“Intensity is the key to strength. sometimes, that means getting a smack in the face.”
Mike Miller, Nazareth, Pa
When the 300-pound self-proclaimed “Cher of powerlifting” becomes overly aroused, bad things can happen. Bad things can happen a lot in powerlifting, and they happened to Rocco Cappocia two summers ago, during a meet in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, when his back was loaded with 900 pounds and his competitive juices were surging unfettered and his head wasn’t as clear as it might have been. Squatting to begin his lift, Rocco moved just a little too quickly, the weight shifted ever so slightly, and . . . something bad happened. The bar began to roll forward, up and over the back of Rocco’s head. Then, in the blink of an eye, and much to the consternation of the men spotting him, 900 pounds of iron fell one way, and 300 pounds of Rocco fell the other.
In the end, Rocco escaped relatively unharmed, with a mild concussion and a headful of hair that was black and white and suddenly red all over. A jovial, well-spoken, seemingly rational investment banker by day, by night Rocco is one of only a few thousand competitive powerlifters in the United States. (“This is my golf game,” he says.) Loosely organized but deeply connected, they gather like Wiccans in out-of-the-way gyms and private clubs. They listen to really loud music. They sport many tattoos. They lift obscene amounts of weight. And if you want to work out with them, you have to accept two heretical facts: 1) Everything you know about weight training is wrong, and 2) This is going to hurt. A lot.
When I say difficult to write, I’m not referring to ethical or reportorial challenges. I mean, literally, difficult to write–for I am banging out these words with only my right hand, the left having gone limp and narcoleptic. It might have resulted from the night I deadlifted nearly 2 1/2 times my body weight. Or the day I dropped 235 pounds on my sternum. Or the evening when one of my training partners smacked me on the back of the head with all his might, for “inspiration.” Or it might have been caused by any of the many curiously effective yet physiologically questionable techniques the powerlifters trained me in.
But the whole ordeal served to aggravate an undiagnosed herniated disk, one that sagged and swelled under the pressure of all that iron until I awoke one day to find my left paddle as dead as a dogwood in January. The irony is as painful as the pins and needles that occasionally return to torture my south paw. I started powerlifting because I wanted to get strong. And the stronger I got, well, the stronger I wanted to become. The growth came so quickly, the milestones dropping one by one, that it was easy to ignore the early warning signs–the mild numbness, the stabbing pains along my spine–until the very thing that was making me strong left me weaker than I’d ever been. And therein lies the moral: Any guy who wants to take on the challenges of powerlifting ought to have a complete physical evaluation before he begins. A psychiatric evaluation wouldn’t hurt, either.
“Get your head right, Dave,” Rocco yells. “Get your mind right. Five hundred bench this year, no excuses!”
On the weight bench below him, Dave Kirschen, 5’5″ and 175 pounds, clenches his whole body into a near fetal position. For a moment, something dark claws at him from the inside; with fists balled up and eyes like beads under the dark shelf of his brow, he looks like a child who’s just found out that Daddy doesn’t love Mommy anymore. Then Kirschen’s eyes pop open wide. He grabs the bar, sucks in a bellyful of air, and contorts his back into a hideous arch; a split second later, he lowers more than twice his body weight down to his chest and presses it back up.
This is “max effort” bench night at Pumping Iron Gym in Manhattan, a sparse, industrial loft where Kirschen, Rocco, and a handful of like-minded confederates gather almost nightly. Pumping Iron is the place because it’s one of the few gyms in Manhattan willing to tolerate a passel of powerlifters. In most gyms, where spinning classes and Tae Bo and Cybex machines rule the floor, managers aren’t keen on letting a gaggle of giants commandeer their racks for hours at a time, clanging weight plates and polluting their upmarket facilities with a fine mist of chalk dust and a thick layer of obscenity. “I didn’t walk into a commercial gym until I was in college,” says Dave Tate, owner of EliteFTS.com and a frequent lifter at Westside Barbell in Columbus, Ohio, who started powerlifting at age 13. “At first I thought, Wow, look at all this stuff. But then I realized this wasn’t my home–I needed a place where if you puke on the floor, it’s okay.”
Puking on the floor is still discouraged at Pumping Iron, and Rocco and Kirschen have to sneak their chalk bags into the gym and tolerate the admonishments of the night manager each time they drop a weight plate. (“What is this, a f–king library?” Rocco snaps back.) But they can take ownership of the equipment they need to train for the three moves that constitute competitive powerlifting: the bench press, the squat, and the deadlift. In a powerlifter’s world, strength is paramount, pain is a constant companion, and vanity is never a consideration.
