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A Bodybuilder Is Born

Episode 33—Weakness Is in the Mind

Photography by Michael Neveux

Both Randy and I were six weeks out from the New England Bodybuilding Championships. As if he wasn’t discouraged enough about his chances, I was leaning toward dropping down into the light heavyweights, the same weight class he would be in. Though I’ve technically been competing as a heavyweight for the past three years, a more fitting class for me would be known as "barely heavyweight." In contest condition, I’d weighed in at various times between 201 and 203 pounds when the limit for the class was all the way up to 225.

That meant that usually I was one of the smaller guys in my class. The only guys who ever made me look huge were the ones who probably should have been basketball players but got it in their heads—heads perched atop tall bodies with gangly limbs—that they’d make good bodybuilders. Either that or they tried basketball and sucked at it. Point is, building a thickly muscled physique is a losing battle for very tall men, just as Lee Priest would have been foolish to think that at a very stocky 5’3", he belonged on the NBA courts with LeBron and Kobe. I suppose he could have too—as the leprechaun mascot for the Boston Celtics. Just jokes, Lee, just jokes!

So anyway, dropping down to

198 1/4 to make lighty heavy wasn’t going to be too difficult for me. I used to note sarcastically that as a heavyweight, I was never more than a couple of missed meals and a healthy bowel movement away from light heavy. Of course, that didn’t sit well with Randy. Now I was one more person he couldn’t beat, as far as he was concerned.

"Kid, if you’re worried about me, you really have problems," I said. "There’s one guy in our class I know of who already won his class at the Junior Nationals a couple years ago and is using our show as a warm-up to qualify for the Nationals. He’s only 5’4" and a light heavyweight, for Pete’s sake—a freaking fire hydrant. You have to stop losing sleep over who else is going to be in the show. There will be some very good competitors, but you just worry about you."

"I’m worried. I can’t help it," Randy said, glumly hitting a side-chest pose in the gym’s mirror and shaking his head in disgust. It was back day, and we were starting out with parallel-grip chins. I jumped up first and knocked out 12. My weight was around 215. Randy was down to 195. He grimly got his grip on the bar and pulled himself up eight times, struggling on the last one. I scowled, knowing he was punking out, and went to the front desk to ask for the leather belt with the chains on either end that enables you to add weight for chins or dips. Why must it be kept back there? Apparently, the gym owner is concerned that some guys would love to steal it and hang objects from their waists and do weighted chins at the local park from the monkey bars. Or perhaps that it would make a dandy accessory to an S&M outfit.

"What are you doing?" Randy asked as I returned, swinging the belt as if I were a Hell’s Angel about to jump into a rumble.

"We’re adding weight, silly. What does it look like?" I fetched a 25-pound plate and leaned it against the base of the cable crossover/chin station, then threw the belt at his feet with a jingle of steel.

Randy looked aghast. "Are you serious? Dude, I’m dieting!"

Oh, boy, I thought. Here we go. Nearly all bodybuilders think that as they diet down for a contest and lose bodyfat, they’re bound to lose strength. The logic is that with the increase in cardio and decrease in complex carbs and overall calories, there simply isn’t enough fuel to move the same weights you do in the off-season.

Not that there isn’t something to that, but I look at it differently. If you’re dieting correctly and taking in just the right amount of protein, carbohydrate and fat, you should be able to maintain your muscle mass—assuming you keep training heavy. Training lighter is a mistake I’ve made in the past with disastrous results. In the spring of ’03 I took the easy way out while preparing for two shows. I switched from a solid mix of free weights and machines to using mostly machines and cables. Even then I wasn’t training as heavy as I could have. I also killed myself with up to an hour and a half of very intense interval cardio every day in the final six or seven weeks.

The result was that at the second show I weighed in at 197 pounds. I nearly fainted at the weigh-ins because I hadn’t been under 200 pounds in eight years. Or maybe I nearly fainted from the stench of all the Pro Tan and farts around me from my fellow bodybuilders—all of whom were fully carbed up, constipated and producing roughly a metric ton of methane gas each. I looked like crap at the show and failed to make the top five for the first time in 10 years. (I tell people that it wasn’t me that year, just a skinny look-alike out to sully my good name.)

Back to my new theory, formed in the wake of that shameful loss of enough muscle to feed a family of four for a week. If you can indeed maintain your muscle mass while dieting, you should be able to handle the same weights as in the off-season, or at least close to it. Think about it: Bodyfat doesn’t make you stronger, so why would losing it make you any weaker? IFBB pro Art Atwood told me he actually gets stronger when he diets because he’s so much more focused on his training.

