Bodybuilders make sacrifices to obtain their perfect bodies, but “perfect” does not necessarily mean healthy.
“Come on man, one more!”
Josh Kuechler grunts as his friend shouts words of encouragement. A booming rock song blasts through his black earbuds as he finds the strength to push the two dumbbells he holds, which together equal 200 pounds, into the air. His red hair, which peaks out from underneath a baseball cap adorned with the American flag, drips with sweat. As he raises the heavy weights upward, his large arms, dotted with freckles as well as two tattoos, flex, revealing extreme muscle definition and popping veins.
After completing his last repetition, he drops the weights, and they land on the ground with a loud thud. Josh rises from the bench and walks toward the long mirror that lines the front wall of the weight room. He bends his knees and twists his hips, then flexes his biceps in an upward motion.
Josh, a senior exercise science major at Ball State University, devotes almost 10 hours each week to bodybuilding.
He was first introduced to the sport while in high school. Josh was heavily involved in football and wrestling, and he had never really thought about pursuing bodybuilding. However, he began to have problems with depression and anxiety. Some of his friends had been bodybuilding and really enjoyed it. Josh started doing research and learned that weight training had been proven to release more “feel-good” endorphins in the body. This, along with the motivation to get in better shape, helped Josh make his decision to become a bodybuilder.
He competed for the first time earlier this year in the Mr. Ball State bodybuilding competition, where he placed as the second runner-up. He will be returning to the competition next April as well as competing in the Midwest Battle of Champions.
Competitive bodybuilding can be traced back to the late 19th century. German jock Eugen Sandow became the “father of modern bodybuilding” by traveling all over to display his buff body and perform various feats of strength. He created many revolutionary training processes that athletes still use today. During this time, bodybuilders began to emerge. They focused on lifting weights for entertainment purposes and to impress others rather than only wanting to improve their physical physique.
In the mid 1900s, bodybuilding entered its golden age. Strength and gymnastics champions emerged, protein and nutritional supplements became more readily available, and fitness magazines exploded in popularity. Bodybuilders flocked to Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, California, where bodybuilding celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Joe Gold got their start. More became interested in the sport, and bodybuilding competitions and organizations grew rapidly.
Today, bodybuilders such as Josh still focus on creating picture-perfect bodies through various strategies.
Athletes preparing for bodybuilding competitions must drastically reduce body fat while maintaining muscle mass. Most achieve this by decreasing their caloric intake, completing intense strength training, and increasing cardiovascular exercise, according to an article published by the U.S. National Library of Medicine.
Although Josh will not be competing until next spring, he still follows a strict exercise and diet regimen. He meets with his personal trainer to get his workout routine for each week. Then, he spends more than an hour each evening in the weight room in Ball State’s recreation center, completing a series of exercises that push his muscles to the limit.
But as Josh explains, a bodybuilder’s eating habits take an even bigger time commitment. Each Sunday, he spends around four to five hours preparing his food for the coming week. Josh eats eight meals a day, which he spaces out between every two to three hours.
His diet mainly includes protein-packed foods, such as chicken, fish, eggs, and nutritional shakes. He cannot miss a meal, no matter what. On a particularly busy day, Josh only had time to eat six meals before his evening class that lasts three hours. He decided to bring Tupperware containers full of chicken breast, tilapia, and brown rice to his class, along with a giant container of hot sauce in order to give his food more flavor.
This is normal for Josh, though. He says that at the beginning of the semester, when he brings his large cooler full of food to his classes, he does get odd looks from his peers. But they normally grow accustomed to his unusually large meals.
Once the day of competition arrives, the hard work is finally put to the test. David Pearson, an associate professor of exercise science at Ball State, has coordinated the Mr. and Mrs. Ball State bodybuilding competitions for more than 30 years. He says that Ball State’s competition is structured in the same way as any other bodybuilding competition would be.
In the men’s division, there are two different classes: medium, for those who are 5 feet 9 inches and under, and tall, which includes men who are taller than 5 feet 10 inches. Josh, standing at 6 feet 4 inches, competed in the tall division this past year. Because the female division is so small, there is only one class. However, at larger competitions, women are also placed in similar categories.
A typical competition contains two rounds, explains Pearson. During the first, each class of competitors file out on the stage. The judges call out a pose to the bodybuilders. Then, each competitor twists his or her body into the same stance. This way, the judges can easily begin to compare the athletes’ arms, backs, and legs to one another. Once the judges are satisfied, the next round begins.
