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Saturday, September 15, 2012

No Gut, No Glory: My Adventure into the Underworld of Competitive Bodybuilding

by Todd Outcalt

     Picture a guy just turned forty years of age, a guy who’s been working out in the gym for two decades—straining under tons of black weight, force-feeding his body with creatine, vitamins, and massive containers of protein supplement—a guy who’s built a frame of muscle hidden under a thick layer of fat.  That’s me.  Or, more accurately, that was me.

     For years I’d been telling my wife that I was going to compete in a bodybuilding contest some day when I got “big enough.”  But every time I’d grow out of another pair of blue jeans or a five hundred dollar suit, I’d assure her that I’d soon settle down, get serious, and really work on getting into peak condition.  I used the line for years and it worked well . . . until I turned forty.

     And then my wife began insisting that I compete in something.  “Get this out of your system,” she told me.  “If you’re going to compete, do it!  You need to lose that gut.”  Having been a life-long, drug-free bodybuilder, I knew what I had to do.

     There were hundreds of bodybuilding competitions each year.  These ranged from the Mr. Olympia weekend—the pinnacle of the IFBB (International Federation of Body Building) professional bodybuilding competitions staged under Joe Weider’s moniker—to lesser-known amateur competitions sponsored by universities, regional and city athletic associations, or smaller federations devoted to a drug-free lifestyle.  Unlike some sports, where athletes work together as a team, bodybuilding is exclusively a solitary pursuit, with most athletes overseeing their own training, diet, and competition preparation (such as tanning, posing, and artistic presentation).  And while some of the top professional athletes might inject their fair share of steroids and growth hormones just to stay gigantic and hard, natural bodybuilders like myself, while not as muscular, had to focus on effective training and diet to get big and defined.

     Soon after Christmas (and my usual increased consumption of pecan pie and peanut butter fudge) I riffled through some of the natural bodybuilding magazines at the newsstand, located a contest, and sent in my registration fees.  There!  I was committed.  Now I had to get into shape.

     At six-one and two hundred forty pounds, I knew I was talking about a serious transformation in my physique.  I found myself training and dieting with a new intensity and dedication.  I started weaning my body on chicken breasts, egg whites, and fresh fruits and vegetables instead of eating spaghetti and meatballs.  I counted carbohydrate calories and lost ten pounds the first month.  That initial boost, coupled with diet aids, gave me a jumpstart toward getting into the best shape of my life.

     But the work got tougher.

     Unlike most mediums in which an artist or sculptor might work, I discovered that the human body—or more particularly, my body—resisted change.  I’d been lifting weights for years, putting on muscle, paying little attention to particulars such as definition, vascularity, and muscle separation and clarity—the real trademarks of a bodybuilder’s appearance.  But when I started trying to chisel these details into my forty-year-old body—well, I came up against one formidable foe.

     In particular, my gut was going to be a problem.  I’d never had washboard abs at any time in my life—not even as a skinny adolescent—and my wife was always kidding me about my waistline.  But I was determined to find a six-pack inside me somewhere!

     A couple of months before the contest, I upped the intensity of my abdominal training and took my diet to another level.  In a few weeks, I actually started seeing six distinct abdominal muscles stacked atop my waist.  I kept at it, and a month before the show, I had a firm six pack.

     By now I was down to 215 pounds.  But I still had a long way to go.  The last month, I knew, would be torturous.

     I started working out twice a day, increased my aerobic activity to burn 500-600 calories at a pop, and kept hoisting the weights.  But as I lost weight I was getting weaker.  Where I had been leg pressing 1000 pounds, I could now only do 700 pounds for reps, and my bench press had fallen from 300 to 235.  But I was feeling great.

     However, as my weight and strength faded even further, my emotions were on a trip wire.  I had all the symptoms of my wife’s PMS.  Without carbs, I felt mean all the time.  My children avoided me.  I kept to myself.  And if I’d had a dog, I’d have kicked it in the balls.

     Relief arrived three days before the contest, when I consumed my first carbohydrate meal in four days.

            The day before the contest I weighed in at 203 pounds.  I’d shed nearly 40 pounds of fat, kept most of my muscle mass, and lost my libido (a side-effect of competitive bodybuilding no man likes to talk about).  All in all it was a nice trade off.  I didn’t have to worry about performing in bed, and my wife loved the new slimed down version of my gut.  Now all I had to do was show up at the competition and pose in front of a live audience.  How difficult could that be?



