Chuck Braxton: The Born-Again Weightlifter

The following article was written by Perry Jenifer in 1981. – Mr. Berg

“Twenty-one years ago, a 23-year old ex-sailor completed his second year of college on the G.I. Bill in Vallejo, California, and set out to fulfill two dreams. The first was to make the United States weightlifting team for the 1960 Olympics in Rome, and the second, to play professional football.

This farm boy from Pitt County, twenty five miles up the Pimlico River from the North Carolina coast, had the credentials and the confidence to make both dreams come true. Two different times he took the 12th Naval District (far East) heavyweight Championship. A total lift of 950 pounds, 252 pounds less than that which won the Olympic gold medal for Paul Anderson in Melbourne four years earlier, was enough to qualify him for the United States trials. he had been a two year starter as a lineman for his junior-college team in Vallejo. And it was the opinion of his football coach that he stood a good chance of making the Raiders, a new team in Oakland, in a new league called the America Football League.

Then, only five weeks before the Olympic weightlifting trials, both dreams collapsed under several hundred pounds of Iron.

“I was working out in the gym in Vallejo,” he recalled more than two decades later. “I was doing squats in low cut shows. My right foot rolled under on me, and I broke my ankle in three places.

“That finished me for the Olympics as well as a tryout with the Raiders, too. 

“I was crushed. All my eggs were in those two baskets. To lose everything I’d trained for so long and so hard, and all at once like that. I just stopped lifting and working out. I never wanted to see another weight again – period.”

Today, less than four years after he became “a born-again weightlifter” at age forty, Braxton is ranked 15th on Powerlifting USA’s all-time list of American super heavyweights in the deadlift (760 pounds) and 40th in total (1,880 with a 660 pound squat, 460 pound bench press, and a 760 pound deadlift).

Even those figures, compiled through December 31, 1979, are obsolete. By the spring of 1980, Braxton was deadlifting 770 pounds and totalling 1,895 pounds in competition. And on July 4th, he went to 680 pounds in the squat, 480 in the bench press, and 805 in the deadlift, making a total of 1,965 pounds, during a workout at the Iron Den in Fayetteville, North Carolina, 45 mile drive his present home in Southern Pines.

Braxton holds the World Masters’ record in the deadlift at 770. He has pushed that record higher four separate times since setting originally in Roanoke, Virginia, on May 5, 1979.

He also holds the North Carolina open deadlift and total records, and has been proclaimed his home state’s strongest man three years running.

And in twenty-four competitions, all but one in the open class, since November 7, 1977. Braxton is unbeaten in the deadlift and has placed first overall eighteen times.

All this has been accomplished by a man who readily admits that, “Forty meant I was over the hill – that I’d lost whatever I once had and could not get it back.

“Then,” he added, “I realized that was true only if I let it be. It’s up to you. You have to make a decision if you want to go up or down. I decided I wanted to go up.”

It wasn’t quite as simple as it sound, though, and Braxton elaborates on the matter.

Between 1960 and 1977, there were seventeen years of knocking around the country, from California to his native North Carolina, to Maryland, then Georgia, then Washington, D.C., then Georgia again, and finally back to North Carolina. It had been seventeen years of selling used cars and managing rental property. According to Braxton, they had also been seventeen years of “sitting on my rear end, drinking beer, smoking three or four packs of cigarettes a day, eating junk food and watching other, younger guys work up a sweat on television.”

Braxton’s body weight dropped during those years from a high of 390 to 230. It was a soft 230, however, “because I didn’t lift anything heavier than a six-pack of beer and a carton of cigarettes and only then if I could do it without getting off the seat of my pants.”

For a while, the foot-loose and fancy-free life of a nomad appealed to Braxton, and then, “I found I wasn’t really very happy. I couldn’t seem to find anything to do that satisfied me, and I wasn’t satisfied with anything I did. I had a chip on my shoulder, but I didn’t know what to do about it. The older I got, the more I figured this is just the way it is.”

Then, in the summer of 1977, as he was pushing forty-one, he rode with some friends from Augusta, Georgia, where he was living at the time, to Vidalia to see a powerlifting meet.

“It wasn’t my idea to go,” he recalled. “I hadn’t been to a meet in years, and wasn’t crazy about going to one then. It was just something to do to kill a weekend. I went along for the ride.”

At the meet in Vidalia, Braxton ran into a man he had served with in the Navy more than twenty years before.

The two had not seen each other in all that time. Naturally, they got together at the other man’s home after the meet to bring each other up to date on their lives since the Navy.

“We sat around, drinking and smoking and jawing.” Braxton said, “and I ran out of cigarettes. It was too late to get any. He had gone to rolling his own to try and cut down. I rolled one of his and smoked it. It liked to kill me, the straight tobacco was so strong.

