1966, 283 pounds.
David Shaw: The year 1967 was an exciting year for me. I was in my fourth year of weight training and growing in size and strength. A junior in high school, I worked part time after school and was looking at all of the current muscle magazines. i read very few "how the champs train" articles as I felt intuitively that there were a lot of words thrown together by people not necessarily knowing what they were writing about or even telling the truth about what they wrote. I verified these early feelings years later after meeting the subjects of some of these articles.
The pictures were nice though, and to me, the pictures told the story.
To top off the excitement of 1967, my parents allowed me to purchase my first car, a 1958 Volkswagen. One of my first trips (40 miles away) was to Gold's Gym in Venice, California. Gold's Gym had been open a couple of years, and anyone who was serious about weights was talking about this gym. Even the magazines mentioned what a wonderful place Joe Gold had created. My two brothers went with me and when we arrived at the gym, we were met by a friendly Joe Gold, Zabo Koszewski -- and in walked the largest muscular human I had ever seen, Stephen Merjanian.
I remember one of my brothers asking Stephen, did he train at the gym. Stephen was so large my brother thought he trained on special equipment to hold him and the heavy weights he surely must use. Stephen was very friendly and positive about the gym and weight training in general.
He encouraged training at the gym and he was there that afternoon to check his bodyweight, which was 282 pounds. Since that day, I have come to know Stephen as a great resource of training information, a very good spotter and motivator, a loyal friend and a compassionate human being. Over the past 27 years, I have spent time with Stephen in and out of the gym, discussing lifting, lifters, routines, diet, rest and relaxation, bodybuilders, his interest in motorcycles, automobiles, real estate and other topics of social, economic, religious or political interest. One part of Steve that I admire is his unwillingness to follow tradition or conventional ways of doing things. As our mutual friend Seymour Koenig once observed, "Steve is a genius is his own way. He does what works for him and stays with it."
I have noticed that Steve does what is best for himself, always thinking for himself. He does not follow the crowd. Even his training reflects his independence. Stephen has used and uses a variety of exercises to keep his training interesting and as a result, has continued training long after others have given up. He has his core exercises, then incorporates other (one or two) exercises to add interest and life to his training and to keep it enjoyable.
Another part of Stephen I admire is his willingness to help people who may be having personal difficulties. He has supported them through encouragement, time, and money, and gotten them a place to live and food to eat. This article is the result of over three hours of conversation and it opens a personal side that is so often neglected in articles that emphasize numbers or titles. That's why it is up front and personal.
DS: Stephen, for the record, what is your full name?
SM: Stephen Thomas Merjanian.
DS: What is your date of birth?
SM: July 29, 1935.
DS: What city and state were you born in?
SM: Inglewood, California.
DS: How long did you live in Englewood?
SM: No, we moved to Los Angeles on West 63rd Street.
DS: How long did you live on West 63rd Street?
SM: I lived that until 1955. I was 20 years old, then I lived between Santa Monica and Venice.
DS: Do you have any brothers or sisters?
SM: I have a sister five years older than myself.
DS: What is your formal education?
SM: I attended Hyde Park Grammar School, Audubon Junior High School and Manual Arts High School, graduating from Manual Arts High School in 1953. I then attended Pepperdine University for one year.
DS: In what school sports di you participate?
SM: I played all the sports, but stayed with football for four years.
DS: Before we go further about you, what was your family like, specifically your parents.
SM: My father came to America at age 10 to escape the Turks when they began slaughtering the Armenians. He saw his parents kilned by the Turks.
DS: What occupation did your father have?
SM: My father was a jewelry manufacturer. He owned several businesses including Metro Creative Jeweler and California Ring Products. My father was quite a man and when I looked at his physique, I could see where I inherited his forearms and calves. He died July 10, 1966, from injuries sustained when a truck rear-ended him on the freeway. The accident damaged his kidneys.
My mother was a very good housewife and mother, supporting my father in his business and taking care of the home and children. My parents also raised seven foster children. Our home was like a restaurant and a hotel. Today, my mother is 84 years old and does quite a bit of volunteer work at a local hospital and with her church. She still drives her car to wherever she wants to go.
DS: What did your parents think of you lifting weights and achieving the size you became?
