Glory Days: Saying Goodbye to My Oly Bar

trx photo
Me with my Oly bar in 2013

“Well the time slips away and leaves you with nothing, Mister, but boring stories of glory days.” – Bruce Springsteen

When it comes to personal possessions, I’m a minimalist. I don’t like having things. I don’t like clutter. I don’t like junk. I am constantly giving things away or throwing things out. I am not sentimental.

When I was a starving artist, I cleaned and organized people’s homes in between writing plays and attending rehearsals. That was when I learned that some people are truly oppressed by their belongings: garages and basements filled with junk; drawers overflowing with old clothing; kids’ rooms buried in toys and books… the chaos was overwhelming. And so people paid me good money to organize their things, to carve out clear spaces where they could live. Still, many of my clients could not get rid of a single thing. Each object was accompanied by a cherished memory or the thought that it might be something they would use in the future. It had to stay.

I honestly never thought that I would ever become so attached to an object that it would cause me deep down, throat tightening, gut aching anxiety to have to leave it behind, to throw it out, or to give it away.

But this has happened. That object? Well, it’s a $250.00 Olympic bar weighing in at just under 45 lbs.

There is a long history associated with a very specific Olympic bar in my gym. That bar changed my life. It changed my life in a way that no other object has ever done before or since.

During training with my third trainer in 2010 at age 51, I was taught how to press and then how to clean and then how to push press and then how to push jerk and then how to split jerk a 45 lb bar. At first, we used the regular gym bar which is a powerlifting bar, not an Olympic bar. It feels like a heavy metal log in your hands. It is not designed for the delicate touch and the speed of Olympic lifting. But I didn’t know it at the time. I just shrugged it and caught it and pressed it for all I was worth.

Me, learning how to lift

Then one day, after I had put enough weight over my head that, going forward, I needed to be able to drop the loaded bar to stay safe (about 75 lbs), my personal trainer put his arms around me and whispered in my ear – the way you tell a child about a surprise – that he had spent his own money on an Olympic bar and bumper plates that I would be able to drop. “You won’t believe the difference, Beth. You’ll wonder how you lifted without it.”

I was so touched. That a trainer would believe in my lifting ability and care about my safety enough to spend his own money on equipment…I was speechless. And I was so grateful to be given this opportunity.

My son, Will, and I were the only gym members learning Olympic lifting at that time. Will helped our trainer open the packaging that the equipment arrived in and he was the first person to use the beautiful new Olympic bar. I was the second one to use it (or third, if you count our trainer). It was – just like the Olympic lifting shoes that the same trainer gave us for Christmas – a precious gift. The first thing I learned with the new equipment was how to properly drop the weight after the completion of a lift or if I could not complete the lift.

I can tell you that when you are the one responsible for the sound of crashing weights in the gym, it is a beautiful, beautiful sound.

For safety reasons, the bumper plates were stored in the group exercise classroom, out of view of lifters who had not been trained to use them, and the Oly bar was kept in the back room where the trainers had their lockers. My trainer used to bring it to our sessions. I still remember seeing him marching down the length of the gym, holding that bar, on his way to train me. On days when we were training on our own, my son and I were allowed to go into the back room and fetch the bar.

I knew that this “special” status with which we had been endowed would lead to trouble down the road and I spoke to my trainer about it, but he minimized my concerns. You simply can’t treat clients or members differently from one another in the gym. It backfires. Which it did.

One day I arrived at the gym to discover that a new “Personal Training Only” area had been carved out of a huge section of the gym. Several machines had been taken away and in that place were now kettlebells, boxes, skipping ropes, a TRX frame and bands, a punching bag, and… my beloved Oly bar and plates. All of which was roped off.

Now what? My trainer happened to be the Fitness Manager at the time and, to keep me happy (at least temporarily), he gave me permission to use the Personal Training Only area when it wasn’t busy, even though there was really no reason why I should be allowed to use the equipment over many others. What was I to say if someone objected? “You have permission to train there because I am the Fitness Manager and I said so!”, he told me. So, when he moved to a different position in the company, his replacement Fitness Manager, at his command, also gave me permission, in writing. When that Fitness Manager left the company, one of the gym managers who knew my history also gave me permission, after I was unceremoniously kicked out by a new trainer.

Things have changed yet again. All formerly granted permissions have been revoked. I am no longer allowed to enter the space, even when it is completely empty, such as on Sundays or late at night, nor am I allowed to take the bar to another location in the gym, even when no one is using it. (There are three of them now, often lying there unused.) This is not because of anything I did or didn’t do. It’s because it’s the new policy.

If Vasiliy Alekseyev himself (the first man to clean and jerk 500 lbs) were to walk into my gym, he would not be allowed to use the Olympic equipment unless accompanied by a trainer. 

None of my three former trainers from this company work at my gym now. One has moved to another company (a luxury club), one has left the field of personal training altogether, and another one has opened a CrossFit gym, a form of training that I do not like and which is not appropriate for my needs and goals.

So, even if I could afford to hire a new trainer (or wanted to), I would have to start fresh with someone new, someone who does not know my body, my capabilities, or my limitations, despite my huge investment in training at this company to date. In a real sense (and at the risk of sounding arrogant), I would have to train that trainer how to train me.

I can think of two client-centered reasons why a Personal Training Only area is a good idea: safety and, related to this, skills training. In my case, neither criteria really apply. I was injured while training with a trainer (so there goes the safety idea). Since training myself, I have remained injury-free. In terms of skills, I have already paid tens of thousands of dollars to learn the skills that I needed to learn. Sure, one can always learn more, and I would love to have a coach, but how much more do I have to invest to be given the go-ahead to do front squats or push presses with an appropriate Olympic bar and bumper plates? Are my clean and jerk days over, not because I can no longer lift, but because I no longer have access to proper equipment that I was taught to use in this very gym?

Anyone can be injured anywhere in a gym. That is why we sign waivers just to take a tour. Bars have been dropped across necks, dumbbells have been dropped on hands (I know, I did it), and backs have been blown out at the squat rack. I even hurt myself doing bridging on the stretching mat where no weight was involved.

Recently, I was showing a trainer that two bumper plates were cracked and broken due to misuse and neglect. I started to choke up and I put my hand on my heart and said, “I’m sorry. I have an emotional attachment to this equipment.” She looked at me and said, “I can see that.”

“It changed my life,” I told her.

But times have changed too. There has been a huge turnover in staff over the past couple of years. Only one or two people at my gym even know the whole story. To the new crop of trainers straight out of CanFitPro classes or a two-day CrossFit “cert”, I’m just that “older lady” who has been training here since “forever”.

“I’m so sorry, Beth,” said the Assistant Manager, holding both of my hands in his. “I’m so, so sorry.”

So am I.

This post was first published on my blog, Lift Heavy, Make it Beautiful, on May 19, 2013. The featured image is me in 2013 with my Olympic bar.