Tom and Steve’s Most Excellent Ab Venture

The word “personal training” came about when the gym instructors got together and said, “If we’re going to charge $100 an hour, we can’t call it jumping up and down.”  ~Rita Rudner

I am watching my 14 year old son with his POW ribs and washboard abs as he meanders into the kitchen and in the span of 10 minutes consumes about 15,000 calories of junk food. I am in awe of his metabolism.  I am certain that if he did not keep eating all day his body would simply turn on itself and he would be gone by midnight.    It is so depressing.  It is also highly unfair – – this shiny race car they call youth.  I mourn my own sputtering 1961 engine.

Like the DMV, middle age carries its own rules of the road.  Do not eat after 9pm unless you want to wake up feeling like someone has just poured hydrochloric acid down your throat.  Don’t drink or consume anything before you exercise or you risk sounding like one of those bus doors belching your way down South Avenue. Do not eat Fiber One bars prior to interaction with any human being. Watch your salt intake. Eat a big breakfast.  Eat only protein.  Eat only complex carbohydrates.  Eat 6 -8 helpings of vegetables every day. (Are green cupcakes a vegetable?)  Take Omega 3 fatty acids.  Take 5000 grams of vitamin C. Eat nutrient rich greens. Eat kale (Kale is the name of an ex-con from Alabama not a leafy green)   Eat like a caveman.  Eat at South Beach.  Eat like a Southern European living on the Mediterranean. Don’t eat.

Food is now fuel and not a source of pleasure, medication or escape. How many grams of fat does that have?  I don’t know.  It says it has only 100 calories per serving. But, wait! Damn, there are 144 servings in this bag.  My mantra of “more is better” has been supplanted by “less is more.” The answer to every question is always the same, “exercise and moderation.”  It is the definition of hell for an obsessive personality.

For the last several years, I have been waging a battle of night and day – faithfully going to the gym each day to engage some militant muscle group with a regimen of weights and cardio. I then drive home and eat everything that is not nailed down.  As a creature of habit, my workout routine became a highly regimented and predictable series of exercises that helped me build strength and in the right light, delude myself into thinking I was still worthy of becoming a second string tackle for a local junior college.

My self deceit included multi-tasking while presumably “pushing myself to the limit”. I found I could actually write on my blackberry while using the elliptical which allowed me to cover multiple priorities at the same time.  I mistook sweat for physical fitness. and of course, discovered my appetite had increased. I was just a bigger monster to feed.

One day rumors began to swirl around the Smith Press. “Our” Fitness Club was getting a new owner, management and a much needed facelift.  I was secretly distressed.  I was a privileged member of a dying tribe  – many of whom had joined NCAC when Reagan was in office.  My workout partners and I would have never met except for our masochism in refusing to quit a club whose facilities had not been updated since Jack Lalanne was in spandex knee pants.  We were a union of odd bedfellows that was as hard to get out as the stains and marks that tattooed the club’s ancient ash gray carpet.

The gym had been frozen in time, inconsistently managed and finally, unable to pay its bills.  A week did not go by that something did not break, snap, burst or explode – including a few wobbly  patrons who faithfully arrived each day to curl 15lb dumbbells and then fall asleep in a stained leather armchair that even my dog would not sit in.  No one really actually knew who was a member as anyone in spandex could wander in off the street and begin using the equipment. My friends extolled the virtues of other clubs with their progressive hours and contemporary fitness equipment.  I was too stubborn.  My club was like an old tattered shirt that one refuses to throw away.

Then, everything changed.  Someone from the spinning group confirmed that “we have been bought.” The new owner was a triathlete and fitness author named Tom Holland.  Tom’s success as a triathlete, trainer and fitness motivator made him an ideal candidate to breathe some spontaneity back into our rigid routines. Tom’s business partner,  Steve “Baz”, an ex-martial arts specialist, looked equally conditioned and possessed that unnerving gaze of a sculptor when he is first examining a mound of useless clay.  I was not sure if Steve was a former Special Forces operative or a spy.  However it was clear both men had boundless energy and spoke in a strange dialect of physiological, biochemical and psychological terms. They used clinical terms like “body composition”, “basal metabolic rate (BMR)” and ” hypertrophy”.  While it was apparent that we had been ” liberated”, this was one POW camp that was not sure it wanted to be found.  Within days, it was clear that these fitness gurus had come to save us – whether we wanted to be or not.

Weird accountrement started appearing at newly renamed Tom Holland Athletic Club — elastic ropes, harnesses, long flexible rolling pins, colored metallic handled orbs called “kettle bells” and a massive vibrating lectern called a “Power Plate” which resembled the personal hover-craft of George Jetson.  I could see how all these gadgets might improve your sex life but was skeptical of their fitness value.

Our new owners prowled the floor and engaged members with seemingly innocent questions about routines, goals and physical histories.  When they were not getting to know their new clients, they were running, biking and sprinting in very public places with their clientele. I was wary.  I did not trust anyone with a 5% body fat.  It’s unnatural.  How can I depend on them to vouch for me when I was really at Dunkin Donuts?  The answer was simple – I could not.  Yet, my own curiosity finally got the better of me and I requested a private session with Steve.