SM: My father was very supportive and encouraged my lifting. Several times a year he would leave work and stop at Peanuts West's garage to watch me lift weights. He loved strength. I think that at some level I represented what he would have liked to become. He thought my training was a good way to keep me occupied nd he knew I would not get in trouble if I was lifting weights. My mother fed me very good food, so that was her way of supporting me.
DS: What age were you, how much did you weight and what was your first introduction to weight training?
SM: A school friend asked me to go with him to Bob Duncan's garage gym. I was 14 years old and weighed 250 pounds. At Duncan's gym, I saw people lifting weights. It interested me so I thought I would see what I could do. There was an Olympic bar with 250 pounds on it, so I pressed it overhead. From then of, I began lifting at Bob Duncan's garage gym. After awhile, I heard about Terlazzo's Gym Bob Duncan, Babe Stansbury and Pancho Gonzalez were friends and talked about Terlazzo's Gym. I had an acquaintance named Berry Terlazzo whose father was Tony Terlazzo. Tony let me work out at his gym.
DS: When did you begin going to Santa Monica to lift at the Muscle Beach area?
SM: I was 16 years old when I began going to Muscle Beach. My cousin Yervant Kludjian was a gymnast and he inspired me whenever I saw him doing Iron Crosses and Olympians. He frequented the gymnastic area at Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, and he encouraged me to train there occasionally.
DS: How did you get to the beach from your home?
SM: By bus or bicycle.
DS: Who did you meet at Muscle Beach and what happened with your training?
SM: One of the first persons I met was Joe Gold. Over the years we have remained good friends and we had breakfast every morning from 1963 to 1988. I opened Gold's Gym and now World gym for Joe every morning at 3:45 a.m. on weekdays and 4:45 on weekends. I also met Zabo Koszewski and Hugo Labra.
DS: As you got older, where did you train?
SM: When I was 18 years old I met Charlie "Chuck" Ahrens. He was 19 years old and we met at Les and Pudgy Stockton's gym in west Los Angeles. My cousin Yervant and Charlie worked for Les Stockton, and Yervant encouraged me to come to the gym to train. I then began exercising with Charlie and my cousin Yervant. At the gym I met Dave Ashman, Paul Magistretta and Bill "Peanuts" West.
DS: Did you stay at the Stockton's gym for very long?
SM: I was there for a while, then I moved to "the Dungeon" in Santa Monica, at 4th and Broadway. The Dungeon was located in a basement.
DS: Let's sidetrack for a while and discuss Chuck Ahrens. Ever since meeting you in 1967, I have heard your name and his connected. What is the connection?
SM: When I began training at Les Stockton's gym, I trained with Chuck and my cousin Yervant. I was 18 years old and Chuck was 19 years old, so we got along very well from the beginning. Chuck was friendly but shy, and I was more of a socially outgoing person, but we were similar in a number of ways.
DS: What size was Chuck at this time?
SM: Charlie was weighing 190 pounds. Even at 190 pounds he was big because he had a deep rib cage and chest. He was impressive. Charlie was a good artist, a great ping-pong player and he was good looking. Women were attracted to him. People stared at him a lot. He also had an excellent singing voice though he never took voice or singing lessons. He knew the singer Mario Lanza and admired him quite a bit.
DS: Chuck was known for always wearing long-sleeved shirts; what was that about.
SM: The style in those days was plaid shirts. Charlie felt dressed up in blue denim pants and a plaid shirt with long sleeves. Charlie was very shy and modest, so even though he was big, he did not want to be the center of attention. Charlie had his shirts made. He would purchase the material at a yardage store and take it to the seamstress.
DS: What were his measurements?
SM: 74 inches around the shoulders. I measured his arms at 23-1/2 inches.
DS: How did Chuck feel about getting as big as he did and what did he think about the way people viewed him?
SM: Charlie would say to me, "Steve, I will get so big I won't be able to look over my shoulders." Even though he had definite size and strength goals, it was what he wanted to do. Charlie did not like crowds, he was a loner and very self-conscious. He turned down numerous opportunities to play in films, wrestle, or as some were talking, go to the Olympics. There was always someone who wanted to sponsor him. He also realized that, to many people, he was an oddity. He saw people make fun of him and constantly stare at him. At times, he would challenge their comments about him and they would shut up immediately.
DS: Did Chuck have brothers and sisters?
SM: No, he was the only child.
DS: Do you think being the only child affected him in any way?
