The Thunderdome Within You

TAGS: Dave Wahlman, social distancing, COVID-19, total performance sports, powerlifting

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It doesn't matter if you're a powerlifter, MMA fighter, or strongman. When you spend day after day, year after year, chasing this intangible unattainable goal of perfecting your art, it's not something that you can just switch off. It's hardwired into you; it's in your DNA, it's a large part of your identity, not to mention the structure it adds to your life. Chances are without that you lose a huge part of yourself. It doesn't matter what else you have in your life. You get that outlet taken away from you, and more than likely, your life can go to shit fast. Because it's not a hobby, it's a lifestyle. It gives you purpose. No matter what happens on any given day, if you get in the gym and train, it doesn't matter if you got a PR or got tapped out, you put the work in, and nobody can take that away from you. It's a small way of saying fuck you to the world, and that is a beautiful thing. 

For years one of my biggest fears was what happens if I don't have access to a squat rack, let alone a gym of any kind. I thought about that so many times, wondered what I would do, how I would adapt, stay strong and sane. It was one of those things I'd think about after waking up at 3 am, or when walking my dog, or while I was actually in the gym training.


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About three months ago that fear became a reality.

It was Wednesday, March 18th, 2020, to be exact. In the previous two days in the gym, you felt a tension in the world. Here in Boston, our eyes were on New York City. We knew it was coming. The previous two days, there was chatter and nervous smiles about what was in the air, along with more wiping down of gear than you would normally see. There were a lot of unfamiliar faces showing up because all the other gyms had closed or were in the process of closing. People were still trying to get after it before the inevitable.

But that Wednesday, March 18th... A show of hands, who has seen the original Dawn of the Dead from 1978? OK, so that film opens in a TV news studio — the broadcasters are yelling at each other, the crew doesn't know what they're doing, and they are talking about all the inaccurate information. You feel the palpable frustration, chaos, and panic coming out of the screen.

Now, if you have seen that movie, I'm not saying that's what it was like in the gym, but that's what the news, TV, and internet portrayed. When I walked into the gym that morning, there was a whiteboard where members had to sign in with your entrance time. There was a capacity limit. There was a constant wiping down of gear. People were beginning to keep distance between each other. You could say it was tense, but that's not the right word, or maybe it is. In retrospect, this was the feeling of the world as we knew it. The staff was cleaning everything as much as they possibly could. Random people were showing up to Total Performance Sports in Malden, Massachusetts, (the last gym still open), and those randos were adding to the confusion. The curtain was coming down, and we all felt it. There was nothing anyone could do to stop it.

If you're reading this, you know all about the pandemic, the virus, aka the apocalypse. Call it whatever the fuck you want, but one day the squat racks went away. The gyms closed. None were spared. If you're reading this, the gym and training means something to you. You know how your life irrevocably changed in ways you could never have dreamed unless you were like me and shared that same fear.

I have wanted to write about lifting and fitness for a long time, but I never could find the right thread to pull to get a story. But I live to lift heavy shit, and I saw The Omega Man when I was way too young for it then. A worldwide pandemic dropped in, and instead of a thread to pull, I had a rope to yank on.

The thing is, I knew what I could do. I knew what I had at my disposal. And I had the discipline, not to mention, all the knowledge and wisdom I've gathered over the years. In solitude, as a result of quarantine, lockdown, call it whatever the fuck you want, I latched onto this question that began to bounce around in my head.

What were my people going to do?

These are the people who I've trained with, learned from, and received inspiration. The people I've seen in person gut it out in the arena to paraphrase Theodore Roosevelt. Not the Instafamous with their precious followers. The ones I've seen putting in the work, day in and day out, right next to me.

So I reached out to a bunch of people and asked them what they were going to do and how they were going to handle it. Because of the obvious stress of the pandemic, I didn't want to push people too hard. I just wanted to give them a voice if they wanted to talk.

Here's what they had to say.

