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Why do we lift the iron?

Muscleheads I’ve Known


Gene Mozee, Dick Tyler, Reg Lewis, Dave Draper, muscleheads all

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What is it that attracts us to lifting weights? Upon first consideration the deep thinker tosses out a few standard responses and expects to move on to more scintillating things of the mind. To build muscle and strength and improve one’s health is the classic answer to the inquiry, yet is not nearly sufficient.

The one-liner summarizes what weightlifting does, but only scratches the surface of why one lifts the iron. A long and comprehensive list of reasons unfolds as the question is more thoroughly addressed and the question that appeared simple becomes complex.

We’re all different, agreed, but I’m certain there are basic reasons mixed with obvious attractions and blended with simple purposes… and, um... needs and desires, cures and fixes, neuroses and illusions, pleasures and pains and goals all lifters -- muscleheads -- share in common. Lifting weights makes nuclear science look like coloring by numbers.

A musclehead is anyone who lifts weights regularly, has done so for years and feels crazy when he doesn’t. "Musclehead" is a complementary term -- a crown ascribed only to the worthy, a fact not everyone is aware of, including often the musclehead himself.

All shapes, all sizes, all goals, what a group! Some seek to mold a beautiful body, others are content to chisel away the daily stress and strife of life. One mounts the pounds and packs on the mass, another settles for focus, form and deep concentration. She seeks to lose weight and gain muscle, he seeks to gain weight and lose fat, and they both seek confidence and self-esteem. You can get huge and ripped, fast and strong, and healthy and fit, but as for me, let me dwell amid the metal, feel the steel, feed the deed and wait upon the weights.

Beyond muscleheads and musclehead madness, there are ironheads and ironhead insanity. Observe.

During my years of training hither and yon, I occasionally look up from my task and notice the characters next to me or across the gym floor. Fascinating! They, unlike this ordinary and conventional writer, are the weirdest of creatures doing the strangest of things. Ha. Let me give you a rundown of some characters I’ve known; perhaps you’ve come across them in your own treks along the narrow pathways and broad highways of lifting weights and pushing iron.

~ She’s thirtyish, solid and marches into the gym as if on a mission of life and death. She orders an espresso as she signs in, and is off to the locker room like a quick-change artist. In gear -- leather belt around the waist, gloves on the hands, headband and assorted wraps in place -- this determined and unstoppable feminine force downs the thick, hot black drink in a gulp as she eyes the gym floor, her target.

Equipment is set up with alacrity to serve her multiple-set training routine: a bench with pairs of 30s, 25s, 20s and 15s arranged geometrically before it and the bench press with an Olympic bar and 10-pound plates. She lays a small towel on the bench press to discourage other gym members from using it and her drinking bottle sits on the bench before the four pair of idle dumbbells. Having marked her territory, she’s breathing heavily, needs a rest and someone to talk to. There’s John.

They talk. She talks, he listens. She talks, he sits and listens. She talks, he ceases to listen and glances about looking for help. People are stepping over her weights and walking around her benches and no one is getting anything done -- not her, her nervous prey nor the inconvenienced, now seething mob of co-trainers.

I’ve seen this person return her dumbbells without ever using them and leave the gym without ever training. In a year she gained 20 pounds she didn’t want, couldn’t explain, doesn’t need and will never use. She passed like a ship in the night. What was that all about?

~ It’s early and the town quietly sleeps. The door to the Dungeon is closed as tightly as possible, a gap of less than an inch remaining between the two twisted, overlapping doors. He’s here. No one forces the huge and ancient doors into such a final position except him. I assert myself and pull the doors open with great effort and practiced finesse. I stand at the entrance peering downward and listen to the hollow silence, warm air from the depths escaping into the dark morning. A clang, another and then the great rumble begins. It’s all so ridiculous.

I descend the staircase and the source of the calamity stands before me under the shadowy light of a 60-watt bulb hanging by a chord from the blackness of the high ceiling. The man is fierce, 330 pounds of meat on a 5'10" frame, and covered in a collection of torn and ragged sweat clothes, remnants from years of merciless tearing and tugging and gnawing.

One hand at shoulder level grasps a thick bar attached to a column for support; the other hand holds a colossal dumbbell low to the ground between bent-legs. The stance indicates the completion of an exercise in strength, but is in reality the starting position for repetition, one-arm power cleans, the large man’s version of the single, side-arm lateral raise. He commences another of six reps with a shrill and mighty roar -- a piteous, howling scream of torment, really -- and the action is almost terrifying. Pounding flesh shows through the wrappings and the traps are unmistakable, starting behind the ears and bulging as they reach for the deltoid’s outer limits.

"Hey, brother," we exchange greetings, polite maniacs, and blend into the welcome darkness of the Dungeon. It’ll be daylight soon and the hideous sounds will come to an end once again. We’re both mild-mannered guys in real life. I ask you again, “What attracts a person to lifting weights?” Ask him? I dare you.

