Do you consider yourself a bodybuilder? If so, is it your opinion that pro bodybuilders represent the ideal physique? We asked our readers what they thought about the current state of bodybuilding. Before we present some of their responses, let's describe briefly how the nature of bodybuilding has changed over time.
There is evidence of attempts to create the perfect body through diet and exercise as far back as prehistoric Egypt and China. Here in the West, though, we usually think of the Greek athletes who competed in the nude and therefore paid particular attention to diet and exercise to improve the aesthetics of their physiques no matter what event they were competing in. These Greek athletes eventually became the models for the sculpture we call "classical" because it represents the yardstick, which all other Western judges sculpture of the human figure. Indeed, this classical canon of aesthetics, represented by such statues as the Discobolos, Doryphoros, and the Riace Warriors, became the Western standard of physical perfection.
Yet it wasn't until the 19th century that professional strong men began to actually focus on developing physiques that could match the great Greco-Roman statuary of antiquity. In fact, it was only in the 1890s that bodybuilding emerged as a specialized and competitive activity in its own right. This is not the forum to rehearse the many men that were ahead of their time, but I am compelled to mention three in particular: Eugene Sandow, John Grimek, Steve Reeves, and Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Eugene Sandow had joined Professor Louis Attila in a strong man act traveling Europe and eventually attempted to make it on his own. Not doing so well, he began modeling for art classes and then wrestled for a traveling circus. It wasn't until he acquired a contract with the famous Flo Ziegfield that his career and legend really took off.
He went on to sell exercise courses and equipment, published his own magazine, and even be the first promoter of big time bodybuilding contests. In fact, the trophy he gave, a statuette of him, was the inspiration for the current Sandow trophy given to the winners of Mr. Olympia. Thus Sandow's great achievements would prefigure much of the current practices of those who compete and promote the sport of bodybuilding.
Back in 1953 Joe Weider wrote: "[John] Grimek is the strong link between the old and the new-between confusion and hope which kept bodybuilding alive so that it will prosper and grow as it has during the past ten years." Indeed, the Mr. USA, Mr. America, Mr. Universe and only undefeated bodybuilding champion in the history of the sport was way ahead of his time, yet was also a man of his day. Combining the strength of the old time strongman with the agility and flexibility of a gymnast, Grimek also managed to produce a physique no one could match for its combination of symmetry and sheer mass. But as avant-garde as his physique was, Grimek still held the classical ideal as his goal, as can be seen in the photo of Grimek as the discobolus or his classic pose with the column. Photos such as these inspired generations of young men to take up the sport of bodybuilding, including myself!
Steve Reeves is responsible for a revolution in fitness in the 60s as a result of his Hercules movies. Reeves' good looks and classic physique with his broad shoulders and narrow waist sent another whole generation to the gyms and spas.
Nothing and no one, though, has had the impact of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Arnold's quick wit and incredible physique captured the public imagination in his 1976 movie Pumping Iron and his 1977 best selling autobiography Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder. Bodybuilding truly became mainstream as Arnold popularized the lifting of weights for the average person as the best means to achieve health and fitness.
For a while it seemed that bodybuilding as a sport had finally arrived as it hit the airwaves with coverage on ABC's Wild World of Sports, CBS's Sports Spectacular, and ESPN specials. But by the 1990s bodybuilding still failed to be included as an Olympic sport and began to be ignored by mainstream media. Today at the beginning of the 21st century, competitive bodybuilding seems to be retreating to its subculture status, even though more people than ever as the means to fitness practice weight training.
We think competitive bodybuilding's inability to capture the imagination of the general public is that it has lost its earlier emphasis on aesthetics. Instead it has become a contest of who can be the biggest without regard to symmetry and proportion. As a competitive bodybuilder of the 70s and 80s (and a few contests in the 90s), Richard could be accused of bias if he was the only one denigrating the current state of bodybuilding. So we asked our readers to share their thoughts on the current state of bodybuilding, and we were not surprised at the responses.
One reader warns about the effects on young people attempting to emulate the pro bodybuilders:
Diane and Richard,
I have always felt that anyone who strives to change the way their body looks is a body builder. I think that there is a large disconnect between the average Joe who works hard, has a family and all the responsibilities that that entails and still feels passionately about physical fitness and the condition of his or her body and what we see and read in the fitness media. It's really a very poor message to send to young people. I am 53 years old, I will never look like the current Mr. Olympia but I can look good and be healthy. I hope that the sport of Body Building comes to its senses soon. Boomeritis is bad enough wait until we see what the Gen-Xers are doing to themselves in the pursuit of unrealistic media driven goals.
From Albany, Oregon another reader expresses a preference for a more aesthetic physique than current bodybuilders possess:
Diane and Richard,
I'm 55 years old and have been lifting since the 9th grade. I was first inspired by George Eiferman when he put on a seminar at our school. My "hero" was Chuck Sipes. I have always preferred what is called the classic physique. More emphasis seemed to have been placed on symmetry and overall health. I just like that look better than the look of the bodybuilders of today. Thank you for your time!
Diane and Richard,
I think the current state of bodybuilding in vibrant and ever changing!!!
Diane and Richard,
I think the current level of bodybuilding competition is appalling! The huge, garish, bloated cartoon figure look of the contestants is not realistic for a regular person to achieve through training alone- it is totally drug-induced. I would like to see it return to the days when contestants' bodies were both symmetrical and aesthetically pleasing to the eye. The look of sculptured rock hard muscle through proper training and diet is one that I prefer. I only wish there were more "natural" contests to promote this look of healthy, achievable fitness.
CC from La.
CC., we couldn't agree more. Our company, Legendary Fitness, LLC, is dedicated to helping baby boomers achieve or maintain a fit and trim physique. We are NOT opposed to bodybuilding competition, but we do believe that professional bodybuilding has left its aesthetic roots and that most of us find the classical physiques of years gone by much more appealing than those physiques of today in the pro bodybuilding arena. We must emphasize that even though we prefer lighter, more aesthetic (less boxy, more symmetrical) physiques, another of our readers makes some good points that we can certainly agree with:
Diane and Richard,
I personally like all the bodybuilding shows, no matter at what level, each for their own value. As for my own training, bodybuilding and all that it has brought me, has been the best thing I've ever done for myself.
Dolfzine On-Line Fitness, Inc.®
A Not-For-Profit Foundation
So whatever your point of view and your goals, we want you all to know how pleased we are that you have chosen us to help you reach your full potential!
Richard and Diane
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Copyright 2003. Diane Fields, Member. Legendary Fitness, LLC. All rights reserved. The advice given in this column should not be viewed as a substitute for professional medical services. Before undertaking any exercise or nutrition program, Legendary Fitness, LLC advises all to undergo a thorough medical examination and get permission from their personal physician.