When I was a kid in the late 1970s and early 1980s I fondly remember watching pro-wrestling with my dad and older brother on Sunday nights. Being eight years old or so, I could never quite decide if it was real or not. My heroes were, of course, Jimmy “Superfly” Snuka and Andre the Giant, may he rest in peace (hardcore fans are now making the sign of the cross). The reason that I watched was that I admired their strength and athleticism. Growing up I always wanted to be strong like the wrestlers that I watched on Sunday nights.
People get into fitness and exercise for a variety of reasons. Sometimes it is to lose weight, to rehabilitate an injury, to train for a sport, or just simply because they want to feel a little more energetic. Whatever the reason, everyone has to start somewhere. For me it was those Sunday nights watching the WWF. I began challenging my brother, 8 years my senior, to arm wrestling matches. I constantly had to test my strength and, of course, he beat me for a while. Funny, however, he stopped accepting my challenges when I started winning on a regular basis. I think I was about 12 and he was 20.
Around that time I started to fool around with weights in my basement. I had no idea what I was doing so I started to read anything I could find. This usually consisted of old bodybuilding magazines. Eventually I found my way to the local YMCA. For those of you who did not know, I was raised in the blue-collar town of Auburn which is nestled in the Finger Lakes of Upstate New York. I bring this up because Auburn was a town with a rich history in strength training. When powerlifting was in its hay-day in the late 70s to mid-80s, Auburn turned out especially strong lifters. On any night you could go to the gym and see more than a dozen state champs and a few national level lifters. I can still smell the damp basement gym and the lifting chalk dust. Ahh — good times.
The first few times I went to the gym I have to admit that I was a danger to myself and to those around me. Thinking back, I have no idea how I escaped serious injury. During my second workout I had the idea I was going to squat. For all of you young guys out there, squatting is an exercise that we used to do on those metal racks you now use for curling. Anyway, a buddy of mine who knew even less that I did was spotting me. After a couple sets, and nearly killing myself under the weight of a barbell that was too heavy, one of the older guys in the gym came up to me and offered some advice. Of course I was insulted, I knew perfectly well what I was doing (I had no idea what I was doing). I told him I was fine. Later, however, seeing the error of my ways I sought out advice from anyone I thought was credible. What are you doing? How do I get stronger? What does that exercise train? These were questions I was constantly asking, most likely to the annoyance to the regular lifters. I was 15 years old.
Those early years were very formative for me. They taught me the value of hard work and delayed gratification. Eventually, I found myself writing training programs when I should have been paying attention in class. After school, I would walk the 5 miles to the Y if I could not find a ride. This is the point where I realized that as much as regular exercise was doing for my body, it was doing far more for my self-esteem and work ethic.