With increasing frequency, we’re hearing a segment of the bodybuilding fan base speaking out against the trend toward ever more massive bodybuilders - lamenting the “passing” of the classic physique.
It’s true that we almost never see bodybuilders today with the aesthetics of Frank Zane, Samir Bannout, Lee Labrada, Serge Nubret, Francis Benfatto, Bob Paris or Shawn Ray. Aside from the question, “what are today’s bodybuilders doing different?” (i.e., what’s making them so massive), is the question of why bodybuilding competition has favored the more massive bodybuilders over the smaller, but more aesthetic, bodybuilders.
Fans of the classic physique consider bodybuilding a form of art, similar to a sonata by Vivaldi or a painting by Rembrandt. They would argue that the goal in bodybuilding should be physique perfection.
They would say the beauty of the physique is in the detail and and the proportions. Fans of this type of physique are moved to emotion by the elegant symmetry of Zane and Labrada. To them, the thought of a massive bodybuilder winning over a leaner, more symmetrical (albeit smaller) bodybuilder, just because of the size difference, is like a heavy metal band “winning” over a Vivaldi sonata, simply because it’s louder.
On the other hand, aficionados of the more massive bodybuilders would argue that bodybuilding is entirely about “hugeness” - the bigger the better. This camp favors Sergio Oliva over Serge Nubret, and Dorian Yates over Samir Bannout.
Magazine articles often support this thinking by photographing bodybuilders with a wide angle lens so as to create an optical illusion of even greater enormity. Sometimes we see “blood drops” printed on the pages, yelling and twisted faces of enormous guys lifting colossal weights, and heavy, large-link chains hanging over the muscular necks of super-thick guys doing Parallel Bar Dips. We see ads for nutrition supplements with names like “Nytro”, “Monster Milk” and “No-Xplode”. Clearly, there is an audience of people who view bodybuilding with near comic book mentality.
Magazines typically go in the direction of whichever has the greater audience. Since it’s increasingly more difficult to stay profitable in the magazine publishing business, sales dictate the content. Years ago, when Perry and Mabel Raider owned “Iron Man Magazine”, the publication was filled equally with articles about Powerlifting and Bodybuilding. However, little by little, the Bodybuilding audience grew, and the Powerlifting audience shrank. Eventually, there was very little coverage of Powerlifting events in the magazine. Of course, this does not establish which of the two endeavors is “better”. It merely reflects the preference of the larger audience.
But the question that fans of the classic physique posit is, “why do bodybuilding judges favor the more massive physique?”. In part, this is a sociological question. It’s a little bit like asking “why is everyone doing the fist bump now?”. Trends happen. But in bodybuilding, there’s a bit more to it than that.
The first thing that has to be acknowledged is that genetics plays a primary role in the type of physique one develops. Frank Zane could never achieve the kind of mass that Bill Pearl had, even though they both competed in the same era and had access to the same methods of training and supplementation. Conversely, Sergio Oliva would never have been able to achieve the kind of etched, artistic symmetry that Serge Nubret had. In other words, physiques develop in the only way that individual genetics permits. It isn’t really a matter of choice. No one has ever started down one path, and then later switched to a different type of physique.
Although not everyone has the type of genetics which allows them to get “huge”, even fewer have the kind of genetics that allows them to develop an aesthetic physique like that of Zane or Labrada. It’s not simply a matter of “big” guys competing against guys that are “less big”. In order for the smaller competitor to be outstanding, he has be extraordinary in a number of other ways - definition, symmetry, muscle shape, muscle separation, skin tone, presentation, etc. That sort of genetics is much more rare than is that which simply results in big muscles.
Therefore, it's typical on any high-level bodybuilding stage to see that more of the competitors fit into the category of “big”, than do those who fit into the category of “Zane”. Of course, some bodybuilders are able to garner some of the qualities from each category. Samir Bannout, Lee Labrada and Shawn Ray are examples of that. But then, as we move farther in the direction of mass, we find examples like that of Dexter Jackson, who has a good combination of symmetry, leanness and mass. Yet he’s still dwarfed by the likes of Phil Heath and Jay Cutler - who are themselves dwarfed by someone like Ronnie Coleman or Markus Ruhl. It’s simply impossible to ignore overwhelming size - even if it isn’t as aesthetically appealing as a physique that is a bit smaller, but more elegant.
No one would argue that a small waist is better than a distended one. Few would disagree that, from an aesthetic perspective, a physique like that of Labrada or Benfatto is more “artistically appealing” than that of Dorian Yates. But those same people would characterize the physique of Yates as “awesome”. There is something that is undeniably impressive about huge muscle mass, if only because it seems to defy belief. It seems super-human. The comic book analogy is apropos. Many of the top pro bodybuilders are so massive, they simply obscure anyone standing next to them who isn’t as large.
