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Middle-Aged Bodybuilder

Francis Smash!

I’m acting like a teenager again, and it feels good. I’m lifting weights. Not a lot, but enough to get the muscle buzz that comes with pitting lazy, dad flesh against unyielding iron. The clanging sound of metal plates bumping up against each another is triggering my middle-aged endorphins big time.

As a teenager, I was addicted to many things, including lifting weights. I blame my father for this particular monkey. But, for once he’s off the hook for passing on any lingering psychological damage. Hoisting metal for physical improvement is a relatively safe addiction to have.

I can’t remember how it all started, dad must’ve been in his late 30s or maybe he’d just turned 40, and the number motivated him. Whatever it was, I remember him bringing home a book on Arnold Schwarzenegger, Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder. It was the biography of the “Austrian Oak,” and it told the story of his move from a small town in Austria, Gratz, to America.

The book was full of drama and adventure, but best of all it had these intense pictures. Photo’s of Arnold transforming himself from a beefy young man into a sculpture of muscle that made the statue of David look flabby.

For whatever reason, dad became obsessed with Arnold. Shortly after bringing that book home, his obsession went into overdrive. A steady stream of muscle magazines poured into our suburban house. The coffee table in the living room that once featured copies of Time and Newsweek now spilled over with copies of Joe Wielder’s manly publications, especially Muscle & Fitness.

Every month dad would bring home the latest issue, which featured “Arnie,” as we affectionately called him in our house, striking heroic poses that showed off his “how can anyone on the planet be that big?” physique.

It was muscle porn pure and simple. Only with this kind of porn you didn’t need to hide it under your mattress. It was out in the open for everyone to see, and holy shit did we see it.

The magazines were a tease, a dare to the males in the Litzinger household to take up the iron mantle. To Show Arnie and his friends, Franco and Lou, massive bodybuilders in their own right, what one dad and his sons could accomplish if they had the will and the equipment.

To the surprise of no one in the Litzinger household, the tools for our family obsession arrived one Saturday afternoon. A bench press. A curling bar. Individual dumbbells, and stacks of no-nonsense iron. The individual plates weighed anywhere from two to 35 pounds each. It was all brought down to the basement; the home of the weight room dad had built. And by built I mean a rubber mat thrown on the floor so the weights wouldn’t crack the floor.

The equipment was lined up against the back wall, just in front of our pool table—dad’s other part-time infatuation.

For the next several years it was our communal workout room, something you’d expect to see in the middle of a prison yard at some maximum security facility in the deep South.

Dad came down on the weekends to work his chest and arms. He was a member of the YMCA, so the bulk of his workouts were done there during the week. The weights at home were just a touch up for his new hobby and body.

Around this time my father also developed the mature habit of flexing his muscles, especially his guns or pipes—bodybuilding speak for biceps—in front of us at any given moment.

We’d be eating breakfast, and dad, still in his undershirt, would turn to the brothers and me and ask, “Frankie, could you pass the ketchup, oh, and uh, by the way, BAM!” He’d pop his bicep muscles and go back to reading the sports page.

It happened so often that it became part of our morning routine, just something dad did before my brothers and I had our Flintstones vitamins.

Seeing dad transform himself physically inspired my brothers and me to do the same. We all took up lifting weights and soon enough the basement gym had its own distinct aroma. Imagine a stifling underage kids sweatshop somewhere in impoverished India, during the summer, and you’ve just about got it.

The good-spirited fun and ribbing from dad affected all of us. What started as a healthy way to stay in shape soon became an intense weight lifting and bodybuilding championship between dad and his sons.

There were two categories that everyone participated in: The biggest arms, especially the size of your biceps, AKA guns, and the most weight lifted by doing the bench press.

Both competitions came with their own particular exercises. Working on your arms involved a strict technique and a variety of moves that enhanced the bulge of the bicep. Early on in my arm obsession, I discovered I had incredibly strong forearms. I knew I had no chance of overtaking dad in the bicep category, but because of my freakish Popeyes—Francis bodybuilding speak for forearms—I thought hmm, maybe I could kick dad’s ass with my forearms.

To work the forearms, you need to do reverse curls, which I did, and with enough weight to bend the damn bar. When I say, I overdid it I’m being reserved, something rare for me. The truth is I went freaking nuts! I can’t remember the number of the weight used, but trust me, it was insane. I had veins popping out where veins shouldn’t pop.

The correct way of training is to work on separate parts of your body one day and other parts the next, followed by a period of rest. I stuck to this regime, with the exception of my forearms. No matter what body part I was working on any given day, I’d finish off with a few reverse forearm curls, and always with a spine-snapping weight. It got to the point where my forearms were bigger than my biceps. I can’t remember if dad formally conceded to me on the forearm department, but everyone in the house knew who had the biggest Popeyes, and that was good enough for me.

