01 Jun Pecking Order
His name was Mario, but due to the stupid looking tattoo on his shoulder, I insisted on referring to him as Canario. “It’s a parrot!” he’d yell.
“I’m no ornithologist, but it looks like a canary to me. Or maybe a swallow? What are you trying to say by having a swallow tattooed on your arm?”
He would shake his head and swagger away, “When you are buying your shirts in the men’s department, you can talk.”
He had a point. I had made some gains, but I had a long way to go. There was a pecking order here, like at any hardcore gym, based on respect. Even though I had become the gym’s manager, I was only about 2/3 of the way up that ladder, which was okay by me. I had started at rock bottom and didn’t think I was ever going to escape those depths. But my story starts a bit further back.
On one of my first visits to the gym, I paid the daily guest fee and was training in the middle of the day. A likeable guy named Gelle was the only other customer in the place and the owner of the gym was taking advantage of the slow business day to get in some chest work.
The gym owner, an imposing, brooding 6’4” mix of Steve Michalik and Vince Lombardi named John, resided firmly in the top position of the pecking order. He was now a competitively retired bodybuilder, focusing more on the business of running a World Gym. Having once been over 270-pounds (and this was in the early eighties) he was one of the biggest guys in the area with the best-equipped gym in that part of the state, which naturally drew in some top competitors. In addition to size and strength, John had a rep for not taking any crap.
Halfway into my workout I heard some arguing. Some guy that looked as if he combed his hair with a greasy pork chop had stopped in and was giving Gelle a hard time about what sounded like the repayment of a loan.
Upon completion of his set, John walked over and brusquely asked the interloper if he was a member. John did not even wait for Greasy to finish shaking his head in the negative, before interjecting, “Then leave… NOW!”
A few minutes later, I heard arguing coming from the leg area. Greasy had foolishly come back inside and was poking Gelle in the chest, to emphasize his collection demand. At the same time, I heard a crash. It was the 120-pound dumbbells, tossed to the ground midway into a set of incline presses. Now John was meticulous about the upkeep of his gym and followed Joe Gold’s tenet about “Drop the weights and you get kicked out.” This was a bad development.
Greasy let out a forced cough as John’s oversized mitts descending upon him, grabbing his shirt (and probably the saggy flesh underneath) so quickly it forced the air from his lungs.
Without even slowing down, John took three to four long-gated steps toward the red emergency exit with his bug-eyed bundle. At this point, he tossed him the final twelve feet (with perfect medicine ball push form) to eject him from the premises.
Now here’s the unfortunate part. The problem with those emergency doors is that you have to firmly press the bar that spans the center in order to disengage the latch. Since he did not impact the door quite right, Greasy crumpled into a heap. In effect, he had been tossed into a metal wall.
John walked over, crouched to get the man we will now refer to as Grease-stain, picked him up as if he was a bundle of newspapers, and while backing into the exit to push the crossbar with his backside, lay his unconscious victim down outside the building as gently as a mother would lay her babe in the cradle. Although trying to mind my own business, there was a brief moment that was both comical and scary in which John’s glance met mine in the mirror. I’ll always remember the “should I have done that?” look on his face.
Looking back, that being part of my introduction, it took some serious balls to have gone back there — even more to approach him with a business deal. The three hundred dollar membership was far out of my reach at that age (I didn’t realize until later that nobody REALLY paid full price) but I wasn‘t about to let finances or the forty-minute drive stand in my way.
Consistent hard work coupled with gradual strength increases earns universal respect in gyms
My friend Vance and I had noticed that the exterior sign was peeling. Stealing a page from the team of Schwarzenegger and Columbu (they got their start in the States claiming to be experts at European Masonry), we told John that we would paint new signs for the two roadside corners of the building in exchange for a one-year membership each. We showed him examples of our “work” which consisted of a few decent looking signs we noticed on our drive home. Had he called any of them to check we would have been screwed, but I was confident I could learn how to paint a sign that would be of comparable quality to the snapshots we had shown him. I didn’t think of it as lying so much as “telling the truth in advance.”
