Why I Once Felt Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Chest… and Thighs…

As a devoted weightlifter, I'm eagerly anticipating the opening of bodybuilding doc Generation Iron on Friday.

My name is Gail, and I am a biceptual.

Yes, I confess, I have long been a sucker for muscles. Monstrous, well-defined, masses of muscles, flexed by bodybuilders resembling hairless androids in Speedos. I love the aesthetics of serious brawn.

I am equally fascinated by the discipline required to create such sinew—the hours in the gym, the months of dietary deprivation, the mounds of performance-enhancing supplements. It is a wholly narcissistic obsession, with the goal being a corporeal perfection usually reserved for museum statues.

All of which explains why I’m excited for Friday’s opening of Generation Iron (trailer above), about the new stars of bodybuilding. Mickey Rourke, no stranger to six packs, narrates the documentary. Its producer, Jerome Gary, also created 1977’s Pumping Iron, featuring a cocky young champion named Arnold Schwarzenegger.

A few years later, imagine how pumped I was to interview Ah-nold himself, up close and personal. He had come to Philadelphia to appear at a bodybuilding competition at the old Civic Center.

Being young and impetuous, I immediately went for broke with Schwarzenegger. “May I touch your chest?” I asked. Not unused to the request, naturally he said yes. I remember it felt like chiseled granite. Eyeing his arm, I said, “Would you make a muscle?” Again, he obliged. Emboldened by his cooperation, I asked for the thighs, then the back. It was totally unprofessional of me, and I’m glad I did it.

In my own defense, I am more than a voyeur. As part of my overall fitness regime, I lift weights six days a week, by body part. Biceps, naturally, are my favorite to train, followed closely by quads. I can leg press 460 pounds—pretty damn good for a girl.

After all that work, my muscles need pampering. That arrives once a week in the form of a full-body, deep-tissue massage. For 90 heavenly minutes, hands of steel knead my concrete muscles into spaghetti. This is true bliss. It is better than sex, almost.

In case you’re wondering how I got into weightlifting, it was by accident. As a freshman in college, I got lost in the gym one day and ended up in the basement. I followed voices to a room at the end of the hall, where I discovered what looked to be a torture chamber. About half a dozen guys were lifting free weights and working the machines.

I was mesmerized. I had heard of weightlifting, of course, but I had never actually seen it being done. I asked the least-scary looking guy to show me a few moves. Recognizing a fellow gym rat, he took me through some basic lifts. Still, he and his buddies were clearly unnerved by a female invading their boy cave.

More curious than self-conscious, I did a few bicep curls, military presses, squats, leg raises. I had always thought of myself as strong, but I woke up the next day unable to move. I decided, then and there, that I would return to the weight room and get serious. I went for the next four years, and I haven’t stopped.

In the early 1970s, women did not pump iron. As the only female in the weight room, I encountered mild annoyance, open hostility or total disregard. I didn’t care. Lifting weights made me feel good. It also strengthened my basketball game.

Flash forward to today. Tons of women pump iron in my gym. A few of them are bodybuilders, as are a larger number of men. Some wear sleeveless T-shirts. I like it, because I know what it took to get there. Occasionally, I can’t help but watch the men train, but they don’t seem to mind. Once, I witnessed a guy press more than 1,200 pounds with his legs. Ten times.

Bodybuilders have every right to be peacocks. If I had plumage like that, I’d strut my stuff, too. I’d go sleeveless in February.

Since that is not remotely possible, I’m happy to lift and watch.