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Poisoned Perceptions“It is what it is,” the contest judge told me. Sure, that’s a common enough phrase these days, but coming from a national-level bodybuilding judge, those words rocked my world. Here is why.

After being runner-up for the second straight year in the over-60 lightweight class at what is arguably the most prestigious masters bodybuilding contest in the country, I had approached one of the judges seeking advice on how to improve my standings. When he asked what class I competed in, I answered, “Over-60 lightweight.” The judge, with knitted eyebrows, replied, “You’re over 60? It is what it is. Just work on conditioning.”

Now, that extremely revealing statement was doubly surprising to me since I am generally known for coming into a show in good condition. The judge went on to admit that he didn’t even take notes on contestants in that age category. Rather than take this decidedly dismissive answer personally, I asked myself, “What does this attitude mean, and where does it come from?”

Here’s what it means: “It is what it is. Just work on conditioning.” Translation: “At your age you are not going to improve in muscular development; all that is left for you is to work on your conditioning.”

And here, in part, is where that attitude comes from: Our culture has accepted and perpetuated powerful and pervasive negative assumptions about aging. Many of which are false. Even within the supposedly enlightened bodybuilding community many widely held yet unsupported beliefs form the basis of our training methods and goal setting.

Don’t believe it? If you read the pages of this magazine (and others as well), you will find that legitimate research has continued to debunk some of bodybuilding’s most sacred bovines. For example: Keto diets are probably not your best bet for long-term bodybuilding success. Low reps and heavy weight are great for strength but are not necessarily the optimum way to build size.

Old beliefs, like old habits, die hard. Sometimes, experiencing something for yourself is the only thing that can change a long-held belief. I encountered a great example of that recently.

While competing at the Florida Championships (got first in over-60 division), I had a chance to chat with respected national judge and NPC Central Florida District Chairman Peter Fancher. We discussed the other judge’s comments, and Fancher, himself a successful masters competitor in the early ’90s, admitted with his usual candor that up until lately he had believed the same thing. Pete, who is in his ’60s, changed his mind when he observed recent significant improvements in his own physique, which he credits to a friend’s guidance in adopting advanced training techniques.

Indeed, many of today’s top masters competitors are forging new ground in areas of physique excellence—virtually redefining the limits of age-related muscular development. You can see this from the top IFBB pros, many of whom are in their mid-to-late 40s, on down to the ripped and muscled masters competitors showing up in increasing numbers even at smaller, local shows.

The top show promoters are well aware of this trend. Gary Udit, promoter of the  NPC Masters Nationals, told me that he advises anyone even thinking of competing in one of the national events to either attend the show first as a spectator or take a close look online at the amazing quality of the competitors.

“What you believe is the most powerful predictor of what you will achieve.”

What if you are an older gym rat, one who’s never been to the Masters Nationals or wasn’t quite lucky enough to have a friend who helped guide you to bodybuilding success in your later years? You might believe, just as the first judge I talked with did, that meaningful muscle-building progress is not possible because of your age. If that is what you believe, then that is how you will train—tentatively and with a kind of fatalism, certain that your best days are behind you.

Even if you are a young bodybuilder, you may still have fallen prey to a negative assumption. Let’s say that somewhere along the line in the pursuit of your sport you accepted the label of “hardgainer.” From then on your training likely suffered as much from the belief in that label as from any actual genetic disadvantage.

As far as muscle hypertrophy and aging are concerned, I have yet to see a scientific study that has placed a definitive age limit on the human body’s ability to generate muscle. In addition, I, and many others, have seen considerable muscle growth well into our 60s.

So don’t fall victim to poisoned perceptions. Train with passion and perseverance, and find out for yourself what your own potential might be—at any age.

—Tony DiCosta


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