by Rocco Castellano

So I went to Facebook to ask my fans and friends what fitness articles they wanted me to write. What I got was a deluge of ideas and desires. Over the next couple of months, I will write as many blogs as possible. This week is one I’ve wanted to write for a while. A great friend of mine Tony Senatore, from back in the day reminded me of how we used to train at a gym my cousins owned, called North Jersey Health Club.

Nothing Like North Jersey Health Club

Nothing. I started going there when I was ten to learn how to box. I was a husky, short kid who 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, 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, The North Jersey Health Club

An actual physical culture/weight-lifting gym. It was the most extraordinary and scariest thing I had ever seen. All you heard were grunts and clanging weights. Muscular men loaded plates on machines with cables you knew would snap any minute. Spartan, and 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. Every machine was hand-built to my cousin Frank’s specifications. I’m sure he had a welder who traded his time for a gym membership, which was $99 a year.

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 ten years old, I just wanted to learn how to punch somebody’s face. 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. My cousin decided to put me to work and started my weight training. For four years, all I did were push-ups, sit-ups, and 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. Training in the ’70s was not like anything people had ever seen.

You worked out until your body gave out. By this time, North Jersey Health Club had powerlifting squat racks and wide Olympic benches (we went to York Barbell to pick them up) with cold, rolled steel Olympic bars, and we used every bit of them. 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 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). 

Puke, Cry, Scream, Sweat, Cry Some More

One of those mentors 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 as the leg and leg press held and bang out as many reps as possible 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 could never 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 was no limit to what we could achieve. Here’s a workout to keep you fit even when you travel.


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