Think about Ronnie Coleman too. In his famous training video "The Unbelievable," he’s five weeks out from the ’01 Mr. Olympia and dieted down, in very close to contest condition, yet moves some ridiculous weights. He does an 800-pound deadlift, 600-pound front squats and 200-pound dumbbell flat-bench and incline presses. Ronnie obviously doesn’t drop his heavy basic free-weight exercises and switch to machines and cables for higher reps when it’s time to get ripped and compete. As a result he’s in a league of his own. ALL With all that in mind, I turned to Randy. "You’ve dropped more than 15 pounds of fat from your body, correct?"

"Yeah, so?"

"So why are you doing worse on pullups, ya knucklehead? You have less weight to pull up!"

"This diet is just kicking my ass—and the cardio."

"Wah, wah, wah!" I jeered. "Somebody call a wambulance! It’s all in your head. You think you should be getting weaker, so you are. If you haven’t noticed, I’ve been getting stronger on a lot of things."

"I guess. I mean we haven’t been able to train together too often."

"Take my word for it. Pullups are something you should always get better at when you drop some pounds of bodyfat." With that, I strapped on the 25 I’d meant for him to use and knocked out another 12 reps. I slid the belt off my hips and pointed to it.

"You’re up. I want to see at least eight reps." Randy looked at me as if I was crazy, but then he paused. Something seemed to click in his head. I saw his face change in an instant, and I knew that he got it. A determined grimace replaced the hapless pout, and he strapped himself onto the handles, then kicked away the milk carton we used to stand on.

"Light weight!" he shouted, and several nearby members turned in curiosity. That was Ronnie Coleman’s catchphrase that he used to motivate himself before each set. Randy got seven reps and got stuck halfway up on the eighth. He struggled, face turning crimson, until at last his back and biceps completely gave out and he dropped down from the bar. The difference in effort from his first to second set was like night and day, and it had all been a simple matter of the way he thought about precontest training.

"Not bad at all, kid, not bad at all," I said, clapping him on the back. "You keep that up, and not only will you not lose any muscle, but you may even gain a pound or two over the next six weeks."

"You think, really?" he asked, still trying to catch his breath.

"Absolutely." I went and grabbed a 45 for my next set. "Now I have to make sure you don’t get bigger than me!" IM

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A Bodybuilder Is Born

Photography by Michael Neveux

Both Randy and I were six weeks out from the New England Bodybuilding Championships. As if he wasn’t discouraged enough about his chances, I was leaning toward dropping down into the light heavyweights, the same weight class he would be in. Though I’ve technically been competing as a heavyweight for the past three years, a more fitting class for me would be known as “barely heavyweight.” In contest condition, I’d weighed in at various times between 201 and 203 pounds when the limit for the class was all the way up to 225.

That meant that usually I was one of the smaller guys in my class. The only guys who ever made me look huge were the ones who probably should have been basketball players but got it in their heads—heads perched atop tall bodies with gangly limbs—that they’d make good bodybuilders. Either that or they tried basketball and sucked at it. Point is, building a thickly muscled physique is a losing battle for very tall men, just as Lee Priest would have been foolish to think that at a very stocky 5’3″, he belonged on the NBA courts with LeBron and Kobe. I suppose he could have too—as the leprechaun mascot for the Boston Celtics. Just jokes, Lee, just jokes!


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A Bodybuilder Is Born

Episode 16: Compare Yourself to No One but You

I had just returned from the Olympia Weekend in Las Vegas. Despite the sleep deprivation brought on by my having insisted on partying like it’s 1999, I was totally fired up to train hard. Being around so many awesome physiques had motivated the hell out of me.

Randy had not been able to go, since he’d been working at his new job for only a few weeks. Besides, unlike my situation, the young man didn’t have a magazine paying his way—or the couple of grand in folding green it takes to have a good time in Vegas for three days. And that’s assuming you stay away from the “escorts” section of the phone book and the fancy steak houses. Even though I don’t gamble, I still manage to leave Sin City every time scratching my head and wondering, How did I manage to spend all that money in so little time?

Through the magic of pay-per-view television, Randy had watched the Mr. Olympia contest and was equally jazzed about getting bigger. Much bigger. For a minute I wasn’t even sure he was being serious, and I sniffed the air around him to make sure he hadn’t been smoking dope.

“Man, I want to look exactly like Ronnie Coleman!” he exclaimed as he picked up a pair of 85s and set them down near the incline bench. “Me and him are the same height, so I need to weigh 320 in the off-season and diet down to 287 just like he does if I want to be the best pro bodybuilder ever. How long do you think that would take, if I train really hard, eat a ton of good food every day and eventually add in the—you know—‘special supplements?’”

I looked my naive charge dead in the eye and said what had to be said. I don’t like to be cruel, but it is my obligation to save him from living in a fluffy dream world with marshmallow clouds and licorice-stick trees. “Probably never, Randy.”

