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Take Me to Your Dumbbells

Almost unanimously, the final entry, getting back to the gym, was selected as numero uno, the most excruciating bodybuilding dilemma of them all.

At a recent Bomber wingding, I asked the bombardiers—packed to the rafters—to assist me in determining the most outstanding muscle-building problem: the top of the heap, the biggee, utterly unbearable, sheer misery, pure torture, slow death and dag-nab unthinkable.

I passed out several thousand questionnaires (a little shot of me in the upper-right-hand corner hitting an overhead biceps shot, big smile; nice touch—Laree’s idea) listing the 10 most troublesome bodybuilding dilemmas and asking them to number each according to their difficulty.

The dark list was composed of, as you’d expect, losing undesirable fat, gaining well-shaped muscle, building cannonball biceps, forming horseshoe triceps, creating cantaloupe deltoids, developing colossal pectorals, acquiring washboard abs, crafting diamond-shaped calves, constructing oak-tree thighs and getting back to the gym with high-spirited enthusiasm and confidence after a long layoff.

The inquiries with the cool picture in the top corner were collected, and the answer was swiftly computed by the ever-popular wing girls. Almost unanimously, the final entry, getting back to the gym, was selected as numero uno, the most excruciating bodybuilding dilemma of them all.

The remaining nine were by no means less difficult, yet you’re in the gym before the weights, racks and benches consistently and actively applying yourself. Every workout, though not meeting your expectations, granting your wishes and fulfilling your high hopes, is in your hands, under your direction and providing progress beyond measure.

Simply being amid the iron and at work is a triumph. Curling, pressing, pulling and lifting with all your heart, mounting the sets, stacking the reps, combing the movements and forming the grooves; exerting, willing, forcing and finessing; stretching, straining, struggling and sweating. You hear the metal, feel its coolness, leverage its gravity and fight the fight. You finish with a smile somewhere on your face and joy someplace in your heart and an ache of fulfillment all over.

Another step forward. You win once again.

Woe to the men or women who have forfeited the battle, tossed in the towel, given up the game. They lose, they know it, and they hate it. How do they fix it is the ultimate question. “How do I get back to the iron and start bombing with enthusiasm?”

Having agreed on the problem, let’s consider the solution. We know from experience that you don’t one day simply go back to the gym and pick up where you left off. You revisit the obligatory self-loathing, guilt, cowardice, doubt, numbness, gagging and excuses. That often leads to the couch, the TV and a bowl of popcorn. Bad start.

Seeking sincere help, I turned to the well-informed winged warriors for their input. Bombers, recommendations, please:

Bomber: Never quit in the first place.

DD: That’s sort of like saying don’t spill the milk, and there’ll be no spilled milk to cry over. Good one, but not the answer we’re looking for.

B: Recruit a personal trainer for advice and accountability.

DD: A good answer and one to consider. There are personal trainers here who’ll totally agree with you, but bombers are self-reliant characters (a.k.a., stubborn, pig-headed, proud) who prefer to succeed or fail on their own.

B: Start with a light regimen of aerobics, like walking, jogging or biking.

DD: A smart beginning for sure, enlivens the body and its systems and awakens—reintroduces—the mind to health and fitness. A good starter, a valuable investment.

B: Dig out and refresh the ol’ gym bag and training gear, and place it in a conspicuous yet unobtrusive corner. Don’t want the other half giving you grief (“George! Get your crap off the kitchen table!”). A small reminder, a tiny first step.

DD: Another clever and effective suggestion. Another step closer.

B: Guilt works. Let it bristle. When feeling low, break out the gym membership card and be certain it’s updated. Or, if you train at home, casually check out your gear to see it’s in order, free of grime, used tires, wheelbarrows, cobwebs and rats.

DD: First things first, bombers. We’re making progress. Continue: Let’s see some more hands.

B: Now’s the time to reconsider the diet. Is it balanced with sufficient protein, good carbs and fats to suit you needs? Are you eating too much or not enough? Are you getting plenty of fresh, living foods? Are you eating regularly, are you eating junk? Are you willing to fix it? Fix it.

DD: Tough one. Spilt milk. Clean it up—fix it.

When the time comes, when the guilt and self-loathing have done their work, when we can’t look in the mirror or sleep at night or just hang out with ourselves as we used to, we need a strong personal confrontation. How do I get back in the gym with spirit and confidence?

A question is often answered with a question: What if I don’t? The answer is evident, by our asking, by our disposition and by our lack of strength and health. The answer is straightforward and not so pretty.

The question then becomes, What do I do about it? Do I do something about it now, or do I confront myself next time? Wait, there’s more: Where will I be then? If a question with three faces doesn’t scare you into action, upgrade your TV to a supersized flat screen with TIVO and surround sound. You’ll need it.

Here’s what I’d do, though I can’t say this is what I’ve done, ’cuz it’s been over 50 years since I’ve similarly laid off—el nutso—after answering the proposed Q and not accepting the grim answer:

Sit down—by now you’re tired and out of breath—calm yourself and gather your nerve. What a great opportunity; you’re seriously moved to do something about your desolate condition. You’re in control, despite the low position you think you hold. You know all there is to know, you’ve been under the iron, your plate has been sufficiently full or spare, according to your needs. Recall the clang, the first and last rep, the last set, the pump, the burn, the energy and endurance.

These things aren’t forgotten, they’re not history, and they’re not childhood games or tasks of the past. They’re high hopes, your high hopes and eagerness for today and tomorrow.

Do this for the first week before the iron and before the chow line:

1) Make a sufficient assessment of yourself; it’s the last you’ll see of this floundering fellow. Be nice. Check, for example, bodyweight, tone, activity and lack of activity, general well-being—good time for a doctor to give you the once-over, bombers of all ages, especially those over 40. You know the drill—personal inspection.

2) Dump the killer pop and junk food. Assure balance to your menu, upping the protein and fresh veggies and some fruit, as you can deal with it. Don’t make life miserable with excessive rules and regs. Let time rebuild good habits. Do persevere.

3) Don’t stop with the body; review the mind and the spirit as well. Get those vital components in order by discarding the negatives—like guilt for not exercising and for poor eating—by imagining your under-construction improvements and anticipating the powerful progress ahead, by thanking God for your revival and abilities and goals. As I said, you know the drill.

4) Having arranged the absolutely necessary training time and place, slug down your Bomber Blend, put on your duds, and head for the gym, like a magnet straining for a pile of steel.

5) In 60 seconds or less, while fumbling with your gym bag in a safe corner of the weight room, review your inventory of exercises and pick two or four of them, your favorites, easy ones that require no setup nor cause any commotion. Stealth and strength, bombers.

While you’re there, with a bench for assistance, do a warmup of leg raises and rope tucks. Be gentle and focused and allow the body and mind to loose themselves, accelerate and synchronize. Physics, not Zen.

My faves would be curls plus well-executed close-grip bench presses. My extended choices would be incline dumbbell presses and seated rows. Two to three sets of each with light-to-moderate weight—enough to strain sweetly at rep eight or 10, 20 on the pulley work.

6) Wipe your brow and go home with a smile on your face and a pump in your biceps and the sense of satisfaction that comes only after a terrific workout.

The rest follows as the days go by. You’re off and flying. Godspeed.

Editor’s note: For more from Dave Draper, visit 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.

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