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This Could Get Heavy

First, a chronology of my athletic career:

1997: At the age of five, I set out to become a professional wrestler and superhero. Though I dominate the 37-pound circuit for a while, I develop no powers. Also, I discover professional wrestlers fake it.

1998: Tee-ball is much harder than it looks.

1999-2006: I sit inside my house and read, avoiding sunlight if possible.

2007-2009: For three years, I try to make the varsity soccer team and be a coordinated person girls will like. Alas, no.

2010: My new goal, as a senior in high school, is to run five kilometers at a reasonable pace without Death casting her cold shadow over my pale, skinny, ill-clad body. But Delaware has a lot of hills. A LOT OF HILLS. I end the cross-country season five-foot-eleven and 125 pounds with ten black toenails.

That autumn, I affixed a chin-up bar to my door, hoping to attach a few scraps of muscle to my skeleton. With push-ups and crunches and curls and crunches and more crunches, I packed on more tone than the average Kenyan marathoner, but I still wasn’t in underwear model territory. Desperate, I decided to Bing “how to build muscle” and started to read.

“Food! I forgot about eating food!”

The sites that came up were full of helpful advice. By February, I’d settled into a rhythm: eat, work out (biceps, triceps, biceps, triceps, biceps, biceps), eat, read, sleep, repeat. I was better at the reading part than the others. My epiphanies multiplied. I realized I had muscles in my legs, too. I learned that I was using my spine to lift.

Before long, I was a genuine expert on weightlifting. I was doing thoughtful, smooth, full-body workouts every few days and eating through half the family grocery budget (we have three kids and a spoiled cat). Then came the move to Yale. A gym in the basement! More food than I could eat! And, of course, the Yale Powerlifters.

By mid-September I was hanging out with people who could squat a barbell weighing as much as me on either end. I learned more in a month of practice than I had in a year of watching people lift things on YouTube (unexpectedly engrossing, if you’ve never tried it). I knew enough now to be concerned for the other lifters at Payne-Whitney. Picking up heavy things is a lot like taming lions or walking tightropes—you won’t look cool until you do it properly, and doing it any other way will probably get you hurt.

The average male training plan seems to devote two days each to arms and chest and three to abs—the only muscle group that really doesn’t get any larger on an average human. Or, as Olympic weightlifting champ Alison James ’12 said, “So many guys apparently think it’s attractive to have an unnaturally inflated chest and arms that sits on top of a pair of chicken legs.”

The average female training plan involves jogging, and maybe some breaks for combination squat-curl-lateral raises with ten-pound dumbbells, preferably while standing on an exercise ball, giving the wall mirrors a death stare, and trying not to breathe, lest she grunts. The most common male movement, conversely, is the “bicep jerk”—like a curl, but of the entire body, and with twice the weight he knows he can handle.

I soon left the team over a difference in weightlifting philosophy.

The Powerlifters’ goal is to be as strong as possible. Buffness is only a secondary concern. As their captain told the News, “Why am I going to care about looking strong, if I’m not going to be strong?” I take a different view. Like 90 percent of Yale gymgoers, I exercise mainly for the sake of the opposite sex (or, given lack of success on that front, mirrors). I wanted to go from beanpole to bruiser—stick to brick—geek to freak. Bench-pressing three hundred pounds held no inherent appeal for me.

Since then, I’ve taken up the most efficient possible weight-training system: a few carefully chosen exercises, ninety seconds apiece, with a weight heavy enough to drive my muscles past pain into total shutdown. Bodybuilding pioneer Arthur Jones summed up this system’s philosophy: “If you’ve never vomited from doing a set of bicep curls, then you’ve never experienced outright hard work.”

The first few workouts were the closest I’ve gotten to an out-of-body experience, but my once-infantile pain tolerance is creeping upward. You could say I’ve traded my irony for iron, but that still sounds ironic, so I’ll stop before I drop a joke on my foot or something. From now on, I’ll just keep to my new plan and lift.

So if you’re ever passing through the basement of Timothy Dwight and hear what sounds like a werewolf transforming, it’s just me on the leg press, getting ready for my next tête-à-tête with my favorite mirror. And of course, working toward my latest goal:

2012: Just be a decent person without letting life get me down. Also, become an underwear model.

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