The look he shot at me was part anger, part hurt. I think he knew even before I had said anything that he was being delusional. Randy has about as much chance of looking like Ronnie Coleman as he does of waking up tomorrow morning with an extra ass growing out of his chest. And nobody wants that—do they?

“How can you say that, when you’re always telling me not to put limits on myself?” he spat out. “Now you’re saying I can’t be that big. That’s just not cool.”

“Easy there. Let me explain. How hard was it for Ronnie to win this Olympia, based on what you saw?”
Randy shrugged. “Not too hard, I guess.”

“You didn’t get to see the prejudging, like I did, so let me fill you in. The second the guys walked out onstage a little after noon, it was obvious that Ronnie was in another league. I almost want to say he was in a different species. In fact, the guy next to me said he was going to check out back for a parked UFO, because Coleman simply had to be an alien. No human being could possibly be so huge and ripped.”

“But Ronnie is a human,” Randy challenged.

“He is, but he is very, very different from nearly every other man alive today. Certainly he trains his butt off with some monster weights. I know in his leg training alone this year he was squatting 800 pounds for reps and leg-pressing 2,500 pounds. Ronnie also eats like clockwork every two hours. But you have to also realize that the man is a true genetic freak. His body responds to the training and eating in a way that almost nobody else’s does. Ronnie is an inspiration to a lot of us, but as far as making it your goal to be a clone of Ronnie—it’s not even remotely realistic.”

I could tell Randy was still unconvinced. I knew he needed a little positive feedback. “You have a lot of growing left to do, and I have no doubt you can be a very good bodybuilder,” I offered, “but these top pros, the guys in the Olympia top 10, they are simply a different breed. They are mutants, except instead of having titanium claws like Wolverine, they have the ability to grow far more muscle mass than a normal human.”

“Yeah, but the drugs…” Randy tried to interject. I shook my head emphatically.

“No! The drugs really aren’t that important. Without those very rare genetics, all the drugs in Mexico and Thailand combined wouldn’t result in a body like those guys have.”

Randy was silent as he picked up his dumbbells for his fourth and final set of inclines. I gave him one forced rep and he set the dumbbells down before hitting a hard side chest in the mirror, followed by a crab most-muscular. Now that he was back to his usual lean condition, striations were evident in his pecs. I could see I had alienated him by dashing his dream. But this dream was not a healthy one.

“You know, there is only one Ronnie Coleman in bodybuilding, just like there was only one Michael Jordan in basketball, one Barry Bonds in baseball, one Muhammad Ali in boxing, and one Peter North in adult film. These men were at the very top of their game for a time, but that doesn’t mean there weren’t others around them who were also exceptional. The point is, you can’t compare yourself to anyone else. That always leads to disappointment. A long time ago I got over the whole issue of constantly comparing the way I looked to the pros in the magazines, or even to local amateurs. All I worry about is how I look compared to the Ron Harris of yesterday. You are a lot more impressive than the Randy I met more than a year ago, and that’s something to be proud of. In another year you should be even better, and so on. That’s what it’s all about. Does that make sense?”

ALLRandy nodded. “Yeah, it just gets depressing sometimes seeing how far I have to go before I can stand next to the guys in the magazines without looking like a little girl,” he said, laughing.

“One day you will realize that great physiques come in all shapes and sizes,” I assured him. “Guys like Frank Zane looked incredible and never weighed more than 200 pounds onstage or had arms any bigger than 17 or 18 inches. That’s why you should indeed try to increase your measurements and muscular bodyweight, but don’t worry that it doesn’t stack up to some 300-pound mutant with 23-inch arms.”

He looked in the mirror and hit a front double-biceps. “Only 110 pounds and seven inches to go, baby!” he said. I didn’t bother commenting. He might indeed get to such a size someday, but in the meantime I am trying to keep him focused on short-term goals. Once he gets close to my size and strength, he can start thinking about going after the mutants. By that time, the reigning Mr. Olympia might be 350 pounds ripped with 30-inch arms. Well, you can’t stop progress, can you? IM

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A Bodybuilder is Born

Episode 9: The Power of Rivalry

Randy was normally a very easygoing kid who rarely spoke ill of anyone or showed even the slightest signs of hostility. That had changed over the past couple weeks with the arrival at our gym of a young bodybuilder who'd just moved from Florida. Apparently he'd heard about our winter, marked by several miserable blizzards that dumped more than a foot of snow each time, and decided that it would be a nice change from the constant sunshine and balmy breezes down in Fort Lauderdale. Yes, I'd gotten my share of extra lower-back training shoveling out my driveway and had the Christmas tree to show for it now that it was springtime and I was dieting down.

