Bodybuilding is weird. I've tried to come up with a more diplomatic way of phrasing this, but how else do you describe a sport that counts Day-Glo tanning cream, anabolic steroids and skimpy bikini bottoms as mandatory pieces of equipment? Even as a scrawny kid who grew up worshipping pro wrestlers and action-movie heroes, I could never wrap my head around the bizarre spectacle of these choreographed beauty pageants.
The questions that racked my prepubescent brain – "Where do they buy their clothes?"; "How do they fit into cars?" – still linger to this day. I'm not alone on this boat. Despite the fact there remains a strong selection of glossy magazines at the drugstore checkout aisle imploring you to "Get Massive!", I know few people who actually want to be 300-pound neckless monsters.
I do, however, know a lot of people who want to get ripped. You know the look: sinewy, ultra lean, eight-pack abs. Think more Jason Statham, less Arnold Schwarzenegger. At heart, we're talking about flip sides of the same coin (i.e., insecure men chasing after what society says is attractive and desirable); it's just the results of this avocation are slightly less freaky to the general populus.
For evidence of this shift in tastes, one need look no further than the rise in popularity of physique (or fitness) competitions. In 2015, the Ontario Physique Association (OPA) held 25 events featuring nearly 2,500 participants. Call it "bodybuilding lite" – physique competitions value natural symmetry over cartoonish proportions. Muscle mass is still coveted, but unlike their Herculean cousins, physique competitors get penalized if they're too big.
It isn't just competitors who are after this look. Perhaps it's the influence of mixed martial arts – where slender fighters are just as popular as the giants – or the decades' worth of underwear ads that verge on soft-core porn, but these days, young men (still the industry's target demographic) seem to be striving for bodies that are decidedly less huge.
As a personal trainer, a big part of my job is helping clients set goals that are both realistic and attainable – two words that aren't exactly synonymous with traditional bodybuilding. I applaud this new appreciation for a more "natural" aesthetic.
The problem is, there isn't much natural about 5-per-cent body fat, be it on a svelte Cristiano Ronaldo or a jacked Dwayne Johnson. It may appear the body displayed by an elite physique competitor is more attainable for the average person, but I assure you it is not. Their workouts are just as brutal, their diets just as restrictive. And yeah, drug use is common, too.
If you're not convinced there are nobler pursuits than that of 3-D abs, consider this: Late last spring, I experimented with a program that promised to get me "Shredded In Six Days." It's the sort of approach bodybuilders follow in the days leading up to a contest, one designed to push already lean individuals to the next level of vascularity.
The training itself focused on high-volume, total-body workouts with upwards of 80 repetitions per body part. Rather than building genuine strength with low-volume workouts and heavy weights, the goal here was to engorge the muscles with blood to achieve a pumped-up look. It's a long and tedious style of lifting that's totally foreign to me.
Training alone will only do so much. You need to lose serious water weight for maximum muscle definition. By manipulating fluid intake (guzzling up to four litres of water a day before tapering off completely on Day 5), you can trick your body into flushing mode. This results in spending almost as much time in the bathroom as the gym.
And of course, a chiselled bod can't be had if you're stuffing your face with delicious carbs. I was limited to no more than 60 grams a day – the equivalent of three apples – approximately four times less than my usual amount.
It took nearly a week of dull, spartan-like living, but the results were undeniable. I was, in fact, shredded. For the first time in my life, I had abs! Glorious abs! The next day would be my big reveal. A few of us were heading to the cottage for Canada Day; I was anticipating a weekend of compliments and envious stares, but wouldn't you know it – my wife, our friends – no one said a word.
All that work, the hours of exercise and self-deprivation and no one cared! I felt silly, mostly for pursuing such a superficial goal but also for thinking my standing among the people who know and love me the most in the world would somehow be enhanced by having veiny arms.
I cracked open a cold beer once I realized there would be no ticker-tape parade in my honour and spent the remainder of the weekend awash in hedonism, making up for all those lost hours of eating. Once at home, I reverted back to a more sustainable approach to training. Seven months later, I still look good without a shirt.
So what is the lesson?
The lesson is this: There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to be big and/or lean, but goals have to be grounded in reality (actual reality, not fitness-magazine reality where everyone is happy and thriving while secretly starving themselves). You can indeed be strong, muscular and defined without resorting to drastic measures that consume your every waking moment.
And if your goals happen to fall on the more extreme end of the spectrum, are you willing (and able) to make the sacrifices necessitated by such a task? If so, I wish you nothing but the best. Here's hoping people care more about your six pack than they did mine.