What's different about Tijuana bodybuilding

Mexican muscle

Pedro Aguilar (Mr. Tijuana): "When I started, I didn't really have a chest at all. I had no definition at all. I started from scratch. I was skinny. No muscle at all."
  • Pedro Aguilar (Mr. Tijuana): "When I started, I didn't really have a chest at all. I had no definition at all. I started from scratch. I was skinny. No muscle at all."
  • Image by Ryan Lokyo

"The calf muscle. It's not just Mexicans but all Latinos. That's the big weak spot. It's rare for a Latino to have big calf muscles."

"The calf muscle. It's not just Mexicans but all Latinos. That's the big weak spot. It's rare for a Latino to have big calf muscles."

"This gym, NeoSpa, opened in 1988. It was started by a Russian group that came to Tijuana. They came up with the name and made the original investment. They also opened a disco and a health clinic -- a laser clinic. They never paid their rent. They defaulted on the rent for about a year. In 1989, they disappeared. "I believe they were from Moscow. I heard a few rumors about them, but I never found out if the rumors were true. They did have a Cuban lawyer. For as flashy as they appeared at first, in the end they disappeared.

"There are Mexican men who live here in Tijuana but who work on the other side of the border. They want to lose weight."

"There are Mexican men who live here in Tijuana but who work on the other side of the border. They want to lose weight."

"These Russians had a complete misconception of what a gym should be. They actually hired a doctor to perform blood tests on people who wanted to be members of the gym. The doctor had a complete set of medical equipment here at the gym. No one wanted to have the blood test. It scared people. The Russians also were charging $500 to join the gym, plus an additional $50 per month. These prices were very high. The aerobic area was about one-fourth the size of what I have now. They also had no drinking water inside the gym. And their manager was this guy from Mexico City who used to smoke inside the gym.

"One of the most difficult eating habits to break is refried beans. And here, especially in Tijuana, there's a taco shop on every corner."

"One of the most difficult eating habits to break is refried beans. And here, especially in Tijuana, there's a taco shop on every corner."

Trim, 5'11", broad-shouldered, 41-year-old Carlos Peniche is one of Tijuana's pioneer gym rats. He's also the owner and general manager of NeoSpa, a gym occupying 24,000 square feet on the third floor of one of the two 28-story towers, las Torres de Tijuana, that loom over Boulevard Agua Caliente. (The towers' best-known tenant is the 422-room Grand Hotel Tijuana.)

Gimnasio D'Luis. "We've got dumbbells up to 150 pounds. Most gyms don't have dumbbells that heavy."

Gimnasio D'Luis. "We've got dumbbells up to 150 pounds. Most gyms don't have dumbbells that heavy."

On the floors beneath NeoSpa, Tijuana's health-conscious citizens can take advantage of two plastic surgery clinics, two "natural medicine" clinics, the American Bio Dental Center ("we use bio-compatible dental materials"), a vitamin and health-food store, and the O2-Xygen Clinic -- a sleek facility offering "hyperbaric oxygen therapy" and "thermo physiotherapy" for what the clinic's brochure describes as the "perfect state of mind and body." From O2-Xygen's lobby you can see the submarine-shaped hyperbaric chamber, its chalk-white interior illuminated by halogen lamps.

Luis Ramirez Silva: "In 1980, I opened the Atlas gym, just one block from here. Now it's out in La Mesa, on Boulevard Diaz Ordaz. I won Mr. Mexico in 1981. We opened this gym, Gimnasio D'Luis, in 1985."

Luis Ramirez Silva: "In 1980, I opened the Atlas gym, just one block from here. Now it's out in La Mesa, on Boulevard Diaz Ordaz. I won Mr. Mexico in 1981. We opened this gym, Gimnasio D'Luis, in 1985."

Bright light cascades through NeoSpa's tall windows that look out through the tops of eucalyptus trees to the Tijuana Country Club golf course and beyond to Chapultepec, one of Tijuana's wealthiest neighborhoods. In the gym's main room, 13 treadmills, 7 elliptical machines, and 7 stationary bicycles face this view. Behind them sit dozens of white strength-machines, their seats and backrests upholstered in bright blue. From the walls hang posters saying, "Here Begins a Positive Attitude," "Here Begins Equilibrium," and "Here Begins Discipline."

