I first picked up this book back in 1997, devouring it in a single sitting. Books on bodybuilding weren’t as readily available as they are today, and so this became a read I’d return to many times before I passed it on to a friend I met on a bodybuilding board from the U.S. It quickly went out of print soon after and I’ve been trying to source a copy for years until about a month ago, luck turned up another copy. Now, nearly 20 years on, I had the nostalgic pleasure to read it once again. Here is my review (spoilers contained within)
“Life was passing me by. Desire to become big had become obsession, an unhappy obsession. I felt unhappy in my body. And being a slave to such a thing means being unable to live properly. It was constant. Not because of other people’s perceptions, but because of my own. I would feel the problem, just being introduced to someone. The person’s eyes would creep over me and the question would be asked. “What sport do you do?”
A bodybuilder should never be asked that question. That’s what’s so unique, so beautiful about it. And whilst I was not a bodybuilder, I was not alive.” – David Shaw, Over the Edge
Some know it as bigorexia, exercise addiction or being bitten by the iron bug. The medical community refers to it as “muscle dysmorphia”. In his book “Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder, Sam Fussell labelled it “The Disease”. Whatever the designation, the pathology and symptoms are the same – an unrelenting, illogical obsessive passion for the iron together with an ever-present dissatisfaction with never feeling quite big enough . David Shaw has it. And this is his story. Kind of….
Shaw finds the iron as a young teen in the 70’s when bodybuilding was still very much a misunderstood and socially rejected sport. In the then, hyper-masculine Australia, Aussie rules football, rugby, drinking and pub brawling were the only culturally acceptable male recreational activities. You lifted weights only as a means to facilitate these national past-times. Ordered to put on weight because he was too light to make the running team, Shaw begins begins his love affair with the iron.
Shaw’s first contact with the iron provides an excellent window into the early days of modern bodybuilding before it turned mainstream and attracted the commercial interest which today undermines its humble hardcore origins.
Melbourne Australia was a long way from Venice Beach, but it’s hardcore denizens were no less committed and are as equally eclectic and eccentric characters as their Southern Californian counterparts. Although initially ignored by the gym’s veteran lifters, they soon forge a bond and Shaw and his brother (who serves as both David’s training partner and comedic foil) are taken under their wing and mentored by many of senior lifters.
I keep telling you,” retorted Mark. “Muscles ain’t art. They’re there to frighten the shit out of people, they’re a representation, they prove a point. They’re ugly. But they’re not art.”
Shaw establishes very clear goals from the outset – He wants (needs?) to win the Mr Universe at all costs and his life revolves around achieving his dreams at the expense of anything that isn’t connected with the gym and bodybuilding. Eventually outgrowing the small pond that is his local gym, Shaw sets out to learn the “secrets” of the pros in California, particularly their chemical ones.
He meets some notable industry names along the way – Bev Francis, Victor Richards, The Barbarian Brothers and the man himself, the “great Arnold” who reveals his true character in a memorable scene.
Prior to this meeting, the author attends the 1980 Mr Olympia in a wonderful recount of that inauspicious contest.
“Mentzer was given fifth. It didn’t sink in for a moment, then there was bedlam. Everyone was screaming abuse. l’m not sure were directing their insults to but doubt Mike Mentzer heard them. He couldn’t believe the ridiculous decision. King was frothing at the mouth.
“Fifth –fifth. Fucking How could they put my man fifth? Fuck you Arnold. Fuck you Arnold! Fuck, fuck, fuck.” He could not accept it. He would not accept it.
Frankie sat back in his seat. Mentzer retired on the spot. Boyer Coe came fourth. He went out backstage like an innocent man led to the gallows, then threw a few chairs around and smashed a few lockers. Zane was lucky to come third. He didn’t think so. He smashed his trophy on the Opera House steps. Chris Dickerson took second. Head down, he seemed to ask a question to someone, anyone – but he got an answer. Perhaps he was in shock. Perhaps he knew all along.
Amold won. I can’t recall hearing the announcement. All you heard were chants of ‘rigged, rigged, rigged.’ The video that was made of the competition cut the victor’s speech short, simply because you couldn’t hear it.
I couldn’t bring myself to boo the great man, I merely stood and observed. I wondered when I would meet him. I knew I would one day, I just didn’t know what the circumstances would be.”
Shaw’s and other pro’s drug usage is explicitly detailed in both the type and quantities used. Before PED’s became the taboo subject that they are today, a range of anabolic pharmaceuticals could be easily be sourced directly from Australian doctors willing to write the prescription.
“The doctor we found was Asian. He took no convincing and seemed to know a lot about the drugs, but couldn’t satisfactorily answer a single question. He mentioned, as an afterthought, that I would probably die in my early thirties.
‘Two coffins,” said Mark. “One for you, one for the trophy.”
The rest of the drugs needed were sourced black market or obtained from local veterinarians in the form of bladders which provided bulk amounts of product at insanely low prices. After a few initial failed cycles, Shaw throws caution to the wind and goes all out – Shaw isn’t conservative with his usage, and it’s his “over the edge” approach that lends title to the book.
“My peak weeks at this time were around 5000mg to 6000mg a week. My diary covers 6000mg of gear, but I lost track of the orals. I was on a dozen steroids and the drugs were always changing.
Mark would pull out a 10ml bottle from the drawer, look briefly at the label, load up 5ml into two syringes and throw the bottle rubbish bin.
