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A Bodybuilder Is Born, Episode 39

Photography by Michael Neveux

Fall was coming to New England. The change of seasons meant a new girlfriend for my friend Randy, whose makeup artist had gotten back together with some guy she’d been seeing off and on since high school. Then again, I think the girl Randy was dating now was one he’d dated around the time we first started training. It’s hard to say. The kid goes through so many females, I doubt even he can keep track. I often wonder if he meets girls sometimes and has to ask, “Hey, have we ever gone out before?” Some guys use the cheesy pickup line, “Don’t I know you from somewhere?” In Randy’s case he’s being sincere.

We’d gone to a big regional bodybuilding contest over the weekend. They’re always fun affairs, especially on the rare occasions when I’m not competing. It’s a lot easier to enjoy yourself when you aren’t dehydrated, exhausted and stinking of Pro Tan and oil. I must admit that it felt strange being a spectator and not part of the spectacle. Then again, everyone is part of the spectacle at a show like that. That’s the funny thing about bodybuilding—the fans are also participants in the sport. Contrast that with baseball, for instance. You don’t have everyone in the ballpark aspiring to play like Barry Bonds or Alex Rodriguez. Instead, they’re perfectly content to watch incredibly talented players do their thing out there on the field. 

Bodybuilding is quite different. Nearly everyone in the audience at a bodybuilding show, unless we’re talking about the worried moms (“Don’t overdo it, honey!”) either has been onstage or wants to be. We even have monthly magazines that cater to the idea that anyone can look like Ronnie Coleman and friends just by mimicking his training exactly. To the outside world that’s pretty ludicrous. I have yet to see Sports Illustrated run a single article about how you, too, can throw a football just like Tom Brady. That’s because we all know that Tom Brady’s prowess as a quarterback is the result of not only many years of practice but also a genetic anomaly that gives his throwing arm such inhuman power and accuracy. Top bodybuilders are also endowed with rare genetics, yet the rank-and-file bodybuilders tend to ignore the fact. You know, denial ain’t just a river in Egypt!

But I digress. The amateur show was a good one, with plenty of bodybuilders in shape and flexing their hearts out. Still, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind as to who was going to win, once we knew he was in the contest. “Carl,” as I’ll call him, was doing the show purely to requalify for the Nationals, which would take place eight weeks later. He’d been to the USA and Nationals a half dozen times, finishing around seventh or eighth as a light heavyweight on each occasion. If that doesn’t sound too impressive, you must not know how tough the light-heavy class at any pro qualifier is. Carl was loaded with muscle, a walking tank at 5’6” and 198 pounds shredded to the bone.

When the class took the stage, however, it was clear that it wasn’t exactly going to be like shooting fish in a barrel for Carl, as we’d all thought. First he was going to have to get through Rick, a guy making his competitive debut.

I knew who Rick was because he’d backed out of a couple of shows over the past year and a half, having announced his intent to compete on the message boards. Rick was loaded with potential, but I’d written him off as just another flaky guy who talked the big talk but, when it came down to dieting all the way down and getting onstage, would never follow through. Boy, did Rick prove me wrong. Here he was, the only guy out of almost 20 light heavies to really challenge Carl. Rick had mammoth delts, chest and arms, a tiny waist and sweeping quads. Like Carl, he was also in great condition.

It was only when they turned around that I saw that Carl was going to sweep the class easily after all. Rick’s back just wasn’t that impressive. Not to say it didn’t have some width and thickness, but it didn’t match the rest of his phenomenal body at all. Carl’s back looked like a craggy mountain range, popping with bulges and ridges when he hit his rear double-biceps pose.

Before the night show began, I was sitting up front with my wife while the Indian food I had just eaten roiled around in my belly and sent early warning signs of the distress I would feel later. Rick approached me. Because I write for the bodybuilding magazines and have a Web site, people often seek out my opinion. After Rick introduced himself and we exchanged pleasantries, he got right to it.

“Ron, what do you think about my chances?” Rick asked me.

“He’s going to beat you,” I deadpanned.

“Oh.” Rick looked a bit shocked that I’d come right out and said it so quickly.

“Do you know why, aside from the fact that Carl has been competing since you were in kindergarten? He’s more seasoned than a family bucket of KFC.” 

Rick shrugged.

“It’s your back. It needs a lot of work to match the rest of you.”

I asked what he did for his back and learned it was mainly a lot of cable rows and pulldowns, along with some Hammer Strength machines. When I chastised him for the lack of free weights, he reminded me that his back routine was nearly identical to the one Ronnie Coleman performs in his latest DVD.

“Yes,” I agreed, “but that’s Ronnie’s second back workout of the week! In his other training video, you see him do deadlifts, T-bar rows and barbell rows. Machines and cables have their place, but you’ll never max out the density of your back muscles without some heavy doses of raw iron.” 

“Maybe I should have bought the other video too,” he said.

It turned out that Rick had never liked training back and had never really devoted himself to the tough free-weight movements—weighted chins, barbell rows, dumbbell rows and deadlifts. Once I made it clear that he could have taken out one of the best bodybuilders in our part of the country in his first contest if only his back had been better developed, his attitude about training it changed immediately.

“Back day is going to become your favorite workout of the week,” I explained. “You’re going to set goals with each exercise to increase the weight, the reps, or both on a regular basis.”

Rick nodded in agreement. He planned to compete again at the same show next year and to blow it away the way Carl was doing on this day. 

By the time Carl received his trophy for winning the overall a couple of hours later, I knew something was dreadfully wrong down in my guts. I would spend the next day or so visiting the toilet, but at least I could take solace in knowing that somewhere Rick was building himself a bigger and better back. As for me, the next time I’m offered anything with the words curry or tandoori in it, I’ll pass.  IM

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