Training, perhaps more than anything else, defined that era. The carefully written programs—emailed out by Ricky Sunday night or Monday morning and detailing exercises and reps and sets—gave my universe an order and shape that otherwise was not present, the way history fixes the chaos of the past into a semblance of coherence. In the course of the week the numbers written down became real, transformed into the sights and sounds and physicality of training: the steady rhythm of rubber plates dropping to the platforms, the sharp and high crack of shoes against wood, the metallic clanking of the smaller plates, the dust and chalk and menthol that filled the air, the varicolored bumpers that were loaded onto chromed barbells. And while the actual workout in the gym didn’t quite always match what was written—a skipped rep here, a little weight added there—what history has ever been entirely faithful to what it purports to record?
“Training,” Ricky said once, early in my time with him, “is the best. I mean, yeah, competitions are fun. Winning medals and that shit. But there ain’t nothing like training. No judges, no politics, none of the bullshit. You either put the bar overhead or you don’t.”
Pete seemed to have taken this in from the very start. He loved training almost as much as he loved food, and it made no difference to him whether he had a competition or not. There’d even been times when others had called him out for this. I remember a night in the Bayonne basement when he hit a PR clean and jerk of 125 kilos—two weeks after missing the weight in a competition. After the obligatory celebrations, Al couldn’t help but comment.
“Why the fuck you didn’t do that two weeks ago?” asked Al.
Pete shrugged. “Ain’t no rush. I did it now. That’s what matters. Now I can get ready to do more.”
“Man,” said Al, smiling, “you gotta do it on the platform for it to count.”
Pete nodded and smiled back. “Bull-shit.”
Al laughed and shook his head. With great flourish and theatricality he then began to enumerate his points on one hand. “You didn’t weigh in, you took the weight when you wanted, you ain’t got no clock runnin’ on you, there ain’t no judges watching, you probably got some grease on them thighs…”
“I ain’t got nothin’ on these thighs!”
“They look a little shiny to me, but okay. You gotta do it when it counts, son.”
“Same gravity, ain’t it?” Pete picked up a 1.25-kilo plate and let it fall to the platform. “Yep, same gravity.”
Al waved this aside. “Ain’t the same. Puj, am I right?”
Everyone in the gym looked to Ricky, our authority on these things in those days and for many days to come. He was rubbing his hands together over the chalk bin—little more than a steel bowl—and when he heard the question he stopped and pondered it, as though weighing some great question from the ancients.
“Yeah, it ain’t the same,” he said sagely, when he finally spoke. “But who cares? Still did the weight.”
“Who cares?” asked Al, incredulous.
Ricky shrugged and walked over to his own barbell. “One twenty five is still 125 kilos.”
“Y’all are crazy…”
But we could live with this apparent contradiction; indeed, we were willing to consider the possibility that training was somehow purer than competition. That it was the ultimate expression of athletic performance, stripped as it was of pretense and formality and politics. It took me a while to come around to this fully—I wanted medals and recognition in some official capacity—but now, looking back, I can appreciate that the life I built was crafted not so much in competitions but in the weeks and months and years I spent hammering away at a training program alongside like-minded lifters.
Training, when Pete and I were in school at Rutgers in New Brunswick, was generally divided between two places: the Rutgers Power Gym during the week and FDU on Saturday mornings. If we felt like splurging on gas and time we would head up to FDU another weekday, as well.
The gym at Rutgers had been a struggle just to bring into existence. When we first started college there was nowhere properly equipped for us to train. The training facilities for the school’s athletes had an extraordinary number of Eleiko barbells and platforms—something like sixteen total—yet all of them were off limits to us.
“What the hell you mean we can’t use them?” Pete had cried when informed of this. “I pay tuition! I’m a student here! I got a right to use that!”
“Those are for the school’s athletes,” a guy from the athletic department told us.
“I ain’t a athlete? I been to national competitions! Hell, weightliftin’s an Olympic sport! Is football in the Olympics?”
The man looked at us.
“Is it?” asked Pete again.
“That’s not the issue here,” said the man. “The issue…”
“The issue is it’s bullshit! I pay all this money and you got bars and platforms and ain’t nobody usin’ them and yer tellin’ me we can’t use them.”
“There is a student gym available for…”
“I know about the student gym. You think I wanna go do curls with those meatheads? You even know what Olympic lifting is?”
“We’ll be back,” said Pete, cutting him off.
Unfortunately the school didn’t quite see it Pete’s way. Moreover, the school felt that not only were we barred from using the athlete facilities, but Pete was barred from even asking about them or contacting anyone in the athletics department again.
Initially we struggled through workouts using junk bars and plates in the regular gym—and making as much of a scene as possible—until another lifter, a 69-kilo kid named Lou, forced the school to buy some Olympic lifting equipment through sheer stubbornness. Eventually we ended up with a couple of platforms and York bars and plates, tucked into a room off a hallway—away from the hoi polloi in the main gym on College Ave. There were still battles to be fought—like when they tried telling us we couldn’t use chalk because of “safety concerns”—but ultimately we prevailed on most fronts. Or we simply ignored whatever rules didn’t align with our own goals…
For all its shortcomings the Power Gym still managed to provide the best of what training has to offer. There was no real coach, the York barbells were a poor substitute for the Eleikos of FDU, the hours were limited, and the room in which the platforms were located was also host to any number of other activities with people who knew nothing of weightlifting gym etiquette. But it had a core group of six or seven or eight of us who showed up three or four evenings a week. We came from class or from dorms or apartments, from the Student Center and from far flung campuses and from student jobs. We walked down College Ave in the snow and rain and in the heat of late September summers. We trained two or three or four to a bar, going from 50 kilos to 110 or more from one person to the next, and we became experts in the strategic loading of a barbell to make the changing of weights easiest. We did what we could to provide the feedback we thought our coaches would have provided. In short, we made a little outpost of weightlifting—a home away from our regular home—where we could focus on training.
