Rich Gaspari is a true legend in the sport of bodybuilding. Not only was he one of the top professional bodybuilders during the 1980's but he also set a new trend for conditioning by introducing the concept of striated glutes to the bodybuilding world. After the example set forth by Rich, bodybuilders could not be considered really ripped unless they displayed shredded glutes.
Rich certainly did not seem like he would be one of the top professional bodybuilders in the world based on how he looked when he began training. Extremely underweight with narrow shoulders and skinny arms, Rich transformed his physique with intelligent training and an overwhelming desire to achieve.
By the time Rich was 19 years old, he was already winning national titles. He won the Jr. Nationals at the ripe age of 20 and became a professional one year later by winning the light-heavyweight class at the Mr. Universe. Rich set the record as the youngest person to ever win the IFBB Mr. Universe at only 21 years old, defeating the previous record held by Lou Ferrigno who won the same title in 1973 at 22 years old. Little did the bodybuilding public realize that the best was yet to come from Rich Gaspari.
Rich shocked everyone by competing in the 1985 Night of the Champions six months later at a ripped and massive 216 pounds, 25 pounds more than when he won his class at the Mr. Universe! Not only was Rich much bigger but he was also extremely vascular, hard and ripped. When Rich turned to the rear, the judges and audience alike were shocked to witness the rock-hard striations that creased his glute muscles. A new era in bodybuilding had been unveiled!
Rich was featured on the cover of Flex Magazine after his magnificent pro debut in the 1985 Night of the Champions contest.
This incredible conditioning became Rich's trademark during his professional career. He took a very impressive third place in his Mr. Olympia debut before taking three consecutive runner-up positions to 8 time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney from 1986-1988. In addition, Rich won his own share of titles including the 1986 Pro World and the 1987 Grand Prix Champion before making history again by winning the inaugural Arnold Schwarzenegger Classic in 1989.
In the process of winning so many titles, Rich defeated all of the biggest names in bodybuilding at that time (with the exception of Lee Haney). Men who were bigger and more genetically gifted were all eventually defeated by the Dragon Slayer, Rich Gaspari.
With his dogged determination to win combined with incredibly hard workouts and state of the art nutrition, Rich far exceeded his genetic potential and became one of the most successful bodybuilders in the history of the sport.
I was anxious to talk to Rich Gaspari as I had followed his career closely during the 1980's. I wanted to find out how he had transformed his physique so dramatically during his teenage years as well as what type of nutrition plan he followed to set a new standard in bodybuilding conditioning. I was delighted to discover that Rich still has the same passion for bodybuilding that he did when he was just starting out at 15 years old. It was an honor to speak to one of the true legends of our sport.
Thanks for agreeing to this interview. I have to be honest, Rich, I really admired your career and physique during your competitive years in the 1980's. I felt a natural affinity to you because we are the same age, the same height, we started training at around the same age and we even both read comic books when we were kids. Is that where your initial desire to become a bodybuilder began, from reading the superhero comic books?
Yeah, when I was a kid I used to read a lot of the Batman and Superman comic books and also the Incredible Hulk.
It used to inspire me because they made the characters look so built and muscular. I would wonder, wow, can someone actually look like that. The first time I got an idea that someone could actually look like that was when I went to my friend's house.
His father used to read the old Muscle Builder magazines and I looked at these. The first time I saw Dave Draper and Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno, I said "God, these guys are just like the superheroes". I was only 12 or 13 years old but I said, "I want to look like these guys".
I understand that you were really quite small when you began training. How did your physique respond during your first couple years of training and what type of training routine did you follow during those early years?
Well, before I started training when I was 14 years old, I contracted mononucleosis. At the time, it made me lose a lot of weight. So, I was down about 20 pounds of what I would normally weigh.
I went to the doctor and he said, "Why don't you take up weight training". I was looking at the magazines before this happened and then I said I wanted to start weight training. So, I was about 15 when I started lifting weights.
So what was your height and weight when you started, Rich?
God, I was about 110 pounds when I was 14 or 15 and in a year's time, I was around 170 pounds at 16 years old.
Wow, so you gained 60 pounds in your first year of training. What was your training like when you first started? Did you do the typical 6 day a week routine that everybody followed back then?
Yeah, I was reading the old magazines and I would follow all the routines of what they were doing, what Arnold was doing. So, I was training six days a week. I used to go off to this college that was near me, Rutgers University, and I would sneak into the gym and use the Universal machines and the weights. I would figure out each bodypart and what I was doing. So, I was on a six day routine but then I felt I was overtraining so I dropped it down to four days a week.
What age did you do that?
It was like six months later. I was reading the magazines and Arnold would say in the off-season, you could do a lot less training so that's when I started cutting back and splitting up my body over four days.
At what age did you feel that your body really started to respond and grow? Do you think it was right there in the beginning or was it later when you started to mature?
Yeah, it was pretty quick because, like I said, I was 110 and I went up to 170 after one year of training. So, my body responded really quick with weight training. It was like I started to get muscular right away. If you look at the genes of my family, my father was very muscular, very veiny, always rock hard with abs.