On a late morning last fall when I visited Carlos Peniche at NeoSpa, a well-proportioned young woman in a dark blue leotard sat in this room at a leg extension machine, toning her thighs while she paged through an American book, Sexplorations: Journeys to the Erogenous Frontier by Anka Radakovich, which Amazon later told me concerned "...nudist colonies, love therapists, Vegas...the sexual underbelly of America."

That same morning, Peniche told me that Mexican women, more than Mexican men, take an active interest in exercise.

"For Mexican men," Peniche told me, "you can still be a little chubby as long as you dress well and are capable of making intelligent conversation. But that's starting to change."

Peniche, fair-skinned, dark-haired, has an athlete's body and a soldier's chest-forward, shoulders-back posture. On the morning I met him, he wore a pair of dark blue track pants and a blue polo shirt. He peppered his fluent English with business terms. ("In 1985, I graduated from Notre Dame [de Namur University] in San Francisco. I got a master's in marketing," he explained.) Unlike most Mexicans who speak with reporters, Peniche was informal. He seemed American. When I looked at his business card, I saw that his full name was Carlos Peniche Bustamante.

"You're a Bustamante?"

"Yes," he said. "My grandfather, Alfonso Bustamante, built these two towers. I'm one of Alfonso Bustamante's 16 grandchildren."

The Bustamantes are one of Tijuana's "founding families" and, like most members of this small group, are at home on either side of the border. As reporter Matt Potter noted in this paper in July 1999, the Bustamante family's political influence in Mexico is "vast," and in the 1970s, Alfonso Bustamante contributed many tens of thousands of dollars to Governor Jerry Brown's gubernatorial campaigns. In the same article, Potter said that Alfonso Bustamante's wealth was estimated at more than $200 million.

"When I joined NeoSpa," Peniche told me, "there were only about 100 members. What most damaged the gym's credibility was the pricing. People would compare that to the prices offered by gyms in San Diego. Family Fitness was the big chain in San Diego at the time, and they were charging about $30 per month. So people would ask, 'Why pay an initial $500, plus $50 a month, when I can get better services with trained professionals for $30 per month?'

"What happened was that I was working for John Burnham Real Estate, and then the Gulf War started. Real estate went down. And then the maquiladoras went down. The economy was very shaky. So my grandfather said, 'Here's this gym, and I know you like to exercise. I know you like gyms. Here's an opportunity.' The Russian guys were paying $8000 per month in rent on the property. My grandfather said, 'If you can make that amount, I'll let you work it. As long as you pay the rent and other expenses, I'll let you work it.'

"The Russians had ended up owing almost $90,000 in back rent. So, they were sued. But they never responded to the lawsuit. They lost all their equipment. It was removed from the facility and brought back. I think, in total, the gym was probably closed for about 20 days. We kept it open for the credibility of the hotel, the offices, the whole complex.

"Our first move was to get rid of the $500 initial fee and to slash the monthly membership from $50 to approximately $25. So people started rushing into the gym. We got rid of the old manager and hired people who were into health. We put water stands everywhere and started aerobics classes. One of the first things my grandfather did before he handed the gym over to me was to install Jacuzzis and steam rooms in the women's and men's bathrooms.

"I went from 100 members to 400 members in two years.

"Seventy percent of our clientele comes from within a five- to six-mile radius from where we are. We're talking about Chapultepec, Hipódromo, the Rio Zone, and some people come from La Mesa. The majority of our clientele is middle-class professionals, 20 to 45 years old. Thirty-five percent male, 65 percent female. Women just take better care of their bodies. They're more in tune with the way they look. They're always dieting. They are more in tune with their body's needs. Vanity and health combined.

