Friday, May 23, 2008

MUSCLED UP OR BOUND BY OBSESSION?

Dear Crabby:

What are your thoughts on professional bodybuilding? I only ask because I have a nephew who’s just turned 16 and is absolutely obsessed with the sport. His mother and I worry about the dark side of things – eg. steroids and so on. But my nephew wants a weight set for his birthday. Any advice you can offer would be appreciated.

Doris in Manatoba




Dear Doris with Dumbbells:

You’ve asked two very different separate questions; the first regarding what is laughingly consider ‘pro’ and ‘a sport’; the second – an inquiry about becoming physically fit. So, permit me to answer these polar opposite concerns in turn, with the disclaimer that I, of course, am not a physician.
First, pro-bodybuilding – whether it’s circa 1970s in the good ol’ Arnold Schwarzenegger days or today – has always been a relatively crude competition exclusively marketed and at the mercy of illegal drug abuse. Not that you can convince any pro-bodybuilder of it – especially when they’re peaking during their pre-competition phase.
No, some hulking 300lb. brute will have no shame in going before a television camera with biceps the size of most average men’s thighs and declare that he built such extraordinary girth through vitamin supplementation, healthy eating and sheer will power alone. To admit otherwise would force a competitor out of competition.
The hypocrisy within the ‘sport’ is that no one minds what you’re doing as long as you don’t talk about it. Ah me, such is the self-delusion that will believe any lie.

Yet, year after year we see a healthy sampling of these ‘unhealthy professionals’ succumb to a barrage of ailments, even death, while still in their late twenties and early thirties.

So, does every bodybuilder on steroids die early of a side effect?
No, just as not every chronic alcoholic will die of liver disease or a car wreck.
However, most juicing it up will experience some sort of unwanted physical negation.

For every physician who goes on record claiming steroid abuse provided the catalyst for these illnesses there are two or three others – usually funded by some pharmaceutical company exploiting young impressionable men as their guinea pigs – who will suggest that any illness, whatever it may be, was destined to happened to the individual in question with or without steroids filtered into the equation.

To be clear – steroids are an accelerant, nothing more.
They DO NOT actually build muscle!
You still have to pick up the weights and do that for yourself. What steroids do is alter the body’s natural chemistry in such a way so that its growth hormone (testosterone) levels are thrown entirely out of whack.

The surge of false energy that follows convinces the mind that the body is stronger than it actually is and, as a result, a man on steroids can lift more weight, harder and for longer periods of time, so that the body is thrown into overdrive 24/7.
With that much physical abuse, the body is forced into a growth spurt cycle that never ends. An average man can pack on twenty to forty pounds of lean mass in just under a month. Doubling doses and ‘cycling’ doses – from one drug to the next – can maximize the intake period of these drugs into a perpetual assault of oral and needle injected drug abuse that never allows the body to fully recover.

There are all sorts of different steroids.
Not all of them do the same thing.
Some help build mass – which, at some level involves water retention - while others support a ‘cutting phase’ where the body becomes excessively dehydrated, giving the illusion that the muscles are larger and tighter than they are since all of the liquid between them and the surface skin has been urinated or sweated from the body.

The problem with steroids is that they accelerate not only the external appearance of the body but also its internal workings. Heart rate and blood pressure rise and the aging processes go into overdrive, wearing out such vital organs as the heart, liver, lungs and kidneys.
Worse, steroids often force the body’s natural production of testosterone into remission – which means that once you get off these drugs you don’t simply atrophy (shrink) to the size you were before you started your cycle, but you reduce to a level of functioning that is less than what your former self was capable of.

I understand perfectly why your nephew is ‘obsessed’ with the sport in general and bodybuilders in particular.
Outwardly, most of today’s bodybuilders have adopted the freakish physical appearance of comic book super heroes like the Incredible Hulk. That’s a powerful and intoxicating image to aspire to; the envy of other men and the ideal for many women.
After all, when you’re a boy and you desperately want to be a man, why be average when super human is so much more appealing?

And anyway, artists of humanity have always had a curious predilection for extolling the virtues of an overtly muscular male form: Michelangelo’s statue of David (right) and his painting of the very chiseled hand of God touching a rock solid naked man’s (below) being but two prime examples.

You would do wise to point out to your nephew – or, more ideally have some male figure illustrate the point for you – that the irony of bodybuilding on steroids is that it makes you look as though you could uproot an entire tree and carry it over one shoulder like a match stick, but in actuality these drugs have weakened virtually all normal functions within the body – including physical strength. Bodybuilders on steroids are frequently prone to bouts of lethargy, physical exhaustion and mental blackouts and these symptoms only increase as the drug abuse wears on.
What I find quite serious and rather disturbing about young boys who want to become professional bodybuilders today is how warped their perspective on self body image actually is. This rarely gets discussed, but boys who desire that extreme bizarre shape of a pro bodybuilder for themselves are, at least in my opinion, suffering from a similar malaise that afflicts teen girls who never seem to get thin enough to suit their own diluted image of physical perfection a la the super model/anorexia syndrome.

For these boys, an average or even slightly above average male physique doesn’t appear normal.
It isn’t enough to have a washboard stomach.
The abdominals must be protruding from the midsection like a six pack of hearty English muffins tightly packed in a breakfast tin.
Biceps are not big enough unless every vein is thick and popping around a mass of flesh the size of a football.
The chest must be so bulbous that its nipples are pointing downward from the swollen muscle.
Thighs must be so broad that it is physically impossible to put one’s legs together with both calve muscles touching.

And even if this disproportionate physique is attained, the goal of being bigger than big is never quite reached to their full satisfaction of the bodybuilder. As time wears on, setbacks of either illness or injury lead to inevitable pauses in their regular workout regime with a reduction in their girth that these boys find appalling – even depressing.

There are too many reasons to list herein as to why super huge is a bad idea. Suffice it to state for the record that personal mobility, finding clothes that actually fit and frequent outbreaks of surface acne fall to the bottom of this list of negatives when one is facing drug induced leukemia or a malignant brain tumor.

Finally, steroids – though readily available in every venue from the high school gym to the local health club – are against the law.
Possession as well is selling can net some hefty jail time. And anyway – since we all know it is virtually impossible to have a twenty inch waste and sixty-two inch chest at the same time without artificial help is there really any point in being proud of any achievement that is not entirely yours to take credit for?

There - so much for the first part of your question. As per part two, my advice is quite simple and infinitely shorter to digest: buy your nephew his weight set.
WHAT?!?
Why not?
There’s nothing wrong with getting into peak physical condition the old-fashioned way; through hard work, eating properly and exercising regularly. Resistance training with weights will give your nephew a different body than the one he has now and one he can look in the mirror at without feeling guilty.

Bottom line:
you can’t fast track your way to a better body!
Slow and steady wins the race every time. If your nephew doubts this old adage, tell him that it took sixteen years – from birth to 16 – to properly develop him into his current physical condition.

Yours truly
The Crabby Critic
@The Crabby Critic 2008 (all rights reserved).

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