If you look at the training and nutrition regimens of the best bodybuilders from Sandow through to Heath, the differences in the variety of approaches underscores the phrase that “we are each a universe unto ourselves.
However, success leaves clues; so when I read about the best guys of the sport from the past and present, I’m always scanning for the common traits and factors that make them the best in their game. The cynical and unimaginative might answer, “Easy -drugs and genetics.” It’s not to say that these things don’t play a large part, but it’s not always the most genetically talented or avid drug users which guarantee success. Whether natural or enhanced, the most common recurring themes to physique success I’ve found are as follows:
Strength– I don’t think I’ve come across one bodybuilder either in real life or in my readings who carries a lot of muscle that isn’t extremely strong in the traditional hypertrophy rep ranges of 8-12 reps. Paradoxically though, it’s not uncommon to see some of the biggest guys in the gym, half-heartedly working machines, doing endless sets of light cable work, or using trifling weights that seem to belie their bulk. The muscle seems to be easier to maintain once it’s built, but watch a session when they are doing the big lifts and I guarantee that their ability to express their strength when needed is there.
Smarts – In the days before the current practice of outsourcing the hard work to a drug/contest prep guru, many of the guys that reached the pinnacle of the sport (particularly the Mr Olympia winners) tended to be analytical, systematic and introspective thinkers. Most planned their own diets and training and learned through the process of trial and error.They more often then not kept meticulous records of everything they did and ate for years on end. Many of them were university educated professionals that possessed qualities or talents outside of bodybuilding. They could articulate the spoken and written word without resorting to a bodybuilding meme or sporting cliche. Even “YEAHHHHHH BUDDDDYY! – the meme that spawned a thousand bodybuilding meme’s, Ronnie Coleman” graduated cum laude in Accounting before joining the Police Force. With the introduction of the contest prep/drug guru now in charge of doing the bulk of the intellectual heavy lifting, I’ve noticed this quality has dropped off somewhat, but for the greats of the past, intelligence was basically a prerequisite for being successful in the sport.
Stable Spouse – With the rigorous confines that strict adherence to a bodybuilding routine entails, I think it’s needless to say that the best guys can’t be out most nights chasing pussy and expect their training results to be maximised.What I’ve noticed is that many of the greats are usually in a stable relationship in which their partner seems supportive, and without meaning to be overtly rude towards another man’s significant other, very “average-girl-next-door” in the looks department.
The primary drivers of attractiveness for males is feminine beauty. The primary driver for male attractiveness to females is status. Please don’t tell me that beauty is in the eye of the beholder or a cultural, context-bound phenomenon because there’s enough evidence pointing to the fact that it’s not.
So considering that these guys are recognised for having the best physiques in the world (high status); they’re at the top of a subculture that values the human aesthetic,(again, high status) you could be excused for thinking that the higher echelon guys should be indulging in the industry standard equivalent of two superheroes having torrid, muscular sex.
But when you tally the numbers and make the comparisons the inverse seems to be true for many of the top guys. Again I’m not going to name names here, but sift through the Olympia lineup for the last 40 years or so and invariably the winner is either married, or in some kind of stable relationship with a subjectively, very average Plain-Jane. The reason for this supposed anomaly I believe comes down to bodybuilding being a selfish sport that revolves around the narcissistic idealization of the individual. If you couple two people with the same competing dreams of physique or celebrity stardom, equally matched egos collide creating a proverbial recipe for disaster. I’m sure that more than these two examples exist (especially behind closed doors), but these ones are freshest in my memory. I give you:
They compete – this doesn’t just apply to the best in the sport but for gym going guys and girls in general. We’ve all seen the same people show up, lifting the same weights, looking the same way year after year. The people who make the most progress consistently are constantly testing themselves in the competitive arena. There’s something about competing that galvanises one’s training, dieting and motivation in a way like nothing else. The meticulous preparation that’s needed pushes people to keep records, weigh, measure and push for that extra rep or pound on the bar. I think it’s having a concrete goal and an end vision that really helps to drive results to new heights.
Two BIG dudes from the early 90’s spring to mind. Victor Richards and Dorian Yates. Vic was an absolute behemoth and was constantly touted by the magazines as a potential threat to topple Yates should he ever stand on stage as a professional. He never did. Most people in the bodybuilding subculture today remember Dorian Yates. Very few remember Vic Richards. Had he stepped on stage, he might have made the necessary adjustments to the myriad short-falls in his physique and presented a package that would have predated the G.O.A.T., Ronnie Coleman.
Starting Young – This isn’t to dishearten older lifters starting out in their 40’s or 50’s with dreams of physique stardom dancing before their eyes, but suffice to say, bodybuilding is a long range sport with its best foundation years usually emerging in the teens. Most of the biographical accounts I’ve read of the big name greats start off along the lines of, “It all began one wintry Christmas morning when I unwrapped my presents under the tree and found a York/Weider barbell set…..”
I’ve also noticed that kids who specialised in a sport requiring them to use particular muscles usually find those bodyparts easier to develop later in life. I look at friends who were surfers or swimmers when they were younger – big shoulders and chest development came effortlessly when they eventually hit the gym. Little Athletics sprinters easily build great quads later in life. My mother forced me at gun-point to take up all forms of dance thus enabling me in my bodybuilding years to develop quads and glutes relatively easier than my upper body.
The early infusion of iron on the hormonally-charged younger male is nature’s own version of steroids and growth hormone. I see it here in Thailand all the time with the teenage Cambodian kids working construction all day. They live on cup noodles, but they’re tanked for boys who get practically zero protein. Likewise, teens that take up bodybuilding consistently using some crazy 6 times a week, 2 hours per session high-volume routine dominate the stage once adulthood sets in and their hormonal milieu are at peak performance.
Belief & Visualisation- This one is huge. Listening to interviews and reading various histories and biographies of the sport, the most recurring, consistent factor shared by all of the greats is their unshakable belief that they were destined for great things, combined with the regular practice of clearly visualising the end result of their goals. Whether it’s through the manipulation of gene expression via epigentics as discussed by Bruce Lipton in his book, “The Biology of Belief“, the power of the mind is a piece of the physique puzzle too large to ignore. Admittedly, the science flies over my head and it’s something I’m delving into more to investigate the validity of, but the role of belief and visualisation in the equation of bodybuilding success is something that I’m convinced is a vital factor.