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.