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The Inner Drives and Motivations of Average Lifters
Motivation is one of my major interests -- I wrote about it extensively in Ripped 2 and Lean for Life -- because success in bodybuilding and fitness turns on motivation, especially in the long run. Fitness philosopher George Sheehan, M.D., wisely said that most people wonít exercise just because itís good for them, that we need to be inspired. Thatís true, of course, but thereís more to it than that, especially in the case of bodybuilders and lifters.
What motivates people to start lifting, and more importantly what keeps them training year after year? Books such as Sam Fussellís Muscle and Little Big Men by Alan Klein, which focus mainly on competitive bodybuilders and the California gym scene, paint a sleazy picture of all-consuming obsession and growth at any cost. Klein called it a macho world of "comic-book masculinity." Thereís some truth to that, of course, but it represents only a small fraction of the millions of people across the country and around the world who train with weights. Far more interesting, I believe, are the inner drives and motivations of average lifters with regular jobs and families, mainstream people with their feet squarely on the ground. People like my friend Laszlo Bencze. What has kept him going to the gym for thirty five years?
I first became acquainted with Laszlo (I knew him as Louis) about 30 years ago as a fellow competitor at various Olympics lifting contests in the Southwest. We didnít know each other very well. He was a budding young lifter and I was nearing the end of my time as a competitive Olympic lifter. After a long hiatus, we have recently gotten better acquainted via the Internet. As our email exchanges have piled up over time, I have come to not only like him, but to admire and respect him as well.
Photography has been Laszloís passion since high school, and over the last 27 years heís built a reputation as a master of location photography. He has worked on major assignments for such companies as Burlington Northern/Santa Fe, Anheuser-Busch, Boeing, Federal Express, U.S. National bank, International Paper, Nordstrom and Intel. In addition to traveling the world on assignment for these big-name companies, he has developed a specialty in capturing vibrant, true-to-life wedding scenes. (You can see examples of his work at www.laszlophoto.com, wedding, and www.lbencze.com, general commercial. Along the way he has also found time to marry and have a son, 12-year-old Ansel (named after famous photographer Ansel Adams). In short, heís had a full and satisfying life apart from weight training.
But thereís more. I have come to discover that Laszlo also has a wonderful way with words. He can express himself on paper as well as on film. See what I mean as you read his fascinating essay on what has kept him lifting for most of his life; heís now 53. Enjoy.
Competing with Ixtal
by Laszlo Bencze
To heft a heavy iron weight from ground to overhead satisfies in ways both elemental and profound. Lifting is elemental because appreciating the difficulty of the feat requires little knowledge of arcane rules. It is as hard as it looks. It is profound because with each lift we take the measure of every barnyard Sampson who ever picked up a stone with intent to impress. We place ourselves in the ranks of the great strongmen of the past, the naturals like Thomas Topham who could leap over a four foot fence while carrying his girlfriend and the scientifically trained Herman Goerner whose 793 lb Deadlift stood unconquered for decades.
We have no idea how ancient Mayans played their complicated ball games -- whether they had a designated hitter rule, how a corner kick might have changed strategy, or whether they took time outs. We do not know if it was speed or endurance that won games or what omissions sent the losers to bloody altars for heart extractions. But we do know that should we ever stumble across a stone in Yucatan inscribed, "Ixtal lifted me," we might just bend over and give it a try. And if we succeed, we will have learned something about ourselves that unites us with Ixtal, now dust, and brings on a glow of satisfaction that no amount of day trading or mortgage rate shopping can provide.
I suppose it is sometimes fantasies like these that get me into the gym on days I would rather be napping with a book on my belly. But what got me started in the first place is much less baroque, far more classic. It was my variant of the Charles Atlas theme: a soft, puffy bookworm, never chosen but grudgingly accepted, always panting but never catching up, finishing the 440 after the next heat started.
For Bill Pearl [highly respected former Mr. America and many times Mr. Universe], it was his first seven years of life on an Indian reservation. "Low self-esteem," Bill says, "coupled with high ego drive makes for a good lifter or bodybuilder. If you're satisfied with who you are, why would you ever set foot in a gym? And a big ego is what keeps you going. Me, I had a big head. 'Big Head' is what the kids called me. I couldn't make my head any smaller, so I set out to make my body bigger." We were sitting in his office in Phoenix, Oregon, surrounded by arcade strength testing machines; Eugene Sandow spring loaded dumbbells in their original pasteboard boxes; books about old time strongmen like Goerner, Cyr, and Calvert; Pearl exercise posters; a penny farthing bicycle (restored and often ridden by Bill); shelves of cast metal model cars and planes; old spherical dumbbells and barbells, some oriental carpets; and the single computer where he actually gets his work done these days. At 68, he still has a body that puts most 30-year-olds to shame. No matter where he started, his present attainments are high by any measure. It is not easy to imagine him with low self-esteem. But I try and I can see that uncertain kid inside, just as I can see him in myself.
Laszlo, on the right, and "Big Head," better known as Bill Pearl, in the great manís Oregon office (photo courtesy of Laszlo Bencze)
It's the kid at the back of the pack flushed with shame thinking, "There must be a better way. There must be a way I could be as strong as Gale Gerard who can play Tarzan with the ropes in the gym." Bill Pearl found it when someone handed him a copy of "Strength and Health" magazine in 1943, and he saw his future. He sent away for a barbell set that arrived two years later [delayed by World War II] and never looked back. I found it in the instruction manual to my own Billard Barbell set which showed pictures of a 400 lb Bruce Randall doing good-mornings with 605 lbs! I could not believe it. I had no idea what a "good-morning" was but it sure looked hard and fantastically uncomfortable. Then the booklet showed pictures of the same Bruce Randall, 220 lbs lighter, with a Mr. Universe trophy in his hand. It was astounding. I believed! I wanted what Bruce Randall had.
