Fear and Plate-Loading in Las Vegas

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I just swallowed 40 grams of whey protein, along with six grams of creatine and five grams each of glutamine, HMB and BCAAs, all in a smoothie made of papaya juice, bananas, mangoes and yogurt. I'm in the middle of the devil's desert. Talking statues, marauding pirates and groups of blue men torment me, and I'm being approached by what appears to be a tank with eyes. I struggle to make sense of it all.

The tank, I realize, is Jay Cutler. But what is Cutler the Tank doing in this desert gym rife with giant female impersonators, magicians and inveterate slot jockeys? Why is he sucking oxygen from an air-conditioning duct like a drowning man on a lifeline? And can Cutler really be training his back twice in the same day?

BACK BUFFET I'm 30 minutes from the Las Vegas Strip, at the Gold's Gym on Craig Road. A bank of treadmills, stationary bikes and hanging TVs block the squat racks from the squeamish. In a glass enclosure, a gaggle of seated octogenarians aerobicize their arms, and all the gym's tanned and youthful can peer into this "After" exhibit and ponder their furrowed futures. In keeping with the family-fitness vibe, Cutler is joined by his lovely wife, Kerry, who appears fitter than the fittest fitness babe. Kerry jokes that she gets her squat workout spotting her husband on chins.

Like a boxer inserting his mouthpiece, Jay Cutler prepares for battle by cinching up the belt and wrist straps he uses for every set of lat work. Faster than dice tumbling across a felt-covered table, he has finished two sets of underhand front pulldowns.

He calls these "feel sets" (lighter sets to warm up and judge his current strength). He then sets the pin at the bottom of a 300-pound stack and pounds out 10-rep sets, leaning back slightly during the downward portion of each rep. "I always start with reverse-grip pulldowns," Cutler says. "You can really pop the lats on them and get good extension to the upper back."

Cutler often does barbell rows next, but today the Hammer Strength machine is his weapon of choice. "These mostly focus on middle thickness. Back density is a real target for me," Jay explains. Starting with three plates per side, he's soon up to five per side (450 pounds). "All the way back," Kerry encourages. "One more on your own." Cutler keeps up a brutal pace and barely has time to catch his breath while stretching between sets. He is perpetually grabbing hold of nearby vertical bars and tugging, and I'm in constant fear that he'll tear out a ceiling joist. "Stretching is going to open the tissue for better blood flow," he explains. "It's really important to do, especially with back. It's such a large muscle that you really need to stretch it out as much as you can to get the maximum width and density."

Cutler begins one-arm dumbbell rows with 120 pounds but is soon hefting a 150-pounder. He keeps his torso parallel to the floor throughout and pulls the dumbbell straight up, unlike some who stand more upright and let the dumbbell travel out in front at the bottom. Sweat rains from his soaked shirt. Between sets, Cutler hugs an air-conditioning duct, gasping for cold oxygen. Later he tells me, "I feel dumbbell rows are the cornerstone to all the improvements I've made in my back over the past couple of years. They stretch the lats and allow for a strong contraction, giving me both width and thickness, especially in the lower lat area."

Skinny teens in tank tops and at least one man masquerading as a woman watch bewildered and bewitched as Cutler pumps out reps with the gym's biggest dumbbell and then struggles to remain conscious during his 45 seconds of rest. He is no longer able to talk. "Back is the bodypart that takes the most out of him," Kerry tells me. "It's not that he doesn't train 100% when he does everything else, but back has been the one area he's really focused on. As you can see, his training gets really intense."

HOMESTRETCH Cutler grinds out front pulldowns on the Hammer Strength machine. For the final set, Kerry strips off weights for a brutal drop set. "Jay, let's go," Kerry encourages. "Let's go."

I glance over to the room where the oldies are barely sweating to the oldies. Above us, the TVs give off a deadening buzz of Headline News. A ventriloquist bench presses to the beat of the stock market report, and I swear I see his dummy on a StairMaster. Is it just my imagination or are the drag queens multiplying? I wonder what else was in that protein smoothie I drank. Never trust a Vegas juice bar.

This gym, like many modern workout emporiums, doesn't have a traditional T-bar rowing station, so Cutler approximates T-bar rows with a plate-loaded machine in which he lies on a pad set at a 30-degree angle to the floor. "I just want to really squeeze these," he says. He places much of the emphasis on the contraction of each lift, raising the weight as far as possible during two working sets with four plates (180 pounds). Whether rowing or stretching out between sets, he leaves behind a pool of sweat wherever he goes.

