At 78, Mike Palen’s Weightlifting Feats Have Reached Astonishing Heights

MAHOPAC, N.Y. - Mike Palen can lift 855 pounds. Let’s put that into perspective. A concert grand piano weighs nearly 950 pounds.

Pretty impressive, right? But wait—there’s more.

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Palen is 78 years old.

The longtime Mahopac resident, who grew up in the Crestwood section of Yonkers, has been lifting weights since he was 12 years old.

“I developed my own dumbbells from cement footings that were in a picnic table that my father had made,” he said. “I put them together with a bar in the middle.”

Like many young boys, Palen gravitated toward athletics—he played football at Stepinac High School—but weightlifting, for reasons he can’t quite put his finger on, seemed to call him.

“Back in those days, bodybuilding was kind of shunned,” he said. “It didn’t become popular until later on. But I found instant results.”

He was so motivated that he and a friend made several trips on their bikes from Crestwood to a Mount Vernon sporting goods store to pick up weights and bring them back to his garage. His friends started coming over, bringing their weights, too. He wound up with about 2,000 pounds of weights in his dad’s garage. Eventually, those friends gave up weightlifting. But Palen never did.  Today, he still has all those weights in his garage in Mahopac—all 2,000 pounds.

“I was small in stature, but I was a scrapper,” he said. “I was known as a small kid who could take care of himself.”

His older brother was a star football player and Palen felt the pressure to live up to his sibling’s reputation. But he ended up breaking his leg twice and said it was probably because he was trying too hard to live up to expectations. When Palen takes on a challenge, he doesn’t shirk.

“But I think I was asking too much of my body at that point,” he said.

He joined the Air Force in 1962 and continued his weightlifting endeavors while in the service. When he got out, he began to lift competitively.

“I decided to go to the Y where they had real professional equipment and develop myself. That where I discovered I liked competition,” Palen said.

Palen’s idol was Tommy Kono, an American gold-medal Olympian, who, back in the ’50s, set world records in four different weight classes.

“He was the one I wanted to be,” Palen said. “I would compete in my head with his totals. My friends told me that I should get into it because I was doing stuff no one else was doing. I started doing it competitively—lifting 150, pressing 150, eventually doing a lot more than my body weight.  I was doing totals that were close to Olympic standards, so my dream was to make it to the Olympics”

Palen even won a few trophies, but he eventually decided that the rigid rules and techniques required in competitive lifting weren’t for him.

“I had good brute force, but trouble with the rules of the lift,” he explained. “It’s very technical. When you do a clean and jerk, you have to pause with the weight at your shoulders for a certain amount of time and wait for the judge to clap and then you go up. I was able to do it, but on a couple of occasions, the lift didn’t count. There were a lot of technicalities that I didn’t like.”

And something else happened along the way that derailed Palen’s weightlifting ambitions: Life. He got married to Sandra, whom he met in Yonkers. The two moved to Mahopac and started a family.

“We couldn’t afford Westchester, but I never thought of Mahopac,” he said. “I had a friend who moved up here, and we would visit them on occasion, and I thought, why not?”

That was in 1965.

“We got married and had kids right away,” he continued. “New house, new job. I was 23 and weightlifting just got pushed into the background. I stayed out of it until our second child was born. I was out of it for about four or five years.”

Now, with the Olympics and competitive weightlifting no longer a goal, Palen got back into it for the self-gratification and the health benefits. And growing older didn’t seem to slow him down. In fact, he seemed to get stronger.

“I found that weight training kept me stronger than normal, more able to play sports later into life,” he said. “I played softball into my 50s and played volleyball until about 10 years ago.”

He found he could press 250 pounds, lift 235 pounds in the snatch and 315 in the clean and jerk.

Though he was busy with many other endeavors (he owned a summer home in Amenia in Dutchess County that needed tending, and he had a pilot’s license for small aircraft), he still found time to get into the gym and continue his workouts

“I always found time to do it and all the other exercises,” he said. “I could do more than 2,000 sit-ups.”

Ten years ago, he discovered a program through his health insurance company called Silver Sneakers, which provides free memberships to senior citizens at participating gyms

“This got me out of the garage and back to the gym,” he said.

Through Silver Sneakers, he joined the New York Sports Club in Somers.

“For me, it’s about maintenance and not overdoing it. I can do anything a 40-year-old do, including one-handed pushups,” he said. “My legs have not changed much and have a lot of strength in them. I could lift four or five people in the pool. I would go underwater, and we would make this pyramid.”

That led Palen to developing his own special technique. The barbell is placed on a rack about 5 feet off the ground. Palen, squats under it, grabs the bar, lifts it above the rack for a few beats before dropping it back onto the rack.

“I started with 300 pounds on my first lift, then to 400,” he said. “To me, 300 pounds is light. Now I can lift 855 pounds off the rack, my personal best this year. People tell me I should look it up in the Book of Guinness World Records. A lot of kids just stand around and watch me. I love to give advice if they ask.”

Palen said he believes the mission of Silver Sneakers is very important.

“They are very supportive in getting older people to the gym,” he said. “If we got more seniors to do that we wouldn’t have a lot of the health problems that we have today. I want to inspire older people to get into some kind of fitness program. You are only as old as you feel. It’s because I do this, God has blessed me. I don’t have any limitations.”

Palen was asked what his biggest influence was outside of the world of sports.

“My biggest inspiration has been Sandra, my bride of 55 years,” he said. “She keeps me healthy, wealthy and wise. She definitely helps me lift the 855 pounds.”

At 78, does Palen see a time when he’ll walk away from the gym and retire from weightlifting?

“No,” he said with a smile. “I will continue working out until I drop.”