Back to the iron (again)
I started lifting weights when I was a college sophomore.
I was 18. A classic ectomorph, I weighed a scrawny 115 pounds. My pack-a-day cigarette habit didn’t help.
I had zero interest in team sports, and taking weightlifting for Physical Education seemed like a good idea.
The weight room at the old University of the Philippines gym was small and basic: racks of barbells and dumbbells, a couple of wooden benches, and a full-length mirror. Dr. Mequi would show up at the start of the class, show us the basic lifts—bench press, deadlift, squat, upright rows, curls— then disappear until the last five minutes.
This went on for a couple of months, and then it started to happen: I began to fill out—not dramatically, but enough that people started to notice. I also began to feel good, and not just about myself. I had discovered the “pump”—the surge of endorphins that follows regular and systematic physical exertion.
By the end of the semester, I weighed nearly 130 pounds, but with no more access to a gym, I slipped back into a sedentary lifestyle.
I had learned an important lesson, however. With the application of will and a little know-how, self-transformation was possible.
I started lifting weights again when I was 25. I was married, a father of two, and working a more-or-less 9-to-5 job. I had entered the cycle of birth-school-work-death, and I needed to break out of the rut.
The closest gym to my office was in the nearby air force base. It was considerably larger and better-equipped than the old UP gym, not surprising since the RP Olympic weightlifting team worked out there.
Carried away by the sight of Southeast Asian Games gold medalist Jaime Sebastian snatching mind-boggling amounts of iron in training, I slapped on probably more plates on the bar than I should have. After several months, I was bench pressing twice my bodyweight and squatting nearly as much without passing out. My workmates started calling me Conan.
Inevitably, I slipped back, but I knew that, if and when I needed it, the iron would always be there for me. That was Lesson No. 2: weightlifting is as much mental as it is physical— maybe even more.
Just before I turned 30, I was working a thankless PR gig for a surrealistic government corporation out of Terry Gilliam’s “Brazil.” I sought out the nearest gym and started spending my lunch hour there, basically to keep my sanity. The soothing routine of the workout and its predictable effect on my physique balanced out the meaninglessness of the rest of my workday.
More serious stressor
I was 36 when I needed the iron again. This time the stressor was more serious. My wife was diagnosed with a brain tumor, and for the next five years we battled it: surgery, radiation, chemotherapy, more surgery. Despite the hectic schedule, I kept a half-hour sacred: my time in the weight room. I needed inordinate amounts of stamina to keep up, and the iron did not disappoint. I don’t think I could have gotten through without it.
The iron also helped me through rebuilding my life as a single parent after I turned 40. I found a gym at a hostel in UP, not far from where I first learned to lift weights and not much bigger, but it suited me. They had a sound system on which I could blast my mix tapes while working out.
Since then, I’ve gone back to the gym on and off—more off, to be truthful.
The program is stored in my muscle memory, to access when I need it. Fancy health clubs with gleaming equipment and musclebound trainers are not for me. Dr. Mequi taught me all I needed to start, the rest I learned for myself. I’m strictly old-school in my approach: free weights, three sets of medium reps for each movement.
Recently, I started lifting again when I switched from a 200-pound scooter to a 500-pound motorcycle, and found I lacked the upper-body strength to maneuver it with ease.
Going back to the routine of working out is like slipping into an old and well-worn pair of shoes: a familiar and comforting feeling. I don’t exactly welcome the soreness that inevitably follows that first workout after a long layoff, but it’s a familiar pain that tells me I’m on the path again.
As a senior citizen, I have more modest goals. No more explosive movements for these old joints of mine. These days, it’s all about maintaining muscle mass and bone density and the cardio benefits of strength training.
It’s also about confronting your own mortality.
In a mediated, post-truth world, trying to lift 200 pounds over your head is about as real as it gets.
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