“He told me I ought to get back in the gym and do some lifting, that it would help my smoker’s cough. I told him he was crazy. Weightlifting is for young guys. Then he reminded me for that some of the guys I saw at the meet that day were pushing forty and still pumping iron.”

Braxton thought about that all the way back to Augusta. Deciding he had nothing to lose, he slipped into a local gym the next day, and for the first time since 1960, he lifted weights.

“I benched 230, squatted 230, and deadlifted 400,” he said, adding with characteristic candor, “and I was pathetic. I was so sore I could hardly move for two days.

“But I knew, I just knew, from that little bit that this was what I’d been looking for. Something that could satisfy me and make me feel good about myself again. Until then, I had never stopped to think that lifting, something I’d done before and given up, could be right for me again at my age.”

So Braxton went back to the gym the next day. And the next and the next and the next.

In the early going, he went to a doctor for a complete physical examination, too. “Anybody past 35 who’s thinking of taking up any kind of strenuous sport or exercise program is a fool not to have himself checked out first,” he said.

“In my case, outside of being in lousy shape, the only thing wring with me was that my system produces too much blood. It’s no problem as long as I have myself bled once every six or eight weeks. If I don’t, my blood gets heavy and I get run-down.”

In the gym, it was back to the basics. “I started out lifting days a week, three sets of eight repetitions on each lift, and only one hundred thirty-five pounds for each lift,” he said, “At first, I also used a beginner’s bodybuilding routine for overcall conditioning.”

He also quit drinking and smoking. And he cast aside the junk food in favor of a high-protein diet of chicken, steak, green vegetables, cheese, fruit and eggs, which he washed down with fruit juice, milk, and iced tea.

“Fortunately,” he said, “I don’t have to diet the way some do, to keep my weight down. In fact, for a while I thought my problem was just the opposite. I go up to three hundred and fifty and wanted to go higher, but trouble holding that.

“I worried about not gaining weight and holding it, and that made me irritable, nervous and tired all the time. Finally, a doctor friend of mine said, “Chuck, why don’t you worry about weightlifting and let your weight take care of itself? He was right. My weight eventually settled at three hundred, and my lifting improved.”

Five months after he returned to the gym, Braxton moved back to North Carolina to stay. And on November 7, 1977, he entered his first competition, the All-South Open in Durham, winning in the deadlift and placing second overall (625 squat, 410 bench press, 650 deadlift for a 1,685 total)

He was on his way. In 1978, Braxton was unbeatable. He wept the deadlift and overall titles in each of the fifteen events he entered.

“I was hot,” he said, relisting the memory of that string. “Like a kid with a new toy, I played with it every chance I got. It really turned me on to walk into a place with my gray head, wrinkles and baggy eyes and walk out again with first place. I was forty-one, going on forty-two, and beating kids young enough to be my own. It was quite an ego trip.”

Then Braxton got it into his head to mix stunts with his wright lifting. It proved a costly venture.

In May of 1979, he allowed an eight-ton tractor-trailer cab to roll across his stomach on a Greenville street.

“A friend of mine had read somewhere that the world record was for five-ton truck by one of the Thrill Seekers, a stunt team out of New York, back in 1939,” he recalled.

On the first try, however, the truck driver overshot his mark, pinning Braxton beneath one of the cab’s gas tanks. Braxton felt a sharp pain in his left side as the rig smacked down on him but once he was freed, he shrugged it off and set up for another go.

The second time proved to be the charm, and Braxton claimed his record as well as a cracked rib. He was out of powerlifting temporarily.

By September of the same year. Braxton, wearing a crash helmet and an experimental, fire-resistant jumpsuit, gloves and boots, climbed into a fourth car. Its interior had also been doused with gasoline. He was to drive into the open end of the three-car horseshoe. As he did, the dynamite caps in those cars were to be set off. Then, to the cheers of the crowd in the grandstand Braxton was supposed to emerge unscathed from the flaming wreckage.

Again, as in the truck stunt, somebody goofed. “The guy who poured gas in my car misunderstood his instructions and used eight gallons instead of one.” Braxton said. “It turned out to be a helluva stunt, all right. Almost too good for my own good.”

By the time the stunned Braxton got clear of the spectacular crash, explosion, and fire, he had been burned from his left ankle to his left armpit. He still wears a nasty scar on the calf of his left leg, a permanent reminder of that close call.

The experiment outfit he wore that day went back to the drawing board; so did Braxton’s powerlifting career. It was four months before he could lift again.

Even before then, however, he was up to his tricks again.

Chuck Braxton deadlift

So in November of 1979, Braxton met four Cessna 172s, packing a total of 600 horsepower, at the Greenville airport. Four lengths of synthetic rope were attached on one end to the tails of the planes and on the other to metal grips resembling outsized brass knuckles.

Braxton slipped the grips on, two to a hand, clasped his hands together in a prayer-like grip, and sat cross-legged on the runway.

