California, 1999: Well, here I am, about to interview Justin Brooks, bodybuilding’s newest bad boy, and it’s sweltering. I mean, it’s hotter than Hades, and we’re meeting at a private resort on this bright and beautiful July morning. You know the kind—complete with tennis courts, a fully equipped gym and a sandy, secluded beach. Typical beautiful-people surroundings, and the day is picture postcard perfect.
Except yours truly is an East Coast lad and unequipped to deal with outrageous temps. Not Brooksie though. Oh, nooo. Despite being a New England transplant, he’s cooler than cool, dressed lightly in ragged shorts, the cloth a pulsing red against his impossibly tanned skin.
I’m prepared to hate him immediately.
Our conversation begins, and between taping and jotting down pertinent facts, observations are made. Age: 29; height: 6’2”; weight: 285 well-distributed pounds; eyes: blue; hair: brown; chest: 60 inches, arms: 22 inches; waist: 32 inches with the requisite eight-pack. Easy personality, no-nonsense handshake, and he wears a kickass cologne. My impression? A very together dude.
After an hour spent soaking up rays, we take a wild drive down some God-forsaken mountain highway, scorching wind frying my buzz cut. Our subject matter is free-ranging, covering everything from politics and President Clinton’s troubles to the eternal struggle between good and evil. Opinions are offered, philosophical conundrums dissected, expounded upon, dismissed. Reps and routines and how much Mr. Brooks can bench (which, I expect, is considerable) are barely even mentioned, let alone discussed.
Later, in my hotel room, I nurse a nasty sunburn, collate hurriedly scribbled Post-its and listen to tapes. I hear the cries of seagulls and chuckle at Justin’s risqué jokes. The article slowly takes shape.
Then, life intervenes.
Teaching school and writing a long-delayed novel beckon. Justin and I lose touch, and the interview lies fallow, half-forgotten inside my desk drawer.
Fast-forward almost a decade: I’m Web surfing one lazy summer afternoon and stumble across an update on Justin Brooks. It’s a small blurb, sketchily done, but the accompanying photos catch my eye. Not only is he more massive, his aesthetics are right on the frickin’ money.
So I execute several quick searches for a current e-mail address and/or phone number. Nothing. Fired up by the chase, I track him down eventually via a mutual acquaintance, and soon we’re rolling for a big reunion. Good-bye, Cali; hello, Vegas!
In addition to his relocation, Justin’s world has changed in other significant ways since 1999. He’s happily married and proud papa of two adoring kids.
Competitively, well, that’s a whole other story.
RL: First, California, and now Vegas. What is it with you and heat, man?
JB: [Rolls his eyes] Try not to give yourself away as a tourist, okay? It’s embarrassing.
RL: Let’s see, we originally connected in 1999, and tons of stuff has happened in the interim.
JB: That long ago?! And we’re still workin’ on this goddamned thing? You’re one persistent son of a bitch, I’ll say that much.
RL: No way I’m gonna let any project of mine die—I see them out to the bitter end! And this has been the bitterest. Getting inside your head hasn’t exactly been a piece of cake, ya know.
JB: [Grins] Yeah? Find anything interesting there?
RL: For starters, you’re an independent sort. Confident too.
JB: Good call. Confidence is an outgrowth of self-awareness, which comes in handy when you’re trying to establish a healthy bodybuilding career. Without it even the most foolproof strategies crumble.
RL: And did you have a strategy?
JB: Of course! I mapped out a plan and followed it meticulously. Nobody managed or guided me; I flew 100 percent solo.
RL: Control issues, eh?
JB: Call it what you will. I’d rather lead than follow.
RL: Thousands of unknown bodybuilders pound the iron with fame as motivation, yet you broke through relatively easily—
JB: Easily? Ha! Don’t insult me. When I lived in California, I was beating the bushes for opportunities. There were enough ups and downs to last a lifetime, but instead of cryin’ over spilt milk, I got busy.
RL: This self-confidence, is it the ability to recognize your own particular talents and/or strengths?
JB: Yes. You can’t have one without the other. My strengths are aesthetics and proportion, and they unlocked a lot of career doors that might otherwise have stayed closed. Balanced muscle is in—unless you want to score the cover of FreaksRUs.
RL: Maybe as far as modeling’s concerned. Onstage, though, mass still rules.
