Bodybuilding, fact or fiction?

Shawn and I attended the finals of the Arnold Classic at the Arnold Sport Festival. We had sorta followed bodybuilding a few years ago and there’s still a few guys that Shawn is a fan of (like Kai Greene), but when we sat down, we both had that, “I immediately regret this decision,” feeling. It was mostly because we were subjected to at least 45 minutes of dudes posing (badly) to (shitty) music. I don’t know what bothered me more, the fact that Branch Warren won best poser with music choices of Limp Bizkit and Kid Rock, or that everyone was whistling, hooting, and hollering during the abortion of a performance. Seriously, what happened to the grace and artful posing I saw in Pumping Iron? The bottom line is that Shawn and I weren’t aroused by this type of stuff.

The culture of today’s bodybuilding is where the disconnect is. When I look at Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Encyclopedia of Bodybuilding, it just seems different than today’s bodybuilding. Yes, guys were still training to improve their physique, but the drugs resulted in a more streamlined look. They had good shape, and even the bigger guys weren’t uncomfortably bulky; the size seemed to fit each man’s frame. But the issue isn’t that the physiques are significantly different (as a result of the drug improvements), but instead the difference is the culture surrounding it. Remember the scene in Pumping Iron when Arnold visited a prison and did a posing routine? The thugs and gang bangers had an honest appreciation for the beauty of the human body. It seemed like the world was more impressed with bodybuilding and strength sports back then. There were powerlifting broadcasts hosted by Bryant Gumbel in the ’70s and routine public appearances by bodybuilders. It seems like it was all so new to society that there was still that “go see the strongman at the circus” aura behind it. It’s only natural since the preceding century saw the Civil War, World War I, and World War II; society didn’t have the luxury to bodybuild and it was fascinating because it was different.

Yet, today’s culture has gone through a metamorphosis that makes it…weird. The majority of attendees at the Arnold Classic finals were wearing designer clothes, plucked their eyebrows, and applied fake tanning solution — and I’m not even talking about the girls. This crowd also trains to only improve their physique, but there’s also that “we’re going clubbing” feel to it. It seems that if you integrate yourself into today’s bodybuilding culture by working out or competing, you inherently implement the “peacock” mentality of spreading your wings. “Look and be flashy” is not only standard ops, but what it’s all about.

And it doesn’t matter why this is the case, because it doesn’t matter. What matters is that there is a culture that not only prides itself on how good it looks, but on how flashy and shiny they can appear to others in the same group. Ultimately, that’s just weird to me. Sure, I want to be attractive, masculine, and muscular, but to me these traits (at least the latter two) are dependent on ability, performance, and health. Be strong and look strong. I’m not saying that the inherent level of narcissism in today’s bodybuilding is wrong, I’m just saying that it’s different and not my kind of thing.

We’re very accustomed to the “me” generation. Social media like Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter give people the impression that other people give a shit what they have to say. Posting pictures of yourself and how you look is not only standard ops, but expected. Perhaps it’s a result of a generation of bad parenting and society catering towards kids. Unfortunately, marketing to kids is a good idea because parents are able to spend money for their children. We see entire television networks and restaurant menus devoted to kids. Instead of getting told what to do, as they should be, kids get a choice about everything. They are given the impression that someone gives a shit about their opinion. This fills them with a sense of self-importance at an age when they shouldn’t be heard at all (especially in airports, restaurants, stores, or any other public place ever). Once they reach adolescence, they continue to spit their self-important thoughts and image to their peers, and this kind of behavior flows naturally into the bodybuilding culture.

Seeing bodybuilding online is different than seeing it in person. Since we’re subjected to people posting pictures of their clothes or body, it’s not abnormal to see that on bodybuilding forums. Yet when you’re in a building with several thousand people who are trying so hard to be noticed, it’s almost overwhelming. Shawn and I stood in the lobby as the crowds flowed out of the auditorium after the show. There were scarves, v-necks, and overwhelming stenches of cologne. I was unshaven in jeans, boots, and flannel, and I couldn’t have wanted to be further from that crowd (perhaps on the side of a mountain next to a river chopping firewood). It’s not that I thought everyone was wrong, it’s that I just know I’ll never fucking understand it.

(Video of Arnold’s speech at the Arnold Classic finals)

36 thoughts on “Bodybuilding, fact or fiction?