Jonathan-Cammarata

Jonathan Cammarata—Powerlifter

"Not being able to go to the gym had been both a burden and a blessing. I have never been the person who trains to look good. I am a United States marine and am pursuing a career in law enforcement. Training is essential for my lifestyle as well as something that every man should be doing. Strength training and conditioning can mean life or death in my profession, and I truly believe when you choose to become a military member or LEO, you lose the right to be unfit. It's your responsibility to be stronger and faster than any adversary you may face. This can mean life or death in some cases. You must always push your body beyond its breaking point and constantly make yourself stronger and more equipped to handle any situation. My philosophy is simple: It is not OK to be weak, period. We live in a world where we encourage society that it is OK to be weak, and it's not."

Nick DiMeglio, BS, CSCS—Powerlifter

"I'm one of the lucky ones by having a key to the gym I work at—it's come in super handy. My training hasn't been derailed much, but the plans for the future have. My sights were set on competing in the USPA Nationals this coming June, but by the looks of it, all competitions have been canceled for the foreseeable future. I'd be getting ready to put my body through hell right about now, being in the middle of another prep cycle where volume and intensity both come crashing down on me and beat me to a pulp. This is a blessing in disguise. I've reworked my yearly plan and backed off on the heavier work to focus on some of my weak points, namely beltless training and capacity/volume work. These are the foundation upon which all athletes are built—the very basics of training."

Nick Coffin—Strongman

"Simply adapt like any training situation...

As performance athletes, we run into obstacles all the time, whether it be correcting movement, overcoming injury, or in my case, in the sport of strongman, often getting creative to train for unique events. So what's different about training during this pandemic? Not much. The weak and unmotivated will fall off in the face of challenge. The dedicated will come out stronger."

Jeff Bramhall—RPR Coach/Powerlifter

"What's life like for me without a gym? Well, it's different. It's easy to just say that it sucks, and there are parts of it that do, but that's not the whole truth.

The deeper truth is that I feel like I've fallen out with a good friend. It's a similar feeling to thinking about foundational friendships. The friendships that helped form me into the person I am today and realizing that they simply ran their course. That no matter what happens, that relationship will never be the same. That's what losing the gym feels like for me."

Eugene S. Robinson

Eugene S. Robinson—Writer/MMA/BJJ

"There was a time when separation from the steel would have killed me. It damn near killed me after my first major injury. But something strange happened then and that's the mental character that was created while the body's physical was weaker. I got back to it simply, smoothly, and quickly.

This was decades ago.

Lifting weights can be like being really good at putting on makeup—a lot of becoming and not a lot of being. That didn't start to happen until I moved to the grappling arts and turned beauty muscle into something that would help me from being killed. And there you have it: The desire to not be killed, joined with the will to not be killed, mated with the ability to kill those who tried to kill you.

Jocko Willink has championed the phrase "Discipline Equals Freedom." Everyone loves to say they are disciplined or have discipline, but when the rubber meets the road, you see who is and isn't about discipline."

Jonathan Cammarata

"Every day should be focused on bettering yourself. And we as a society have lost sight of this. Training is my lifestyle, and when everything shut down and I couldn't go to the gym for a brief second, what is part of you can potentially be taken away. The burden is having to adjust your entire life around the fact you cannot go to the gym and use your conventional method."

Shawn Cosby—Writer/Weightlifter

"For me, it's all about discipline. A buzzword that gets bandied about like a freaking hacky sack, but it is abundantly appropriate here. A lockdown amplifies the entropy we all feel in more normal times. It's easy to give in and give up amid this roaring dumpster fire. I mean, who would blame you? You. You will have to blame yourself if you simply stop because you don't have access to a power rack or a Smith machine. I know not everyone has access to top flight equipment at home. Fine. Use what you have. Look, I'm no paragon of perfection. I've slipped and fallen. As I said, it's easy. It's like gravity. It's natural. But I feel that I've come too far in a journey I never really thought I could begin. So I dust myself off and do HIIT in the garage. I go for runs around my house. I grab my old dumbbells. Discipline is never easy, but it is always worth it."

