Monster Garage Gym: A Big Fish in a Small Pond

TAGS: training with people better than you, little fish in a big pond, under the bar experience, Eric Maroscher, iron game, powerlifting

It was the early 1990s. HTML was about three years old and Google was still eight years away. You could email, but you pretty much still bought stamps. The video game Mortal Combat was coming on the scene, and even on a fast computer, it took about two minutes to download a large photo. Nobody texted on a cell phone, and I was busy being a big fish in a small pond.

My circle of friends wasn't on a computer screen. They were actual lifters who I trained with five days per week at the local town gym. Looking back, the gym was about 3,000 square-feet and it was right out of a scene from the movie Pumping Iron. It wasn't anything fancy—just free weights, loud music, dedicated bodybuilders, and one lone powerlifter.

I mention the technology because although you didn’t feel isolated at the time, with my access to information now, I realize how isolated our little world in the gym was when I look back. This morning alone, as I was pondering my last mental edit of this article, I was exposed to more information about powerlifting in twenty minutes time via elitefts.com, powerliftingwatch.com, my Facebook contacts, and a couple powerlifting forums than I would be exposed to in a month’s time back then. From world events to world records, everything is within a push of a button and a few clicks of a mouse or a touch on a screen. That is how information flows today. But things weren't like that in the early 1990s, now some twenty ago.

Back to the gym...as the sole powerlifter, I was spotted by the bodybuilders and I deadlifted alone. Over time, there was a small group of four to five guys who would powerlift with me. The gym’s owner let us build a deadlift platform in the back and he purchased a squat rack for us as well. I'm not sure if he was helping us or just hiding us, but either way, we trained and competed. We competed a lot. In exchange for wearing the gym's shirts to meets and when I trained, the owner paid for my meets. What a great place. We had our own rack and deadlift platform, and the owner let us use chalk, baby powder, and tork. On heavy days, he let us put in our favorite CD or cassette and turn it up loud for the big sets. (Yes, I said cassette. Get over it. In five years, your iPod will look like a Stegosaurus, too.) You really couldn’t ask for much more.

I started to read Powerlifting USA and learned about guys like Ed Coan, Kirk Kowalski, Lamar Gant and (the newcomer at that time), Wade Hooper. But I might as well have been reading a Marvel comic book. After all, I never saw these guys. I never met them, saw videos of them, or knew much about them. Even with that amazing magazine, it was somehow distant and information came to you once a month. What I actually knew, what was real to me, was that at my gym, I was getting free T-shirts, free competitions, and my own little 400-square foot part of the gym. I was pulling three times my body weight raw and I was the strongest guy in the gym weighing only 198 pounds.

What I didn’t know is that my view of the world of powerlifting was going to go through a massive perspective change. You know the scene at the end of the movie Men in Black where the camera pans way out? You see the Earth and then it pans out further and you see our solar system. It continues to pan out further and you see our galaxy, the Milky Way, and then it pans back ultimately to where there are hundreds of other galaxies like ours. In the final scene of the movie, all those galaxies turn out to be inside a marble and two alien creatures are playing marbles with each marble containing hundreds of galaxies. That is perspective change. It's someone, somewhere, or something that causes you to see you and your surroundings in a different way.

“See you next Saturday.” Powerlifting legend Ernie Frantz and two-time WPC World Powerlifting Champion, Eric Maroscher (1993). Photo by: MONSTER GARAGE GYM

I met the legendary Ernie Frantz in the early-1990s when Ernie was in his early 60s. I unintentionally met him at an outdoor push/pull meet. I didn’t know who Ernie was, but as I was checking out the competition on the meet’s roster. I saw him and saw that he was in my weight class and competing open age. Time and road under your belt can make you wiser and hopefully a little smarter, but at the time, I was young and cocky. I asked my lifting partner, Larry Tischer, who “the fossil” was in “my” weight class. I mean, after all, I get my gym T-shirts for free and my meets are paid for. I'm also stronger than guys twice my size at my gym, so I must be something, right?

With the benching over, we were now on to the deadlift. Ernie didn't take an opener. In fact, he didn't take a second attempt. Of course, I took mine, as did the other deadlifters. When asked by the expediter what he wanted for his third attempt, Ernie looked over at me, right into my eyes. While looking at me, he said to the guys behind the scorer's table with a sly Ernie Frantz boyish grin on his face, “Toss on 50 pounds more than what he takes for his third.” I nearly sh*t myself. Did he hear me call him a fossil? I remember thinking that this might not end well.

Being that it was Ernie and it was a local non-sanctioned meet, the lifting order was changed and Ernie Frantz lifted last. My head was completely swimming with a million thoughts—who is this guy? How much can he pull? Why is he so sure of himself? Am I about to get my powerlifting clock cleaned? If I beat him, am I a jerk for beating an old guy? Who are all these huge guys in the black Frantz T-shirts hanging on his every word like he was powerlifting's Yoda or something? I had the bar loaded with the most I had ever pulled plus an additional 10 pounds. I approached the bar and began to pull and pull and pull. I pulled like hell, and I pulled the weight like my life depended on it. After what seemed like the longest lockout in history, I set the weight down to three white lights. I was spent.

Normally, I would be ecstatic after not only pulling a PR but pulling a PR that really should never have gone up in the first place. Instead, all I could do was look at this muscular old man whose faded ink on his huge arms was older than I was. His mere confidence and sly grin took me right out of my own head.

