Texas is polluted, dangerously so. It was ranked the highest in carbon dioxide emissions in 2004 out of all 50 states, fifth-highest in sulfur dioxide emissions, and third-highest in nitrous oxide emissions. At a rapidly increasing rate a distinctive amount of muscle has also intoxicated the Texas population bringing the attention of the bodybuilding world to the place these colossal cowboys call home.
Today I want bring your attention to another one of its residents - Branch Warren.
Not that you need any persuasion to draw your attention to him as he has the natural ability to fixate onlookers like only a hypnotherapist can. Branch doesn't swing a pendant though, he backpacks 254 lbs of Texan prime beef that has been fed on steaks the size of Volkswagens and heaves murderous amounts of weight within the confines of Metro Flex gym that tally to numbers greater than Chris Cormier's recent medical bill.
Warren is unique, unapologetic in his swaggering embrace of fresh meat to join him in the act of muscle slaughter, and on this occasion whilst guest posing at the Europa Super Show, he targeted his attack and pounced on the unaware prey - Mighty Mike Ergas.
Ergas, the newly advanced Pro, has for years has been a representative bodybuilder of the highly equipped Gold's gym in Venice so for Mike, entering the merciless and sweltering walls of Metro Flex gym in Arlington was like going from a luxury 5 star cruise liner to a pirate ship that happily accepts prisoners to walk the plank into a sea of Iron.
Whilst on the commute to the Ergas vs Warren sparring session, an uneasy Mike asked me to call Branch to discover what body parts they were about to engorge. Would he be able to make a sufficient claim against Branch if those particular limbs were to be sacrificed? "Tell him we are training back," bellowed Warren over my speaker phone.
Upon entering and analyzing the weights warehouse I discovered huge similarities to the English dungeon that 6 time Mr. Olympia champ Dorian Yates used to multiply his muscles - Temple Gym. Both places had warped Olympic bars, dumbbells that peaked at 250 lbs, equipment that was so worn it was impossible to distinguish its original color and heavy metal music playing that was as harmonizing as toilet tissue made out of fiber glass. This was it, a real hardcore gym that had more testosterone than Marion Jones and Dave Palumbo combined.
Branch arrived at approximately 11:00 am and gave a nod of approval to Mike signaling there was to be only vicious words of encouragement spoken for the next sixty severe minutes.
Branch marched toward a wooden box that was filled with handle attachments that would look more fitting in a sadistic sex pen (not that I would know) than in a gym. He pulled out one of only a few I recognized - a wide cambered bar for the initial exercise - lateral pull downs.
Following several warm-up sets, Branch set the tone when Ergas initiated the first set. "Come on muthaf*%#er," screamed Branch at his new recruit who already had beads of sweat dripping from him due to the intense 110 degree heat. A wary Ergas located the weights pin at 250 lbs conscious that only four weeks prior he was onstage and about to be inducted into the professional bodybuilding ranks and today he was determined to earn his first stripe without any injuries.
"Lean back and pull that b!tch", yelled Branch over Kid Rocks high decibel melody, "I'm a Cowboy baby," before it was his turn to wrap his meaty paws over the pull down apparatus.
"Yeah, light weight muthaf*#@er," screamed the Texan, and with an expiring "Uuurrhhhh" he yanked on the bar with his feet off the ground to pull the 300 lb weight stack that, on this day, outweighed him by 46 lbs. It was near impossible for me to lean my trusty Canon against the multi-station as the immense explosive nature of his beastly reps had the machine shuddering as if it was placed on an earthquake hot spot.
At 18 reps, the weight was dropped to 250 lbs to muster out a further 16. A final decline to 200 lbs extracted every ounce of blood that was curdling his snaking pipes and expanding his back that now seemed as vast as the Texas ranges. Three drop sets in precise repetition were completed before the dumbbell rack was to be exploited for single arm rows.
As I lay safely in the corner over a film of dust I looked at Warrens huge silhouette through my lens and muttered into my voice recorder, "Everything seems bigger and badder about Texas. It is the second largest state in the USA, the ranches are bigger, the steaks are bigger, the longhorn Cadillacs are bigger and the bodybuilders here seem bigger... and badder."
