I started out like so many other kids we hear about who turned to weights, as a girl who was completely uncoordinated, had no idea what was going on in organized sports, and was always the last one picked for the teams at school. I did have one shining season in 7th grade volleyball, but it was the only exception.
When my father and a whole crew of his friends turned 40, they all went through a midlife thing, gave up their previously sedentary lifestyles, and began running. This mindset stayed at obsession levels with about 10 guys and gals for the better part of 15 years, and though I didn’t participate, I watched and was immersed in the mentality of marathons, carbo loading, and 20 mile training runs. (Today, as homage to my dad and his unconscious influence on me, I wear an endless variety of his race T-shirts from the 80s as my training garb.)
I still sat on my ass, though. In high school I got out of the horrors of gym class after the first semester by joining the marching band, which saved me for the entire 4 years.
Two years of college went by in similar fashion, until I realized that I needed 2 credits of phys ed to graduate. Whatever to do? This was junior year, 1987, SUNY-Binghamton.
I glanced at the schedule. There it was: “Weight Training for Women.” Something that didn’t require any sort of coordination and didn’t have any guys to embarrass me. I signed up immediately. We trained in a tiny little cinderblock room hidden in the basement of the gym. The central piece of equipment was an ancient Universal that took up the entire center of the space. There was a total hip machine on one side, and a rack of free weights and a scale on the other. That was it. The instructor was a militant style Israeli guy who made us run 1 mile around the track before we lifted – rain or shine. Within one month I was showing significant muscle in my arms and shoulders. People in the class were noticing. The instructor took me under his wing and said “Shotput. You must try it.” He took me down to where the track and field people were working out. I was pathetic. I went back to lifting. I went out and bought spandex. I bought Rachel McLish’s Perfect Parts.
The second semester of that year (1988), I picked a class called “Weight Training” which was the same as the other one, but with men and in a slightly larger, better gym. However, the main focus was still the universal machine. Anyway, those early training sessions are very vague in my mind. I do remember that there was no free-weight leg training, at least not for us women. We never even discussed it or ventured over to that area of the gym. I was the only woman who did upright rows, and I do remember that I had to muster up the courage every single time to leave the machine area, walk over to the mirror, and do them in the midst of all those guys. I still believe that my early dedication to those upright rows was the basis for the fantastic shoulders I maintain to this day, though I have given up the rows in favor of safer shoulder exercises.
I encouraged my roommate and 2 friends to take that class with me. The three of us continued to run together, now as far as 2 and three miles, on our own time. Class met two times a week but we trained a third day on our own time.
These two photos are from Binghampton college gym, 1989, and the next phase of training, Training On My Own. That’s what I call senior year of college, 1988/89, when I was no longer in gym class. I found myself training 3 days a week with no one telling me to do it. I lived off campus and would take buses to get there even on days when I had no classes and no other reason to go to campus.
The year ended and I went home to my folks for the summer. My training ended abruptly. I resumed on a small scale, using some Nautilus machines, when I went to grad school for library science at Syracuse from 1989-1990. But my heart wasn’t in it. None of my new friends worked out, and during the summer session at the end, I didn’t have automatic use of the gym without paying for it.
My first two working years, 1990-1992, were dark ones in terms of working out. I was living away from my parents in Brooklyn for the first time, and was commuting over an hour in each direction on the subway every day (I worked in the Library at the American Museum of Natural History, all the way uptown). At night I was exhausted and sat in a chair watching TV.
Early in 92, I started dating a new guy. He smoked regularly, and though I had always been an on-again, off-again smoker, I started smoking all the time with him. One day in April I looked down at myself and realized that things were starting to go. I’d been reluctant to investigate any local gyms because I didn’t have anyone to go with, but now I realized that the situation was getting desperate.
I asked my boyfriend, “If I joined a gym, would you work out with me?” “Hell no,” he said. I dumped him a week later, threw my cigarettes in the garbage and made an appointment for an orientation at Jack LaLanne.
At Jack LaLanne, things started to seem right again. This was in the days that Cher was advertising “the 30 minute workout” and I did that first. It was a circuit of electronic machines. I would do it once and then leave the gym. Over the next few months, I built up to a cycle of doing the entire circuit 3 times.
But something was missing. I started to feel guilt over my lack of cardio. I stepped onto the LifeStep machine. Those first times were very frustrating. After those years of smoking and sitting around, I couldn’t even do 2 minutes on the machine without serious lactic acid pain and cardiovascular exhaustion. I devised a plan. Surely my body wouldn’t notice an increase of 1 minute per session? I wrote out the complete schedule, minute by minute, workout by workout, and stuck to it. It worked. By January 1993, I was doing 60 minutes on the Stairmaster nonstop, and I had migrated from the 30 minute circuits to some Nautilus, Gravitron, and other specialized machines. But I still hadn’t made it into the free weight section.
Jack LaLanne was laid out on two levels. Downstairs on one side were the machines, in the center was the aerobics theater. Behind the aerobics theater, accessible only by a tiny passageway, lay the free weight section, a mysterious area I could not bring myself to venture into. Above all this was the track, which overlooked everything. Time after time, I did my post-cardio cooldown by walking around that track, and looked down at the free-weight area. It was small. It was dungeon-like. The equipment seemed very primitive compared to the slick machines from the regular area. There were NO women.
During those long 10 months of training, I still had not made a single friend, and in fact did not talk to anyone beyond hello and goodbye. So I had no real connections who could convince me to go into the free weight area.
