THE LAND OF JACKED WEIRDOS
At this point it’s redundant to say that I pine for the times of yore when the lifting community wasn’t mainstream. The time before Instagram when people decided they needed to lift to be “cool” or whatever, then inundated our gyms and scene with their banal bullshit, lame, pseudointellectual, “scientific” jargon, and poser mentalities. They took what was once a culture of freaks and geeks, jacked as hell weirdos who loved moving big weights and building outlandish physiques. Made lifting just another boring, commonplace thing that borders on a goddamn chore.
It occurs to me, however, that we’ve swung so far from what I consider to be the essence of the lifting culture. You guys might not know how insanely cool the lifting scene used to be. As such, it looks like I need to educate you people on what shit used to be like. Maybe we can recapture a bit of that unbridled weirdness and insanity of yesteryear. According to Don Howorth, badass bodybuilder of the 60s who did a short bid in prison for selling weed, when he was competing
“BODYBUILDING WAS PRETTY MUCH OSTRACIZED BY THE MAINSTREAM COMMUNITY. THE PERCEPTION OF BODYBUILDERS WAS [THEY WERE] VAIN MUSCLE GUYS ALWAYS LOOKING AT THEMSELVES IN THE MIRROR. EVERYBODY PUT US DOWN WITH ALL KINDS OF DEROGATORY COMMENTS. MEATHEAD. QUEER. FAGGOT. YOU COULD FEEL THIS NEGATIVE VIBE” (DAVIS).
It was only boxers and wrestlers that lifted- guys who were fiercely independent and didn’t participate in team sports. Football coaches dissuaded their athletes from lifting to avoid that stigma and keep from becoming “musclebound”. However, to keep it from slowing them down, and because lifting was allegedly bad for the heart. Olympic lifters were always off on their own in darkened basements hating life, fun, and all the other various things those people hate. This freed the guys in the gym, the guys with personality. The boxers, wrestlers, and recreational lifters. To enjoy themselves as much as they wanted and explore their weirdness to its absolute fullest.
They weren’t just a bunch of lone wolves ruminating on society’s myriad flaws. Pounding out psychotic missives on the internet before finally engaging in some murder/suicide. They were able to hang out with other people while being themselves. As John Balik put it,
“THE BARBELL WAS THE UNIFYING FACTOR. IT WAS A LIFESTYLE, AN IDENTITY. [PUBLISHER/STRONGMAN] PEARY RADER BACK IN THE LATE ‘50S WROTE AN EDITORIAL THAT BASICALLY SAID: ‘YOU ARE DIFFERENT. YOU CARE ABOUT YOUR HEALTH, YOU WORK OUT, YOU’RE NOT PART OF THE MAINSTREAM.’THEY FELT THEY WERE OUTLIERS AND ON THE RIGHT-HAND SIDE OF THE BELL-SHAPED CURVE. THE PEOPLE SEEMED TO RELISH BEING THEIR OWN SUBCULTURE” (DAVID).
I was never big on Piana because I think Synthol is goddamn retarded. He embodied the zero-shits-given. Whyle out and do your thing mentality the lifting community has utterly lost.
These little circuses started popping up all over the place. They were filled with the kind of people about whom I like to write- interesting people. Gyms like this still exist. Everyone who I met at North Georgia Barbell a few years ago was half insane and generally awesome- but they’re few and far between. As such, here’s a little snapshot of the type of shit you used to see in gyms that made lifting as entertaining to observe as it was to do. We learned all kinds of crazy shit from each other. Unlike the pussies engaging in “evidence” based bullshittery. We acted like mad scientists, trying anything and everything we could to get an edge over everyone else and emerge as the biggest, nastiest, freakiest, strongest sonofabitchto ever darken the doorway of our gym.
“Instead of worrying about what you cannot control, shift your energy to what you can create. Bodybuilding is an ART, the body its canvas, weights are your brush and nutrition is your paint. We all have the ability to turn a self-portrait into a masterpiece.” – Kai Greene
THE SWOLE COMIC FANATIC
If there is a cooler bodybuilder on the planet these days than Kai Greene, I’m unaware of their existence. Kai is the spiritual successor to another badass weirdo of a 90s bodybuilder, Aaron Baker. Both men had outrageously good physiques that were seemingly blocked from reaching the highest point in the bodybuilding world. Both men are complete comic book nerds.
