First Things First

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Heavy Duty Workouts

Dungeon Duty

bench pressing in the Dungeon gym

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I set out from my home, an apartment on Copeland Court in Santa Monica, fueled with my 1960s standard pre-workout meal, two rounded tablespoons of defatted and desiccated beef-gland powder and eight ounces of water. It mixed well and went down the throat like everyday dirt. Mmm, mmm, good. Mud in a tumbler was a ritual I practiced stoically every morning, a sacrifice to the gods of iron and steel. Endurance and rock-hard muscle is what I sought. Mr. America was behind me and the Universe ahead. Whatever it took.

The streets were quiet in the early morning as usual, traffic 40 years ago not up to the density and madness of today. I was driving a fire-engine-red Corvette with the top down and the hood of my sweatshirt up. The nip of California fall was in the air. My mind was in limbo as the car rumbled toward the Muscle Beach gym, also known as the Dungeon, and, to some, the tabernacle and the altar.

There was something in the air, a mystery, I could feel it and I didn’t know what it was; I didn’t want to know and I didn’t look. It would reveal itself I was sure. It always did.

Funny thing, I don’t ever recall questioning when I was bound for the gym why I was bound for the gym. Never was there room for a wedge to be placed that might separate me from my workout. No mission to accomplish drove me onward, no definitive goal, no exact target, no tangible end result. Weight lifting and building muscle and strength largely and simply defined my life. I worked, worked out, struggled to pay my bills, slept and ate, laughed and cried. I was still a child of the east coast and there ain’t nuttin’ wrong with that. Room to grow.

No searching for a parking space, I pulled directly in front of the Dungeon’s entrance, a pair of faded poster- and graffiti-covered doors hanging crookedly on rusty hinges. They appeared locked and I had the key -- lift up firmly on handle and pull vigorously, place rock against door to keep open. No alarm sounded. I was in.

That I was in was not a thrill. It was necessary, it had to be, it was a must, the unspoken rule of my life; now to find my way to the switch box to throw some light on the scene. Throwing some light was not unlike striking a match and lighting a pair of votive candles. I come, I see, I do. Let’s get to work.

Everything was there just as the day before. I saw tired Olympic bars, multitudes of scattered plates like families of turtles heading for the sea, and hulking dumbbells stretched out on sagging wooden racks. The dumbbells reminded me of hoods I knew in Jersey who took numbers and worked for the unions, a knarly and troublesome bunch if you didn’t know them. What was in the corners darkened by the night, under the hidden stairwells and in that back room where junk was stored and no one goes, I didn’t care or wonder. Big spiders and rats, I expected.

Sit ups, leg raises and hyperextensions, intended to strengthen my midsection, gave me comfort in the shadowy stillness. I forced my energy and deep breathing into the dead space, resuscitating it as if it were a languishing ghost. Soon we were both warm bodies and alive. The dried animal glandulars -- and youth and determination -- were kicking in.

Nobody interrupted the early morning solitude -- just the way I liked it, bleak and harsh in the subterranean confines contrasting with the warmth and light at the top of the long narrow staircase. At the far end of the gym the lifting platform beneath the sidewalk skylights beckoned me with a lonely call. The mystery of the early morning was beginning to unfold. I plodded over like a young bull coaxed by mild tugs on his nose ring, a curious and innocent beast sensing a mate waiting in the low brush.

This bull was weighing 245 pounds and eating lots of protein. I did a set of bench presses, as one does to penetrate the cold, wet waters, and the plates clanged loudly. The tranquility was broken. Every cracked wall and dank corner bristled with the reverberations. An unconscious shudder announcing we’ve begun went through my body. It’s time. Lift with all your might till it’s over.

I stood on the warped lifting platform, its original geometric flatness rearranged by time, moisture and the thunder of the weights dropping furiously from overhead year after year. I loaded the straightest bar I could find in the creeping morning light. There it lay, an Olympic bar and a 45-pounder -- a wheel -- on each side, 135 pounds.

I did a second set of benches to continue my warm-up. Felt good, real good. Revisiting the platform, I stood over the handsome construction and rolled it forward and back with my foot. Impulsively I bent over, grasped the weight, pulled it to my shoulders and pressed it overhead for reps. I was testing the small mass, kicking tires, squeezing melons at the market. Felt good, real good.

