• Men's Corner

My Fitness Journey, Part 3: Cold Iron.

Updated: Feb 20




On both sides of her along the walls she felt things creeping, damp souls that haunted this palace, this town, this North.


"Oh, send somebody—send somebody!" she cried aloud.


Clark Darrow—he would understand; or Joe Ewing; she couldn't be left here to wander forever—to be frozen, heart, body, and soul. This her—this Sally Carrol! Why, she was a happy thing. She was a happy little girl. She liked warmth and summer and Dixie. These things were foreign—foreign.


"You're not crying," something said aloud.


"You'll never cry any more. Your tears would just freeze; all tears freeze up here!''


...Then on an instant the lights went out, and she was in complete darkness. She gave a small, frightened cry, and sank down into a cold little heap on the ice. She felt her left knee do something as she fell, but she scarcely noticed it as some deep terror far greater than any fear of being lost settled upon her. She was alone with this presence that came out of the North, the dreary loneliness that rose from ice-bound whalers in the Arctic seas, from smokeless, trackless wastes where were strewn the whitened bones of adventure. It was an icy breath of death; it was rolling down low across the land to clutch at her.



F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Ice Palace







The dark episode that I told you about last time, took place in the summer vacation of 1999, which marked the transition between the familiar life in the village — where, for better or for worse, I knew everybody and every day went to school a stone's throw from our house — and the deep jungle that I considered a town life to be...


But that transition was also marked by something else.


The day after my humiliation, my father, brooding over the last night's events, said something which for some reason made impact on my tender, wounded soul. He sighed with what could've been despair, and said, as if to himself:


'I'll teach you, don't worry...'


'I'll teach you how to hit hard, and I'll teach you how to lift weights...'


My father said those things because he didn't want anyone to mess with me again — and that was indeed one of the many noble aspects of his fatherhood: he was well aware of the need for strength in a boy's life, and in his own way wondered how to best help me.


I, on the other hand, had no idea that he knew anything about weightlifting — as a young man, he had been slender, and had never had big muscles; but he was always very strong


Since his childhood — and he didn't really have one — he had always worked very physically demanding jobs: from making bricks at the age of ten to working on the docks in Siberia in his twenties. He was strong, always strong — even though the only exercise he ever did was work, and sometimes, while he was a bit younger, played football with other local men in the weekend.


He was also very fast, and had the sharp reflexes of a cat, even in his later years, and, even though I have never seen him throw a punch, I knew he could hit very hard.


This is why when he said that he would teach me 'how to hit hard', I knew I wanted no part of that. I knew that if I could not really throw a punch — I knew I would be slow, weak and clumsy — so learning any 'hitting' was not even an option I considered when he spoke of of it; my mind bypassed those words...


But for some strange reason, it latched onto those other words...


Lifting weights, my father had mentioned. Lifting weights. Hmmm.


The god I had worshipped, and had tried in vain to please for most of my conscious life, had spoken words — had opened new doors — which I could finally do something about. At the time, I did not see any of that, of course; I did not think about it at all — but today, I can clearly see how his words laid the foundation in what was to become a curse and a sickness of my life...


But I do not blame him; not at all. I simply observe and record the things which drove me to the iron.

 

The truth is that he was the iron that I desperately needed; I had no iron within me — or so I thought — to be sharpened and strengthened by his love, his strength, and his mercy.


'I will teach you to lift weights', the great man had said; and I did not need him to say any more.


On the next day of that hot, oppressive summer vacation, I found something which looked like a part of some heavy-duty cart on trolley of some sort. The device was made of a pair of rusty metal wheels, with old, cracked rubber still on them, connected with a heavy steel pipe out of which protruded two other short parts of pipe, which had once been cut, separating the wheels from the cart. 


This was to be my first barbell.


