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On Going To The Gym While Traveling

Working out has always been a part of my travel routine, but now it’s turned it into a conduit for exploration.

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PANAMA CITY, Panama- I laughed in the poor girl’s face when she told me the price. To get a day pass to Power Club gym in the Cangrejo district of Panama City would cost $17. Some gyms in the USA hardly even charge $17 a month … While I know that being a tourist in Panama is expensive, I did not think the high income, low density model would extend to gyms.

But Power Club was a bougie kind of gym — a particular type of gym whose high price lends to the feeling of exclusivity that is ultimately one the perks of membership … and the steady stream of monied-looking foreigners parading in and out of it was testament that what they were doing worked for them.

It may sound odd, but in the urban spheres of the world the gym that you go to is now part of how you define yourself. Kind of like if you decide to have a dog rather than a kid, think masks inhibit the flow of respiratory viruses, or vote for one particular brand of war monger over another.

But I simply did not budget an extra $100 to work out in Panama. I was doing this research trip dirt cheap — I didn’t even bring any luggage beyond a personal item because I didn’t want to pay for it. So I asked the receptionist if there was a cheaper gym nearby and she said yes (with a smirk) and sent me to Robert’s Gym around the corner.

It took me a moment to find Robert’s Gym. While I clearly saw where it was positioned on my map app, I just didn’t think that it would be located behind a parking garage beneath a shopping mall. But I followed the little blue dot through a dark melee of parked cars and just when I began thinking that there was no way that a gym could be down there, I saw some flashing lights coming from the far back of the cavern. When I got closer I was able to make out that the lights spelled out a word: G – Y – M.

Walking into Robert’s Gym is like time traveling to another era of bodybuilding and fitness. It costs $3 to work out for a day and you pass through a turnstile like in an amusement park. Robert himself — a shorter, ultra fit guy probably around 50 — will invariably be behind the counter with a big smile on his face welcoming you in.

Then you are tossed into the inferno. While Power Club was a bougie gym, Robert’s Gym was definitely a bro gym. Giant men with bulging delts, biceps, and quads grunt, strain, and yell on the concentric phases of lifts, slamming weights to the floor and growling when finishing a set, fit women with gargantuan glutes push weighted sleds down the aisles in sheer disregard for anyone in front of them. People can be heard calling out to each other, laughing, high fiving, and talking shit. The music is blasting. The place smells of sweat, machismo, and tren …

Some weenie guy totally ate it on bench press, spewing iron plates all over the floor and nobody seemed to notice or care. That’s just the kind of place this is, and I liked it.

The machines are well-worn and heavily used here. Some of them appear to be held together with wing nuts and duct tape. The stacks of plates lost their numeric markers long ago and the amount of weight that you’re lifting isn’t much more than an estimate. Things are bent, things are rigged together, but somehow it all does the job. There is a pile of broken iron weights in the center of the room stacked up like a cairn that seems to be a shine to the deity of the meathead.

The place was a mix between Westside Barbell, Dorian Yate’s grotty old gym down an alley in Birmingham, and the workout room in a prison movie. It was my kind of place.

My workouts on the road

My workout varies depending on my circumstance. In NYC, where I’m based for much of the time, I’m currently doing five days a week in the gym — three days of chest / back / shoulders and two days of arms / legs. This is an atypical split but I do it for a reason that I may get into at some other point.

When on the road, I adapt. Some gyms aren’t as equipped as others and when traveling I’m often not able to workout everyday. If I only have one day in the gym here and there I will generally do a full body workout. If I have two+ days in a row I will do my usual split. If the gym isn’t particularly well stocked I will just do whatever I can.

I’m not a pro bodybuilder, so there is no need to stick to any kind of strict regimine … so, ultimately, I basically just do whatever I feel like.

In Robert’s Gym, the plates were in high demand and I would have felt like a dick occupying the ten to twelve of them to do leg presses, so I just did a few days of upper body splits.

Working out as part of the travel experience

My father was a bodybuilder and my mother was extremely fit. My memories growing up are full of my parents in the basement, dad slamming weights and grunting and my mom bouncing around on this wooden platform doing weighted aerobics. When together, they would always have a John Mellencamp tape playing … when my mom wasn’t around my dad would pop in AC/DC.

So lifting weights was just something that I’ve always been into. Over the years I’d concoct all sorts of different training regimens that I could do while traveling — from lifting a weighted backpack to using exercise bands. But I’ve always thought that going to the gym while traveling was somehow out of reach. For whatever reason it just didn’t occur to me until a couple of years ago that this was something that I could do …

Now, going to the gym has become a regular part of my MO when traveling. It’s familiar terrain upon which to engage with people from other countries, something to connect over, something to talk about that we have in common. Things are more or less the same in gyms everywhere — working out has become a global universal — but there are just these little tints of cultural difference that make them interesting … and sometimes you find these machines that are just absolutely unique and fascinating.

It’s important to have things that you can build on in life — things that you can work towards achieving each day, things that you can develop expertise in, things that you can add onto that pile of things that’s called “your life.”

This has always been my biggest problem with travel — that you work hard towards obtaining knowledge and skills in a particular thing in one place and then you have to start over again when going somewhere else. There’s so many things that I’ve attained a reasonable level of proficiency at — languages, sports, martial arts — only to abandon them when I move on. The paradox of travel is that it gives you unparalleled access to cultivate skills, knowledge, and expertise but not the duration of exposure to develop advanced proficiency in any of them.

At 43 years old I’ve almost become obsessed with cultivating and maintaining a particular collection of skills that I’ve developed over my travels, regardless of where in the world I am. I have a few languages that I study daily, I write, I shoot video. I guess I also have to add going to the gym to this list.


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Filed under: Panama, Travel Fitness

About the Author:

I am the founder and editor of Vagabond Journey. I’ve been traveling the world since 1999, through 91 countries. I am the author of the book, Ghost Cities of China and have written for The Guardian, Forbes, Bloomberg, The Diplomat, the South China Morning Post, and other publications. has written 3722 posts on Vagabond Journey. Contact the author.

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VBJ is currently in: New York City

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