It’s a sad week for those of us that are into bodybuilding. As minority sports go, it has enjoyed it’s biggest resurgence in recent years since the 1970s when Arnold Schwarzenegger first appeared in the classic documentary, “Pumping Iron“.
Thanks to the internet and YouTube, more and more people were being introduced to the strange world of bodybuilding. When I first “discovered” it in the 1990s, the only place you could get information about it were in magazines like Flex, Muscle & Fitness, MuscleMag. These publications mostly focussed on the well-known athletes that were part of the biggest federation, the IFBB, founded by brothers Joe and Ben Weider.
It has been said time and time again that the 1990s was the Golden Age for bodybuilding. The competitors in the major shows – the Mr Olympia, Arnold Classic – were all spectacular specimens having the perfect mix of muscle size and aesthetics. Stars like Kevin Levrone, Shawn Ray (if you have read my book you may recall me mentioning him) and Flex Wheeler battled it out at competitions for second place. Second place? Well, yeah, because this was the era dominated by British bodybuilder Dorian Yates who won the Mr Olympia six times.
Along with Dorian came a new type of bodybuilder. Dorian brought along a package not seen before. He was huge, dense, grainy and ripped. He didn’t have the “pretty” body typified by his competition and he introduced the world to his rather unique training style, “Blood & Guts”.
Something that was common in the 1990s and into the 2000s was the extremely ripped look; a level of bodyfat so low that the skin would appear translucent against the muscle with every sinew visible. Never healthy, some found it a look easier to achieve than others; those others having to resort to extreme measures such as strong diuretics.
It wasn’t long before some of the big names in the sport were dropping dead, the severe dehydration causing their bodies to close down. A change had to be made and that came in the gigantic form of Ronnie Coleman.
Ronnie had been on the scene for years, mainly hovering in the lower ranks of any lineup. He’d gradually been adding more and more size but, when Dorian retired after his sixth win, most presumed that his successor would be those competitors that always languished second to Dorian’s first. They were wrong. Rather than take a step back to the past, bodybuilding fashion took a giant leap forward by electing Ronnie to first.
This win heralded a new era in bodybuilding. Ronnie simply dwarfed everyone, appearing onstage around the 280lb mark, outweighing nearly everyone else by 50lb. Now the goal of those wanting to compete was to get as huge as possible. Large quantities of growth hormone and insulin were ingested, along with larger quantities of steroids. It wasn’t long before bodybuilders were catching up with Ronnie. Another change was the slightly smoother look – still very hard and defined, but never quite as dry as before.
A big problem came with the big size: big bellies. There have been so many theories as to what causes the “GH Gut“, as it came to be known. The most common being the growth hormone taken. You cannot target it so the theory goes that the intestines also grew, hence the tortoise shell bellies. Others blamed insulin but, the most likely cause would be the amount of food eaten to retain that kind of size. Ten thousand calories a day would not be uncommon. That is one big poo-belly!
And then along came YouTube and social media. Information travels the planet far faster than ever before and information about the drugs needed to get big were openly discussed in videos. One of the pioneers of this honesty was former champion Dorian Yates, another was former small-time pro Rich Piana.
Imagine a cartoon of a bodybuilder. Tiny joints and huge, over the top, unimaginable muscles. Built through hard work, yes, but also through large quantities of all kinds of bodybuilding drugs plus injections of synthol, an oil that gets injected directly in to the muscle to boost the size. Rich became the largest social media bodybuilder in terms of audience, beating even the current Mr Olympia. Heavily tattooed and clearly wealthy, he became a curiosity through his regular vlogs, which is how I first stumbled upon him. At first, I didn’t like him. Too big, too brash, too American. However, over time, drawn back to his videos in the way you cannot look away from a car crash, I gradually got to appreciate him as a fellow human being. Along with those big muscles came a big heart; clearly this was a person who had been psychologically damaged in his youth and this externality was his way of protecting himself. I get that.
Rich’s heart gave out on him a few weeks ago. He suffered a heart attack, fell smashing his head and was rushed to hospital where he was placed into a medically induced coma. At the time, the heart attack wasn’t mentioned, so most of us on the fringes of the bodybuilding community didn’t know the truth and hoped he might recover. He didn’t and Rich died today aged just 46. Tragically, he is the second famous bodybuilder to die in a week as, just a few days ago, IFBB pro Dallas McCarver died. He was in his mid 20s. At the time of writing, there has been no definitive cause of death released but it is likely that his massive size played a part in it.
I have noticed a trend among bodybuilding pros and celebrities recently. As new categories are being introduced to the sport (such as “physique” which, as the name suggests, harkens back to the days where aesthetics were number one), a lot of the really big guys who have pushed their bodies beyond what is tollerable are slowing down, decreasing their size. Whether you weigh 300lb through muscle or through fat, it is a massive strain on the heart, not to mention the joints. Add to that the risks of long-term drug use and I doubt there will be that many pros that live to be a ripe old age.
It cannot come soon enough. As a fan of the sport, I don’t want these athletes to die to provide me with entertainment or inspiration. When I first got into it, it was for healthful reasons and the reason I have lifted for more than 25 years is because, at it’s core, bodybuilding is a great sport that can help you stay stronger as you age and your body deteriorates.
But there will always be the freaks. The genetic freaks. Those that barely have to look at a weight to put on 10lbs. Unfortunately, most of us aren’t that genetically gifted so those that want the freaky look are forced down the drug route. Young guys just finding bodybuilding are going to the needle as fast as the dumbbell. That ain’t right. No-one that isn’t competing needs drugs and, if a keen bodybuilder does want that edge, they should at least have a decade of lifting behind them before dropping trou’.
Bodybuilding CAN be good for you but, as with most things, only in moderation. RIP Rich, Dallas and all those that have fallen before them. I hope there won’t be too many more casualties.