I did not know it at the time but I think that what went through me then — not through my mind, at least not the mind as we know it, but through the depths of my subconscious being — was something like this:


If he — the father, the god, the judge, the ideal, the hero, the man I want to be like — thinks that weights would make a shameful, weak, pathetic boy like myself, tougher in some way, then I will do it. I have no punching power, neither do I have the inner power, the will and courage to confront another boy, much less fight him physically — but I can learn to lift weights. I can do it on my own and in secret. Nobody needs to know. I will forge my body. I will hide here, and I will remain hidden for the rest of my life. Damn the world; they will not see me anymore.


The barbell weighed sixteen kilos — around thirty-five pounds — and the first thing I did with it was a 'bicep-curl'. I had seen people do that, and I wanted to have big arms. My father's muscular forearms were ever before my eyes, and I wanted mine to look as strong as his did. His arms, however, were made strong by hard work; mine would be made strong from that which I did in secret.


I had finally found my religion, and I would practice it in secret, in hope that it would secure me a place in the world.


I did not know that, if you want your muscles to grow in size, you must perform a certain number of 'reps', and a number of 'sets'; I did not know what those words meant. I curled that weight until I could not do it any more, and thus, at the age of fifteen, I experienced for the very first time, that infamous 'burning'...


After my first set — my first 'pump' — I went back in the house, thinking I had taken the first step towards the complete rebuilding of myself. My hands were shaking, and my forearms had deep red marks from where the ends of the two protruding pipes had dug into them. 


I now know that the shaking of my hands was not only caused by the physical exertion, but also by the pain of that little boy inside of me...


The shaking was one of symptoms of the chasm that was growing between us.


I did not care. I was satisfied. There was finally something I could do to ensure my survival. There was no turning back.


* * *


My father had a friend in a nearby village, a colleague from his job at the thermal power station where he worked for twenty-two years before he retired at the age of fifty. This friend had a barbell at his house — well, this too was not a real barbell but a set of wheels from a mine-cart — which he had gotten from somewhere, possibly the local mine, and would let me borrow for a few years, until his grandson was old enough to use it. We drove home with it in an old van we had briefly owned, besides the formidable Volga (which was the car my parents had throughout all of my childhood and youth; to the constant amazement of the villagers, the huge sedan was driven by my mother).


When we stopped in front of our house and got out, my dad reached into the back of the truck, and, without bracing himself in any way, without bending his knees, picked up the 'barbell', lifted it off the platform and set it on the ground with an incredible ease for a man in his fifties who had a beer-belly, bad kidneys and bad back. He was strong, naturally strong.


This new 'tool' for my newfound work was used, at least in the first few weeks, only for 'bench-press'. I had seen the exercise performed, mainly in films and in gyms I had walked by in town, and knew it would make my chest and front shoulders big. Alongside the weight for my bicep-curls, that was all I needed. And the bench? Well, I had to make one.


At that time, we had builders at home because my dad, never afraid of hard work, always confident of its results, had decided to modernise everything by ripping the old boards off the floors and laying terracotta tiles in their place. One of the numerous pieces of scrap-wood, rolling around at the back of the house, was our living-room threshold — a thick wooden plank which I thought would make a great bench. I took it to one of our many shed-like constructions made of old sheet-metal and various other panels and items that had to be used for something, along with two buckets. I put the buckets upside down and balanced the threshold-plank on them — and I had a bench!


It was far from perfect, and, thinking back now, quite dangerous, but I was too excited to think about all that — I had a gym, where I could train on my own, far from human eyes, and that really was something!

 

It was very hard to get the weight up before I started 'benching' it, but I worked my way around this, sometimes grabbing it from the floor by reaching far back over my head, pulling it up and then adjusting my grip on it, sometimes having it balanced on one wheel by my side, and pulling it from there — risking, of course, serious harm in the process.


