Bodybuilding is a strange activity. I don’t view it as a sport at all. There is no display of skill but the end result is pretty amazing.
The pinnacle of success in the bodybuilding world is to compete at the Olympia. It’s a freak show and I find it admirable in a most narcissistic way. Competitors spend all year training and dieting and doing cardio to maintain their physiques.
But man, it has changed. Consider the transformation of men’s physiques from the 70s and 80s to today. It’s dramatically different. I favor the physiques of the past—Arnold, Colombo, Mentzer, Zane, etc. Competitors today are bigger and more “conditioned.”
For men to get on stage with basically zero body fat and massive slabs of muscle is a sight to see. But judging the size, symmetry and detail of top competitors is like comparing apples to apples. It’s a close competition that’s for sure, but based on winning streaks, I’d say it’s safe to assume who will finish first or at least in the top 3. This year Phil Heath won his 4th consecutive Mr. Olympia. I wasn’t surprised.
Heath sets himself apart with unmatched conditioning, posing, and overall aesthetics. Just as all the Mr. Olympia competitors have tremendous vascularity, Heath seems to have thin and almost translucent skin, which gives him that edge. Heath’s nickname “The Gift,” definitely suits him as he earned his 4th Mr. Olympia title and continues to represent bodybuilding in a favorable way.
What about female bodybuilding? It has changed just like men’s bodybuilding—size and conditioning trumps all. From the era Bev Francis and Rachel Mclish to Iris Kyle (now 10-time Ms. Olympia), it has become frightening to a lot of onlookers. The ability to be incredibly lean and muscular is great, but at some point it’s just too much.
It’s too much because extremely muscular female physiques are the opposite of what most women aspire to look like. It’s intimidating and contradicts gender roles. And really, how big will female bodybuilders become or how far is one willing to push her body (and health) to win a Ms. Olympia medal?
Maybe that’s why the installment of other categories is more appealing to the masses. The Figure and Fitness categories for women have been around for a while, but the more recent additions of Men and Women’s Physique and Bikini are catching on.
Physique and bikini are good additions to encourage participation from individuals less interested in being as muscular as possible. But really, it’s a great way to make more money, and the fitness industry is capitalizing.
Men’s physique is really a beach body competition. Guys in board shorts (easy way to avoid squats and leg training), hands on their hips as glorified fitness models. If I were a man, I would not opt to compete in physique.
As a woman, I would never participate in a bikini competition. Rules indicate the competitors are to “Model Walk” across stage where they have 10 seconds to show their front and rear. The competition judging criteria scores women on, overall physical appearance including complexion, skin tone, poise, and overall presentation. The funny thing is, everyone’s complexion/skin tone is nearly the same after spray tan. It’s a beauty pageant wearing a bikini. Having seen this live in competition, the event itself is debasing towards women.
Finally, women’s physique is a good alternative to bodybuilding and I’m sure women’s bodybuilding will soon be eliminated. The masculinization of women just doesn’t have the same appeal, yet female physique competitors are still very muscular.
Last year was the first Ms. Physique Olympia, with the winner Dana Linn Bailey. This year, Juliana Malacarne won. It will be interesting to see if anyone can start a winning streak in this category. Right now, it seems like there’s a big difference in the overall muscularity of the female physiques.
Bodybuilding is by far one of the hardest things to train for in terms of diet and mental toughness. The fitness industry will always have a large following, but competing is not for everyone. Having good genetics to compete in anything aesthetic is necessary, and then some.
Seems like the Olympia weekend just sort of came and went this year, which is weird because it was the 50th Olympia competition. A big milestone I guess. I can only imagine what the physiques will look like in another 50 years.
The following comes to mind when I think of killer workouts:
- Being out of breath and never fully recovering from one set to the next.
- The burning sensation in your lungs.
- Feels like your head might explode from the pressure.
- Your eyes start to pound and vision gets a little blurred and you need to refocus.
- The intensity is so high that you feel a little sick.
- Pushing with all that you have to finish every rep. When most people would quit—you just do it anyway.
