Be forewarned that I’m about to delve into the psychology of what drives people to become bodybuilders, and I have no formal training in psychology. The theories and opinions expressed here are mine alone, based on my observations, experiences and conversations over the past 25 years.
I concluded years ago that all bodybuilders fall into two general categories: those who are genetically predisposed to develop elite-level physiques and the rest—that is, those who are not so genetically blessed yet insisted on becoming bodybuilders anyway. The second group includes roughly 95 percent of all bodybuilders.
The two groups come into the sport/lifestyle in very different ways and for very different reasons. Let’s start with the fortunate few who were born with the rare genetics for building more muscle, with better shape to it, than the rest as well as the right bone structure to build it on and the ability to accumulate less bodyfat along the way than most human beings. It’s been my job for more than 20 years to interview those people for training articles and profiles, so I’ve heard thousands of stories about how they got into bodybuilding.
Many began weight training for some other sport they were already good at, often football. Very quickly their bodies responded to the training in dramatic fashion compared to their peers’ development. Soon, many had people suggesting that they should enter a bodybuilding contest, as they would do well. Many had no idea what bodybuilding was or had no interest, but they did enter and win their first contest, and the success encouraged them to pursue the sport to see how far they could go.
That scenario describes my friend Jose Raymond. His older brother Tito had started competing and urged Jose to try a teenage show, but Jose had no interest. His training for high school and college football had made him quite muscular, but he thought it was “gay” (forgive the expression) to shave your body and get up onstage in tiny posing trunks. Tito did eventually talk Jose into entering the ’93 NPC New England, where he won a tough teenage class. You know the rest.
Then there’s Ronnie Coleman, who had no interest in becoming a bodybuilder until 1989, when Brian Dobson offered him a free membership at Metroflex Gym if he would compete in the Mr. Texas contest. That trade-off eventually led to Ronnie’s winning eight Mr. Olympia titles!
I call this subgroup of the gifted ones “accidental bodybuilders” because, basically, they fell into it after they were already beginning to look like a bodybuilder.
Others of the gifted did have a genuine interest in muscles, strength and bodybuilding from the start and began training with the intent to compete and win. That was Branch Warren. He built size and strength at an alarming rate as a teenager, and the same year that Jose won the above-mentioned regional show, an 18-year-old Branch defeated a 19-year-old Jay Cutler for the overall title at the NPC Teen Nationals.
Those guys were all meant to be bodybuilders. The rest of us were not. To put it another way, if someone is going to be a great bodybuilding champion, it’s evident from the first year or two or training. The progress is incredibly rapid, and even those who don’t pile on size as fast still show features like peaked biceps, striated triceps and quad sweep.
Why did the rest of us become bodybuilders? I can say this because it’s true for me, and if many of you can be honest, you will admit that it’s true for you too—insecurity. I was the shortest kid in class until I got halfway though junior high, I was slightly muscular but thin, and I had zero athletic ability. I was bullied and beaten up at times, and girls never once looked at me the way they looked at the tough kids and the jocks. My hope and dream was that if I could get big and strong, I would earn respect from the boys and admiration from the girls.
Muscles will give us self-esteem and confidence. We won’t be afraid anymore, and we won’t be ashamed of our skinny or fat bodies. People won’t make fun of us or ignore us. Are those healthy reasons for becoming a bodybuilder? Probably not, but it is what it is. Without us, there wouldn’t be enough bodybuilders for even a cult sport. There would be no one to buy the supplements, magazines, training DVDs or contest tickets.
Those of us who push on and on—though we may not look like the guys in the magazines even after years of effort—are the backbone of bodybuilding. True, we lack the genetics to look like the blessed ones, but with enough time and dedication we can all look so much better than we did when we started. Many of us get close enough to the elite that the average person on the street puts us in that same category. I’ve matured a lot since I picked up my first weight more than 30 years ago. No longer do I train because I’m intimidated by other males or because I feel shunned and ignored by females. I have much more confidence now. Though I am never 100 percent satisfied with what I see in the mirror, I take pride in the physique I have built over a lifetime of hard work.
Most who will read this were never meant to be bodybuilders, but you fell in love with training and with the challenge of constant self-improvement. As your body grew and evolved and you matured physically and emotionally, your reasons for training and putting out all this effort probably shifted.
For the rare few reading this who are among the genetically gifted, know that without you the rest of us wouldn’t have anything to aspire to or be inspired by. So whatever type of bodybuilder you are or whatever brought you to bodybuilding, in the end it all worked out for the best. Ron Harris
Editor’s note: Ron Harris is the author of Real Bodybuilding—Muscle Truth From 25 Years In the Trenches, available at www.RonHarrisMuscle.com.