by Mike Arnold
All things change with the passage of time; some for the better and some for the worse. In many cases this change is positive, especially in areas where the accumulation of knowledge is paramount to progress. In such instances, time is on our side. Examples of this are everywhere. Huts have become houses, horses and buggies have been replaced with modern vehicles, and hunting and gathering has taken a back seat to agriculture. Each example is a working demonstration of knowledge gleaned over time. Bodybuilding is no different, with our knowledge of training, diet, supplementation, and PED’s all experiencing a similar evolution over the last 60 years.
But every now and then this natural progression is interrupted; a de-evolution of sorts, in which knowledge that was once wide-spread is forgotten or denied and replaced with misinformation. The younger generation appears to be particularly susceptible to this phenomenon, most notably in the area of genetic gifting and its importance in competitive success. While we could speculate on the reasons for its emergence, one thing is certain—it has changed the way bodybuilders perceive and approach the sport.
As far back as the 1930’s-1940’s, when bodybuilding was just getting off the ground, being blessed with a genetic predisposition for certain physical characteristics was already recognized as a critical element in the development of a world-class physique. As time went by, its role was further elucidated and stressed within the context of competitive success, with industry insiders, competitors, and even fans all being aware of and acknowledging that physique greatness (at least onstage) was a birthright. This mentality was widely embraced all the way up until the younger generation came of age and started to take its place on the bodybuilding stage.
Hastened by Social Media, this shift in perspectives/priorities eventually culminated in the younger generation’s transition to a primarily drug-dominant culture. It’s not that genetics were no longer deemed relevant, but naturally, as the emphasis on drugs grew, the significance of everything else diminished by comparison. Those who adopt this mind-set are almost always heavily criticized by the former generation, but does the blame fall squarely on them? More importantly, how did we end up here? Is it, like some have suggested, that today’s newcomers simply don’t want to put in the hard work necessary to develop their physiques the old-fashioned way, or is the instant gratification that drugs offer too great of a temptation for the must have it now generation to overcome? While I am sure we could apply these foibles to more than a few, I posit that the prevailing line of thought isn’t due to an inadequate work ethic or the inability to persevere for gain. Instead, the problem developed slowly, over several decades, and was more of a reaction to the circumstances than some type of character flaw inherent in the younger generation. Furthermore, each generation tends to see flaws in the generation that follows it, while failing to realize its influence in fostering the very beliefs and attitudes it despises.
Before we go further, I want to take a second to explore the meaning of the word “genetics” within a bodybuilding context. There are two primary types of genetics that determine one’s ultimate appearance as a bodybuilder. The first type, which we will refer to as fixed genetics, are of the unalterable variety. They are set in stone and largely determine how the physique looks once its musculature has been fully developed. Some examples of this would be structure, muscle attachments, muscle fiber density (in this instance, density refers to the number of muscle fibers packed into a given area) and distribution, skin thickness, etc. Genetic response to drugs, although not a visibly discernible trait like clavicle width or muscle length, also belongs to this group. The other type of genetics, although still operating within genetically pre-determined boundaries, will be referred to as variable genetics, as their expression can be influenced by the choices we make. One example would be the amount of muscle mass we carry. We start out with a genetically pre-determined amount of muscle mass, but through the application of various stimuli and other factors, we can increase or decrease the size of our muscles accordingly.
It is important to make the above distinction if we wish to understand how and why the younger generation holds the views that it does, but before offering an explanation, we must first go back about 60 years, to the time right before drugs entered the sport. At this point in our history, competitive bodybuilding wasn’t yet viewed as a potential means of earning a living, or even something to be taken very seriously. For the most part, it was just a hobby, as it didn’t pay the bills or provide any other benefits outside of personal achievement and perhaps some public recognition. Spawned from the physical culture movement, it was a health-oriented lifestyle associated with exercise, nutrition, fresh air, and sunlight; a far cry from what we see today. Moreover, bodybuilders were judged by a completely different standard, with factors such as proportion, presentation, and even social standing considered far more important than pure size. While muscle size was part of a winning package, it was never an island unto itself, but always judged within the context of balanced, aesthetic development. In terms of conditioning (the word “condition” was not yet part of bodybuilding vernacular), competitors were expected to be in shape in terms of bodyfat, but there was quite a bit of lee-way as to what that entailed, and no one was expected to display deep muscle separation or a high level of detail.
Things began to change by the late 1950’s with the introduction of steroids. Almost immediately, size became a more important element of the judging process. This was especially true in the IFBB, which judged bodybuilders according to their physiques and their physiques alone (previously, NABBA, which at the time was the biggest org in the world, judged competitors on non-physical attributes, as well). This increased emphasis on size was the sport’s first step toward dependence on drugs to achieve a winning look and was solely responsible for putting us on our current trajectory. By the 1960’s steroids had a stranglehold on competitive bodybuilding and if you think this shift towards a drug-assisted physique was widely accepted or encountered little resistance, think again.
