He was not larger than life. In reality, a couple inches shorter than me and, for all his muscle, still only about fifty pounds heavier. But more than any other physical feature, I observed his forearms. Bulbous and hard, a vein popping from just past his palm when we shook hands.
And I looked at my own forearms, my own wrists. I had started lifting weights five years earlier, but my forearms remained slender, my wrists downright dainty.
I Googled ways to work forearms. I learned isolation movements like wrist rollers and wrist curls. I added these motions to my regimen. Though my forearms pulsed, I failed to see results right away, and questioned whether I should carry on.
I put off weight training. I grew up as a fan of professional wrestling and professional basketball, and thus was surrounded by images of men like Hulk Hogan and Karl Malone with their cut triceps, their bulging chests, their swollen biceps. I took an interest in their body types, for sure, but as a perpetually skinny kid--to the point that the school once called home to have my parents log my meals so they could gauge whether they were inadvertently starving me--I reasoned that I was too slight to ever put on muscle mass. That I would need to wait for my metabolism to slow and my body to thicken itself before I could put on any meaningful muscle.
Late in my college career, I dated a woman who ran compulsively and had most recently been involved with a high school linebacker. I felt inadequate, and rather than embrace the fact that she may have appreciated me as a counterpoint to everything he was, I bought a set of dumbbells and started doing presses, flies, and curls in my dorm room. I drank whole milk mixed with weight-gain powder that gave me horrible diarrhea. But my shoulders began to swell and my biceps started to show some semblance of definition. Long after I stopped seeing that partner, I continued the routine.
I started seeing another woman in Baltimore, and in those fledgling stages when I suspected I might love her, she ended it. A couple weeks later, I had a workout with a dear friend at his home gym where he corrected my form and showed me differences between a legitimate bench press, and doing dumbbell presses with thirty pound weights on my bed. I got back to Baltimore and joined the gym downstairs from my office.
And as I started working on my still-skinny wrists and forearms, I wondered if such workouts were functional or purely superficial. If I were chasing pro-wrestler forearms more for vanity than to be able to twist open any jar or bottle in the kitchen.
And I started thinking about functionality. A Russian trainer at my gym in Baltimore, who had moonlighted as a kickboxer a decade earlier, insisted on repetitions over weight, asking in heavily accented, broken English, “What you do in normal life? Pick up something that weighs ten pounds twenty times, or pick up something that weighs two hundred pounds once?” He pointed at his head, urging me to think. He routinely bench pressed ninety-five pounds for a hundred reps.
It would be overstating it to say I truly took his advice, espoused his philosophy. But I grew more conscious about balancing heavy lifting days with days more oriented toward conditioning, stamina, and toning. I incorporated a light regimen of dead lifts to protect against back injuries as I grew older.
I read a post on a bodybuilding and training forum that a dear friend moderated, all about why people lifted weights. They wrote about athletic careers. They wrote about standing up for themselves. They wrote about vanity. And then one wrote about his father. He talked about all the ways his father had carried him and their family for so long. Physically taking him from place to place as a baby. Working a factory job to put food on the table for a family of four. Teaching his son how to lift weights as a teenager and the fundamentals of boxing so he wouldn’t need to run from a fight on the schoolyard. Giving him the financial stump so that he could work his way through four years of college and come out the other end without student loans to repay. He wrote about his mother dying, and his father moving into his son’s house when he was too old to take care of himself anymore. And how after all that time of a father carrying a son, in those golden years, the son would lift the father to carry him up and down the stairs each morning and each night, from his bedroom to the main floor of the house where he could eat his meals in the kitchen, watch TV in the living room, and have access to the front door to get out into the world outside.
I don’t have any stories so poetic , so circular, or so beautiful about my own weight training. Just sweat and iron. But I continue to lift. Continue to carry. Continue to try. All I have to show for it are muscles that grew in slow, not entirely steady increments. That and my skinny wrists. My bane. My motivation to keep working.