"The big difference between gyms in the U.S. and Mexico is that in the U.S. you are encouraged in sports from the time that you're a young kid all the way up to high school and university. Until the last day you're in school, you're encouraged to participate in sports. In Mexico, you're encouraged to participate in sports up until the tenth grade. From then on, it's voluntary. There's really not a lot of variety in activities either. In Mexico in general, and in Mexico City, there's soccer, and that's it. Here in Tijuana, with the influence from the United States, there's soccer and a little bit of basketball. Basically, if you go to most of the schools in Tijuana, they don't have 30 percent of the sports facilities that private and public high schools in the U.S. provide. Men and women who graduate from our school system here haven't had half the encouragement to participate in sports that most Americans have had.

"That plays into our gyms here. In my opinion, gyms here should put about 40 percent of their attention into cardio equipment, strength machines, and free weights. They should put the rest of their attention into classes. Why? Because classes encourage you. They tell you exactly what to do and how to do it. In the U.S., you can have a gym that has 55, or 75 -- 70 percent in cardio and free-weight equipment and 30 percent in classes. Why? Because most of the people who go to 24 Hour Fitness or one of those other big gyms already know how to work out with weights. They're encouraged to work with weights. It's almost like something you've got in your genes. You go into a gym, you're gonna use it.

"Most of the people here, males, say, 'I don't want to touch your weights. I just want to lose some weight and that's it. The easier you can make it for me, the better.' When I go to gyms in the United States, most of the people I see are in as good a shape as me or in even better shape than me. Here, I'm in the top 10 percent.

"An American health chain coming into Tijuana would have big problems.

"I once spoke to an older CEO of 24 Hour Fitness, which is the second-largest fitness chain in the world. And he told me, 'I'm everywhere. I'm in China. I'm in Russia. But I'm not in Mexico. I'm not in Mexico City because it's a dangerous place to be. And I'm not here in Tijuana because it would be difficult for us to come in here and duplicate our success.'

"I think they would be successful if they came in here and had the perfect location and the perfect everything else. But their operating costs would be totally different from what they are in the United States. In the U.S., if you go into any health club and you want a personal trainer, which is what everyone wants now, they're gonna charge you $50 per hour. Here, if you want a personal trainer, they're gonna charge you $35 per week. And they'll probably do a better job than they do in the States. I know. I've trained with both."

I asked Peniche if he thought of the "gym rat" part of himself, the exercise enthusiast, as being American.

"I used to think of it that way. I went to high school in Mexico City. I started working out a little in Mexico City. In Mexico City, when I started jogging, people would laugh at me. They'd laugh and yell at me. This was in 1980. Mexico used to lag behind six to seven years with what was happening fitnesswise in the United States. Now, we're up to par with everything. Like the new X-bike, which they invented in San Francisco. It has the handlebars that move. It's the newest concept. It's better than spinning. As soon as it came out, Mexico and Brazil were really receptive. It's to the point where we take a concept and improve on it. I think the classes that we have here are more instructive and more entertaining than the ones they have in the States."

I mentioned to Peniche that I'd browsed back issues of the Tijuana Yellow Pages. I said that in 1996 there were only 25 or so gyms in Tijuana and that in this year's Yellow Pages I counted more than 70.

"I think there are easily over 100 gyms now," he said. "And there are new ones opening all the time. The last time I counted, there were at least 30 places, small ones, that were offering spinning classes."

Not long after I spoke with Peniche, I talked with 33-year-old Leonardo Raul Burnett, one of five personal trainers on NeoSpa's staff. On the late gray afternoon I spoke with Burnett, he told me that he was from Mexico City and that he became interested in sports when he was 12 years old.

"When I was 12, I saw this movie, Hercules, and that got me interested in going to a gym. I saw it and thought, 'I want to be like that.' I also liked Olympic wrestling. So I started going to a gym in the north of the city, in a working-class neighborhood called San Simón, where they taught Olympic wrestling. They also had free weights. I was a skinny kid. The skinniest by far in the family. I weighed 106 pounds. I started going to the gym, and I worked there too, for about one year. I'd work around the gym for eight hours, and when I was finished, I'd work out with the free weights."