  1. I have a black and white picture of Frank Zane from the late 70s in my bedroom (no homo.) I admire the “golden era” of bodybuilding way more than what I see today. The subjectivity of bodybuilding is the biggest turn off to the whole sport for me. Instead of “I lifted more than you, so I win” it’s “I look better because those people (judges) said so, so I win.” I like catching a pump (Sup, Brent) and looking jakked as much as the next guy but I am just not comfortable with the…broness(?) of the bodybuilding scene enough to want to be involved in or be part of it in anyway.

  2. I don’t think I could ever get into bodybuilding. I still respect the hard work that goes into it, but the whole thing just seems so arbitrary, which is the exact opposite reason I like powerlifting. In powerlifting or weightlifting nothing else matters except the number on the bar. In my opinion it’s much more gratifying to win or lose because you deadlifted two pounds more or less than another guy instead of having a panel of judges conclude your quads or delts are not symmetrical or balanced enough.

  3. I agree with the others about the frustration of trying to watch any sport where the winner is determiend by subjective judging. And obviously the fact that the culture has gone from Venice Beach to Jersey Shore sucks big time. But I do respect the effort of top bodybuilders. Not the guys who do split routines in the gym and take up limited squat rack space doing 1/2 squats, but the top guys who make it their life’s pursuit. I think the pain that those guys go through is greater than what top lifters have to endure. Maybe others think differently, but the pain it takes to go to a 12th or 15th rep compared to the pain it takes to get a 5th heavy rep is much worse.

  4. I’d have to agree as well. I’ve seen drug free guys who had the dedication to watch every meal for 20+ weeks and train for years, just for the love of their event. I have nothing but respect for those guys, but modern professional bodybuilding just looks… weird? It’s more like something in sci-fi art that what you expect to see in people walking around.

    Also, like the guys above said, I prefer a much more objective contest, whoever lifted the most weight.

    Also, this could just be my newbishness to powerlifting, but it seems like the community there is much more encouraging, since you aren’t really competing against each other, everyone is competing against the iron the same way. In bodybuilding you are literally competing against every other person on stage for the approval of some other people.

  5. I really like the general message of this post, I’ve been saying for a few months now that I’m disgusted by my generations false senses of entitlement and importance.

  6. Arnold, even at his most yammed out, still looked like a person.

    Coleman, Cutler, etc. look completely bizarre, basically inhuman.

    Not interested in contemporary bodybuilding. I’m sure if Arnold had access to current pharmaceuticals he’d look like bodybuilders do now, but that doesn’t make it any more appealing to me.

  7. I dunno who said this but i think it’s true. When you look at guys like Cutler and Coleman they literally look like beasts, but when you look at Arnold and other bodybuilders from the 70s era they look like greek gods, they looked like they were cut from marble.

    When you look at Coleman today and every vein he has is popping out of every muscle fiber, to me it’s gross. They’re so big they don’t look even remotely proportional to their shortness when compared to Arnold or Ferrigno (I’m not that tall at 5’10” so I can say that).

    Overall I completely agree Justin. I just don’t know how you sat there for 45 minutes.

  8. I couldn’t have sat there the whole time. Every time I see a modern bodybuilding show on TV I change the channel. If I don’t I feel a bit, not straight.

    The me generation drives me nuts as well. I don’t know that is is derived from kids being given choices but probably more kids being given things so their parents don’t have to deal with them. I think kids need to know their parents give a shit (aka are loved). If they don’t they try harder and harder to get noticed until they become a cologne laden body builder with an alien physique.

    I mention this because I actually am a parent, and yes I get my kids to shut-up when I need to. It’s one thing to talk about training, parenting, or anything for that matter when you actually do it. When you just have ideas about how things are to be done and no experience it doesn’t mean much.

  9. This post was awesome and I’m really glad you wrote it.

    I remember one of the first posts on 70sbig was a list of things that weren’t 70sbig. One of them was bodybuilding and it’s reassuring you’ve stuck to your roots. I admire people who strive for a good physique and there’s nothing wrong with getting jacked as well as strong, but 70sbig is a necessary bastion of masculinity in the world of strength and fitness.

  10. I get what your saying Justin but I don’t think a little narcissism is a bad thing either though; if I did, well I’d be a hypocrite. Not to say I’m flashy with my appearance but I’m far from conservative.

  11. I know a few competitive bodybuilders, and they all have extreme, addictive type personalities which makes sense to me given the nature of their sport. Obsessing over food, muscle development that most people don’t even notice (gotta get those cuts in the serratus!), chasing a pump, etc.

