Vicki Goldberg, ‘Is It An Art, A Sport or Sheer Exhibitionism?’, The New York Times, 30 November (1975)


The front wall of Gold’s Gym in Venice, Calif., used to have big glass windows, but owners of the gym had to cover them over—so many passers-by stopped to gape that the men inside couldn’t concentrate. The interior of the gym is Rube Goldberg paradise inhabited by grotesques, men so colossally muscled they look like inverted pyramids.

Gold’s is crammed with wacky machines, welter of steel poles, shiny weights and pulleys, and more than two tons of iron barbells wedged into racks against the walls. The newest Nautilus exercise machines, complex steel and chrome booths that might be misguided models for electric chairs, stand guard by the door. Benches tend to slant up at cuckoo angles instead of lying flat. man teeters on one at a diagonal, with his knees bent, then straightens his legs to push the weights at his feet.


Another lies on an angled bench, braces himself and hefts a 300-pound barbell from a rack above his head, pauses to adjust his hands on it, then slowly, rhythmically, begins to lift and lower the weight above his chest. His pectoral muscles bulge as if about to explode. In the corner, the upright, humanoid calf machine extends a pair of padded arms at shoulder height. A man puts his head between the arms and begins to rise mightily on tiptoe. With each upward thrust, his shoulders raise the machine’s arms, which are attached to weighted pulleys. For all the hard work in this moonstruck factory, there is scarcely sound: just the clank of weights, the whir of pulleys and the occasional hiss of escaping breath.

The men who frequent Gold’s are serious body builders, who compete in an increasingly popular sport (some would call it an art, and others would tail it a form of exhibitionism). Their work on the machines, along with heroic, protein-rich diets. is designed to develop their bodies into the perfectly flared shapes they consider a mark of beauty.

In fact, in the last 20 years, the body builders have succeeded in redesigning the male silhouette; most notably by using special exercises to develop busty pectorals. Indeed, it is this emphasis on the appearance of a well-muscled body that distinguishes them from other people who like to exercise for health, or to excel at some other sport.
Weight lifters, for example, develop muscles in order to lift immense loads in competition, and care little about their appearance. Indeed, most weight lifters sport authoritative paunches that would quickly disqualify them in a body-building contest, where men don’t lift or even do much of anything but flex their muscles for the appreciation of the judges and the gasps of the audience. The body builder’s goal is not practical but esthetic: to achieve an ideal of the male body.

Like Miss America, the body builder is identified by numbers: 57-31-28–chest, waist, thighs. And 22-inch arms. And 20-inch calves. Take tape measure to yourself if you want to understand why Arnold Schwarzenegger, who answers to those dimensions, is the world’s top body builder. Competing body builders win titles like Mr. America, Mr. Universe, Mr. World. With his 57-inch chest, Schwarzenegger has won Mr. Olympia, the big one, six years in a row.

According to “Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding,” published last year, Bernarr (Body Love) Macfadden staged the first true contest for the perfect male body in 1903 at Madison Square Garden. By the 1930’s, Charles Atlas had commercialized the sport; ads for his “97pound-weakling” course lurked on the back pages of comic books.

Recently, however, body-building promoters have noticed a marked increase in interest, Ed Jubinville, promoter of the Mr. New England contest Holyoke, Mass., says that when he began running contests in 1957, his audiences averaged 300 or 400; by 1970 they had increased to 1,200 to 1.500 and this year totaled 2,000. Joe Weider, whose company sells body-building and beauty products, acknowledges a yearly gross in the neighborhood of $73 million. Body builders will stage Bicentennial contest in Philadelphia next July and hope to enter the 1977 World Games in Manila. “Stay Hungry,” a movie about a body builder, based on a novel by Charles Gaines, is due to be released soon, and “Pumping Iron,” by Gaines and George Butler, has sold 65,000 copies since its publication last November.

(Body building is taken seriously abroad. It the second most popular spectator sport in the Middle East; kings give up court meetings to attend contests. The Japanese may like it better than sumo wrestling. South Africans and West Indians flock to competitions. When Schwarzenegger gave an exhibition in Australia this summer, he packed the elegant opera house in Sydney.)

