At 70, he lifts with the greatest of ease


Seventy-year-old Steve Michael hoists himself up for his 30th chin-up, with his legs straight out like a kid riding a swing.

"OK, 10 more," Mary Louise Fine urges, mimicking Michael's exhortations when they were doing various crunches at Gold's Gym in Parkville.

Michael does a couple more chin-ups for effect and then drops off the bar. He's not even breathing hard.

"And he's not sweating," says Phyllis Rush.

"And he has great form," Valerie Fewster adds.

Michael and the three women have been working out together every Thursday since he started giving them tips about exercise a few months ago.

Thirty chin-ups are pretty good at any age. You only have to do six to qualify for airborne or ranger training in the U.S. Army. The Marine Corps likes its guys to do 10 or 15 at the end of boot camp. As a matter of fact, Michael says he could only do 12 when he was a 19-year-old soldier in 1953.

"It's the ultimate exercise," he says of chin-ups, adding that a lot of guys bench-pressing 250-300 pounds in the weight room can't do a half-dozen chin-ups.

Michael's women buddies routinely do four to eight chin-ups, and most of them started from scratch a few weeks after he started coaching them in January.

"Back when we first started," Rush says, "I couldn't even hang."

'He inspires us'

Michael says he offered training tips when he saw the women at the gym "doing some things that were ridiculous. I just felt sorry for them. So I took them under my wing," he explains. "They were doing things that were not getting the most out of the energy expended."

The next thing Michael knew, "every Thursday, they're right here waiting for me."

"He inspires us," says Rush, 47, who lives in Carney and is the mother of two sons. She's an officer manager at Terra Nova Ventures in southwest Baltimore and a sales director for Pampered Chef kitchen tools.

Fewster, 43, from Glen Arm, is a probation analyst for the Maryland Board of Physicians; she also has two boys. Fine, 46, also of Glen Arm, is a research nurse at the University of Maryland medical school. She has a son and two daughters.

The women are all in great shape -- trim and fit. They routinely work out a couple of hours on Thursday and one or two additional days.

Michael started lifting weights when he was a pudgy 15-year-old in Highlandtown. He was born in a village on the Greek island of Rhodes -- a spot so remote that, when the family left for the United States, it took two days by donkey to get to the port.

The family had never seen a car before, and Michael's mother was wary of allowing her son out of the house and onto the traffic-filled streets of Baltimore. So he bought a set of weights.

Michael has never really been out of shape since, but he returned to serious exercise in earnest when he retired in 1985 after 26 years as a history and English teacher in Baltimore County schools.

He became a personal trainer, did his own research into diet and exercise, took a course in nutrition at Essex Community College, and he's been writing a book embodying his ideas about food and exercise.

Weights build muscle

Michael is his own best advertisement. He looks to be 10 or 15 years younger than 70. Wearing a light blue tank top, dark blue shorts and white gym shoes, he might be a veteran middleweight training for his next fight. He's 5-foot-8, weighs 158 pounds ("less than when I graduated from Maryland 45 years ago"), his cholesterol is 180 and his blood pressure is 120 over 80.

His aerobic exercise program includes a variation on the boxer's jump-rope routine. He dances to a disco beat, more or less endlessly, as if he were skipping rope, but without the rope. He doesn't like to jog. He says it's boring and eventually bad for the knees.

Michael introduced his trio of trainees to lifting weights. "Free weights are what really build muscle," he says. Not many women venture into health club weight rooms, he adds, because the guys there can be intimidating.

"They're all lifting big, heavy weights and grunting," Fine says.

But when one of his "girls" said she'd always wanted to do a chin-up, he took them into the weight room and worked with them for a month to build upper-body strength. Then he took them to the chin-up bar.

"The chin-up is the No. 1 exercise," he says. "The chin-up is the equal opportunity exercise. Everybody lifts his or her own body weight."

The exercise works the chest, shoulder and biceps, Michael adds. "Then the way I do them, with the legs horizontal, that's really hard."

You also need strong abs to do chin-ups. Michael and the women do abdominal and lower-body exercises for about 30 minutes.

About 18 years ago he adapted his routine to build a firm body, "a body that had endurance, stamina, muscular strength, flexibility and mobility. To me," Michael says, "the ideal athlete is the gymnast."

He also changed his diet.

"I eliminated all processed foods," he says. "Olive oil is a must. A Greek salad every day."

But "no white flour, no white rice, no white sugar, no white salt, no white potatoes, none of that."

Michael does his own baking, and he brings treats for his trio of exercise pals.

"Everybody has a level they want to achieve," he says. "If you want to keep on going and you want to better yourself, then you have to push yourself. You challenge yourself."

His standard is lean muscle mass. "Lean muscle is what burns calories all day long," he says. "If you have a firm, lean body, muscular body, you'll burn calories while you're sitting on the sofa."

Fitness tips

Steve Michael's tips for total-body fitness:

* Be consistent with your workout program, but develop a little variety. Doing the same thing over and over will become boring.

* Keep your workouts simple.

* Fitness and health begin with a healthy diet. Michael recommends his "Greek Island Diet" -- lots of vegetables with plenty of olive oil, and no processed foods.

* Adopt a total-body fitness concept. Strengthen the upper body, abs, hips and arms. Strength gives you independence throughout your life, the 70-year-old says, and will keep you out of a nursing home.

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