First Things First

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Weightlifting Year after Year

Draper wrist curls
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I just downed a can of Dave’s albacore while pacing back and forth in our small kitchen. Stick a forkful in the mouth, chew briefly, swig some water and gulp the mess down. Mmm, mmm good! Pace briefly and repeat the all-to-familiar routine. Eventually I hear the scraping of metal against metal as the fork gathers the last precious particles of fish from the nooks and edges of the can. Another musclebuilding ordeal, tougher than squats, concluded at last. I’m free.

I remember the first time I experienced the pains of tuna from a can and water from a bottle. I was in California no more than a week, sitting on a couple of boxes of Crash Weight Formula # 7 in a crammed aisle of the Weider stockroom. Joe’s West Coast operation on 5th Street and Wilshire Boulevard in Santa Monica was yet a toddler -- small, not fully supplied with goods and staffed by three misfits and one telephone. It was the summer of ‘63 and I had just discovered my first Muscle Beach secret.

Scrape, scrape. It was one of those hefty 12-ounce sizes of StarKist tuna and the dry, fibrous, protein-rich contents seemed endless. I dug around, forked and gulped and dug some more. Time stood still, my first experience with the eerie phenomenon. I dug some more, I gulped some more and the smelly fish wouldn’t go away. I thought hard, which was not easy in California 40 years ago for a 21-year-old musclehead from Jersey. Is this what it takes to build muscle? I can handle the three-hour workout six days a week, but tuna and water... scrape... I dunno.

Persistent tuna consumption, I soon found out, wasn’t the only secret (more accurately, extreme measure) before me. There were the quarts of milk and the cartons of eggs and the packages of chopped meat from the butcher; the chickens and cheese and salads galore from the corner store. Have some fruit, but easy on the buttered bread, Fred. There are the deadlifts and squats and cleans and presses, singles and doubles and 10 sets of 10. And one fine day, long before computers and cell phones, someone linked two exercises together and called them supersets. Wow. Huge and ripped at once.

I was a scant 230, heading for a then-large 250. No rush; as soon as possible will do. No problemo. Add intensity by the truckload, never miss a beat and keep smiling. Are we having fun yet?

Can’t believe the madness goes on. These days, though I persistently squat and deadlift, I don’t dare pick up the unwieldy tuna 12-ouncer. A confrontation with the slick three-ounce can and tough six-ounce can more often throughout the day is adequate and reasonably sane. I hover at 225 like a dirigible at the Super Bowl.

Thank God for Bomber Blend.

Madness, incidentally, in the weightlifter’s vernacular is anything intensely good; one might call the despair of tuna and water “madness.” You can continue the use of the word form and call anyone who seriously lifts weights and eats tuna from a can, mad. I’m mad, Laree’s mad and you’re mad. All bombers are mad.

I went to the gym earlier this afternoon and found myself poking at the weights. You know, the same way a little kid pokes at food when he’s not hungry or the particular food before him is not appealing -- spinach instead of Snickers. This was okay for 30 seconds, but after almost a minute of piddling I had to kick my butt, apply stern discipline and attend the problem.

The fix was prompt and sufficient. I’m a tough taskmaster to the wimp within. The fact that it was leg day had a lot to do with my waning training appetite. Not to beat the silly subject into the ground, but lately I’d rather eat a 12-ounce can of StarKist with my fingers than work legs. I think they’re fried. Unlike mad, fried is bad.

I proceeded to do crunches and leg raises to get the wheels in motion: lots of tight contractions, rhythm, breathing and burning. I slipped into five leg-extension, leg-curl and calf-raise tri-sets for a comfortable 80-percent intensity (one rep short of max -- it’s the last rep that kills ya). Sufficient, but that doesn’t mean they were fun and easy. Call me a slug.

Slugs don’t squat, they leg press. I did five sets of leg presses that weren’t too shabby, but I won’t brag about the poundage used. The reps went 20, 20, 20, 20 and 15 with adequate weight and appropriate increments between sets. Call me a cheat. I didn’t squat.

I sat and reviewed my workout from entrance into the gym to the sorry moment of sitting and musing. It was not good. I was mad, mad of another sort: angry mad or disappointed mad or you’re-a-loser mad. I was bad mad.