He handed me a jump rope.  I had not seen a jump rope since the third grade. I rolled my eyes and  balked, “When do we get to bench press? ” Steve smiled.  “Let’s warm up and jump rope for 30 seconds. You then rest for 30 seconds and then jump for 30 more.” It was insultingly simple.  I rolled my eyes. After ten seconds, my legs started to tighten and heart did the conga.  After 20 seconds, my chest appeared to be giving way to an alien trying to escape.  My heart rate monitor indicated that I was now a human hummingbird.  About 35 minutes into my first Steve workout, I started to experience sensations similar to the bird flu.  At the end of the 50 minute routine, I was reduced to a quivering mass of jello and allowed to fly home. The following day was an eight Advil affair.

One brutal session led to another.  I determined that my new coach was engaged in the most deceptive of all practices – turning my own body weight against me.  Suddenly I was not lifting 235lbs on a benchpress.  I was lugging my own 235lbs through push-ups, pull-ups, bear crawls, squats, box jumps, and running.  Seemingly benign household objects became part of sinister drills designed to induce total muscle failure.  A piece of string, a ten pound weight, athletic tape and an elastic band could be combined to burn 2000 calories and my self esteem . Running was soon reintroduced as a precursor to the weekly work out. “Let’s do three miles and then come back, work your core and finish with 5000 meters on the rowing machine.”  I looked at him as if he was in league with Satan.

“Why” I asked.

“Why not?” he replied.

I now understood why they call it muscle confusion. My glutes did not if they were coming or going.

I met Charlie, a 6’6” ex-athlete who was determined to get back to his football playing weight. Charlie and I became Professor Steve’s experiments.  We were perfect lab rats – middle aged men carrying excess baggage, nostalgic for days of fast cars and fast metabolisms and highly responsive to praise and punishment.  Eventually, we were pitted against one another like gladiators. One day, we would be pulling each other across a floor using a massive tug boat rope.  The next day, we would be jogging three miles and then racing on rowing machines.  We were clearly a source of amusement for many in club.  I am sure Tom and Steve considered developing a video called the “The Paleo Workout: So Easy A Caveman Can Do It – foreward by Jane Goodall.”   In a span of ten weeks, Charlie dropped an amazing 40lbs discovering he had ribs, feet and even a third child.

We started simply referring to our rehabilitated habitat as Holland’s House of Pain – – “When you finally decide to get serious about being sore.”

I am now months into my routine and as a serial masochist, I pay for the privilege to enter the House of Pain. It is an addictive and never ending assault on my metabolism and dignity. Yet, I love it.  I have not lifted a heavy weight in months but am more fit than I have been in years.  Yet, Steve is not satisfied.  He wants my BMI under 20 and my body fat percentage in the teens.  He argues that I have only begun my journey  – – one that will extend my life, improve my stamina and best of all, keep me ensconced as alpha male in my pride.

For any Turpin teen who crosses the proverbial line in the sand, I am considering a 50 minute workout with Steve in lieu of grounding, loss of cell phone or confiscation of the personal computer.  This will be the Marine Corps equivalent of  “drop and give me twenty!”

The best part about it is I will probably join them.

The Hulk

The Hulk


At a prepubescent 10 years old, I happily still sported baby fat and had no issues with my body image.  My innocent lack of self consciousness was shattered one fateful summer afternoon at the local community pool when it became very obvious to me that my breasts were larger than the 16 year old female lifeguard who I secretly admired.  Like Adam and Eve after eating the apple, I was suddenly aware of my pear-like physique. I could not deny other signs of my flagging vitality. The annual Presidential Fitness Test that was visited upon elementary school coach potatoes each fall was an embarrassing reminder that I did not possess the ” right stuff”.  The test revealed in a very public setting my most carefully guarded secret : I could not do a pull up. My inability to hoist my 130 lb, 5′ body over a metal bar that was less than 18 inches above my chin, was devastating.


My thirst for strength and fitness led me into an amusing phase of self obsession.  I became keenly aware of physically fit athletes.  I  marvelled at Olympian weight lifters.  I obsessed over the Mr Universe contests as Austrian Schwartzenegger and American Lou Ferrigno competed for the most perfect body.   I worshipped NFL defensive giants Deacon Jones, Mean Joe Greene and Dick Butkis as they prowled offensive backfields breaking quarterbacks like dry kindling.  In Pro Wrestling, Freddy Blassy epitomized the brash bravado that came with pectoral muscles.  He denounced all “pencil neck geeks” and made it clear that no bully would kick sand in your face if you were sporting biceps that could crush walnuts.