Still, a lot of people consider the idea of body Charles Atlas, who commercialized body building with his “97-pound-weahlinn” mail-order course.

Arnold Schwarzenegger and the muscles that have won him the Mr. Olympia title for the past six years. Facing pose, top. Mr. Universe contestants 1972 building a little weird, if not downright sick, an obsession with exaggerated masculinity at a time when traditional concepts of masculinity are under heavy assault. Popular stereotypes depict the body builder as homosexual and narcissistic, a musclehound clown who functions as the male equivalent of the female “dumb-blonde” sex object. A psychiatrist writing in 1971 speculated that “body builders may have serious unconscious doubts about their maleness . . . “ and “since body building cultists literally distort the body . . . their activities may reflect a distorted body image.” Some body builders will admit to early feelings of insecurity. Lou Ferrigno, now 6 feet 5 inches tall, told me he was small at the age of 14. He saw the Hercules movies, starring a body builder. “I used always to dream of being a real masculine person, like a form of superior, dominating.”

But most body builders respond to these popular impressions by claiming that body builders are no more homosexual or narcissistic than practitioners of any other sport (the mirrors that line the walls of Gold’s Gym, they say, are necessary for checking the progress of muscle development). Perhaps they do turn to body building out of insecurity, but “show me any champion in any endeavor,” says Joe Nista, who holds several titles, “and I will show you a person who was one time insecure … the man who has his glasses on, his collar on, he has this degree, that degree, is just as insecure. The violinist. The And the actor.”

Body builders say they are not muscle-bound, and physiologists agree that gigantic muscles need not impair coordination. Many body builders are good skiers, swimmers or boxers. Dumb? Many body builders also pursue academic careers. California body buildPr Steve Davis managed to combine the two. For his master’s degree in psychology, he tested high-school students for self-concept, drilled them in body-building exercises for a few months, and then tested them again. In every case, the level of self-concept rose. “I think that if you can get somebody to look in a mirror, already he’s on the way to improved self-concept,” Davis says. “Kids that have never succeeded can lift five pounds more after three weeks. And success.”

Body building offers the conventional rewards of other sports — challenge, good health to an advanced age and the prospect of recognition. Robin Robinson, the new Mr. America, says, “In my home town, there, I’m just like, you would say, the President of the United States, and everybody looks up to me. especially the kids.” In “Pumping Iron,” Mike Katz says, “I don’t want to die just another slob . . . maybe 40 years from now, people will say. ‘Hey, that guy was Mr. America.’ This would give me enough happiness to die with smile face.”

In addition, body building has its own particular appeals. People who come to it from football and other sports say the rewards are greater and last longer. They mention “the pump,” a mysterious high that sweeps in after an hour’s workout and keeps a man energized all afternoon. Dan Howard, manager of Gold’s Gym, told me, “Body building is more habitforming than narcotics. The pump is a real high.” Charles Gaines says it feels like all your blood is new. Some say than

And body building is not a sport for the young alone. A number of body builders apparently stay in the sport to stave off age. Schwarzenegger says, “A lot of body builders reach their peak about 40. think it’s because of that thing they say happens to men about that age: Oh my God, I’m 38. Will I ever be the greatest? Am I going to fall apart like everyone says?”

Bill Pearl won the Mr. Uni• verse contest four times, the first time at the age of 22 and the last time at the age of 41, Ancient Athens had beauty contests for old men (one yearns to know the criteria for judging) and last summer, so did modern Los Angeles. At the first Mr. Senior Olympic competition, elastic contestants up to the age of 59 competed for the title beneath a sign that read “Senior Olympics: Youth Eternal.”