Indeed, the body of a serious powerlifter is anything but the idealized vision of male beauty. The perfect powerlifting body is instead something more akin to that of an NFL lineman in his eighth month of pregnancy. “A powerlifter needs strong stomach muscles,” explains Kirschen, “because that’s the source of his power and stability during a lift.” But the stomach muscles Kirschen’s referring to aren’t the same ones we’re used to tightening up whenever the wife’s girlfriends walk into the room. Bellies suck in, but they also push out; when your training partner starts yelling, “Big air! Big air!” just before you lift, he’s telling you to use those interior abdominal muscles to blow your stomach out, to free your diaphragm to vacuum in more oxygen, to fill your torso like a Thanksgiving Day float.
The result provides not only stability during the lift but also protection should something go wrong. Drop a 500-pound barbell on a chest filled with air and the impact will be cushioned, like a box filled with balloons; exhale during the lift, as most weight lifters are taught to do, and that weight plummets into an empty cage of ribs, shattering it like a row of icicles. The result of years of training for big air is a chronically hyperextended belly–another reason powerlifters don’t make the best recruiting material at your local Bally’s.
What separates powerlifting from the fitness mainstream is not just the intensity of the workouts, but also the methodology. Everything powerlifters do–the way they breathe, the sets and reps they perform, the speed at which they work out–appears to be totally wrong. Except that it works. “There are two elements to being able to lift heavy,” explains Kirschen. “You have to be strong, and you have to be fast. A lot of guys are very strong, but they’re not fast. They can’t transfer the energy to move the weight.”
He points to a table in the corner that’s about hip high. “If I told you to jump up on that table, you’d crouch down, and you’d push up as fast as you could to maximize your energy. But if I told you to jump up on that table, but do it slowly, you couldn’t.” The same principle holds true in powerlifting: Most guys who just want to build muscles for show lift weights slowly, to maximize the strain on their muscle tissue. But power is a combination of strength plus velocity; powerlifters want to train their muscles not just to be strong but to be quick. Which is why every max-effort day is followed 36 hours later by a speed-training day.
In the first workout, the lifter progresses from a heavy weight to a ridiculously heavy weight to an unfathomably heavy weight, with the goal of lifting it just once, to teach his muscles how to handle enormous poundage. In the second, he uses only 50 to 60 percent of his maximum weight, lifting and lowering as fast as he possibly can–and I mean very, very, very fast–doing 10 sets of two reps with 60 seconds’ rest after each set to teach his muscles how to explode out of the gate. (After a normal heavy workout, muscles require 72 hours to recover. But alternating max-effort and speed workouts not only improves the lifter’s power, it also allows him to train his muscles several times a week without burning them out.)
Time and again, in different gyms around the city, I see other lifters, many of them far more immense than diminutive Dave or even rotund Rocco, stop and stare at their bizarre training methods. And time and again, I see these guys lift more than anyone around them. To the eye, it makes no sense. They are strong beyond belief. They are also obsessed.
Both truths come starkly to light one night at Victor’s Gym, a hard-core lifting club in New York’s Washington Heights. Here, Kirschen–one eye the color of bloody diarrhea, its vessels having burst during a lift the week before–is getting serious about training for an upcoming meet. Serious enough to put on the shirt.
The shirt is a denim straitjacket, open in the back and cut just above the nipples in front, the shoulders and armpits so tight that the wearer’s arms are cinched forward, elbows in and forearms splayed out like Jesus the Peacekeeper’s. The shirt cripples the lifter so that, when he rests his back on the weight bench, he can move his arms in only two directions: up and down. By locking him into a proscribed movement and providing additional support, the shirt boosts the lifter’s strength in the movement by about 10 percent. Yet when short, goateed, hairy-chested Kirschen emerges from the locker room in the low-cut denim straitjacket, he doesn’t look like a strongman; he looks like a transvestite Klingon bride.
The bodybuilders in the room glance over with derision.
Then Kirschen begins to lift, starting modestly in the low 200s. Each lift goes easily, and more plates are slid onto the barbell. By the time he presses 315, he’s begun to draw a crowd. Twenty and 30 feet away, weight stacks sit quietly as their patrons pause to see what the small man in the strange Klingon bridal blouse is up to. Climbing under 365 pounds, Kirschen winks. “This is the weight I dropped on my throat last week. If this doesn’t go, you’ll have a lot to write about.” It goes. But that’s nothing. “If you really want to see some strong guys,” Kirschen tells me, “you’ve got to go to Nazareth.”
