriving meant I had done something—and so what if my workout was a desultory slouch around the machines? Now I had to follow Mercy's program and actually make a serious effort, and I hated it. Whenever I would meet with her, I thought about how useful it would be to give her $55 to forget about my body and shape up other parts of my life. She could stand over my desk and say, "Type faster" or hover at my bedside and scold, "Time to turn out the light." Sometimes, sweating and aching, I longed for the neurotic's approach to personal training: I would pay her to listen to me talk about why I was so resistant to resistance training.

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