Nick Coffin

"The bottom line is that any real, dedicated, and competitive athlete of any kind, even beyond strength performance sports, has faced challenges in some fashion. The best of them come out on the other side better than they were before."

Eugene S. Robinson—Writer/MMA/BJJ

I just measure it by kill ratios, and so far, I live still. So I win. And now? I'm separated from both weights and the grappling arts, and in this very instance, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu. So, I run. Not jog. Run. Well, yeah, jog too. I wear a weighted vest. Up hills. Forty minutes of this every day. And when I'm running am I communing with nature? Sort of. Or at least the part of nature that says, "I'm...going...to...get...YOU." Who's you? Probably someone who needs to be gotten. And as the sun sets or rises, not much changes for me. Keep the flesh able to survive the flesh until it all goes dark. And you too, I hope.

For many, the gym offers something nothing else can replicate: Interactions with other humans that share the same passion as you, which is getting bigger, stronger, faster. When that is taken away, it leaves a void that is almost impossible to describe."

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Brian Cuzzi—Powerlifter

"I was going to TPS once a week or so until one day I was deadlifting and Murph walked by and said I should come at noon Monday Wednesday and Fridays when they trained. I checked out the next Wednesday and it was a mixture of hard work and ballbusting. I was hooked. I moved around my work schedule so I could go and train with them Wednesdays and Fridays. Now training there for a year, I made some really good friends and my training is going great as I start meet prep for the RPS meet at TPS. That brings us up a few weeks ago when the whole world went to shit and everything shut down. I continued training as usual because I have mostly everything I need to train at home and can get by—I'm that way I'm luckier than most. I'm still going to be ready for June as long as the event will still be going as planned. I miss waking in TPS and having old stale sweat hitting you in the face. I miss my friends. I miss having my balls busted and my jokes mostly bombing. I miss TPS and can't wait to get back to the way it was."

Jeff-Bramhall

Jeff Bramhall

"In a church, the position of god offers the definition of the divine. The congregation is united together in the pursuit of the divine. Perfection is impossible for mortals, but the church gives them a place to unite in their eternal and imperfect aspiration. It allows them to stand side-by-side and look together at a future they want to achieve.

The gym offers that same unity for all people, regardless of faith. The gym is a place where we gather in the pursuit of hard things for no reason but that the hard things are there to be done. Like the pursuit of the divine, we are able to define what those hard things are for ourselves. We are able to bear witness to the struggle of others while our struggle is also witnessed.

That is what I miss. I have deep privilege in my life. I have access to equipment at my home. I have access to all the knowledge in the world about training. For me, access isn't what a gym provides. Community is what a gym provides. To lose that community, or worse, to have it taken through no fault of my own or of the gym's is a loss worthy of grief. I believe deeply that there is hope. I have faith that other people feel the same thing that I feel—clarity about the role of the gym in our lives. I have faith that we will choose not to spend our time complaining about imperfections. I have faith that we will choose to engage more with the people with whom we share those spaces. I have faith that we will choose to appreciate the communities we create together.

If you've stepped into a gym over the last five years, you're probably on Instagram. You're probably in the background of someone else's Instagram. And you could be one of those poor fucks who fucked up so bad, that you unknowingly have 67.359 views and counting of your blunder. For a lot of people's happiness and self-esteem comes from views, likes, comments, and emojis."

