David O'Neil: Growing Muscles for Fun and Show

Spit flies everywhere; his eyes bulge out of their sockets; his head and face turn tomato red - - and slowly, impossibly, the 222.5 pounds on the machine move.

David O'Neil is tricep-pressing this weight, meaning he is using just his arms. Two hundred and twenty-two-point-five-pounds. With just his arms.

For purposes of comparison, I weigh a scant 145 pounds. That means there's almost 1.5 me's in that stack of weights. Huge men with arms like tree trunks walk by with their eyebrows raised and say, "Wow, Dave that's a lot of weight."

David O'Neil is the biggest person I've ever seen. At 5-foot, 11-inches and 210 pounds, it's not that he's big on paper. But his mass of muscles makes for an incredibly big physical presence. He's a world-class bodybuilder, a national champion, with biceps that block out the sun. And today, I'm his workout partner.

Because we've already established that I weigh 145 pounds, I can't technically be the 98-pound weakling who gets sand kicked in his face at the beach. But I'm close. O'Neil is a friendly guy, but he assures me there's no way I can really work out with him. He lifts for four hours at a stretch.

"I know I'm fanatical, but that's what it takes to get to this level. It's not a casual hobby," he tells me. "I take four hours in the gym. What am I going to do with that time otherwise, sit at home watching 'Friends?' "

I think even a massage from all six lovely members of the Swedish Bikini Team would lose its allure after four hours. But I tell him I'm game.

We meet at Bally's fitness club in East Providence at 2:30pm. O'Neil greets me at the door, having just gotten off work down the street at Hasbro, where he's a security supervisor. We get changed and get to work. O'Neil, who is single - says he's had a number of serious relationships but none that worked out - and lives in Attleboro, stands out at Bally's not only because of his size. At 49, he's also older than almost anyone there.

O'Neil got into bodybuilding in 1978, essentially on a whim. He was a rower, and enjoyed the feeling of strength and lifting gave him. It became addictive. He stuck with it. When he takes off his shirt, he's obviously chiseled.

But don't call him over the hill, or he'll throw you over the wall. While sometimes he competes in over 40 divisions, he regularly dons his performance trunks and bronzes himself with tanning oil to compete against men in their mid to early 20s. And he loves beating the cocky kids who dismiss him because of his age.

But despite being the oldest guy at most competitions, after 24 years of lifting, he can't imagine quitting anytime soon.

"I think about it - I say how much longer can I do this? But to make the transition from world-class to hack, I don't think I can do that," he said.

In the last few months, O'Neil has placed in the top five positions in four of the biggest tournaments around the country for what are called "natural" bodybuilders - meaning bodybuilders who are regularly tested for steroid use. Steroids are rife through the sport, but O'Neil maintains he would never touch them.

He's taken lie detector tests before contests, and countless urine tests. He's seen men all around him fail the tests and some who don't even try to hide their use.

"Some guys say they can beat the test," O'Neil said. "I don't know about that."

The first exercise we do are tricep presses, a pushing-down motion that works the back and side of the arms, as well as the abdominals.

O'Neil warms up his muscles, starting with a stack of roughly 150 pounds, and moving on up, set after set, until he's pressing the 222.5, sometimes only two repetitions in a set.

I do the same. Sort of. I start on 15 pounds.

But I move up, reaching 30, 40, and eventually up to 62.5 when O'Neil says my muscles are sufficiently warmed up. "Good job, now you're getting it," he tells me, like a proud parent that their two-year-old isn't dribbling his strained peas on the carpet.

We do tricep presses over and over, for hours. My arms hurt. They're not sore, they actually hurt. They look big in the mirror, though. I like that. I scan the room to see if any hot babes are checking me out. Negative.

I ask O'Neil if most bodybuilders do just one exercise for each particular workout. He says most do two or three or more - but his method is one day, one exercise, for hours, and it works so he sticks to it.

"I'm an unconventional bodybuilder. I'm a grunt."

The next day, he'll do the bench press, hours of repetitions with 400 pounds on the bar. A day or two after, he'll do leg press, where he puts close to 1,100 pounds of weights on, when he's at his best.

For my benefit, he lets us move on to the inclined bench press, where he stands behind me, "spotting" me as I press the bar. After six sets, I'm tired, and he has to help me get the bar off my chest.

Once, he tells he, his spotter knocked a bar weighing 145 pounds off the rack and right onto his head as he lay down to do bench press. He was lucky, in that the bar didn't crush his skull instantly. But it did leave him needing 120 stitches. "Took the skin right off my scalp," he says with an almost manic smile, running his hand over his head.

He's had other injuries, like popped a muscle in his groin with 1,000 pounds on the leg press machine and was almost crushed. But if you're serious about bodybuilding, he says, these things don't matter.

"If you let injuries be your excuse, you'll never get anywhere," he tells me. I contemplate running away while I still have some strength.

It's not quite four hours yet - maybe three and a half, but O'Neil says I've done my job, he'll let me go. Besides, he's going to call it quits a little early today, too. He's got choir practice. Choir practice!

He tells me he sings in his church choir at Holy Apostles Church in Cranston. He's a tenor. Apparently, he's very good. His mother comes to hear him sing. He's got a solo, even. He's singing Ave Maria.

Something's not right here.

"When I tell people I'm going to choir practice, they think I'm a wiseguy," he admits. He even sang the national anthem at one of the contests in 2001. He finished fifth that day.

I thank him for the beating, and get up to go. Walking away, he calls me back yelling, "You'll be back. You'll get hooked."

The next day, I couldn't lift my arms over my head. But I've been back all right, several times since. Watch out, O'Neil. I've learned your secrets. Next time I see you, I'll be bronzed, half-baked, half-naked, and looking down at you from the winner's stand.

By Daniel Barbarisi
The Providence Journal




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