Randy was doing a heavy set of hack squats, but his focus was all the way across the gym. Kirk, the new guy, was at the front desk chatting with the latest cute young thing. The girl was from Chile, with an awfully fake-looking bleach job. The exotic features, however, combined with a strong Spanish accent, brought out the tiger not only in Randy but also in the rest of the red-blooded males in the vicinity. Those girls never seemed to last more than a month or two, so there was always a new one to add excitement to the gym experience. Randy's eyes narrowed to slits as he stared at the pair.

'I hate that friggin' guy,' he spat through gritted teeth. I covered his eyes with my hand for a second.

'Do I have to put blinders on you like a horse so you don't get distracted? Sheesh! Come on, burn up those quads. Then you can stew.'

Randy turned his attention back to the set and finished it, though I could see his being upset had prevented him from putting out the effort he should have. As soon as I racked it, I knew it was time to set the young buck straight.

'Okay, hothead, what's the problem?' I already knew exactly what the problem was, but I needed Randy to work that out on his own. 'That idiot. He thinks he's so great. He pisses me off.'

I knew Randy had never even met Kirk and knew absolutely nothing about him. Aside from a passing nod, I couldn't say I was any more familiar with the guy. But it wasn't personality that bothered Randy. It was physique. Kirk and Randy appeared to be roughly the same age, but Kirk looked more like a bodybuilder already. He had some size on Randy, and his muscles had more of that round, full look to them. It wasn't quite warm enough to be wearing shorts yet, so it was impossible to say what his legs looked like. That didn't matter. We had ourselves a little rivalry here.

The gym wasn't exactly what you'd call hardcore. The dumbbells went up to only 100 pounds, so Ronnie Coleman probably wouldn't be signing a two-year membership contract. Some big guys trained there, but before Kirk had come on the scene, Randy and I were the only two bodybuilders there. Since I was nearly 12 years older than he was, as well as his mentor, it had never bothered Randy that I was a lot bigger. I could tell that Kirk bothered the bejeebers out of him.

'Randy, I know exactly what you're feeling right now, because I've been in the situation probably a couple hundred times. Here you were, the hotshot musclehead, and now along comes a guy who's bigger than you and is getting a lot of attention. Female attention. If you two were rams, you'd be running at each other and smashing horns by now.'

'I know, but look at him. Why does he always have to wear a tank top? What a showoff.' I gave Randy a look that told him I knew he was being a hypocrite. 'Except for leg day, Randy, you always wear a tank top too.'

'Yeah, but…' He knew he was stuck. 'I bet he's on steroids, too, the jerk.' ALL Now I had to shake my head. 'And if you knew he's never used steroids, you'd start talking about how he has better genetics or has been training longer than you'all excuses so you don't feel bad about yourself. And do you know what excuses are?'

Randy shrugged.

'Excuses,' I said, 'are lies we tell ourselves. It doesn't matter, though, how or why Kirk looks the way he does.'

'His name is Kirk?'

'Randy, are you even listening to me? Look, I lived in California for almost 10 years before I came back here and traded year-round spring for freezing winters. I trained at bodybuilding gyms in those years, three different Gold's Gyms and a World Gym that's now a Gold's Gym. I never had the best physique in the gym'ever.'

'Wow, that must have sucked,' Randy said in genuine sympathy.

'Back then I sure thought so. I mean, we train so hard and eat so well to look our best, and here are some other guys who make you look like you don't even work out.'

'Hey, you said I was starting to shape up pretty well!'

I sighed. 'I'm not saying that about you; that's just what you've got running through your mind'or at least it was what was running through my mind back then. The bigger guys made me feel terrible, insignificant.'

Randy was silent, and I knew I'd just struck a nerve. 'I used to wish I had the biggest, best physique in the gym. They say be careful what you wish for because you just might get it. Well, I came here,' I motioned around the gym, 'and my wish came true.'

Randy smiled. 'And it's great, right? It must feel so cool.'

I shook my head at him. 'No, to be honest, it's nowhere near as much fun as I imagined it would be. In fact, it's a lot harder for me to get motivated now.' Randy was puzzled. 'Why is that?'

'I realized that when I was always around those better bodybuilders, even though I was jealous of them, their presence made me want to train harder. It was kind of like, 'I'll show you! I'll get bigger and stronger than you, jackass, and make you look pathetic someday!' Do you get it? They were rivals, and rivalry and competition bring out the best in us. Instead of having a temper tantrum every time Kirk is here, you should use those feelings to supercharge your workouts.'

'Supercharge?' he asked, skeptically. 'Yeah. Obviously, if you're watching him all the time, he's probably watching you. So that should inspire you to train with the heaviest weight in the best form you possibly can and keep getting reps long after you normally would have given up. Don't you want to look like Kirk?'

'I'll be better than him,' Randy said arrogantly, though there was some uncertainty in his tone.

'Okay, keep thinking like that, and it's all going to work out for the best. And you know what? You and Kirk might end up being friends. Maybe even training partners.'

Randy snorted at that.