Bad mad will not do. I could go home. A few reasonable rationales passed through the mind. Lifters get tired, even bombers -- nix. Monday and Tuesday workouts were super tough; I’m experiencing legitimate training fatigue -- nix. Age -- nix, never, nix. You’re three pounds light in bodyweight, valid but -- nix. You’re suffering world sorrow, it’s the weather, the time of day, the gym’s vibes, the intolerable clanging of weights, the traffic on Route One -- nix and nix. An excuse by any other name is but an excuse. Excuses are for losers.

Three feet from where I sat was the prodigious and formidable lifting platform from heaven. Lying in its center like a cunning boa constrictor was a beasty new thick bar. My heart beat faster and my taste buds stirred. “This poor excuse for a workout is not over yet, bombers,” I shouted above the music beamed in by satellite. I suddenly stood throwing my arms overhead, as if sword and shield were in my hands -- a Roman conqueror -- Hercules, maybe. “We’re not done here, fellow warriors! Our time has come!”

No one noticed me, as usual. No one ever notices me. I’m used to it.

You haven’t lifted weight till you’ve lifted with thick bars. At last, you notice, there’s something to grab onto, something to feel and know. I mounted the platform (it’s three inches high, cross-stacked sheets of one-inch plywood topped with rubber mats. Nothing spectacular, really. I built it myself.), and packed the Axle with 45s... one on each end. Well, it looks like and feels like a lot of weight just sitting there in the middle of the empty, specially designated lifting area. I repeated my favorite mantra to myself, “I’m bad, I’m mad.”

I stood before the silent mass in a shoulder-width stance and contemplated my next move. I hadn’t deadlifted for over a month. My training aims have included lots of heavy thick-bar curls and bent-over rows, both of which tire my lower back. The fatigue, I assumed, was an indication of substantial healthy lower back loading and the region could use a specific-training rest period. Furthermore, heavy squats were taking their toll on my entire system and they, too, I agreed could use a rest. Plausible. After all, like you, I’m just learning. If he’s not careful, back-to-back deadlifts and squats can make a meatloaf out of an ambitious lifter. I felt like I was one step from the oven.

My best deployment of the three advantages before me -- the platform, the Axle and reignited spirit -- was an over-grip deadlift with the purist and most basic form. Each set would be a series of complete single reps -- that is, grip the bar, perform the perfect rep, allow the bar to rest on the platform for a beat and repeat another perfect rep, and so on -- till either the grip or back or heart gave out. I started with 15 reps. I felt awful. Wanted to die. Some conqueror. I added a ten on each side and did a second set for 14 repetitions. The bar hit the rubber with a thud.

The second set was a peculiar experience, like being reunited with an old friend. There was so much I didn’t know or had forgotten or needed to learn, but it was good. The reinforcement of the lower back was solid and invigorating and the strain on the forearm and grip was powerful and quick. The short-lived strength of the hands and lower arms withheld me from trashing my back, an element of over-gripping I had planned on. Exercise Synergy: Blast the grip, awaken the back and transform a sleeper training session into an educating and growing experience.

I continued to add weight and drop reps the third and forth and fifth sets. The carefully and painfully executed sets of reps were not nauseating body slammers, but they were intensely terrific: delectable form, screaming burn in the wrists and lower arms, comfortable warmth in the lower back, some extra-deep breathing, a novel challenge and a worthy kick in the pants for good measure. Just a touch of madness is all it takes most of the time.

Back at Hangar # 6 we all gathered around and dug into cans of tuna of various brands and sizes. A couple of folks brought sardines; some brought salsa and lemons; one guy had gobs of mayonnaise. He was popular, boasting jars of the stuff at home in his wine cellar. I provided cool clear spring water in goblets. Class act.

We talked about stuff till crickets filled the air with rhythmic sounds and fireflies lit the dark sky. Heaven on earth.

Fly high in the sky till there is no more -- God’s speed... DD

Other extreme Muscle Beach measures are hidden like gemstones in Dave’s workouts. Our friend Henrik (you remember him, The House, from Denmark) transcribed a section of Dave’s workout log sheet from the early ‘60s.

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