He wasn't a big guy but he was always muscular. I used to look at him and say, Wow, look how big he is. He was a mason so he used to do a lot of work all day with bricks and blocks. He used to tell me, "Come and work with me and you'll look like me." I told him, I don't like that kind of work.
So you think it was more genetics than anything you did with your training or diet that gave you those impressive gains in the beginning?
I think developing quick was genetic but I think also learning how to train properly when I started to get bigger was due to proper training and eating.
What was your diet like in the beginning?
Well, I remember as a kid, the first thing I did was buy the courses sold by Larry Scott. I read that he was really skinny and I said, well, if he was really skinny then I can get big like he did too. So, I followed his suggestions and started drinking Blair's protein and heavy cream and eggs. I was drinking heavy cream and a dozen eggs a day.
I couldn't always get cream so sometimes I would drink a gallon of milk each day as a kid and I think that's why I gained so much weight right away. Another thing I did was go to the health food store and start taking protein powder. I would ride my bike to the store and buy Weider's Muscle Builder protein.
When was your first competition and how did you do?
The first competition was when I was 16 years old. I placed out of the top five; I think I took sixth place. It was called the Physique 1979. Then, after I competed in that show, I said I want to go back to that show a year later. One of the reasons I went into that show was because there was a kid from my gym who was a year older than me who was like a rival of mine. He was better than me at the time, he was built better. So, I went into the show the next year.
How many competitions did you do as a teenage competitor?
I did one show each year when I was 16, 17, 18 and 19 years old. Then, I did an additional show when I was 19. I went into a show that Lou Zwick ran called the American Cup. I should have went into the Teenage America but I didn't enter that. Lou got me to enter his show instead.
I won that contest and I beat out, um, at that time, the big kid, what was his name? The big black kid, what was name? Remember, he was like the first guy with a lot of mass, he never got really cut except for one time and then he took a bunch of photos for Weider.
Yes, Victor Richards! I beat him. He was a lot bigger but I was more refined and cut up. I beat him and then he was all mad at me because I won.
What was your bodyweight when you won that show at 19 years old?
I competed at 189 pounds when I was 19 years old.
How did you structure your training when you were a teenager? Did you plan the year around competing in just one show each year?
Yes, I just planned on competing once a year so what I would do in the off season was trying to put on mass. At 12 weeks out, I would put myself into contest preparation mode and start training six days a week. I would also supplement with some of the cable exercises to refine my body.
Then you won the overall title at the Jr. Nationals at the very young age of 20?
Yes, I won my first national competition at 20 years old. I competed in the Jr. Nationals after winning a local show called the Jersey Cup. I won that and then went into the Jr. Nationals a few weeks later.
Didn't you beat David Hawk at that show?
Yes, I was the heavyweight winner and David Hawk was the light heavyweight winner and I won the overall.
What did you do to transform your physique from the one you displayed as a teenager to the massive physique that won the Jr. Nationals one year later?
Well, I went from 189 as a teenage competitor to about 205-210 for the Jr. Nationals. One of the things I learned is that I was over dieting as a teenager. When I would get ready for a show, I would drop my calories down to about 1000 calories a day. That was way, way too low. I didn't really know what I was doing. I would just eat tuna, water, eggs, etc. When I looked at the calories, I was shocked at how low it was.
Actually, a guy named Bob Gruskin gave me some guidance. He didn't really help me but he looked at me as a teenager because I was beating a lot of his guys in competition. He looked at what I was eating for my diet and he told me I was really over dieting. I would normally eat between 3000-4000 calories in the off season and then drop it down to 1000 for a competition. When I started increasing the calories for my pre-contest diet, I cut out the simple sugars and less refined foods but ate low-fat proteins and complex carbs, I was now eating around 2500-3000 calories. That's when I started looking bigger for a competition.
Rich, the one variable that has set you apart from all other bodybuilders during your era was your incredible desire to succeed. Where do you think this hunger came from?
I guess a lot of it came from the work ethic that my Father showed me. He was an immigrant who came to the United States from Italy and he pushed himself to be successful. He was a successful contractor. I looked up to him and he always told me, "Whatever you do, do your best at what you are doing." So, when it came to bodybuilding, I always wanted to prove to him that I was going to be the best. I had a desire and a will to be the best bodybuilder.
After I won the Jr. Nationals, I competed in the 1983 Nationals and took fifth place. Ed Connors from Golds Gym approached me and offered me a position at his gym in California to prepare for the Nationals again a year later. Everyone suggested that I should go down in weight and compete as a light heavyweight instead of as a heavyweight to increase my odds of winning. That's around the time I met Lee Haney.
I really was persistent and I told everyone that I was going win the Nationals and I was going to win the Universe. I was so confident that I called my parents and my brother and I told them to get tickets to New Orleans (the site of the 1984 Nationals) and to Vegas (the site of the 1984 Mr. Universe) because I was so sure I was going to win. They asked me, "How do you know you're going to win?" I told them I just knew I was going to win.