'I know you think that's about as unlikely as Saddam Hussein getting a U.S. flag tattooed across his chest, but give it some time. Almost every bodybuilder friend I had over the years in California started out as someone I disliked solely on the basis of his superior physique.'

'You're going out to L.A. to do your training video soon, right?'

'Yep, and I fully intend to come back with a lot of newfound motivation from being around guys with awesome physiques.'

Randy stayed to do calves and abs, while I had to run home to make an article deadline. As it turned out, Kirk came into the locker room while Randy was getting his stuff to leave, and they wound up talking. As you might expect, they have a lot in common and actually hit it off pretty well. They already have plans to train together the week I will be in California, and you know what? I bet those are going to be some incredible, result-producing workouts for both of them. Jealousy may be a negative emotion, but rivalry can help you be your absolute best if you harness its power.

Editor's note: To contact Ron Harris, write to him at IM

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A Bodybuilder is Born

Episode 3: Eating Is a Job

Randy had been training with me for just more than a week, and he was learning a lot in the gym. Still, I knew that at least half the battle of building the kind of physique he wanted would not be waged at the bench press or squat rack but at the dinner table. We had just finished working chest and triceps and had slugged down our postworkout shakes. I told him to go home, shower and meet me at Grassfield's, a local restaurant that served healthy fare in large portions. When I eat out, nothing pisses me off more than waiting a half-hour for my food only to get a plate that looks like a kiddie meal.

The shower was necessary because while Randy didn't seem to produce an offensive odor during training, I sure do. Since I perspire as freely as the late Chris Farley in a sauna, a pungent mix of ammonia and sour sweat permeates my person after any workout. My wife has compared it to the aroma one experiences near the monkey cages at the zoo. Fear not, however. It's nothing some hot water and Ivory soap can't fix in a jiffy.

Freshly washed, I found my young charge waiting by the hostess' desk. The hostess, a pretty dark-haired college girl, was sneaking glances at him while catching up on her reading assignments. Randy was a good-looking kid and not much older than she was. Thirty-three isn't quite middle-aged, but she probably still thought I was his dad as I walked up. She was new and didn't recognize me from the many times I'd eaten there with my family. My son was known for throwing crayons and forks at the other patrons, the adorable little scoundrel.

'Two, please.'

She led us over to a table and handed us menus, smiling to herself as she returned to her post.

'I think she likes you, young buck,' I teased Randy.

'Yeah, right,' he replied, dismissing the idea as absurd. Yes, I had gotten hold of this guy at a perfect stage for learning, before brash arrogance had taken hold of him. Most guys his age who trained with weights, the ones I knew anyway'were convinced that the female population of planet Earth was universally paralyzed, lusting over their buffed bodies. That self-satisfaction made them less than receptive to any form of guidance whenever they were within 20 yards of any reasonably attractive woman.

Randy was already looking at the menu, but I never opened mine. I knew what I was getting, or should I say, I knew what we were both getting.

'We're having the teriyaki chicken stir-fry,' I informed him. Randy looked up, puzzled.

'But this double burger looks pretty good,' he suggested.

'No, what you need right now are protein and complex carbs to get your recovery process well on its way. We don't want fat in the post-training meal; you need the food to digest fairly rapidly if we're going to take advantage of the window of opportunity to replenish glycogen and amino acids.'

He didn't argue any further.

The waitress came by to take our order, and a little more than 15 minutes later returned with two enormous platters piled high with chicken and rice. I checked my watch.

'We finished training and had our shakes just over an hour ago,' I said. 'You don't ever want to go much longer than that after a workout without eating your next meal, and the meal should be of considerable volume.' I motioned to the dual masses of food laid out on the table. 'Just like this.' Randy was looking distressed.

'I'm supposed to eat all of this right now?' he asked.

'What do you weigh, Junior?'

'Um, today I was 172 in clothes.'

'Okay, what would you like to weigh?' Randy got a gleam in his eye at this question. ALL 'Man, somewhere around 230 or 240 would be awesome.' He was staring off into a dark corner of the ceiling, no doubt envisioning himself with a heavily muscled body, probably oiled up on a beach somewhere with a harem of Britney Spears look-alikes.

'So you're looking at about 60 or 70 pounds of weight to gain. That's a hell of a lot of muscle weight for an adult to put on. And as hard as you're training, it will never happen without some very dedicated eating on your part. Now dig in.'

Some time later my plate was bare except for a few clumps of chicken gristle I had spat out. Randy's plate was still about half full, and he was chewing each bite with the deliberate slowness of a cow. He looked miserable, and it was apparent he had passed feeling full some time ago.

'Where's your appetite?' I asked him, trying to keep the sarcasm out of my voice'which is very hard for me to do.

'I'm not hungry anymore. I can't eat all that food at once.'

'Do you think I really wanted to eat all that food?' I queried. He shrugged.

