Almost every bodybuilder that I have ever met considers themselves “Hard-core” or the most dedicated, knowledgeable, or hardest training athlete in the gym. Over the 20 years I have spent in the sport I have been asked many times what does it really take to be successful in the sport? My answer might surprise you but let me tell you it’s a question everyone has to ask themselves. What’s more is the answer you give yourself reflects whether you’re a Real Bodybuilder or Just another Wannabee!
Most magazines, scientists, and competitor’s are quick to point to genetics as the deciding factor. While on the surface there seems to be some truth to this when a person looks deeper into the sport this is not necessarily the case. In fact in every contest I have ever competed in, or watched I have rarely seen the person with the best genetics win the show.
I asked my friend, legendary bodybuilding coach Scott Abel the same question about what he believes makes a true bodybuilder successful, and Scott’s answer was pretty quick. He summed it up in one word… “Heart”.
Now Scott has trained over 200 titled winners on all levels from amateurs’ right up to Olympia contenders including myself to a National Title as well as a birth into the Mr. Universe contest. He’s also had the opportunity to work with the broadest range of personalities, genetics, and mental aptitudes so his opinion carries a lot of weight.
I tend to agree with Scott. From my own experience coaching thousands of bodybuilders around the world I feel the real successes are always the guys/gals who understand that bodybuilding has more to do what’s going on inside the mind than anything else.
Winning Comes In Many Forms
Winning and success come in many forms and so many people equate a trophy or a title with success. Considering how many of the top professional and amateur bodybuilders in the world have serious health problems and rather chaotic personal lives it’s hard to equate success with their professional status or their drug-swollen bodies. That being said, there are a handful of professionals who embody the ideals of true bodybuilding but they are definitely few and far between.
Of course, you have all kinds of guys/gals in the gym coming up with a host of reasons why they haven’t stuck with their diet, followed through on their training schedule, and simply not made the gains they desire. Although both cases represent opposite ends of the extreme; everyone fits somewhere in between and many are still left asking the question… What makes a “True Bodybuilder?”
While everyone has to determine the answer for himself, my own definition of True Bodybuilding is significantly different than “The Hardcore” Version portrayed in the top Magazines. Although at one time I aspired to be like the “gargantuan” individuals who grace the pages of the magazines, I had a change of heart once I reached the National Championship Level. Here’s why.
Drug LOADED Bodybuilding – The Fast Track to Self Destruction
You see I realized almost the entire competitive bodybuilding scene had almost nothing to do with “Real Bodybuilding”. In fact it was more like body destruction. Many of these athletes I was competing with and against, had become consumed by the desire to build massive muscles and resorted to using massive amount of drugs that damaged their health. While their physiques and muscles are definitely impressive, they had built them at the cost of their health as well as the personal lives.
I personally consider this to be a psychological condition of disease similar to anorexia, or obsessive-compulsive disorder and indeed some psychologists have labeled the condition “Muscle Dysmorphia”. Many “hardcore” bodybuilders have become so obsessed with competitions, muscular size, body fat levels, diets, etc. that every other aspect of their lives has shrunk smaller then their testes on a 10 year cycle.
I know how this dysfunctional psychology can limit one’s life because for 10 years I went down that path. Fortunately, I turned the corner and saw “the light” so to speak, and recognized that there was a lot more to life than a 20-inch arm. I understand how the pressures of athletic excellence lead some athletes to turn to drug usage. I am not condoning the act however I simply recognize how athletes rationalize drug usage and get caught in the “machine” of high performance sports.
Although it seems things are getting worse in the athletic world as opposed to better with the increase in volume of high profile athletes testing positive for drug use; I believe the increased awareness of what’s going on in sports will eventually change the course of athletics, including what I call the return to True Bodybuilding.
Don’t Play Russian Roulette With Your Health
Now what’s even crazier than taking drugs for athletic performance, is the sheer number of individuals, who use bodybuilding drugs thinking it a short cut to an impressive body. Countless scores of young men and women in bodybuilding are resorting to any number of drugs to change their appearance.
These misguided individuals who often purchase these drugs on the underground market from “dubious sources,” are playing Russian roulette with their health. Often these drugs are fake, veterinarian, or “home made” drugs not intended for human consumption.
Many of these men/women delusively believe they will stop taking drugs once they add that extra inch to their arms or lose that next percentage of fat. As soon as they stop the drugs, the muscles are gone, the fat comes back, and they begin looking for the next “fix”. This sets a vicious cycle of enslavement to the drugs, as the individual has unconsciously linked drugs to a better physique and built a reliance on them to improve the cosmetic appearance of their body.
What’s worse is that ever cycle of drugs damages the delicate balance within the body’s biochemistry, making it harder to improve, as well as setting oneself up for problems in the future. One only has too look at the rate of top professional and amateur bodybuilders who are dying prematurely or contracting severe disease to illustrate the true cost of short-sighted thinking.
True bodybuilding is about self-improvement. Building muscles, losing body fat, and shaping or defining the physique, are more about expressing one’s essence than an absolute outcome.
Everybody’s ideal physique is a little bit different and the only judge that matters is the one looking back at you in the mirror. Interestingly, what one sees in the mirror has more to do with the program in one’s head than the true-image reflected in the mirror.
When Sport Becomes Art
I feel that any time a human pursuit reaches its highest form it becomes art. Art transcends boundaries, both personal and cultural, and cannot be defined by the traditional linear models of thinking popularized by mainstream culture. Titles, measurements, accolades, or even social approval do not reflect one’s inner journey or personal experience and expression.