Lou Ragucci—Powerlifter/Owner of Steele Barbell Club

"Since we got closed down, I've had a lot of people reach out to see if they can come by and train. Most, I gave a simple, "No, sorry." A few I wanted to give them the old, "Where the fuck have you been the last eight to nine years?" And there's the select few who have said they don't want to lift at our spot, but if we can help, they would come. As if they are doing us a favor by gracing us with their presence so we could watch their shit training and hear about how some Instagram trainer does their programming. All while they name drop people they have never met as they pay for their nonresponsive "friendship." This whole situation has thrown the circus into a frenzy. I'll be more interested in the rebound—how hungry those people will be after this is over and how hard they will train. I feel most are just using this as another type of filter for their IG posts to tell us all how bad they need to train, and "Look what I came up with in my driveway," and "Look at me!"

Those that have still been banging and remaining quiet through all this are the ones that have my respect."

Nick DiMeglio

"Too often we spend time doing what looks cool for the Gram like top singles and doubles with near maximal weight just to get a few likes. However, it leaves a very fragile athlete that could topple into oblivion at any given moment.

A convict gets after it. Malcolm X would say by any means necessary. Marines "Improvise, Adapt, and Overcome." Any of you reading have spent more time thinking, researching, spending money…what the fuck did you do to get your fix?"

Jonathan Cammarata

"If you're following a specific program that has to be adjusted. The blessing is I have been exposing new ways to train and keep myself getting stronger. In typical marine fashion, I have adapted using logs and cinder blocks to replace a barbell and weights. In doing so I have changed things up and my body has seen even greater strength gains from doing things I normally wouldn't. This pandemic I beleaguered brings out the true warriors from the week. The true humans who train because it is what they do and a part of them. And in closing, I believe that the ones who do not let this end their journey for greatness are the most equity mentally to survive anything when the chips are down."

Nick Coffin

"In my personal experience so far, I've gathered what I can for equipment. I have picked one training partner and we've hammered the movements we can with the equipment we have. My log press may be suffering with every week that goes by, but many bracing/core exercises in my routine have seen significant gains. And have reduced overall pain. Over the past month me and my training partner have accumulated a few things, like a barbell, dumbbells, and a yoke, to keep the big movements strong. However in the beginning we didn't hesitate to walk into the woods and throw some stones around or push our cars up a small incline. Things are heavy and your body is meant to move."

Nick DiMeglio

"While not impossible, this is certainly much more difficult from a remote standpoint. The other limitation obviously is the lack of equipment and progressive overload. You can get as creative as you want, but at the end of the day, filling up water jugs just isn't the same as loading up stacks of 45's on the bar.

With the pandemic, my god I hate that fucking word. Another set of words you've been hearing constantly is pre-existing conditions. We all have them or know and love someone who has them. But what if you're a motherfucking savage with a pre-existing condition?"

Wayne-DeVaughn

Wayne DeVaughn—Powerlifter

"Before the lockdown of 2020, I was going to the gym at 2 am to avoid the crowds. Luckily, one of my two gyms I go to is open 24 hours, so I didn't really plan to stop going to the gym — I planned to avoid people. So when the lockdown finally occurred, I didn't have a backup plan. Luckily I'm a quick thinker and realized my boss's house has a home gym. Unfortunately, it is not a gym meant for a powerlifter. So for two weeks, I tried to adjust to more sets and a lot of lighter weight. At the end of the two weeks, not only did I gain five-10 pounds, I messed up my sleep schedule, eating habits, and decreased my strength. I had to come up with a Plan C at this point, so I searched around for everyone that I knew who had a home gym. This wasn't easy for two reasons, one, not many people have a home gym equipped for a powerlifter, and two, I have to make sure I trust this person so I don't get infected on top of my already incurable disease: Multiple Sclerosis. Thankfully I found both a home gym and someone who lives alone (an old college teammate). The bad news is, he lives 45 minutes from my home, which means I'm looking at a 90-minute round trip every time I want to go to the gym. In understanding this, I realized I would need up to four hours for each workout. After contemplating this, I decided to work out Saturday-Tuesday at his place. This sucks in so many ways I cannot describe. I've had to double my stretching to counteract the driving and toll it took on my lower back and legs. But, I'm very thankful for an opportunity to keep lifting regardless of the negatives that surround it. I should probably state that if we didn't have to social distance I would probably play sports to counteract my lesser gym time but obviously that's not an option."