While Baker was such a Batman mark that “Batman” was his actual nickname, Kai is so solipsistic that he actually published a graphic novel about a fictionalized version of himself. Not that I’m bagging on the guy for that- bodybuilding takes a degree of narcissism and imagination that would absolutely lend itself to being the protagonist in a badass fantasy superhero world. And as for the grapefruit- sex work, bodybuilding, and strength sports have always gone hand in hand. From Sandow to the Weider athletes who posed for Weider’s softcore porn to the muscle porn cam shows and everything in between. Sex and lifting have always gone hand in hand. If you have a problem with it, pick a different goddamn hobby. This shit is no place for Puritans and people who are bitter no one wants to see them naked.
Even his physique is reminiscent of Kai’s.
In any event, every series gym in which I’ve ever trained up until about the last ten years had at least one of these guys. Oftentimes Captain America or Superman fans (like Mike O’Hearn). The best part was that most of them only had the one shirt they’d rock in the gym. That thing was the most hilariously ratty article of clothing you’d ever seen. You really don’t see “lucky” training shirts much anymore, though, since lifting is more about looking like you do it rather than doing it these days, and people would be loath to wear the same shirt two days in a row at the gym as a result. In any event, they were a constant fixture.
POWER FACTOR TRAINING GUYS
I feel like in the 90s, every “hardcore” gym on the planet had one of these guys. Middle aged dude, not more than a buck eighty, and he’d do what he thought was Power Factor Training but was little more than being a goddamn annoyance. In their minds, the ultimate in training was to load up the leg press with every single plate on Earth, then scream like a hysterical broad getting mugged in a 1950s John Wayne movie while doing one-to-two-inch reps. With knee wraps on. When I say these people made spectacles of themselves, I mean to say they were a one-man Cirque Du Soleil, only unbelievably less jacked and impressive.
The guy above is notable, however, because he was still doing this wacky bullshit fifteen years after I saw the last guy do it, and as far as I know he could still be darkening the doorstep of Highland Games legend, living meme, and WSM competitor Stevie P’s badass gym to this very day. They might not have gotten shit done when they entered the gym, and they were a pain in the ass because they hogged every goddamn plate in existence, but they were not boring… and boring is a fatal character flaw in my book.
THE DRUNKEN LIFTERS
For those of you who think Frank Yang invented drunken lifting, I’ll let you try my Wu Tang style, because that shit has been going on forever. I’ve trained drunk a hell of a lot (that definitely isn’t water in my water bottle- if I’m drinking water in the gym, it’s out of the fountain), the first time I pulled over 600 in a meet was blind drunk, and I finished out my WR meet and another meet drunk as shit), there’s a chick bodybuilder at my Life Time who usually trains drunk, and I knew a powerlifter in South Carolina who would only train drunk, thinking if he could hit numbers ripped to bits on vodka, he could definitely hit them in a meet.
There was a legendary lifter at Gold’s Venice in its heyday named “Bugsy Siegel, who was a one-armed bench-presser who’d drink a quart of vodka before he trained. One-armed meaning that he pushed the weight up first with one arm and then the other” (David). Hell, all of the old-world gyms in Germany had bars attached to them- you’d put your beer stein on a shelf specially installed to hold them while you lifted. In any event, drunken lifters were often a fixture in good gyms back in the day, much like dogs are now.
As the elderly bro says in the video, being a bodybuilding hobo used to be commonplace. They’d park their van in the parking lot of the gym and do nothing but train. It was a full-blown lifestyle, and while some might look down their noses at it, these people were doing exactly what they wanted to do. I’ve heard of record holding powerlifters out of North Georgia Barbell living in a goddamn storage unit across the street from the gym, and I was couch surfing for a while when I was competing. Sometimes you’ve got to chop your life down to the bare essentials and go after whatever it is you’re chasing. Shit, it worked like a charm for Ted Arcidi- his entire life was built on his year in a a shitty basement apartment doing nothing but lifting as a grad school dropout.
I hope I’m looking like this at 63. Holy shit. I want to look like this at 43.
THE NEVER-SAY-DIE GUYS
The old boys going hard in the gym fall into two very distinct categories- the ones who are succeeding and the ones who are not. The guy above, Richard Lupkes, is in the former category, as are the group of old guys who used to train at the gym in Birmingham, I used to break my world record. Those guys, all of whom were rocking at least 17″ muscular arms, were lean, and over 70, explained to me that they hated being at home because their wives were up their asses, and hated they golf more than Republicans hate the fact that Sweden exists as a flourishing socialist country Thus, they’d train for a couple of hours in the morning, hit the bar for beer and burgers for much of the afternoon, train a couple more hours, hit the bar again, and head home.
