Photo: Jesper Aggergaard via Unsplash
I’ve heard it said that when properly executed, the deadlift is an almost perfect weightlifting exercise. The name of the exercise refers to the lifting of the “dead” weight without momentum, lifting from the ground up, and is one of the few weight training exercises in which all repetitions begin with this dead weight. While there are a few variations that can be performed when doing the exercise, the result is the same: a compound movement that adds strength to the entire body.
My ex-husband is the one who suggested I try weightlifting. Seven plus years after the birth of our last child, I was ready to get back into shape. Scott stood at 6’3” and weighed 230 pounds, his blonde hair close-cropped and darkened through the years, blue eyes framed by gold lashes, he was an ex-college football player who ran and regularly worked out with weights. He set up dumbbells, barbells and a weight bench in our garage and worked out faithfully four to five days a week. Scott informed me that while my aerobics was great for burning fat, I’d need something different if I wanted to tone my muscles. At first, I resisted the thought of resistance training with weights. Like most women, the last thing I wanted was to bulk up. Scott assured me that wouldn’t happen, so with his help and guidance, I gave weightlifting a try.
We met in the late seventies. I was twenty-one, ready to get out of my house and into another’s. Three weeks after our first date, he left for Philadelphia to try out for the Eagles as a walk-on, but was back in ten days, ready to give up his dream to play football. Four months later, a midnight-murmured marriage proposal fetched a yes, because I was twenty-one, and what did I know.
The next morning, the news in the papers reported a horrific mass murder-suicide in Jonestown, Guyana. More than 900 members of The People’s Temple formed a line to their death and slurped from syringes of cyanide-laced Flavor Aid, courtesy of their leader, the charismatic, but deranged, Jim Jones.
A small voice whispered that any marriage proposal offered – and accepted – on the same day – or night – as this atrocity was a very bad omen.
∘ ∘ ∘
We married on June 30th, the one-year anniversary of our first date, because I’m sentimental that way. We honeymooned at The Madonna Inn in San Luis Obispo, California, known for its themed guestrooms, like Jungle Rock and Sugar and Spice. Everyone wanted Caveman, with its rock pond and waterfall-spouted stone shower, a room befitting two “primates”. Weddings in June being the popular choice, and having less than a year to plan, our option narrowed to a Victorian-era inspired room, done in pinks that boasted one king-sized bed, two queens, and a seven-foot long bathtub. We ping-ponged across the beds, but the tub remained unused, as Scott complained it was too narrow to hold us both.
Leaving San Luis Obispo, we drove south on the 101 towards our new home in Camarillo. Supertramp’s Breakfast in America played on repeat in the cassette player, oceans of blue sunshine stretched taut before us. Southern California freeways are notorious teases, and it wasn’t long before a flashy Mustang sidled up next to us and slowed. A young wavy-haired guy leaned out of the car, preened a V with his fingers, and laid his tongue in the soft fold, wagging it back and forth like a fleshy tail.
Scott wasn’t amused. He took the gesture as a call to action, yelling I’ll kick your ass, you motherfucker! as he pumped his fist out the window. The guy laughed, and the race was on. The Mustang accelerated, Scott laid onto the pedal, obscenities raged on, but our Cutlass Supreme was no match for the Mustang, which soon disappeared somewhere between Rincon and Ventura.
I sat back in the seat, quiet as Scott’s rage continued muttering on. This was his first unreasonably jealous outburst and it unnerved me. Yet there was also something oddly comforting. I knew his jealousy meant he loved me.
∘ ∘ ∘
My parents had fought for as long as I could remember. It seemed my mother was always provoking my dad into an argument: his latest secretary, coming home late, where in the hell was his missing cufflink? He rarely yelled back, refusing to take the bait. Her one-sided verbal assault was bad enough most days on its own, let alone the times she needled deeper, needed some sign that her words punctured far below the surface.