     The day before the competition I found myself sitting in a cold dormitory room hooked up to a polygraph machine.  A police officer administered the test on behalf of the bodybuilding federation, and I was asked a series of questions regarding my use of banned substances.  Some initial questions were asked to establish a line of truth and determine my reactions to the procedure itself:  “Do people call you Todd?”  “Do you live in Indianapolis?”  “Do you realize how stupid you look hooked up to this machine?”

     Then the officer turned his attention to the list of banned substances:  anabolic steroids, growth hormones, anabolic enhancers (such as the popular androstenedione), diuretics, and a litany of other substances I wouldn’t attempt to pronounce, much less ingest into my body.  I answered “no” to all of the questions and given a “drug-free” thumbs-up.

     I gathered with the other competitors the next morning—thirty in all—inside the auditorium where we would soon be strutting our stuff.  The field of competitors was a study in humanity.  One guy showed up wearing nothing but a butcher’s smock.  There were fair-skinned teenagers competing in their division who were built more like bicyclists than bodybuilders.  One of the women competitors was a sixty-one year old grandmother who was so deeply tanned that her skin had taken on the texture of an alligator handbag.

     I had no idea how I was going to fare until all of the competitors were ushered backstage and we began stripping down and pumping up for the prejudging (the first and most crucial stage of a contest when the judges compare the competitors side-by-side by putting them through a series of “compulsory” poses).  Right away I could tell that I had missed the mark.  Compared to the other guys I did not have the quality the judges would be looking for.  I was humbled.

     In addition to competing in the “masters division”—reserved for those over forty years of age—I had chosen to also compete in the “open”—that is, for the overall title.  Although I was the youngest and the biggest of the masters competitors, I was clearly out of the running.  Even the old men I was competing against had rock-hard bodies. And as for the open competitors, I had twenty years on most of them, and their youthfulness and muscularity was clearly superior. 

     One guy, a fellow named Willie Joe, looked like the man to beat.  He was the only competitor taller or larger than me, and we found ourselves sitting next to each other in the locker room swapping insights.  “You look good,” he told me at one point.

     “The best shape of my life,” I told him proudly.  “But I’m not in your caliber.”

     He smiled and flexed his pecs while his personal trainer lathered his back with posing oil.  Nearby, two guys were coating each other with PAM cooking spray—an inexpensive way to prepare the muscles to reflect the glare of the stage lights and bring out maximum definition.  They were completely naked, and didn’t even flinch when a couple of wives and girlfriends walked into the men’s room to oil up their husbands and boyfriends.  Modestly, I slid behind a locker, not wanting the ladies to see me oiled up in my tiny bikini briefs.  But no one was interested in looking at an old guy like me anyway.

     “How many times have you competed?” I asked Willie Joe.

     Willie Joe’s trainer, a giant man who looked like a professional wrestler, answered, “Hell, we’ve been all over ain’t we?  We’ve done shows in California, Texas, Florida.  This is Willie’s fourth show this year.”

     “This is my first,” I said sheepishly.  “I lost forty pounds getting ready for this one.”

     “No shit?!”  Willie’s friend allowed his eyes to graze over the length and breadth of my body.  “I’d hate to see what you’d look like if you’d had a couple more weeks of dieting.  You got size, man.  Great symmetry.”

     I followed Willie Joe out of the men’s locker room into the pump room, where most of the competitors were busy sweating and lifting.

     In one corner, a couple of the women were getting ready to go on stage, flexing and staring at their reflections in the mirror, their bronzed bodies hard and cut.  A few of the men were pumping up early, and every ten minutes or so, one of the show’s organizers would poke his head into the pump room and call for the next batch of competitors.  Each announcement was followed by more furious pumping and flexing, and yet the atmosphere was very asexual, each competitor interested only in his or her own appearance.

     Finally the call came for the men’s masters division.  We entered stage left to a rousing round of applause and stood before the judges.  The seven judges—including two women—sat directly in front of us behind the lights, staring at each body as if inspecting a side of beef for marbling and any glaring irregularities that might relegate a grade-A prime cut to hamburger.  The head judge barked his commands and we obliged with our well-rehearsed poses.