During that vacation, I did only one set per exercise — still not knowing what a set was and why I needed more than one — three times a day. Around ten in the morning, while my mother was busy in her shop (the shop was located in the place of our garage, and it was the very first privately-owned convenience store in the village — to the utter contempt of the hardline Communists whom my father, given half a chance, loved to tease and provoke) and my father was at work, I slipped into the coolness of my sanctuary and did one long, hard set of bicep-curls, the protruding ends of the metal dining into my forearms like a set of old, rusty teeth — the teeth of the beast I had chosen for a life-long companion. Then I lay on the shaky bench, which was a whole procedure in itself, and did a set of bench-presses. After lunch, I went back again and did the same thing, one set per exercise. I did it again at three in the afternoon, after my mother's lunch break was over, and went back up front to open the shop.





My muscles are built in secret.


I am not yet ready to reveal them to the world. The world may expect me to live up to any muscular image I present.


I am not tough.


But the muscles will hide me.






That was my regimen for the first few weeks, and I stuck to it with religious fervour. Then, during dinner, at which the two builders were present, one of them, who had been a competing athlete in cycling and swimming during his youth, commented that I needed 'sets' for my workout — otherwise it would not be a real workout. That made me think, and it also made me read a new kind of literature...


Even though my family was doing well for village standards, there was no internet connection at the time, and I never felt the need for a computer — nobody else had one, and the mystery of internet was reserved only for the offices in town and the newly opened gaming places. But there were magazines, sold in the newsstands in town, which, though somewhat costly, could help...


One of those magazines was 'Muscles and Fitness' — translated from English — and the other one was the Bulgarian 'Мускули' ('Muscles). 





Another source I rememberer well was an old book which I had borrowed from my friend Stoycho, whose father was a graduate of the National Sports Academy (NSA), with wrestling as his specialty. That book was Bulgarian; it was called 'Bodybuilding for Everyone' and had been written in 1985 — one year after I was born.





As I trained, I read; as I read, I trained — and my knowledge of the world of muscles began to grow, as did the muscles themselves.


Apart from the written resources, nothing was as helpful to me in those early years of my love affair with the iron, as was a weekend fitness show called 'Fitness with Nedik', hosted by a man whose name was as exotic and extraordinary as his physique — a fitness trainer called Nedik Nedev, who, apart from the huge ripped body, had a real heart for helping others and had dedicated most of his time on the show for answering questions from viewers. To have access to Nedik and his show was indeed a great privilege to me. I remembered well how, only a few short years back, we had two television channels — 'First' and 'Second' channel — and no satellite dish or cable TV, which the people in town were already enjoying. Cable TV in the village was a revolution, the fruits of which I had only recently been allowed to taste.


* * *


Summer. Winter. Summer. Winter.


I lived from vacation to vacation, from one moment of pleasure to another. The rest was suffering and hiding. Life was a long, tedious task of avoiding confrontation with the stronger, more confident boys at my new school.


Cowed into the small corners, the nooks and crannies of daily life, I avoided their eyes — just like I avoided my father's eyes at home.


Resigned to spineless, spiritless existence, I hated my hidden, formless self — just like I hated my mother and her diminishing, smothering, degrading attitude toward me.



* * *


Winter.



The wooden shed-like construction at the back of our house is crudely put together; it has no door, and wide openings are gaping between the boards. The ground beneath my feet is hard. The air is crisp and clear. I hear the pig rolling on the cold, dirty concrete floor, grunting and pushing against the sheet-metal walls of its lair. I hear the chickens, running to and fro in the space next to it.

I hear the animals but feel nothing. All around me I see the familiar, limited, safe life; but that life no longer gives me anything.


I am alone, in this cold, lonely village, which has many roads but they all lead to nowhere.


Alone, I am preparing to live the life I want to live one day — out and away from here, deep into the city and its smooth, silky darkness — lured by the promises that only youth can give...


It is indeed amazing, how deeply alone one could be, while surrounded by life. I hear the old, simple people laugh as they leave my mother's shop; I hear the horse-carts, most of them now equipped with car tyres, unlike the times of my childhood; I hear the cars — there are more of them now — pull up in front for a moment and then roar down the road again, after the driver has got his daily dose of beer, cheese or factory-made sausage...