JB: Bodybuilding is more than competition. Look around. Are superheavyweights working for Calvin Klein? Nope! Proportioned guys land long-term modeling contracts. Mass monsters sell supplements and protein powders. End of story.
Facts are facts. My physique is attainable by the common man. I’ve never been a freak, and I’m reliable, prepared and professional. That’s what makes photographers smile.
RL: For a bodybuilder who’s supposedly retired, you’re near contest condition. Interesting.
JB: [Grins wickedly] Bodybuilding’s a lifestyle, and I like the feeling of being in shape. Would you rather see me looking like crap?
RL: No, but I honestly didn’t expect this either. Doesn’t retirement mean a perpetual off-season?
JB: Competition’s off, my friend. Living large is very much on.
RL: At the ’04 USA you were a solid 257. Is it my imagination, or are you bigger now?
JB: I’m a whole lot bigger, and it’s proportioned muscle. Still not sacrificing balance for mass—and you can take that to the bank.
Even with good genetics, gaining muscle can be a struggle when you’re tall. My physique’s naturally lean, and every added pound is an accomplishment.
RL: The results can’t be faulted. Rock on, big brutha!
JB: I plan to do just that—and I do love the attention! Bodybuilders stand out. People are gonna look at you, wonder about you, want to touch and feel you. It’s not normal to be this big; we’re unusual characters. Don’t dig the spotlight? Get yourself a desk job.
RL: They’re probably wondering if you’re real!
JB: Or a visitor from another planet. [Laughs] The attention is genuinely flattering. I’m not one of those bodybuilders who grumble and bitch and snap at fans.
RL: Perfect segue into your modeling career. Any advice for someone who’d like to tread the same pathway?
JB: If you’re a bodybuilder, opportunities will find you. Be smart. Ask yourself: Is this gonna help or hurt my career? Weigh every pro and con and check out offers thoroughly.
RL: A few years back you were all over the map—posters, magazines, videos, even billboards.
JB: I did okay. Downtimes here and there, but overall I worked consistently. Living on the West Coast helped. You’re more visible.
RL: Who gave you your start?
JB: My roomie, Scott Peters, who was also a competitive bodybuilder. Scott did a lot of freelance modeling, and through his connections I landed an awesome gig with photographer Jim French. It’s been my pleasure to work for consummate professionals—imaginative, daring and creative guys. Jim definitely falls into that category.
RL: Are there tricks to getting a decent photo session?
JB: Tricks? A competent photographer, for one.
RL: And if the ambience isn’t right?
JB: Hell, make it right! The best modeling’s a combination of posing and acting. You might be called upon to project a feeling or play a role, whether it’s badass, pensive, sensitive or aloof. Prior to every photo shoot I give myself a pep talk and rev up the ole engine. I’m mentally and physically on target.
RL: Preparation is key.
JB: And details count. If you’re not prepared, things can go from bad to worse in a heartbeat. The camera exaggerates every flaw. I train for a shoot as if I’m competing. Photographers know I’m dependable, and I never let them down.
RL: Are you still beating the bushes for photo ops?
JB: I’m available for any project that might intrigue me. Modeling is fun! Great money, excellent exposure, and the people are artisans. What’s not to like?
RL: Let me throw this scintillating observation your way: The late ’90s proved a heady time for Justin Brooks. Life was moving quickly; maybe a tad too quickly—
JB: No shit! My world was operating on pure adrenaline. I had too many irons in the fire and needed to stop before imploding. Isn’t 1999 about when we lost touch?
RL: Yep. Competitionwise, you’d hit a few speed bumps.
JB: [Sighs] Talk about a wasted year. I’d hooked up with a so-called fitness guru from England, and he sabotaged 12 months of progress. That was the last time I put my career in somebody else’s hands.
RL: In 2000 you roared back, leaner and bigger than ever.
JB: Yeah—leaner and bigger. I entered the ’00 NPC USA at 257 shredded pounds and had high hopes—but wouldn’t you know it? Didn’t even place! A voice inside my head whispered, “What the hell are you doing, Justin? Aesthetics don’t count for squat!”
Bodybuilding’s part of who I am, a very big part, but amateurs fight an uphill battle. We make enormous sacrifices—financially, emotionally, sometimes spiritually—and it’s all for a bubble. The final straw for me came when Dave Palumbo hit the top five in a contest where I barely made a ripple. That told me everything I needed to know about competitive bodybuilding in the new millennium.
