I wasn’t always the impressive specimen I am today. It took work. During my senior year of high school our gym class had a six-week weight-training module that most of us hated. We wasted time around the free weights and Nautilus machines and dreamed of nice weather and flag football.
The final exam for our weightlifting segment was straightforward. Demonstrate improvement against a pre-test in your ability to lift various amounts at half a dozen stations. These were basic lifts like curls, bench press, military press and deadlift. I flunked.
I went home that day and bought a 220 pound weight set from a neighbor. I then set about building a weight bench out of plywood and two by fours. Thinking back on the weights I rested on that un-engineered little piece of furniture makes me shiver. I’m fortunate that by the time I outgrew it and bought a real bench I hadn’t crushed my trachea under a pile of splinters and steel. It was all very “Pumping Iron” stuff in the basement, listening to Jethro Tull and ELO while I worked out – alone.
Within six weeks I had shown remarkable improvement. The human body at age 17 is hungry for growth. Building muscle and strength is easy when you have a metabolism, motivating humiliation and all the time in the world. At school I caught my gym teacher during a moment when he wasn’t yelling at someone.
“Mister Boyle, I’ve been working out at home and was wondering if I could take the weightlifting test over?”
“That’s over,” is all he said, and looked away.
It was a testament to his inadequacy as a teacher. A missed mentoring moment, a chance to make a real difference in a student’s future. All lost. I was demoralized, but in a strange way, it convinced me that redemption was to be my own, and to continue on a path to fitness was my only option. Boyle may have wandered off to molest a cheerleader or teach Driver’s Ed, I’ll never know. But I went home and worked out harder than ever.
College is a pivotal time when many kids get really excited about fitness, or completely fall away from it. I joined the Chicago Health Club, later to be acquired by Bally’s Fitness, and have worked out at health clubs ever since. Thus it came to pass that I was on an abdominal crunch machine at the Kennedy-Cumberland Bally’s one afternoon in the early 80s. Those were the days of legwarmers and headbands. Big hair and big arms. Olivia Newton John was “Getting Physical.” Jane Fonda, Body by Jake, Denise Austin, Chuck Norris and yes, Richard Simmons were all strutting their stuff and getting rich on the new fitness craze.
The equipment used to blast abs and thighs was all over the map. Total Gym, Nordic Track, Bowflex, Nautilus and of course Susanne Somers and her thigh master. Arnold Schwarzenegger hit it big in 1982 as Conan the Barbarian. Hulk Hogan was popular among WWF fans at the time. Major wrestling events were held at the nearby Rosemont Horizon stadium, a new venue for that spectacle.
But back to the club and my abs. I sat in a black vinyl chair that stabilized my back and restrained my ankles with black vinyl rollers. I was very comfy. A stack of black weights to my right was adjusted with an inserted shiny metal pin. I selected about five little steel plates that may have totaled 50 pounds. I grabbed the two black straps over my shoulders to further secure me in place, then bent forward to isolate my stomach muscles. This brought my shoulders down and my knees up, supposedly by virtue of my abdominals. Crunch and repeat for a set of 10 to 12.
I quickly noticed that on an identical machine two stations to my right another gym warrior was mid-set, in stride with my motion, but precisely opposing my cycle, so that when my head went forward, his went back. Of particular note, the entire stack of weights on his machine was moving up and down, slamming with a clang at the bottom of the stroke, then straining under the tension of the pulleys and cables as some unimaginably strong abdominals commanded them to do their bidding.
We proceeded like this for several sets. The upper part of the Nautilus device shielded my neighbor from my prying glance. This was where they displayed illustrated instructions that showed me exactly where my muscles were being developed, and the proper steps for achieving safe and effective results. A little further down the aisle, two big-haired Newton Johns were loitering and giggling quietly, watching the other guy get out of the machine just when I did.
Now, I am not a small person at six foot one. But as I unfolded myself into a standing position the giant at the other machine continued to rise until I stared at the shoulder of his bright yellow muscle shirt. His bandana-clad head was a full head higher than mine, and the rest of him occupied a proportional, outrageously muscled six foot seven inch frame. Hulk Hogan looked big on TV, but standing next to him was absolutely intimidating. He smiled at the girls, who followed him and tried to start a conversation while he lumbered like a brontosaurus into the free weight section. I headed the opposite direction to the juice bar and drank my feelings. As I raised the plastic cup to my mouth I surreptitiously glanced down at my bicep and flexed just a little bit, then drank some more.