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The Bench Press Revisited Doowap Dowah

I took a sentimental journey this past Sunday. It was warm, the skies were blue, and the gym was empty at 4 p.m. A guy and a gal were hunched over smoothies at the juice bar, watching grown women kick a soccer ball across a field on TV. I’m thinking, Don’t they have anything better to do?

I retrieved my wraps, grips and water from my mangy gym bag and tossed it in the corner. I was in no rush. Rushing is a thing of the past. I used to rush when I had time, and time quickly passed me by. Now, as if I know better, I struggle to reclaim time by urgently slowing down.

I sat where I seldom sit, at the end of a bench press with my back to the rack. Once upon a time, boys and girls, a great big Olympic bar amassed with 45s stretched across those sturdy uprights, awaiting my sudden and powerful clutch, responding to my down-up directions like an eager student to a master, an obedient child to a parent, a broken captive to a captor. Now I plop there ’cuz I’m stiff and sore, worn out and daydreaming.

What time is it? Am I done? Is it over? Can I leave now?

Quiet and alone, I heard music drifting from the speakers. Wait… that’s the Drifters drifting: “There goes my baby, moving on down the line.…” In 1959, 52 years ago, I was 17, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed, sitting at the end of a chrome-legged bench with gold-flecked red vinyl upholstery in a Vic Tanny’s Gym in Jersey City. The Drifters were the sound, and in the rack was a stiff, one-inch chrome bar strewn with 20-pound chrome plates and chrome collars on the ends just to be sure.

The whole catastrophe weighed 395 pounds. I added up the weight 10 different ways, but could not make it total 400. Rats! Too dumb to be afraid, I clearly remember pressing that bar with record-setting wonder, strain and pain. No one resembling a spotter hung out in the fluorescent-lit, mirror-lined, shiny health club featuring those revolutionary electric rollers and belt massagers.

Whoa… listen: Brenda Lee is singing “I’m Sorry.” My favorite. Spring of 1960. I had a bar at the end of my bed in a dismal yet airy room rented from the Scambatis in Secaucus—perfect for curling and pressing and rowing and pullovers. The floor was slanted by time and creaked fiercely with each rep. I hated the collars and the wrench and the bloody knuckles but loved the pump and the burn and the notion I lifted iron in solitude.

I decry the bench press for its terror on the shoulders and its role in imperfect chest development, but let’s face it, plate-heads: It’s the original, our very first heavy-metal love affair.

I racked the three-inch Apollon’s axle and stuck a plate on the ends to be sociable. Ever-so-slowly and with focus, precision and mature fear, I plodded through six sets, the last four of which were supersetted with wide-grip pulldowns.

Danny and the Juniors, “At the Hop.” I was a junior in high school, and my arms were 15 and a half, sometimes three-quarters. “Let’s go to the hop, oh, baby.…”

It had been a long time since I assumed that familiar position at the end of the bench and recalled the clanging plates and impossible tonnage, the hesitation and anticipation, the doubt and certainty, the dream and drama, the chalk and gripping, the pause and deep breath, the absolute glory—the devastating defeat.

“Momma said there’d be days like this, there’d be days like this, my momma said.” I’ll never forget the Shirelles and how they made me tingle all over. I’ll bet girls like strong muscles. Life, though taking shape in a hurry, was new, undiscovered, an adventure full of hope. Barrels of laughs were yet untapped, and furrows of worry had not yet plowed their way across my brow.

Yes, sisters and brothers, it was oldies weekend at the Weight Room Santa Cruz. I finished my workout with one-arm lateral raises, wrist curls and hanging leg raises. The drive home was dreamy.

Two days later my right shoulder was in a cast, in traction, swollen, aching and the color of tar mixed with road kill. The pain level was between 9.5 and 9.9 on the chart measuring deplorable and despicable things. Nobody listens to me. I’m telling ya, girls and boys, the bench is murder on the delts.

I’m okay today, day four, ’cuz I’m tough and durable; I eat road kill occasionally and drink Bomber Blend all the time. Besides, I lied about the cast and traction and excruciating pain and roadkill. Did you know Fats Domino was a strongman? That he pushed his grand piano across the stage with his gut muscles as he sang, “I found my thrill on Blueberry Hill”? Me neither…

We rock on… El Bombo

Did I mention the women soccer players are seriously, totally awesome athletes: courageous, dynamic, inspiring and gracious? I’d say lovely and cute, too, but that might be a little sensitive.

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