RL: Given such a momentous moment, why not up and walk?
JB: Simple. I’m addicted! Bodybuilding’s a mystical pursuit. I can’t explain the feeling; it’s real and alive and keeps me pumped—and I wanted to prove myself. In November 2004, I did the Nationals, and before that, in 2002, the Junior Nationals, placing fifth. Before that, I took sixth at the ’01 Junior Nationals.
RL: And your no-holds-barred spin on the ’04 Nationals?
JB: Better cover your ears! To start, I was full and at my balanced peak, the best shape I’ve ever been in. And again, the judges chose bulk over balance. I was knocking myself out for an ideal that meant zip!
RL: It’s so easy to become disillusioned in this business.
JB: When you bust your ass like I did, not doing well is a tremendous bummer. There’s only one winner, but you never think it’s gonna be the other guy.
RL: All that factored into your decision to retire?
JB: Yes. But I’m a relatively young 36, so retirement comes with an escape clause. It’s listed under “never say never.”
RL: Dude, a classic physique like yours is designed for the stage.
JB: I have bodybuilding goals, but I can’t train ferociously anymore. Too stressful and not just on my joints! I’ve a family to think about, and their welfare is primary. Once that’s a guarantee, I can look to other pursuits.
RL: What, are you safe and sedate now? Please say no!
JB: Sheesh, I’m not ready for the nursing home yet. [Laughs] Far from it! Nowadays, my workouts are more rational. If you saw me training five or six years ago, you’d think I was an idiot. I lifted heavily, taking the muscle to failure. Lou Ferrigno told a buddy of mine at Gold’s, Venice, that he’d never seen anyone go at it harder than me. I was immersed!
RL: I suspect you don’t think too highly of competitive bodybuilding now.
JB: My uncensored opinion? Competitive bodybuilding has reached its limit. The human body can only go so far without self-destructing. Distended bellies and weird facial growth? Not for me, pal.
RL: You’d prefer a swing back to more balanced muscle, where beauty and distinctive elegance are accentuated?
JB: I’d prefer it, but that era has passed into ancient history. Think of the innovators—John Grimek, Larry Scott, Bob Paris, Dave Draper, Frank Zane and Chris Dickerson. They had proportion, respected clean lines and presented themselves as works of art. Today, they’d be laughed off the stage, no lie.
RL: Arnold gave bodybuilding mainstream legitimacy, but that was more than 30 years ago. Lately, it’s been inching back toward the cellar. Your opinion?
JB: Competitively, bodybuilding’s already in the cellar. There’s no inching about it.
RL: The catalyst?
JB: Lee Haney’s Olympia streak. Not to knock him, but Lee was an enormous guy! Nobody could beat him. Rich Gaspari, Paris and Lee Labrada tried, and they crashed and burned. That’s what ushered in this sorry era of mass, and Dorian carried it to another insane level. Ronnie and Jay have maintained the status quo.
RL: Imagine if Paris had won an Olympia! Whoa!
JB: Bob Paris carried the torch for balanced muscle. Bodybuilding would’ve traveled a far different road if he’d gone all the way. Saddens me to think about it.
Paris was an artist with a beautiful physique, one that combined size, definition and aesthetics. The last pro I saw who met those standards was Dennis Newman. Paris and Newman gave guys like me hope.
RL: Your build honors their classic style, so the torch has been passed.
JB: But it’s unappreciated! I’d hear this from the judges: “We think your physique is near perfection, Justin—you’ve got a great shape, but you need more mass.” What were they thinking? I was almost 300 pounds, with 10 percent bodyfat! More mass? Goddamn!
RL: Have your bodybuilding dreams been dashed?
JB: They have. Competitive bodybuilding’s now an extreme sport, with the freak element serving as a template, and I’m not about to destroy my face and waist for a trophy. Now I’m all about health, longevity and looking good. Blowing minds is fine, but I’ll take applause over horrified gasps anytime.
RL: Alas, the freak factor does define modern bodybuilding.
JB: [Shakes head] Wrong! That bizarre image does not define bodybuilding, modern or otherwise! Whenever I pumped up backstage and saw those cartoon physiques stretched, pulled and distorted, it made me nauseous. We need to recapture what gave bodybuilding its shine. Don’t lift merely to change your physique. Change everything! I’m a believer in blending the physical, emotional and spiritual aspects, becoming a complete bodybuilder.
