I’d like to have a few words with you men who need a welder’s mask to regard the full glory of your blazing birthday cake. Are you as strong as you used to be? Take this simple test:

1) When was the last time you deployed your muscles?
2) Did you ever have muscles?
3) Do you lose your superpowers under a yellow sun?

If you answered any of these questions, you are not only wasting your time, you are exactly where I was five years ago. To restore my manliness, I knew I had to change something, and that something was going to be my car. However, before I could surprise my wife with triple-chrome spinning hubcaps and a sound system loud enough to strip-mine coal, I spotted a rack of cards profiling the trainers at our gym.

What a simple answer, I thought. I’ll take a pill. No, I’ll hire the biggest, meanest, oldest guy I can find to make me stronger. And that’s how I spent six months working out three times a week with a former county sheriff who was built like a dump truck but was better able to withstand collisions. His nickname was No Neck.

More intense than RoboCop
No Neck stomped into the gym every day at dawn and he wasn’t there to teach people how to do sit-ups. He was a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist, ready and willing to reduce Division I NCAA athletes to a puddle of tears. Or blood. It was all the same to him.

“Ninety percent of everyone you see down here is doing 100 percent of everything wrong,” No Neck told me before demonstrating the proper use of everything on the premises: the dumb bells and bar bells, the machines that tormented specific parts of the body, and the many ropes, balls, bars, bludgeons, battering rams, and harpoons. The regulars enjoyed hearing the noises No Neck wrung from me as he tried to turn my life around.

We had a lot to turn. No Neck introduced me to the front shoulder press and discovered I could barely lift a bar fitted on each end with 10- and 5-pound weights. (No Neck called these “baby wheels.” He called me Big Wheel, rejecting my suggestion of Thor.) “What have you been doing all your life?” he asked as I struggled through another series of kicks, rows, curls, and flies. “I’ve been reading books!” I gasped. No Neck wasn’t buying the American Library Association defense. “Give me one for God,” he said as I reached the end of my reps, and when I had done that, “Now one for me!”

That’s a lot of power for a lifelong intellectual
The squat press was the foundation of No Neck’s strength-training regimen. If you’ve never done this particular exercise, it’s simple: You stand in one place, then squat down. And stand. And squat. And stand. The only complication, and this is really quite negligible, is that you’re wearing a bank vault on your shoulders. When you feel that weight settle on you, a hundred thousand years of instinct immediately tells you to put the damn thing back.

Try explaining that to No Neck. He slowly increased the weight I was lifting, telling me I had a problem believing in myself. I hadn’t believed in myself as an athlete since the summer I learned how to copy Carl Yastrzemski’s batting stance, and you can see how far that got me. But I tried to believe, and not just in what we were doing in the gym. To trick my mind into accepting the punishment my body was taking, I came to see each battle-scarred steel wheel as another of my dreams that had gone astray or had never happened. I wasn’t depressed that they were so heavy; I was thrilled that I could throw them around! (I also bought black lifting gloves at a garage sale. Looking cool is worth half a victory in any sport.)

After months of work, my chest and shoulders emerged from my customary slump. My skin tightened as my muscles expanded. You could twang arrows off my thighs. I bought new dress shirts not because I’d gained weight but because I’d gained half a neck size. I stood tall. And after six months I achieved my greatest athletic feat: I hit 250 pounds on the squat press. I did three reps with No Neck behind me in case of trouble, and when I racked the bar with a gratifying crash BANG and did a victory lap around the room, everyone cheered.

How manly does a writer have to be?
When the thrill of victory had worn off and I had told all the people who might conceivably be interested and some who were borderline and at least one guy I didn’t know, I faced a serious philosophical inquiry: What the heck was I doing, lifting 250 pounds on my shoulders? That’s a hundred pounds more than me. That took tremendous effort. It’s good to be strong, but when would I ever use that much strength? I sit and I write all day. Plus I didn’t want people to start asking me to help them move.

About this time, No Neck and I parted company when I beat him at arm wrestling and he cried, though he claims he left town on a mission to train college athletes in Arizona. This happened five years ago and I might have some of the details wrong. I’m still doing his exercises, but at my own pace. I am much stronger than I used to be and just as strong as I need to be and I find that to be a winning formula.

(When the NCAA ran out of athletes and shipped No Neck home, he called to check on me. When I jokingly said I was up to 450 on the squat press, he growled, “If you were still with me, you would be!”)

God likes to throw the change-up
Your middle years are all about family, career, loves, hates, hobbies, and causes – pretty much what you deal with at most stages of your life. They’re about the dreams you had when you were small and whether you’ll ever make them come true. But one of the compensations of your middle years are the unexpected voyages. Like strength-training with No Neck.

I’ve been a devoted chess player since I was a kid, so in alignment with the trajectory of my life I once spent a year studying with a chess master. From this experience I learned that I was never going to be a chess master. And yet this bookish, bird-watching pawn-pusher went much farther in the weight room than he ever did on the chess board. Emily Dickinson was right:

We never know how high we are
Till we are asked to rise
And then if we are true to plan
Our statures touch the skies

Emily, by the way, had killer triceps.

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STEVEN BRYAN BIELER bats right, throws right, leans left. Long ball hitter, but deadly with a vignette. Long-range plan: To appear in The New Yorker's "20 Under 80" fiction issue. Bieler lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife, the mystery writer Deborah Donnelly, and their dog, who is illiterate. He works as a writer and editor and teaches chess to grades K-8 (the one population of chess players he can always beat). Bieler makes fun of your favorite bands at http://rundmsteve.wordpress.com/.

5 responses to “The Man Your Man Could Sort of Smell Like”

  1. Gregory Messina says:

    After going to the gym for 3 years and just doing cardio, I recently started working with a personal trainer. Although he has a neck, I can totally relate to what you wrote about. I just wanted a flatter stomach and all of a sudden I’m working with weights. Very entertaining.

  2. Sharon says:

    Outstanding! I laughed out loud after suffering the same punishment. I was in it for weight loss but of course, I was also directed to weights. Really? What’s the minimum to ensure my bones don’t snap as I’m lifting cocktails in 30 years? Trainer didn’t laugh. I ended up losing 12 pounds but was so attached to them they eventually returned. Thanks for sharing this story. And yes, weights at your own pace is perfect.

  3. Linda Jordan says:

    Thanks for the laughs, Steve. I love lifting weights (weight machines at least), but alas am stuck with lifting buckets of weeds and horse manure. Not nearly as much fun as going to the gym, although much more fun than cardio. By the way, we have an 8 year old who loves to play chess, come on up and play a game!

  4. dwoz says:

    great story!

    You’re “blessed” with the mind you’ve been given, but you can get a new body if you’re willing to work for it.

  5. Hilarious – from one writer to another, I have the strongest, fittest fingers you will ever see.

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