I hear it all but I am unmoved. My life — this is what matters to me most; everything else is a hindrance.


I close my hands around the cold iron.


One, two, three...ten!


I set it down on the hard, frozen soil. Ten is enough, I think to myself. Ten is the number to grow with. Soon, I would have to find some more weight to add. The load is getting lighter.


The bench now has two small columns of bricks instead of the two buckets. The bricks are carefully laid upon on one another in pairs, and the threshold board is placed on top. An old coat is thrown over it — this is as comfortable as it gets; but I do not seek comfort.


I am happy, very happy, to be able to lift, away from humans and their prying eyes.


I don't need to look at the old threshold plank. I really don't. It is no longer part of my home. I was too little then, and my dreams had turned to nothing before I even realised I had them. 


This world is a cold place. The child needs to die.


I look at all the small holes on the roof as I push the weight off my chest. When it rains, water drops fall down on me and I often need to move the bench. Not today. Today is cold. The ground is covered with snow. Everything is frozen. I see my breath, coming out in clouds of steam. It's getting darker outside.


Curls for my biceps and bench-press for my chest — I have only been doing these for the last year, but now I have added tricep-extensions and barbell-rows for my back, along with sit-ups for the stomach. For some reason, my lower back feels sore at times...


I don't really like lifting, and I don't like challenge. But I want the body. The body will give me pleasure and peace. I would do anything to have the body. 


The water in the plastic bottle is beginning to freeze. Time to head back.


I love this time of the day. It's four in the afternoon. My mother is still in the shop; I can hear her but I do not see her. I have an hour before she comes back, and an hour before my father returns from work. An hour before the light comes on and the endless questions and comments begin...


An hour to myself, in the twilight of the room — only for myself. 


I lay on the floor. I am doing my sit-ups indoors.


I exhale as I pull myself up, almost without a sound. I am a master of not making sounds. I am a master of hiding. I have nothing to express. I inhale as I fall back down.


I push myself, harder and harder, trying to embody the sounds that come through the speakers of my 'Nova' cassette recorder. The music of The Scorpions resound in the dark room. The screams of Klaus Meine help me go through another set, but I realise that I am not pushing myself.


I have never really pushed myself.


I don't know what it feels like to be out of yourself — fully 'out' of your comfortable inner world and 'into' the thing you're doing. I lift my weights out in the frozen darkness of the back yard, but then I always come into the warm house. I am only doing the minimum; I am only pursuing the burn which promises me growth. It is the shape I am after. I am not a warrior. But I want that body. And so, for a while, I forget about who I am, and let the voice of Meine make me believe that I am somebody else.



Here I am


Rock you like a hurricane


Here I am 


Rock you like a hurricane



My muscles are built in secret and they are growing in the dark. I am not yet ready to reveal them to the world. The world may expect me to live up to any muscular image I present. I am not athletic and I am not tough. But the muscles will hide me.


I love the twilight, and I love the mystery of the world. The music I listen to is old. I am into hard-rock now. I despise the modern music I once loved, because the modern world would not accept me...





I tried, I even wore the T-shirts, and indeed I loved the music of my day — and along with all the 'cool' kids my age, I was obsessed with The Prodigy and their monster of a frontman, Keith Flint. But that was before I realised that the world of today had no place for me. That was before the world of today turned on me, beat me, and laughed at my dreams.


And so I turned to the world of yesterday. I looked at the older boys, those in their late teens and twenties, and I liked their calm, strong presence. I liked their music too — metal and rock mean hardness and in this world I need to be hard.


But I remembered bitterly that those young men had once been wild boys themselves; they had once played and wrestled, smoked and drank in secret and had fist-fights with each other over a girl...


They had the fire inside them that had later been tamed, controlled, and made pleasant.


I, on the other hand, had none. I was simply trying to skip a whole period of my development — because I had no man to take me through it and train me into it — and I did that not only mentally and emotionally, through music, books, and repressed behaviour — but physically as well.


