The bold, brute beauty of bakal gyms

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Averaging ₱17,500, Maranatha machines go for a tenth of the price of imported ones. Photos from MARANATHA/Collage by ZOE SABANDAL

Once, I had a corporate salary and paid north of a thousand pesos each time I had a session with a personal trainer. And that was on top of the membership fees, lump sums of ₱30,000 every four months or so. What made me cough up the cash was the idea of a tailor-fit regimen, someone watching my form, and the regular therapy of embedding my problems in small talk. But there would be none of the latter at my first one-on-one weight training session in years at Hardcore Fitness in La Union. In the words of a poster on the wall, the 10 Gym Rules You Must Know, Rule no. 9: Come to the gym to exercise, talking is not an exercise.

Hardcore Fitness Gym in San Juan, La Union. Photos by ANNA CANLAS

For this privilege, I paid ₱300 inclusive of unlimited water from the dispenser, and possibly free advice about the massive jars of whey by the CCTV monitor up front. When I probed the owner Joni about who makes the training programs, he shrugged his biceps and said, ako lang, then started me off with goblet squats.

“Dati may gym ako sa Baguio,” he said, while shuffling his feet. “Pero ang dami na kasing nagsidatingan dun — nandun na yung Fitness First, nandun na yung Pound for Pound.”

“Nag-bo-boxing ka ba?” I asked.

He answered, “MMA. Pero tumaba na ko ngayon.”

Just as I was about to give up on a leg raise, he stuck his foot on the floor underneath my flailing feet to “catch” them. Come on! Three more! Last one!

I laugh-grunted but no one really cared, which was maybe also part of the code? With a steady stream of people going in, hitting their own personally researched programs for an hour, and getting out, it was the type of place where no one flinched, not at reps, not at Joni’s refusal to set a time for my culminating plank position (hangga’t hindi mo na lang kaya, he said), nor at a rice cooker left unplugged on the floor.

A rice cooker (left) and jars of whey (third from left) were some of the elements that mixed with the brutalist equipment of the gym. Photos by ANNA CANLAS

The real meal, however, was the equipment: cages, racks and benches with a pieced-together quality, painted in pops of the purest primary colors, they spoke to me. Very Bauhaus.

I really enjoyed this one that had a pin in it which Joni removed to let loose two weighted arms that I had to steady on top of my own arms, like a plow. Squat down, then snap up to a standing position (with control). Squat down, then snap up to a standing position (with control).

“Kilala mo ba si Japeth Aguilar?” Joni interjected. “Pumunta na din siya dito.”

Near us was another improvised beauty unlike the buttressed equipment that PBA professionals are probably used to. No, these machines were all right angles. I found out why a month later when I followed my interest all the way to the workshop that makes them: Maranatha.

The Maranatha workshop in Mabalacat, Pampanga. Photos by ANNA CANLAS

In Mabalacat, Pampanga, I met Loy, a 74-year-old who distrusts the press, warms quickly, and can drop and give you 30 pushups. He answered vaguely when I asked where the metal components were from. “Sa hardware,” he said as sparks flew all around us. A welder hot-gunned pre-made metal bars against and perpendicular to another larger pre-made bar. It looked like he was making the braces to which you attach the back seat for a shoulder press, that plush real estate bodybuilders leave sweat on. No molds. No melting. No bending. No spec sheets, even. This guy was doing this all by hand-eye coordination! “Minsan tumitingin kami sa Internet,” Loy said. “Dinedevelop din namin.”

Point welding at Maranatha in Pampanga where they make gym equipment. Photos by ANNA CANLAS

As I went around taking pics, the scrape and buzz were so loud, they lulled me like atonal music. It was only when Loy told me to watch where I was stepping that I glanced down and saw... tetanus.

For the most part, sourcing steel in the country is tenacious. There isn’t an elite family corporation that can be hassled to extract raw iron ore from the earth, melt it, then refine it into finished steel. However there are clans that have gotten rich from doing just one part of the process: mining, zinc-coating, importation, smuggling. Recently, the president of a group called the Minimal Government Thinkers reported new foundries using old induction furnaces dumped from China.

What Loy had around his workshop looked like something in-between: surplus metal bars, unpainted, rusty, and in the process of being sanded down by his workers in preparation for manual painting. More than an aesthetic choice, the paint jobs, so fun, so snazzy, concealed irregularities. Yet Loy assured me: the metal he used was high-quality.

In Maranatha, the metals used are surplus metal bars, unpainted, rusty, and in the process of being sanded down by his workers in preparation for manual painting. Photo by ANNA CANLAS

“Ang iba kasi malambot yung bakal nila. Substandard. Pero sa amin pansinin mo ang primary concern namin durability, yung safety ng naglalaro. Hindi macompromise.”

Eschewing cheaper metals that are 0.7 mm thick, he only buys metals that are 2-3 mm thick.

“Kaya tingnan mo napakastable nito,” he shook a cage with a steel bar that glided up and down on a pulley. It stayed put.

This was also my experience in La Union, when I leaned against one of Loy’s waggish creations after my workout to snap a photo for Instagram. They were built well.

Will I come back to a bakal gym? You bet. After throwing money at cushier places, I love the savings. And the real talk. Like Rule no. 1: You don’t talk about lifting. Or Rule no. 7: Don’t leave your sweat on the bench. Codes that sink in, after all.

Real talk in bakal gyms include Rule no. 1: You don’t talk about lifting. Photos by ANNA CANLAS