Surviving Mr. America’s Gym

February 16, 2012

By Steve Colescott

Named for its owner, Steve Michalik (a task-master that was roughly two parts Vince Lombardi and one part Victor Von Doom), the gym had a hardcore gym atmosphere that could not (some might say should not) sustain itself for long as a business model.

With a huge frame that he never got a chance to completely fill out before his career was cut short due to a traumatic car accident, Michalik had to settle for the Mr. America title and a class win at the NABBA Universe. He was known for his inhumanly grueling workouts – with high volume, heavy weights and nauseatingly short rest periods. Since fate so cruelly pulled him off of the front lines, Michalik’s efforts were directed towards the torture of up-and-coming bodybuilders – most notably his protégé John DeFendis, who was promoted as a legend-in-the-making by the magazines of the day.

But the still unrealized champion named DeFendis moved from the east coast to warmer climates, leaving a vacuum at Mr. America’s. The gym was still a central hub for hungry bodybuilders, with many of the local and regional champions congregating there, but Michalik was left searching for someone that he could mentor towards a national title. That’s when my longtime friend Buddy Dreimann entered the scene as another aspiring prospect.

Dreimann’s story goes back to a letter he wrote in to Jim Manion, then the head of AAU Bodybuilding. Since he only saw pro bodybuilders in the magazines of the time, he wanted guidance on how to begin competing. The letter was forwarded to area rep Bob Gruskin (who was instrumental in the careers of names like John Hnatyschak, Tom Platz, Chris Aceto, Jeff King and others). Gruskin replied and arranged to visit Buddy in his garage gym in the summer of 1977 to assess his potential. Gruskin saw that Dreimann had the raw materials required for success but advised him that it was time to graduate from the garage and go to a hardcore gym like Michalik’s.

Dreimann lived thirty or forty-miles away but, as luck would have it, right around the time he graduated from high school, his mother was remarrying a man that lived about eight miles from the gym.

Dreimann went there with a friend in the spring of 1979 to just try to check the gym out. “When we left, my friend said, ‘Oh my God! I’m not going back again. Those guys are all animals. Everyone in there has huge arms, and veins, and is training their ass off.’ He was intimidated. I said, ‘No. That’s exactly where I want to be!’”

He found Mr. America Gym to be very different from what how it has been portrayed in many stories. The openness with performance drugs and some of the crazy behavior described in some author’s accounts was not a part of Dreimann’s experience, although he acknowledges that that may have changed in subsequent years. “It was intense and you had to prove yourself when you went in there. If you were a shithead and you weren’t training hard enough, I have seen Michalik go up to people and tell them, ‘Get the fuck out of my gym. I don’t need you in this gym if you aren’t going to train.’

“If you were one of those people that trained hard, they’d leave you alone. But if they saw you really going at it, they’d call you up to the counter and ask, ‘What’s up? What do you wanna do? Do you wanna compete? What are you doing?’”

When Dreimann first arrived at the gym he had built himself up to a lean, 211-pounds and had done a strict 400-pound bench at eighteen years of age. “My friends were jealous so made sure my hips didn’t come off the bench and the bar paused for at least a second on my chest,” he recalls. His arrival was after Michalik had suffered his near-crippling car accident and shortly before DeFendis moved away.

“I saw DeFendis train a few times, but we didn’t strike up a friendship until years later, when I met him at his gym in Florida. [1979 Teen Mr. USA] Joey Fulco was there. Andy Lopedote was there, who everyone called Andy Arms. People probably don’t’ know who he was but he came second to Lee Haney at the ‘79 Teen Mr. America.” Lopedote had an incredible upper body but legs that slightly lagged. “If he had been able to bring his legs up, he would have destroyed Haney and may have gone on to accomplish everything that Haney had done. What happened with him was that he worked construction with his Dad and his father was accidentally run over by a cement truck right in front of him, and that really affected his view on where he wanted to go in life.”

“I remember looking at him and someone said to me, ‘Yeah. Andy has twenty-inch arms and he just turned nineteen!’ I was just turning nineteen so I thought, Yeah, but I bet he’s fat. As if he read my mind, he lifted up his shirt and looked at his rock hard abs in the mirror. So much for that rationalization!” Anywhere you turned at Mr. America Gym you saw a future champion trying to reach their potential.

There was a clear division in the gym between Michalik, the gym management and top contenders and those that had yet to prove themselves. “Michalik had bought the stanchions with the ropes that come from a movie theatre and he had a whole bunch of them in the corner of the gym. He would rope off sections of the gym and that was for him only. The rule was you don’t DARE step in there or he would cancel your membership.”