'You're a lot bigger than me,' he retorted.

'Now we're finally getting to the chicken or the egg question,' I grinned. 'Did I eat all that food because my size gives me more of an appetite, or did I get to be this big because I've been forcing myself to eat like this for years?' He was clearly confused.

'I'm going to let you in on a little secret, and I don't want this to get out. I really don't have the monster appetite that everyone thinks I do. In fact, I have been forcing myself to eat the amount of food that I know my body needs to grow, even when there were hundreds of times I felt like barfing if I took another bite.'

'So you're telling me I have to cram all this food down now or else I won't grow?' Randy was already turning a little green at the thought, looking to see how far we were from the men's room should he need to make a mad dash.

'No, but you do need to start training your body to eat greater volumes of food. It won't happen overnight. It's actually a lot like weight training. Week by week, month by month, you try to eat just a few more calories a day. Didn't you figure out that you usually only average around 2,500 calories a day?' Randy nodded with guilt.

'I hate to say this, but you'll never put on more than a few pounds eating like that, no matter how hard and heavy you train. That caloric total has to at least double if you want to start really gaining. You need to treat eating like a job, getting all those nutrients and calories in on schedule whether you like it or not. You have to think of it as absolutely essential to reaching your goals.'

Randy looked glum now. 'Relax, you'll be able to eat more soon if you make an effort to gradually increase the size of your portions.' 'I know; it's just that I know it's going to take a while.'

'Hey, I've been trying to make you understand that becoming an elite bodybuilder is not a fast process. You're in this for the long haul, or you're not in it at all.' To my amazement, he started eating again.

'Holy moly, did you get a second wind or something?' He tried to answer, but his mouth was full. The waitress came back with the check. I saw my chance. While Randy's cheeks were still stuffed like a chipmunk's with the now cold rice and chicken, I patted him on the shoulder as I got up and shoved the check toward him.

'You're on your way now, champ.' And before he could swallow enough food to say anything, I was off. My work here was done for now, and lunch was on my young friend.

Editor's note: You can contact Ron Harris at his Web site, IM

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A Bodybuilder Is Born

Episode 1: The Commitment; Episode 2: The Barrier of Pain

Episode 1:
The Commitment

I had seen this kid watching me at the new gym I'd joined for the entire three weeks I'd been a member. Unlike the other young ruffians in their late teens and early 20s, he actually seemed to have half a clue about what he was doing. His form wasn't bad, he was using some respectable weights for his size, and he seemed to be training his entire body'unlike the others, who were stuck in an endless loop of bench presses and curls. I knew from the way he was always checking out my training that he most likely knew who I was from the magazines and was dying to pick my brain for information. Luck smiled down on him as he caught me leaving one day when I wasn't in a particular rush. Just as I was about to cross the threshold into the parking lot, he cleared his throat and spoke up.

'Excuse me?'


'Uh, you're pretty big, and I was wondering if I could ask you a couple questions.' Well, apparently he had no idea of who I was in the microcosm of bodybuilding, but at least he admired my development. That got him enough brownie points for me to hear him out.

'What's on your mind?'

The kid hesitated, obviously nervous. 'I was wondering how much you would charge to train me.' I almost laughed. What had given him the idea that I was a trainer? I'd been one back in 1989 and 1990, when I was younger than he was, and then again in 1999 and 2000 in California, but those days were behind me.

'Sorry, I don't do that anymore. I'm retired. Now I'm a full-time writer. I only go to the gym to train myself. Why don't you check out my Web'

'I don't have a lot of money, but I really want to be a bodybuilder. I want to win contests and have my pictures in the magazines. Please.'

What part of retired had he not comprehended? I was about to get blunt on his ass and give him a clear brush-off and wish him well, but then I saw the desperate sincerity in his eyes. I knew that look. I used to see it in my mirror about 12 years ago, when I would have given anything in the world to be one of the guys in the magazines like Rich Gaspari, Lee Labrada or Shawn Ray. I flashed back to my bedroom at age 19, literally wallpapered with posters and cut-out photos of my muscle heroes. How I would stare endlessly at the images of massive, ripped pecs, lats, quads, biceps, triceps and swear that one day I would own such as those. That look got to me. I eyed the front desk girl, who was following the entire conversation as she chewed her gum. And why not? She had nothing else to do. I decided to take this outside.

'Come on,' I gestured to him to follow me outside while I packed my gym bag and cooler into my truck. 'What's your name?'

'Randy.' I stuck out my hand for him to shake.

'Ron Harris.' I flipped open the cooler before stowing it away and pointed. 'See that?' There was an empty shake bottle that had contained my postworkout shake, an empty quart water bottle, creatine, amino acids and caffeine-and-ephedrine caps. 'This is just the tip of the iceberg, Randy,' I explained. 'You should see my kitchen cabinets. What you do in the gym is just a tiny part of becoming a bodybuilder. If you really want to do this, it has to become your lifestyle.'