There are two workouts I vividly remember from training with Cristi. She’s a great training partner because she’s okay with randomness and deciding on a workout right before we’re about to train.
One time we had a brilliant idea to make our own Strongman relay type of circuit. We loaded up the prowler with a couple plates. Pushed it for 40 yards. We did heavy farmers walks and ran with a 5 gallon Poland Spring water jug. Also, for 40 yards. And then we did some sort of push press.
Before beginning, we debated whether we should go for time or pick some arbitrary number of reps to complete. Somehow we decided to do a minimum of 10 rounds. I think our goal was to continue with this same circuit and try to beat our time. Once we got started I remember 10 seemed like a ridiculously high number. Neither of us were out of shape, but we weren’t doing much cardio other then the occasional bike or stadiums.
A few rounds into our Strongman circuit we were struggling, but we had to finish all ten since that what we set as the minimum. That lung searing, can’t catch your breath, sweat pouring off of you, sort of sick feeling lasted the entire workout.
I don’t remember how long it took—not very long—but when we finally finished, we sat to catch our breath before putting the weights back. We worked at an almost frantic pace, never letting the intensity drop so we were smoked. That workout was one-and-done. We never attempted to repeat the Strongman.
Another time, when my bodybuilding training was in full swing, Cristi got in on some of the lifts. She’s partial to squats and leg presses and couldn’t have picked a better day to join the training. We supersetted front squats with leg presses.
10 sets of 10 reps each. The weight was predetermined and it was the same for all 10 sets. Heavy, and it felt heavier as the sets progressed. I would complete 10 front squats, then immediately do 10 leg presses. I got to rest while Cristi did her sets. Then it was my turn again and again and again.
I don’t love front squats. It’s very different then having a bar on your back. Instead of feeling sturdy with the bar with your traps, it’s crushing your throat making it hard to breath. I gripped the knurling, rotated my elbows under, unracked the weight, got my feet set and proceeded to squat. I tried to hold my breath for 5 reps then take another breath so it would feel like two sets. I slammed the weight back in the rack then took a few steps to the leg press, slid down the back support, got my feet set and started.
10 reps of each complete, and then it was Cristi’s turn. She was having some shoulder issue so she crossed her arms to support the weight for front squats. She actually enjoys front squats, unlike me. Then she moved to the leg press. I counted her reps, staring at her beat up Chuck Taylors.
If we had stopped to think about it at all and how torturous it was, the workout would’ve been even harder. It felt great to lock out that last rep of the last set of leg presses. The sound of the weight settling back in a resting position was satisfying.
I waited as Cristi finished. 200 reps later, my legs were so blown up I leaned against a wall and slid to the ground and just sat there. When I looked over, Cristi was laying on the floor between the two leg press machines. It was brutal.
Looking back through old training logs I thought, man, those workouts were rough. But I would do it all over again. Glad I had Cristi to share in these experiences. They really were workouts from hell.
Wild intensity; Bravery to approach iron.
Restless energy unleashed.
It’s a privilege to be allotted sets and reps.
The barbell, a fishing rod in a pond of metal and mindless potential.
I got caught, reeled in. All for the better.
I don’t talk, no wasted words.
Thankful for the weights that never talk back.
The most authentic companion keeping your ego in check.
In this moment nothing else matters.
The sweat collecting on my forehead before dripping down my nose.
A kind of shower only hard work will provide.
My body isn’t tired. It’s going and keeps going, because this one moment, this one set, is just temporary.
A selfish time, until next time.
But rarely considering myself.
It’s training partners; or my grandparents or family; or sometimes a troubled friend.
Because this rep makes me stronger for them, regardless of my empty thoughts.
All frustration and hostility released silently in the completion of each rep.
That last rep, is a wave of satisfaction I attempt to ride until next time;
Always anticipating the end.
In a self-loathing society I will not conform or feel sorry,
For this moment will end, and I will be satisfied.
Inspired by this ceaseless love-hate relationship.