Free weights, squat thrusts and fried chicken cupcakes

I have recently returned from a 10-day trip to Memphis during which I consumed 10 times my average calorie intake.

As a food writer, it is an occupational hazard. One has to eat to live; but one has to eat just a little bit more if one also wants to write about the experience. And if you fly 4,000 miles to the mid-south of the United States, it would be churlish not to eat most of the things that are passed your way.

Such as: barbecue pork ribs; shrimp and grits; mac and cheese; crawfish; hush puppies (the cornmeal balls, not the shoes); kimchi French fries; and fried chicken and waffle cupcakes.

Chicken waffle cupcake, Memphis-style

Chicken waffle cupcake, Memphis-style

Yes, a cupcake with fried chicken and waffle.

web-elvis-rexFor someone who loves to eat but does not enjoy looking like a blimp, or a late-career Elvis, the Memphis trip and other food engagements, both international and domestic, can be problematic.

I am now into my 40s – okay, I am comfortably into my 40s and I have outlived Mr Presley – and I am keenly aware that it is only going to get more difficult, not easier, to shed the pounds, or stones, to keep in shape.

Fortunately, help has been at hand courtesy of University of Birmingham Sport (UBSport). The trainers at the university’s Munrow Sports Centre, most of whom are half my age, have done what no one else has ever managed to do: they have got me to keep returning to the gym.

The Munrow Sports Centre at the University of Birmingham

The Munrow Sports Centre at the University of Birmingham

I have dabbled with gyms for a decade or so. I have gone for a few weeks, maybe a month and a half, then given up. During the past two years that I have been “training” at UBSport – and that’s “training” in the broadest sense of the word, by which I mean sitting down a lot – there have been blips. I have gone several weeks without turning out at the Edgbaston centre; there was an absence of three weeks before and after my Memphis excursion.

The difference is that I always end up going back, swiping my pass at the entrance turnstyle, descending the stairs, walking along the corridor, shuddering at the sight of the group aerobic classes, then swiping my pass a second times to get into the gym.

Why is this? Why has UBSport succeeded where other gyms have failed?

Part of it is to do with convenience. I live a mile from the campus and the university encourages community membership. It is an enlightened scheme, offering local people the opportunity to train in first-class facilities. The prices are highly competitive compared with commercial gyms. Gym “anytime” membership is £26 a month via direct debit. For that, you get to use all the cardiovascular equipment and resistance machines required to hone and tone every inch of your body. Following a 60-minute induction, you are also entitled to use the free weights.

There is free on-site parking if you visit after 4.30pm on Mondays to Fridays and no charge at weekends.

The other reason I like the gym is that it is friendly and entirely non-judgmental. You can use the Olympic lifting platforms in the free weights room, shifting as teeny-weeny a weight combination as you can manage, and no one will snarl or puff out their cheeks as they wait in line. Used correctly, free weights are a great way of promoting core strength and an aid to rehabilitation. UBSport gym users understand this. There are some extremely fine sportsmen and women, including elite athletes, who use the gym. But there is no posing, none of the “look at me” antics that can make sloggers like me feel painfully inadequate in showy, private-members’ gyms.

The ethos of the place is spot on: UBSport exemplifies what inclusive sport should be about, but seldom is.

I have also been lucky to have been taken under the wing of dynamic training duo Wayne “Terminator” Johnson and Health and Fitness Manager Lee Costin, who have offered professional advice, unbullying encouragement and good-humoured support.

Thanks to Wayne, I am now entirely unembarrassed about throwing an 18 kilogram glorified bean bag into the air and hearing it smack down on the floor. Ordinarily, I would feel like an idiot and I am sure I look like one. But Wayne tells me it is the kind of training soldiers do, which is probably a lie, but it makes me feel good. I always fancied being a Marine.

I am not sure my bodyweight has changed much in the last two years but I feel fitter, and more motivated to get fitter, than I have felt in a very long time. I have no doubt my core strength has improved, thanks to a very modest combination of free weights and old school exercises like push ups and sit ups.



I still hope to emulate TV Superstars’ legend Brian Jacks with my squat thrusts, but frankly I think it is beyond me at the minute.

I know that if I hadn’t started going to the Munrow Sports Centre I would now be the size of a modest cow. And I know I can go to places like Memphis, and indulge for a day or two, safe in the knowledge that UBSport and The Terminator will be waiting for me on my return.


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