They were doing retirement right. The other side of the coin is that sad old man living in a van outside of Golds- he looks like shit but thinks he’s still going to make it big… or he just wants to live in that delusion so he can justify homelessness. Either way, the never-say-die jacked old guys were a frequently a standard in hardcore gyms and were usually the most hilarious sonsabitches with the sharpest wit and the most humorously scathing criticisms of maxes and physiques in any gym.
He might not look it in this pic, but Malcolm Brenner was a goddamn nut.
Frankly, all the notable people in any gym are directly out of their minds- it’s part and parcel of being both an interesting person and awesome lifter. These aren’t the dudes mean mugging you in the gym for repping their max, nor are they the skinny dipshit spazzing out on pre workout that no one can stand. We’re talking about genuine, dyed in the wool maniacs who out-train everyone in the gym even on days when they’re “going light” We’re talking about the Intensity or Insanity maniacs John DeFendis and Steve Michalik, who’d train themselves into the goddamn ground with 100 reps per set and beat the shit out of gym goers who annoyed them in any way. Guys like Benny Podda and old school bodybuilding lunatic, Mr America, and professional wrestler Malcolm “Farmer” Brenner.
After an hour of abs, Brenner finished his workout with 15 minutes of attempted murder.
Brenner was known for being a strong dude at Muscle Beach and Joe Gold’s gym, and for being a general maniac- he wasn’t nicknamed Farmer for being a big goof, but because he was as vicious and strong as Farmer Burns. Well, that was the idea at first, but he ended up basically just being a jobber in a small wrestling organization. In any event, Brenner was a bonafide maniac, and after being pestered and publicly harangued by the unofficial mayor of Muscle Beach for dues, Brenner grabbed the tiny little Jewish guy and started whipping him around by his ankles.
Afterwards, Brenner explained he was trying to bash the little guy’s skull open on a nearby stage but kept missing. When he finally tired out, he just stuffed the tiny asshole into a trash can and walked away smug as shit. That was hardly as crazy as it got- the old school maniacs weren’t whacked off their faces on drugs like dudes in the later years were. Steve Michalik and his buddies, for instance, were so full of every drug they could find that they were outright insane both in and out of the gym.
“ON THE BODYBUILDING BLACK MARKET, WHERE EXTRAORDINARY THINGS ARE STILL AVAILABLE, MICHALIK AND SOME OF HIS BUDDIES BOUGHT THE SKULLS OF DEAD MONKEYS. CRACKING THEM OPEN WITH THEIR BARE HANDS, THEY DRANK THE HORMONE RICH FLUID THAT POURED OUT OF THE HYPOTHALAMUS GLAND. THEY FILLED ENORMOUS SYRINGES WITH A FRENCH SUPPLEMENT CALLED TRIACANA AND, AIMING FOR THE ELUSIVE THYROID GLAND, SHOT IT RIGHT INTO THEIR NECKS.
THEY TOOK SO MUCH RITALIN BEFORE WORKOUTS TO PSYCH THEMSELVES UP THAT ONE OF MICHALIK’S TRAINING PARTNERS, A FORMER MR EASTERN USA, RAN OUT OF THE GYM CONVINCED THAT HE COULD STOP A CAR WITH HIS BARE HANDS. HE STOOD IN THE PASSING LANE OF THE HEMPSTEAD TURNPIKE, HIS FEET SPREAD SHOULDER WIDTH APART, BRACING FOR THE MOMENT OF IMPACT – AND GOT RUN OVER LIKE A DOG BY A BUICK SKYLARK, BOTH HIS LEGS AND ARMS BADLY BROKEN” (SOLOTAROFF).
Say what you will about that behavior, but that kind of intensity is infectious, and everyone benefits from having some unbridled ferocity in their midst while training.
REAL MOTHAFUCKIN’ G(YM)S
I’ve mentioned World Gym Tucson before because it’s pretty much the most fun I’ve ever had in a gym. We had everyone from IFBB pro Rusty Jeffers to a psychotic jacked dude who always wore a surgical mask while lifting (he blew his mouth and tongue off by lighting a firecracker), a tiny little black guy who would scream “CAUSE I’M A TYG-UH, TYG-UH, AND I GOT POW-UH, POW-UH!” before, during, and after all of his lifts (and benched 405 at around 125lbs), an exiled Westside lifter, figure girls who outlifted most of you, my ex-wife and I tearing up huge weights at really low bodyweights (she was doubling 350 on the squat at 135 and I was squatting 475 for a couple at 155), a crew of gassed up dudes who all benched together and would start their warmups at 315 half the time, and a huge, natty black dude who was a combat air controller and benched over 600 raw in competition a couple of weeks after getting run over by a goddamn Cessna, just to name a few.