Sitting again at the bench press I felt my gaze return to the platform. It was irresistible. The bench press suddenly seemed one dimensional compared to the overhead press, incomplete, less engaging, not as expressive or interesting. The standing press was tougher and more critical. I found myself adding another wheel to each side. It was Monday, not my favorite day, but I was fresh.

I cleaned the 225, pressed it for two reps and returned it to its place on the hard rubber mats. Delightful.

I’d done bent-over rows seriously, heavy reverse curls regularly and my benches weren’t bad, but I wasn’t real familiar with overhead pressing. You might say this was the beginning. I was now circling the gym floor with my belt in hand, searching for chalk. In the Dungeon chalk was stashed out of sight by the hardcore who liked the white-powder ritual and needed the gripping advantage. I slid a 25 on each side, made the appropriate clang and locked the weight in place with thick collars. I squinted at the pile like it was trouble and resumed my hunt. The floor was still empty, grey had replaced the blackness and I was hot with sweat and cold with its evaporation.

I confronted the well-balanced and thickening heap of iron with respect, my attitude taking on the gravity of the weight before me. The objective was to move the weight to my shoulders in one sudden surge of power, make some quick and sure adjustments and press the mass steadily overhead till the arms were locked and the torso stable and upright -- hold it for a couple of seconds and return it to the platform sensibly. I’d practiced this procedure half a dozen times earlier in the spring with less weight and less intensity. No problem. I was younger then and it was less important than now.

Deep breathe, grasp, clean and press. Job done well with arms reaching and the weight close to the sky. I hear the sound of life in the distance, a figure doing chins a mile away. The day has begun.

I know what I have to do. Off comes the quarter and on goes another 45. The plates are made tight with a rumble one side at a time, the heavy collars are locked in place and the bar is brushed with chalk. I tug on the mass for good measure and turn to the process of preparing and psyching for the battle: belt, pacing, standing, considering and chalking. Self consciousness is fought, doubt is beaten off, extraneous thoughts are eliminated and energy is focused, these the toughest aspects of the battle. Seeking a culmination of all that is positive and enthusiastic and good and right, I bend over to do it again.

This, the lifting of an impossible weight on a bar, is not something you repeat. Each time is the first time, if it is any good. The procedures have a sameness and continuity about them -- position the body, bend, grasp, clean, press and return -- but the fury between each step is always new, spontaneous and redefining. Man against steel, steel against man, man against himself. We’ve got our hands full, crew.

I did it with back-breaking fullness. I staggered briefly after the clean, my legs remained locked as I pressed and, yes, I leaned like an oak in high winds, but I did not stall or jerk or otherwise falter. I stood and reached and reached and stood for blinding seconds before lowering the weight, letting it go a foot from its resting place.

When you’re alone after remarkable success, satisfaction and gratefulness whirl in your mind with no place to go. They were self-contained, while colorful flashes and mad sounds of rushing filled my head and a wonderful ache flooded my pulsating body. I did it, I whispered with an insufficient shrug: recuperate, oxygenize. I was leaning on my arms, breathing smoothly and staring at my recently acquired friend, 315 pounds of steel, when someone called out from the center of the gym floor. I turned and there’s Jack Hughes, a wiry lifter from a generation gone by who was then a coach and judge of powerlifting and Olympic lifting contests on the coast. “Good lift, Draper,” he said, “don’t see too many guys pressing 325 at 7 o’clock on a Monday morning.”

I thanked him without pretension, being a very young member of a very old club. I also pointed out I had 315 pounds on the bar. He pointed out I had 325 on the bar and hadn’t accounted for the 10 pounds of lock-tight collars. He left, and I did it again.

True stories don’t grow on trees. Today I couldn’t roll 325 pounds across the floor even if I succeeded loading it on a bar in the first place. That doesn’t make me a bum, ya know. I’m still a bomber.

Once a bomber, always a bomber. May the wind beneath your wings lift you higher and higher.

God’s speed... Dave

P.S. Bombers! The Stealth Tri-Master is in continual use at our base in Santa Cruz. I spoke with a big rugged lifter I’ve known for 20 years, the welder who keeps the Santa Cruz Boardwalk Amusement Park from falling apart. He grabbed the beefy triceps-building handle with his huge hands and commented on its construction, applauding the clean welding and the strength of the steel.

"This thing’s a steal for the price," he said.

Take a look at Dave's TriBlaster bar

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