It was August in Massachusetts, always a sad month, as its arrival signals that the end of our all-too-brief summer is nigh. If you didn’t squeeze in a couple of nice beach days soon, you were going to be out of luck until next year. I had more or less given up my summer to prepare for what was to be my final bodybuilding competition. Of course, I had made that proclamation so many times, friends and family took me about as seriously as they would the boy who cried wolf.
On one hand, dieting for an August contest meant that I was in great shape and had a physique anybody would be proud to display at the beach or an amusement park. On the other hand, since I was on such a strict diet and ate only food I prepared myself for the most part, I could forget about going to the beach or to the closest Six Flags.
Amusement parks these days have a dumb policy against bringing in food. All park visitors and their bags and backpacks are now searched thoroughly by security officers upon entry. Ostensibly, that’s supposed to protect us against terrorism or even garden variety violence from any type of weapon some shady character might be attempting to smuggle in. The real threat is the park’s concern that you won’t be forced to buy its crappy, overpriced food. (Twelve bucks for a greasy, undersized cheeseburger and soggy fries that have been sitting under a heat lamp for 10 hours—who’s the real terrorist here?) You can try to find something remotely healthful. I made that mistake last summer and was rewarded for my choice of a chicken salad—and I use the term loosely—with a case of food poisoning.
So my wife and kids had been having a grand old time going to the beach and various amusement parks without me. At least I am there in spirit—that spirit being my cash and credit cards.
It wasn’t all bad though. I hadn’t been in contest condition in more than two years, and I had missed seeing things like deep cuts, striations and veins that were normally buried under a thin layer of bodyfat. My client Jared was quite amazed at my transformation; just as Randy had been a couple of years before when he watched me diet down. Football training camp had started, so I had cut Jared’s sessions back from three times a week to two in order to give his body time to recover from the nearly nonstop beating it was taking. I reduced the training volume as well in light of the brutal three-hour practices in 95 degree heat and stifling humidity that he was enduring every weekday afternoon.
The kid was in truly amazing physical condition, but he was still a human being and not a machine. There was no doubt in my mind that he was going to have a spot on the varsity team once tryouts were over. He had managed to add close to 15 pounds of pure, functional muscle mass over the course of less than three months simply by training his young butt off and eating enough food to feed Nicole Richie for the next 10 years. Jared had bolstered his nutrient intake with an average of three protein shakes a day on top of another three or four energy bars. That was in addition to four very large solid meals. I wondered if I would have made better gains at 14 when I was starting out if I’d eaten like a ravenous beast—doubtful, as I was barely starting puberty and had about as much testosterone coursing through my veins as the 100-pound Vietnamese woman who does my wife’s nails.
My contest was actually coming up in a week, and Jared and his dad, Jeff, were both planning to cheer me on. I was feeling really good about this one and thought I had an excellent chance of winning. Jared was constantly commenting on how ripped or "yoked" I was getting. So it wasn’t a huge surprise when, upon catching his breath after a heavy set of deadlifts, he made the following announcement:
"I think I want to do a bodybuilding show, like maybe next spring."
"Not a good idea at this time," was my curt reply.
"Why? Football season will be long over, so it won’t interfere."
"Correct, but once you get a taste of the bodybuilding bug, you might catch the fever and forget all about football. That would be a shame because you really do have enough talent and drive to make it at least to an NCAA school, if not the NFL." Jared, normally the most polite kid I knew and not one to argue, made a face that said I was talking complete nonsense.
"Is it really? What’s really ridiculous is that I bet your dad would blame me for poisoning your mind with ideas of getting onstage in little trunks and have the hounds released on me."
"Snickers and Snookums? Our Pekingese and our poodle? Those little rats couldn’t hurt a fly," he said.
"Just a figure of speech, Jared."
He looked perturbed. "Why can’t I do both—football and bodybuilding? I mean, if I promise not to quit playing, which I would never do anyway."
I sighed. "The weight training for the two sports is completely different. For football you are training to increase your size and power. It’s got nothing to do with how good you look. You’re using multijoint resistance-training exercises to improve your performance on the field, plain and simple. Everything we do in here is geared toward that."
"Yeah, I get that. So?"
"Well," I continued, "bodybuilding training has nothing to do with athletic performance. It’s entirely geared toward improving the way your physique looks. We do a lot of isolation movements like lateral raises, cable crossovers and concentration curls that would be totally pointless for a football player." Jared smiled, clearly thinking that he’d just heard what he could use against my argument.
"Right, so I would train like a football player right before and during the football season, then train like a bodybuilder after." I shook my head.
"You say that, and you probably really mean it, but it wouldn’t happen. For example, at this point next year you would be training with me on power cleans, squats, bench presses and deadlifts and bugging me to include some arm work because you really want bigger guns. Or you would be doing all that on your own and screwing up the whole program of training and recovery I’ve put together for you. Not to mention that if you spend most of the year away from the exercises that make you a better football player, you will never get as strong on them as you could be."
The kid looked bummed, and I understood why. He was actually developing a fairly decent physique for someone his age, and I had no doubt that if I trained him more like a bodybuilder, he could be winning a teenage division at a local show in a year or two. To do that, however, he would have to throw away a very promising career in football. Not on my watch, he wouldn’t, but I had to give him some hope.
"Look, the thing is, bodybuilding and bodybuilding contests will always be there," I said. "You are still so young and have so many great years as an athlete ahead of you, but realistically, if you want to be a pro football player, the clock is already ticking. Not many guys past the age of 25 get drafted, and your odds are better at 21 or 22, when you graduate college. In bodybuilding you can compete at pretty much any age and continue to improve into your 30s and 40s, not something you can say too often about NFL players. They are usually all done by 30 or 35, but not bodybuilders. I mean look at me—I’m a dinosaur and I’m still doing it!" I paused a beat, giving him the chance to respond that I wasn’t so old—seeing as his dad had more than a dozen years on me. Silence. Apparently anything over 30 was old to this kid, whether it was 37 or 53.
"You should also know that many bodybuilders are former football standouts," I continued. "Shawn Ray set high school records in Southern California, Marcus Haley played college ball, and ’10 USA Superheavyweight champion Deshaun Grimez played pro ball for both the Seattle Seahawks and the San Francisco 49ers. And a guy from the movie ‘Pumping Iron’ named Mike Katz, who your dad would remember, was with the New York Jets for a while, playing with a guy named Joe Namath, who you are probably familiar with."
Jared still looked disappointed but somewhat less so. He was a very bright kid and understood that he had an opportunity and a talent that not too many are gifted with. Maybe he would parlay his skills and passion for the gridiron into a lucrative career, and maybe he wouldn’t, but Jared knew that he had to give it his absolute best effort if he was going to have any chance of succeeding. With a couple hundred thousand other kids out there who were just like him, all wanting that same dream to come true—to have millions watching them on "Monday Night Football," to play in the Super Bowl, to get endorsements with Nike, Reebok, Coca-Cola and other corporate giants—he had no alternative. Jared also wanted to taste the glory of standing on a bodybuilding stage, which seems modest in comparison. I had no doubt that he would compete one day, when the time was right.
As I left the gym, I called my wife, who was at yet another amusement park along with her sister and our collective brats. I was calling to check in but also to warn her. Inspired by my condition and wanting to lean out a little herself, Janet had cleaned up her diet quite a bit over the past few weeks. That’s why it was critical that I reach her before she made a grievous error in judgment. Her cell reception must have sucked out there, because the call went to voice mail. I left a brief, cryptic message in my scariest voice and prayed that I wasn’t too late.
"Beware the chicken salad!"
Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding, available at RonHarrisMuscle.com. IM