When you meet a guy who can bench 400 pounds and wears a sleeveless black "Metal Militia" T-shirt, it's best not to confuse his name with that of a character from "Sesame Street." I learn this lesson the hard way on a recent Friday evening at Burlington's YMCA, where several strongmen, and one strongwoman, are training for this weekend's Bench Press & Strict Curl Championships.
Having seen a poster for the event, I wanted to know what might be going down -- or up --with Vermont's power-lifting scene, and what spectators might get for their $5 entrance fee. So I'd exchanged a couple of emails with meet director Bret Kernoff, who said he trains with a couple of potential record-breakers at the Y on Friday nights.
"Um, hi, I'm looking for . . . Bert," I say as I enter the basement-level weight room. A fan is blowing hot, sweat-scented air on a bunch of men clustered around the bench-press machine. One of them turns, looks me up and down and says, "Bert is a four-fingered Muppet who's friends with Ernie."
Everyone laughs -- except me. I'm too busy looking for the closest exit. But then Kernoff smiles, shakes my hand with a damp paw, and gives me the lay of this testosterone-laced land. "We're playing with different weights -- 315, 335, 355," he says. "I'm done for today, but Mark's going to keep at it."
Mark McEntee slides into position, lying face up on the bench with his feet planted on either side, and raises his meaty arms to grip the bar. Kernoff and lifter Justin Bonilla spot McEntee by standing close by the bench to make sure the tire-sized barbell doesn't crush him.
Suddenly, machine-gun commands overpower the steady, slapping sound of a runner on the nearby treadmill. "Press!" barks Kernoff as McEntee lowers the weight toward his chest, his face turning ketchup-red. Rorscharch blotches of sweat spread across his armpits. "Press! Hold it! Rack it!"
With a loud clatter, McEntee drops the bar back into the rack and climbs off the bench, holding his pumped-up arms out like two frozen legs of lamb. "He is going to own state records," declares Kernoff, predicting McEntee's performance at the upcoming meet.
Like any powerlifting event, the Vermont State Championships will have various categories, divided by entrants' body weight -- from 97 pounds to 310-plus -- and ages, from 11- and 12-year-olds to those pushing 80. The strict curl competition will follow the bench press and is similar, except lifters will be standing, raising a weighted bar toward their chins. The primary rules are simple: Whoever lifts the most wins a trophy, and gloating rights until the next showdown.
"I don't want to sound arrogant," says Kernoff, 45, as he pulls a blue polo shirt over his Metal Militia tank top. "But in my age group, I don't lose."
Kernoff's choice of workout wear doesn't refer to the thrash-metal band but to the national association of power-lifters co-founded by the sport's guru, Sebastian Burns of Glens Falls, N.Y. His group is tied to a more complicated set of secondary rules that will be in place for the March 12 meet. "Open & Drug Tested" does not mean, as I'd thought when I saw the poster, that the event is open to the public and that everyone will be drug-tested. Rather, it means that super-jacked steroid users can compete in the open division, while anyone else who wants to prove that they powerlift "clean" might be subject to a urine analysis.
The Y crew tells me that the Metal Militia is notorious for blatantly using steroids in order to become the fiercest competitors on the powerlifting circuit. "Here is some other shit I hear when I am working out with people," Burns writes on the group's website. "'My head is not in it tonight.' Well, your body is here so you might as well get your fucking head in it."
Kernoff, who works full-time as a special educator at the Baird School in Burlington, says that wearing a Metal Militia shirt doesn't mean he supports its training techniques. "Everybody that's with me is drug-free," he says. "I'm dead-set against steroids to set an example to these kids."
Kernoff has given a shot in the arm to Vermont's pumped-up population since becoming the state chair for the American Powerlifting Association a year ago. Having taught spinning at the Y for several years, he naturally gravitated back there to recruit a few contenders for the upcoming championships. (Kernoff has also arranged for all event proceeds to be funneled into the Y's children's programs.) "We're trying to bring more people into the sport," he says. "There are so many people who lift but have never even known that there's such a thing as competing."
Powerlifting has helped McEntee, 37, restore much of the strength, and self-esteem, he lost after a 1991 ski accident left him partially paralyzed. Doctors told him at the time he'd never lift more than 40 pounds. Now the Burlington resident re-stocks produce at the Shelburne Road Price Chopper by day; by night, he's the Incredible Hulk of Chittenden County.
While McEntee takes a break, 22-year-old Bonilla, a former semi-pro football player for the Vermont Ice Storm, wiggles onto the bench to attempt 355 pounds, more than he's ever lifted in his life. The weight plates shake and Bonilla sounds as if he's swallowed a hairball. "Come on, Justin!" hollers his girlfriend, Amber, watching from a few feet away. "Yeah, baby!"
Bonilla lifts the 355, then leaps from the bench and pumps his fists in the air doing a little end-zone-like dance.
Among the other onlookers is Donovan Currier, 15, whose brother, a bodybuilder in South Beach, has inspired him to try powerlifting. There's also Joan Gardner, a 49-year-old physical therapist from Charlotte who's lifted 200 today. Kernoff says Gardner is going to blow away state records at the championships. Not that she'll have too much competition. Between 25 and 50 lifters are expected to show up at the Y on March 12. "If we have three females," says Kernoff, "it will be a lot."
Gardner says it's the rush that keeps her returning to the bench press. "My highest has been 215," she says. "It feels pretty explosive -- it's like dynamite."
I've never thought of weight lifting that way. But since I've been swinging dumbbells for more than 10 years, I figure I'm strong enough to try the bench press. In fact, I think as I surreptitiously size up Gardner, I might even break her record.
So I arrange to return to the Y on a Monday afternoon, when Gardner is absent but McEntee, Currier and Bonilla are warming up by lifting and lowering the empty bar, which weighs 45 pounds. I give it a go -- no problem.
When the guys start adding plates to create 125 pounds of weight, I say I'm ready. "This is going to feel very heavy," says Bonilla as I take my turn. Piece of cake, I think -- delusionally, as it turns out. I lean back and try to remove the barbell from its rack. "Omigod, omigod, omigod!" I squeal. The crushing weight feels like it's going to split my chest open. As my spotters step in to put the barbell back, I again hear the sound that I will forever equate with the Y's weight room: laughter at my expense.
Bonilla tries to make me feel better. "The first time I benched, I was a sophomore in high school," he says. "I could only do 85 pounds." Now, he's priming for nearly 400 pounds, or more, this weekend. Part of his training plan includes tapering off in the final days before the competition. "It's almost like before a marathon, or before a football game, when you don't wear pads and helmets," Bonilla says. "when game day comes, you're ready to rip someone's head off."