Saturday mornings were different. The training often revolved around that session, and many of us—Pete and myself included—looked forward to Saturday training as the highlight of the week. It involved its own set of very specific—and rarely varied—rituals. Like a Japanese tea ceremony these were particular actions that took place in a set order; to disturb them was to risk upsetting the balance of the whole morning, or even the entire day. Packing the gym bag, stopping at Easton Ave Bagels for food and coffee, taking little handfuls of ibuprofen, listening to particular CDs—all became part of what it meant for us to be a weightlifter.
But the real work began when we arrived at the gym, after we’d greeted everybody and set our bags down. We’d all take our sneakers or boots off and then put on our lifting shoes, and then we’d rush into hastily executed stretching and warmup routines.
“You ain’t gonna be able to do that forever!” Ricky had said once. “Once you get to my age you’ll be spending more time warming up than lifting.”
“By the time I get to your age I’ll have quit,” said Joe. “Taken up golf or something easy.”
Soon—always too soon—we took barbells to our respective platforms to start the day’s training. We felt the bar’s weight, the same as every day prior and all days to come—a fact that could be comforting and unsettling, for it can feel lighter and heavier.
Weight would go on the bar. Chalk would go on the hands. We’d take warmups, check programs, take more attempts, and generally go through the motions until things started to feel right, or at least less bad than the first reps. We’d do more reps, more checking of the program, more chalking of the hands. Snatches. Cleans. Jerks. Pulls. Squats. Variants of them all. Core work. Presses. More snatches, more clean and jerks, more squats and pulls. More chalk. More lifts. Hundreds of them, thousands of them, tens of thousands of them. So many reps performed in the search of the right repetitions, which seemed to come more rarely than any of us would have liked.
Watching over all this were Ricky and Nikos and Russ, with Ricky doing double duty of training and coaching. With their feedback—which we’d lacked all week—we slowly became more refined versions of ourselves. A word or two—the right words—and suddenly the snatches or the cleans we missed on Monday or Wednesday or whenever were made with ease.
More weight. More reps. More sets. More chalk. Chalk in the air. Chalk on our shoes, our shirts, our singlets, our platforms, such that we often ended up looking like strange athletic bakers coated in sweat and flour.
Still more lifting. Watching others lift, responding to the feedback of coaches, responding to the way we felt or thought we should feel.
“Pull straight,” a common refrain on my own attempts. “Stay over the bar and pull straight.”
I know this, I would think, but how can I get my body to listen??
Days when every kilogram, every gram, was felt. Days when gravity was strong. Days when every lift felt different from the last and none of them felt right. Days when my body was unable or unwilling to do the things I knew it was capable of, things I might have done just a day previously. Days when the barbell won. And won. And won. Over and over, despite all my best efforts and all my work and all that I had given to it, days when still the barbell won, callously and cruelly in its impartiality. Days when the weights came crashing down and I would look to the heavens and shout Why?! Why?! Why in the name of the gods did I pick this awful sport and not choose something like golf or bowling or chess? Why is my body unwilling to do what I tell it to? Why do the weights hate me? Why am I here, still, day after day when it feels like this?
I had more bad workouts than I could count in those days. But always Ricky or Nikos or Russ would know—from their own experiences, no doubt—that such days were part of the natural order of things. Each knew how to respond to us when things went poorly.
Sometimes it was as simple as one cue on which to focus.
“Be patient. Don’t yank it from the floor.”
Sometimes it was a more involved request.
“Go back down. Take some weight off and then go back up.”
And sometimes it was the ability to see beyond that day’s training and appreciate the bigger picture.
“That’s it for today. Go on.”
But then there were days when the weights moved as if of their own volition. Days when my body was at harmony with the barbell. Days when the weights didn’t seem to exist, when the barbell moved through the air and overhead with an almost transcendental ease. Days when the completion of each lift provided a burst of euphoric biofeedback, like hitting the jackpot on a slot machine over and over again. Days when the pop-pop of the barbell and the soles of my shoes against the platform made a steady music in which I was at once artist and audience.
Days when Ricky or Nikos or Russ smiled at me after every lift, more often than not staying silent but speaking volumes with that silence. Days when the rhythm of the barbell felt especially tuned to the movements of my body and my muscles. Days when the bar and I and the platform resonated at some higher frequency, some chord that I swore approached divine perfection, and I would think My god this is what it must feel like to be one of the greats!
“Nice work today.”
That was the best of training, which I came to appreciate only through knowing the worst of it. But those days were what I lived for and remembered and sought out, trying—and sometimes, succeeding—to find the right, seemingly mystical combination of factors that would make them more likely than the others.
On the day Pete and I took our new restoratives—with my right thigh just beginning to develop a little soreness at the injection site—we were convinced we’d found what we were looking for.
“I know it’s too soon for the d-bol to be workin’ but damn if I don’t feel good,” said Pete, grinning, as we walked down College Ave to the gym.
I nodded in agreement, feeling much the same.
[NB: keen-eyed readers may recognize some of this (in modified form) from an OLift article I wrote a while back. This is the original chapter from which that article was developed.]