Comparing the likes of Frank Zane with that of Jay Cutler (side by side) is pointless. It is literally “apples and oranges”. The physique types are so drastically different, it’s impossible to make any sort of fair comparison. Yet, how would we distinguish each type, so as to create separate categories? By bodyweight? Frank Zane and Franco Colombo were about the same weight, but they had dramatically different body types (due to being different height). It would be difficult to define the differences between the categories, in such a way as to be clear what traits distinguish them. So, in the absence of that demarkation, both types end up in the same competition - despite being worlds apart. And the nod usually goes to those who outsize their competitors.
It’s much easier to see who’s bigger, than it is to see who’s more aesthetic. Aesthetics is opinion-based. Try finding unanimity in a poll asking who was a better artist - Picasso or Monet. You will never find universal agreement to that question, because beauty cannot be quantified (even though there may be some agreement - especially in bodybuilding). It’s somewhat subjective. Muscle mass - on the other hand - can easily be measured and it’s always impressive - even if it’s not aesthetic.
Interestingly, there is such a thing as a “Golden Ratio”, or “perfect proportions”. Since 200 BC, scientists, philosophers and mathematicians have looked for - and identified - a common numerical sequence (1.618) repeatedly found in nature, architecture, art and mathematics. In 1509, an Italian mathematician named Luca Pacioli, wrote a book called “De Divina Proportione” (divine proportion), in which he expounds on the theory that aesthetics, geometry, architecture, music, organisms, and even chess, follow a pattern referred to by several names - Phi (pronounced “pie”), Fibonacci, and the Golden Ratio. Leonardo da Vinci’s 1490 drawing known as “Vitruvian Man” (named after the ancient Roman architect, “Vitruvius”) is yet another tribute to the concept that the “ideal” human aesthetic has a basis in a mathematical ratio.
Of course, most bodybuilders don’t attempt to develop their physiques in accordance with a mathematical formula. Still, most people would agree that a physique should be “evenly developed” - regardless of how large it is. A wide waist makes shoulders appear less wide. A distended abdomen, when viewed from the side, makes pectorals appear more flat. Biceps that have no “peak”, appear smaller than biceps which have a peak, despite measurements to the contrary. Lou Ferrigno’s arms measured larger than Arnold Schwarzenegger’s (in the 70s and 80s), yet they appeared smaller, because they had less “peak”. So, even though we are not bound to follow the rules of the Golden Ratio, we instinctively know what looks better.
Unfortunately, most competitive endeavors that are judged subjectively end up becoming a contest of extremes. In gymnastics, it is now not enough to perform a perfect “twisting double back”. One must now perform a “double-twisting double back”, in order to stay competitive. Bodybuilding is no different. In order to beat the competition, one must be distinctly “more” in some way, than his (or her) rivals. If one is not “more large” than the competition, he (or she) must be decisively more symmetrical, more lean, have more muscle separation, etc. Since Zane aesthetics are more rare, it usually defaults to the larger type of physique. That’s what has lead to the trend toward more massive competitors.
The situation is not likely to go back the other way any time soon. Even with the extreme measures that some bodybuilders are taking to get enormously large, and the resulting consequences, the hunger for any possible advantage over the rivals will always persist, in a competitive arena. For this reason, I always encourage aspiring bodybuilders to reach primarily for their own personal “best”, regardless of the trophy.
First place trophies do not always represent the ideal, aesthetic physique, and this is especially true in the upper level contests these days. However, the stage does give everyone the opportunity to showcase their “creation” - aesthetics or enormity - as the case may be. Everyone who prepares for physique competition has worked very hard, and deserves their time in the spot light and the appropriate recognition.
But perhaps it might be wise for the industry (administrators of the sport) to ask itself whether or not the direction in which bodybuilding is headed, is "good". Even Arnold Schwarzenegger, during a recent interview, said he thinks "the sport is headed in the wrong direction", and suggested that the "mass monsters" are not good for the sport.
The classic physique definitely has a more broad appeal, and is more likely to inspire young people to participate in the sport because it seems more attainable. It's also more likely to be associated with good health, and that would make bodybuilding more respectable to the mainstream public.
The good news is that one organization - the WFF ("World Fitness Federation", which is affiliated with NABBA) - seems dedicated to bringing back the classic physique. Apparently it was formed with the intention of favoring symmetry, definition, muscle separation and presentation (along with a reasonable amount of muscle mass), over the purely massive physique. Hopefully, this will help resurrect the artistic type of bodybuilding. It would be nice for there to be a place where each body type - both classic and massive - can compete fairly, and get the appreciation that each deserves.