I Can’t Go To The Gym, So I’m Lifting My Girlfriend

No gym? No problem. Competitive bodybuilder Daniel Zhou says significant others make great weightlifting equipment during quarantine.

Web diary bodybuilding thumb
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ
Web diary bodybuilding thumb
Katherine Nagasawa / WBEZ

I Can’t Go To The Gym, So I’m Lifting My Girlfriend

No gym? No problem. Competitive bodybuilder Daniel Zhou says significant others make great weightlifting equipment during quarantine.

Daniel Zhou enjoyed working out and playing sports throughout childhood, but it wasn’t until after graduating college in 2014 that he first started getting into competitive bodybuilding. But once he tried it, he was hooked. Over the last six years he and his twin brother Brian — who shares his passion for the sport — have participated in several regional competitions and one natural national competition. In 2017, they even placed first and second in their division.

Daniel said one of the reasons why he loves bodybuilding is because it’s a sport that requires a high level of discipline.

“With bodybuilding, there really isn’t an off-season,” he said. “You're constantly having to keep up with it.”

These regular workouts have also become a way for him to blow off steam from work.

“It’s become therapeutic,” he said. “Going to the gym is a sort of sanctuary for me to de-stress.”

Daniel is in between competitions right now, and said normally he’d be spending this time trying to bulk up. This usually equates to going to the gym every day for an hour and a half and hitting up fast food restaurants to help him hit his daily goal of eating 3,500 to 4,000 calories. But with his gym closed because of the coronavirus, his usual routine is now out the door.

“Instead of building size, the focus now for me is just to maintain,” he said.

Daniel and Brian Zhou
Daniel Zhou (right) and his twin brother Brian (left) competed at a regional bodybuilding competition in Los Angeles in 2017, where they placed first and second in their division. (Courtesy of Daniel Zhou)

Maintaining bulk with at home workouts

Daniel said he had to adjust his expectations to fit the realities of working out at home during quarantine.

“It wasn’t, ‘What can I do to keep lifting like I did before?’” he said. “It was ‘What can I do now?’ And ‘How can I change my mentality so I don't feel like I’m disappointing my routine?’”

Daniel said he recently bought a pullup bar to help with back exercises, and does pull ups wearing a backpack filled with water bottles. For arm workouts, he’s been using resistance bands that he had bought as a tool to prep for a past bodybuilding competition. To work different muscle groups, he changes the angle of the bands by attaching them to doors, sofa legs and other furniture in his apartment.

But he said the most unique adaptation he’s made is enlisting his girlfriend Sandy to serve as a human weight. Sandy will straddle his shoulders during squats and calf raises, sit on his back for push ups and lie in his arms for bicep curls.

Daniel pushup Sandy
Daniel’s girlfriend Sandy serves as a human weight during his quarantine workouts. (Courtesy of Daniel Zhou)

Daniel said the only drawback is that Sandy is about a hundred pounds lighter than most of the weights he lifts.

“I would prefer her to be heavier, but she probably doesn’t prefer that,” he joked. “I’m going to have to think of other ways to make it harder for me over time.”

Daniel also said that Sandy “isn’t just a tool,” she’s also his workout companion. On cardio days, he said the two initially tried running around their neighborhood in Skokie, but found it hard to stay socially distant from other people exercising. Now, they’ve resorted to running laps in their apartment building’s parking lot.

“The parking lot does get old and concrete is tough on the joints,” he said.

Daniel Sandy Squat
Caption: Daniel and Sandy use their apartment building’s parking lot for cardio and strength workouts. (Courtesy of Daniel Zhou)

Evoking the gym at home

The gym isn’t just a place for lifting weights. One of the things he’s missed the most the past two months, Daniel said, is the community at his gym. He said he’s kept in touch with gym friends through a group chat on Instagram, but it doesn’t replace the real thing.

“What I’ve learned is how much the setting of the gym actually motivates me,” he said.

To pump himself up during workouts, he’s started using his desktop computer monitor to play an hour-long video of bodybuilders working out at the gym together.

“I look at the sweat, the iron, and [hear] the grunting and it evokes the gym mentality back into my workout,” he said.

Daniel said he’s trying to make the best of the situation, but can’t help but feel anxious about losing muscle he’s worked so hard to gain.

“It doesn’t feel too good,” he said. “There is a fear that you’re going to lose your muscle. I’ve sort of come to terms that I’m going to lose some of it, [because] I know that once I’m back in the gym eventually, it’s going to come back quickly.”

Daniel said he hopes to get back into bodybuilding competitions in 2021, and intends to enter a more competitive division than he’s been part of in the past. Until then, he’s just looking forward to being back at the gym.

“Going back to the gym is definitely going to re-motivate me,” he said. “There’s definitely going to be an aspect of being more appreciative of it than I was before.”

Katherine Nagasawa is WBEZ’s audience engagement producer. Follow her @Kat_Nagasawa.