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Bodybuilding Success Stories: Robert Caltabiano

Big Inspiration in a Small Town “Most of the time I don’t think I’m special at all,” Caltabiano says. “Just another guy earning a living and helping people get fit”

As the boomer bulge slips into the late 50s, there's probably no greater moment for the visible triumph of the bodybuilding lifestyle. No longer do you need to look far to find a living, breathing rebuke to that derisive query, What happens to those guys when they get old? 'Those guys' are everywhere now, and their appearance offers more persuasive clout than the entire Arnold filmography.

Take Robert Caltabiano, for instance. His Edge Fitness Center in Frazer, Pennsylvania, while not especially large, is a happy mixture of those two inimical camps, the bodybuilding gym and the 'health club.' It works because Caltabiano, a quietly affable 55-year-old NPC Masters champ who's still competing (don't let the hard, beady-eyed stare and shaved head fool you), has created an atmosphere of possibility and inspiration.

Caltabiano talks to everybody. And though focused on the tasks at hand, people there actually talk to one another'the knob-headed gym-rat types bench-repping in the mid-300s and dipping with 150 pounds hanging from them, the 60- and 70-year-old ladies doing cable kickbacks and everyone in between. It's an odd magic you find only in the best gyms. And that magic doesn't happen without a magician.

In an office plastered with photos of Ronnie, Dorian and dozens of other legends, plus contest photos of himself, Caltabiano sits back in a chopped sweatshirt waiting for a client, a fury of veins lacing his sinewy forearms. He's telling me about the mother and son who are training together on the lat machine. She's 47, and he's 17. Mary was already working out here and got her son Michael to join her when he was diagnosed with high blood pressure. He was also overweight. They train five days a week, and he's lost 20 pounds and recalibrated his blood pressure. He even works the front desk part time.

Now the client arrives, 26-year-old John Quinn. He's in a wheelchair. In 1998 a motorcycle accident left him with two broken femurs, a broken wrist, broken jaw, massive head trauma and spinal cord injury. After three major surgeries John's still paralyzed from the waist down. But that hasn't kept him from earning a degree in network engineering or becoming a competitive bodybuilder who recently took fourth in the middleweights at the NPC National Wheelchair Championships and first in his class at the NPC Junior National Wheelchair Championships.

Quinn is Caltabiano's special project, and it's an education to watch the two in action. 'We've had to come up with some unique ways to train,' Caltabiano explains. 'It's taught me a lot. I'd like to put together a video on this to inspire others in the same condition.'

For nearly every exercise Caltabiano lifts Quinn out of the wheelchair and straps him to the bench with two lifting belts. Since he can't use his legs to stabilize himself and the two are big time into dumbbell training, they must use dumbbell hooks so Quinn can grab both dumbbells simultaneously. He uses 120-pounders with ease on the flat bench. Triceps pressdowns must be done horizontally, with Quinn strapped to a bench and Caltabiano's thigh bracing his shoulder to keep him from sliding backward.

Everyone's watching, offering encouragement. One of the 60-pluses, shaking her head, comments, 'Aren't those two boys something?'

'Most of the time I don't think I'm special at all,' Caltabiano says. 'Just another guy earning a living and helping people get fit; I own two gyms with my partner, Joe Giordano. But there are times when I feel appreciated and special. That's come about because of my advice about lifting and nutrition and because I live the stereotypical image of fitness. I've won the Masters NPC over-50 and overall National championships ['99]. I compete every year in the Masters.

'Bodybuilding's an extension of who I am. I've gotten many people interested in doing shows for the first time. The rewards for them'and me'after doing their first show are too abundant to list.'

Like many bodybuilders Caltabiano didn't start out interested in sports or competition. As he puts it: 'I grew up in an era of 'hippies or not.' I was. I also dabbled with drugs, but nothing heavy.'