About a week into the project, my buddy lost interest, leaving me to finish both signs on my own. John would check on my progress and be punished for it by being hit with a barrage of training and nutrition questions. I had been training at home for about two years, with very little to show for it. At 126-pounds I was a sad sight. My tolerance for exercise was so low that my hands would shake and I’d feel nauseous after just a few sets of wobbly-kneed squats with dumbbells that most guys would use for curls.
John said that he admired my work ethic, finishing the painting solo after my friend bailed on me. He was a smart guy, and in me saw something useful… a kid so hungry to improve his Don Knott’s physique that he would be the perfect candidate to assume the hard-to-keep-filled opening shift. This involved me being at the gym six days a week at 5:30, getting paid minimum wage and doing all the crap-work like dusting equipment and mopping the gym mats. I felt like I won the Lotto! (I found out later that the previous morning guy had gone to prison for first-degree murder).
Now here’s where that “bottom of the pecking order” thing came into play. This World Gym had at least a dozen competitive bodybuilders as regulars, about a dozen more were past-competitors (that might throw their hats back in the ring at any point), another dozen powerlifters, and dozens of hardcore meatheads in the ranks. In addition, on the weekends, top lifters from within a ninety-minute drive radius would come out to use the leg equipment there.
Every day was a test of humility. The regulars gave it to you daily and I could either develop a thick skin or find a profession in fast food. One day, one of the bigger guys said, “I think there may be something to this Mentzer Heavy Duty stuff. He says the longer you spend in the gym, the more likely it is that you are overtrained and you will lose muscle. Look at Steve. He’s in the gym thirty hours a week and he looks like he’s withering away” (and that was one of the nicer comments).
Being tossed in that environment was sink-or-swim. John gave me guidance and a discount on supplements. Half of my check was going towards protein and I was eating good solid food constantly. I also was following a four-day a week program that consisted of basics and an adaptation of the classic 20-rep squat protocol (see my last article, “Pros and Cons of Various Training Systems” for more on this).
A good thing happens when you get completely immersed in a goal. I started to gradually get less flack from the regulars. This was due, in part, to the big leaps forward in bodyweight (about fifteen pounds in the first three months) that gave me a physique approaching normal. Mostly though, was the fact that for a couple of months, on each and every leg day, I would at some point stagger towards that same red emergency exit that Grease-stain had been tossed into, poke my head out the door in a turtle-like stance, and forcibly evacuate the contents of my stomach. (Yes, I estimated and adjusted intake for the lost protein). I didn’t make a show of it. It would just happen, I would rinse my mouth out with a swig of water, and get immediately back to work.
The top dogs noticed. You can fake effort with grunts and clanging weights but quiet, consistent hard work coupled with gradual strength increases earns universal respect in gyms. Those that have been there understand what it takes. I still had to take some crap (that’s just part of the culture), but it was more closely equivalent to the ball busting I had handed out.
When John decided to expand his business ventures, he offered me the Manager’s slot and a little more money. I became a student of the game and continued to make progress (up to a fairly lean 205) until eventually strangers would notice that I worked out, which may not seem like much to the average hardcore lifter, but was ultimate wish fulfillment to me.
One day, a pimply-faced kid named Paul with the build of a malnourished basketball player walked in. We gave some guidance (not much). They had to earn anything beyond the basic intro workout.
“I’ve been training at home and I want to get huge he proclaimed!”
“When you are buying your shirts in the men’s department, you can talk,” I replied. “Now, let me show you the beauty of high-rep squatting…”
Written by Steve Colescott
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About Steve Colescott
Known as the Guerrilla Journalist, Steve Colescott has written over a hundred published articles for many major bodybuilding publications, including Peak Training Journal, the innovative and well-respected magazine in which he served as Publishing Editor.
He is currently a staff writer for WannaBeBig.com and has been a consultant to a number of top sports nutrition companies.
With his company, Colescott Metabolic Solutions, he has transformed the physiques of scores of average businesspeople, weekend athletes and housewives beyond their wildest expectations. Steve lives in Akron, Ohio and trains at the ultra-hardcore Body Builders Gym, an Ohio musclehead landmark.