Drugs and the Evolution of Bodybuilding

Elite weightlifters are bigger than ever before, largely thanks to steroids and growth hormones.
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When most people think of bodybuilders, if they think of them at all, images of towering, muscle-bound men such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Lou Ferrigno come to mind. However, when the 2014 Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competition takes place this September in Las Vegas, it is a virtual certainty that the winner of the sport’s premier event won’t be more than six feet in height. The widths of top competitors such as Kai Greene and Branch Warren are another matter entirely—a testament to the rigorous training and chemical supplementation regimens that have made the sport both more physically challenging and less accessible than ever.  

For many, Schwarzenegger represents the alpha and omega of bodybuilding. He was the sport’s first genuine celebrity, its first crossover star, and still remains the tallest champion (at six-foot-two) in the history of the Olympia. Along with his mentor and sponsor Joe Weider, Schwarzenegger deserves much of the credit for popularizing the use of resistance exercise for strictly aesthetic purposes. The era over which he presided, which stretched from the late 1960s until his retirement in 1980, coincided with the rapid growth of the American fitness industry. When he chose to focus on his budding film career, bodybuilding as a concept retained its cultural purchase—everyone from Hollywood action heroes to then-President Reagan was pumping up during the 1980s—even as the sport itself gradually receded from view due to its inability to produce another figure of “Ahnuld’s” stature.

What it has produced, however, is a series of champions whose physiques put Schwarzenegger’s to shame. Texas native Ronnie Coleman, an eight-time Mr. Olympia who is arguably the greatest bodybuilder of all time, had a listed height of five-foot-10 but frequently took the competition stage at 295 pounds. Jay Cutler, Coleman’s immediate successor as Mr. Olympia, competed at an equally massive 280 pounds. Even at his peak, Schwarzenegger never exceeded a competition weight of 235 pounds. The physiques of modern bodybuilders were quite literally unattainable during the early days of the sport.

Competitive bodybuilding’s origins can be traced to the 1930s, when the Amateur Athletic Union hosted its “Mr. America” pageants in conjunction with weightlifting competitions. The popularity of these exhibitions soon exceeded that of the strength events that typically preceded them, and, regardless of whether they were held first or last, they invariably attracted larger crowds than the athletic components of the AAU meets. Joe Weider, a fitness magazine publisher whose offerings included such titles as Demi-Gods and The Young Physique, recognized the economic potential of these spectacles and began staging his own bodybuilding-only pageants. First held in 1965, the Mr. Olympia competition was intended to serve as the world championship for Weider’s International Federation of Bodybuilding organization.

From the outset, Mr. Olympia participants benefited from one of the great discoveries of the 1950s: anabolic steroids. After physician John Ziegler developed the oral steroid Dianabol, a host of other androgenic drugs entered the market. Following the success of 1950s bodybuilding icon Steve Reeves, who boasted a better-defined physique than his predecessors, judging standards in the sport evolved in the direction of vascular, striated muscle—muscle that was much easier to develop and maintain with such pharmaceutical assistance. Larry Scott, who won the first Mr. Olympia at a competition weight of 205 pounds, was one of the first athletes to combine scientific bodybuilding training with extraordinary proportions, including a tape-measured set of 20” biceps. Subsequent winners Sergio Oliva and Arnold Schwarzenegger pushed the envelope still further, cultivating physiques unrivaled by even the finest examples of Greek statuary. When 240-pound Lee Haney emerged as an unbeatable competitor in the early 1980s, it appeared that human development could go no further.

With his victory in the 1992 Mr. Olympia, English bodybuilder Dorian Yates changed all of that. Though only five-foot-nine, Yates competed at a lean 270 pounds through the combination of a maniacal training program with precise steroid usage that was stacked with growth hormone. GH proved to be a missing link in the chain that allowed athletes to reach unprecedented lean weights, a trend that culminated with Ronnie Coleman winning the Olympia at 297 pounds only a few years after competing (and losing) at a mere 245. Observers have hailed Phil Heath’s recent victories at the Olympia as a return to normalcy, but Heath competes at a heavier weight than Haney, Schwarzenegger, or Oliva ever did.

The so-called “mass monsters” that dominate contemporary bodybuilding are both unavoidable and anonymous: unavoidable because their images are beamed out at impressionable young men from magazines available at supermarket checkout counters around the country, and anonymous because only a handful of diehards seem to know the intimate details of these athletes’ training programs. The information found in these magazines, many of which are still published by the company Joe Weider founded, is utterly misleading; the silence about the use of anabolic steroids and growth hormone is as conspicuous as the “kayfabe” code that once surrounded professional wrestling and protected that sport’s most intimate secrets. Even Grantland published an interesting commentary on the life and times of Phil Heath that glossed over the endemic drug use in the sport, noting that since every serious competitor uses steroids, it all comes down to training and a “beauteous physical symphony” of posing.

When Heath, Kai Greene, and Branch Warren take the stage in Las Vegas, their bodies will glisten with the sheen of superhuman perfection. Their fat-free mass indexes will be impossible for well-meaning amateurs like myself to replicate. Much will be said about the workouts the competitors perform—seven hours a day in the gym, thousands of repetitions of various exercises—with no mention of the chemicals that make these workouts possible. Such a discussion of the benefits and drawbacks of steroid supplementation would be useful, given that steroids are banned in most professional sports and have been treated as controlled substances in the United States since the passage of the Anabolic Steroids Control Act of 1990.  

Bodybuilding has continued to evolve. Its leading athletes are shorter, squatter, and more powerfully built than ever before. But in so many ways, the sport remains an afterthought. The media might note the name of this year’s Mr. Olympia and a few well-meaning boys might ingest the protein powders he endorses, but that will be extent of it. For an activity in which the sacrifices are so great, where even a first-time competitor such as academic-turned-bodybuilder Samuel Fussell must give his entire life over to its practice, the competitors deserve far better. More transparency about its processes and history would be a welcome development. 

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Oliver Lee Bateman is a lawyer and an assistant professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. He is a contributing editor to The Good Men Project, and his writing has appeared at Al-Jazeera America, Salon, and Made Man Magazine.

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