This time last year, I was far from awesome.
In late July, I’d flown over the handlebars of a bicycle, smashing into the pavement, chipping a tooth, snapping my right arm, and cracking a knuckle on my left hand. After a surgery — in which a titanium plate and a row of crude screws fused the fracture (fun fact: Guns N’ Roses was blasting in the operating room) – I was fed a few crackers, supplied a whole bunch of pills, and sent on my way to sit on the couch and mend.
And there I sat, trapped between a pair of heavy casts, adrift in a haze of Percocets and “What Not to Wear,” replaying the crash in my head over and over. When things got bad, I summoned up a little mantra offered in a get-well card by a colleague who herself had taken a nasty spill the year prior: “Back to normal.”
Those three simple words carried me through weeks of healing, squeezing various putties, stretching elastic bands, bending my stiff wrist over the edge of a tabletop, and, after a few months, finally making it back into the gym. Before long, I was back to normal.
While the restoration of my old gym routine brought a sense of accomplishment, it was also hobbled with an odd ache of disappointment. After months of climbing back, the view at the top felt awfully familiar. “Normal” wasn’t much of a climax. Part of me just wanted my recovery to continue indefinitely; I didn’t just want to get well, I wanted to get better.
I learned early on, growing up with two older brothers, that it’s a good idea to make big friends. And as a street-smart (and theatrically inclined) string bean of a grade-schooler, making nice with the heavies was a no-brainer. This trend continued through my life, though the bullies had less and less to do with it. There’s just an appealing swagger to the very large. You can see it: The ease and assurance that comes from knowing you will not be messed with. (Not to put too fine a point on this, but gay men don’t grow up with that, we have to get there somehow.)
Hearing me whine about my post-traumatic plateau, a faction of my bigger friends – some powerlifter and highland gamer types – pointed me toward Total Performance Sports (or “TPS”), a sprawling 40,000-square-foot gym in an Everett warehouse that specializes in intensive strength training – from strongman competitions to Olympic lifting to boxing to powerlifting to classes with titles like “Not Cross Fit.”
TPS owner C.J. Murphy started lifting weights when he was 13, after some trouble he got into resulted in the yanking of all his afterschool sports. He’s 44 now, and it’s hard to imagine anyone taking anything away from him. Dude is big. Goatee is long. Murph’s desk chair groans when he swivels to see who has entered his office. (Note: Sitting with your back to the door = swagger.)
After a quick consultation, in which Murph pinches various particularly fatty sites on my body with calipers, I answered a few questions about my crappy diet, a plan was printed out, and I was on my way. Over eight weeks, I’d be overhauling my diet completely, lifting weights four nights a week, and sleeping like a dead champ. I’d be testing my strength (and my new arm) with Director of Strength and Conditioning Steve DiLello twice weekly at Awesome Camp (upper body on Tuesdays, lower body on Thursdays) and training by myself on the off nights.
The idea wasn’t to get “jacked” or “ripped” or “freaky huge” or any of the other descriptors plastered across the giant tubs of protein I had to buy; my goal was an abstraction: “awesomeness.” I would determine its meaning as I went. I was assured that my body would change drastically – fat would drop, muscle would emerge – and instructed not to buy any new clothes for the time being.
The biggest changes, however, would happen where no one could see them. After years of denial, I discovered my inner meathead, and we’ve since become super tight bros. In the parlance of a certain highly judgmental ad, “I lift things up and put zem down.”
For 10 days, I’ve eaten nothing but chicken, lettuce, coconut milk, eggs, whey isolate, water, air, and bitter, bitter envy. Every day at work seems to have some cakeworthy occasion at its center, and my insides howl at the icing and injustice all over everything. It’s a temporary carbless prep phase for my diet, and I can’t complain: I’ve already lost 10 lbs. just by bunnying out.
The gym is vast, hot, and loud. The clang of iron cuts through a dense din of Motörhead, AC/DC, and (my old friends from surgery) Guns N’ Roses. A line of girls lean against a wall catching their breath, awaiting the return of a classmate pushing a Prowler — a heavy training sled that can be loaded with weights — down a long strip of Astroturf. One dude is doing heavy squats at the Monolift, the bar straining into an arc across his back as he drops down low. A few young men take turns wailing on a tractor tire with a sledgehammer in the corner; another guy is benching a weight I can’t immediately calculate, coils of thick chains hung from each end rattling as they rise from the floor. It occurs to me that I may be in trouble.
