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Charles Atlas and Jay Cutler

Tom Platz’s thighs are the point when it started to get positively unreal.  Long before Photoshop, you had the Golden Eagle. The Quadfather.  Quadzilla.  He wasn’t so much a person anymore as he was a blonde-topped boulder of bronzed, unattainable mass.

Because gaining mass is the point, right?  It was Mac’s big character arc in season 7 of It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.  And his best-laid plans went awry in much the same way they do for most would-be hardgainers.  He ate huge amounts of terrible food, gained pounds in the wrong places, and justified it by using the misguided terminology gleaned from cursory checkout line-skims of Weider muscle magazines.  He was “bulking up” so that he could “cut down.”  He’d “get shredded” come summertime.  We’ve heard it all before; we’ve said it all before.

I grew up in the shadows of Tom Platz and his bodybuilding contemporaries.  By then, that sport was already past the point of no return.  Larry Scott, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Serge Nubret, Sergio Oliva, Frank Zane, and Franco Columbu had launched the arms race:  they were chemically enhanced well beyond their human potential.  Zane, nicknamed “the Chemist,” turned steroid cycling into an art form. Others, like pencil neck geek turned mustachioed 1970s pinup Steve Michalik, made a habit of never cycling off the hard stuff.

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Tom Platz, a.k.a. Thighzilla

It hadn’t always been this way.  My father played football at West Virginia University from 1958 to 1961, during which time his commitment to weight training earned him the sobriquet “Tommy Torso” from teammates.  Viewed from the perspective of 2014, he appears to be nothing special:  a fit, somewhat muscular 210-pound man with relatively normal proportions.  But it bears noting that he grew up in the shadow of Steve Reeves, the 1947 AAU Mr. America best known for his taciturn performances in the sword and sandal epics of the late 1950s.

I can’t over-stress what an important difference that made. Steve Reeves and the middle-aged version of Charles Atlas that leered out at my father from the back pages of comic books represented possible bodies, conceivable bodies. Atlas, in particular, offered his adherents a promise of salvation through isometric exercise:  not only will my training program have you looking like me, but you will also be every bit as powerful and successful as I am.  You’ll kayo bullies, date beautiful women, and, at least in my father’s case, transform an undersized body into one capable of earning a football scholarship to a D1 university.

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Steve Michalik as Mr. America, 1972; and later

But when I was a chubby, scrubby kid, the bodies I saw meant nothing to me.  My father, raised in a different era, continued to preach his old-timey mantra of better living through exercise.  For me and my brother, however, Tom Platz and Lee Haney were ridiculous.  We knew nothing of anabolic steroids, but we knew something was up.  The fix was in.  Do young women, who are force-fed a steady diet of computer-modified Cosmopolitan thigh gaps and airbrushed midriffs, feel likewise? At what point does the pursuit of such a phantasmagoric body become absurd, in the proper philosophical sense of the term?

Here’s the funny thing:  thanks to improved training methods and a better understanding of nutrition, I’ve spent several years of my life, including most of the last two, walking around with Steve Reeves’ build.  Not his matinee idol good looks, mind you, but with roughly the same amount of unenhanced musculature.  So have a bunch of my not-at-all steroid-boosted training partners and many of the other habitués of gyms to which I’ve belonged.

But you know someone whose build I’ve never seen duplicated or even approximated? Jay Cutler, the four-time Mr. Olympia who would hit the competition stage weighing upwards of 270 pounds and who has admitted that steroid use is the sine qua non of modern bodybuilding.  He was doing some promotional work before his guest posing session at the NPC Pittsburgh Championships, and…there’s just no way to describe this guy that does him justice.  He’s 5’6”, 5’7” if one is being generous, and he’s at least that many feet wide.  He’s the most hypertrophied human being I’ve ever laid eyes on, though I assume an encounter with Cutler’s Mr. Olympia predecessor Ronnie Coleman would be similarly awe-inspiring.  There aren’t words to describe the state of Cutler’s maximalist body, which was achieved by dint of a staggeringly rep-intensive exercise routine and an equally staggering performance-enhancing drug regimen.  If Tom Platz’s thighs in the Weider magazine pictorials were unreal, viewing Cutler in the flesh is hyperreal. The man is beyond belief.

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Jay Cutler

I don’t oppose the use of steroids and other performance-enhancing drugs, and I can understand the pressures that induce professional athletes to use them.  But it’s not just a chance meeting with Cutler that reminds me how much the game has changed.  I competed in a meaningless regional powerlifting contest a few weeks ago, and witnessed a man one weight class above mine deadlift 700 pounds as easily as I’ve ever pulled 565—if not easier, if not like an absolute featherweight.  I then looked on with a mixture of admiration and bemusement as that same competitor, benching without the aid of a suit, brought 465 pounds to his chest, paused, and on command drove it right back up, when I’ve never even exceeded 375 pounds using the identical technique during fifteen years of reasonably diligent practice.

 Do these bodies, which transcend the natural, also represent aspirational dead ends?

Although I wasn’t disappointed with my own performance at this event, I left wondering what I had observed.  It’s not that the numbers achieved at the competition were fake in that they were photoshopped or accomplished with the use of empty stage weights; no, all of those lifts were really completed.  The lifts were, in fact, every bit as hyperreal as Jay Cutler’s gigantic Cadillac of a body.  Yet why, I pondered, would anyone want to use steroids to artificially enhance these numbers? No money was at stake, only fleeting glory in front of a crowd of 200 onlookers.

My father and I both grew up in isolated and extremely insular rural communities.  To each of us, the popular culture that emanated from the two coasts seemed like the stuff dreams were made of.  But his fitness dreams were the neorealist epics of De Sica and Ozu; mine were the stylized, ludicrous nightmares of Jodorowsky and Švankmajer.  What do kids in flyover country today make of the likes of Branch Warren, Phil Heath, and Kai Greene?  Do these bodies, which transcend the natural, also represent aspirational dead ends?  Does anyone see Branch Warren’s picture next to a tub of some sawdust-like protein powder and think, “Man, that could be me in five years?”

Bodybuilding, which was once a mere adjunct to weightlifting competitions back in the 1940s when the events were AAU-sanctioned, has now become something quite different.  Previously, it purported to offer us the finest reflections of the reality in which we all existed. Today it is a virtual reality that exists alongside our own, like other major sports in which PED usage is rampant.  The gains in terms of competitor size and vascularity have been tremendous, but there have been some pretty impressive losses for mankind, too.