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.

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.

Emily Yoffe flexing. Click image to expand.
Yoffe flexes her guns

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.

Fanny Barrett. Click image to expand.
Fanny Barrett

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.

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