The Body Pneumatic
What I learned at the New England Body Building Championships
By Stephen Heuser
NOVEMBER 10, 1997: It is Sunday night at the Berklee School of Music auditorium, and Shane O'Hearn is standing on-stage in a pair of satin trunks about half the size of a Speedo, nudging another man out of the way with his flexed orange biceps. The other man scoots under O'Hearn's arm and partly blocks him from view, but O'Hearn -- a first-time competitor -- gamely keeps hitting the poses he's practiced: the front double-biceps, the front lat spread, the Crab Most Muscular. O'Hearn shows off his deltoids and his triceps as the four other men on stage jostle to put their biggest guns in the spotlight: quadriceps, lats, trapezius. The stage is a bumping nest of orange bulk that would have seemed alien to me a week ago. Now, six hours into the New England Body Building Championships, I'm pretty blasé about it. More blasé, anyway, than the thousand people around me, who hoot and whistle and shout in the excitement of it all.
For O'Hearn and the other light-heavyweight finalists on-stage, the day began with a weigh-in, then hours of cattle-call judging before a sparse crowd. At 8 p.m. the lights went down, the auditorium suddenly filled, and the show began: a 90-minute finale where the top contestants executed their choreographed posing routines, culminating in a series of group posedowns like this one.
Whoever wins O'Hearn's posedown will be the light-heavyweight champion, and will enter another posedown to determine the overall winner of the show. The overall winner earns an invite to a huge national bodybuilding competition. There, the best body in each weight class will be awarded a pro card, and then, maybe -- just maybe -- he will begin to earn a living doing this.
Everything you know about bodybuilding is wrong. You think that bodybuilders are psychopaths, men who do something extreme and aggressive to make up for something missing inside. You think that bodybuilders are macho, monosyllabic steakheads. Or preening homoerotic icons. After a day in the auditorium, I'd concede that bodybuilding fans aren't immune from the steakhead charge, but the bodybuilders themselves can be kind of -- dare I say it? -- boring. They're square, and not just morphologically. They are dietary purists who like lifting weights. They do not, by and large, waste a lot of energy in the gym yelling at the machines and psyching themselves up in the mirror. Those guys have giant arms and skinny legs and work as bouncers at nightclubs. They just like being big. For bodybuilders, the quest is about more than big. It's about perfect.
Think of the competitive bodybuilder as a home handyman whose main project is himself. To fixate so totally on one's own body entails a certain removal from the society of other people, which leads O'Hearn O'Hearn to characterize what he does as "an arrogant sport."
But bodybuilding is vanity taken to such an extreme that it's no longer vain. O'Hearn, like other bodybuilders I've met, is disarmingly unselfconscious. He likes his triceps but worries about his calves. He dyes his hair blond. He has naturally low body fat. He worries about his posing. (This unselfconsciousness is one reason I believe him when he tells me he "trains natural" -- that is, without steroids or insulin or human growth hormone. At the top levels of the sport, no one trains natural, but at a regional amateur contest like the New Englands it's a mixed bag.)
O'Hearn can talk for an hour about his diet, which makes for a curious conversation, because his diet consists of two things: protein and carbohydrates. Until the weeks leading up to the New Englands, when he dropped the carbohydrates.
"Every morning I'd get up and cook all my meat," he says of his precontest routine. "Just plain chicken breasts on the grill, egg whites, maybe twice, three times a week a lean, lean cut of steak. Sweet potatoes for carbs, white rice, that was about it."
"I'd eat about the same breakfast every day -- oatmeal and 10 egg whites." Then, after breakfast, maybe six or seven more meals. "You eat as much protein as you can," he says. "Basically just fill your stomach. One chicken breast and a half a sweet potato, or maybe one chicken breast and some rice."
Show or no show, a competitive bodybuilder like O'Hearn will spend more time eating than he does working out. The weight-room wisdom of the moment is HIT -- "high-intensity training," a regimen in which short bursts of intense exertion are preferred to marathons in the gym. "I'm in there lifting weights for 40 minutes," he says. "Forty minutes, tops."
What happens when you're in the gym is you break down muscle. What happens when you're eating chicken, or drinking protein shakes, or sleeping 10 hours a night, is you rebuild the muscle, a little bigger than before. One day you're a rangy 16-year-old hockey player who likes working out. Five thousand chickens later, you've got a personal-training business with your girlfriend, a food budget of $200 a week, and shoulders that roll out of your tank top like cannonballs.
Officially speaking, pure size -- mass, to use the term of art -- is not what wins competitions like the New Englands. What's supposed to win is aesthetics, or "symmetry," as bodybuilders like to call it. Are the calves roughly as big as the biceps? Does the back taper in an extreme Y? But what the audience buys tickets for is mass (preferably "freaky mass") and shredding. Shredding is the visibility of muscle under the skin, the clarity with which each muscle, and even each fiber bundle of each muscle, asserts itself. As one bodybuilder put it to me, "You want to see a heartbeat through your skin."
Arnold Schwarzenegger, with his broad, smooth pectoral muscles, would lose to O'Hearn O'Hearn in a regional amateur contest like this one. A modern bodybuilder who knows what he's doing will diet to the point where his pectoral muscles show the fanlike ridges of a scallop shell.
The work required to inflate the muscles to this point, and then to shrink the skin like parchment around the muscles, is what keeps the ranks of competitive bodybuilders small.