As with many seemingly benign adolescent obsessions, there was a dark secret leavened in with my enthusiasm, energy and determination. This closet shame led me to develop a secret gymnasium in our garage – fashioning weights from paint cans and broken rakes, dumbbells from sledgehammers and a pull up bar from a spare curtain rod.  My first workout was a train wreck as my 50lb bench press of paint cans slid off my makeshift bar and dented my Mom’s Ford Pinto.  I attempted a bicep curl with the hammer and dropped it over my back, barely missing my dog Max who had come to watch my covert self improvement with confused amusement.  He fled the garage yelping.  The final indignity was taking the spare curtain rod and fixing it between the beams of the garage rafters.  The wooden ladder creaked mockingly as I climbed to attempt my private chin up.   I grasped the narrow rod and hung for a moment in the air.  I squeezed every ounce of energy from my arms, arching my back  whipping my legs for momentum.  The rod bowed for a moment and then slowly lifted me to eye ball level.  My first pull up was within my grasp. I strained and heaved. I did not notice the strain on the metal until it snapped, catapulting me into a lawnmower which ripped a foot long tear in my new levis. The mower’s leaf catch was crumpled beyond repair as was my fragile ego. I was convinced that I was forever ” fat boy”.


Years later, despite stretching to 6′ 2″ and playing competitive sports at all levels, I still winced at those memories like a loose rock in my shoe.  Like so many paintings in the private galleries of our lives, we sometimes circle back to complete unfinished works.  At 43, I decided to reattempt body building in hopes of defying nature, gravity and Kelloggs food products.  As with all my obsessions, I attacked my new regimen with relentless gusto. I did not realize it but excessive weight lifting does odd things to a person’s body.  New muscles appear in unintended places.  The odd hump forms on your right shoulder.  Success is very uneven. New undiagnosed aches and pains play tricks on your mind.  Clothes do not fit.  Buttons pop off pants and dress shirts at an alarming rate. Yet, despite the Kafkaesque symptoms, everything feels a little more in control.  Your inner twenty-something begins to stir but struggles to escape its forty something prison of padding.


I found myself at the Fitness Club of New Canaan every day. I bought a lycra garment that squeezed me tighter than an English sausage.  I fell deeper into the abyss of self obsession. On business trips I found myself asking if the hotel fitness center had free weights.  On vacation, I would scour the area for the only gym within 100 miles the way others drive for hours trying to find an espresso drink in the Adirondacks. I was hooked.


I began to feed the obsession buying shirts one size too small. This fashion detour caused my spouse to wince with embarrassment. “It’s just a phase,” she kept repeating.  Despite my promotion back to size LG shirts, she continued to buy me XL clothing.  Did she not see what was happening to me ?  The guns ?  The pecs? The hump on my back ? I sensed her distain for my new found passion but ignored it figuring it could be worse.  I just knew that if I kept up my routine, it would be impossible for her to mock me with here black belt diminutives.  I was not lifting “little” weights at a “little gym”.  I was no longer a “little” obsessed. Nothing about weight lifting is small.  It is big.  You are big.  Everyone should be big.


I wanted to be even bigger. I was too afraid to try steroids as they were a) illegal, b) known to cause severe health problems and c) drive you insane once you run out of things to lift.  All I could think about was what were these exercise leviathans in Flex magazine eating and where could I get some of it.  If I could replicate their diets, I would be flexing well into my 90’s. It was on a routine visit to a fitness club retail store that I got my answer and had my eyes opened to a vast universe of nutritional supplements. As I walked the aisle of power powders and amino aids. I was confronted with grand promises and testimonials to the ultimate power of these products.


The first row of items trumpeted the amazing powers of whey.  What the heck was whey ? Didn’t Little Miss Muffet eat the stuff ?  Perhaps, if she had just eaten “Mega Isolate High Performance Whey” or Whebolic” she would have smashed that intrepid anachronid while in a whey rage and then followed his drooping silk thread back to wipe out his 2000 other family members.  There was an entire shelf of items that should be regulated  by the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco and Firearms. Musl Blast clearly targeted extreme athletes and soldiers of fortune. After two scoops of their powdered stimulant I could be a rippling machine of destruction,  climbing Mt Everest in the morning and perhaps toppling an Asian junta in the afternoon.


Nitro protein drink should be illegal in 12 countries.  It’s explosive combination of natural and synthetic supplements can transform even the meekest of weaklings into a time bomb of testosterone. This lean muscle maximizer utilizes Chernobyl strength doses of protein and induces anabolic insulin production for maximum creatine saturation.  Wow! I want that. Each serving is the nutritional equivalent of eating nine bison. Freak Fix, Pit Bull and Anabolic OD were my favorites.  I mean we’re all adults here. You are a freak and you need a fix. Drink this and go personally move your house to that new lot on Weed Street or get picked up by the police for chasing a UPS delivery truck. It’s your life.


At this point, I was becoming a supplement junkie in a creatine haze. I then had my moment of clarity.  The obsession with weights stemmed from my inability to do one stupid, lousy pull up.  I drove home and grabbed the chin bar that regularly bumped my head as I entered my son’s room.  I hung low and hesitated.  My body started to raise. The biceps strained and my back arched. My chin rose above the metal finish line and a lifetime of “fatboys” fell away.


Somewhere in the weightlifter universe, the Force shuddered.  Another potential “juicer” had just gone to the Dark Side.