Definitions or belief systems have no intrinsic meaning other than what is ascribed to them by various social groups. Interestingly, each social group will ascribe a very different value on any given subject, and each group tends to believe that its opinion is the correct one.
Art transcends all of these standard descriptions and conveys a feeling or an emotion that is hard to contextualize with words. It is this essence that makes art fascinating. Often times a certain proficiency in the subject matter is essential to fully appreciate the experience. In other words, the more someone becomes familiar with a subject, in this case bodybuilding, the more one can recognize, genius, greatness, or the artistic.
Watching Tom Platz blast out 20 plus reps with 500 pounds goes beyond physical accomplishment. The process becomes art. Another example would be a football receiver diving through the air, to catch a pass with one hand, in between two defenders, while simultaneously dragging both feet before flying out of bounds. These moments or events go way beyond the physical achievements or quantitative description.
These “defining moments” are what millions of viewers watch for daily in sports. The event is really a stage that presents an opportunity for the athlete to transcend the normal definitions of their chosen sport. The thing is, in order for an athlete to get to the “sporting promised-land”, or at least the highlight reel, years of practice, failures, unseen moments, victories, and defeats have all been part and parcel to the “defining moment”.
What is it that pushes someone to “be all they can be”? What is the “X-factor” that drives people to break previous limits of the past? While it’s hard to contextualize the essence of what makes a person a true bodybuilder, one only has to look at the Special Olympics to get a deeper understanding of the difference between real athletes vs. “wannabee” pretenders.
The Special Olympians: The Ultimate Example of Athletic Spirit
The athletes who compete in the Special Olympics do so with a spirit that in many ways demonstrates the highest ideals of athleticism. Although these physically and mentally challenged individuals may not break world records, or appear on the front page of the sports section of the newspaper, they illustrate the power of the human spirit. These remarkable individuals compete with a purity, dedication, and determination that inspire anyone and everyone. It is this intangible spirit that comes from within that propels each person to greatness and is the secret to personal accomplishment.
“Wannabee’s” perform activities for the glory, the prestige, or for narcissistic pride. Sometimes these actions manifest out of a low self-esteem. I can’t tell you how many 250lb bodybuilders I have met who “thought they were small”, or how many stunningly beautiful fitness girls complain that they are “too fat”. To me these athletes represent the worst in the sport, and cast a negative image to the real athletes (bodybuilders) who work day in and day out, to simply improve the physical expression of their Self.
Wannabee’s strut around the gyms like peacocks, they put down the accomplishments of others, make excuses for their own shortcomings and exaggerate their own accomplishments. In other words they say “I am a “bodybuilder” or “I’m Hardcore” etc but their thoughts of self-image is completely defined by what they see in the mirror or what the scale reads. Often the self-image of Wannabee’s are extremely distorted and borders on delusion.
When you let anything define you, whether it’s your job, your sport, or a relationship, you can bet you have a “wannabee” or distorted belief system that will invariably lead to problems at some point in the future. Often times it takes a crash to the bottom of society with somewhat painful consequences for these individuals to experience a “Reality Check”.
Self Improvement is The Essence of Real Bodybuilding
The real bodybuilder recognizes that Bodybuilding is something that they do, not something that they are. There is a big difference between these two images of self because the first definition limits oneself or what one can be, while the second opens up the possibility of a greater Self or broader definition on one’s Self.
The essence of Real Bodybuilding is simply the pursuit of self-improvement through physical activity that enhances the development and function of the physical body. This pursuit can lead to a deeper awareness of the internal or subtle workings of one’s own existence. I think Bill Pearl has summed it up better than anyone else in the title of his best-selling bodybuilding book “Keys to the Inner Universe”.
To further illustrate my point from a more extreme perspective, I will use this example. Some bodybuilders come to me and say I am training my legs as hard as can but I am not puking from sets. Can you show me how to train so hard that I puke?
While this sounds ridiculous, this type of mentality does persist inside bodybuilding. Puking from a set is often times viewed as a badge of honor or welcome achievement in the “Bodybuilding Brotherhood”. This type of mentality is what has kept the awesome power of bodybuilding away from the general public and transformed a positive form of self expression into a “narcissistic, self-absorbed, anti-social, cult-like, behavior relegated to the “lunatic fringe”.
Numerous companies create ads around this whole behavior by glorifying pain, suffering, and illustrating imagery of a 250lb man standing over a bucket or a pool of vomit on the floor. While most individuals in society would be horrified or disgusted by such a picture, many in the bodybuilding world embrace it, identifying greatness, or achievement with the process of vomiting.
As bizarre as it sounds, the above scenario is illustrative of how the act is often mixed up with the intention of the individual. This is a very thin line of consciousness but a very important one to understand it one’s bodybuilding pursuits are to be crowned with success.
Heart is where someone pushes themselves to the limits of their physical being. Any person; who tests themselves regularly, with weight training to improve their body, is a real bodybuilder. Real Bodybuilding takes heart and it has nothing to do with how big someone is, how much they bench, or how many titles they have won.
Real bodybuilding is about the journey of self.
It’s a way to express oneself while improving your health, your awareness, and your self-esteem. Real bodybuilding helps to synchronize the Mind, Body, and Soul connection and enhances every aspect of one’s life. It’s a phenomenal tool for self -improvement and self-discovery. After a lifetime of lifting you can still learn something new about yourself and you can still improve.