Cutler finishes off his morning session at the pulldown station where it all began, doing a set first to the front with an overhand grip. He complains about not being able to properly feel the weight. "Because of the way the machine's set up, I can't get under it," he says. He goes much lighter and switches to behind-the-neck style. "I have no flexibility with all this pump," he complains. "I don't think pulldowns are the key to back size, anyway. I think rows are more important for maximizing blood volume in the back." After three sets of behind-the-neck pulldowns, he pronounces his back thoroughly exhausted.

Kerry hands Jay five BCAA tablets and he gulps them down with a swill of bottled water. The ancient aerobicizers are still waving their minidumbbells like pompoms, seated all the while, and the drag queens and ventriloquist and the rest of the Sin City menagerie are running in place like so many human hamsters when Jay, Kerry and I step into the scorching sunshine and feel our flesh beginning to fry. Six hours later in another Gold's Gym, Cutler will attack his back a second time, and I'll be there again for every sweaty rep, confident things won't get any weirder but fearful just the same.

DÉJÁ VU At 6 pm, Cutler's Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic-won Hummer pulls into the parking lot of the Gold's Gym on Sahara Boulevard, only a couple of miles from the Strip. We enter the workout den Cutler affectionately calls the "Dump." This Gold's will never be mistaken for a family-fitness center, for there are no dumbbell-waving seniors, no Pilates balls, just heavy-metal music and heavy metal.

"This is the most important day of the week for me," Cutler states as he cinches up his belt and wrist straps. "This is the Olympia right here. If I can improve my back 10%, I'll never be beaten again. I'm just trying to add details. That's what I tend to lack. I have the width. I just need the thickness. My main focus now is middle back and lower back. That's why I do the second workout. I've been splitting back into two workouts since before the 2001 Olympia."

Using a long pulldown handle, Cutler reps out his feel set of seated pulley rows. "The longer handle lets me pull a little farther back than a shorter handle and get more of the mid-back," he explains. "I'm really trying to focus these on the lower lat area where the lats tie into the spinal erectors." He pumps out three working sets with 250 pounds, leaning back slightly during each rep.

As Ozzy Osbourne's "Crazy Train" wails from speakers, we load up a barbell on squat-rack support bars. Cutler hefts the bar away and begins his deadlifts from the top position. For each rep, he lowers the bar only to a point slightly below his knees, feeling that the bottom of the lift works mostly hips, glutes and thighs, not back. He deadlifts 405 for 10 reps, unconcerned that Ronnie Coleman has been known to use nearly twice that amount for a double. He pauses momentarily near the top of each rep and then he rolls his shoulders back to lock out the weight. Cutler the Tank virtually throws the barbell back onto the support bars at the end of each set. Plates clatter.

"A lot of people are misled by my training because they think I don't train as heavy as I could, but what I always stress is using my brain while I push my muscles to their fullest, and I've never had an injury. The weight is secondary. I just want to fully tax my muscles with concentrated focus, high volume and brief rest."

Next come four sets of hyperextensions while holding a 35-pound plate. He bends all the way down until there is no longer resistance, and he goes all the way up, arching slightly at the top. Cutler finishes off his back with Icarian machine rows, squeezing hard at the conclusion of each rep. He often does pullovers as part of his second workout, but today he wants to end with rows to make certain his inner and lower lats are toasted. After performing 31 working sets and another 12 feel sets, Jay Cutler's one-day back assault is finally over. In addition, two or three times per week, he'll do another four or five sets of chins on the chin-up machine in his garage to stretch out his lats and engorge them with blood. "I believe in high volume," he says. "I'm not saying it works for everyone, but I know it works for me."

Later, returning to California, I'm nearly convinced I hallucinated the whole day, what with the protein smoothie and the drag-show girls and the 43 total sets of back work and a 5'9" 290-pound tank with eyes. My notes and taped interviews prove it really happened. Cutler trains his back twice in the same day, although he's surely one of the few humans who could or should do such a thing. I really was there in that surreal suburban Gold's and later in the "Dump." I'm glad to be free of the all-you-can-eat buffets and incessant clang of quarters into trays, but such is the lure of Las Vegas that I already miss the madness.

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