"We have roughly 4000 members here," says Richie Maynard, a gym manager in Revere who serves as O'Hearn's unofficial training adviser. "Probably 10 or 20 have competed at bodybuilding. There's a lot of guys who look like they could compete, a lot of guys who look big in the gym atmosphere, but to go that extra step . . . there's a lot of discipline and sacrifice, and a lot of people don't have that. Some people belong in a best-chest contest in a barroom, and they should stay there.
"Anybody can get big. Anybody. To be able to compete on that level, it takes a little more of the discipline."
Training for competition makes you weaker. It also makes you smaller.
People think they understand bodybuilding when they realize it's superficial, that it's the acquisition of a quantity of muscle that can't be used to do anything at all. But just as important is the awareness that bodybuilding is almost totally illusory -- "smoke and mirrors," as Richie Maynard puts it. Not only are the tans fake (they come from a dye called ProTan, painted on with sponge applicators) but the guys on stage are not, for the most part, any stronger than their gym buddies in the audience.
At Berklee, I see competitors roaming the auditorium, off-stage, wrapped in hooded sweatshirts and varsity jackets and sweatpants. I suspect they're trying to conserve warmth, compensating for low blood sugar, but O'Hearn says I'm wrong. "You know why sweatshirts?" he says. " 'Cause you feel small. I felt real small and fragile when I was dieting. You're in there and you're big and strong, but that's not how you feel."
What you do feel, apparently, is sick. "It's a sadistic sport," says Richie Maynard. "The day of the show, probably a few days leading up to the show, is probably the best you look as far as skeletal muscle goes. And it's probably the closest to death without closing the coffin you're going to be."
O'Hearn himself weighs between 227 and 228 pounds most of the year; after eight weeks spent purging his diet of sugar, complex carbohydrates, and finally even water, he weighs in backstage at 193. He pops the top on a Coke and drinks it; the sugar races through his bloodstream, his veins bulge out like ropes, and he walks on-stage for the judging. He's barely able to stand. But he's never looked better.
I'm watching this from out in the audience, where O'Hearn looks as big as he needs to. Which is about as big as the guys around me.
The potential energy at a bodybuilding show is discomfitingly high: the auditorium is full of people who move very slowly and look like they could bury an elbow in your stomach by mistake. For the outsider, it's more strange than scary. Here is a room full of people who are, each of them, accustomed to being the biggest person in the room. Now none of them is the biggest person in the room. The biggest person in the room is the slowest-moving one of all, the Englishman with a head like Fred Flintstone sitting at a table signing photographs as fast as he can move his Parma ham of a forearm across the table, which isn't all that fast.
Dorian Yates is the reigning Mr. Olympia, the most famous professional bodybuilder in the world. Yates is being flown in and paid almost $8000 to guest-pose at the event, and his photograph occupies the center of the poster advertising the show.
At 310 pounds, Yates weighs roughly the same as an NFL lineman, only he's about half a foot shorter and has no body fat. Yates is the archetype of what bodybuilders call the thick look, which means that he has a relatively untapered waistline, and that the distance between his navel and his spine could probably be measured in feet.
"He's not the prettiest-lookin' dude," Maynard tells me, with a kind of understatement you might not expect in a man who is himself 5-8, 230 pounds. "Aesthetically he's not the most eye-pleasing, but the guy is just massive, an animal. He's a freak."
His time will come late in the show, after most of the posedowns have taken place and the weight-class trophies awarded. O'Hearn O'Hearn will be in the audience at this point, having finished third among light-heavies -- not bad at all for a rookie.
Dorian Yates, Mr. Olympia, will appear on stage to the opening chords of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" played at cochlea-straightening volume. He will pose as slowly and deliberately as he signed pictures in the lobby, as though simply flexing that much muscle leaves almost no energy for locomotion. The audience will clog the aisle with flash cameras. Yates will stomp his foot on the ground, his calf muscle will erupt at a 90-degree angle from the back of his lower leg, and the musclehead behind me will say, in an expression of unalloyed awe, "What the fuck is that?" His friend will say, "That just ain't right." Nothing is right about Dorian Yates, not his butterfly back, not his barrel abdomen, not his giant hemispherical navel. He is the thickest, biggest, weirdest human being I have ever seen in person, and by the time he has finished his geologically-paced posing routine, and then repeated it, move for move, to the same song, he will say into the microphone, out of breath: "I'm a great believer in action being louder than words." And the audience will scream in lust and envy and love.
After Dorian Yates, everything is anticlimax. The crowd begins filing out as the final posedown gets under way, the one that determines the overall winner of the New Englands. People are sticking around, because a posedown is fun to watch, but there's no suspense. It's an open secret that while judges pay lip service to proportion, mass usually takes the trophies. The light-heavyweight champion probably has the best-balanced physique on display today, but incontestably the most muscle in the show hangs on the back and torso of Anthony DeRizzo, a Rhode Islander whose body shape is roughly that of an inflated pumpkin balanced on bowling pins.
He does not have "symmetry" or "aesthetics" or any of the other things aficionados claim to admire. But he does have a ridiculously large back, ridiculously larger traps, and pecs that could crush my head. The crowd, here to see muscle, loves him. The judges clearly love him, too, because he wins his weight class and wins the entire competition, qualifying to go on to a national meet. After receiving his trophy -- and bodybuilding trophies are about the size of a lectern -- he makes a speech. He is surprisingly soft-spoken, and he apologizes for not being in top condition.
"It was enough!" someone yells from the audience. (Someone is always yelling from the audience at a bodybuilding show.)
Then another voice rings out -- "You're a freak!" -- and DeRizzo looks abashed.
"Thank you," he says.
Stephen Heuser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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