As the saying goes, home is where the heart is. For me—at least since my teenage years—the gym has been where my heart is. Yet my loyalties are no longer divided. For the past half-decade, my gym has resided in the basement of my house, a well-appointed setup featuring a Rogue power rack, a Concept2 rower, an Airdyne bike, barbells of all kinds, 1000-plus pounds of weight, heavy duty deadening pads for deadlifts, maces, dumbbells, indian clubs, kettlebells, and now a single 106-pound “Thompson fatbell.”
Long before the pandemic resulted in lockdowns and man-made weightlifting supply shortages, I had adopted the kind of bunkered-down lifestyle many post-pandemic folks are unwilling to abandon: a completely remote day job, a house with large supply rooms and a gas generator, and other luxuries intended to support living by one’s lonesome. No sense of partisanship or adherence to a political philosophy motivated the creation of this modest bunker, though I had long admired the West Virginia compound established by Karl Hess, the libertarian writer who helped write Barry Goldwater’s acceptance speech at the Republican National Convention in 1964.
No, it was something else—I wanted to be left alone not so much with my thoughts as my memories. It took me decades to reach this point, with the tricked-out gym I’ve assembled crystallizing memories of a lifetime spent training and learning at other gyms, alongside other jocks and meatheads in imagined communities united by a desire to pump iron. I came home to my own gym, you see, but as with my family’s return to our Pittsburgh hometown, I had to take the long way around. When one doesn’t have time to cut corners, the longest way around is invariably the shortest way back.
All my life, I’ve pursued and admired strength. The ability to do something with your own body, to accomplish something, to realize your spontaneity and prove your powers. My peregrinations from gym to gym, leading at last to the home gym, represented the stages on that journey.
That journey started at home, too. My father—who, in his late 40s, resembled the amateur strongman and YouTube sensation “Kyriakos Grizzly”— showed me the ropes. He could still complete a few dead hang chin-ups even when his weight trended north of 300 pounds, and he performed sit-ups, push-ups, and standing military presses using what most mere mortals would consider heavy dumbbells—70, 80, and 90 pounds. He also possessed a vise grip, still the strongest I’ve ever encountered even after a decade spent studying grip sports, and could crush apples, mash tennis and racquetballs, and tear telephone books in half. The last of those feats amounts to little more than an exercise in technique, bending the spines in a particular way prior to initiating the tear, yet onlookers always found it impressive.
Due to arthritis-related issues in both knees, my father never trained his lower body. That fell to the handful of coaches who ran the weight training and advanced weight training electives with which I padded my junior and senior schedules in high school. There, I learned to deadlift reasonably well, pulling an ugly, heavily-hitched 500 pounds just shy of my 16th birthday, and squat poorly, with form issues that plagued me well into my 30s. These coaches knew little themselves—they were there to coach baseball, which I didn’t play, and wrestling, which I did—but they allowed me to meet my community service requirements for graduation by disposing of the soda bottles and styrofoam containers they had filled with copious amounts of tobacco spit.
As an undergraduate at the University of North Carolina in the early 2000s, I trained with my roommate Ethan, with the aim of running three miles in 20 minutes. Weighing north of 200 pounds at the time, I never quite hit that mark. Lifting, meanwhile, took a backseat to two championship runs in intramural volleyball and sporadic participation with the Tar Heel Wrestling and Raleigh Area Wrestling (RAW) clubs. I also trained briefly with Jeff Connors, the school’s new strength coach. Connors, another refugee from Southwestern Pennsylvania who had somehow found his way to North Carolina, had been my brother’s strength coach at East Carolina University a decade earlier, though he had no recollection of the first of several Batemans to fail to live up to our athletic potential. He did, however, introduce me to box jumps and sled pulls, exercises I’d revisit a decade later.
Following a brief stint managing an Abercrombie & Fitch, I made my way to Montana, where I worked a variety of odd jobs while coaching high school wrestling. I also participated in my first and only bodybuilding show, an unsanctioned event in Kalispell in which I won the “tall men’s” class—for men above 5’10”!—because I was the only participant in that class. Although I had developed a reasonably well-defined physique from lingering around the 197-pound weight class in wrestling, I abandoned any notion of future participation in bodybuilding. Even in the mid-2000s, I saw the writing on the wall: bodybuilding was a steroid sport, and steroids cost money I was far too tight-fisted to spend.
I continued my pursuit of strength in other ways. During my three years in a joint law and divinity program in Indiana, I focused on bench-pressing 400-plus pounds. I still deadlifted and squatted occasionally, but my goal, for once-compelling reasons that now elude me, was to achieve a “big bench.” And I suppose I did, as I recall touch-and-go repetitions with weights in the 450-pound range, and a paused rep or two at 405. This doesn’t sound like much, especially to a generation weaned on tales of imaginary 500 and 600 pound benches performed prior to “career-ending” shoulder injuries, but when performed with relatively strict form, it’s a heavy load to bear, and folks who haven’t gorged themselves on performance-enhancing drugs (and even some who have!) might find that work quite challenging.
