So I went to Facebook to ask my fans and friends what fitness columns they wanted me to write. What I got was a deluge of ideas and wants. Over the next couple of months, I will write as many of those columns as I can. This week is one I’ve wanted to write for a while. A great friend of mine from back in the day reminded me how we used to train at a gym my cousins owned, which I later took over.
There was Nothing Like North Jersey Health Club
Nothing. I started going there when I was 10 years old to learn how to box. I was a husky, short kid who pretty much got picked on by everyone—even the girls. Donna Houston kicked me in the nuts just because she could. I remember that pain like the kick was five minutes ago. We later became friends, but I needed a bodyguard. No, really, I’m not kidding.
I was sick and tired of growing up in a f—ed up house, going to school and then getting my ass kicked. So, I climbed the mile hill to Bergen Boulevard, where, under a place that sold carpet and rugs called the “Rug Barn,” was only the second of its kind in all of Bergen County…
A real physical culture/weight-lifting gym. It was the coolest and scariest thing I ever saw. All you heard were grunts and clanging weights. Muscular men loaded plates on machines with cables you knew would snap any minute. Totally Spartan. Totally old school.
In 1976, there were no selectorized (universal style) weight stacks. So you were loading 35, 10 and 50 pounds onto a welded bar with pads on it. Every machine was hand-built to my cousin Frank’s specifications. I’m pretty sure he had a welder who traded his time for a gym membership, which happened to be $99 a year.
Really Hitting It Old School
You had everything you ever thought you needed and then some. Seated calf machines, two squat racks, the narrowest—but still functional—bench presses (no Olympic bars just yet), leg extensions, leg curls, and 90-degree leg press machines (I still have nightmares about that motherf–ker). All the dumbbells were handmade and went up to 110 pounds each. The only people to use them were my cousin and his training partner, Dave.
At 10 years old, I just wanted to learn how to punch somebody’s face in. And there was a heavy bag, speed bag, boxing ring, and a coach.
I started the second I walked in: Coach just laughed at me and said to put the gloves on. For four years, all I did were push-ups, sit-ups, jumping jacks… I used the jump rope and beat the shit out of the heavy bag. I was lean, really f–king mean and made sure that everyone knew it. That’s when my cousin decided to put me to real work and started my weight training. Training in the ’70s was not like anything people ever seen.
You worked out until your body literally gave out. By this time, North Jersey Health Club had powerlifting squat racks, wide Olympic benches (that we went to York Barbell to pick up) with cold, rolled steel Olympic bars, and we used every bit of them. The handmade 90-degree leg press had a partner in 45 degrees. Only the p—–s used the 45-degree machine. This was heaven to a 14-year-old athlete and one tough motherf–ker.
I don’t even know how many members we had at the time, but it seemed like everyone knew each other and had each other’s back. The older guys were the younger guys’ mentors. If we got out of line (in school, church or any other place) and the older guys found out, which always seemed to happen, you got your ass kicked (either under weights or more literally, whichever was warranted).
Decided To Turn Things Around
One of those comrades asked me to write this column—my friend Tony Senatore, Mr. Squat. No one had legs like him. No one worked legs like him. I would copy everything he did: a little warm up, 145 pounds on the bar, 15-20 reps, 225 for 15-20 reps, 315 pounds for 50 reps. At the point of vomiting: stop, rest and throw 405 for 10-12 reps. Then, put as much weight the leg and leg press held and bang out as many reps as you could for three sets…
Then when you thought you couldn’t walk, which most of the time I couldn’t, crawl over to the 45-degree and bang out four more 50 rep sets. Puke, cry, scream, sweat, cry some more and try to walk out of the gym. Remember the one-mile hill I told you about earlier? I was never able to stop myself from rolling down it on leg day.
Two days later we would be back for more, but this time, no squats: 100-rep 90-degree leg press superset with 50-rep, 45-degree leg press superset with hack squats until your training partner needed to peel you from the machine. Rotate out for four sets. So much for hitting it the old school way huh?
Thank you, Tony, for reminding me how f–ked up we were and how much fun it was to train, proving there really was no limit to what we could achieve. Here’s a workout to keep you fit even when you travel.