I saw a couple of things on TV recently that tweaked some memories concerning my lifelong secret identity as a gym rat and the years of my professional life during which I was an editor and writer for fitness and bodybuilding publications. The first of these was the viral video of President Obama pumping iron in a hotel gym in Poland. It was somewhat enlightening to see a President who is concerned enough about total fitness to incorporate some relatively serious resistance training into his exercise regimen. But this non-event nonetheless created the political ruckus that seems to be the norm these days in Washington. Legislators from both sides of the aisle (well, mostly from one) decried the POTUS workout session as a major security breach. Whatever.
The other memory-tweaker came while I was watching a thought-provoking documentary series on the Showtime cable network called “Years of Living Dangerously.” The series chronicles the causes and effects of global warming as they are playing out in several different parts of the world and negatively affecting the inhabitants of those regions right now, and almost certainly the rest of the world, in a few decades to come.
One of the show’s segments featured famed bodybuilder, actor, and former California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was traveling with a team of Hot Shots, an elite group of courageous and highly trained woodland firefighters, as they were attempting to slow down a series of raging forest fires in his home state. The fascinating, frightening, and controversial subject of globing warming will be a future topic of The Frog Blog, but right now I would like to touch on a much lighter (metaphorically), though heavier (literally) set of topics: weight training and competitive bodybuilding.
I began weightlifting as a teenager back in the Sixties; I was a somewhat sickly kid who was fortunate enough to have an older friend and mentor (and, in truth, guardian angel) living nearby, who introduced me to weight lifting and taught me (among other life lessons for which I have always been grateful) how to weight-train safely and successfully. His tutelage proved so fruitful that I went on to play football and lacrosse in high school and into college. I developed such an affinity for resistance training that I have performed it diligently, on and off (because of a low-back injury), for my entire life, and continue to train five days per week today.
I don’t look much like a bodybuilder, owing to less-than-stellar genetics and my equally lifelong affinity for pizza and other foods that I should clearly be much more prudent about ingesting. (Many people don’t realize just how critically important a role diet plays in acquiring a lean and muscular physique; no one can see your six-pack abs, no matter how impressive, when they are covered by a layer of fat.) But where my years of resistance training have served me well is in the area of strength-gain. Today, at sixty-six years of age, I am still able to perform many resistance training exercises using weight equal to, or greater than, that of some fellow gym rats one-third my age. Yes, this surprises me nearly as much as it may surprise you; but there it is. While I certainly can’t train as intensely or for as long a period as I could when I was one-third my own age, much of the muscular strength and bone density increases that I acquired over years toiling in the gym remain.
Back in the day, I did my weightlifting mostly in garages and basements, among friends who had a similar passion for developing muscles. At the time, we did it partly to increase strength and fitness for football but, truth be told, we did it primarily (like we did other crazy things back then) to attract girls. I don’t know that it did any of us much good for girl-getting, but it certainly produced some strength and mass gains, and imparted a degree of friendship and camaraderie that, believe it or not, I still share with some of the guys with whom I trained all those years ago. At one of these basement/garage gyms where I worked out, my muscle-headed comrades and I used to wear our cutoff sweatshirts inside-out, because our gym’s motto was “Turn it inside-out,” meaning: train as hard as humanly possible during each and every workout. (Years later, the phrase “No pain, no gain” became the preferred weightlifting war cry in gyms the world over.) To this day, I still wear an inside-out, cutoff sweatshirt at the gym. Old habits die hard, I guess.
We used to read many of the muscle magazines back then, like Joe Weider’s Muscle Builder (later renamed Muscle & Fitness), Bob Hoffman’s Muscular Development, and Dan Lurie’s Muscle Training Illustrated. We worshipped guys like Steve Reeves, Dave Draper, Larry Scott, Sergio Oliva and, of course, Arnold himself, who was arguably the greatest competitive bodybuilder of all time. I say arguably because cases could surely be made for people like Lee Haney, who won eight consecutive Mr. Olympia titles between 1984 and 1991, and Reeves who, next to Arnold, was the most famous bodybuilder in the world (owing largely to a very successful movie career during the 1950s and 1960s), and possibly the most perfectly formed man in the entire history of humankind.
Twelve or fifteen years into the future I would become an editor and photographer for bodybuilding publications and have the opportunity to meet Arnold, Reeves, Scott, Oliva, Haney, and many others. I even trained with a few of them on occasion. I was ushered into the competitive bodybuilding fraternity, an exclusive club that I actually knew very little about, outside of what I saw and read in the magazines. Understand that I wasn’t a true muscle-head way back when. I had come to weight training from a childhood wrought with illness, and later to get bigger and stronger for football (and, okay, to get girls). I hadn’t been a fan of competitive bodybuilding per se, and didn’t train in the manner of a competitive bodybuilder, rather the way an athlete trains for his or her sport. Bodybuilding, as I would soon learn, was another animal altogether.
