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Squat Till You Puke: Notes from Bend's barbell-bending underground gym

It was necessity, that mother of ingenuity, that prompted Brian McLaughlin to start a private gym 10 feet below street level in a former furniture shop with no windows or sidewalk visibility.



It was necessity, that mother of ingenuity, that prompted Brian McLaughlin to start a private gym 10 feet below street level in a former furniture shop with no windows or sidewalk visibility. A mental health counselor by trade, McLaughlin needed a place where he could pursue his other interest, competitive weight lifting, after his south side gym closed.

While many gyms and health clubs frown on grunting and prohibit the use of chalk, McLaughlin embraces the unvarnished ethos of competitive weightlifting at Resilience Strength Training, or RST. McLaughlin's rules consist of a power lifter's code printed off the Internet and taped to a wall. It includes provisions such as, "Don't smell like shit. Use deodorant," under the hygiene section. Or this helpful tidbit, "If blood splatters on the bathroom floor, clean it up." A nearby poster that hangs behind a medieval looking rack draped in thick chains, announces "Squat till you puke." It's what passes for a motivational slogan around here.

Currently, McLaughlin has about 16 paying members, many of whom work with McLaughlin on a personal training basis. But it's a smaller contingent that is helping this under-the-radar gym gain recognition in Northwest power lifting circles. Every Monday and Thursday night, a core group of roughly half a dozen 30-something guys from a surprisingly diverse cross section of Central Oregonians converges on the gym in pursuit of personal milestones and, in many cases, state records. Currently there are three state record holders among the small group of guys who regularly frequent the gym. McLaughlin held the state record for dead lifting in his weight and age class until recently. He hopes to win it back at a meet this weekend in Medford.

"All I know is that I'm going to rip it off the floor," quipped McLaughlin, clearly frustrated that he did not win the title back during his last attempt at a meet in Portland this past winter.

Like others at the gym, McLaughlin doesn't really fit the stereotypical competitive weight lifter profile. He arrives at the gym in a sedan, not on a Harley, and wears dress pants and a button down shirt at his nine-to-five job. Once McLaughlin swings open the door and flips on the lights, he's all business. McLaughlin's no bullshit approach to training and lifting is reflected in the modest gym that looks as much like a custom auto shop or welders business, as it does a typical health club. There's no fancy Nautilus equipment, treadmills or bikes - just good old-fashioned iron, and lots of it.

It's the way that McLaughlin, who started the gym roughly a year and a half ago after his previous gym, The Body Shop, closed, likes it. In a town where people's social calendar revolves around Pilates and yoga classes, McLaughlin and his merry band of metal heads are the bad boys of personal training. They forego jump ropes and medicine balls in favor bar bells and leather weight lifting belts.

In a sense, McLaughlin is also on the vanguard of the fitness business which is moving away from large, everything-under-the-sun clubs, or as McLaughlin refers to them, "big box" gyms to smaller more specialized studios that focus on a single, or a few limited disciplines, be it cross-training or kick boxing. In the case of RST, the focus is on building strength. It's not a casual pursuit, all of the serious lifters are in pursuit of a state record and there is already one world record holder. Progress is tracked without the aid of computers and bio-analysis. Instead, McLaughlin and company use a dry-erase board to record their personal bests in the three key disciplines that make-up traditional power lifting competitions: squat, deadlift and bench press. To the layperson, the numbers are gaudy - a 750-pound squat, a 725-pound dead lift, a 585 pound bench press.

On a recent Monday night, McLaughlin arrived with weight lifting partner Scott Edmondson, another one of the core crew at RST. The two met through a mutual friend and began working out together in Edmondson's garage after The Body Shop closed and McLaughlin was without a gym. Edmondson is the veteran in the bunch and one of the most accomplished weight lifters in Oregon. He grew up in the Rogue Valley area in the '80s and early '90s, playing football and basketball, but got turned on to weight lifting early, taking part in his first competitions before he was 10 years old. By the time he was 25 years old, he had his first world record when he pulled 611.7 pounds off the floor in a deadlift competition in Pasco, Wash. - a mark that was later bested by his younger cousin. Like others at the gym Edmondson has two identities. At the gym he's a gladiator who holds the state bench press record at a whopping 585 pounds, which he put up at a meet in Las Vegas last fall. By day, he has another role, professional educator. Edmondson is the principal at Sky View Middle School on Bend's northeast side. The two worlds don't often mix for the soft-spoken Edmondson who sat thumbing through a power lifting magazine and watching others working out this week while he rested for the upcoming meet. With a neatly trimmed goatee and a cleanly shaven head, Edmondson looks like he could be a bar bouncer or a concert security guard, but his reputation as a strong man doesn't reverberate far beyond the insular weight lifting community. Most of the 600-plus students at his middle school had no idea that he was a serious weight lifter let alone the state bench-press champion. Edmondson joked that his secretary is the only one at the school who knows that he will be down in Medford this weekend in pursuit of another state record.

Edmondson said he doesn't know how long he'll keep going, but is quick to point out that there are people well beyond the age of retirement still actively competing. Perhaps that's because this kind of weight lifting is as much an obsession as it is a hobby. Edmondson and others speak of getting bitten by the "iron bug."

"All of us, our athletic career in other sports is over and this is a way for us to keep the competitive juices flowing," Edmondson said.

But that alone doesn't explain the kind of borderline compulsion and focus required to consistently compete at this level where the finish line is always moving a few feet back, as competitors push themselves and others farther and farther toward the limits of human performance. Competition weeks are particularly hard because the competitors are usually resting their bodies for the coming meet, when they will need every ounce of strength to beat their personal bests.

"This is hell for him," McLaughlin, says only half-jokingly of Edmondson, who never changed out of his work clothes and loafers as the rest of the guys sauntered around in cut off T-shirts that revealed tribal tattoos and powerful arms.

"This week always sucks because you know you can't lift until Saturday. We're at work today and all we're thinking about is bending bars," McLaughlin said before taking a few light reps.

On the other end of the competitive spectrum is Sydney Groenendall, an 18-year-old Bend high senior. A former competitive soccer player, Groenendall sustained a serious concussion and is no longer able to engage in contact sports. She got turned on to McLaughlin's gym while working with a kickboxing coach in an adjacent studio. It didn't take long for her curiosity to transform into serious interest. She started working out with McLaughlin on a personal training basis about six months ago and quickly expressed an interest and aptitude for competition. She'll be traveling with the rest of the guys this weekend to the Medford meet, a fact in which McLaughlin takes pride, given how few women compete.

The machismo that courses through the gym, punctuated by the sound of distorted guitar riffs, double bass drums and the clang of 45-pound weights, quickly falls away when McLaughlin and others work with Groenendall. Almost all of the guys take a few minutes to dole out quiet encouragement and tips on technique.

Her dark hair pulled back in a ponytail, Groenendall said she is both nervous and excited about the upcoming meet.

"I've never been able to find something that could prove how strong I was," she said.

"These guys have become people that I look up to - like my bigger brothers."

If that's the case, would-be bullies beware; this is one girl you don't want to cross, unless you happen to enjoy tangling with gladiators.

To see video and more photos from the Source's visit to RST, log onto tsweekly.com

Resilience Strength Training

70 NW Newport Ave


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