RL: And how does one go about such a cosmic blending?
JB: Start by launching your own personal journey. I won’t ever stop learning, experiencing and discovering new truths. Education doesn’t end with the classroom. Evolution of spirit takes a lifetime. Aren’t we all seeking answers? Aren’t you?
RL: That’s way too heavy for me. Face it, life’s a bitch, and then you die.
JB: Man, what a pessimist! Life isn’t some chore. Think about the search. By exploring your inner self and achieving spiritual and physical awareness, you enter a whole new level of consciousness.
RL: Are you aware?
JB: Yeah. Yeah, I am. As a bodybuilder I have to be aware. Your physique’s constantly scrutinized, and if there’s a flaw, someone will gleefully point it out. That’s why most bodybuilders—especially those who model—are such obsessive sticklers. Critics dismiss us as narcissistic and self-absorbed; in this business you can’t be anything but.
RL: You rarely take measurements, I’ll bet.
JB: Who wants to be a slave to a piece of tape? I use my eyes and the mirror—two invaluable training tools. Stacked against monsters, I may not be the beefiest, but I present a good, polished package.
RL: Has bodybuilding been your primary sport from day one, even as a kid?
JB: Not from day one, though I’ve always loved sports. Arrr! Gimme sports! Our parents encouraged us to do whatever we wanted, and I became involved with organized athletics at age five. They were at every game, rain or shine. It meant so much to have them there.
RL: Nice change of pace, interviewing someone with a happy childhood.
JB: My early family life was wonderful, and I thank God for that daily! Mom and Dad were supportive and loving. Mom urged us to follow our dreams, as long as happiness was part of them. Her belief in me fueled my ambitions. My brother and sisters and I are very close. I’m the oldest, and watching them grow up was a neat experience.
RL: Was Justin Brooks the boy much different from the Justin Brooks of today?
JB: Hey, I’m bigger, or haven’t you noticed? [Laughs] Seriously, I was competitive and adventurous. Loved baseball, but I also wrestled, skied and played soccer. Whatever posed a challenge, I did. No limits.
RL: Were you competitive in other aspects of life, away from sports?
JB: No, not really. I was pretty easygoing. Mellow. A lot of that had to do with my upbringing. We weren’t self-centered or rude; a positive environment breeds positive people.
RL: And now you’ve gone on to create a positive environment for your own kids.
JB: Knock on wood—we’re trying! Too many things in this world are sad and scary, and I want my children to know happiness without limitations.
RL: As Americans, we’re raised with the idea that happiness and security are essentials. But are we ever happy?
JB: We can be, and I’m proof of that. There’s pleasure in a sunny day, like today, or the beach or feeling healthy and optimistic. Rich or poor, you make your own kind of music. Dance to the beat!
RL: Setting a specific goal helps.
JB: Goals are good—as long as they’re flexible. Roll with the punches, and there’ll be fewer headaches, not to mention heartaches.
RL: Most competitors come to bodybuilding by way of team sports. Same with you?
JB: Nah, didn’t happen that way for me. I played high school baseball and soccer, but my major activity was partying.
RL: Never picked up a barbell?
JB: Hardly ever. That would’ve meant commitment, and aside from sports, the only activity I was committed to was Beer Drinking 101. [Laughs]
RL: So, when did all this muscle mania start?
JB: In the service. Partying ways notwithstanding, I was a devoted athlete, one who ran, did pushups, crunches, etc. Organized sports kept me focused, and once they were gone, I needed another outlet. Lifting provided it.
RL: Somewhere in your development, you moved from gym rat to flinty-eyed competitor.
JB: The most interesting events in life aren’t planned. After my discharge, I’d enrolled at a small community college in Massachusetts. I was working out in the campus gym one day, and this lady trainer asked me if I competed. Now, that I did not expect!
JB: I was nowhere near competition shape! She said I looked good and suggested I enter a local bodybuilding show. What the hell, I’m an adventurous soul, so why not? There were two other guys competing, and I fully expected to come in dead last. No trunks, no color and no posing routine, just a beginner’s enthusiasm. And I took second place!
Because of that little contest, I suddenly saw bodybuilding as a viable sport, the sport I was born to play. I went nuts—read and studied all I could about nutrition, form, growth and genetics. Hit the gym like a crazy person. I wanted to build my mind and my body.