I will never forget the first champion bodybuilder I interviewed for the very first bodybuilding publication I was associated with, a mostly black-and-white, 64-page magazine with the curious and somewhat erotic-sounding title of Muscle Up. This guy, who shall remain nameless, was fresh from winning the Lightweight division at the amateur national championships; he was intelligent, well-spoken, and completely willing to speak about virtually every aspect of his sport. At one point he began enumerating the many anabolic steroids which he cycled on and off during the course of a typical year. Not knowing much about steroids at the time, but aware that they had a reputation for being dangerous and were illegal without a prescription, I said, with some degree of shock and surprise: “Wait a minute. I thought bodybuilding was supposed to be about health and fitness. Why the drugs?”
He stared at me for several long, uncomfortable moments, then replied as one might speak to a naive, inexperienced child. “You don’t understand,” he said patiently. “Competitive bodybuilding has nothing to do with health and fitness. It’s about doing anything and everything you have to do to win. Bodybuilding is one of the unhealthiest things you can do to your body.” Now, my naiveté was not totally unfounded. The pioneers of bodybuilding, guys like Eugene Sandow, the “Father of Bodybuilding,” and later Clancy Ross, John Grimek, Bill Pearl, and others, rarely if ever touched anabolic steroids. Back then, they called what they did “physical culture,” and it definitely was about health and fitness. But, like every other endeavor in this world, when one introduces competition (and thus money, prizes or trophies) into the equation, people who compete at elite levels are so close in talent and training methodology that everyone grasps at any advantage available, legal or otherwise. Once anabolic steroids found their way into sports (all sports, but competitive bodybuilding was probably the first) the game became a case of “use or lose.”
While most sports do everything that they can to rid their games of performance-enhancing drugs, competitive bodybuilding was faced with an unusual dilemma. Once the fans got used to the bigger, harder, leaner physiques that steroids clearly yielded when used properly, there was no turning back. Sales of bodybuilding magazines, supplements, equipment and other paraphernalia, in conjunction with attendance at bodybuilding shows, were what fueled the industry. And once the fans were introduced to freakish size and diamond-hard definition, nothing else would satisfy them. The sport was forced to look the other way where steroids were concerned, or fade into obscurity forever.
If you look at bodybuilding champions from, say the Sixties, and compare them to those of the last 20 years, you will be astonished at the difference anabolic steroids have made. Yes, athletes in general are bigger, stronger and faster than they were fifty years ago. But when anabolic steroids are permitted to run rampant in any sport, the result are nothing short of superhuman. Just reference major league baseball at the start of the 21st century, if you need further proof. And it wasn’t only the guys who were taking drugs; after women’s bodybuilding came into vogue in the late 70s, early 80s, the girls began injecting massive doses of anabolics, too. The effects of supplemental mega-doses of the male hormone testosterone and its derivative chemicals could have devastating effects on men, but the toll they took on a woman’s body were far worse.
During my sojourn in the bodybuilding world I became very close friends with a man who was on the periphery of the sport, as a judge, trainer, and mentor to kids striving to get to the next level in their bodybuilding careers. Bob was one of the nicest, friendliest and most engaging people I have ever met, and, as a college chemistry professor, one of the smartest, as well. But in addition to supplying help, instruction and encouragement to his charges, he also supplied many of them with the drugs they so desperately needed to compete but often could not afford. Like some earlier incarnation of Walter White, he “broke bad” in his own way by cooking steroidal cocktails in his private underground lab for distribution to those in need.
I eventually became Editor of one of those magazines I had read as a teenager, when the vitamin/supplement company Twinlab purchased Muscular Development from the Hoffman family and hired me to run it. I produced that publication for the next eleven years, becoming even more deeply immersed in the competitive bodybuilding culture than ever before. While I enjoyed my years as Editor of Muscular Development, interviewing bodybuilders, photographing competitions and socializing with the many friends I made during that time, I never felt completely at home in their world. I’m not entirely sure to this day what the reason for my discomfort was. But there was a dark underbelly to this world that one could only witness up-close from the inside. It wasn’t always there, and while I wouldn’t call it sinister or perverted, or evil, it was nonetheless unsettling at times. Beneath the glitz and glamour of the top professional events, there was something not quite right, that tainted it. Like dirty fingernails on an attractive and otherwise impeccably groomed person.
I wasn’t unhappy to leave the world of competitive bodybuilding and go back to my basement gym, wearing my inside-out, cutoff sweatshirts. While they were neither glamorous nor glitzy, they were always clean. And I felt quite comfortable in them.