Since seeing Hercules, Burnett has spent most of his life in one gym or another. He came to Tijuana when he was 15 years old. He found work as a personal trainer at Club Atlético Bosco, one of Tijuana's first gyms. He had, he said, three or four clients per day, and at that time, he charged them $1 per hour.

"I was living with my father," Burnett told me, "and I had other work on the side. So it was enough to live on."

At NeoSpa, Burnett said, he generally works with 20 or so clients, the majority of whom are women. But who was more difficult to instruct, I asked, men or women?

"The men. Because of discipline. The men are less disciplined. They like to eat a lot. They like to drink a lot. They like to party. Women are much more given to discipline."

I spent a Saturday morning at NeoSpa. Low gray clouds again filled the sky. Misty rain slicked Tijuana's streets. Inside NeoSpa, the air was warm and humid. In one of the gym's exercise rooms, on a polished maple floor, several dozen little boys and girls practiced judo. In another room, eight young women sweated through a spinning class while a disco remix of Gloria Gaynor's "I Will Survive" thumped through stereo speakers. In the hallway between the exercise rooms, a bulletin board announced NeoSpa's schedule of classes. From Monday through Friday, from 7:00 a.m. to 9:00 p.m., the board listed some 50 hour-long classes, such as yoga, Pilates, Tae-Bo, and spinning.

In the gym's largest room, I watched a woman in black spandex cross-train between strength machines and, in a smaller room off to the side, free weights. She appeared to be in her early 40s. The muscles in her shoulders, back, and thighs were well-defined. At the end of her routine, she told me her name was Silvia Muñoz. She said she was originally from Mexico City but had lived in Tijuana for 30 years. She said she worked in television and that she was a mother of five.

"I've been coming here to this gym for about three years. I've been working out for ten years," she said. "I started in Chula Vista. At 24 Hour Fitness. I had to take my children to school, and at first it was a way for me to kill time while I waited for them. I started to notice the changes in my body. I lost weight, and I had more energy. Three years ago I became very serious about working out. I started coming here, to NeoSpa. For about one year I hired a personal trainer to teach me how to use the weights and other equipment. I'd used them before, but I really didn't know what I was doing. I needed someone to teach me. I usually work out for an hour and a half on Mondays through Fridays. On Saturdays I usually work out for two to three hours."

Muñoz told me that, due to her influence, three of her five children now exercised on a regular basis. One of her daughters was exercising at the gym, she said, while we spoke. I asked Muñoz when Mexican women started to become interested in exercise.

"About eight years ago. It was part of many changes. Women started working outside the home. Men's and women's ways of thinking, their mentality, started to evolve. There was the idea that women could compete with men in, for example, the workplace. And I believe that women are more vain than men. It was a combination of a lot of factors. Wives no longer had to ask their husbands for permission to do things like go to the gym. Husbands have changed too."

And what was the most important thing that Muñoz did at NeoSpa?

"The spinning classes. I like it. It's an opportunity for me to work out all my day-to-day stress."

Ausencia, a woman in her early 30s, told me that she, too, started exercising almost ten years ago. She was fair-skinned and light-haired and quick to laugh when she spoke.

"I first started exercising out of vanity," she said.

She told me that she came from a family of six children, "and we all loved volleyball and we all exercise." She told me she had one sister in particular who was very athletic and who came every day to NeoSpa.

"In the past I exercised every day. Now, I'm busier and come to the gym only three times a week for an hour and a half each time."

Ten years ago, she said, it wasn't very common for women in Tijuana to exercise.

"The change came little by little.

"One thing that had a great deal of influence was fashion. Each year, the clothes kept getting smaller. And in order to look good in those styles, you had to be in shape. The designers were designing clothes for thin women."

