Gordon LaVelle is a former competitive bodybuilder with more than a quarter-century of weight-training experience. He's an author of books and articles about weight training and other fitness-related topics, and holds a BA in Philosophy from the University of California at Santa Barbara.
His new book, Bodybuilding: Tracing The Evolution Of The Ultimate Physique, describes and analyzes the events, circumstances and personalities responsible for transforming Sandow’s simple display into the institution that created and exalted men like Coleman. The book furthermore explores how the concept of the ideal muscular physique first materialized; how the idea was championed, celebrated, and later, why it was almost forgotten; and why it took thousands of years, two rediscoveries of Classical civilization, and an entirely unlikely series of events for bodybuilding to finally come into existence.
Above all else, the book documents the gradually shifting attitudes that have prevailed behind bodybuilding's century-old, perpetually-mutating wall of muscle – and how bodybuilding may be a metaphor for an attitude shift that has taken place, during that time, throughout the Western world.
Muscle & Strength: Gordon, tell me about your new book and why you decided to write it?
Gordon LaVelle: It's a completely history of bodybuilding, along with commentary and analysis. I wrote it because there's no book in existence that does the same thing.
Consider the current state of bodybuilding, for example modern-day Mr. Olympia contests. It was a long and strange evolution allowed that spectacle to come into existence. The purpose of the book is not only to describe the events of that evolution, but to suggest which events were most critical and why. If you go to the Amazon.com page for the book and click on the Look Inside feature, one of the things it shows you is a timeline of the more important events in bodybuilding's history. Some of these things will look familiar to bodybuilding fans, like when Eugen Sandow first stepped onstage and did nothing but flex his muscles. That's how bodybuilding all got started.
Other things are significant but less well-known - for instance when Leopold Ruzicka first successfully synthesized testosterone in 1935. Where would bodybuilding be without that? It's important, so it's in the book. A lot of modern fans also might not recall that 20 years ago the IFBB actually drug-tested the Mr. Olympia contest, and that drug-testing was dropped when it was realized that fans and competitors hated it.
The book is primarily about the evolving look of bodybuilders, but it's impossible to delve into the topic without examining the factors that influenced that evolution. A big part of the equation has always been bodybuilding's power-brokers. The biggest of that pond's big fish, Joe Weider, is an especially interesting study. He was a huge influence on the evolution of bodybuilding, and he played an enormous part in its growth, but he often operated in a blatantly hypocritical style.
Muscle & Strength: Let's dive into some Joe Weider conversations. He is a controversial figure. Would you mind sharing with us a little bit about his rise to prominence?
Gordon LaVelle: By the accounts of some who partnered with him, Weider's rise to prominence was based on vision, focus, a tireless work ethic and a willingness to be cut-throat and cunning. I think the hypocrisy stems from this. For example, in one Muscle & Fitness interview he talks about his love for bodybuilders being the driving force behind his involvement with bodybuilding, yet he has also been found liable on multiple occasions for trying to rip bodybuilders off by selling them bogus products and supplements. The Anabolic Mega-Packs he sold in the '80s is a good example of this. Although that supplement was essentially just a bunch of vitamins, minerals and herbs, his advertising campaign implied they were as effective as anabolic steroids. The boxes even said "Steroid-Free!" on them, if you can even believe that.
Weider adopted a strong anti-steroid stance in Muscle & Fitness during that time, and even declared "the IFBB won't put up with steroid use," but his magazines showed countless pictures of obvious drug users and the accompanying articles heaped praise on them. He put his money where his mouth in 1990 and actually tested for drugs. The IFBB even nailed Shawn Ray and made him give back his check and trophy for winning the Arnold Classic that year. However, shortly after Vince McMahon created a rival federation that threatened to draw away bodybuilders and fans, Weider dropped drug-testing and never mentioned it again.
Weider's false advertising and his abandonment of drug testing strongly suggest that, like so many other things, it was all about the money. But apparently Weider liked the idea of wielding supreme power too. According to the claims of a few people who knew him (like Bob Gajda and Ed Corney), Weider had a special fascination with Hitler and his Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels. That alone is enough to raise some eyebrows, but when you consider that Weider is Jewish and had European relatives that were exterminated by Nazis, it's just bizarre. It's beyond hypocrisy.
Weider's self-branding is also a bit hypocritical, although it's mainly more a case of blatant misrepresentation. The famous statues and illustrations of Weider make him look like a modern pro bodybuilder (in fact they used Robby Robinson as the model for both). Yet most of his life Weider just looked like a typical, out-of-shape businessman.
Weider has looked rather frail at recent public appearances, and he might not make it much longer. When he dies, I'm sure there's going to be this big outpouring of praise for everything he did for bodybuilding, and for health and fitness. People will talk about what a great guy he was, and how he made the world a better place. Part of the book's analysis covers his impact on bodybuilding and the outside world. The truth is that a lot of what accomplished might not be so good after all. He might not be such a great guy, and his intentions were maybe never worthy of praise. Although Weider made a lot of money from the health and fitness industry, it's debatable whether he actually influenced the well-being of the public.
The book isn't about Weider, but because he became so big and powerful, and because he influenced the evolution of bodybuilding and the look of bodybuilders, it puts things in perspective to learn how he operated. He was immensely influential.
