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Location: 5th Avenue Gym; Brooklyn, New York
IT’S ELEMENTAL — Back to where it all began, and trudging down the steps to the dungeon is like crossing through a time warp. Above is a bustling Brooklyn street. Below is his first superset, his first deadlift, his first trophy. This is the place where Kai Greene fell in love with bodybuilding. This was his school, his workplace, his personal — if primitive — paradise in the heart of a concrete jungle. And this is where he still comes to pound the heavy basics, old-school style, as in today’s chest workout.
Launched in 1979,5th Avenue Gym in the Park Slope neighborhood of Brooklyn, New York, remains 32 years later largely as it was when it was born, nestled in the same small and windowless basement space and populated with metal, fundamental pulley machines and the sort of members who eschew cardio but never skip squats.
Greene first came here when he was 16, and soon he was not just working out at 5th Avenue but working here, as well. “I used to clean up the locker rooms, sweep the floors, work the front desk. I used to sleep here a lot of nights, right over there.” He points to a corner. “I did a lot of growing here. There’s a very strong Caribbean influence here. A lot of the guys who trained here were blue-collar workers by day. They knew what it was like to work hard, and then they came to the gym and they trained hard. Incredible work ethic. A lot of competitors. This gym has a very rich history. Being in this environment, I learned the importance of a good work ethic.”
Greene was a ward of the state, living in a group home where he never truly felt safe, so this basement was his place of refuge. It became his home. Its members became his family. This was where he grew, physically and emotionally. “I could take all my frustration and my anger and find a really good place to channel it and discover things about myself that were celebrated. I wasn’t the best reader, but as a teenager, I could come in here and have some really good lifts, get a really good workout and be OK, and sometimes be celebrated.”
The two-time Arnold Classic champ is certainly celebrated at 5th Avenue. At the corner deli, Greene buys a coffee for preworkout and bottled waters and Gatorade for intraworkout.
The workoutstarts when 45-pound wheels are slid onto an Olympic barbell cradled in worn supports above a flat bench. As he has off and on over the past 17 years, Greene warms up with 135, 225 and 315, and Oscar Ardon counts the 10 reps per set and encourages him to squeeze his pecs.
When two more plates are slid on the bar, Ardon says of the 405, “This is your last warm-up, OK?”
“Yes, sir,” Greene answers militarily.
And he knocks out eight reps with 405, another warm-up. He uses a thumbless grip (thumbs on the same side of the bar as his fingers) and employs rubber hand grips. When I ask him later about the unique and potentially dangerous grip, he replies, “I’m able to contract my chest and focus on it a little better that way. I’m very used to it now, so it just feels comfortable.”
Greene is still ascending. The apex of his pyramid is five plates, 495 pounds. “Let’s go. This is the working set,” Ardon tells him. “Every set was a warm-up till this. If you get six, done. Anything under six, we drop it.” This means if Greene doesn’t get six reps, a drop set with 405 will follow immediately. As Greene sits, psyching up with his eyes closed, Ardon pounds the bench behind him. “Let’s go! Get this!”
Others in the gym stop to watch their hometown hero go to work. Holding nearly 500 pounds above his chest with a thumbless grip just as Ronnie Coleman did during his Olympia reign, Greene pumps out four reps on his own and gets just enough help from Ardon to keep the bar moving for two more. Six. Ardon helps him pull the defeated bar back into its cradles. “Good job,” Ardon offers with a smile, and Greene nods, contented.
Barbell bench presses are followed by barbell incline presses at a 45-degree incline, starting with 225 for a warm-up. I later ask Ardon about relying on the same barbell basics for chest that Greene’s rival, Phil Heath, avoids for fear of injury.
“When youlook at the greatest physiques in history — Sergio Oliva, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Franco Columbu, and then you go to Lee Haney, even Dorian Yates or Ronnie Coleman — they define the sport,” Ardon explains. “And what do they all have in common? They all stuck to the basic movements: squats, deadlifts and bench presses. If they worked for them, they’ll work for him [Greene]. We started going back to basics in 2006, and you can’t beat those core movements. We try to get stronger on them to build the muscle in the offseason and to maintain it precontest.”
As Greenepumps out 315 for a set of eight, he watches the bar traveling up and down and pauses slightly at the bottom of reps with the bar barely kissing his pecs. Nearby on the wall over the mirrors is a long row of photos, including one of Greene at 19, grinning, striking a most-muscular with one leg planted in front. You will never see a more peeled bodybuilder. His pecs and delts are spaghetti; his quads are a collection of zippers and piano keys.
Although big for a teen bodybuilder, he looks positively skinny then when compared to his physique of today, but if Brooklyn’s finest could approach that level of Sahara dryness with the cartoonish mass he carries now, no one would dare stand next to him on a stage.
One thing is for certain, he wasn’t repping out 405 inclines at 19. But he is today. “Let’s go, six reps, come on,” Ardon tells him before Greene lies back on the bench and, holding the rubber grips in his palms, wraps his fingers under the bar (going thumbless again). “Up!” Ardon shouts during each of the six reps with four plates.
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Next up is an exercise so basic it doesn’t even require a weight, and it too was a favorite of Arnold Schwarzeneg- ger, Franco Columbu and cohorts before Kai Greene was born. The dipping bars are crammed into a shadowy space near the men’s showers, but their worn patina says they’ve never fallen into disuse. As Greene dips, he leans far forward to focus more on his pecs and less on his triceps, and he keeps his thighs approxi- mately perpendicular to his torso. His stocking cap is pulled down so low it covers his eyes. Reps are long and slow. Ardon counts 15 of them before Greene stops near failure. Two additional sets follow, with just enough rest for Brown and Ardon to do their sets. The two-time Arnold champ reaches 10 reps on the second set and 8 on the third, slowly raising and lowering his bodyweight, which is just a sandwich short of three bills.
I later ask Green about the emphasis on compound basics for chest. “There was a time when I got very far away from that, and it didn’t help my physique much,” he explains. “[More isolation and machine exercises] helped me make very strong mind/muscle connections and perform func- tionally, but it didn’t help me become a more physically impressive specimen onstage.”
Greene strides back up the steps — the same stairs he has traversed thousands of times before — to the clinging August heat and persistent bustle of Brooklyn. The world of iron and sweat and pain below isn’t just where he worked and learned and grew. It is also where he dreamed — of one day having his photo on the wall, then of being an IFBB pro like other men who toiled within those windowless walls, then of being celebrated wide and far for his physique and his posing, perhaps even winning a Pro League contest.
The Sandow will remain out of his grasp for at least another year, but he will continue to pursue bodybuilding’s ultimate dream. He’ll chase on a flat bench under approximately 500 and at an incline under 400 or so and on dipping bars, the old way, the 5th Avenue way, his way — for, wherever he is, when he’s repeatedly moving metal, sweating, straining, hurting, growing, Kai Greene is truly at home.