Across town on Third Street, a few blocks west of Revolución, Gimnasio D'Luis sits above a small Italian restaurant. If you don't know what you're looking for, you might have a difficult time finding the gym's entrance. It sits at the end of a breezeway to the restaurant's left. A folksy painting of a bodybuilder flexing his biceps decorates the entrance's door. A flight of white tile stairs leads up to a 900-square-foot room where American and Mexican hip-hop blares from unseen stereo speakers. Floor-to-ceiling windows fill the room's northern wall, overlooking Third Street's bustle. On the afternoon I first visited the gym, an older indigenous woman stood directly across the street, stirring something in a large red plastic tub. She wore her hair in two long braids. Her little belly strained against the apron, embroidered with red and yellow birds, she'd tied about her waist. She was selling portions of a very traditional Mexican dish -- a salad made of marinated and coarsely chopped nopales, or cactus paddles. Around the mound of salad in the tub, this woman had arranged piles of garnishes for her customers to choose from -- minced cilantro, diced tomatoes, thinly sliced onion, and whole red chiles fried crisp.

While I inspected the woman's cactus salad, 25-year-old Pedro Aguilar waited to speak with me in Gimnasio D'Luis. Born in Chula Vista, a graduate of Southwest High School, Aguilar is a 5'6" block of solid muscle. His parents, he told me, were born and raised in Guadalajara.

"I wasn't that active in sports in high school. It wasn't until my last year in high school that I started coming to Gimnasio D'Luis. I was doing kickboxing at a place around the corner. I walked into this gym on July 11, 1997. I remember the exact date. I've been coming here ever since. When I started at the gym, I weighed 170 pounds.

"Now I'm at 225 pounds. I'm the reigning Mr. Tijuana right now. I won that title back on June 24 [2004]. On July 17, I entered the Mr. Baja contest, and I got into the top three."

I asked Aguilar if, during the time he was there, many of the Mexican kids at Southwest High School had participated in sports.

"At Southwest, there are a lot of people who attend school there but they live in Tijuana. You might see a couple of them playing baseball. But it was mostly the pochos, the Mexican kids who didn't speak Spanish, who were the most involved in sports.

"There was also a softball tournament that we played during lunch break, and we always came up with a team called the Tijuaneros. We always got to the finals and played against the teachers. I was part of that group, the Tijuaneros. I was born in the United States, but I've always lived here. I did my elementary school here near the cathedral. I lived in Tijuana because my mom owns a restaurant here, near the cathedral, in the market. It's called Loncheria Irma. Right next door was the elementary school I attended.

"My mom has always been really active. Athletic. She'd get up early in the morning and go run a little bit. I guess I get it from her. I used to hate that. I used to hate eating healthy. And that's what I do now. What my mom did was unusual, because Mexicans didn't have this idea of exercising during your free time. On Sundays, you don't do anything. You just spend time with your family. Even now, most of the gyms are closed on Sundays. I know that Total Fitness stays open on Sundays, but they close around noon or one o'clock. If you go to the States, the gyms stay open until nine or ten o'clock.

"When I first started bodybuilding I just wanted to get toned. I was 18 at the time. One of the trainers at the gym said, 'I'll help you out with your diet.' I guess he got me into it. When I started, I didn't really have a chest at all. I had no definition at all. I started from scratch. I was skinny. No muscle at all. Nothing."

I told Aguilar that on posters in NeoSpa and in ads for other Tijuana gyms, I'd seen the words "discipline" or "self-discipline." I wondered if those words had some specific cultural meaning.

"If I talk about bodybuilding, in order to get to that kind of physique, you have to be here at the gym at least five days a week. You have to change your eating habits. You have to have a lot of self-discipline."

I asked if Mexicans thought of themselves as not having self-discipline and that exercise was a way of learning it.

"Yes, actually, that was the way my parents thought. They wanted me to get involved in some sport, any sport. Kickboxing. Whatever. Get into something that's actually gonna get you on the right track. That's gonna help you get discipline. And learn that everything you start, you have to finish up. That was the purpose of why they wanted me to get into kickboxing, so that I'd learn discipline. Because that's the way my mom and dad have always been. Very disciplined. Hard workers.

"When I started bodybuilding, I thought of it as a gringo thing. It's not as popular as other sports. Here, the most popular sport is soccer. But here, we're close to the border, and so bodybuilding is a little more popular.