'I know, I know all that already.' He didn't sound too sure, and I knew he wasn't.

'I don't think you do'not yet. This is not something that will happen in a week, a month or a year. Becoming an elite body'builder takes years. How old are you, Randy?'

'Twenty-two.' ALL 'I've been training since you were four years old, and I didn't really get a handle on all of this until maybe seven years ago. You're asking me to help you avoid all the years of mistakes and confusion that I had to go through'do you realize that?'

'Uh, I guess.'

'Listen. Ever hear of Steve Michalik and John DeFendis?' Randy shrugged. 'Steve was a Mr. America back when I was a baby. John came to his gym one day and told him he wanted to be Mr. America too. Steve took him out to a lake in Long Island and held his head under the water for a while.' Randy's eyes went wide.

'What'd he do that for?'

'He told young John that when he wants to be Mr. America as much as he wanted to breathe again, he'd be ready.' Now Randy was eyeing me with suspicion, wondering whether my smile was one of good will or evil intent. 'Don't worry, I'm not planning on trying to drown you. I want you to understand that this is a huge commitment you're about to undertake. There will be times when you'll want to slack, times when you'll want to quit, and most people do. Those chosen few who stay the course through it all are the ones who come out on top.'

'I wanted to know if you think I have the genetics' he started. I waved my hand for him to stop.

'Genetics are important, but I've known a lot of guys who had gifted genetics but were too lazy or lacked the drive to do what it takes to be a champion. Think I have good genetics?' He nodded, unsure if that was the right response.

'Ha! Not at all. I have known a thousand guys over the years who were able to build size and strength much easier than me, but you know what? Very few of them are still bodybuilding now. They were weak in the two places you need the most power if you're going to last.' I pointed at my head, 'Here,' and to my heart, 'and here.' A light was dawning on Randy's face. I could see he got it.

'I understand. Um, do you charge by the hour or'

'I charge a hundred bucks an hour for consultations, but I'm not going to ask you for that. I want you to promise me that you'll do everything I say, and that you will not quit. I've wasted my time before on guys who were all gung ho for a month or two and then drifted away. None of them ever did anything in bodybuilding. Do you promise you're not going to let me down?'

'I do,' he replied.

'Can you be here at nine tomorrow morning?' Randy smiled for the first time.

'Yeah, sure.'

'Okay, make sure you get a good breakfast at least an hour and a half before that because you're going to train harder than you ever have before. And I'm not talking about a bowl of Froot Loops, either.'

'Right, I know.'

'All right, then. I'll see you at nine.'

With that I got in my truck and drove away. I wondered if Randy had any idea what he was getting himself into. The journey he was about to start was a long one, full of triumph and disappointment, elation and misery. The life of a bodybuilder is like no other life a man can live, and it is only understood by those who live it. At the same time, I was proud to once again have the opportunity to mold a young life and pass on what the years and many wiser men had taught me. Today, a bodybuilder had been born. It would be my job to raise him. Episode 2:
The Barrier of Pain

Today was the first day of Randy's life as a bodybuilder, although he didn't know it yet. It was five minutes to nine in the morning, and I was sipping away at some nasty instant coffee I had brought from home in a thermos because I'm too cheap to give Starbucks a five-spot every morning. The goo stained my teeth faster than any dentist could whiten them back. Randy came bursting through the front door, his eyes as wide and attentive as if it were the first day of school. Which, in a very real sense, it was.

'Uh, morning,' he greeted me. He was obviously waiting for me to tell him if it was even okay to put his stuff away in the locker room, since he was frozen in place.

'Today is back,' I informed my new prot'g'.

'But I did back two'

'Back,' I cut him off. 'You're on my schedule now if you want me to train you. If you don't like it, nice knowing you.' He frowned, not expecting such a drill instructor attitude. It came from my having been too accommodating with past prot'g's, who had in turn taken the lack of discipline to full slacker mode. I had given them an inch, and they'd responded by taking a mile. If Randy failed, it wouldn't be because I was too lax.

'Put your stuff away, but bring your water bottle, wrist straps and belt,' I instructed him. 'Meet me over by the chinup bar.'

A few moments later he was ready to begin, shaking with anticipation. I had positioned a flat bench under the chinning bar. 'Climb up there and strap in'overhand grip right where the bar bends on each side.' He obeyed, and that's when I stepped up behind him and started tearing off strips of silver duct tape. Randy almost bolted when he heard the first ripping sound.

'What's that for?' he asked. I had my eye on the front desk, knowing that what I was about to do would not be considered proper gym behavior and could easily be grounds for my being expelled from the lovely facility. Luckily for me, the girl seemed preoccupied with two tall guys in full basketball uniforms competing for her affection. The manager was hidden away in his office. So far, so good.

