20th Century Studios

Jonathan Seidler is an Australian author, father and nu-metal apologist. You may have read his memoir, caught his compelling live performance at this year’s Sydney Writers’ Festival, or noticed his distinct eyebrows on the street. He has some interesting things to say about music, fatherhood, Aussie culture, mental health and the social gymnastics of group chats. This is his column for Esquire.

I HAVE ALWAYS been fascinated by gyms. Supposedly safe spaces packed with highly dangerous equipment and governed by weird social codes, they are the domain of men with roid rage, teenagers with body dysmorphia, late-millennial Dads trying to reclaim their virility and, quite often, women showing us all up. 

Muscle gyms, which I distinguish from fitness gyms by their ratio of squat racks and free weights to treadmills and stationary bikes, are especially exposing environments. Calvin Harris seems to be playing all the time, which adds insult to injury, because he used to be a weedy music nerd like me and now he’s jacked and gracing billboards in his daks. At muscle gyms, there is always someone more ripped than you; someone with bigger biceps, tauter thighs or greater core strength. It’s practically Sisyphean, this pursuit of gains, even for those that have already gained them. 

If you were to ask me why, given the views I’ve just expressed, I continue to go to the gym, I’d say it’s for my physical and mental fitness. It’s also out of obligation to myself and the direct debit that’s sucked from my bank account every fortnight. But I do not go to the gym to socialise, which is why I’m taken aback every time a guy in sweat-wicking fabric approaches me for a chat. 

Gyms—places where your body is both the site of relentless self-improvement but also outside judgement—seem like unlikely sites for random male bonding. And yet it keeps happening. Dudes tapping me on the shoulder, or waving at me to take off my headphones. Using vague justifications like the graphic on my T-shirt or a spare 10kg plate behind me to initiate a genuine chat about politics, or roadwork, my views on TikTok or how dumb the gym franchisee is. 

It’s a bit like being picked up at a bar, if the bar smelled exclusively like creatine powder and non-deodorized pheromones.  

This guy-to-guy engagement doesn’t happen to me at the train station, or in the street, or even at cafes nearly as much as the gym. Last week, a 52 year old man started chatting to me about his coffee business just because my T-shirt had a logo of a coffee cup on it. The exchange ended with us comparing notes on the state of online media and swapping podcast recommendations. He now follows me on Instagram. The session before, it was a recently arrived Israeli who saw me spacing out to MTV instead of pumping out reps and decided it was a good time to share notes on the state of psych rock coming out of Tel Aviv. 

What is it about these proverbial sweat boxes that invites us to let our guard down? One theory I’ve been entertaining has to do with endorphins. In a way, the gym is the inverse of the pub, the other place you’ll reliably find guys talking shit with randoms about absolutely nothing. At the boozer, buoyed by all the feels alcohol unlocks in our brains, we’re typically less guarded with one another. The positive side effects of exercise can have a similar effect, which would somewhat account for all these new friends I seem to be making. Could the key to gabbing with other guys be hiding behind the weight racks? 

I’m still deciding. At the gym, I definitely dislike more people than I like. That’s the point of going to the bloody joint; if nobody there made you feel even vaguely bad about yourself you’d never be motivated to return. For every conversationalist, there’s a puffed-up wanker with a barbed wire tattoo wearing a tank top three sizes too small like it’s standard issue. These guys don’t talk to me, unless it’s to grunt. It’s actually unclear whether they can talk at all. I’m not about to test the theory.

Perhaps for us plebs, the allure of connecting at the gym is the intrinsic understanding that we are all failing upwards together. It makes it feel less like being at a place you go out of guilt and more like being in trench warfare, which is an excellent site for male bonding if the movies are to be believed. This is especially true of new dads like me, whose pudgier body shape has an entire corner of the Internet dedicated to it, and who now have a marked decrease in testosterone. We are fighting the inevitable, after years of pretending we were invincible. So sure, let’s talk about Electric Vehicles while we’re in between repetitions. 

After years of finding the gym completely terrifying, I must admit: I’m slowly coming around to this social aspect. It means I spend more time inside the place while doing less physical activity, which has been my ultimate fitness goal ever since I was a teenager. But it also reminds me that men are not immune to the loneliness that comes with realising we are just schlubs doing shoulder presses in a room full of strangers. It’s extremely easy to block others out with personal devices and pre-written routines, but I’m kind of glad we don’t. Come for the insecurity, stay for the conversation, I say. 

Hey, are you done with that kettlebell?  

Jonathan Seidler is an Esquire columnist and the author of It’s A Shame About Ray (Allen & Unwin).

Like all proper columns, this one will be back next week. You can read all of Jonno’s columns for Esquire here.