Chairman and the Torture Chamber

“I told you too much starch in my shirt makes me break out!”

While running the other day, I pulled my groin. I didn’t pull my groin out (after all, there wasn’t a sorority in sight). I pulled my groin muscle while running across Key Bridge. I had a great view of the Potomac River while limping home. A single-leg amputee with a hook-shaped graphite leg ran past me, slowing just long enough to frown. Shameful.

Sadly, little injuries like this are unremarkable these days as I hobble into the sunset of my physical prime. Although I can do roughly 90% of the things I was able to do 10 years ago, my recovery takes much longer. A morning workout is inevitably felt throughout the course of the workday doing seemingly ordinary things – bending over to tie my shoes, reaching up to grab a book, contorting myself to scratch my back. After spending 15 minutes popping my back into alignment recently, my chiropractor – whose clients include Marine Corps Marathon runners, triathletes and rugby players – said: “Come back soon. Your back was pretty jacked.”

This is a far cry from my roaring 20s, when kidney-killing creatine gave me 5000% of my recommended daily allowance for protein and powered me to a short-lived maximum bench press of 275 pounds (I have weighed between 155 to 165 pounds through most of my adult life). I didn’t know how a 275 bench press could be useful. Maybe it could come in handy if I were working underneath my car and the car fell on me. It could also be a good conversation starter:

You: “Hi, how do you do?”

Me: “Good. If you weighed 275 pounds, I could bench you.”

Workout routines were much simpler back then – the goal was to look good. Screw functional fitness, combat conditioning and all this other “real world” applicability garbage. My “prison yard workout” was chest and biceps, done as much for looks as it was for survival … so no one would shank me during my one-hour of rec time during my imaginary life sentence at San Quentin. Don’t laugh, I’m still there, feeding the birds, doing the guards’ taxes and avoiding the laundry room at all costs.

I alternated with back and triceps on the other days, then threw in a token shoulder and legs workout so I wouldn’t look like a flamingo. Easy, eh?

“You talkin’ to me?”

While I lived in Pasadena, Calif., my gym was the local Bally’s Total Fitness. The place was a sweaty meat market during the post-work rush hour, a petri dish of Southern California humanity – “industry” types who flashed thousand-watt smiles while doing hammer dumbbell curls in the mirror, women in spandex, butt-floss outfits, cops, firefighters, porn stars, struggling waiters moonlighting as actors (yes, that is correct).

If the Pasadena Bally’s was a church for body-worshippers, the deacons were the Torture Chamber, a quintet of testosterone and grunting that provided endless hours of entertainment simply by being themselves. The members of the TC were four guys and one woman whose physique resembled an average-sized man’s. The guys looked like professional movers … of airliners. I guessed they hadn’t scratched their own back in years. They were all shoulders and no neck.

They even wore matching outfits. Etched on the front of their oversized black T-shirts was “TORTURE CHAMBER” in Gothic font. On the back of their shirts was their adopted slogan: “NO HURT, NO BIG T-SHIRT.” I resisted the urge to tell them that the slogan wasn’t original and came close to not rhyming.

This oversized fire team was led by a guy I called The King, whose head was always covered by a black ‘do rag. When he decided to max-out on the bench-press, he needed three spotters, every 45-pound weight within sight and a towel on his chest to cushion the barbell’s impact when he bounced it off his chest. On a max-out night, the Torture Chamber annexed a bench press and an area two feet around the station. Other patrons would stop and stare as The King steadily worked his way up from 225 pounds to the coup de grace of 500.

The big plates ceremoniously clanked against each other on The King’s barbell as max-out night reached its crescendo. Conversations became soft murmurs; occasionally, you would hear someone doing the math on the barbell: “… Forty-five times 10 is 450, right? Then add 45 and those two little ones… Holy shit.”

The weight would go up and down quickly, then bounce off The King’s massive chest back up just as quickly. The Torture Chamber didn’t fuck around with asking inane questions like, “So, how much of a percentage would you like me to help you up when you get stuck down there?” Grab the weight. Up. Down. Up. Back on the rack. Scream. Elaborate soul shakes.

Alas, my youthful energy is no more. Maybe there’s salvation to be found from the late fitness guru Jack LaLanne.

I just need a jumpsuit for my next workout.

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About Chairman Mao

I like fomenting socialist revolutions and purging my homeland of pseudo-intellectualism and capitalist dogma. I also like sports, dogs and food (although I wouldn't consider myself a foodie).
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