“Muscie” in Latin means “little mouse.” appar ently since some muscles resemble mice There are 656 of them in the human body. and they work to convert the chemical energy in food to the mechanical energy of contraction. A muscle has two kinds of filaments, one thick and the other thin, and they slide past each other as it contracts. The thin filaments are composed of the protein actin, the thick filaments of myosin. According to Dr. Frank Katch, an exercise physiologist and associate professor of physical education at Queens College, a muscle must pull at least 50 percent of its capacity in order to increase its strength. No one is sure why strength increases and muscles develop: however, it is known that the actin and myosin protein filaments increase in size as exercise occurs. The growth of the muscle proteins is aided by testosterone, the male sex hormone (for this reason, women cannot develop huge

A muscle-building program may involve three types of muscle contractions: Isometric, or static contractions (pushing hard against a stationary object, for example); isotonic contractions that occur in conventional weightlifting and isokinetic contractions that occur as a machine moves a limb at controlled speed and the body builder exerts as much force as he can against the machine at its set speed.

The serious body builder may train for nine months out of the year, following a grueling schedule of exercise that demands a devotion comparable to a medieval flagellant’s. For two or three hours every morning and again in the afternoon, six days a week, he strains at progressively increased weights. A beginner out to develop his pectorals, for example, might begin by lying down and trying to lift a 120-pound barbell off his chest 24 times. In a month he would increase the weight to 160 pounds and after a year, to 200 pounds. At the end of two years. he might be averaging 120 of these “bench presses” every other day. He would also do other pectoral exercises, plus four different exercises for his back, six for his thighs and calves and six for his biceps and triceps. And

The body-building life involves pain. discipline and devotion. Here Winston Chen works out on a leg press machine. sleep to his body’s needs and sunbathes seriously. White men have the disadvantage of looking like undercooked pasta in the glare of contest lights.

At a contest, with their bodies shaved clean and their skin oiled up, each man gets no more than 90 seconds on the stage. He poses. Front double biceps. Back double biceps. Three-quarter chest. He’ll get off about 15 poses in those 90 seconds. Posing styles vary wildly. One man grinds into position like a wood -burning locomotive, clenching his fists to make the biceps swell up bigger. Another shifts smoothly from pose to pose with the ease and flexibility of a dancer. Arms quiver with the strain. Flexing every muscle at once demands incredible effort. The average man would faint

One minute and a half on stage, one minute and a half to show off the tricepses, laterals, dorsals he’s savaged into bulbous shape every day for the best part of a year. The biggest man, “with the most meat on him.” has a good chance at the title. But he must have good symmetry, having developed all areas equally (including jaw muscles)—a man with monumental shoulders might lose on his wispy calves. And he must show splendid definition, each muscle group “cut up,” or separated from its neighbors, and perfectly formed.

The expert crowd stamps and roars to see thigh muscles so cleanly split that a nail file could pass between them, and pectorals that waggle independently of each other. Part of the applause is for a man’s discipline. The audience knows just how much sweat and pain went to make those diamond-shaped calves.

But for all of his effort, the winner is not likely to get rich. A few have turned professional—Arnold Schwarz. enegger, for example, makes a handsome living through endorsements and his own mail – order body building course, and when he wins the Mr. Olympia contest, he takes home a $1,000 prize. But most body builders are amateurs, like Steve Michalik, Mr. America 1972, who sent his wife to her mother’s to eat so he could afford his own meals of six or seven hamburgers and six or seven eggs, eight times a day. When he won the title, relatives began writing him for loans. Everyone knows that Miss America wins money, a car, a wardrobe. Mr. America says, “They didn’t give me 35 cents for a subway ride.” But then he adds: “If I do nothing else in life, this will have been

Still, the effort is awesome; so. to a degree, is the accomplishment. The victorious body builder has accomplished what he set out to do: to remake his body into some ideal image of himself. That’s more than most of us could say.

57-31-28: Chest, waist. thighs. It’s more than most of us could even wish.

5 thoughts on “Vicki Goldberg, ‘Is It An Art, A Sport or Sheer Exhibitionism?’, The New York Times, 30 November (1975)

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  1. Very interesting to read a mainstream take on bodybuilding from that time period! There seems to be a lot of missing text though. Many of the paragraphs end mid-sentence, for instance:

    “But then he adds: “If I do nothing else in life, this will have been”

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