"Bodybuilding got me more disciplined and organized in everything. I've got my agenda organized. Everything's written down. Especially when it gets to your diet, you have to write down what you're eating. How many grams of protein. How many grams of carbs. Have many grams of fat. You've got to write down everything. You get to be really disciplined and really organized. I've changed everything. Especially in terms of my job, I've learned to be really organized.

"At home I used to be one of those guys who took his shirt off and just threw it on the floor. Now, everything has to be organized. Why? I don't know. But bodybuilding has changed me a lot. I'm a more organized person."

I asked Aguilar if Mexican men felt less pressure than American men to have a good body.

"Definitely less pressure than in the United States. But the mentality is changing, especially with all the new gyms coming up. The mentality is changing right now."

I said I wondered if telenovelas, soap operas on Mexican television, were part of this change. I said that while the women on telenovelas had always been beautiful, I'd noticed that recently the men had started showing off their bodies.

"Not just the telenovelas, but the makeover shows, like the ones in the United States, have started here too. The ones where people lose weight. They change them to look better. People have become more conscious about their personal appearance, including men. Definitely, TV has a lot to do with that. I especially notice it with the work I do in the States. There are Mexican men who live here in Tijuana but who work on the other side of the border. They want to lose weight. They want to look good. Of course, there are a lot of them who want to reduce their stress and increase their energy. But most of them, they say, 'You know what? I've been overweight for the past ten years. I just got divorced. I just want to get back into shape.'

"I started working at Bally's in National City in July 1999. And now I'm the club manager in San Marcos. From the border it takes me about 35 minutes to get there. I have a Sentri pass. Most of the clientele is Hispanic. San Marcos is hard-core Hispanic."

Was it possible, I asked, to eat a typical Mexican diet and be a bodybuilder?

"That was my first problem, especially since my mom owns a restaurant. Menudo, pozole, and all that. You definitely had to go the opposite. You had to get into more skinless chicken breasts, getting your carbs in, drinking a lot of water. One of the most difficult eating habits to break is refried beans. And here, especially in Tijuana, there's a taco shop on every corner. The Mexican diet has a lot of protein in it but also a lot of fat. Also, tortillas. And, like, at eight o'clock at night, I was used to eating, like, ten tortillas. If you go to my mom's restaurant, she gets a lot of people from southern Mexico. People from the south, when they eat something, they want to eat tortillas. And it's like a kilo per person. I've seen a five-foot-tall person eat 20 corn tortillas, with just chile, lime juice, and salt."

Aguilar admitted that a bodybuilder's diet could be expensive for Mexicans.

"Especially for people who work here. Chicken breasts, egg whites. A 180-pound bodybuilder eats around 20 egg whites per day. And three chicken breasts per day. And that's not counting supplements -- protein powder, energy bars. I think that's one of the problems why we don't have many big bodybuilders here in Mexico. Only people who really have the money or who have sponsors, and it's difficult to get sponsors, have access to [all the food]. I'm lucky that I'm a U.S. citizen. I work over there and I live over here, and I have the money to do it.

"I'll go to Costco and spend at least $200 to $250 every two weeks on meals. Right now, I'm on off-season, but once I'm training I have to get in five to six meals a day, plus protein shakes."

Sixty-year-old Luis Ramirez owns Gimnasio D'Luis. By way of explaining his youthful appearance, his barrel chest, his enormous arms and shoulders, he told me, "All my family are long-lived."

Born in Michoacán, raised in Mexico City, he's lived in Tijuana for 34 years.

"In Mexico City, we lived in a rough neighborhood, and I hear that it's gotten worse. I had to learn to defend myself, and so I started going to the gym. I went intending to learn how to box. But when I got there, I saw this neighbor of mine, this huge guy, and it turned out he was a professional wrestler. I didn't know it. When he saw me, he introduced me to wrestling. I was 17 years old. I was skinny. I weighed 123 pounds. I was the size of a jockey. After doing the wrestling training for about two years, I started going to a gym that was just for free weights. I wanted to learn how to eat so I could gain weight. At that time, in all of Mexico City, there were maybe only four gyms for training with free weights. Back in those days, I ate whatever I could get. But what helped me most was soy protein powder. We drank it with milk as a kind of milkshake. With nuts and fruit in it. It was a tremendous mixture. We drank it once or twice a day. That's how I started to gain weight. In two years I weighed 154 pounds.