We need a hell of a lot more of this, and hell of a lot less Prilepin’s Chart.
People were banging in the tanning booth, doing coke in the office, and the whole goddamned place reeked of awesome. Whenever anyone competed, all of the serious lifters would show up to support them, then would go smash a thousand dollars’ worth of pizza afterwards while scaring the living shit out of the rest of the patrons.
That is what gyms are supposed to be- chalk filled, sweaty warehouse jam-packed with lunatics screaming and yelling and moving weight, not brightly lit affairs with all of the latest retarded “must have” equipment and people quietly moving mediocre weights for brief periods of time to avoid overtraining. And that was hardly the most insane gym around. Steve Michalik’s gym resembled a goddamned lunatic asylum, but it was always packed and everyone in it was a bonafide monster.
“AS FOR THE CLIENTELE, IT RAN HEAVILY TOWARD THE HIGHLY CRAZED. THERE WAS THE SEVEN FOOT JUICE FREAK WHO STOMPED AROUND MUTTERING “I’LL KILL YOU ALL. I’LL RIP YOUR GUTS OUT AND EAT THEM RIGHT HERE.” THERE WAS THE MOB HIT MAN WHO DROVE UP IN A LIMO EVERY DAY AND CHECKED HIS AUTOMATIC WEAPONS AT THE DOOR. THERE WAS THE HERPETOLOGIST WHO CAME IN WITH A PYTHON WRAPPED AROUND HIM, TRAILING A HUGE SEA TURTLE FOR GOOD MEASURE ON A LEASH. THERE WAS THE FORMER MR. AMERICA WHO WAS SO DISTRAUGHT WHEN HIS DOG DIED THAT HE HAD IT STUFFED AND DRAGGED IT AROUND THE GYM FROM STATION TO STATION” (SOLOTAROFF).
Maybe you don’t want to go to a gym filled with massive dudes bullshitting about whatever and twirling bike chains like they’re in a Troma movie about punk rock high schools in a dystopic future, but I sure as shit do- I can’t think of a cooler place to get massive. Whatever you do though, stop spending money on gyms because they have GHRs and reverse hypers- the one is better off being done on the floor with a yoga mat, and the other is nigh on pointless. Stop searching for the gym with the best collection of stupid fancy barbells and start searching for the gym with the biggest, strongest, weirdest clientele- otherwise, you’re just going to end up one of the lame as shit, bougie housewives or househusbands in Elite FTS gear pretending to be a real lifter.
These guys really made the gym- the rando weird dudes whose actions were so inexplicable that all you could do was stare in amazement. One of the Tucson weirdos was a former high-level bodybuilder who switched to cycling and would bike everywhere in those tiny, striped, lycra shorts popular in the 90s with bodybuilders and was a color of tan that could only be described as “skin cancer brown-grey.”
He was apparently a monster when he lifted and carried an absurd amount of muscle for a guy who seemed to do nothing but cycle and the abductor and adductor machines. Another one wore two pairs of boxer briefs, one as underwear and the other as shorts, and tucked his wifebeater between the two. Also obsessed with the abortion machines, this elderly weirdo wouldn’t hear of putting on a pair of shorts or pants over his double thick underwear.
Bodybuilder and pro wrestler Ric Drasin recounted some similarly strange dudes from Gold’s in Venice in an interview.
“THE GYM HAD ALL KINDS OF CHARACTERS. REALLY ODDBALL PEOPLE. WE HAD DAVID CARTER, WHO WE CALLED THE MISSING LINK. HE’D COME IN IN JUST A PAIR OF SHORTS AND SQUAT 400 POUNDS AND TALK LIKE HIS VOICE WAS GOING OUT. HE’D EAT CHICKEN, FRIED IN A PAN, THE BONES AND ALL. REMEMBER GYPSY BOOTS? GYPSY BOOTS PEED IN THE SAUNA. HE SAID, ‘I WANT A NATURAL SAUNA, WITH MY OWN URINE FOR THE STEAM'” (DAVIS).
If the gym you’re training in doesn’t have one or two of these types of people, you might want to find another place to move weight, because if you’re worth a shit as a lift, chances are you’ll end up getting asked to leave, anyway.
OLD SCHOOL GYM-OWNING MANIACS
Gym owners back in the day were a very different breed of human being than what you see these days. They were almost always more mercurial than a schizophrenic broad in the middle of menopause, and usually even more dangerous. Take, for instance, the former owner of World’s Tucson- he was nice as hell whenever I talked to him, but he would tune you up and throw you bodily out of his gym for leaning plates up against a rack , bench, or machine.