I wish I could say that four years later I, too, stood transformed, high on a spot lit dais, trophy in hand. Pearl did, but I'm afraid I did not. Sure I made improvements, even dramatic ones by my standards. But rising from "F" to "C" never won anyone a place on the evening news. No, there were no reporters documenting my rise from ten presses of 60 lbs to ten with 100. Nor were the girls much interested in the fact that I could squat six times with 240, although one sweet coed once complimented me on my back and thereby fueled several more years of training.
So why have I kept at it for thirty five years? Why have I put so many hours into lifting when that time otherwise applied might have made me fluent in French, German, and ancient Greek, perhaps gained me a master's degree in business and a realtor's license in several contiguous States? Well, who am I kidding? I know that if I had not been in the gym, I would have been on the couch reading magazines and watching TV just like everybody else. It is not lack of time that keeps people from mastery. It is lack of intent. I wanted desperately to be strong for reasons perhaps immature and irrelevant, but nonetheless irresistible. The yearning for ancient Greek, on the other hand, never made it past breakfast.
The desire to lift a barbell heavy enough to send the guy next door on a quick trip to the emergency room, to break a personal best by just a few pounds, to tackle a new exercise and see the improvements come steadily for several weeks -- these were achievements that never lost their attraction despite the growth of my career as a photographer and the expansion of my family.
There is not much room in normal life to exercise that old competitive spirit innate to most men. Cro Magnons could show off pelts or Mammoth carcasses or maybe engage in ritual wrestling matches. But we have to do our chest thumping in nonphysical ways. "Hey Jim, I got my house refinanced at bottom-of-the-market rates." "Well that's nice, Sam, but I bought Microsoft three splits ago." That is about as close as we get these days to males marking territory or baring canines. As vicious as they may be, these suburban confrontations are never decisive. The refinanced house will be sold in a year and the next mortgage will be top-of-market, while the Microsoft stock will be held and held in stasis as younger, fresher companies trounce it. But in the gym, I can lift the iron while my neighbor cannot. It is so simple. Of course my neighbor knows nothing of this competition. He does not go to the gym. Nor does the guy who ran at the head of the pack in high school. These competitions are silent and hidden, but perhaps even more satisfying.
Then there are the inner consolations of lifting, soreness for one. To the uninitiated, soreness is something that aspirin cures. To the lifter, it is a goal in itself and highly desired. The tender muscles proclaim their growth. They broadcast the vital message, "We are here. All is well. Next time we will do even better." I haven't yet met a lifter who did not relish that feeling even if he expressed it as a complaint. A workout that produces no soreness is sure to have been uninspired, perfunctory, and largely unrefreshing. The back must feel like layers of overstretched rubber bands. The legs must feel internally bruised. Having to walk down steps sideways like a crab confirms that, like Ulysses rubbing the welts from having been roped to the mast, you have passed the trial of a hero.
The same effort that makes the body sore also enhances mental acuity. Good ideas come to me in the exhausted afterglow of a hard workout. The day after often leads to my best desk work. I sit at the keyboard shrugging my sore shoulders and twitching my quads and the thoughts flow rapidly without resistance. The farther I get from a workout, the more my thoughts congeal and the ideas evaporate. I start to feel (how shall I say it) like an average guy. So it is as much my mind as my body that yearns for the gym and its familiar tortures.
Then there is the consolation of being a keeper of the flame, of passing on lore and seeing others grow better. Yes, I am one of those who offers unsolicited advice. I know it can be dangerous. I have had people get angry at having their twisty little curlicue exercises questioned. (Where do they learn these odd moves? I have never seen them in any book.) A woman in Kansas City once asked, "Who are you and why should I listen to you?" Her suspicions were reasonable in a world infested with con men and molesters. Still, I was disappointed that no hallmark of my expertise was visible to her.
Yet on the whole, I have found people eager to listen when they know they are floundering. The advice they receive from paid gym help tends to be perfunctory and wrong. They are told to warm up by twisting their torsos rapidly side to side while seated on a bench. If they survive that abomination, they are expected to plow through a dozen or so exercises that would kill an Olympic athlete if done properly, so of course they are done poorly and lead to slow progress, boredom, and quitting. It saddens me to see pallet loads of industrial strength ignorance dumped on trusting innocents who have paid good money to join a gym.
So I enjoy sharing the truths I have managed to wrest from my workouts which seem to recede into a geological past. Not long ago, an average gym rat I had spoken with months before came up to thank me for advising him to cut back the number of his exercises and the frequency of his workouts. He had shoulders. He had arms. His success was plain to see. And it came after he had plateaued for a year and a half with the standard high volume, high frequency routines.
It is gratifying to be able to help people and having opportunities to do so does help to keep me coming back to the gym. As people like Chuck Amato, Sam Loprinzi, Mike Mentzer, Clarence Bass, and Bill Pearl have helped me, so I like to help others.
So there you have some of the reasons for my lengthy, if unheralded, lifting career: competition real and imagined (but mostly imagined), the pleasures of inner physical awareness, and the satisfactions of helping others to greater success. Looking back on it, it was worth the time (although I wish I had learned about high intensity, infrequent training when I was young.)
Blessings on all my fellow lifters regardless of age. If there are satisfactions you experience that I have missed, please pass them on. [You can email Laszlo from his Website.]
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