“Why not?” he’d say.
“I could probably give you a couple of damn good reasons why not. But would you listen?”
Shaw finds himself responding superbly to his new drug regimen.
“You have bodybuilding genetics, David,” said BJ, the Mad lrishman. “Never mind all this fast twitch – slow twitch shit. Never mind what’s passed before. God put the receptors in your muscles, not in your hair follicles or subcutaneous glands. And He gave those receptors an affinity for steroids,” he added.
‘That’s what pro’s mean when they say they have good genetics.
Shaw’s also very candid about the side effects of his protracted drug use as well as those of his inner-circle. With many of the negatives of PED’s downplayed in recent years, his recollection makes for a sobering tale of the Faustian bargain made for pushing the body to its superhuman limits.
“A lot of people believe steroids will only do these things to people who have a violent and an aggressive streak inside them. They’ll only ignite what’s already there. I disagree. l’ve seen too much, and done too much to steroids don’t just affect certain minds and can’t effect a sane, balanced person. Animals given steroids, when put in dangerous situations, choose to fight, rather than run.”
It wasn’t just the drug use that was different on his trip to the US- it was many other things also. Shaw encounters a surreal underbelly that although is common knowledge today, was hidden from the mainstream of the time and spoken of only in whispers among closed circles – bodybuilders doing gay for pay, receiving hypnotism to induce workout hysteria and the rampant politics that turned many contest outcomes into a foregone conclusion were elements that disappointingly revealed the sport for what it really was. Nothing was as it seemed and no one was who they said they were.
“The most memorable was Lee Haney. I saw him with a group of the Factory boys at Dallas Brooks Hall after he’d won his final Mr Olympia, eclipsing Arnold’s record. On paper, Haney greatest bodybuilder of all time. During his reign of supremacy though, he was rarely featured on magazine covers. Can you believe that,” he said. “i’m eight years as Mr Olympia. And all because of the colour of my skin.” He spoke of lots of afternoon, for instance, how he hated lies. “By the way,” he said, “did you know that I was the first natural Mr 0lympia?”
People once pursued bodybuilding to separate themselves from a culture and society they didn’t feel apart of and were perhaps ostracised to begin with. It’s why the sport attracts so many misfits; there’s a certain solace to be found in building a wall of muscle around oneself and cladding the lifter in protective muscular armour to keep the world at bay. Unlike today where there’s money to be made in many areas of the sport – people pursued a bodybuilding trajectory with equal parts love and hate driven by a blend of unhealthy egotism and self-loathing.
Despite the disparagement of today’s scene by seasoned veterans from the earlier generations, it’s interesting to note that guys like Shaw were equally disillusioned with the commercialised changes being wrought on an activity that was definitely transitioning to the mainstream.
“Bodybuilding wasn’t a subculture, reserved for men with iron in their veins, any more. It was a fad. It was commercialised. I’d been blissfully ignorant of the changes until I stepped plane in Los Angeles in the summer of 1990.
When i would return to America in 1995, the process would have gone further. In ’95, I walked from my hotel to Muscle Pit, the outdoor gym on the beach. There wasn’t a big man to be seen. When I got through the crowd of spectators entrance gate, a man standing there put up his hand to block my way.
“Top off, please,” he said.
“Could you take your top off please.”
“You want me to train half naked?”
“Get fucked,” I said.
I remember reading the extreme level contest diet Sam Fussell recounted in his book and thought it to be an exaggeration. A similar diet outlined in Shaw’s book is also recounted in the same level of dubious detail. Considering most enhanced pros don’t dip below 3-4000 cals in their contest prep (and still complain about that), this particular detail set off my “bullshit-alarms.” Considering Shaw was using all manner of pharmaceuticals including Clen, T3 and GH, it seems doubtful that such a spartan approach was necessary given the 234 pounds he needed to sustain.
Breakfast: Six egg whites. Small bowl of oats.
Mid-morning snack: One bakied potato. One piece of fruit.
Tuna, Small bowl of rice.
Dinner: One chicken breast, pumpkin and broccoli.
When I got within eight days, my diet became completely restricted
Breakfast: 6 egg whites
Lunch: Boiled chicken, vegetables
Dinner: 6 egg whites
I cut out salt and no water tap because of the sodium content. I cut out all carbohydrates, except the amount I got from the veges. After two more days, these went also. It was as if the cocaine and various other drugs were the only things that were keeping me standing.
So who is David Shaw exactly? Beyond conjecture on a few dated forums, no-one seems to know. A google search turns up nothing. And despite photographs included in the book with the author’s face blurred out, it seems likely that this work represents a composite of identities rather than a single writer operating under a pseudonym. Whether the stories are apocryphal or not doesn’t really matter as the anecdotes are wildly entertaining and display a high level of verisimilitude.
Shaw doesn’t write with the same level of flowery Cambridge educated prose like Fussell, but his raw style is still a treat. Loaded with great quotes and hilarious dialogue, it’s a memorable page turner and a must read for hardcore fans of the sport. You get an idea of the masochistic lengths some will put themselves through to compete and risk so much for the chance of little more than to gain than an obscure title and plastic trophy.
Shaw’s words although 20 years old still make for sobering reflections in a sport which has turned it’s modern day competitors into little more than suicide pilots. In addition to the wonderfully entertaining read, you might just see your own story reflected on the page.