Anyone who's tried to keep fit after turning 50 can appreciate the discipline displayed on a recent afternoon at Retro Fitness in Glen Cove.
Arthur Miller, 70, Gary Craner, 72, and Brewster Righter, 79, are probably twice the age of many of the people pumping iron inside the brightly lit, mirrored weight room. They're dressed for their workout and are ready for their daily routine on the gym floor.
"I feel guilty if I don't go to the gym," says Miller, of Sea Cliff, who retired 16 years ago from teaching instrumental music in New York City and is a professional clarinet, tenor sax and flute player.
After a brief chat by the snack bar, they start their rounds. First stop: the bench press, where Craner, a retired North Shore High School biology teacher and former baseball coach, excels.
With Righter spotting him, Craner lowers the 225-pound barbell to chest level. "I got it," Craner says. Then, with a grunt barely audible above the rock music blaring from the sound system, he pushes the hefty barbell up and back onto its cradle.
Next stop: the squat rack, where the trio do squats while hefting a 135-pound barbell. It takes strength and endurance to become a powerlifter and dogged effort to keep up with these three septuagenarians.
Every workout day, they show up at the gym and lift hundreds of pounds of weight in the bench press, the squat and the dead lift. Their discipline for the sport means sticking to high-protein diets with no sugar to maintain weight and compete in a sport dominated by much younger men and women.
However, they say the effort is worth it. Heavy lifting has yielded trim waistlines, bulging muscles and a string of powerlifting records that still stand, years after they set them.
The friends met at powerlifting events on Long Island, and when not at the gym, they keep in touch by email, phone calls and occasional dinner dates. Their powerlifting feats are recorded by national organizations such as the Revolution Powerlifting Syndicate, known in the sport as RPS, and the Syndicated Strength Alliance, or SSA.
Craner, who lives in Glenwood Landing, holds the New York State RPS bench press record in the ages 65-69, 198-pound weight class.
Miller has the state RPS dead lift records for men ages 65-69, in the 198-pound and 220-pound weight classes.
Righter, a resident of Matinecock, also has set RPS records in the 75-79 age group, 181-pound weight class, in the dead lift, squat and bench press.
"For their age, they're very impressive," says Vincent Maiolica, 26, of East Meadow, general manager at Retro Fitness. "They have a great reputation," he says, adding, "Pretty much everyone in the gym knows who they are."
Gene Rychlak Jr., of RPS, which holds meets in Merrick, praises the dedication of the three men, who compete in masters divisions, a category in sports for athletes older than 40. "Usually by [age] 50, guys have done what they've done and leave for whatever reason, but there's still a handful that keep going," he says. Miller, Craner and Righter are prime examples. "They do it for the love of the sport and personal advancement," he says, "and more times than not are doing it in spite of what everybody says" about the possibility of injuries. Almost a quarter of the 160 powerlifters competing at a July RPS meet this year on Long Island were older than 40, he says.
FOR OLDER WOMEN TOO
Mature women also can benefit from powerlifting, says Linda Jo Belsito, 57, who grew up in Wantagh and lives in Maryland. A registered nurse and seven-time world powerlifting champion, Belsito says, "I know a lot of women over 50 who started lifting late in life, and it's probably the best thing they've ever done. They feel better, look better and are less likely to be injured from a fall."
Craner, who started weight training at about age 40 and now works out five times a week, has bench-pressed 235 pounds in competition and up to 245 pounds in the gym. But, having earned a personal trainer certificate a few years ago, he knows there are limits to what an older lifter can do.
"When you hit your 50s or 60s, you really don't establish new muscle, but the concept is that, with powerlifting, you can maintain most of it," he says. "It's also part of current medical knowledge that resistance or weight training will prevent osteoporosis in both men and women."
His wife, Genie, 71, a librarian at the Bryant Library in Roslyn, approves of her husband's hobby. "I think it's amazing that, at his age, he's going to the gym five days a week," she says. "It's a great way for him to stay in shape."
Powerlifting also has helped Miller stay fit. He started weightlifting while attending City College of New York in the mid-1960s, dropped it for about 25 years, then came back to the gym at age 46. Five years ago, Miller grew concerned when his scale registered 240 pounds. With a regimen that also includes boxing, the 6-foot-2 Miller worked his way back to his college weight. "I maintain my weight around 197 to stay in the 198-pound class," he says.
Righter, who played lacrosse at Harvard, didn't start weight training until his mid-70s. He bought his first set of weights for $100 at a church bazaar a few years ago and quickly put them to use. Now, he also lifts kettlebells in his garage and does squats at the gym. Powerlifting suits him well, he says, because "I'm not a great team sports player."
About four years ago, he began competing and smashed a record even before his first official lift. During a warm-up, he deadlifted 342 pounds, then asked what the record was for his age group. "This nice man at a computer said, 'Oh, you just broke it,' " recalls Righter, who retired in the 1990s as chief executive of Pocahontas Mining Co. in Abingdon, Virginia. "The secret is consistency, if you just keep it up," he says. "You are really competing against yourself to see what you can do."
At his coach's suggestion, Righter has cut back weekly workouts from five to two -- a concession to his age -- but he says he still has new weightlifting goals.
To celebrate his 80th birthday next August, he's planning to compete for the first time in the 80-84 age group. "I did 370 [pounds] in a meet a couple of years ago," Righter says, "and I'd like to break 400."
TIPS FOR TRAINING SAFELY
You don't have to try to break a powerlifting record to get benefits from the sport. Done correctly, it can also help build muscles, trim waistlines and promote bone density.
Here are safety tips for getting started from George Adams, 49, of Massapequa, a certified personal trainer for a Great Neck concierge medicine practice:
BEFORE YOU START get a complete checkup from your doctor.
TO AVOID INJURY and muscle cramps, always stretch before and after lifting.
START LIGHT using kettlebells or hand weights to build strength. When you're ready for the bench press, train with the Olympic bar, which weighs 45 pounds, before adding more weight.
MAINTAIN A HIGH-PROTEIN DIET with a moderate amount of carbohydrates. Drink plenty of water, especially during workouts. Avoid sugar.
For expert advice on proper technique, consult a certified trainer. The cost generally is $60 to $120 per hour.