Bobby Fields has tears in his eyes and the aroma of Tiger Balm in his nose as he hobbles away from the iron, ashamed of his minuscule bench press. “Six hundred?” he spits out. “I take 2 weeks off and I’m f–king shaking under 600?” Fields, a big man crying without shame, stalks around the room where the work gets done at Nazareth Barbell, a nondescript concrete-block building in a small town in eastern Pennsylvania. Fields is used to benching 700 pounds in competition, but an elbow injury forced him to take some time off.
Not enough, apparently. As he sputters around the floor, House of Pain bellows from the stereo, and Mike Miller, the gym’s owner, shouts out encouragement to the patrons. “John, if you don’t keep your head down, I will bolt it to the goddamn bench!” Miller is the Ozzy Osbourne of powerlifting, the guy who can wrangle a passel of tattooed crazies and turn them into a cohesive training unit–the Metal Militia. That makes his wife, Big Earl (say it out loud a few times), the Sharon Osbourne of the troupe–just as dedicated, just as feisty, and capable of deadlifting a quarter of a ton.
Miller’s been on a diet lately, trimming his bald, 6’7″, 410-pound body down to a mere 385. Relaxing postworkout in the gym’s office, tattoo ink rippling up his 25-inch biceps, the massive ex-cop explains the philosophy of competitive powerlifting and why he–along with most other serious powerlifters–is so willing to work with newcomers, to scream and spit encouragement as they struggle to get strong. “You can’t be mean and spiteful in this sport,” he says. “You have to give back. I can go out and bench 900 tomorrow, but there’s gonna be some freak in a basement somewhere who’s doing 920, and eventually he’s going to show up on the scene. So I can’t let myself feel like, ‘That was the best time of my life, and it’s gone.’ “
And so Miller collects his acolytes and preaches to them his powerlifting wisdom. “Intensity is the key to strength,” he continues. “For some guys, that’s getting smacked in the face five times while they’re lying on the bench. For other guys, it’s getting quiet and focused. When I started, I was yellin’ and screamin’, and my training partner would slap me in the back of the head. And as I’ve matured, that’s changed. I get real calm, to the point where I’m trembling from the inside out. Then my girl, Deb, whispers in my ear, ‘Those weights are laughing at you.’ “
Deb–Big Earl–is an attractive, broad-shouldered brunette, and when he mentions her, his baby blue eyes go soft; the tenderness in their relationship is palpable, as though these two giants are merely a couple of square pegs who found each other on the Island of Misfit Toys. Except that either one could pop your skull from your neck as easily as opening a beer bottle. On the bench earlier that day, bound by the denim powerlifting shirt, Mike Miller screaming in my face, I handily lifted 225 pounds–about 40 more than I’d been capable of just a month earlier. Growing ever more confident, I raised the weight another 10, and that’s when it happened: With the barbell suspended over my chest, my left arm suddenly seemed to vanish; what had been strong moments before failed catastrophically, so quickly my spotter couldn’t stop the full weight of the bar from crashing into my rib cage. “Well,” Miller said. “Don’t do that again.” I wouldn’t, not that day and, perhaps, not ever again. Unknowingly, I had joined Bobby Fields in a short, swift journey into invalidity. I’d soon discover that we weren’t alone.
Westside Barbell is a sports mecca, the way Augusta and Fenway, Churchill Downs and Madison Square Garden are meccas, places where true believers hope one day to make a pilgrimage. But there are no sloping greens or box seats here, just an unmarked door in a line of unmarked doors at the back of an industrial park, where the cracked cement and grime-coated aluminum are the same color as the gray Columbus, Ohio, sky. Inside, though, is a 1,200-square-foot room where the human body is rebuilt into unnatural form, under the guidance of the gym’s guru, Louie Simmons.
Simmons is to powerlifters what Robert Johnson is to the blues: The sport simply wouldn’t exist in its modern form if not for his innovations. Simmons invented the “Westside method”–the alternating speed-and-power training that’s allowed lifters to make unprecedented gains–after he stumbled across some Soviet-era fitness studies. Their explanation of speed training with lighter weights was the answer to overcoming the body’s normal healing time. “Train your muscles with one core exercise at 90 percent of their max or above for 3 straight weeks and you’ll go backward,” Simmons says. “Instead, switch to a new core exercise every week, training for both speed and strength.”
Today, squat and sturdy, his shins bleeding from an earlier deadlifting session, Simmons presides over a motley collection of powerlifters, bodybuilders, and aspiring football stars, barking out instructions so rapidly that no one can understand a word he says. Simmons is both coach and guinea pig; just that morning he had undergone an MRI for a training-related shoulder problem, at Tate’s insistence. (“I would have canceled my mother’s funeral to get Louie to that MRI,” Tate says.)
