COMMERCE — A young man strains to lift two silver dumbbells and sees his contorted face in the gym's mirror. Sweat flows in streams along his hilly muscles and winding veins, down to his blue pants. He is paying with agony for this physique. He shuts his eyes tightly, as if to hold back tears.
Exhaustion and hunger coexist in him, as they do in all body builders as competition approaches.
"Come on, come on, two more," his trainer says.
The young man, grunting, makes a great effort as the early-evening sun--which has somehow managed to slant through the small windows of this strange, octagonal building that houses the Commerce Gym Club--serves as a spotlight.
Other weightlifters, attracted by the grunting that has turned to wailing, stop to watch.
Slowly, the dumbbells rise, lifted by quivering, taped arms.
"One more, all the way up, man."
Even slower, they rise again until this terrible moment is pushed through.
The young man, who is Alex Martinez, releases the dumbbells from his gloved hands and they fall to the carpet with a thud.
"When I force it," he says, trying to catch his breath, "I get a little better pump. It makes me feel better. You think you can't do it; it feels like everything is gone, but you go on."
For a brief, sweet while, Martinez rests and lets what he has just done wash over him while inspecting the results: biceps pumped to an even greater magnificence.
But then the trainer says, "Let's go, Alex," and Martinez again picks up the dumbbells. It is 2 1/2 hours until the end of the workout.
Martinez is getting ready for Sunday's Commerce Muscle Classic. It will be his first body-building contest.
He is 21 years old, short-haired with golden skin, blue-green eyes and a 45-inch chest that tapers dramatically to a waist that, at 30 inches, is a wisp.
Martinez, who lives in Commerce, has not always looked like this.
Five years ago, he was pretty much a 130-pound weakling, easily picked on in his rough neighborhood. Tired of being vulnerable, he started to work out.
"I did not have much self-esteem," he says. "Now people tend to give me more respect because of the way I look."
The way he looks has given this son of a surgeon the confidence to do things in his life he might not have. Studying accounting at Cerritos College, he says, is one of them.
Martinez, only 5 feet, 9 inches tall, is all skin and muscle.
A demanding exercise routine--36 hours a week--and a severe diet have eroded almost all of his fat and have tried to make inroads on his willpower. But now, running almost on empty, he goes on. "It's an inner drive," he says.
He has already yanked heavy iron weights for four hours today and has worked as an assistant manager at a medical center. He has had three egg whites and coffee for breakfast and six ounces of fish and a baked potato for lunch. He craves food and sleep.
But at 9, when he leaves the weights, Martinez will go to a tanning booth in Downey to make sure that the rays he absorbs three times a week at the beach do not fade. Tans are important to body builders.
The last weeks before a contest are hard for a body builder to get through.
Martinez's trainer, Pete Ramirez, 27, of Commerce says, "You're in a bad mood all the time because you're hungry."
Ramirez won the Commerce contest two years ago. One of the body builders here, Lucy Perez, fishes from her purse a photo of Ramirez taken at that contest. It shows a thin-waisted, muscle-packed, 185-pound man posing in symmetrical splendor.
Ramirez is now 40 pounds heavier and although his muscles still bulge, he has been neglecting his tan. But it doesn't matter because he's not competing this year.
Martinez, whose disposition is usually pleasant, admits to acting out of character lately. "I think I've bitten my girlfriend's head off 26 times in the last three weeks," he says. "It's the lack of calories. I'm dropping one to three pounds a day. I'm looking forward to getting this over with so I can eat again. I think my friends are too, so they can talk to me again."
From 205 to 172 Pounds
In the last month, Martinez has gone from 205 pounds to 172.
When he first started preparing for the contest a year ago, he lifted heavier weights than he does now and ate like crazy. Five eggs for breakfast, a whole chicken for lunch, a big steak for dinner and several tuna-fish sandwiches scattered throughout the day. He was bulking up.
Two months ago he began dieting. The fat came off and gradually, with the help of amino acid and protein powder but not, he says, steroids--he began to look like the men in the photos on the wall here, well-known body builders smiling out with that "ripped" look of muscle and muscle fiber.
Martinez already is pretty well ripped. His skin is as thin as a balloon's. When pulled, It snaps back like elastic.
Martinez practices posing in front of a mirror and brings to life the muscles that are sketched in a diagram on the wall, including the deltoids, dorsi, triceps, femoral biceps, quadriceps, pectorals and gluteus medius and maximus.