“At the time, there was a series of articles in the magazines by Pete Grymkowski openly discussing the different types of steroids. I remember going up to the counter after I had been there a few months to ask about them and the manager responded with, ‘Huh? What are you talkin’ about?’” Despite what other stories have claimed, pharmaceutical access or connections were not openly shared.

The gym manager responded to Dreimann’s query by asking him to train with him for a couple of months, with the goal of seeing if the young lifter could sustain the hard training required. “We didn’t work at the DeFendis/ Michalik level of sixty or seventy sets, but we were doing twenty-five to thirty sets per bodypart and he was really pushing me.”

After about two months of training together, Dreimann was advised about how things work. “There is a pharmacist that helps people out here. We will bring you over and introduce you to him,” he was told. Remember, that at this point, athletic performance drugs were not a controlled substance and not really a concern with the general public.

“They did not just introduce anyone to the pharmacist,” He recalls. “Not only did you have to earn it by what you did. You already had to be 90% there and it was considered the icing on the cake on what you had built. The pharmacist had a list. If your name was on it, you could ask for what you wanted.” Inclusion on the list was not just to those that trained hard. You also needed to be interested in competition. “This brought me up to the elite group, which was only about a dozen guys in the gym. If anyone else there was getting stuff, I have no idea how, because you had to be in this group.”

“What was funny was there was a handshake. I don’t know where it came from or and I had never noticed it before. It was just two fingers and your thumb. It was like a token handshake. I started noticing that only Jerry Scalesse got it, Joey Fulco got it, and then I started getting it. I realized this was a small group that they had been earmarked as competitors that they expected were going to do well.”

Dreimann told them that he planned to enter the NY Mr. Metropolitan in February and was provided with a six-days-a-week training program. “I had a job on the weekends. It was Saturday all day and Sunday all day. I was asked on a Saturday to work a double shift and had to miss a workout. That Monday I came in and went to shake the manager’s hand. He pulled his hand away and said, ‘Where in the fuck were you? Saturday – you didn’t even train. Don’t even talk to me.’ I felt like I was one step away from Michalik walking over and telling me he didn’t want me there anymore.” He made sure not to be so much as late for another workout.

About six months later, Dreimann was summoned by the manager into the locker room and asked to hit some poses for Michalik. As they called out the mandatories, one of them whispered to the other, ‘I think we have another DeFendis here.

“Talk about psyched! I went home driven and couldn’t wait to train again!”

From that point on, Dreimann received a level of guidance with his training, nutrition and supplementation that not very many guys in the gym were getting. “They learned it from other people through the grapevine, but it was almost like there was this elite group.”

“Michalik was helpful but it was in the R. Lee Ermey from Full Metal Jacket kind of way. One day, I was doing inclines presses with 315. I would do two sets of six with that and then back down to 275 to rep out. Michalik came over and said, ‘What are you doing? Let me show you how to do them right.’ He had me strip the bar down to 135 and I thought, ‘This is a joke.

Michalik gave him very precise direction on how to perform inclines. “He had me bring the bar down and pause it at the chest. He instructed me to pull on the bar as if you are trying to spread the bar apart in the middle, to get that stretch. Then as I push the bar up, he is adding pressure. Then at the top he has me lock my arms as hard as I possibly can. He is poking my chest and tells me he wants me to squeeze my upper pecs until it is hard as a stone. He is poking it from behind the incline bench saying, ‘It ‘ain’t hard enough’ and I’m squeezing it like a bastard. Finally, he says, ‘Okay, that’s hard enough. That’s one rep. Let’s do ten like that.’ After seven or eight reps, I felt like my pecs were hit by blowtorches. I learned that I didn’t need 315 if you do the exercise right, then you build up to 315.”

1974 IFBB Mr. America winner Don Modzelewski also took a large role in helping Dreimann. “I ran into him and just asked if he could give me some advice. Out of the goodness of his heart, he came down and trained me every night, six days a week, for about twelve weeks, and never asked me for a dime. He was no longer training at that time, but one Sunday morning plopped down on a bench with a jelly doughnut in his mouth and, without a warm-up, knocked out twenty reps in the bench with 315, with his ankles crossed up in the air.”

One of his early sessions with Modzelewski involved a biceps workout. “He asked what I start with on barbell curls and I replied 135, and then work up to around 170.” Dreimann performed ten strict reps with 135 and then racked the bar.

