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The Challenge Is in All of It

 

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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.

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.

During my years of training hither and yon, I occasionally looked up from my task and notice the characters next to me or across the gym floor. Fascinating! They, unlike this ordinary and conventional guy, are the weirdest of creatures doing the strangest of things. 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 30ish, 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, gloves on the hands and assorted wraps in place -- this determined and unstoppable feminine force downs the 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 a person like this return the dumbbells without using them and leave the gym without ever training. 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 one-arm power cleans, the large man's version of the side-arm lateral raise. He commences another of six reps with a shrill and mighty roar -- a piteous, howling scream of torment, really; 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.

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 my 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.

The 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. 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. The angled preacher-curl bench was tipped forward and stabilized to attain a more demanding, less threatening peak biceps movement. 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. We 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. We knew this 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.

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

Godspeed... DD

*****

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