'That Steve Michalik guy I told you about yesterday was pretty nutty, but he did have young John DeFendis do something I thought was a good lesson in willpower and mind over matter.' Now I was criss-crossing lengths of duct tape around Randy's hands, securing them to the bar. 'He used to tape John to the chinup bar and wouldn't let him loose until he had completed one hundred chinups.'

'What?! Are you crazy, Ron? I can't do that.'

'Shhh! Keep your damn voice down. I'm a pushover, so relax. You only have to do 50.' Randy wanted to protest, but he must have realized that it was an important test.

'Come on, all good reps, full range of motion.' Randy set his jaw in determination and got to work. I pulled the bench away so that there was nothing below him but air. Until he got 50 reps, he could stay up there hanging like a pi'ata.

His first set yielded 12 reps, which wasn't bad at all. He paused while hanging down for a minute and ground out eight more.

'Right on, kid, that's 40 percent right there!' From that point on the rest periods were longer and the sets were only three or four reps each. By the time he'd done 40, Randy was only getting partial reps and it was clear his lats, biceps and rear delts were all in searing agony. I knew part of him was deeply regretting having asked me for guidance. He glanced over his shoulder, searching for a signal that his chinup nightmare was over. 'Hmm.' I pondered for a moment. 'Ten reps to go; guess I'll have to help out.'

The last 10 reps were brutal. I pushed up on his feet with just enough force to let him complete them, and truth be told, by the last four I was pretty much lifting his entire 170 pounds, and he was fighting to keep from simply dropping like a brick back down. I quickly pushed the bench back under his feet and hopped up to tear the tape off. I had to move fast, because the cleaning guy was making his rounds, wiping down the equipment. Even though he spoke only five or six words of English, I am fairly certain he could have communicated the bondage scenario playing out on the chinning bar to the manager. Randy collapsed into a sitting position on the bench, trying to massage the various parts of him that seemed to have been injected with sulfuric acid but finding his arms oddly uncooperative. His breathing came in rasping hitches, and his head was bowed to the floor. As I wadded up the pieces of tape into a lumpy silver softball, I explained the purpose of what I'd just put him through.

'Great job. Nod your head if you can still hear and understand me, Randy.' There was a little bobbing movement from his sweaty head. 'As you may have guessed, that wasn't just about back training. One of the most important elements to being a successful bodybuilder is training hard. Everyone thinks they train hard, but very few guys in the gym have a clue as to what hard training is really all about.' Randy peeked up, squinting. His other eye was closed with salty sweat, but he wasn't able to wipe it just yet.

'I do,' he croaked.

'You're starting to learn, but I've watched you in here and I know you've never taken a set that far, have you?' He shook his head, finally managing to get a forearm up to wipe the sweat from his eyes. 'It's all about breaking through the pain barrier. Most men and women stop a set when it starts to hurt and further reps seem impossible, but a real bodybuilder knows there's still a lot more left inside him if he can only shut off that inner voice that tells him to stop. Were you hearing that voice a minute ago?'

'Oh, yeah, it was screaming all right.'

'And I know the pain was unbearable. But you kept going. Most guys can do chins for months and never get any growth because they don't go to true failure. They don't push their limits enough. I guarantee you your back is going to be sore for three or four days at least, and it will grow from what you just did.'

'Right on,' he said, his breathing almost back to normal.

I knew the chins had knocked the crap out of Randy, so I only put him through one more tough set, a drop set of barbell rows that had him start out with 185, drop to 135 and drop again to just 95 for a total of about 25 reps. Dumbbell shrugs and hyperextensions rounded out his first back session with me.

'Any questions?' I asked as I was about to send him on his way until next time.

'Just one,' he hesitated, unsure of the appropriateness. 'Do you ever get used to the pain?' That was a great question, one I was glad he'd thought of.

'You never quite get used to it'at least it always hurts when you train hard. But I can tell you that you learn to embrace it, to seek it out and make it your friend, because it means you're forcing the muscle to adapt and grow. Once you appreciate that, the pain takes on a different meaning and stops being something you dread.' He nodded, and I saw that the message was sinking in. I had the sense that Randy wasn't going to join the long list of those I'd started down the bodybuilding path who hadn't seen it through. The kid had a lot of heart, and he was destined to be very good. He had just learned a valuable lesson and had passed the test by not complaining or trying to quit at any point. Of course, that meant I was obligated to keep the heat turned up high.

As he staggered over to the locker room, I gave him the good news.

'Tomorrow is legs, young buck!' I saw the color drain from his face, but I knew deep down he was up to the challenge. The Force was strong in this one.

Editor's note: To contact Ron Harris, log on to IM

Instantized Creatine- Gains In Bulk

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