I had gorged myself on food during this period, tipping the scales at 300 pounds for a few months before settling around 240 to 250 pounds, about 20 pounds too many for even my dense 5’11” frame. So when I came back to Pittsburgh in 2007 to pursue my Ph.D., I focused on dropping weight and improving my functional fitness—objectives that led me into the clutches of the university’s CrossFit affiliate, where I spent four years cooling my heels.
Around this time, fellow grad students had discovered the powerlifting writings of Mark Rippetoe and Jim Wendler. Even though they were novices in matters of lifting, their highly technical investigations led me away from CrossFit and back to conventional strength training, this time with much-improved form that I’d continue to refine after I started work at the University of Texas at Arlington. There, I found my way to the MetroFlex gyms in Arlington and Fort Worth, where I learned the ins and outs from owners Brian Dobson, a powerlifter best known for launching the career of perennial Mr. Olympia, Ronnie Coleman, and Rendy Delacruz, one of the strongest super heavyweight lifters in the state around that time. In addition to making significant improvements in my squat, deadlift, bench press, and strict overhead press, I developed proficiency in strongman movements such as stone lifting, tire flipping, and heavy-duty grip work.
By the time I moved back to Pittsburgh for a third time—the longest way round is the shortest way home, as I noted earlier, and I never could stop coming home again—I had a profitable sideline as a fitness reporter for various publications. Through my Texas contacts, I got to know many of the main players in the strength world, from Mark Bell to Janae Kroc, and found ways to package their stories into general-interest articles that merged history, participatory observations, and cultural commentary. To folks such as Bell and Kroc, I was still a relative nobody as far as strength went, an ostensibly “natural”—and thus unserious, since seriousness meant steroids—lifter in his 30s who could bench 350 pounds, squat 500, and deadlift 600. Such people were “advanced-intermediate” trainees at best, even if they did appreciate that I could convey a precise sense of what it took to do this sort of work.
Here, then, we come to the construction of the basement gym. As fitness companies with which I collaborated sent me their products, a motley assortment of goods ranging from Duffalo bars to Donnie Thompson’s “fat pad” for my Rogue bench, my basement swelled with fitness paraphernalia. Everything I had ever wanted, except for a bunch of heavy atlas stones and tires, now resided down there. Throughout most of 2016, I maintained a membership to an L.A. Fitness, one of those globo-gyms in which a bunch of people want to waste your time talking to you and you can’t even gently set down the barbell after a heavy deadlift without someone complaining, and I decided to put an end to that nonsense.
In one significant respect, I was ending my fitness journey. Sure, I could still send “form check” videos to friends and contacts, but the bonhomie of a MetroFlex or wrestling club would no longer be present. But I was a family man with a full-time job and lots of part-time work. The configuration of the gym, like my father’s more modest home setup from decades earlier, reflected all I had learned along the way. The stackable foam box jumps reminded me of the programming in Jeff Connors’ strength and conditioning course at the University of North Carolina, the cambered spider bar recalled the two on power racks at the MetroFlex Arlington, and all of the Captains of Crush hand grippers I owned brought to mind the friendly grip competitions I had with training partners in Texas.
Each exercise I performed brought someone or something to mind, a memory of a stage along my journey toward strength. All along that path, I’ve relished feeling strong and capable. And although my body’s lifting capacity and health aren’t up to me, my desire to train most assuredly is.
Every time I lift, I remind myself of my place in one strength lineage or another. My father, for example, had done chin-ups alongside his position coach at West Virginia University, Russ Crane, and Crane had earned All-American status blocking for legendary Illinois running back Red Grange. Jeff Connors coached numerous college football standouts, as well as my older brother, who didn’t. Brian Dobson had launched the bodybuilding careers of Ronnie Coleman, Branch Warren, Johnnie O. Jackson, and other MetroFlex-based trainees.
None of this means much in the grand scheme of things, because I’m “just a guy” among other strong lifters, a face in a crowd of meatheads, and no coach’s idea of a star pupil. But that doesn’t mean I function without a sense of where I am, there or elsewhere. As a historian, for example, I’m part of 1944 Pulitzer Prize winner Merle Curti’s family tree—and indeed only one step removed from Curti, given that Curti had supervised my own advisor’s dissertation. I’m no Merle Curti as surely as I’m no Ronnie Coleman, but what difference does that make? I can at least say that I’ve been there, in those arenas, and whatever posterity might think of that, it means the world to me.
On his deathbed, my father returned often to his college football experiences. He was not so much proud as bemused by the fact that he had held his own against the likes of University of Pittsburgh star and future NFL Hall of Famer Mike Ditka, because Ditka still appeared on television and was widely regarded as an all-time great. What did that mean? My father wondered. What really separated him from the likes of Ditka? “What one man can do, another can do,” went Anthony Hopkins’ David Mamet-penned line from “The Edge,” and my father never tired of repeating it. Anyone stood a fair chance of doing anything, he reasoned, and if you could do anything, you could conceivably do everything.
Along those same lines, my home gym serves not so much as a refuge from the world as a reminder that I could, did, and still can hold my own in matters of strength. This subterranean space serves as a haven in a heartless world, reminding me of all the gyms I have visited, all the lifters I have met, all the lifts I have studied. When I’m training down there, I’m never alone. All these memories surround me, reminding me that I must get stronger, because I still can.