After my third attempt, the bar was loaded for Ernie. Ernie walked right past me, approached the bar—the bar loaded with 50 pounds more than my best ever pull. I can see it in my mind’s eye like it was yesterday. Ernie pulled the weight as easily as if it were 135 pounds. He came over and, in that soft spoken voice of his, said, “Hi, I'm Ernie Frantz. See you next Saturday at my gym.” Then he walked away.

That whole next week I thought about nothing but what had happened. What I didn’t realize yet was that this week would be the last week of my life training at a gym where I was the big fish in a small pond.

The drive to Aurora, Illinois, and Frantz Gym was about 90 minutes from my home at the time. I ate breakfast, and my gym bag was packed. I was looking forward to a good workout. I didn't have any idea what was waiting for me. When I arrived, I parked on the side of the street that the gym was on but far enough away where I could sit, finish my coffee, and try to digest the sight of this three-story building with the name Frantz on it in four-foot tall lettering.

When you walked into Ernie’s gym, the area where he sold his squat suits, knee wraps, shirts, briefs, and homemade nose tork was to the left. Downstairs was the land of a thousand plates and bars from days gone by. Then there was the upstairs. It was sectioned into two areas. There was kind of a health area with old-fashioned machines with chrome plate stacks and padding that had little glittery sparkles embedded into the material. It had vintage written all over it. It was kind of like a museum for old chrome equipment in mint condition. There was a bathroom upstairs, too, and then there was “the” room. You could hear the plates clanging and the lifters yelling and cheering one another on, all to the blaring sound track of AC/DC.

I walked in and the room was in full swing—three monolifts, a bench press, and a deadlift platform. As I scanned the room for Ernie, I noticed the huge amount of weights on each of the three bars laying on monolift hooks. I had come to Frantz Gym on a squat day. Out of nowhere, Ernie appeared and said, “So what is your squat max?” I told him, he looked at me without blinking, and said, “OK, today you will do 50 pounds more than that. Go over there (pointing to the monolift where a group of guys 50 years and older stood), warm up, and start lifting. I will be back.”

Somewhere in my mind, I still had a little bit of my quickly dwindling ego left. But before I could even think the whole “hey, but I get free gym shirts from my gym” thought, I noticed a group gathering around monolift number two. The lifter was a blonde woman weighing about 170 pounds of pure muscle. The bar in front of her had well over 600 pounds on it. I  found out that the woman was multi-time world champion, Stephanie Van de Weghe, and the weight was 700 pounds. I watched Stephanie squat the weight, rack the weight, and then add more weight. Bill Nichols (who squatted over a grand that day), Paul Urchick, Jose Garcia, Noel Levario, and Tom Carnaghi, to name a few, were also training at Frantz Gym on my first day there.

“The Chicago Mob.” Ed Coan, Eric Maroscher, Ernie Frantz, Jose Garcia, and Tom Carnaghi. Photo by MONSTER GARAGE GYM

It was like the gravity at Frantz Gym had been turned down to 10 percent because the weights being lifted all around me were enormous and they were being lifted with what seemed like such ease. It simply blew my mind. That day I squatted 50 pounds more than I had ever squatted in my life and did it with gas left in the tank. I was now a very, very, very small fish in a very huge pond.

The power of lifting with stronger lifters than you can only make you better. It's fun being the strongest guy in the gym and staying ahead of the pack, but when you discover that there is a huge pack elsewhere and they can all out lift you, you take that energy and go after them, one lifter at a time, all the while setting personal records. I know this works for the best lifters as well.

I think of places like Westside where the lifters are all strong and they all compete with one another. I think how amazing it is for the weakest guy to get to try and make up the distance between him and his closest powerlifting peer and then to move on from there. I see it at the MONSTER GARAGE GYM when lifters from other gyms travel to come train with us on a Saturday and see Brendan Luedtke squat 1065 pounds and pull 830 pounds or little 19-year-old Alex Trinidad squat 700 pounds at a body weight of 159 pounds. They, too, become small fish in a big pond and that alone is a catalyst to make them better lifters.

IPL World Powerlifting Champion, Brendan Luedtke of the Monster Garage Gym squatting 1065 pounds at 275 pounds. Photo by Bent Nail Photography

 

Technology, so vastly improved from the early 1990s, is a great tool for the powerlifter with things like e-books, video seminars, and YouTube videos. In fact, we do get a larger perspective through technology. Unlike the 1990s, we can see powerlifting videos on our Facebook page instantly after they happen. We can watch meets via live streaming video and be Facebook friends with the big boys and big girls. But that is a perspective viewed on a screen. As real as it seems, it is still a view from your home or work computer. Physically being at a gym where you aren't the top dog is different than seeing someone on the screen who is more powerful than you. There is just something visceral about the physical experience. Ask anyone who has trained with Dave and his crew at one of the elitefts™ workshops. Being there makes all the difference.

Some people are content to be a big fish in a small pond. If that is as far as one can take himself, who am I to challenge the status quo? But to those of you who dream a little bigger—and most, if not all, of you reading this do dream big—take that leap. If you haven’t yet, go to a big meet and watch the elite totaling powerlifters. Go visit Westside Barbell. Take your big fish self out of your little pond and swim in the ocean even if for just a short bit. It will give you the booster shot of perspective you need to make the next step in your training and competing. Visiting Frantz Gym was literally a life-changing event for me and one that sticks with me to this very day.

MONSTER GARAGE GYM owner, Eric Maroscher. Photo by: Bent Nail Photography

We can all be the ‘superhero’ in our own small little gym. For some, that is enough. Seek the bigger pond and be the little fish. Although initially this can put your ego in a box, ultimately it will set you on the path to become the most evolved powerlifter that you can possibly be. That isn't only the road less traveled, as they say, but also the fulfilling road.

Ever onward!

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