* * *


You see, there is nothing wrong with building strength and muscles, so long as one is not led by self-hatred or rage; but if a boy has not reached the peak of his physical development and has not made the most of every aspect of that body as his inner impulses lead him — in climbing trees, jumping, swimming, running, wrestling, and whatever else his inner joy dictates — he should not push himself to enter a new chapter without having completed the one before.

 

The body is the physical expression of the inner self. If the inner self is chained with heavy shackles like mine was, the body would show it:  it will not move the way the mind wants it to move, and it will not be free, agile and light — this freedom comes from within — and it will suffer as the mind suffers.


My body, even though I wasn't diagnosed with anything, even though I was still in my teens, was suffering with unseen, unrecognised pain...


The first pangs of back-pain, though ever so slight, were already becoming a reality; but they too were only a manifestation of the deeper world...


I was a slave to fear, and my body never fully obeyed me.


I felt paralysed and frozen, every time I had to do something my body hadn't done before — jump off a tree-branch that was only a little bit higher than my comfort zone, jump over a stream which was a little wider than what I knew I could manage, or simply expose my body to new situations and demands.


I remember my first experience of trying to test my strength by hanging from my arms...


There was a big old plum tree in our back garden, split through the middle by a lightning which had struck it years ago, while I was still little. To keep one of its parts from falling, my dad had tied it to one of the concrete posts of the fence with a thick metal rope. The rope was as tight and as solid as an iron bar, and it was that rope on which I decided to hang one day, just to see if my arms would hold the weight of my body. Just to see what hanging in the air feels like.


This is the healthy boyish attitude I was talking about, and at that time, around the age of ten, I still had quite a lot of it left.


But not for too long.


As I leapt up and hung on that rope, I felt terrible discomfort which quickly turned into burning pain — as if my arms were being were just about to be torn off my body. Immediately I let myself drop down and went back in the house, my armpits throbbing and my heart racing from that exposure to the dark, unfamiliar world of physical challenge.


Being quite frightened from the unexpected pain, I told my mother what had happened, and she reprimanded me sharply, warning me to never do that again. And who could blame her — a mother should indeed do that, to nurture and keep her boy safe...

 

But it is the father's job to 'bring out' his boy, to train and initiate him, to help him face his fears and overcome them; to show him how to be a master of his world — the world which begins with his body. 


And the boy, once he had mastered his body, conquered the fears that rage through it, and broken through the limitations, can then go on and begin to master the outer world, with all its challenges and opportunities. He is then free to abandon himself and live outwardly, growing up as a man without the paralysing fear, social anxiety and the debilitating self-consciousness which would hinder him from pursuing his mission in the world.


My father's reaction was not much different from my mother's. He did not try to explain to me how the body and the mind operate: he did not show me how to work my way toward the ability to confidently hang, and from there, to reach a place where I could not only hang but also pull myself up, using and developing muscles I would one day need, gaining confidence and joy in the process.


No, it was only his rebuke that I got. And his cold silence.


This is what he had, and this is what he gave me.


And I knew then, that hanging was indeed dangerous; and I no longer tried it. In the same way I soon found that water too was dangerous, and did not learn swimming.

 

This was how, in those delicate years, a number of fears swept into my body, and held it captive for decades.


* * *


A young man who has not spent his boyhood years exploring, testing, and developing his strength, agility and balance using the weight of his own body, has no business lifting weights. 


But that was exactly what I did. Too slow, too fearful and timid — and too burdened by the unseen weight of suppressed painful emotions to allow my inner self and the joy of boyhood to flow through my body — I decided to skip that chapter of my life entirely.


I had no father to love me into that sense of joy, exploration and boyish abandon. I did not feel safe with his body next to mine; I did not feel connected to that body, and so, did not feel connected to my own. That body was cold, and so was I — I was now cold and frozen inside. 


I never had the love of the man who could help me inhabit my body and express my soul through it...


But I had the iron.




End of Part 3.