I’m not exaggerating- doing that even for a second could result in a beating and a lifetime ban from the gym. Vince Gironda would attack people with brooms and physically throw them out of his gym for violating any of his many, many rules. Joe Gold and Zabo Koszewski had a kind of Good Cop/Bad Cop routine going on in the old Gold’s and World’s Venice. Joe Gold was absolutely not a people person, nor a party animal, nor particularly level-headed. If you dropped the weights, Gold would scream at you and throw you the hell out. Zabo, on the other hand, was
“THE HEART AND SOUL OF THE BUSINESS. HE WAS A WELL-KNOWN BODYBUILDER AND ATTRACTED MOST OF THE OTHER BODYBUILDERS THAT CAME ALONG. HE’D COME TO WORK AND TAKE THE PHONE OFF THE HOOK SO HE WOULDN’T HAVE TO ANSWER IT. HE’D WORK OUT DURING THE DAY, TAKE A SHOWER AND LOUNGE AROUND AND SOCIALIZE. JOE WOULD COME IN IN THE AFTERNOON AND SCREAM LIKE HELL AND PUT THE PHONE BACK ON” (DAVIS).
Then there was Steve Michalik, who was even more insane than his patrons were.
“HALF THE WORLD WAS IN MORTAL TERROR OF HIM. HE HAD A SIXTY INCH CHEST, TWENTY-THREE INCH ARMS, AND WHEN THE ANADROL AND BOLASTERONE BACKED UP IN HIS BLOODSTREAM, HIS EYES WENT AS RED AS THE LASER SCOPE ON AN UZI. HE THREW PEOPLE THROUGH WINDOWS AND CHASED THEM MADLY DOWN HEMPSTEAD TURNPIKE WHEN THEY HAD THE TEMERITY TO CUT HIM OFF. AND IN THE GYM HE OWNED IN FARMINGDALE, THE NOTORIOUS MR AMERICA’S, IF HE CAUGHT YOU LOOKING AT HIM WHILE HE TRAINED, YOU GENERALLY WOKE UP BLEEDING ON THE PAVEMENT OUTSIDE. HALF OUT OF HIS MIND ON ANDROGENS AND HORSE STEROIDS; HE HAD THIS IDEA THAT BEING LOOKED AT ROBBED HIM OF ENERGY, ENERGY THAT HE NEEDED TO LEG PRESS TWO THOUSAND POUNDS” (ROBSON).
When the author above says he threw people through windows, he means the plate glass front of the gym, which was apparently forever being replaced as Michalik defenestrated his patrons. He busted out patrons’ headlights with a baseball bat for nonpayment of fees, because the man had a gear dealer to pay. And that didn’t turn away business- his zero shits given and no shit taken attitude attracted every jacked weirdo within three hundred miles. In short, crazy gym owner is a damn good sign, not a bad one. If your gym owner is a meek little mouse, chances are you’re leaving gainz on the table.
TO SUM THINGS UP
Clearly, when I say the pre-internet era of lifting was a better time for everyone involved, I mean just that. People got far better results before know-nothing/do-nothing/lift-nothing online “coaches” proliferated, spreading their bullshit far and wide, and before the “evidence based” bullshit artists started spreading their pseudoscientific claptrap across the lifting zeitgeist. I don’t expect this to serve as a call to arms, because the lifting scene is damn near dead at the roots. Just know that shit could be far more fun that it is, and if you ever get the opportunity to live it up in the gym a bit, you definitely should.
And remember- “newest” and “most popular” are not bywords for better- what you guys are seeing bandied about online as the next best thing almost certainly isn’t, and I’ve yet to see anyone outperform guys like Hackenschmidt, Goerner, and Maxick on their pet lifts because they used the newest, baddest supplement or the “best ever” program… so it seems just training like a absolute maniac and getting drunk might be the way to go after all. Sources: Davis, David. Sex, steroids, and Arnold: the story of the gym that shaped America. Deadspin. 21 Aug 2018. Web. 16 Mar 2019. https://deadspin.com/sex-steroids-and-arnold-the-gym-that-shaped-america-1828228786 Robson, David. Death Was His Only Release: A Tribute To Mr. America, Steve Michalik (1948–2012). Bodybuilding.com. 26 Sep 2018. Web. 31 Mar 2019. https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/death-was-his-only-release-steve-michalik-tribute.html Solotaroff, Paul. The power and the glory. The Village Voice. 29 Oct 1991. Reprinted by Juiced Muscle. 18 Aug 2012. Web. 1 Apr 2019. https://juicedmuscle.com/jmblog/content/story-ended-steve-michalik
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