Modzelewski would have none of it. “What the fuck? Are you kidding me? You’re not done with that set. Pick up that bar! Curl that bar until you can’t do it anymore!”

Dreimann knocked out twenty-two reps, which had his arms feeling ready to split open. “He is standing there with two tens and said, ‘I’m slapping on some dimes. Let’s go.’ I couldn’t have even rested thirty seconds. I don’t even know how many reps I knocked out, but he immediately slapped on a pair of fives and then another pair of fives, and then another until we were at about 195 pounds. I was doing them almost like a reverse-grip cleans but my arms were blowing up like you wouldn’t believe. I was breathing like a fish on the deck of a boat.”

From there, Modzelewski directed him to the dumbbell rack for the up and down the rack technique made famous by Vince Gironda. “We started with the 20s and worked our way up to the 90s and then back down. I remember thinking I wanted to go into the bathroom and crawl out the window because this guy is nuts. My arms were so pumped I couldn’t straighten them.”

“Friends of mine knew that I trained really hard so they were in shock that I could barely handle this training but it REALLY worked. I could see a change in my body within a week. People would say when you train legs hard you throw up. The way this guy trained me on arms made we want to throw up. Legs? I was definitely in the back throwing up out the door. He would say, ‘You threw up? You got that over with? Let’s go.’” Outside of Mr. America’s there was a hose to allow vomit to be easily rinsed off of the sidewalk. The training here was not intensity or insanity; it was usually large doses of both.

“I remember Jerry Scalesse training legs. He would put a forty-five on each side of the bar and then from the forty-five out to almost the end of the Olympic bar, he would put 25-pound plates. He would do non-stop reps like a piston, stopping just short of lockout. He could squat like Platz, going ass-to-heels, but would never remove tension from the muscles by locking out. He would do about eight reps and when he briefly stood fully up, we pulled a twenty-five from each side, and he would continue, doing another six to ten reps, and then we would pull again, working all the way down to the forty-fives. He would probably do about sixty to seventy squats in one set… and then he would just load it back up and do another set like that.” Dreimann was surrounded daily by the type of training that is just not seen in modern gyms.

One of the unwritten rules of the gym was taught to Dreimann by Mr. New York state winner Dave Pomponio. “I was doing set of leg extension on the Nautilus machine. I had just learned from Michalik to limit my rest time to a mental count of twenty seconds. Pomponio came up to me and barked, ‘When the hell are you going to be done with that machine? Get the hell off! I have a contest.’ He was a monster weighing about 250 at 6’2” with about a 55-inch chest. I got out of his way. I went up to the manager and asked what was up. He explained that anyone training for a competition has the right of way and we all support his efforts. He let me know when I am training for something people will get out of my way.”

Michalik eventually sold his gym and Dreimann ran into him at another gym, sometime around 1992. “I was walking out of the gym and he stopped me. He said, ‘When the hell are you going to win a national show? You were one of those guys from my gym that I knew was going to make it. John DeFendis did it. Jerry Scalesse made it. When the hell are you going to do it? Get yourself together because you have the potential to win a national title.’”

“I had a father like him. Michalik was scary because you never knew what he was going to do and you knew he had the physical power to hurt people, but at the same time you knew that if he took the time to help you, you felt like you were getting help from the Grace of God, because the guy was serious about everything and didn’t waste time with people that were screwing around.”

On September 3, 1994 Buddy Dreimann justified Michalik’s faith in him by winning the overall at the NABBA USA Nationals and went on to place in the top six of the NABBA Universe. This victory was exactly a year after the removal of a half-body cast from a heavy squatting accident. Both of his kneecaps were detached from his quadriceps and required nine hours of emergency surgery and the placement of a plate in his shattered ankle, but he rallied to achieve his best condition.

Now fifty, Dreimann still trains and is involved as a judge for NABBA USA events. Michalik warns lifters about the dangers of anabolic drugs and works with John DeFendis as a trainer at a group of gyms in South Carolina. The dozens of other East Coast and National champions that trained at Mr. America’s Gym have a bond not unlike a platoon of soldiers. They trained for a time at a place that cannot ever be repeated, and are better men for having done so.

Known as “The Guerrilla Journalist”, Steve Colescott has had over a hundred published magazine articles, is the co-author (with Shelby Starnes) of The Lean Gain Principles, and was a driving force behind the growth of a number of the world’s most popular bodybuilding websites. He recently launched the Iron Subculture podcast, an online audio show that explores the training and nutrition theories of some of the industry’s top experts. He can be e-mailed through