  12. About the generational thing– that kind of stuff have been said, for, well, generations, and while i think there is a interesting point in that, I don’t really think the BB has taken a dive because of these young whipper-snappers are now more self-involved.

    Arnold was a total egomaniac and it seems to me that anyone who is so obsessed with how they look are going to start out as a narcissist or end up one due to the amount of attention and energy focused on how they look. Just the fact that you are constantly looking in the mirror re-enforces self-obsession. In monasteries they cover mirrors– this is so the monks don’t get so self-involved– there’s a lot more important shit to think about.

    My point is that while I appreciate and admire the work, strength and commitment it takes to be a decent bodybuilder, I also think that it’s a sure-fire way to re-enforce everything that is wrong with be western culture and becoming totally self-absorbed.

  13. Well written! I am 6′ 180 and far from “built” and have always admired the “big” guys…I remember seeing Arnold and Carl Weathers’s epic bro hand clasp at the beginning of Predator the first time as a little kid and thinking, holy shit, the power of the universe was passing back and forth between their biceps!

    As I’ve grown older, I’ve come to appreciate real strength, with the aesthetics only a bonus…

    I have a picture of Franco Columbu pulling over 700# with no belt on the wall right next to my barbell…where are those types anymore? All I can picture when dwelling on modern bodybuilding (not that I often do) is Ronnie Coleman screaming, “Nuttin’ but a peanut, babee!!”. Weird

  14. I’m reading John D. Fair’s book “Muscletown, USA: Bob Hoffman and the Manly Culture of York Barbell.” It is a fascinating and amazing book. The disdain that Hoffman, Grimek, and others had for Weider-sponsored bodybuilders (vs. the strength-oriented physique contests that were popular pre-Weider) is almost exactly what Justin is talking about here. Hoffman thought that looking muscular without actually being strong didn’t make sense (and he is the one who got the Olympic lifts included as part of early bodybuilding contests, largely as a “fuck you” to Joe Wieder).

    On an unrelated note, Hoffman, as the book is illustrating to me, was a great man, but not necessarily a good man. On the one hand, he pretty much single-handedly created a culture of barbell-based fitness, and drove olympic lifting to great success for over three decades. On the other hand, he was deeply flawed. Lots of his flaws (character assassination as a means of silencing critics, picking and choosing specific results from the body of nutritional and exercise science to suit his needs, playing down anything negative associated with his own strength and health, and so on) seem to be traits shared by others today, such as Greg Glassman (arguably someone who has been a like a smaller-scale Hoffman today).

  15. Al i have to say Justin is Amen. Even if I did not agree with it all you have a definite opinion and you state no matter what people may think. I love 70’s big it has improved the way I think and go about life in general.

  16. I honestly think modern bodybuilding is just a DSM IV personality disorder.

    Do I respect the hard work that bodybuilders put in? No, because they don’t work hard, they are OBSESSED and it’s an unhealthy obsession for a Narcissistic and juvenile pursuit.

    It’s just sad on so many levels.

  17. I was having this conversation with my dad just a couple weeks ago. He was really into arnold when he was younger and has passed on a lot of great Arnold things he’s had, including the book “Pumping Iron” which inspired the movie. Really cool stuff.

    Anyway, we were talking about how bodybuilders looked in Arnold’s time and how everyone had a shape so specific to themselves. Nowadays it seems like everyone’s shape is exactly the same, they all look like the Michelin man.

    Even Ferrigno, when he returned to bodybuilding, blew up like the michelin man (maybe not as bad as bb’ers today), and lost all the good lines he had in Pumping Iron.

    Even the tanning is out of control.


    Makes me want to watch Pumping Iron tonight.

  18. The term is “inbred”; when everyone is more concerned about impressing each other instead of outsiders/public etc. – seen in poet circles, CF gyms… easy to spot once noted.

    Like when you realize all the strippers in the club are dating each other. Kindof kills the ambiance…

  19. Let me just add, I also very much resent body building for the way that people look at you when you tell them that you do Olympic lifting.

    I work in film, mainly in the production office, and the other day I was showing my friend what the Olympic lifts were because we had got into argument about ballet dancers and I said that Olympic lifters were just as graceful…Any who, a producer walked by and saw my computer and stopped to ask me what it was. So I explained and she said, “Oh, it’s just like body building, weird” Then she walked away. Part of me wanted to scream, “No it’s not like fucking bodybuilding, you stupid bitch!” I didn’t for two reasons: 1. It wouldn’t be fair to be so mean to someone, when it’s not her fault that society has taught her to look at anything with a barbell as meat heads. 2. I like working and getting paid

    What I wish I could say, if I could go back in time is, “Yes, and Snooki and Meryl Streep are both actresses.”

