The Joy of Bodybuilding
In his book, “Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding”, author Charles Gaines not only introduced Bodybuilding to an unsuspecting general public, he also vividly described the immense joy and satisfaction that the few men who engaged in the sport felt every time they trained. Gaines was revealing an almost secret society of musclemen to the world at large and those of us who never knew anything about pumping iron or bodybuilding actually felt like we were really missing out on something magical.
To quote Gaines on page 42 of his book, “This is called a pump. It is the workout gone inside: the exercise swallowed and digested, metabolizing visibly into growth. Some bodybuilders will tell you that it feels better than coming. Whether that is true or not, it is one of the finest and most complicated physical sensations you can have.” Arnold, of course, borrowed the “a pump is better than coming” line for the movie “Pumping Iron” a few years later.
The joy and satisfaction of bodybuilding is an aspect of the sport that some of us need to be reminded of from time to time. Competitive bodybuilders often resemble concentration camp refugees as opposed to orgasmic physique athletes. It’s not just the gaunt look to their faces that gives it away, it’s the unmistakeable visage of suffering and deprivation that they can’t help but to reveal to the world.
Bodybuilding is an all-consuming sport, one that dominates a 24 hour day with meal timing, proper macronutrients, intense training sessions as well as boring and painful bouts of cardio. The whole lifestyle screams self-sacrifice. It’s enough to turn a happy and fun person into someone that no one wants to run into at the squat rack.
The competition world can be fraught with even more slippery slopes. Once someone has been bitten by the bodybuilding bug, it’s hard to escape it’s iron-clad grip. One contest can lead to another and another and another. Soon, life becomes a merry go round of dieting, cardio, posing, spray tanning and getting up onstage to be judged by a group of stern looking experts who may or may not like what you’re showing them. And God help your friends and family if they don’t. It’s going to be a long ride home if you don’t place where you think you should!
One of the first bodybuilders I ever saw on TV was Jack LaLanne. I remember seeing happy Jack on a black and white television set, clapping his hands and preaching the joys of exercise. LaLanne was bursting with enthusiasm and he couldn’t get the words out fast enough as he spoke to a couch potato audience about how great they would feel if they just got off their butts and worked those muscles. It was almost as if he was telling everyone a secret that he was bursting at the seams to share.
Many years later, I had the opportunity to see a 92 year Jack LaLanne accept the Life Time Achievement award at the 2002 Pro Ironman Contest in southern California. After IronMan Magazine publisher John Balik introduced LaLanne to the audience, Jack couldn’t talk fast enough to the audience about the joys of fitness. He was preaching the same benefits of health and exercise that he was 40 years earlier when I saw him on TV.
Arnold Schwarzenegger was another bodybuilder who always radiated joy from bodybuilding. The major reason for the success of the movie “Pumping Iron” was Arnold. It wasn’t just his prize winning physique and magnetic charisma that made the film a success, it was the fun Arnold was having throughout the movie.
From the moment Arnold first appears onscreen, he is being swarmed with love from all the other bodybuilders in the gym. Eddie Giuliani even jumps into Arnold’s arms to show his affection for the King of Bodybuilding.
Film critic Gene Siskel noticed the happiness that Arnold exhibited throughout the movie, even remarking that Arnold “is more pleasing to look at because of his face than his body. Arnold has been blessed with an attractive face and sunny disposition. He is one bodybuilder who clearly isn’t ashamed of his profession. That’s why he has become the sport’s No. 1 star.”
Even in the gym or backstage before the pivotal Mr. Olympia contest at the end of the film, Arnold is having fun and joking around. Whether doing donkey calf raises with two German speaking blonds on his back, making fun of Lou Ferrigno for making too much noise when he was pumping up or making Franco laugh during the posedown, Arnold is a joy to watch. He made bodybuilding look fun.
One of our recent Mr. Olympia champions also brought fun back to the sport. Ronnie Coleman, 8 time Mr. Olympia, garnered a legion of loyal fans based on his joyful attitude and sunny disposition as much as his massive physique and phenomenal strength.
Ronnie’s first video, “Ronnie Coleman The Unbelievable”, introduced most people to the persona that endeared him to so many. Already a two time Mr. Olympia when the video was filmed in the summer of 2000, Coleman continued working his full time job as an Arlington, Texas police officer. In order to get his workout in before work, Ronnie would hit the gym in the hot afternoon.
I immediately noticed the stark contrast between Ronnie and other top pro bodybuilders like Flex Wheeler. While Flex would train with an entourage of training partners and his own coach, Charles Glass, out in Gold’s Gym Venice, Ronnie was training solo in the non air conditioned dump of a gym in Texas. At one point in the video, he even has to go look for gym owner Brian Dobson to give him a spot because he has literally no one there to help him out.
What was even more compelling about Ronnie was the sheer joy he exhibited during his workouts. There was never a hint of not wanting to be at the gym or the feeling of any pressure or stress in defending his title at the biggest bodybuilding contest in the world. Instead, Ronnie was reminiscent of Arnold in the way he enjoyed life and was able to derive the utmost satisfaction from his workouts in the gym.
Ronnie would scream out “Light Weight! Light Weight Baby!!” during his incredible training sessions. He would routinely lift prodigious poundages with ease and have the most fun doing it. There was never any anger or intimidating menace before he did 800 pound deadlifts or 600 pound front squats. Instead, he approached the squat rack with a smile on his face and the sense of challenge in his heart.
On one of the Battle for the Olympia videos, Flex Wheeler is training early in the morning at Golds Gym in Venice. His trainer Charles Glass loads the 45 pound plates onto the leg press machine as Flex holds his arms over his eyes and looks like he wants nothing more than to go back home and crawl back to bed. Ronnie, on the other hand, jokes around and laughs as he sits on the bench at Metro Flex Gym and wraps his knees in eager anticipation of another record setting workout only weeks before the next Mr. Olympia contest. Just as we watched a grim Lou Ferrigno scream out “Arnold! Arnold!” in the dark Brooklyn gym and compared it to a tan and gum chewing Arnold Schwarzenegger happily grinding out reps on the cable crossover machine in “Pumping Iron” 25 years earlier, it’s easy to see who is the winner and who is the loser.
Getting back to Charles Gaines and his classic book, it’s noteworthy to recall his introduction to “pumping iron” and the joy it brought him. After having a great workout at the first gym he worked out at, Gaines would walk to a nearby Chinese restaurant with his wife and his bodybuilding mentor, Joe Disco. “Heading for egg rolls and sweet-and-sour pork”, Gaines wrote, “feeling sinfully clean and brand new and very fresh and clear in the head, we felt on those walks as if we owned the sidewalks. That’s the way a really good gym will always make you feel.” Let’s all remember how good Bodybuilding can feel the next time we get to the gym. Like Arnold said, “It’s better than coming”.