SM: We associated so much together that in a way I was like his brother. My parents included him with our family and it was as if they adopted him. Charlie would come over to our house to stay twice a week.
DS: What did your parents think of Charlie?
SM: My parents considered him as part of the family. My father would talk to Charlie quite a bit, as Charlie was a bit of an intellectual.
DS: During those times that Charlie came to stay, what food was prepared by your mother?
SM: Armenian food. Shish kabob (lamb), rice pilaf, celery and chicken soup. Charlie would also drink 7 to 10 quarts of milk very day.
DS: What was Charlie's training like during the time you trained with him?
SM: Charlie's favorite exercise was the standing one-arm bent press [note: not sure if he means "bent press" or "side press" here. I don't think he means bent press.] with a bent bar 4-foot long bar. It bent because it was 1-inch solid round stock. He would load it with 10-pound plates or 20-pound plates if they were available. His best press before he injured his shoulder was 375 pounds for 3 reps. This was at a bodyweight of 335 pounds.
He also liked seated dumbbell curls, and did 210 pounds for 3 reps. He did pullovers combined with triceps extensions with 375 for 3 reps, also, dumbbell presses with 200 pounds in each hand and up to 245 pounders for 3 to 5 reps. He would take 150, 170, and 190 pound dumbbells nd do standing one-arm front raises and lateral raises. Charlie could take 150 pound dumbbells and hold them in a crucifix.
Another biceps exercise Charlie liked was concentration curls with a 100 pound dumbbell for 20 reps. He would do good mornings with no weight, and even though he rarely bench pressed, one time he took 405 pounds and did it for 20 reps after he warmed up with lighter weights. That was very impressive.
DS: Did Charlie do any leg work?
SM: No, he didn't.
DS: Did he ever arm wrestle?
SM: Yes, he was considered one of the better arm wrestlers in the area. One day he was challenged by a 190 pound gymnast named Arnie Klein and Arnie beat him. Charlie had worked his arms the day before, which was Friday, and he went to the beach on Saturday to relax and was challenged to arm wrestle. Charlie always accepted a challenge. Considering the poundages he used in his arm workouts, I don't think he was fully recovered to last in arm wrestling the next day.
The match lasted 45 minutes.
Charlie said Arnie was good and he would not have trained his arms on Friday had he known he would be challenged.
DS: You mentioned a shoulder injury Charlie incurred; what happened?
SM: He was doing one arm presses, and I don't think he warmed up thoroughly. It became worse over the years and that's pretty much stopped lifting. He changed his diet and lost weight. I don't think he reached his peak. The doctors diagnosed it as bursitis.
DS: What years was he the strongest and most impressive?
SM: Charlie did a number of things. He bodyguard work for some entertainers, he had a cleaning business with employees that worked for him, and he managed a motel his father purchased in 1963 in Compton, called the Alondra Lanai. Charlie would leave the motel and drive to Beverly Hills to train at Bruce Connor's gym Bruce had an area set aside for Charlie to keep his equipment. When Charlie trained at Connor's Gym, a crowd would gather.
DS: What is Charlie doing now?
SM: He is retired He owns an auto detailing business, but he has employees that operate it for him.
DS: What does he weigh now?
SM: About 240 pounds.
DS: Do you still see him?
SM: Yes, he comes by to visit and we go to dinner occasionally. He still wears long sleeved shirts.
DS: Let's return to you and take up where we left off. You've trained many places; please name them.
SM: Duncan's gym, Babe's gym, Les and Pudgy Stockton's gym, Tony Terlazzo's gym, Bruce Connor's gym, Muscle Beach gym, the Dungeon, Gold's gym, Peanut's West (Westside) gym, and since 1977 World Gym. I would travel to the different gyms to use pieces of equipment that I liked.
DS: How come you never competed?
SM: I wasn't interested in competition. I just wanted to be strong and healthy.
DS: Your training emphasized quite a bit of overhead pressing. How did you come to favor the lifts you are known for?
SM: When I first picked up a weight at age 14 and pressed 250 pounds, I immediately favored pressing movements. I seemed to have a knack for overhead lifts and when I met Charlie, he also favored overhead pressing. So with that similarity and out training together, I went in that direction.
DS: What did you consider your best bodyweight and what lifts did you achieve at that bodyweight?
SM: When I began lifting at age 14, I weighed 250 pounds; my highest bodyweight has been 310 pounds. My lifting bodyweight was 283 pounds. Currently, I weigh 295 pounds and am in the process of reducing a bit.
