The Extremes of Body Building: A Fascinating Portrait of Mr. Olympia Phil Heath

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Phil Heath, front and back

It’s not about power. It’s about beauty. Beauty, of course, is in the eye of the beholder. But in the world of bodybuilding, beauty is massive muscles, ripples, depth of crevices between bulges and striations, as well as a pleasing symmetry to the entire body.

To others, it may seem grotesque, a CGI-like exaggeration of what a super-hero body could look like. But to fans and practitioners, bodybuilding, particularly competitive bodybuilding is a way of life.

American Tommy Kono, who won two golds and a silver in weightlifting at the 1952, 1956 and 1960 Olympics, was also a four-time Mr. Universe body builder. Kono was a hero to Arnold Schwarzenegger, who went on to become an international phenomenon in the groundbreaking documentary, Pumping Iron. Schwarzenegger would win the Mr. Olympia trophy seven times. The current champion, Phil Heath, has won it six times in a row. According to this fascinating look at Heath and the world of bodybuilding in The New York Times, at the age of 36, believes he can surpass Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman, who have both won eight “Sandows“, the name of the Mr. Olympia trophy.

Heath has 22-inch biceps. His thighs are 32-inches each, both bigger in circumference than his waist. He is a few inches taller than me, weighs about 100 pounds more than me – but his waistline at 29 inches is 4 inches slimmer than mine. I make sure I exercise nearly every day, and eat reasonably well, but I don’t see myself ever getting back to 29 inches. Not that I’m comparing.

Competitive bodybuilding is all about maintaining and shaping the body, as well as being fully aware of how the body moves, and the muscles flex and modulate. “’It’s not about the weight, it’s about the movement,’ he said (in the article). He looked at himself carefully in the mirror between sets.” In fact, one of the keys to competitive bodybuilding is that you have to always be looking at yourself.

The article explains how he has pictures taken of him from behind and underneath his body so that he focus on the shape and movement of areas he cannot see. Even for the New York Times, he allowed only a handful of photos to be shot, as he does not want any photos of imperfection to become fodder for the internet trolls. “That can be hard to control in the age of iPhones and Facebook, but Heath’s living is entirely built on appearance. Every striation and crevice, every pimple and imperfection, will be scrutinized, praised or criticized.”

Diet is important to competitive body builders, not only to build the right kind of muscles, but also to look exquisite on the day of competition. “’Imagine eating a pound of food, eight times a day, with no fluid,’ he said. The effect of last-minute water loss is that the skin acts like shrink-wrap, showing every fiber of muscle and a maze of veins. The stress on the body and of the competition itself has sometimes left him with little memory of the two-day competition.”

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But the world of bodybuilding can be rewarding financially, at least for the winners. According to the Times, Heath has five sponsors, and earns over a million dollars a year, something he hopes to continue to do for the next five to ten years. Age will take its toll, and one would assume in today’s day and age of doping, that it is rampant in the world of body building. Heath’s reply was curt: “Everybody is going to do what they do. But we get tested.” And the International Federation of Bodybuilding Professional League (IFBB) does, based on the World Anti-Doping Agency guidelines. So bodybuilders are randomly tested.

But fans of bodybuilders are less concerned about performance enhancing drugs. As the article points out, “Fans of Mr. Olympia do not seem caught up in the issue, perhaps because the sport is entirely about aesthetics, not strength or performance.”

So Heath and his fellow competitors continue to eat meticulously, shape muscles with laser-like focus, and search in front of mirrors constantly for imperfection. “The slightest change in a muscle, just a stripe in a striation is noticed.”

Well, that’s one worry I don’t have.