I concluded as I started snapping my trigger finger at the "Good Ol' Boy" who started rowing his way through his 150 lb warm-up. Ergas approached the neighboring 120lb dumbbell with a more comfortable manner as he was just beginning to get the taste of blood that Branch has been teething on like a baby on a dummy.
Supporting his free trunk like forearm onto his leg, Mike squeezed and engaged his rhomboids and traps like a long lost friend as he rowed out 12 effortless repetitions on each side of his thickly nestled back.
Branch, ever so aware that scribes like me and FLEX magazines Greg Merrit had sympathetically scrutinized his back for more thickness and detail, locked his glaring eyes onto the 200 lb dumbbells. This prompted a reminiscent memory of when I had witnessed one of Dorian's legendary muscle massacres during which time his stare seemingly pierced through my lens and out of the back of my head before one of his destructive sets.
Branch was determined to start his own carnage today as he ripped the 200 lb dumbbell off of the floor, shaking beads of sweat off his head like a newly drenched hound. He ignited his traps that pulled his arms up and down like a firing piston allowing the weight to slightly swing forward to accentuate the stretch which he describes as unbelievable.
An increasingly eager Ergas was starting to salivate at the opportunity he was finding himself in - Mike a rookie pro relishing his chance of training with "warmonger" Warren who is already knocking on the door of mount Olympia. This provoked him to step to the plate and grasp the odor of intensity that had captivated him to single out the 190 lbs dumbbells, a feat he had yet to accomplish.
Accomplish he did as Branch breathed down his neck encouraging Ergas that only little boys played with little toys and Mike was h-ll bent on proving himself and that he could adulterate his remorseful back characteristics on any given moment. Heaving out 12 reps on single-arm rows were not an easy feat for Ergas but neither would treading the deep end of the professional contest pool with his immediate company already having swam several more laps.
As with all exercises on the roster, three sets were punished prior to the next relentless movement, T-bar rows. Normally Branch will do this slab stacking exercise with one end of an Olympic bar shoved into a corner and a close-grip rowing handle underneath the opposite end.
On a basis that's as regular as an Ashley Simpson facial augmentation, Warren will alternate "in the corner' T-bar rows with the standard issue Bent over barbell rows, but today the old school method was exchanged for the supported machine equivalent to avoid injury less than five weeks from the Olympia.
Sinking his claws into the bar at a wide grip, the eclipsing Texan adapted perfectly to his environment by rowing such a weight that "cruelty to rhomboids" was written all over his distended back. 5 1/2 45 lb plates were stacked on, and following every set of 8 sickening reps, one plate was stripped down to cannibalize the muscle until a total of 4 drop sets were completed leaving 1 1/2 solitary plates on the shuddering T-bar machine.
Mike continued to harass the apparatus by inflicting equal damage, loading up with 5 1/2 plates before gazing into the mirror before him which looked like it had arrived from a yard sale. The continuously swelling Ergas removed a layer of clothing to reveal a figuration that looked like it could stand next to his Texan sparring partner and pull a few of its own punches and demand the respect it's duly deserved.
"What you gonna do boy?", yelled Branch before spitting the words, "Bring the pain!" as the Venice beach boy squeezed out 8 reps prior to the 4 drop sets that followed.
The anguish continued for 3 more sets before a dehydrated Ergas had to seat his 235 lb structure whilst Branch embarked on a tour of deprived recovery on the pulldown once again only this time opting for the close grip attachment to widen his lower lat inserts thus enhancing his V-taper that's as expansive as a Texas ranch.
The technique enforced was an exact replica of the traditional wide-grip pulldown which started this ruthless mayhem - 300 lbs, three drop sets, leaning back with a conscious arch, and screaming raw and vicious terms that I daren't repeat here.
Mike repeated Warren's procedure only selecting a slightly lighter weight that was 30 lbs less at 270 lb. A humorous Ergas jokingly stuck his tongue out at my lens which was consuming the eternal pictures of the fateful pairing of the master teaching his commander the A, B and C's of back manifestation.
Before Mike could take his notes home to commence his homework in Cali, he screwed his face and turned his Mr Hyde into a determined Dr Jekyll. He enforced his crammed muscles to perform once again before vapors replaced his evaporating fuel that was almost dried up at the conclusion of 3 drops sets.