Feeling hounded by the draft board, Caltabiano married and produced his first daughter, Renee, 'immediately, so I wouldn't be drafted. Two years later I had my second daughter, Nina. Although the marriage didn't last, my relationship with my daughters is and always will be paramount to me. I cherish our open communication about anything'we hold nothing back. They share with me their youth, and I share my knowledge and limited wisdom, although at times it seems to be reversed.'

Caltabiano was married and divorced a second time. Currently he's engaged to 'a wonderful woman, Bernadette, who supports my interests in bodybuilding and long hours of personal training.' ALL After two years of college Caltabiano decided that it wasn't for him. He got a job as an auto technician, a job he loved so much that he worked for the same man for more than 30 years. 'I enjoy working with my hands,' he says. 'I don't enjoy relaxing'I don't do it well. So my downtime is spent working around my house. No chore is too big. I keep active until I crash at 8:30 p.m., since I get up at 3:30 a.m., open the gym at 4:45 and start personal training at five.'

Not until he turned 30 did Caltabiano start any kind of exercise program, but 'overnight,' he says, he gave up everything unhealthy and anything that had a negative impact on his life. 'I don't recall having an epiphany of any kind'I'd just had enough of living my life haphazardly and wantonly. Anyway, the hottest activity at the time was racquetball, and I turned out to be very competitive. I wasn't satisfied with just playing'I wanted to compete in leagues and eventually state championships.'

But a funny thing happened on the way to racquetball stardom: Caltabiano found a weight room. 'I figured that a stronger player was a better player,' he recalls, 'so I started playing around in the weight room while waiting for my match to begin. I saw results quickly, so I started training more and more.'

Trouble was, training was leaving him tired for racquetball, and racquetball was leaving him too tired to lift. 'I'm not satisfied being mediocre in two sports,' he says. 'I'd rather be the best in one. Training won out, and I'm very glad it did.

'Weight training, bodybuilding and gyms are my life. It's who I am. I really care about helping people'helping them train, grow'teaching them all I know about this sport.'

Caltabiano describes himself as being involved in bodybuilding 'on the grass-roots level: I don't aspire to be a national judge or get sponsored. I just compete. After the show it's right back to training and helping others be the best they can be.'

A strong believer in off-season nutrition, Caltabiano maintains a bodyfat level of 7 or 8 percent. He gives free seminars and consultations about nutrition, and he wants to look the part. 'Clients and members don't want to see an overweight trainer advising them on what to eat,' he declares emphatically. 'And I like to feel and look good year-round.

'I eat the same way every day,' he adds. 'For me, eating isn't about celebration, it's about nutrition: 'Eat to live, don't live to eat!' So it's very few carbs'oatmeal, yams, vegetables'and 200 to 250 grams of protein every day. Perhaps 300 grams precontest when my carbs are down to 80 grams. I also take a vitamin-and-mineral cap, four to five grams of glutamine and postworkout drinks. And that's it. A huge perk in eating this way is that I don't have to do any cardio. Cardio catabolizes muscle, and at my age I work too hard to gain muscle.'

Caltabiano trains five to six days a week, one bodypart each day, trying to reach failure on every exercise. 'Not every set,' he explains, 'but on the last or next-to-last set. Failure in the gym is success, and I will use every method known to man to reach failure: drop sets, supersets, tri-sets, rest/pause, but never light days with more reps.

'I pyramid the weight to give my old muscles a chance to warm up. Usually it's 10 reps for upper body and at least 15 for the lower. I like to get a good squeeze in the first two sets'strict form is important in the first sets, but I might get a little sloppy on the last, as I'm going to failure.' Caltabiano says he always trains with a partner, so they can do forced reps and negatives. 'For upper body,' he says, 'we keep rests between sets to less than a minute. Legs are different'we take longer because we're in oxygen debt. Squatting's essential, and I always try to do walking lunges afterward. I never skip meals or workouts.'

And by the way: No excuses. 'If it's leg day and it's Christmas, it's leg day first, then Christmas!' IM

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