~ Then there was my first real live California training partner. I wasn’t in town a week before I hooked up with the man, eight years my senior, and began blasting it with new ammunition and artillery. He was a recent Mr. California title-holder and as slick and lean as only one could get naturally: no look-alike physique, no puff, no over-sized muscle parts, no chemicals, no short cuts -- very cool and very sweet. At a ripped 190 pounds, he matched my strength at a balloony 240. What I knew about training could fill a thimble and what he knew and understood could scarcely be contained in a reservoir. And so my learning commenced.

This guy was meticulous, not in dress, though he looked ruggedly neat in his t-shirt covered with an extra-large hooded sweatshirt, over which he wore a double-extra-large long-sleeve flannel shirt. Precise, rather, defined his every movement: perfection in form, careful order in sets and repetitions and exactness of pace and timing. At first glance rigidness in training appears stiff, intellectual, unfriendly and excessively demanding. Upon continued performance the most accurate word to describe the training style is disciplined.

Discipline is a master; stiff, intellectual and excessive are foolishness. One must become disciplined to understand it. Practice, application, observation, patience, hard work and assiduousness are pathways to discipline. Achieve discipline and the tall mountain becomes a lush plane I discovered these things at the side of my dauntless and unswerving partner over the course of two years within the meditative confines of the Muscle Beach Dungeon.

Benches were raised by one-inch, two-inch and three-inch blocks to achieve the exact angle to affect particular muscle recruitment. Felt good. Plaster was surgically removed from center-floor columns to accommodate one’s backside, thus preventing excess thrust and producing a precise arch to the back for perfect execution when performing upright side-arm lateral raises. Worked great. The angled preacher-curl bench was tipped forward and stabilized to attain a more demanding, less threatening peak biceps movement. What an advantage. Intelligent improvising of equipment, creative modifying of movements and selective supersetting of exercises expanded training into a friendly, personalized process. Everything was made to fit.

Time between sets was not idle; it was strategically arranged, utilized and focused. You breathed to recuperate and positioned equipment for upcoming exercises while psychologically preparing for the subsequent sets. The body’s responses were assessed and recorded for further referral. And the joy of training was not lost for a minute. We knew why we trained, how we trained and sought ways to improve our training, which was in no way shabby, and we knew it and acknowledged it with appropriate humility. We were respectfully aware of the guys in the shadows of other gyms who were bigger, stronger and bad.

Intensity within each set and rep was searched out and realized. Nothing we determined to do was left undone. I followed the serious man about the dark, gloomy and damp space below ground level like it was a brilliant mountain top. My eagerness and Jersey innocence fed his hip California, destination-bound nature. We unburied treasures with our bare hands and stored them in our souls.

I often wonder where that dude is today. He’d be 70.

Between the two of us we can list a hundred reasons why we train.

~ There are the loud mouths in every gym who bang the weights around, drop the dumbbells and leave plates lying on the floor. They deserve to be punished severely and I suspect they are eventually. Who cares why they lift weights?

~ How about the guy sitting on the leg press wearing earphones and reading a paperback? I have mixed emotions: gratitude, thankful I’m not him, shallow and unmotivated; and contempt, wanting to express my loathing with a mild shot of a taser to the butt. Why am I so intolerant? Vapid personalities sap energy and permeate the atmosphere with indolence and indifference. That’s why! Zap zap zap! Don’t ask why he lifts, he hasn’t noticed.

Some of my best friends are personal trainers, but some of the clients of PTs try my soul. The guy sits on the bench as the trainer hands him the dumbbells, one by one. He performs the set as instructed and the trainer removes the iron devices from shaky, dutiful hands. The trainee follows the trainer to the bench press where he sits as the trainer slides on the appropriate plates. The trainee watches passively and fiddles with his shoelace. The set is performed -- you can do this, big set, push it, one more rep -- and the weight is replaced like a large book upon a bookshelf. The handle for the pulley machine is chosen by the trainer and attached to the cable’s end. The weight stack is assessed and adjusted by the trainer. The exercise is executed with clinical precision by the other guy and they move on to the exercise ball for crunches and stretches and rolly-polly wobblies.

Done. Next.

They don’t get it and they never will, not as long as they sit in the back seat and leave the driving to the tour guide. There’s joy in independence, and the freedom and growth that accompanies the rich quality. To choose your own dumbbells, to firmly grasp and retrieve them from the rack and haul them to the bench is one’s duty and the precursor to a fulfilling set of intense reps. Do it.

They’re getting it. They’re doing it.

Man does not live by sets and reps alone. He lives and becomes more by separating, distinguishing, combining and installing many elements and components together to form the whole. The challenge is in all of it, not some of it: the calculating, the choosing, the deciding, the carrying to and fro, the loading and unloading, the counting, the struggling, the winning and losing. Learn the ABCs from an expert; discover the XYZs and become the expert.

Which brings us to the end of the alphabet, bombers. That roar you hear in the background is our jet undergoing final preparations before we take off for New York City. Laree and I have less than 36 hours to finish packing and sign off for the week. A crew of two, we shall leave no switch unswitched, no gauge unread, no button unpressed. Alert Neighborhood Watch, secure the premises, baton down the hatches and set the alarms. We leave the doors open, though, to allow Mugsy to come and go as he pleases. Mugsy’s an honorary captain, ya know.

See ya up there... Godspeed... DD

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