It was funny because I almost blew my chance to win the Nationals that year. I was outside doing a photo shoot while the pre-judging was going on and I missed my turn onstage because I was outside. Jim Manion let me pose later and I was able to win my class.
I actually won that show by getting the lowest score because I got straight second places from all of the judges. However, my score was the lowest of all the competitors so I still took first place. So, I won the Nationals by getting straight seconds and no firsts. I was one of the first guys to win his class at the Nationals by getting no first place votes.
So how did you transform your physique from a blocky 205 pound heavyweight to a more streamlined light heavyweight physique?
I figured I had to go in as a light heavyweight. When I competed in the 1984 Nationals, I only weighed 189 pounds which is the same weight that I competed at as a teenager (although I had a much improved physique at that point). I also felt like I over dieted again for the Nationals because I should have come in at 198. I did the same thing I did when as a teenager, taking in too little carbohydrates and I competed a little flatter. However, I was so rock hard that I was able to win the show.
After I won my class at the Nationals, I was able to eat up to the show for the Universe which was a week later and I gained an additional five pounds. So, when I turned pro, I got better at learning my body and what to eat. When I went into my first pro show, the 1985 Night of the Champions, I was 216 pounds. People thought I gained all this size but it was size that I normally had in the off season.
However, when you competed at a heavier bodyweight as a pro, you had a much more streamlined physique than the one you displayed at the Jr. Nationals as a heavyweight
Yes, I came in more streamlined because now I was able to hold more of the size. I gained more size in my shoulders. I also analyzed my physique and I looked at what my weak points were. I didn't have a streamlined waist so what I had to do was basically build up more shoulders, build up my back and stay away from exercises that worked my obliques.
My abs develop really easy. I don't do any abdominal training at all. As a pro, that was one of the things that I learned. If I did any abdominal training, it would increase my obliques. What I did was stop all abdominal training and I also cut back on squats and deadlifts as I got closer to the show because these exercises also built up my obliques.
How close to the show did you cut out squats and deadlifts?
About 12 weeks before a competition, I would cut them out. I noticed when I won the Jr. Nationals, my waist was a lot thicker from doing those exercises.
What was it like to train with Lee Haney in 1984?
I was working as the manager of the Golds Gym and Lee Haney had just turned pro and he placed third in his first Olympia. He won the Night of the Champions also that year. He was a really new pro and he was saying, "I'm going to win the Olympia."
I saw this guy and he saw me training. I was a very hard trainer in the gym. He saw me and asked me, "Kid, would you like to train with me?" I saw it as a great opportunity to train with a pro. I took him up on his offer and I started training with him. He saw that I was one of the hardest trainers that he ever trained with because I pushed him to win the Olympia that year and I won the Nationals.
So that was a great year for both of you?
During your professional career, which competition do you feel that you achieved your best ever shape?
The best conditioning I ever achieved was when I won the 1986 Pro World. That was the first time that I came into a show with ripped glutes and paper-thin skin. Everybody at that point was like, "Wow, look at Gaspari!" I changed the sport by coming in that condition.
Of all the bodybuilders you competed against in your professional career, which bodybuilder impressed you the most?
Lee Haney impressed me. I was always very respectful to Lee because I thought he was a great champion. I always wanted to beat him and that was always my goal, to beat Lee Haney. One of the years I was really impressed with him was 1991 in Orlando.
I thought he looked his best there. I was always impressed with his back. I trained with him and he was a guy who had great genetics. He didn't have to train as hard as I did and the guy had the genes to look the way he did.
That was going to be my next question, of all the bodybuilders you competed against, which one had the best genetics?
Out of all the guys I competed against, I would say Lee Haney had some of the best genetics. You know, even at the Olympia, he wasn't perfect. I thought he had weak legs, weak calves and I thought he could have had better separation in his thighs. But, when you saw his waist to shoulder differential at that time, he had the best out there.
I recently interviewed Lee Labrada and I asked him which bodybuilder he competed against who had the greatest drive and persistence and he immediately mentioned your name. Do you feel any bodybuilder had as much drive as you did when you were competing?
The only one I heard of that I was impressed with as far as drive goes was Tom Platz. He was a little bit before my time but I remember reading about the way he was. But, it's true, when I went against Labrada in the Grand Prix's (after the Olympia in 1988), it was the first time for him to beat me and he thought he was going to sweep me. I just came back stronger and I ended up beating him in the Grand Prix's with four wins to his three wins. I wasn't a guy that was going to step back and fall apart. I just came back stronger.
I was the type of competitor that believed in a lot of focus and a lot of positive energy and believing in myself. That's why I felt I went so far in the sport. I think this confidence just radiated out when I came onstage.
That's true because history shows that you were able to beat a lot of competitors who may have been more genetically gifted but you were victorious due in large part to your desire and will to win
My desire and the fact that I came in spot on when I competed. Some guys may have been better but they didn't come in spot on when they came into the show. The guy who comes in his best shape that day usually is the winner.