The rift between generations we see today is nothing compared to what was going on back then. In those days there were two camps—those who approved of and engaged in steroid use in order to mold the physique, and those who shunned it, or at least held heavy reservations towards it. However, the writing was already on the wall, and it didn’t take long for everyone to see it. By the late 1960’s, the days of successful drug-free bodybuilding (at the upper-tier of the sport) were over. The IFBB had already demonstrated, by repeatedly rewarding a level of size that could only be built with drugs, that steroids were a mandatory component of competitive success. Soon thereafter, the IFBB became the dominant bodybuilding organization in the world, leaving the remaining bodybuilding purists to twiddle their thumbs and in the process, changing the face of the sport forever.
As the decades went by importance of drugs continued to escalate, eventually entering into what many consider to be the first chapter of the modern era—the 1990’s. Rather than reaching a speed bump, we were catapulted into the next stage of PED evolution, with dosages, compound selection, and cycle duration increasing across the board. What used to be as simple as popping a few Dianabol had turned into a science. It was no longer enough to just “use steroids”. One had to be familiar with and have access to a whole host of compounds, while also possessing the knowledge necessary to implement them optimally—just to put oneself in contention for professional status. Combined with mounting health risks, financial burden, and in many cases the postponement of life responsibilities, the original principles on which bodybuilding was built had been all but abandoned.
While emphasis on size was obviously a major cause of our present day dilemma, it wasn’t the only culprit. Starting in the 1960’s, but not becoming a big factor until the dawn of the 70’s, was the issue of conditioning. Just like muscle size, the importance of conditioning slowly grew over the years until it reached modern standards in the 1990’s. Unfortunately, top condition today, which involves not only low levels of bodyfat, but a combination of several physical attributes working in tandem (hardness, density, fullness, dryness, etc), is heavily reliant on the use of performance enhancing drugs to achieve.
I bring up our history for two reasons. One, to show that with the passing of each generation, prioritization of size and condition not only continued to grow, but each previous generation lamented the loss of what it felt was the ideal physique and approach to the sport. Each phase in our sport’s evolution saw drugs take up a greater piece of the bodybuilding pie, and each time we saw an entire generation of bodybuilders warning us that we were getting off-track. The main point here is simple—the more we reward drug dependent qualities (i.e. size and condition) over non-drug dependent qualities (i.e. fixed genetics relating to aesthetic factors, such as shape, lines, structure, ) on the contest stage, the more emphasis bodybuilders are going to place on drugs. It’s really quite simple and a matter of common sense.
Today, many feel this approach to judging has reached its logical conclusion, with bodybuilders such as Branch Warren placing ahead of bodybuilders like as Cedric McMillan. This is no knock on Branch. The man is simply playing by the rules and right now, the rules state that one’s level of muscular development and conditioning are the two most important factors in bodybuilding success. Taking this into consideration, let’s revisit the question I posed at the beginning of this article, when referring to the younger generation’s emphasis on drugs over genetics, I asked “does the blame fall squarely on them?” Perhaps we should be asking “do they have a point?
When objectively looking at the evolution of judging and its effect on PED use among competitors, it becomes readily apparent that what seems like a recent change in attitudes toward drug use is not recent at all, but is the continued progression of a 60 year old trend. We’ve simply reached the tipping point where mass and condition have overtaken aesthetics to such a substantial degree, that in some cases, it appears the latter is barely even considered as part of the judging process. As with all generations, today’s bodybuilders do what they believe they need to do to win. So, when they see mass and condition being rewarded over aesthetics, guess what they are going to pursue? It’s not the bodybuilders who set the standard. It is the judges who place the physiques according to their own pre-selected criteria. Therefore, each generation is, in large part, responsible for the ideals of the generation that follows it, as it sets the standard for physique excellence by awarding contest placings as it sees fit.
Of course, not every aspect of the younger generation’s mind-set can be attributed to our influence, but we were the ones responsible for awarding the physiques that caused this mentality to blossom–by repeatedly rewarding mass and condition over fixed genetic gifts like shape, lines, and structure—for proving that drugs are the most important part of the equation and that genetics, aside from one’s genetic response to drugs, are no longer the valued commodity they used to be. As long as we continue setting this example in our judging, those who come after us will continue following it.
There are many bodybuilders, both young and old, who still believe that size is only relevant when expressed within the confines of aesthetic excellence, but personal opinions/goals don’t win titles. The bottom line is that size and condition are of far greater competitive value, automatically placing drugs, and one’s response to them, in a position of pre-eminence. Bodybuilders know that if they are just able to build enough size (in a fairly balanced fashion) and come in ripped, that they stand a good chance of winning a pro card, regardless of any other genetic shortcomings they may possess.
While I can’t fault a bodybuilder for acknowledging this reality, I do take issue with any competitor that views aesthetics as insignificant, either in principle or competition. Not only is the more aesthetic bodybuilder (all other things being equal) still going to win the show, but each one of us plays our own part in determining the direction of the sport and its overall impression on others. If each competitor makes the most of their God-given genetics while adhering to a more traditional template, we can slowly begin to reverse the trend that has been in place for the last 60 years. Either way, the best physiques in the world are always going to be genetically gifted in every area. As many have said over the years, to paraphrase “it takes everything to build a world-class physique”.