The following are my best lifts at 283 pounds of bodyweight:
Seated barbell press: Standing, I removed the barbell from the rack, sat down and pressed 430 pounds.
Press behind the neck seated:400 pounds, and 315 pounds for 18 repetitions.
Cleaned and pressed 190-pound dumbbells.
Incline press 500 pounds, 440 for 4 reps, each rep paused.
560-pound bench press with 2-second pause. 610 touch and go with pads. These were accomplished at Peanuts West Gym.
Dumbbell front raise with 130, 140 and 150 pound dumbbells.
Held a pair of 110 pound dumbbells in a crucifix.
Concentration curls from 50 to 120 pound dumbbells.
Various back exercises with pulleys.
DS: What were your measurements?
SM: Neck 22.5 to 23 inches. 15 inch forearm straight. 9 inch wrist. 20.5 inch biceps. 20 inch calves. Tailored 60 inch sport coat and 3X to 4X shirt size.
DS: Your training emphasized a combination of strength training and cardiovascular work. Do you consider cardiovascular work essential to strength training?
SM: Yes, I do. At one time there was a sled we used to push and run behind on the beach to increase our endurance. I would also run up and down the stairs (100 yards) in Santa Monica before going to the gym for my early morning workout. Currently, I skip rope, ride a bicycle and use the treadmill.
DS: Since I've known you, your forearms have been quite large. How did you exercise them?
SM: For grip strength, I would take 100, 120, and 150 pound dumbbells and walk 100 yards with them. For forearm size, I did seated barbell wrist curls, standing wrist curls behind my back and when pressing dumbbells, I turn my wrist out and contract the top of the forearms.
DS: During the 1950s and 1960s, with whom did you train and where did you train?
SM: I trained with Charlie twice a week, and with Peanuts or at Gold's Gym other days.
DS: Who inspired you during those times?
SM: Charlie, George Eiferman and Peanuts West. Peanuts was very motivational and a good trainer.
DS: Training six days a week, how did you find the energy and rest time?
SM: I've always had a lot of energy. There would be two days a month when I would be less energetic.
DS: Your employment over the years seems to have accommodated your training. Is that an accurate observation?
SM: Sometimes I was not able to train for 5 or 5 months because of work at the motion picture studios, so I began training early in the morning so I could have the day to work. I always knew if I handled a certain poundage early in the morning, my strength must really be up if I trained again later in the day. For the most part, your observation is correct.
DS: I have known you for over 27 years and observed you with various self-employment and traditional employment situations. What are all the things you do or have done to make a living?
SM: I owned a trash removal business, sold auto parts through mail order, sold real estate, sold and still sell automobiles wholesale, played parts in motion pictures, and I'm an electrician at the motion picture studios.
DS: How did you become an electrician/
SM: I was fishing at the Santa Monica pier one day and a man asked me if I was interested in getting a job a an electrician. I said yes and he gave me the address of the Union Hall. I went there, registered and was given on-the-job training.
DS: What has your diet been to help you gain and maintain strength?
SM: For many years I ate five to six meals daily with the emphasis on high protein (meat), grains, rice, 12 soft boiled eggs, and plenty of water. Currently I am eating four smaller meals daily with an emphasis still on protein.
DS: The food supplement industry was not as big in the 1960s as it is now. Did you use whatever was available?
SM: On occasion, I used liver and Vitamin C.
DS: As you continue to train, what differences have you noticed with yourself over 45 years of training.
SM: My recuperation is not as rapid, I have a little arthritis and I'm not as competitive with myself or anyone in the gym. I don't the strength declines so much, it's the enthusiasm that is not as strong as when I was younger. I still go heavy on pushing and pulling movements, but enthusiasm is key.
DS: Are there any other feats of strength you accomplished that haven't been mentioned?
SM: I have pressed Chevy engine blocks [Hello Dandurand], cleaned and pressed 350 pound beer kegs and Charlie and I would sometimes lift cars and turn them on their sides.
DS: Stephen, I appreciate the personal information you have shared about aspects of your life and Charlie Ahrens during 45 years of being at the famous Santa Monica and Venice Beach, California, weight scene and although there are many people you could speak about, this article was primarily about you.
SM: It's my pleasure.
Enjoy Your Lifting!