“I used resin to keep my hands from slipping,” he said, “and that’s how I almost got into trouble again”

A mechanical problem with one of the planes forced a brief postponement of the attempt. During the delay, the resin “hardened like plaster of Paris.” The result was that when Braxton had held the planes in place for more than a minute and was ready to let go, he could not.

“It took the pull of the planes to force my hands apart so I could let the grips go,” he said. “I thought I would fly apart in four directions before the resin would give. It scared the hell out of me.”

Braxton escaped with only a scare -injuries – this time. And he broke the record by a full thirty seconds.

Meanwhile, Braxton figures he is three or four years from reaching his peak as a powerlifter, and his personal goals of a 900 pound deadlift and totaling 2,000.

“The deadlift is my speciality because I have the back for it, and it’s strictly a matter of brute strength,” he said. “Squats and bench presses involve more balance and form. And you can cheat a little, by not making a full squat and by extending your chest to meet the bar or arching your behind in the bench press.

You can’t cheat in the deadlift. If you are going to make the lift, you’ve go to straighten your legs and roll your shoulders back

“I also like the deadlift because it can make you or break you in competition. Since it’s your last lift, a good deadlift can bring you from behind and pull out a win.”

Braxton cuts quite a figure at meets, with his swept-back shock of wavy gray hair, full beard, and mustache (also gray), his Western dress and three vivid tattoos – a sleek sailing ship on his right bicep, a menacing panther on his right bicep, and “my pride and joy.” a playful shunk on his right leg.

“It’s part of my image,” he said of his appearance. “Weight lifting can use a little color. Some of these guys are boring, entertain the crows. I say.”

Braxton has been known to have himself carried from the dressing room to the lifting area on a stretcher, in an attempt to appear as if he’s too old and feeble to make the trip under his own power. He also like to call out from the dressing room, “What? You mean all those young guys are through already?” when it’s his turn to lift.

“One thing age has taught me.” he explained, “is that nothing is worth doing if you can’t have some fun at it, and even poke a little fun at yourself. Too many of these young guys take themselves too seriously. Take lifting seriously, but not yourself. And don’t even take lifting too seriously. You will enjoy it, and yourself, a lot more.”

CHUCK BRAXTON’S TRAINING TECHNIQUES

Chuck Braxton’s training routine begins with three sets of eight lifts at 135 pounds on all three powerlifts. “For me, to warm up with more weight would be to risk pulls,” he explained. “The important thing is to do what’s comfortable for you: nothing more and nothing less.”

His routine 

Monday – Squat: 2 sets of 4 at 225-650lb
Leg presses: 2 sets of 4 at 225-1000lb

Tuesday – Bench presses: 2 sets of 3 at 225-400lb
Triceps extensions: 4 sets of 8
Pull-downs: 4 sets of 8 at 35 or 40lb

Thursday – Deadlift: 1 set of 4 at 135-750lb 2 sets of 4 at 750lb 2 sets of 4 at 225 and 315lb 2 sets of 3 at 405-500lb 2 sets of 2 at 600-700

Friday – Squats: 1 set of 4 at 500-600lb
Bench Presses: 1 set of 4 at 410 or 420lb

“All I try to do on Friday is concentrate on the lift itself – the position of my feet, position of the, my balance and breathing,” he said

“On all lifts, depending on how I feel, I’ll increase the weight between sets from sixty to ninety pounds – occasionally, a little more.

“As I get closer to competing, I cut back to three days. Working on squats and bench presses on Monday and Friday with deadlifts on Wednesday. I eliminate leg presses then, and do fewer sets and reps on each lift, but increase the weight slightly and gradually. I want to build to a peak, but I don’t want to reach in the gym. They don’t give you any trophies in the gym. I want to know that I can do a little more in a meet if I have to.

“In competition, I start at least eighty pounds under my max in the gym. Some guys start too close to their max in competition and blow out early.”

Braxton said he does not recommend his routine for anyone. “I think it’s a mistake to recommend Anybody’s routine for anybody else.” he explained. “Everybody’s body is different: everybody has different goals and different limitations. Everybody should develop his own routine with all these things in mind. To copy somebody else is asking for troubles.”

So is taking on a coach or a regular lifting partner. in Braxton’s opinion. “I’m not beyond suggestions,” he said, “but I don’t feel day in, day-out coaching is necessary at least not once you’ve got the hang of it ad know what you are doing. I find that if you work with a coach or a partner, you begin to depend on them and not on yourself. Your adrenalin gets going real good during the days; you get all pumped up about working out and your coach or partner doesn’t show. It’s a big let down. For me, it’s enough to work out in the atmosphere of a busy active gym where there are plenty of people around to encourage you, and even push you a little if you need it.”

As for supplements, Braxton said he takes two One A Day vitamins a day and two or three tablespoons of wheat germ oil, and that’s it. “Otherwise, I get everything I need from my diet, eighty percent of which is chicken, steak, cheese and green vegetables.

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