"After I got to Tijuana in 1970, I gained another 20 or so pounds. We ate better here in Tijuana. I earned more money here in Tijuana. A lot more. About four times more than I was making in Mexico City. By 1971, I weighed 176 pounds. I worked at a gym called Silvestre, which was about the only gym that there was at that time. Eduardo Silvestre, the guy who owned the gym, was the first Mr. Mexico, and he was also Mr. Universe. He was the only Mexican to ever win that title. I worked for him for ten years.

"In 1980, I opened the Atlas gym, just one block from here. Now it's out in La Mesa, on Boulevard Diaz Ordaz. I won Mr. Mexico in 1981. We opened this gym, Gimnasio D'Luis, in 1985. I'd say that about 98 percent of our clients come just because they want to exercise, and the rest want to bodybuild. Ninety percent are men. Our clients are middle-class or lower. They're between 15 and 35 years old. We don't charge an initial membership fee, and our monthly fee is only $20. Out of this gym, we've had five Mr. Mexicos; one Mr. Tijuana, Pedro Aguilar; and one Mr. Baja California.

"This gym here is very different from NeoSpa. That's a gym equipped for women. They have all those aerobics classes. What we're doing here is the reverse of that. We don't have aerobics classes. We've got dumbbells up to 150 pounds. Most gyms don't have dumbbells that heavy. For that reason, there are a lot of guys from San Diego who like to come here to train, because we've got weights from the lightest to the absolute maximum.

"The Mexican attitude toward exercise started to change about 20 years ago. A lot of factors were involved in that change. Television was a big influence. People started noticing that the actors looked athletic. And when people started seeing on television that young people and old people looked in shape, that had a huge influence. Now you've got older people going to gyms. In the past, it was practically forbidden for older people to go to gyms. Now, it's common. And I think that's something important. Gyms are really providing a public service. We do something good for society. Not like the bars in Zona Norte where people go to get drunk. Sure, we're businesses and we make our living, but we're doing something good for society."

I told Ramirez that I'd heard that every ethnic group has a body part that is difficult to develop. I asked what particular challenge Mexican bodybuilders face.

"The calf muscle. It's not just Mexicans but all Latinos. That's the big weak spot. It's rare for a Latino to have big calf muscles. But here in Mexico, it depends on the region. For example, the majority of bodybuilders from the state of Sinaloa have great calves. Why? Because they mixed with a different indigenous group. Both men and women in Sinaloa have sturdy legs and great calves. For most Mexicans into bodybuilding, they really have to work hardest on their legs and calves."

I asked Ramirez how bodybuilding changed him as a person.

"It has changed me, but the change was very gradual. I suffered a lot when I was training to compete on the national level. That's when we started the Atlas gym. I was training with 'rustic' equipment, and by that I mean the equipment wasn't fancy. The weights on the equipment I was training with were nothing more than cement coated with vinyl. And so I went through a lot to compete in the Mr. Mexico contest, which is the biggest contest we have in Mexico on the national level. After winning something like Mr. Mexico, of course you feel good. You've worked so hard for it. But I was really doing it for my family. Nothing more than that. I was doing it for my family so that we'd do better and so that the gym would do better. I was doing it for my family."

A week or so after I spoke with Ramirez, I drove down to Tijuana's Rio Zone on a bright, clear afternoon. I wanted to visit a place that both Luis Ramirez and Carlos Peniche had mentioned, Sports World, which they said had been open for only one year. Neither Ramirez nor Peniche considered Sports World a competitor, but they did think it demonstrated how much their city had changed.

"We now have gyms for everyone," Ramirez told me. "For the simplest person and for the wealthy."