I must have been around ten or twelve on one such afternoon, when – after a steady barrage of accusations revolving around the cashier at the restaurant my dad co-owned and her not wearing a bra or panties and bending or spreading for my father making her the daily special – my dad snapped. His voice was much louder than normal as yelled at her to stop. She wouldn’t back down. What are you going to do about it? You’re a pussy, you aren’t a man!
Everything accelerated. My dad lunged towards her, fist in the air. Panicked, she stepped back. He stopped mid-motion, scanned the room, found what he wanted. He picked up a standing wooden globe and while my sister and me shrieked and my brother raced to my mother’s side, my dad hurled the globe towards my mother, hitting her across the shoulder and grazing the side of her face. She wasn’t hurt, but her hysteria rose as she told the three of us to See that, kids? Look what your father has done! What kind of man does this in front of his kids!
I looked at my brother and sister as they cried, pleading for my parents to stop. I saw the hurt in my mother’s eyes as they filled with tears, and I saw my dad recoil as he realized how quickly the situation escalated out of control.
I looked. I saw. Now what was I supposed to do with it?
∘ ∘ ∘
Technique is important when performing a deadlift. One wrong move, one motion without proper form, and your body will know it. If you know your body, and know your limits, you’ll achieve your intended results.
I began the exercise using dumbbells. (Scott says they’re easier for the novice to manage). It wasn’t long before I desired heavier weights, craved more of a workout, and moved on to barbells. I found a spare barbell in the garage and loaded each end with five and ten-pound plates, creating the perfect weight. I gradually worked my way up to forty, fifty, sixty and seventy pounds. (Not too heavy, just enough to pyramid three or four sets, adding and subtracting plates as needed).
I no longer needed anyone to tell me how to execute the exercise. (I did fine on my own, doing it my way and achieving results).
∘ ∘ ∘
One afternoon soon after we married, I was in our bedroom, streaks of lemony sunlight streaming through the shutters, as I folded clothes and put them away. Scott walked in, slid open the doors to my side of the closet, and began inspecting my clothing. He fingered one dress and then another, tossing a few to the floor. He moved to our dresser, opened the drawers on my side, and out came halter tops, tube tops, short shorts to add to the growing pile.
Now that we’re married, you’ll have to change the way you dress.
I looked at him, and then looked at the stack of my favorite clothes lying on the floor.
But I like these clothes. You like these clothes!
Yeah, I do.
This is how I dress. These are the clothes I wear.
You can still wear them. You just can’t wear them out. You can wear them here, at home. For me.
∘ ∘ ∘
I began having fainting spells. The first time it happened, Scott was getting ready to leave for work. He worked overnight at The California Youth Authority as a correctional counselor, putting his Criminology degree to good use as he supervised a group of youthful offenders held in the state’s custody. I had just reached up to kiss him goodbye when I felt woozy and everything went black. I came to as he lifted me off the floor, looking concerned.
Are you okay? How do you feel?
I was okay. I felt funny, but fine.
I’m calling in to work.
I told him he didn’t have to stay home. I was okay, I was fine.
You’re my wife.
He picked me up.
I’ll take care of you.
He carried me into our bedroom.
I won’t leave you.
I drifted to sleep to the sound of his voice.
My wife isn’t feeling well and needs me.
∘ ∘ ∘
The deadlift works your body from fingers to toes, activating all major muscle groups. I felt the tension and pull in my lower and upper body, firing the muscles in my quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, lats, abdominals, and even those in my forearms and grip, along with many other muscles I recently discovered. I became aware that my fingers were the only things connecting me to the weight of the bar. With each progression in weight my forearms worked extremely hard to keep the bar steady to avoid falling out of my control. My grip strength responded, although when compared to my larger muscles I found it easy to overlook the change.
∘ ∘ ∘
Scott made a big deal of our first Christmas together. For weeks he paid attention to everything I said I wanted or needed, every hint I threw out, every nonchalant suggestion. He bought it all. We were both working full-time, and he said he wanted to spoil me. Spending money wasn’t the point; his thoughtfulness and attention to detail was. Six and a half years later, I woke up to a sunny May morning, placed our baby in his stroller, and went for a walk. On the block behind ours, two plump bulldogs played tag in their front yard, stopping as I approached. A middle-aged man in the yard waved and greeted Happy Mother’s Day, I hope you have a wonderful day.