No matter who you are, your wallet took a hit from the new Great Depression or recession. It took a hit in a way that I personally would have minded less if someone stuck a glock in my face and said "Give it up."Now, what if your business is fitness? Gym owners and coaches got sucker punched.

Nick DiMeglio

"As a personal trainer and strength coach, the quarantine has hit pretty hard leaving me virtually jobless. While my job can be done remotely, a big aspect of the job is the relationship and face to face interactions I have with each of my clients. I am able to create certain environments that leave each client a feeling of security that lets them harness their true strength and abilities. The silver lining from my business perspective is that I finally have the time to continue building my online business so that once we are back to normal I can hit the ground running with good products and programs for people to get better from."

Lou Ragucci

"So basically this whole scene is a shitshow. I'm still trying to wrap my head around it and process it. Who knows what the correct thing is to do. As a gym owner, it sucks! It would suck more if we were a commercial business, then we'd be fucked. I mean we are kind of fucked, but not in the sense of the others—like fucked in the head. I think it's going to be hard for most gyms to weather this. The places like us should be OK. Personally, my training is shit, just due to other worries like my wife, kids, bills, parents, etc. A lot of assholes are taking advantage of the situation and literally robbing those who are trying to set up something at home. I saw someone selling two 10-pound plates for 55 dollars."

12/15/20 Squat Program, elitefts, cj murphy, powerlifting, strongman, bodybuilding, cowards, Powerlifters, crossfit, crosiftters, mass

CJ Murphy—Powerlifter/Owner of Total Performance Sports

"So I think the pandemic has done a lot of different things to the industry and the individuals. What we're not seeing is a lot of things that have not presented themselves yet. What we do see is people on social media griping about the fact they can't go to the gym. They're trying to find ways to train at home, doing whatever they can. Some people have equipment, some don't, and the ones that don't are doing the best they can.

Then I see other people on social media turning into completely opposite people from who they were before this all happened. Nobody knows what day it is. They're getting up and going to bed at weird hours, not keeping the same schedule, or an exercise schedule. You know I don't know what the percentage of it is, 50/50 maybe. I couldn't tell you, but from what we see, some people are doing the best they can to maintain their fitness while others are going off the deep end.

I think if we reopen before June, we will see a lot of nagging injuries heal up from people doing movements they wouldn't normally do. They'll be in overall better shape, and their joints won't hurt as much. It's almost like back in the 70s, the NFL had people take ballet, yoga, and things like that, and the idea was to make them better athletes by exposing them to different disciplines. Yeah, some will lose strength, but that will come back quickly once you get under a bar.

Something that we're not seeing and nobody is talking about it, probably the biggest point of this, is that there are a lot of people with some kind of emotional or mental health issue and exercise is a positive mental outlet for them. I hate using the term "safe space," but that's what it is for them. When you take this space away, I think we are going to see bad things happen to people emotionally and mentally the longer this goes on because isolation is no good for anyone. When you're in prison, and you're bad, you go in the hole, and people go crazy in the hole. That's just to illustrate the kind of things isolation does to people. You don't behave normally, you have a different sense of reality, and if you have these issues where you need your support group, these issues will manifest themselves in negative ways and become more problematic. Nobody is talking about that. I think we need to be talking about that more than anything else as this is something we have never seen before in terms of a reaction to a virus. Regardless of your opinion on the reaction, it's unprecedented.