"Sports World is part of a chain from Mexico City, where it works perfectly," Peniche told me. "The clientele is upscale. People in Mexico City want to be separated from the rest of the population. They want to be in an upper-scale environment where they're not working out around people they'd rather not be around. Social class is really stressed in Mexico City, so in Mexico City that kind of thing works just fine."

Stark black block letters over Sports World's entrance spell out Cambia Tu Vida, Change Your Life.

"We're always pretty tranquil," said Victor, the young Sports World employee who showed me around. "We have 900 members, but you'll never have to wait to use a strength machine or the free weights, even during our busiest time, which is between seven and eight on weekday nights."

Among its amenities, four-story Sports World offers valet parking, a cafe, a four-lane indoor lap pool, a boxing ring, two paddleball courts, Tijuana's only indoor rock-climbing wall, and, on the building's roof, a miniature driving range and a sand-filled area for beach volleyball. Sports World's interior walls are either glass or concrete. The floors, blond wood or pale marble.

Victor ushered me into an elevator that some hidden mechanism perfumed with grapefruit essence. Victor led me to a large, light-filled atriumlike space.

"This area," he said with a wave of his hand, "is used only for exercise classes that concentrate on the abdominals and glutes.

"Other areas are dedicated to classes like aerobics, spinning, and Pilates."

The weight room was empty. The boxing ring was empty. The paddleball courts were empty. The lap pool was empty. The children's dressing rooms, just off the lap pool, were empty. In the boys' dressing-room bathroom, miniature urinals shined.

The men's dressing room, floored in marble, seemed much larger than my home, which, according to my realtor, is about 800 square feet. The men's dressing-room lockers, made of dark wood, gleamed as if freshly polished. Two men, as white-skinned as I or whiter, dried themselves with large thick towels. Another man shaved at one of the sinks in a vast marble counter. Victor showed me an airy room near the showers where a large Jacuzzi, also in marble, burbled.

"Shampoo, conditioner, and soap are complimentary," Victor told me. "As is towel service. The only things not covered by the monthly membership fee are the spa services. You can either pay for them in cash, or we can bill them to your credit card."

The spa sits between the men's and women's dressing rooms and smells faintly of sandalwood. A young woman in a white uniform led me through the spa's six private rooms, all painted in soft earth tones, all glowing with dim indirect light.

"We offer body scrubs, facials, and other skin treatments. We have a massage that's done with heated stones, a sports massage, and one with a deeper technique -- I think you call it a 'Swedish massage' in America," she said. "A 55-minute massage costs around $50. If you're not a club member and want to use only the spa, the service fee includes use of the dressing rooms and the dressing rooms' Jacuzzis, steam rooms, and saunas."

At the end of my tour, Victor led me back downstairs to a room done in soft grays, where he explained Sports World's fee structure. I hadn't told Victor that I was a journalist, so I feared a pressure-cooker do-or-die sales pitch. But Victor was offhand, matter of fact.

"For a single membership, the initial fee is 5800 pesos, or $535 U.S. The monthly fee is 1190 pesos, or $110. Right now we're offering what we call a 'matrimonial membership,' which applies to any couple, for an initial fee of 7000 pesos, or $646, and a total monthly membership fee of 1750 Mexican pesos, or $161.

"And you should know about our schedule. On weekdays we're open from 6:00 a.m. to 11:00 p.m. On Saturdays, Sundays, and on all holidays, we're open from 7:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m."

I told Victor that Sports World's fees seemed reasonable.

"We're doing well," he said. "We have five facilities in Mexico City. Right now, this one in Tijuana is our only facility outside the capital. But we're planning on soon adding facilities like this one in three other cities in Mexico."

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"That same morning, Peniche told me that Mexican women, more than Mexican men, take an active interest in exercise.

"For Mexican men," Peniche told me, "you can still be a little chubby as long as you dress well and are capable of making intelligent conversation. But that's starting to change."

EXACTLY, that is why you will see voluptuous Mexican women with fat guys, rich or poor.

I often ask myself: why bother to run or eat right???

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