When I returned home I told Scott it was pretty sad that a stranger wished me a happy Mother’s Day, but he didn’t.
You’re not my mother.
No, but I’m the mother of your three kids. I’m not his mother either, but he still said it.
What a dumbass.
∘ ∘ ∘
One summer afternoon on my way home from running errands, as I wound my car around a slight curve a few short blocks from home, I passed Scott driving in the opposite direction, two small heads visible in the backseat. He made a smooth U-turn after me, pulling the car into the garage next to me.
He’d gone looking for me. These were the days when our marriage was unraveling, and he seemed intent on pulling each thread as it dangled loose. He didn’t believe anything I said, doubted every word. I told him I’d be gone no more than an hour, and it was closer to an hour and a half. As the kids scrambled out of the car, my gaze fell on the empty car seat in the back.
He’d left the baby at home.
I ran into the house and straight to the nursery. Our son lay breathing softly, peacefully, sleeping in his crib. He was okay. I wasn’t.
∘ ∘ ∘
Most exercises begin with the muscle lengthening eccentric phase (lowering of the weight) followed by the muscle shortening concentric phase (lifting of the weight). During these exercises, energy is stored in the stretched muscles and tendons during the eccentric phase. The deadlift is unique in that it begins with its concentric movement, followed by its eccentric. It is one of the few weight training exercises in which all repetitions begin with dead weight. The first repetition goes from zero potential to activating many muscle groups, equaling your starting strength. It’s important to create as much tension as possible before lifting the weight to gain strength and keep proper form and alignment. The second repetition changes everything. With the return of the weight to the floor, the second repetition becomes much more reactive. Momentum in place, each succeeding repetition becomes easier than the first.
∘ ∘ ∘
Scott was right. I didn’t bulk up, but I did see and feel muscles for the first time in my life. I was twenty-eight, had worn nothing but baggy clothes for the past five maternity-laden years and was ready to break out. I replaced my banished halter and tube tops of the seventies with the baring bandeau and crop tops of the eighties, in all their neon glory.
The thing is, when I saw Scott’s car, I knew exactly where he was heading. By now, I was used to maneuvering around his jealousy, but that didn’t make living with it any easier. He was suspicious long before he’d had any reason. Our marriage, careening wildly off its original course, was approaching treacherous territory.
I closed the nursery door softly behind me, bracing for the fight I was sure to come.
Scott lay lounging on the couch, watching television while the kids played in the next room.
What’s wrong with you, what were you thinking? I can’t believe you left the baby here, to what, go looking for me? You’ve really lost it, you —
Come over here.
Scott’s voice dripped with the proverbial honey. His voice never dripped with any kind of honey.
I stayed put, keeping my distance.
Just come here. I’m not going to do anything; do you really think I’d do something to you?
He extended his arm toward me.
I just want you to come closer.
I didn’t trust him but did his bidding, wary and waiting for what might come next.
He surprised me. With his left hand he reached for my right hand, and pulled me closer, his eyes never leaving mine. The gap between us gone, he held me still as he placed his right hand up my skirt, lifting the white material like a billowy cloud as his fingers found the elastic in my lace panties and darted inside, searching for evidence he wouldn’t find.
∘ ∘ ∘
Much of the movement involved in a deadlift mimics real life activity. You use the same muscles as you use when lifting a toddler off the ground or carrying grocery bags in from the car. The compound movement of the deadlift, beginning from its dead-stop position, is extremely effective at improving reaction time and developing explosive strength. Not that I felt an immediate need for developing explosive strength but improving reaction time can be helpful when running around after two young children and caring for a baby.
I learned that when performing the deadlift, it’s important to not jerk the bar at any point in the movement. The motion, from start to finish, must be as smooth as possible.