The number of liberties taken away from people in a free society is not going to do good for people in need of that safety net the gym provides. This is a huge issue no one is talking about. Being locked up is not healthy for people. We're going to see a high suicide rate during and after this than you would normally see with people prone to those issues. There are underlying issues beyond the gym we see that are far more problematic than a fucking squat. You can't fucking bench today, go fuck yourself. There are people with bigger problems than you. And that's coming from somebody who can't squat or bench today. We can exercise, and we can find ways to exercise. If there's a will, there's a way. You can sum it up with the fact you can't go to the gym. That fucking sucks. I get it more than anybody because if you can't go to the gym, my employees can't get a paycheck. We can't provide the services we've dedicated our lives to provide.

Hopefully, this is a temporary situation. In the end, as long as you're making fitness, it doesn't matter what kind of fitness you're making. When it comes to the industry, I think we are going to see a massive change. When this is over, depending on the length of the lockdown and if this goes till June, most places will be able to reopen. If it moves to July or longer, I'm going to predict 50 percent, or more of the smaller facilities like mine will be gone and be gone permanently.

People have no idea how much it takes to keep a facility like mine open. If you're closed for months with no revenue coming in, you may have a massive deficit to pay or make up, depending on the size of your facility and payroll. People don't know how much it takes to stay open. Consider the size of the gas or electric bills, not to mention the rent and taxes. When I tell people the actual numbers, they can't grasp it. If you're closed for six months, the numbers you might have to come up with are unbelievable. So you're going to see 50 percent of the facilities like these close. Your options to train will be places like Planet Fitness or Workout World, which are big, giant high-volume low-price chains. Small businesses like mine are low volume, high price. The reason our prices are higher is we don't want 10,000 members coming in doing what you see in the places I mentioned already. If you have 500-600 members at a gym like mine, which is a fair amount, you can't charge $10 a month. You have to charge a premium price for premium services at a premium facility. You're supporting a small local business, not a large corporation. It's here where you have the luxury of not putting up with the typical gym bros doing goofy shit. Most of the people that get into this business get into it because of a passion for training or training people. And that was me. I had no fucking idea how to run a business, but after 30 years, you pick up a thing or two. I'll tell you right now, there aren't going to be many options after this.

Another change in the industry we have at TPSmethod.com is a portal where you can go online, do virtual online training, and get your coaching and programming online delivered to you electronically. Now with this happening, everyone is scrambling to get an online product up immediately. Some are doing a good job with this, and some aren't. That's going to change the industry. You're going to see more people with home gyms and training virtually with an online service or more hybrid memberships—a new trend in the industry where you pay a reduced fee for the gym and an extra fee to be part of the online portal. I think we're going to see this type of structure grow substantially. I don't think any of the gyms like mine that survive will go out of business. I think they'll do better because what this is showing us is that you can train at home, but you miss your crew. My training crew are my employees who are like my family, and I miss them all when we're not training together. When I don't see them, I feel like there is a hole. So, I'm sure the people that train here and at other places like this, even if you're not part of an actual training crew, know the people who are training every day the same time as you. You ask them for a spot and shoot the shit with them. That's your crew. And you miss them."

Dave Wahlman

Dave Wahlman—Mediocre Powerlifter

I don't know what to say right now. I don't know what I could add that isn't mentioned in some form here already. All I know is my other home got taken from me on March 18th, 2020. I've been training like I'm doing ten on a weapons charge. Thousands of chin-ups, push-ups, sit-ups, but what I'm doing doesn't matter. I didn't write this for me. I wrote this for my crew.

Where do we go from here? Who the fuck knows. I guess this is one of those ambiguous endings. I will say this, fear of the squat racks getting taken away hasn't left me, and I don't own a squat rack, let alone have access to one. And yeah, like all of you, I would do some vile shit to have a deadlift session right now. But the thing I noticed while everyone is talking about the immediate, the now, hurry up and wait for the gym to open—my need to just get back in there is deep, just like yours. That fear of mine hasn't changed, but it's adapted.

What's it going to be like a year from now?


Dave Wahlman is a powerlifter living outside of Boston. You can find him walking his pitbull Charlie while listening to The Rolling Stones at random hours of the day and night.

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