RL: Ah, the complete bodybuilder!
JB: A sculptor sculpts and then displays the finished product. My results weren’t spectacular, but something different was going on. Wherever I’d go, people noticed me. It got so I couldn’t be out in public without creating a ruckus. The more jaws that drop, the better! Yes, sir. Means I’ve done my job well.
RL: Are you naturally a husky fella?
JB: I wish. When I graduated from high school, I stood 6’2” and weighed 155 pounds—a beanpole!
RL: What’s the diet like now that you’re no longer an active competitor?
JB: I eat whatever and wherever I want. It’s very easy to get bored with chicken, brown rice, oatmeal and protein drinks every two hours. Feels damned good to have a cheeseburger! The one thing I hated most about bodybuilding was bulking. I’m an ectomorph and had to chow 24/7.
RL: In addition to your bodybuilding and modeling pursuits, you’re also a personal trainer. Vocation or avocation?
JB: Personal training is part of my real job. I also work at Crazy Horse, a gentlemen’s club. I bartend, host and, whenever necessary, bounce. Wait, hold on, let me rephrase that—I shouldn’t call it bouncing. How about “escorting to the door.” We’re much more genteel. [Laughs] In the creative realm, I’m a bodybuilder and model.
RL: Is your schedule any less frantic since you moved to Vegas?
JB: My days are fierce! Most bodybuilders live the same sort of existence—eating, training, sleeping. You need to find time to work, or else you won’t eat. And fortunately, I work in a gym, which kills two birds with one stone. Even with that cool combination, I’m constantly on the go.
Editor’s note: For more on Justin Brooks, visit http://groups.yahoo.com/group/justinbbrooks. IM
Justin Brooks’ Competitive Record
’97 NPC Nationals, heavyweight, 15th
’98 NPC Nationals, superheavyweight, 13th
’98 NPC USA, superheavyweight, 8th
’00 NPC Los Angeles Championships, superheavyweight, 2nd
’01 NPC Junior Nationals, superheavyweight, 6th
’02 NPC Junior Nationals, superheavyweight, 5th
’04 NPC Nationals, superheavyweight, 15th
Retirement from bodybuilding competition made me realize two things: I’m addicted to lifting, and “taking it easy” is an overused phrase. When I was a competitor, the gym was my artist’s studio. Magic happened there, and not even Frankenstein’s lab could’ve produced better results. But don’t let me kid you—building muscle requires balls-breaking work! Forget shortcuts and New Age thinking, and get up off your collective asses. It’s time to sweat!
My retirement workout is as follows:
Monday: Calves, hamstrings and shoulders
Calves: I start with standing calf raises and seated calf raises.
Hamstrings: Lying leg curls followed by seated leg curls. I finish with one-leg leg curls. Instead of adding plates, I put on the stack for eight or 10, drop it in half and pound out another eight or 10 until failure. That’s it; I’m done.
Shoulders: I warm up with lateral raises and do a shoulder-press movement. Rear delts are next, and upright rows finish my workout.
Tuesday: Back and biceps
Biceps: I usually do standing dumbbell curls, use the Hammer Strength preacher machine and end with rope hammer curls.
Back: I start with reverse-grip pulldowns, then go on to Hammer Strength rows for the upper back. Next, I do seated rows, followed by pullovers on a high pulley. I finish with one set of deadlifts.
When I was training for a contest, I’d go to town on cardio and work abs too. Nothing defines a physique like a ripped midsection. I still pay close attention to my abs.
Thursday: Chest and triceps
Chest: I do incline dumbbell presses or some kind of incline motion and follow those with a Hammer Strength machine flat press and incline flyes, and then I finish with dips.
Triceps: I do pushdowns, skull crushers and overhead extensions with a dumbbell.
Friday: Calves, traps and quads
Friday is a repeat of Monday for calves. I’ll also add barbell shrugs for traps and extensions, leg presses and squats for quads.
Weekend: Relax and enjoy life!
As for sets and reps, I use a hybrid method, applying the Arthur Jones–Mike Mentzer–Dorian Yates style: My reps are in the range of four to five on heavy sets and 10 to 12 on warmups. The number of sets per exercise is two or three. I usually do one thorough warmup set and then go right to my work weight, followed immediately with drop sets, partials, negatives or rest/pause. My goal is to always overload the muscle group.