∘ ∘ ∘
I’ve decided I’m not going with you and your parents out of town this weekend.
I stood at the kitchen sink, staring out the window, noticing the evening’s sunset, all blues and purples with specks of orange at the horizon, washing the remnants of dinner off the plates.
We’ve been planning this trip for weeks.
You’ve been planning this trip for weeks.
Scott slapped a towel over his shoulder, waiting for me to fill the dish rack.
Besides, I picked up a couple of extra shifts at work. We could use the money you’ll end up spending this weekend.
I rolled my eyes and slid the plates in and out of the soapy water, then peeked into the family room. The kids, bellies full of lasagna and cheesy garlic bread, dozed around the television set, oblivious to the bickering in the kitchen.
We were heading to the coast. My mother loved weekend getaways, and included everyone, kids and grandkids, whenever schedules permitted. I had already told her Scott’s request for the time off was approved.
Just go. It’ll be nice to get away. The kids will want you there. My parents will wonder why you aren’t going.
Scott picked up a plate and briskly began rubbing the towel around its round edges.
Your dad won’t notice whether or not I’m there, that’s for sure.
I ignored him and continued washing, moving on to the utensils.
It’s true about your dad and his affairs.
Scott knew of my parents’ past marital woes, knew of my mother’s jealousy and suspicions, knew it was a sore subject, and I knew if he kept it up he’d be angling for an argument.
Everyone knows. I’ve heard the talk.
Don’t go this weekend, then.
I reached for the hot water knob, gave it a slight twist.
Remember Margie? The receptionist who used to work for your dad? She’d go into work after hours and pay a visit to the night shift. Everyone had her.
Well, when I said everyone, I meant everyone.
Including your dad.
I fingered the spatula I was rinsing under the hot water, tightening my grip around its handle.
She’d climb up on her desk and they’d all —
— take turns and then she’d go in your dad’s office. I heard he didn’t even close the door.
Enough! I’ve had enough!
I whipped around, the spatula gripped tightly in my hand. In one fast, fluid motion, I cut the sharp blade across the space separating us, slicing across Scott’s arm. Even before I saw the shock register in his eyes, even before I noticed a thin red line on his arm deepen and swell as it turned to blood, and even before he raised his fist in the air, instinctively, ready to strike, I regretted it.
But I couldn’t back down. I’d crossed a line, and there was no crossing back over.
Do it. Hit me. You hit me, and I’ll be down at the police station so fast you won’t have a chance to stop me. Big bad CHP officer hits his wife while his kids are sleeping in the next room. They’ll love that. Go ahead. Do it.
Scott’s fist hovered in the air. I stared at him, glared at his hurt and bewilderment, but I didn’t back down. I wished I could say I was sorry, wished the defiant expression off my face, wished for the briefest moment I could return to the same girl he married, but that’s not the way my range of motion worked.
∘ ∘ ∘
He didn’t hit me, not that night, or anytime during our seven-year marriage. For eight months following the night in the kitchen, his attempts to control me intensified, as did my resistance to his efforts. After overhearing me tell a friend on the telephone that I wish he’d just leave, he left. The kids and I watched from the window as he drove away, his yellow Tercel crammed with clothing, toiletries, any personal belongings he felt he needed. But he didn’t take pictures of the kids or our family, not any personal keepsakes. The moment was sadder than I expected. Once his car was out of sight, I put the kids down for a nap. Then I walked into the garage, rearranged my barbell and weights to the spot that just opened up, and raised the weight to begin a new set.
About Cindy Bradley
Cindy Bradley received an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University, where she was an editorial assistant for The Normal School. She is currently a nonfiction assistant editor at Pithead Chapel. Her work has been featured in 45th Parallel, Essay Daily, and Under the Sun, among others. She has an essay named Notable in Best American Essays 2017. A full list of her publications is on her website at cindybradley.weebly.com, and she can be found on Twitter @cindysea429.