     Although we were only on stage five to seven minutes, we were sweating bullets in no time.  Like a Miss America contestant, I wondered if I had chosen the wrong color posing trunks, or should have dyed some of the gray out of my temples.  Had I shaved my armpits well enough? What would it take to get the attention of the judges? I wondered.

     As we exited the stage I wondered why I had made such an insane commitment.


     The evening show was not a packed house, but close.  And the audience was one of the liveliest I’d ever heard.  For the show, each competitor was allowed to do a sixty-second posing routine set to music.  I’d practiced my routine only sparingly in the weeks leading up the competition, selecting The Steve Miller band’s Keep on Rockin’ Me Baby as my opus.

     When my turn came, I stepped onto the stage, managed to run through my dozen poses without falling down, and exited quickly.  Leave them wanting more, I thought.  When I looked up into the crowd, I noted that my wife was smiling at me as I walked off the stage.

     The rest of the show went as I’d expected.  Willie Joe finished on top of the men’s tall class, but was beaten by a smaller bodybuilder for the overall title.  The old men showed up ripped and ready in the master’s division.  And me?  Well, I took third place (out of four) in the masters and got dead last in the open.  But hey, I beat somebody!  Must have been my aftershave lotion.

     As soon as the show was over, however, I started anticipating my reward.  I hadn’t eaten dessert in months and I was craving something sweet.  I had to find some chocolate . . . and fast.

     But as my wife and I were walking across the parking lot after the show, one of the judges approached, pulled me aside, and complemented me on my physique.  “I think you were the biggest guy here,” he told me.  “Guys of your stature aren’t usually able to build enough mass to look symmetrical.  But you’ve got a nice build.  If only you’d come in a bit sharper, I think you’d have placed very high.”

     There was that word again:  sharper. 

     “You think I could do better?” I asked.

     “Oh yeah!” he shot back.  “Don’t give up.  You should compete again.”

     At that moment, of course, I wasn’t thinking about competing at anything except eating.  I’d had my heart set on a chocolate dessert for months.

     I thanked the judge for his comments and then my wife and I drove out to a local restaurant at eleven p.m. to celebrate my efforts and the beginning of a week-long vacation with the kids in Florida.  (A vacation where, lying sedentary on the beach and dining every evening on fried seafood and hot buttered rolls, I would gain back fifteen pounds in one week and lose my muscular definition in two days.

     At the restaurant, my wife ordered a glass of water.  I ordered a Brownie Double Fudge Delight and a glass of whole milk.

     “Don’t get sick,” my wife reminded me.  “You’ve not had any sugars or fats for months.”

     I consumed five or six bites anyway, and immediately felt a queasiness that had me teetering on the edge of vomiting.  Somehow I managed to keep it all down.

     “So . . . are you going to do this again?” my wife asked while I gulped my milk.

     I thought about the compliments I’d received, the improvements I could make, a better dieting plan.  Then I considered how many Brownie Double Fudge Delights and boxes of Krispy Kreme donuts I’d have to give up in order to get sharp.  “I don’t think so,” I said.  “Too much time, effort, and sacrifice.  I’ve got too many other goals in my life.”

     My wife smiled her alluring smile and stared at my two hundred pound frame of solid muscle and bone.  I could tell she wanted me.  I hadn’t seen that look in her eyes since our honeymoon.  “You should compete again,” she said seductively.


     “You look good this way, all tanned and smooth and ripped,” she told me, winking.  “Really hot.”

     I gazed into my wife’s eyes, considered all of the things we could do together in bed, but hadn’t done in weeks because I had been consumed by training, dieting, and tanning.  I looked down at my big brownie smothered in fudge.

     “I might compete again,” I told her, lusting in my heart, eager to fulfill my wildest culinary desires.  “But not tonight . . . I have a headache.  And right now, I just want to finish my dessert.” 

 Todd, 3 Days Before Competition
Todd, 10 Days After Competition

Todd Outcalt is the author of twenty-five books in six languages including Before You Say "I Do", Candles in the Dark, and The Best Things in Life Are Free.  His short work (fiction and non) has graced the pages of publications such as American Fitness, Newsweek, The Christian Science Monitor, Cure, Brides, and For the Bride (where he also wrote a column for grooms).  Two of his articles on breast cancer have also won prizes.  In addition to writing Todd enjoys kayaking, hiking, and lifting weights--but he no longer competes in bodybuilding competitions!  He lives in Brownsburg, Indiana with his wife and is hard at work—always!—on his next book and essay.