In the second portion of the contest, each is given a solo, 60-second timeframe. This, as Pearson explains, is the contestant’s “time to shine.” Some choose to do classic bodybuilding poses. Many contestants choose to incorporate costumes. And, especially for the female competitors, some even decide to do a routine that could be similar to what would be seen at a gymnastics competition. He says the second round of the contest is more about showing off to the audience and having fun.
In high school, Josh competed in varsity sports in front of huge crowds. He was used to performing in front of big audiences. But, for him, nothing compares to the feeling of being on stage at a bodybuilding competition. When he is the center of the audience’s attention at a show, he feels a huge rush of adrenaline as the crowd cheers and claps, admiring the body he has worked so hard for.
During bodybuilding competitions, judges are very specific on what they search for. Nate Brown, an instructor of exercise science at Ball State, will be a judge at the 2018 Mr. and Mrs. Ball State bodybuilding competition. As an avid athlete and bodybuilder himself, he says that judges typically look for three key points.
The first is muscularity, meaning a competitor’s muscles are clearly visible and defined. The second is conditioning, which means the bodybuilder is physically fit and has endurance. The last, and possibly the most important point, is balance.
Many times, an audience will go crazy at a bodybuilding competition if an athlete walks on stage with giant biceps. However, as Pearson explains, if that individual does not have equally large thighs and calves, then he or she will get docked points. The best bodybuilders show equilibrium, meaning they spend just as much time strengthening their arms as they do on other parts of their body, such as their back and legs.
Preparing for these competitions takes work, time, and money—which, if taken too far, can be detrimental.
In the weeks before a competition, bodybuilders have to significantly cut back on the amount of food they eat. Many cut back on calories and choose to not eat any carbohydrates in order to be as lean as possible on the day of the show. Most also opt to not drink much water, so that their muscles are as clearly defined as possible without fear of being hidden behind “water weight.” The extremely strict diet can make bodybuilders especially “hangry,” says Brown. The small amount of food they allow themselves, combined with especially tough workouts and the stress of everyday life, creates a feeling of anxiety and uneasiness in many.
According to the Body Dysmorphic Disorder Foundation, muscle dysmorphia is essentially the opposite of anorexia: Rather than being concerned with being too b
ig, those with the disorder are always worried they are not big and muscular enough. The sport of bodybuilding largely focuses on self-i
mage; therefore, those who bodybuild are especially susceptible to muscle dysmorphia.
These factors can negatively affect bodybuilders. However, anabolic steroids can be even more detrimental.
Anabolic steroids, as explained by Encyclopedia Britannica, are drugs that mimic testosterone, the male sex hormone. When used, these steroids increase the growth of muscle tissue. They are often prescribed by doctors to treat various conditions, including anemia, breast cancer, osteoporosis, and HIV. These steroids are commonly abused by athletes who want to increase their muscle mass.
The use of anabolic steroids by bodybuilder
s began to multiply in the late 1980s. Suddenly, competitors grew to be impossibly huge. They gained weight rapidly while showing no visible fat on their extremely-sculpted bodies. Although illegal in the United States, the use of these drugs is still very prevalent in bodybuilding today, explains Brown.
According to the National Institute on Drug Abuse, anabolic steroids can create a wide range of side effects, including acne, infertility, male-pattern baldness, rage and aggression, and even cancer and heart attacks.
Bodybuilders also spend large amounts of money on their sport. They must consider the costs of personal coaches, contest entry fees, gym membership costs, grocery bills, and spray tans needed before competitions. Josh says these costs can add up quickly.
Bodybuilding is an energy and money commitment for Josh. And, as a full-time student, a member of a fraternity, and a part-time employee at T.I.S. Bookstore, bodybuilding takes up a big portion of Josh’s free time. For him, though, the sport is not so much about competing against others. Rather, it’s becoming a better version of himself.
The competitive aspect of bodybuilding is not important to most, explains Pearson. For many of the athletes he works with, it is about being physically and mentally healthy while also growing a community with others. Josh has formed many close friends through his involvement with bodybuilding.
After graduation, Josh is not sure if he will continue the sport. However, the exercise science major does have an ultimate goal of opening his own gym where he can help others become the best versions of themselves through bodybuilding.