Tate himself bears the effects of 20 years of powerlifting: “Right now, the fingers of my right hand are numb,” he says. “I have no idea why. But if you’re going to be doing this from age 13 to 35, you’re going to suffer some road construction along the way.” Around us, massive men in strange contraptions push their bodies to the limits. A football player sits in what looks like a porch swing: A seat weighted with several 45-pound plates hangs from an arch, and in front of it is anchored a footpad. The seat connects to the footpad by a series of heavy rubber bands. The “virtual force swing,” patented in 2004, was invented by Simmons and is designed to harness the energy stored in the leg muscles: When the athlete pushes off from the footpad, he fights the resistance of both the weights and the bands. Then the bands snap him forward, maximizing the kinetic energy so when his feet return to the footpad, he can explode backward again with more force than he normally could muster.
As weights clang and rubber bands snap and Simmons sprays the room with practiced maxims (“You don’t spar with Mike Tyson to fight Cicely Tyson!”), a hulking fellow in his 30s sits quietly on a weight bench. Tate and Simmons may be the walking wounded of weight training, but as far as Dan Cummings is concerned, these two fanatics are the reason he’s still alive. “I have leukemia,” Cummings says nonchalantly, as though mentioning a spot of tennis elbow. “Eight years ago, the doctors diagnosed me. They gave me 6 months to live.”
The disease had caused bleeding in his left hip, until one day he collapsed at work. “I weighed 280 pounds then; in the 3 weeks after my diagnosis, I lost 60 pounds.” With a death sentence already handed down, Cummings, who’d stopped exercising before the diagnosis due to extreme fatigue, took up walking every day. Then he tried weight training again, in an effort to stave off the wasting effects of the disease and of the interferon he’d been prescribed to slow its progress. Weight training and, eventually, powerlifting kept his body strong and his muscles intact. Today he weighs 314 pounds. The magic, Cummings believes, lies in Simmons’s West Side method, particularly the idea of speed training. “When I came in here, I’d already become a competitive lifter.
I had just benched 600 in competition. Louie looked at me and said, ‘You’re real strong, but you’re real slow.’ I thought, How can you lift 600 pounds fast? They worked with me, and after 45 minutes, I was benching 665. “That’s a 10 percent improvement. That should have taken me years.” Even Cummings’s doctor believes in the Westside magic: On disability, having burned through his savings and now on financial aid for the $4,000 a month in medication he requires, Cummings couldn’t afford to make the trip to Columbus from Sioux City, Iowa. His doctor paid for this trip out of his own pocket.
Yet, listening to Cummings describe his miracle, you can also read in his body the profoundly addictive nature of the sport. He is, after all, 314 pounds, and saddled with the same lumbering gait many longtime powerlifters have–they don’t so much walk as waddle, their space in the world both expanded and limited by their great musculature. Strength is one of the few measurable hallmarks of masculinity; when you find something that gives you more, it’s hard to know exactly how much is enough, to see the point at which the cost catches up with the benefit. Rocco and his bloody scalp; Bobby Fields and his mangled elbow; Dave Kirschen’s glassy brown eye; Louie Simmons’s wrecked shoulder and bleeding shins; Dave Tate’s numb right hand; my own creeping paralysis. Powerlifting is a sport and a hobby, but mostly, it’s an obsession. As Kirschen admits, “This sport takes so much from you that after a while, you can’t separate it from yourself anymore.”
The neurologist said my paralyzed arm was a result of nerve damage. The chiropractor told me it was a spinal subluxation. The osteopath diagnosed a muscle problem. The back surgeon explained that it was an extruded disk. In the end, we tackled the problem with physical therapy: a disability caused by powerlifting, treated with week after week of lifting 5 pounds, 8 pounds, 10 pounds. On my final day of physical therapy, my PT lets me go with some instruction on form and a warning about returning to regular weight training: “Take it slow.”
The next day, in the company gym, I decide to play around with a deadlift. I start at a reasonable and cautious 135, lifting it six times, just the way I used to. Up, down. Up, down. But it feels about as satisfying as losing your virginity, then going back to dry humping. I move quickly up to 185. Then 235. Two fifty-five. Two seventy-five. At 295, the weight comes up off the floor cleanly. I slide on two more 10-pound plates, and that’s when I hit the wall. Three fifteen does not move. But it will, soon. I can just feel it.
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