The strong man
Sacramento powerlifter Mark Bell talks superhuman powers, steroids and finding strength in numbers
Mark Bell looks like a comic-book hero: superhuman muscles, well-groomed all-American looks, nice clothes. The image is in full effect on a recent weekday at Bell’s Super Training Gym in West Sacramento as the athlete’s shoulders bulge underneath his CrossFit T-shirt. But instead of working out a plan to defeat bad guys in this particular moment, he instead sits at a desk and speaks gently into a microphone.
Next to him, Bell’s workout (and business) partners Jim McDonald and “Silent” Mike Farr both speak into their own mics. After an hour-long recorded conversation, set to become the next episode of a powerlifting-themed podcast called Mark Bell’s PowerCast, the three move into an adjacent room with hip-hop and punk rock blasting from 6-foot-tall speakers. There they’ll spend the next few hours lifting with a few dozen other trainers.
Here it’s about community, self-betterment and, Bell says, strength.
For those unfamiliar with the sport, powerlifting is different than Olympic weightlifting, the latter which also focuses on speed and form. Powerlifting is also different from bodybuilding in that it’s not strictly about muscle definition. It’s basically all about power—the numbers reached.
Until recently, Bell made it his mission was to make himself as strong a powerlifter as possible, sometimes through whatever means possible. Throughout that journey, he encountered a lot of pain, gain and injuries. He also took steroids. All of those elements, Bell says now, shaped his philosophy on the sport and also transformed his physique into the self-described “jacked and tan” body he sports now.
“It’s … a way of saying … you should be able to push a good amount of weight, but you should also look like you work out,” he says.
Like many fictional comic-book heroes, Bell’s physical transformation was preceded by a moment of hopelessness. Back in the late ’80s, he was an overweight, aspiring teenage football player in Poughkeepsie, N.Y., when one day, an older kid grabbed his football at a park and punted it into the nearby woods.
“I remember just feeling powerless, hopeless basically—like, ’Even if I want to punch him in the head I’m not going to because it looks like he’ll kick my ass,’” says Bell, now 38.
That’s when Bell decided to start lifting weights. He quickly proved to be a natural. While some of his peers could only bench 85 pounds, he’d bench 185.
His two older brothers Chris and Mike were impressed: Mark was already out-lifting some of their older friends. And so with his brothers’ encouragement, Bell kept lifting. Body fat quickly melted away in favor of muscle. By the time he was 14, he’d started competing.
After high school, Bell continued training and also started wrestling professionally. The career took him to Louisville, Ky., Los Angeles and Japan, but after he married and had a kid, he decided it was time to settle down.
“I was like, ’It’s time to get my shit together [and] get my life together,’” he said.
By the time Bell and his family had moved to the West Coast in the early 2000s, he’d already spent some time powerlifting under the tutelage of a guy named Louie Simmons, whose gym in Ohio is considered a mecca of powerlifting.
The plan was to settle in Sacramento, open a similar gym, surround himself with some of the best California powerlifters and just get stronger.
By 2005, Bell had opened Body Construction Zone in Woodland. Over the next few years, the gym and its dedicated group of powerlifters moved from Woodland to North Sacramento and then into a place called Midtown Strength & Conditioning. Eventually, it settled in West Sac in November 2014.
“They were primarily people in the area who had already competed in the past,” says Bell’s partner McDonald. “They just either trained together at different gyms or in their garages or whatever, but somewhere along the line we made some kind of decision that we were all on the same road together.”
Throughout the 2000s, Bell kept gaining strength, and in his brother Chris’ 2008 documentary Bigger, Stronger, Faster*, which examines the use of anabolic steroids and performance-enhancing drugs in sports, the athlete admitted to using steroids to help his performances. Many in the powerlifting community lauded the film—and Mark—for not shying away from the controversial subject.
In one of the film’s final scenes, Bell, on steroids, crushes one of his biggest goals: to bench more than 705 pounds.
“My baby brother is on steroids and we all know it,” narrates Chris. “But look at us. My dad looks like he won the lottery and my mom’s prayers have been answered. There is a clash in America between doing the right thing and being the best. Americans play to win all the time because the very thought of losing is hateful.”
It is, arguably, a controversial take on the subject.
After the film, Bell didn’t stop training. His personal competitive bests would end up being an 855-pound bench press, a 1,080-pound squat and a 766-pound deadlift. Now, Bell has declined to comment to SN&R about any current steroid use.
But, he admits, he does get asked about them a lot and is ambivalent about recommending them to people.
In a YouTube video posted a few months ago, the powerlifter put it this way:
“You guys would be absolutely shocked and surprised at how many people I talk out of it each and every day. You can perform well with them or you can perform well without them.”
Juiced or not, Bell said he decided to step away from competitive weightlifting after an accident in 2012 made him realize that family life was more important than continuing to compete.
Before a May 2012 match, Bell had successfully squatted 1,100 pounds in practice. But he made the mistake of bulking up to more than 300 pounds right before the competition. During an attempt to squat 1,085, Bell says his body wasn’t prepared for the extra weight he’d just put on, and he tumbled, the 1,000-plus pounds of weight toppling back onto him.
After, he decided, it was time for a shift. A new focus.
So Bell left his competition days behind, having achieved almost all of his competitive goals already. His new goal: “make myself better”—in and out of the gym. In other words: more family time.
Now, he weighs a little under 270 and can still bench press about twice that. But it’s the sense of community he’s fostering that may end up defining his legacy as a powerlifter.
Last November, Bell moved Super Training Gym into a 6,000-foot West Sacramento warehouse. It’s a private gym but free to members; interested powerlifters can also check it out. These days, somewhere between 30 and 50 people train there on a regular basis. It’s also a testing ground of sorts for a powerlifting safety product he invented called the Slingshot, dozens of which are stocked in a back room.
The point, Bell says, isn’t just about selling. It’s about teaching others that powerlifting is more than a sport—it’s a lifestyle and a community.
“It’s impossible to have a bad workout when you’re in a group of other people that want to see you do well, almost to a fault,” he says. “The only way you could have a bad workout is if you don’t show up.”