I remember when weights were 17 cents a pound, I grew like a weed and muscle aches were some sort of mystery my parents grumbled about. Recollection is an inevitable, involuntary and necessary process. It can be profitable, instructive, entertaining, insightful and painfully dull. Recollections and memories can also be ominous—guilt, fear and doubt are not infrequently lurking in their shadows.
My past resembles an edge-of-town junkyard littered with crumpled chassis, dismantled engines, threadbare tires and rusting fenders. Battered witnesses stand clutching the far side of the fence and stare inward. Imagined voices from the deteriorating images call out as a mob, Whatta bum, getta job, grow up, what’s it all mean, lift and shut up.
My blissful journey of innocent wonder started when I was 10 years old with a heap of battered weights totaling 100 pounds. At 10, 100 pounds sounds serious, grown-up, impressive, huge and worldly.
You’ve heard it all before, but what the heck: There they lay in my designated space on the bedroom floor, dumb, heavy and inert. While my brothers stepped over the dense and confined mess, I crawled under it, into it. I proceeded to haul the clattering and merciless load everywhere I went, treating it like treasure, food and shelter, a matter of life and death, the Holy Grail. Perhaps companionship—he ain’t heavy, he’s my brother.
Soon enough I was 18 and the Newark YMCA was my introduction to working out in a gym. Ha! It was an afterthought crammed into a space adjacent to the boiler room and clogged with Olympic bars and benches from a defunct detention center. Order was nonexistent, and neither form nor focus was encouraged; grab ’n’ hoist was the preferred M.O. Move the iron, heft and toss it. I learned something right in learning everything wrong.
When I benched 400 for the first time, I was 19 and training at the far end of a snazzy Vic Tanny’s in Jersey City. The place looked more like a tawdry madam’s house than a gym, with red carpeting and chrome weights and mirror-covered walls and ceilings and strange electrical devices that wriggled and vibrated various puffy bodyparts. A few of the occupants—trendy rascals—wore leotards and tights.
And me, fresh from the Elizabeth Y—and plumbers, carpenters and cops, sweaty T-shirts, B.O. and expletives, splinters, leaky pipes and cold steel.
Anyhow, I pressed the chrome bar adorned with 18 shiny 20-pound plates (biggest in the house and gathered from all corners), two 10s and a pair of cutesy chrome collars. The contrivance was silly and unwieldy, and the racks upon which it balanced were spindly and chrome and attached tentatively to a bench upholstered in gold-flecked plastic. I could hear the tinkle of weights amid the Muzak in the background.
I considered asking for a spot, but the consequences of the request, should it be accepted, were unimaginable. Better alone than assisted by a dapper dude with trembling hands clasped over his tightly shut eyes. I warmed up, paced, peered out the second-story windows at the sparkling nightlife of Journal Square, pawed and sucked in air like a rhino and knocked out one good rep. Nobody cared. Better that way.
It’s all history now, in a nutshell, where it belongs.
Nevertheless, next stop, new job, another phase: the warehouse of Weider Barbell Company, alongside Leroy Colbert—you remember Leroy—for seated dumbbell alternate curls and overhead triceps extensions. A brief stint in Hackensack at American Health Studios, then a flight destined for L.A. and the doorstep of Muscle Beach Gym, a.k.a. the Dungeon, the home I’d been looking for.
Good day, sunshine. Hello, Southern California, 1963.
My second outstanding recollection of bench-pressing four plates and change—440, if my shaggy, braggy memory serves me well—was shortly before dawn in the dim yellow light of the silent, empty, grim and wonderful Muscle Beach Dungeon. I stared at the bent bar long after the clang of the last plate had ceased. What a stark contrast to the perky atmosphere 3,000 miles east and six months earlier. Freedom in captivity.
The clearly homemade-in-the-USA wooden bench had no shortage of splinters and wobbles and incorrect body-accommodating measurements—low to the ground and wide as an ironing board, with short, precarious uprights. No padding.
First attempt, after numbing doubt, resulted in the ever-popular, noisy and embarrassing survival movement—slowly tipping the bar to the right and then swiftly tipping to the left, a graceless method of unloading the bar of excess plates. Slam bam.
Second attempt, after self-castigation and vigorous rib-rubbing, the bar now bent convincingly across the chest, was rotated from the sternum to the hips, where movement ceased, and I was forced against all laws of physics and degrees of tolerable pain, to sit upright and maneuver the deadly iron from my lap to the floor several light-years away. I saw stars.
Third attempt, after unacceptable thoughts of failure under the bar and unbearable images of ascending the gym steps in defeat, I blew out one honest rep. At the same moment, early-morning strongman Steve Merjanian emerged from the sunlit Netherlands above and greeted me with cheer, “What’s up, Drapes?” Not much, Steve.
What elevated the weight is beyond me: muscle and might, power of the mind, fearful emotion, peaking energies, dumb luck, resident ghosts, coincidence, or the right combination of them all? Go figure.
Three years and a lifetime later, Joe Gold, the Maestro, opened the original Gold’s Gym, and I merged and evolved—for good and evil—with the ’60s. A few contests and a few hoorays and a few years and a few beers, and it’s off to Central California and a few World Gyms. They come and they go, they came and they went, along with 15 or 20 years.
Growing up is hard to do, and lifting weights apparently slows down the process. I’ve never met a muscle builder who isn’t part kid, the better part. Some try to fake it—me man, me woman—but it’s a bust when they get that last rep or an outstanding pump and break spontaneously into hulky pirouettes across the gym floor, howling incoherently something like, who’s ya momma now, or I’m cool, I’m bad. I think it’s healthy and hopeful—endearing and authentic—and dumb.
I feel like a kid at times playing with a bunch of scrappy toys worn out by years of roughhousing. I go to the gym in an hour, dragging my wagon of toys bumpity-bump. No wings, no wheels, just air and high hopes. Ready for change, ready for the fundamentals.
Maybe I should run for president.
Editor’s note: For more from Dave Draper, visit www.DaveDraper.com and sign up for his free newsletter. You can also check out his amazing Top Squat training tool, classic photos, workout Q&A and forum. IM