  20. Just wait till 20 years down the line when we’re all saying “Remember when bodybuilders used to only look like sinewy, bright orange aliens? Simpler times. Simpler times.”

  21. Not trying to get all psychological n shit. Here’s the facts. Bodybuilding is bunch of ripped, tan dudes prancing around in a mankini in front of a bunch of dudes. Much like a gay strip club would (probably) be.

  22. It’s funny u posted this cuz I’ve always thought that today’s body builders just look….gross and it’s like one the comments above said Arnold and his generation had the Greek god look

  23. @Puke

    My friend, regardless of the fact that you paraphrased my sentence in a way that completely altered its context, which in itself bothers me, but in doing so, you just demonstrated that you missed the train and went on the wrong track with my comment.

    Of course body builders work hard, in fact they DO work harder than than any other discipline I can name, but that’s my point. They go beyond a healthy level of hardwork, they are OBSESSED (Obsessed: Preoccupy or fill the mind of continually, intrusively, and to a troubling extent.) To be great or even have way decent at BB, you have to have OCD (Obsessive Compulsive Disorder). And for what? A narcissistic and shallow goal that is only respected by other obsessive compulsive narcissists and alienates you from society.

  24. Wow, why the kid hate? It’s one thing to advocate responsible, assertive parenting which loves and trains kids to be respectable and useful members of society, and a whole other thing to claim that they don’t have the right to be heard in public. Kids are kids – let them be kids.

    Otherwise, still loving the site after all this time. Making good gains from all your advice. Thanks Justin.

  25. @set2fathoms- agree with you 100% man, work is the worst place to talk about my weightlifting pursuits. I was in training yesterday and the teacher asked people if anyone played a sport, I didnt raise my hand even though I played rugby in college with a huge time commitment and lifted and now I olympic weightlift where I “practice” 4 times a week etc etc. Well she proceeded to go on about how important it was to practice and to master your craft and how important those things were for running or jogging or kickball as one guy said. Jesus, It makes me crazy because I put so much hard work and dedication under the bar into this thing, but it is viewed as some sick perversion and extreme, much less bodybuilding.

  26. Just saw this in today’s newspaper:
    Article title: Risky tax deductions

    “…●A professional bodybuilder was finally allowed to deduct as a business expense the body oil he used to make his muscles glisten under stage lights during competitions. The Tax Court did not, however, let him deduct the buffalo meat and special vitamin supplements he used to develop his muscles.”

  27. “We’re very accustomed to the “me” generation. Social media like Myspace, Facebook, and Twitter give people the impression that other people give a shit what they have to say. Posting pictures of yourself and how you look is not only standard ops, but expected.”

    Gotta love the irony of that statement coming from someone who runs a blog, facebook profile, and twitter account. Having said that, I check the site several times a day and do give a shit about what you have to say for educational and entertainment purposes. Just wanted to give you grief.

    As always, great post. Maybe once you finish up 2nd edition of TM, you should get started on another book, Parenting 70s Big Style.

  28. In Pavel and Dan John’s new(ish) book Easy Strength, there is a chapter on bodybuilding, and I’m paraphrasing here because I don’t have it in front of me, but Pavel mentions that in Russia when he was growing up, physique contests took place, but in addition to posing and such, these contests also included things like kettlebell challenges (e.g. iron cross) and gymnastic moves (e.g. handsprings). I doubt very seriously that many/any competitive bodybuilders of the type that show up to the Arnold could perform any such moves. . .

  29. I don’t know alot about bodybuilding. I have a hard time believing that Bodybuilding is a sport. I see it more as a performing art or something along those lines so I don’t expect the same from it as I do, say, a football game.

    Secondly, the very nature of the bodybuilding “competition” is based on judgements of how one looks and given the societal evolution to a more “flashy”, or “look at me” state, I am not surprised that bodybuilding has followed. Look at acting and singing. If you can make yourself popular with the judges (audience) you win regardless of acting and singning skill. This is not to say bodybuilders do not work hard, but like today’s actors and singers, the outcome of their work has evolved into something different than it once was.

    I don’t consider bodybuilding a sport, but that would depend on the definition of sport. My definition is good, but incomplete. Maybe I’ll refresh that topic in a post soon (I’ve done it in the past a few times).


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