It becomes clear that this is the opposite of every gym I’ve ever belonged to: No one is languishing on an elliptical reading US Weekly. No one is zoning out to the Kardashians. No one is texting on a treadmill. No one is pretending to workout.
Well, except me – I’m the new guy (most of my campmates are on their second or third cycle of camp), and Steve has me working on my form with an unweighted bar. Awesome Camp is based around three primary lifts – the bench press, the deadlift, and the squat – and it seems I’m doing all of them wrong. After learning how to properly employ my shoulders, back, butt, feet, eyes, breath, and brain at all three stations, I’m ready to move on . . . to hauling a 240 lb. training sled down the turf four times, that is.
Cooking, it seems, will be the fifth weekly workout. I spent all day Sunday in the kitchen: grilling chicken breasts, hard-boiling eggs, prepping rice, mashing sweet potatoes, fixing salads, and pre-mixing various powders for the week of protein shakes I’ll be downing. My sleep at night has deepened, interrupted only by wild charlie horses in regions of my legs I never knew were capable of cramping.
Camp is going well, my form improving tweak by tweak; but the real challenge has been policing and pacing my diet. Murph’s plan for me is based on a book by one John Kiefer titled “Carb Backloading” — and it uses the natural timing of the body (and its response to resistance training) to determine when and how you consume the different components of your diet. The specifics differ based on a person’s goals, but for me it amounts to long carb-less days and bingey carb-orgies at night. At work, I stick faithfully to salad and boiled egg whites, but in the evenings after workouts, I gorge on rice, potatoes, cookies, and ice cream. Out of courtesy for my husband’s own diet (and a touch of my own carb-shame), I sometimes do this in the privacy of the pantry.
I notice our ranks have shrunk slightly. The only other rookie has vanished, and the camp proceeds indifferently; clearly this lapse in retention has happened before.
Still among us is Bill, 36, two camps in and affectionately referred to as Moose (though I’m not certain a moose could pull a 28,000-pound truck across the parking lot like Bill has); brothers Zaafir and Ihsaan (24 and 26, respectively) the former coming back from a blown rotator cuff, the latter having upped his squat by 130 pounds over the course of four camps; and Stephen, 34, who, at 175 pounds can pop up 250 pounds on the bench like a toaster.
For a long time, I understood the gym as a stony, solitary endeavor. Supplement ads in muscle magazines love to paint the picture of the lifter as some sort of tortured warrior, confined to the garage and trapped in a pathetic flesh suit that is always insufficient. This marketing taps right into many men’s desire for bigness at all costs (a drive both Murph and Steve believe is rooted in a primitive impulse of survivalism), but it also completely obscures the real motivation behind many a misguided gym membership: being seen/noticed/watched by others.
In a group setting like Awesome Camp, you get a bit of everything: a shared ethos of progress, a spirit of competition, a system of encouragment, a sense of deliberateness and responsibility that solo workouts often lack, and, of course, the “ME VERSUS THE IRON” dude-psychology so deftly tickled by those ads. And when it comes time, as it does at the end of every session, to drag the hell-sled, it’s nice to know that our suffering is equally distributed.
It’s “deload” week, which means Steve is getting us “out from under the bar” and into the parking lot, where our training will take a turn for the savage. A 650 lb. tractor tire is rolled out of a shed and tipped over for our flipping enjoyment. This requires crunching up into a tiny ball and situating yourself between its treads, holding on tight and driving upward into the tire, which can then be propped up with the knee, transferred to the hands and pushed over. It’s brutal. After a few reps of this, the skin at the crux of my arms where the tire drags past is on fire. These, I learn, are called “tire bites.”
After tire flips, we do a medley — hauling kegs one way up the race course, lugging weighted bars hanging from each arm back in the other direction (a “farmer’s walk”), and pulling a weighted sled toward us with a thick length of rope to finish.
Two days later, I’m on vacation in P-Town. It’s Bear Week — a celebration of a different, more Rubenesque brand of male bigness — and as I stand on the deck of the Boatslip, staring listlessly across the bay in a direction I imagine is toward Everett, I feel a pang of guilt for missing camp. All this fried food, the planter’s punch, the cheese fries — it all feels so wrong. Among my brethren I feel displaced, at odds with the vacation vibe. Meatheadedness is another closet altogether, and I’m coming out.