No matter how hard my brothers and I trained, the reality was that dad was a grown man, for the most part, and there was no way we could lift more weight than he could in the bench press competition, but man did we try.

Whereas building bigger pipes required endless repetitions, the key to the bench press was developing an explosive burst of power so you could exceed your normal lifting weight. At the time the magic number in the prison yard, sorry, the gym was 300 pounds. A lifetime of glory awaited anyone who hit or went past that number. I’d come close on many occasions, but I couldn’t get past 270 pounds without my body convulsing and feeling that I was going to crush myself.

To my mind, I needed more motivation, and nothing provided that better than the Sex Pistols and my Bose speakers. So on one sunny Saturday afternoon, I brought out the bench press and plopped it in the middle of our back yard.

Shrubs surrounded our yard on all sides, so there was a fair bit of privacy. For the outdoor workout, I wore a pair of tight gold silk track shorts, Adidas running shoes, and no shirt. I slathered suntan lotion all over myself, so I could tan while lifting, Arnie had said having a tan showed off your physique better, and if it was good enough for Arnie then it was good enough for me.

I out took the window screen in my basement bedroom that faced the yard and pushed both my Bose speakers just outside of the window. I put on my well-worn Never Mind The Bollocks Sex Pistols record and turned the volume knob on my Kenwood receiver up... way up past anywhere I’d ever turned it and started my workout.

Something about being in the back yard with the weights and my music inspired me, it was a surreal “coming out” party. I wanted all of Robinglade, the street I lived on, to know how much I loved the Sex Pistols, I loved my speakers, and I love lifting weights! Out of all the workouts I’ve done in my life, this one, this particular one was the absolute best. I was a monster.

I’d changed my routine so I’d finish off with the bench press. I was determined on this day to hit the 300-pound mark. I loved "God Save The Queen"—it was, of course, the Pistols anthem—but for a sheer adrenaline rush, I needed the song "EMI" for my bench attempt. This track is such a fuck you to the powers that be. I love the idea that the record company signed the Pistols, gave them a signing bonus, and then had to watch as the band slagged them and drank away their advance. The record company then gave the sack to the band and then the Pistols write a screw you song about it.

I like to think on that day I looked like a Greek God, but in reality, I was a crazy teenager wearing tiny track shorts, glistening with sweat, and smeared in suntan oil, grunting like a caveman with every lift.

It eventually came down to my two final lifts. I’d worked myself up to the weight by benching 265 pounds a few times. My next lift was to be 285 pounds, and then I’d go for it: The 300-pound barrier.

I walked around the bench slapping on the extra plates, yelling at the bar, priming myself for the next two lifts. I lay on the bench and started exhaling like a free diver about to be lowered into a blue hole, getting myself pumped for the first big lift. Exhale, exhale, and then the guitar riff I needed came on—bam! Up went the weight, once, twice, three times, even four. Done.

285 fucken pounds hoisted baby! I jumped off the bench and strutted around the yard like a gladiator who’s just slain everyone in the ring in front of his Emperor.

“Hey! Hey! Is that you Frankie? Turn that goddamn noise off, will you! I can’t hear myself thinking!”

Mr. Heath was walking towards me. I couldn’t believe it. He’d come around the corner from his backyard into ours and was yelling louder than the Pistols. My neighbour was in my private backyard weight room, and I was about to go for the 300-pound lift.

At this point, I forget if I said anything remotely intelligent to Mr. Heath. What I do remember is striking an Incredible Hulk pose and screaming at him with everything I had. After holding the pose for as long as I could, I went back to putting the plates on for the historic lift and tried to stay in character by slapping myself on the chest and yelling at the bench.

Mr. Heath realized his neighbour’s eldest son was in his special place and walked back to his yard shaking his head. He would go on to tell my parents and any other neighbour on Robinglade that would listen to him, “You know that there Frankie Litzinger kid isn’t all there, something missing from that one.”

I got back to the job at hand and started hyperventilating again. Above me lay a bar of glory, lifting 300 pounds up and then down to my chest and up again was all that separated me from the weight-lifting greats.

One, Two, Three, Push! Up it went, but my arms started shaking, I was breathing like a steam engine trying to keep it up. If I lowered it could I get it back up? The demonic energy I’d acquired from the last lift was seeping out because of my outburst with Mr. Heath. If I tried to lift it and couldn’t get it back up, I'd be dead. No one would hear me yelling above the Pistols, and if anyone did, it would be Mr. Heath, and he’d ignore me. All of this and more went through my head in that brief second with the bar above me. After what seemed like an eternity of trembling arms that appeared on the verge of betraying me I put the bar back into its resting place.

I laid on the bench looking up at the bar. I’d come so close, but it was not to be on this afternoon.

Not this time…