In January 1993, I was slogging through another 60 minute session on the Stairmaster, stuck in sort of a rut workoutwise. Suddenly a man who I had been admiring for months appeared up near the cardio machines. He was always alone, like I was, and had the best legs in the gym, thick and strong. I thought, “That’s it — I’m going to tell him I think he’s got the best legs in the gym.” Literally at that very moment, as the thought crystallized in my head, he finished stretching, turned toward me, and approached my machine.
“Can I ask you something?” he said. “How long have you been training?”
“Eight months,” I said.
“I think you have the best physique in this place,” he said. “You look like you’ve been training for years.”
I almost fell off my Stairmaster. “I was just about to tell you that you have the best legs in this gym!”
So we both stood there doing double takes until he stuck out his hand and introduced himself. “My name’s Marc.”
And so, a short lived but extremely beneficial partnership was born. On our very first training session, Marc took me into the free weight room. I remember vividly that as we walked in there, every eye turned to look at us. That was really intimidating. It never really changed or lessened with time, but I got used to men staring at me. He taught me to squat, to stiff legged deadlift, to leg press, to bench press and do dumbbell flyes. I stopped using most of the machines in favor of free weights over the course of one month. I bought a belt.
In March, we both abandoned the restrictive, crowded, and tiny Jack LaLanne and plunked down another $500 to join a brand new Gold’s Gym next to the Verazzano Bridge. It was much further from my house but had 2 squat racks, 2 leg presses, treadmills (Can you believe Jack LaLanne had none – you had to jog around the gym 14 times just to get 1 mile), and a juice bar. And most importantly, it was EMPTY. Within another month, Marc and I had a falling out and he went back to Jack LaLanne, never to be seen again.
But I stayed. And thrived.
So, there I was, alone in Gold’s Gym, March of 1993. Around this time I began to be plagued by increasingly frequent episodes of “intestinal distress.” Within a month it had progressed to something like 8 or more episodes every day, and I also began bleeding. I was in denial, completely. I felt like every time was the last time, that it would all be normal the next day. I would be struck down by abdominal cramps on the treadmill during my 45 minute runs. In the worst possible case of denial, I would jump off, dash to the bathroom, and return and reset the machine to make sure I got the full 45 minutes in. By May, things had deteriorated to the point where I had to sit or lie down and rest for 10 minutes after each trip to the bathroom. It started waking me up in the middle of the night. My body fat was way lower that it should be with the kind of diet and exercise I was doing. A 5 day Grand Canyon rafting trip was on the horizon at the end of May. I knew that I would only have access to a toilet twice a day. So I finally went to a doctor, who heard my story and sent me right to the hospital for some tests. The diagnosis? Ulcerative colitis (same disease that pro bodybuilder Mike Francois has — unfortunately, he had to have his colon removed). I was put on a dose of very strong meds for about a month and thankfully, went into remission and was able to go on my trip.
How was I able to keep going while so seriously ill? The doc said it was my level of fitness due to the cardio and weight training. I’ve had two more flare-ups since then, and the doc encouraged me to exercise as much as possible to keep my strength up. We were able to beat both down into remission without the use of corticosteroids, which are your worst nightmare in terms of residual side effects.
Anyway… .the story doesn’t have much going on in the years of 94-97. I was up and down with workouts….sometimes it would be cardio work for months while lagging with the weights, other times it would be weights and cardio would slack off. When I did lift, I tried to always lift heavy and make the workouts more meaningful.
In 95, I had a new boyfriend who was on the Central Park Skate Patrol. So I got Rollerblades. He lasted less than 3 months… but my Rollerblades are still going strong!
In 97, a short lived friendship with a guy named Noah produced my first bicycle since childhood. He moved to Florida before the year was out. I’m still biking around all over the place.
In late 97, I met my current boyfriend Brett. Brett resurrected my interest in weight training. He had his personal training certification, but also a Master’s in Sports Psychology. At 6’3″ and only 205 pounds, Brett regularly deepsquatted between 365 and 405 pounds. He deadlifted even more. He did stiff-legged deadlifts with 315. I was impressed. None of my previous boyfriends since Marc had worked their legs very much. He finally convinced me to come back to the weights in April of 98.
With the change in squatting stance that he recommended for me (wide stance with toes slightly pointed out) I was able to get 5 reps at 165 by the end of the very first workout. I started squatting every week, increasing the weights by 10 or 20 pounds each time. Over a period of 8 months I was able to increase my lifts on the last set to 275. Of course, I only did the 275 twice. And I realized that the lifts were not to parallel. I’ve abandoned the 275 for now and I’m concentrating on getting 240 to parallel for that last set. This involves having the spotter hold me right from the beginning of the lift so that I can get to parallel without worrying so much about the fear. I do get stuck down there, but I’m confident that I’ll eventually be able to get up out of the hole without help.
This past summer I started hiking, which is great for the legs. January 1st, 1999, I added upper body again to my weight routine, and also cardio. Both had fallen by the wayside for the past year, though I did do a sort of weekend warrior thing with cardio – 30 mile bike rides, 8 mile hikes. My upper body stayed muscular, probably due to increased testosterone production, but I gained 20 pounds. Hopefully that will come off soon with some dietary modifications, but I’m not agonizing over it.
The next projects are deadlifts, unassisted chins, and an experiment with German Volume Training.