[Originally published November 14, 2008.]

- - -

In 1981, singer, actress Olivia Newton-John is performing in a musical video for her song “Physical.” Olivia Newton-John is in the gym, not sweating, wearing headband and leotard, doing aerobics. Why is she not sweating? To answer this question, we need to reverse it and ask: Why are we not wearing a headband and leotard? And why are we sweating?

Then, I think, the meaning is clear. We are sitting in front of the TV, being couch potato, watching the illusion of nudity—which is the leotard—and the symbolism of discipline: the headband. She is doing all the work for us. She is getting physical.

With that in our minds, today we are going to do an upper-body workout with weights and the machines. OK!

First up is “bench press.” This is for the pectoral muscles, the biceps, and whatever. You, the workout person, lie on the bench, and you raise your arms upward, raising a heavy bar to an unseen god, dictator, or whatever. It is like you are offering something to someone above you.

However, it would be a mistake to see it only this way, I think.

No matter how much you are lifting up, you have also to bring that weight back down—on you. This is the defeat, or the demoralization, of the bench press.

You know how Sisyphus is pushing the rock up the hill and it rolls back down? You are like that. Except after three sets of 12 repetitions, or four sets of 10, you can leave and get coffee or martini. Or both. Whatever.

I am going to do one repetition of one, because it is not like I have to lecture without a shirt in 10 days. I have 11.

Where was I? Curls! This is the name for what is the arm curling upward, to the shoulder, with a weight in it. It is a typical exercise for a strongman, in circus cartoons.

Example: Donald Duck is going to the circus, and he sees a strongman with weights, and he thinks the weights are cardboard. He tries to lift them, and he fails.

His nephews are so shaken by this they join a youth movement and take their uncle to a re-education camp.

You can use dumbbells, you can use machine—you can use barbell. Whatever. Curls! So simple it is disgusting. I am going to do three sets of 12 repetitions because I have to arm-wrestle Bernard-Henri Lévy tomorrow night.

As I am standing here, doing curls, I am reminded of a joke about a frog who is working out in the gym, like we are, wearing bright-colored shorts and a muscle shirt. Because he cannot grow a mustache, he has drawn a small one on his face in Magic Marker. Just a little bit, like Hitler.

But the frog is sweating, and sweating, and so the marker smears all over his face, and then a unicorn, who is using the treadmill next to him, she says, “Did you shave in the locker room?” and the frog screams, “Shut up! You’re not real!”

OK! We have worked our muscles forward—anterior. Now we work on the backward of the muscles, the posterior.

What is this? It reminds me of a device that would be used to force confessions during Stalinist era. No! This is a lat pull.

First of all, “pull” is a misnomer, I think. For when we pull the bar down, we have to raise the bar up—very carefully. Otherwise, the bar will jump up and hit someone in the head, or something. Catastrophe!

What was I saying? Lat pull! Trapezius muscles are involved, not so much as the latissimus dorsi, and also the biceps.

But we call it a lat pull, because “latribicep pull” sounds like dinosaur who pulls some kind of hayride for children. Very, very dangerous. My God.

So, you pull the bar down, in at least as many repetitions as the bench press, so that your back is the same size as your … What am I saying? Front. Then, you are, as they say, keeping up with the Jonases.

OK! So, now you are saying, “What about the triceps?” These are the muscles that you are working when you start the lawn mower or whatever.

What I like to do is to use this machine, which is named after a strange deep-sea creature, whose shell shape is central to Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo, the nautilus. A spiral! Which has nothing to do with fitness, other than the fact that I am feeling vertigo right now, looking at this machine.

A deviation: have you ever been doing a repetitive motion over and over and then thought, “My God, what am I doing?” Exercise allows us to engage in these repetitive motions without having to question why. The superego asks the id, “What are you doing? Don’t make me look stupid,” and then the ego and id respond, “Go to bed, old man. I am working out like Olivia Newton-John!”

In any case, you pull this handle, and lean over, and it is like you start the lawn mower with the help of the mollusk. One arm, then the other. Like that. OK!

All right. Come back later and we will do the lower-body workout, which is almost completely pointless, because hardly anyone flexes their leg muscles, and everyone wants to wear the skinny jeans of their youth, which is futile, I think.