Why losing three stone got me back into weightlifting

Hand holds a red dumbbell on grey background

Paul Barnes has picked up his weights again. - Credit: Getty Images/iStockphoto

When I started losing weight recently (three stone in about eight months with no effort on my part), Helen was more than a little jealous. She was miffed. After all, there she was, running most days, as well as walking briskly to and from the town returning with a full and hefty rucksack. She would writhe and stretch twice weekly in bouts of Pilates and, when the pool was open pre-lockdown, twice a week she’d spend an hour thrashing the water in a convincing impression of a Polaris submarine. And all the time she was cautious with the calories. But while the pounds fell steadily from me hers stayed stubbornly on.
My GP was puzzled at the tumbling pounds and set about writing prescriptions to help get them restored. Then Helen had a brainwave. I wasn’t losing fat; I was losing muscle, atrophied through lack of exercise, so why not get the heavy metal back into service? And dig out the weight-training manual while you’re at it.
The manual had lots of scientific stuff about mind and body which some might find fascinating, but the really valuable pages had hints on how to handle the metal without breaking something or straining it. And there were encouraging pictures of what you might look like one day if you work out wisely. In the drawings the flesh was stripped away leaving the various muscles rejoicing in potential perfection. I looked at them and it was like seeing old friends for the first time in ages.
Years ago I used to train a couple of times a week at the Appolon club in Norwich when it was in a tall school building with clattering echoing stairs in Duke Street. It was no body boutique with thumping music and acres of lycra. This was a glamour-free body shop where the only music was the clank of metal on metal and the grunting and gasping of men as they raised and lowered weights to their chosen level, sometimes high above their heads.
The only machinery in there was mainly home-made and had lasted for years. This was the kit you needed for fancy efforts like leg extensions or wide-grip lateral pull-downs. The only maintenance they ever needed was the occasional tightening of a nut here and there. Some of the chaps had worked with weights for years, all of them happy to help with advice or support, lending a hand to prevent something as heavy as a lorry axle from settling across your throat.
Men, you notice. On the day a girl walked in carrying a sports bag the room went quiet as a western saloon would when the baddies came through the swing doors. The music of the weights ceased and heavy breathing was the only sound heard. After a quiet word or two from the secretary the girl was made welcome and became one of the boys. I don’t recall her staying long though, perhaps because she found the eager help of rugged men in torn singlets a mite stifling. They were kindly fellows, some of them old enough to be her grandfather and most of them did still have their own teeth.
That was all a long time ago but the memories come trickling back as I’m enjoying my renewed daily battle with gravity. I started by working with dainty dumbbells, the sort a child might begin with. I’m too old and canny to try tackling more than makes sense, ending up with strains and pains. I’m steadily pushing and pulling the chunks of metal and overcoming their resistance, gradually increasing the weight kilo by kilo (I’d prefer pounds but we’re stuck with these alien measures) and building the number of repetitions, feeling better day by day; one bonus is that it makes the Today programme more bearable (no names, no pack drill) except for the sports bit.
That’s me and my metal. I’m not aiming to become a craggy mountain of muscle but I wouldn’t be averse to the compliment offered by Bob Hope when he gingerly squeezed a rock-solid upper arm: “Like a sack of doorknobs,” he said.