"Let's do another back exercise" barked Warren at an exhausted Ergas who had his head bowed trying to hydrate the gallons of fluid lost in the intense Texan heat.
Whilst Branch sipped on some water from the cooler, a gym member approached me and shouted over AC/DC's - Thunder Struck, "Where you from boy?". "I'm from Wales," I replied with caution. Putting his arm around me he said, "I was in the Marines with some Welsh boys, man they didn't hold back, they were like us - balls to the walls;" he laughed before walking off to the chest press where his 12 year old son was pushing more weight than yours truly could muster following a 5 day creatine load.
Texans are extremely patriotic. Throughout the gym, written on the walls were signs of support and reminders of troops fighting for our freedom. Maybe this is what keeps hardcore muscle mutations like Branch away from complacently sitting in their comfort zone to continuously evolve.
I awoke from my daze as Warren pushed by me and zoned in like a Nuclear weapon towards the seated row. Growling like an undiscovered beast the scowling soldier loaded his guns that fired so much separation between his biceps and triceps, each haunting a different weather pattern.
He gripped the bar while Ergas looked on; committing himself to his own private war, pulling the row handles tight to his midsection banging his broad shoulder blades together forcefully squeezing every violent rep. Like a deprived glutton for punishment, Branch continued to row the full weights stack (300 1bs) convulsing bellows of persistent grunts as he again stripped the weight to continue a course of drop sets that were as a rough a ride as the local rodeo.
The Californian resident positioned himself in the seat and it was apparent why his recent Pro card was long overdue. I witnessed him close out the humid conditions, the pain riddling his breeding muscles, and the dehydration that was settling in like a line of cocaine down Tomy Lee's nasal passage.
Placing the selector pin way to the bottom of the weights stack, Ergas glanced at Warren as if to say "I'm coming to get ya'll boy" then hoisted the 300 lbs of steel to reinstate his position as a threat to the pro stage. Ergas immersed his pain into the 11 painstaking reps that proceeded a dramatic drop set proving he was here to "Branch - out" (pun intended).
What was determined to be the final curtain of this madness got disrupted when an unsympathetic Warren placed his hand on Ergas's swollen shoulder and said, "We got to finish off the posterior delt's and fry them with rear raises," he said pointing to the dumbbells. The only distinction of dumbbell poundage was the marker pen written notes that were attached with duct tape to the holding rack.
"Come on now," shouted Branch as he started his final exercise which was approximately an hour before his regular training partner - Johnnie Jackson was about to take the pre-judging center stage at the nearby Europa Super Show.
Gritting his teeth and snatching the 75 lb dumbbells like a dog on a mailman, the titanic Texan swung the resistance back as if it only weighed in on par with Kenny Jones.
The explosive manner at which Branch performs his reps from the sidelines could well be mistaken for a cheating technique. You would be correct in this assumption to a certain degree but at closer inspection these "cheat reps" are in a controlled manner, and in no way does Warren use this as an excuse for sloppy form. Branch advises not to mimic his style, as this is a technique he has molded and adapted to spanning over 15 years of weights abuse.
I was surveying Branch purposely squeezing his rear delts at the top of each rep as positioned myself in a very dangerous proximity - lying almost beneath him within inches of the possibility of getting hurt. These are the risks I was willing to take to capture the images for Bodybuilding.com - the website I used to absorb as a frail teenager in Wales whilst heaving on the tuna and potatoes recommended within the Bodybuilding.com nutritional guidelines.
"Best set!" screamed Branch at Mike after finishing his finale set. Ergas slowly grasped the 55 lb dumbbells before letting out a gasp and a "this better be it" mumble. He did the impossible and completed a total of three sets of 15 reps that signified the conclusion of the workout and an immediate response from Mike that sighed, "Mike Ergas has now left the building".
We all parted ways abruptly so I could race to the convention center, with my resplendent grubby skin and sweaty clothes, to shoot the IFBB Pro pre-judging. Branch was also destined to the same location, but Ergas was called to other 3 emergencies - his hotel, bed and sleep.