Lifting weights has always appealed to me. Being bigger and stronger has always appealed to me. I have, on many occasions, attempted to figure out what my fascination was about lifting weights and the strength and the aesthetics of the whole deal.
My Father kept a small weight set under his bed when I was growing up. He wasn't too keen on me training with free weights at a young age. I was in elementary school and the thinking at the time (and still is the thinking in some places) was that lifting weights at a young age could stunt your growth. We now know this not to be true but nobody knew it back then. I'd sneak into his bedroom and I'd pull out the weight set and do some curls. And then I'd try to put it back in the exact place that I found it. But I'd screw that up, and he'd invariably ask, "JIM! Have you been lifting weights again?"
But I couldn't get lifting weights off of my mind. Bodybuilding first appealed to me but back then, those guys in the muscle magazines all were strong, too. The photographs in the old magazines were of the big name bodybuilders of the day training for real, no sunglasses on with sprayed on water instead of sweat. Those guys were lifting real weights and they took pride in their strength. I began reading the muscle magazines over and over again. I memorized the pictures and the articles. I can still look at pictures of Tom Platz at the Mr. Olympia and tell you what year the picture was taken. And Mentzer and Arnold also.
As the years went by, and I entered into high school, the emphasis in my training was geared towards getting stronger and bigger for football. In high school, I worked out my schedule where I could have back to back weight training classes, five days a week. My buddy and fellow football player, Carlo and I would train, take a shower, eat a big lunch.
When I was in high school, I also had a steady girlfriend, Cathy, who was into lifting weights and I also trained with her. Women's bodybuilding was in its infancy back then in the early 1980's. Cathy ended up competing in a few bodybuilding shows back then, and did very well.
After high school, I ended up going to junior college for two years and the junior college didn't have a weight room and there wasn't a public gym close by. I had to find a place to lift weights. My friend Louie was working at a gym equipment store at the time, and he decided that he was going to get us a bunch of equipment from the store and put it in Cathy's basement. Of course, Cathy''s parents had to be okay with it and fortunately they didn't mind. Louie and I sat down and decided what we needed for the home gym. Olympic weight plates and Olympic bar, dumbbells (the changeable ones), a lat machine, a behind the neck press stand, and of course, mirrors. We even got a fish tank for the gym, but for some reason, the fish kept swimming full speed and crashing into the glass of the tank, and that started to irritate Louie, how stupid those damn fish were, so he flushed them down the toilet. Or threw them into the back yard, I can't remember. But there were no more fish there, I do know that fact.
The basement became a great place to train. When all the Olympic weights arrived, I was sitting there watching television in Cathy's house and I had an idea. I was going to squat 500 pounds for the first time, and I was going to do it right then. Nobody else was home as I ventured down to the basement gym. I did a few warm up sets. I was sickly fired up. I didn't have a spot, but I'm going to crush this weight, so who needed a spot? I took the barbell off the squat rack, and was like, THIS IS LIGHT! and I descended down and....nothing. I couldn't get up. So, like a dumb ass, I threw the weight over my head, and it all came crashing down. Since nobody was home, nobody freaked out about the noise. So what did I do next? I loaded up the bar and tried it again, and...same thing. Me on my ass, 500 pounds scraping the top of my head as I thew it over again. I was hard headed, but those weights were just sitting there, begging to be squatted. I did stuff like that all through my lifting career, until after about twenty years of training, I got a little smarter.
Eventually, I did get the 500 pounds, doubling it later that year. That was sort of a point of pride in Cathy's basement. You had to do two or more reps with 500 pounds in the squat in order to be considered strong.
On Mondays after football practice in Junior College, I'd have a bunch of players over in the basement for squat night. The atmosphere was electric and the tiny boom box in the corner cranked out Judas Priest and AC DC and all the other metal that was cool as hell back then. One of the guys on the team, Chris, was strong as an ox. He behind the neck pressed 315 pounds for a few reps and he squatted 610 for 2 reps also. He was benching 485 pounds and I was trying hard to keep up with him, the strong son of a bitch. It was fun chasing his numbers. I mean, Chris got after it in the weight room. He'd be rock bottom in the squat, doing reps with over 500 pounds and just when you thought he couldn't get another rep, he'd miraculously finish. We did heavy rack pulls and shrugs and nose breakers also. Carlo was away playing football at James Madison University but he'd come home for summer and he would train also.
I went away to school, playing football at Gardner Webb University, but still came home for Christmas and in the summer and trained there. I have some fond memories of lifting weights there. I remember before my senior year at Gardner Webb University, I decided that I wanted to get my bench stronger, and devised a plan, based on frequency. I'd never really concentrated on my bench press much, but my weak ass bench max pissed me off, so I wanted to change that, and I needed to do it over the summer. I benched twice a day, 5 days a week. I'd work up to a heavy single in the morning, then I would come back at night and bench lighter weights, maybe 75% of my single that morning for 5-8 reps. Of course, I still did my squats and the other lifts. And I ran twice a day, also. My bench went up like crazy, and I never missed a rep or went too hard in the night session. I think that having that bar in my hands so much and not altering my technique greased the correct groove. And along with eating massive amounts of food, I could finally bench close to 400 pounds. I'd be down in the basement, getting it done and being happy and feeling like I was on a roll. There are very few times that one can experience a bunch of great workouts in a row, and that Summer, I can't remember having a bad training session.
I just liked it down there. I had my own key and many times I had friends with me but many times it was just I, lifting weights, surrounded by weights and cinder block walls. Cathy was probably tired of me by then, she wasn't into all of the lifting like I was at this point, and if she wasn't into it, I was probably ignoring her. So I was by myself a lot, but that's what I liked. Maybe what I liked best was that there was no distractions or bullshit to deal with, just a good place to get strong and big.
Time rolled on after college, people change, some move away. Cathy and I grew apart and were no more after a while and the basement gym, from what I understand, became dusty and unused. But while I lifted weights there, the workouts were amazing and intense. It was the first place where I got decently strong and where the weights were clanging just as loud as the old boom box in the corner.
About The Author
Jim Steel has been immersed in athletics and the Iron Game for most of his life. He has been a college football player and coach, powerlifter, Muay Thai fighter and is currently a competitive bodybuilder. In 1999, Steel was named Assistant Strength and Conditioning Coordinator at the University of Pennsylvania, and moved up to Head Strength and Conditioning Coordinator in 2004. He is the owner of the blog basbarbell.com, and is a motivational speaker, frequent podcast guest and the author of two books, Basbarbell Book of Programs and Steel Reflections. Steel is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.