When I take off my shirt to get some sun, my husband lets out a horrified gasp.
“Good God, what happened to you?”
I look down and observe a sickly purple and yellow bruise spread across my abdomen like a thunderhead. Tire bites. Awesome Camp is with me even when I’m not there.
A subway full of sneezing children seems to have overpowered my body’s burgeoning awesomeness, and I get sick smack in the middle of the week. Despite this setback, there’s no doubt I’m stronger than I was a few weeks ago — even stupid tasks like standing up from tying a shoe, or dragging the trash out to the sidewalk seem easier. Light work feels like light work.
My T-shirts all fit differently, in part because I’ve taken to ripping the sleeves off. Now they hug my shoulders and chest instead of stretching over my once generous gut. When I detect what appears to be the first signs of an ab in the mirror, it feels like spotting some long extinct bird. I’m afraid it will scurry away if it catches me looking. As a get-better gesture, my neighbor drops off a DVD of the world’s intro to Schwarzenegger, “Pumping Iron.” Word appears to be spreading: I’m becoming “that guy.”
Things are ramping up quickly. Our reps (those are “repetitions”) are coming down, and the weight is going up. I’ve developed a callus on the back of my neck where the squat bar has found its regular home. When we deadlift this week, Steve attaches 40 pounds of chains to the bar — they call this “accomodating resistance,” when the weight of bar increases the further off the ground it goes. This strategy forces us to power through the movement, building drive and power.
My off-night workouts, too, have become more intense, more personal. On a Friday night, I’m at the gym until 10 p.m., busting out sets of glute-ham raises, pushing 250 pounds on the Prowler back and forth, and doing one-legged squats that make me look like a slightly butch flamingo. The idea that people are out enjoying themselves and relaxing after a long work week doesn’t even occur to me.
Our second deload week finds us back out in the parking lot. I apply the lessons I learned about giant tires and they seem to tumble more readily, or perhaps I’m just getting better at it. Inside, we pull a weighted metal “log” from the floor, roll it up the torso by shooting the hips forward, and hoist it over our heads. I imagine this being Paul Bunyan’s workout. Instead of our regualrly scheduled deadlifts, Steve drags a harness over to the turf, and shoves it at me. “You first,” he says. The harness is attached by a strap to a 500 lb. sled.
Using a thick rope laid on the floor to “climb” forward, we are to drag this cargo as fast as we can. I handily lose each time trial to my campmates — especially Bill, who seems as though he could very well go through life dragging this sled without noticing. After three runs, I’m toast. My legs tremble as I make the three floor descent to the lot. I vow revenge on gravity for making things so difficult.
It’s Test Week. We will spend our sessions going for the much ballyhooed “one rep max,” which is just what it sounds like: the most weight we can move in one lift. At stake for the winner (i.e., he who made the biggest leaps in weight from Week 1), is a T-shirt. Steve lays it on the floor in front of the squat rack to keep our eyes on the prize.
On Tuesday, I work up to a bench of 250 pounds (a 45-pound jump from my first night) and thrill at the flurry of fist bumps that follow. On Thursday (for which I prepared by eating an entire pizza the night before), I squat a cool 275 (up 50 from my start), and I pull a 375-pound deadlift — which seems to shock even Nikita, who teaches the Olympic lifting course a few platforms down from us. (“A very good dead,” he says in the locker room later, his Russian accent somehow making it mean more.)
After some quick calculations, Steve nods his approval and hucks the shirt in my direction. “Nice work, Mike,” he says. Emblazoned across its front: “I Just Awesomed All Over the Place.” The sleeves have already been ripped off; this thing was meant for me.
I think back to myself last summer — a broken heap on the couch, unable to lift a bottle of milk — and it’s a satisfying feeling. The road to awesome hasn’t been easy, but it’s been nothing if not simple; the trick is that “awesomeness” keeps retreating the closer you get, and the pursuit of it is the achievement of it. Whether or not I can get there remains to be seen. Ask me in eight more weeks.
Michael Andor Brodeur is assistant arts editor at the Globe. He can be reached at email@example.com and followed on Twitter @MBrodeur.