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Sketchy History of a Musclehead


Dan John
During Sunday's filming of his Intervention workshop, dvd forthcoming

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As a kid the weights were hunky, big-guy playthings. I’d push, pull, lift and grunt. Great fun. Clank, clunk… where’s my wrench? As a teen, lifting the iron was a sporty game; I’d curl and press, I’d win and lose and skip a workout without thinking twice.

The game had a short lifespan.

As far as sports go, it was evident early on that weightlifting was a solitary sport. The only reliable teammate was you. Musclebuilding is a team of one, you, or two at the most, you and yourself.

Swell! Me and pickle puss. Some sport.

One weary day amid the steel, I noticed guilt had taken up residence in my ever-present shadow, a nagging, smirking wise guy who made me irritable when I missed a workout and unbearable when I missed a week. Training had become imperative, a thing I had to do, and fun was not the priority. I’d acquired a monkey and he sat on my back. We pressed on.

Me, pickle puss and the dang monkey.

A habit formed and the solo journey to the weight room was serious and consistent. It’s lonely lying across a bench, under a bar, counting the sets and reps. How much weight -- how many sets and reps? The numbers were a raw challenge and achieving them was pure labor. The color was black and white, the sound was a groan and a thud and the music was rock and roll. We rocked on.

It wasn’t long before anticipation, the kind with a sour puss, started hanging out with guilt. Put these two thugs together and we have tension. Now it’s not only hard work and lonely under the bar, it’s tiresome and exhausting thinking about it, all day, at work, at lunch, on the road and in the sack. By the time I got to the gym, I’d been there, done that. Oh, no, not another rep? Push that iron.

Enough was not enough. Besides feeling guilty for missing a workout I haven’t missed and stressed by a workout I haven’t hit, I’m feeling disappointed with the progress I haven’t made. A mob is gathering in my shadow and I’m just a skinny kid. We have sleazy Gus Guilty, Big Al the Anticipator and Fats Frustration conspiring in the dark. Step aside, ya bums, I’m using that bench.

Duty calls when you’re still and listen to your soul. Taking the three bullies down became my mission and I knew it -- the first sign of instinct, survival of the fittest, which plays no minor role in the musclebuilder’s life. Instinct rules.

In this life you win, you lose or you crawl. It’s not that I want to win, but I dare not lose and crawling is for creeps. Despite the combined efforts of the grim trio, I pressed on.

I discovered devotion and intensity. 

Strangely, my shadow grew larger with my body and the three wise guys grew smaller. In time I replaced guilt with discipline, a stern but agreeable character. Negative anticipation submitted to positive preparation and psyching up, a pair of confident spirits with lofty goals. And disappointment, sour and ungrateful, left one fine day without a word. Like mistakes, the scoundrels taught tough lessons. Their departure was an unconscious relief, dirty snow and slippery ice slowly melting in the spring.

The walk to the gym became hurried, not soon enough, and excitement accompanied my footsteps. Miles were behind me and miles were ahead and somehow I knew the way. You never know the way unless you walk it and climb it, get lost, lose ground, grow cold, hungry, fall, pick yourself up and insist on walking again. Nobody can tell you.

Gee, what’s the big deal? It’s only exercise. It’s not life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. Oh, yeah! Think twice. The train is leaving the station; the bombers are taking to the air.

So now where am I in my recollections? When did the pleasure of training settle in my bones? When I stepped back and realized its worth; when I resumed doing it for its adventure and immediate reward; when I trusted its permanence; when training was no longer an obligation, but a wise choice, a desirable means to eliminate barriers and overcome obstacles and to express myself without screaming for an hour or two, several times a week. And it’s no big ego trip to enjoy physical strength, endurance, reasonable confidence and a body that doesn’t resemble a pear balanced precariously on a pair of toothpicks. No more egocentricity than a long list of letters after one’s name on a letterhead, a tattoo and a nose-ring, a 1,000-dollar suit or a fire-engine-red Corvette in the driveway. 

I’ll take the Vette, make it black.

It takes time pressed together with considerable doubt, curiosity, pain and sacrifice to make the discovery, but it’s worth it. Today’s questions are tomorrow’s answers. Mistakes and injuries are the instructors.

Be strong, keep your sense of humor, stay alert, be positive and hopeful, drink your protein shakes, be nice to your neighbor, squat if you can, and don’t ruin your shoulders with heavy bench pressing. As far as it is possible, allow no unsightly gaps to develop in your eating scheme or your training thrust; they have a way of growing out of control and they are unbearable. Beware.

That we are aware of what we must do places us well above the rest. That we practice what we must puts us on top.

God’s strength... zoom, zoom… Draper

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