The Old Guys of this gym are too busy kidding around and beating each other up with 300-pound lifts to care about age limitations.


October 07, 1997|By Kevin Cowherd | Kevin Cowherd,SUN STAFF

It's 8 o'clock on a Wednesday morning at Bally's Total Fitness in White Marsh and the free-weight area has all the calm of a logging camp.

Rock music blares, metal plates clang against barbells, beefy guys in tank tops grunt and strain against various hellish-looking exercise machines, while other beefy guys check themselves out in the full-length mirrors.

Then you notice the four guys working on the decline bench.

Three things strike you immediately:

No. 1, each one of these guys is old enough to be somebody's grandfather.

No. 2, it's probably not wise to use that grandfather line in their presence, since each is built like a stevedore and appears capable of bench-pressing the side of a stadium.

And No. 3, unlike many of the others working out, who wear an expression suggesting that a relative just went down in a plane crash, these guys seem to be having a good time.

"Whoo-ee! Now we're rockin' and rollin'!" shouts Joe Clapers, a white-haired, retired optician who will be 74 in December and who has just pressed over his head a barbell groaning with 300 pounds.

Clapers, it turns out, is the inspirational focus for this group, which is generally known as the Old Guys and includes Bob Franklin, 63, Ray Noppinger, 69, and Phil Smeak, who is only 51 and therefore would probably get carded if he went out for beers with the others.

Three days a week, they meet to move around inhuman amounts of weight, to inspire and insult each other, and to bask in the camaraderie of a dedicated band of men unwilling to let age dictate how much they can lift.

Despite the good-natured ribbing they take from the other regulars ("Slow down. I don't feel like being a pallbearer," one says to Clapers), their rigorous 90-minute workouts are viewed with awe by the early-morning crowd at Bally's.

"We probably out-lift 90 percent of the people in this gym," says Smeak, a former Baltimore policeman and now a railroad cop with Conrail. "We've had young guys come here, work out with us and be stepping on their tongues."

Who knows what compels a man in the autumn of his life to begin his day in a crowded weight room -- which, as you might imagine, does not exactly smell like a pot of zinnias -- straining with 90-pound dumbbells while Franklin, a retired captain in the Baltimore County fire department, screams: "C'mon, fat boy! Do it or I'll smack you right in the mouth!"

Noppinger, a retired manager for a steel fabricating firm, once tried to explain it to his wife, Elizabeth, during one of those deep conversations you have when you've been married 50 years and shared every emotional nugget there is to share.

"You don't understand," he told "Boots" Noppinger. "You go to the gym, talk bad to each other, push yourself on the weights past where you thought you could go, come home sore as hell. Man, you gotta love it!"

There was silence for a moment, a vast and complete silence as "Boots" drank in that statement.

Finally she said: "You're right, I don't understand it."

Which, one might say, is the only sensible reply to that sort of mysterious, if impassioned, paean to pain.

A step ahead

On this gray Wednesday at Bally's, as Neil Young's "Southern Man" blares over the sound system, the Old Guys are in the midst of a typical workout, a torturous three sets each of:

Warmup bench presses (160-185 pounds)

Bench presses (up to 310)

Decline bench presses (up to 325)

Dumbbell bench presses (90 pounds in each hand)

Tricep bench presses (up to 160)

Lat pulldowns (up to 150)

Tricep pushdown exercises (up to 200)

Barbell curls (up to 110)

Cross-cable flys (up to 80)

Concerning that last exercise, here's a touching story Franklin tells about Smeak:

"I thought: 'What can I do to this fat bastard to hurt him? The cable crossover machine! He doesn't do it well -- he's got a bad shoulder.' See, I gotta stay a step ahead of him. He's bigger than me, stronger than me, fatter than me and uglier than me."

Yep, kinda brings a tear to your eye, doesn't it?

But the point is, you try doing all this without winding up with a truss the size of a Volkswagen. Or in traction. Clearly, it's a workout that could leave a 25-year-old sprawled on the couch for days.

In addition, Clapers does abdominal work and walks 3 miles daily. Smeak walks and runs around the upstairs track. Franklin swims a half-mile in the pool and does water exercises.

The four have been working out together for two years now. There was no formal beginning, they say, they all just sort of got together.

Yet watching them, you see that each plays a clearly defined role within the group.

Clapers, who's been lifting since his Navy days on a destroyer escort in World War II, is the calm, experienced guru, of whom Smeak says reverently: "Joe was not a waiter at the Last Supper, as many people think. He was a busboy."

A former three-time state bench-press champion, Clapers is not a particularly big man (5-foot-10, 185 pounds).

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