Muscle & Strength: As a result of Weider, we now find crazy high volume workouts to be the norm. For example, a recent issue of Flex contains a 5 day split that advocates 40 sets per day. By featuring workouts like this, is Weider and company hoping the average trainee will fail? What are the motives behind routines like this, and why do you feel Weider moved the training world away from the then common fullbody approach (or move basic approaches in general)?
Gordon LaVelle: Since Weider wanted to put his name on anything and everything that had to do with bodybuilding, I'm sure he was eager to put together his own Joe Weider training system. He did originally declare in Your Physique magazine that multiple sets were better for building muscle. Later he called this the "Weider Set-System Training Principle." Maybe he realized that training like that appealed more to people, at least psychologically, than single-set methods. But I think the main point was to have a system, any system, that he could put his name in front of, call his own, and sell. There are reasons why single issues of Muscle & Fitness were known to mention the name "Weider" more than 200 times. Egomania is one. Name-recognition branding is another.
I have no idea whether he really thought that multiple sets were better, or if he even cared. Considering the kind of shape he let himself get in when he realized he wasn't cut out for bodybuilding, I'm inclined to doubt he personally cared about training. Once he quit trying to flex his way to fame it appeared he was just after money. He came out with plenty of books and booklets about the "Weider System of Bodybuilding." It was just one more group of products to sell, along with magazines, supplements, clothes and workout equipment. He even at one point put out his own martial arts course, called "Terror Tactics Fighting." Advertisements for it made outrageous claims, and as was usual for him, he got sued for them and lost.
Muscle & Strength: Very few people realize that the WWE's Vince McMahon had a huge impact on the history of bodybuilding. Can you give us a brief overview of the war that occurred between Vince and the IFBB...
Gordon LaVelle: I have a whole chapter devoted to this. Vince McMahon became interested in bodybuilding during the 1980s. He even started lifting weights himself, and that's how he put on enough size to pull off that "Mr. McMahon" persona he used in the ring. He also became interested in bodybuilding competition, and he figured he could take it over the way he took over pro wrestling. He had the money to do it. His World Bodybuilding Federation came into existence at exactly the same time the IFBB drug-tested the Mr. Olympia contest, so a lot of people - fans and competitors alike - were willing to abandon the IFBB for the WBF. This scared the Weiders, so before the next Olympia they dropped drug-testing and never mentioned it again. After that, the gloves were off, so to speak. With drug-testing gone forever and lots of new drugs becoming available, in a few short years top IFBB pro bodybuilders looked significantly different.
The incident with McMahon also inspired Weider to share the wealth, at least a little. Previously he ruled by fear. No one dared compete in another federation, because if he did he would not only be suspended, but any future IFBB contest placings would be placed in serious jeopardy. After Vince McMahon quickly enticed 13 IFBB professionals to defect by offering them huge contracts (by bodybuilding standards), an IFBB suspension no longer seemed so scary. To counter, Weider started offering his own bodybuilders contracts.
What made all of this even more interesting is that, in reality, the WBF was doomed to failure from the get-go. McMahon thought that introducing pro-wrestling shtick to bodybuilding would make it much more popular. He couldn't have been more wrong. The WBF's second and last contest got the lowest returns of any pay-per-view event in cable television history.
The second reason the WBF was doomed was that, in the first year of the WBF's existence, the feds nailed McMahon and several of his wrestlers for receiving anabolic steroids. As a consequence, both the WWF and the WBF were forced to institute stringent drug-testing programs.
Muscle & Strength: Regarding steroids, your book does an excellent job at chronicling the evolution of chemical use, and the impact it had on the size of physiques. The general public often believes that athletes and bodybuilders are "only" using steroids. Is modern bodybuilding that simple? Is it healthy in any manner? And is the chemical use the athlete's fault or the governing body's fault?
Gordon LaVelle: In the case of something like baseball, where salaries are so high and the competition is so stiff, it's hard to blame anyone who took steroids. When, by some accounts, 80% of the league was taking stuff (before they had testing), many people probably did so just to remain competitive. In a case like that, I put more of the onus on the governing body.
In bodybuilding, where the stakes are far lower, it's different. Very few people make a living from it (from contest earnings and endorsements). It seems most professional bodybuilders put more money into than they get in return. As for the ones who do make good money from it, they had to take large amounts of drugs before they saw dollar one. It also seems like a lot of bodybuilders who don't even compete take steroids. So it appears it's entirely the bodybuilders' "fault." I just see it as a freedom of choice issue. The bodybuilders know what types of physiques are rewarded at competitions, and what they have to do to look like that.
Concerning the health issue: my book looks at a few different historical themes. One of them is the purpose of bodybuilding. For several decades its purpose was in dispute. The major turning-point came when the name "Physical Culture" was replaced by "bodybuilding." Physical Culture was a movement that originated 200 years ago in which people began deliberately exercising. At the end of the 19th century it became associated with muscularity and physique display. Nevertheless, its main purpose was healthier living. Bodybuilding on the other hand is about building the body. Period. Although it can still be very healthy, some versions of it are unhealthy and dangerous. This became known to everyone when two top professionals, Mohammed Benaziza and Andreas Munzer, died because of things they were doing to alter their appearance.
Some top professionals of today get so heavy in the offseason that they get winded climbing a flight of stairs. A number of them smoke. Some do hard drugs. All of them go through precontest dehydration rituals. So no, today's high-level bodybuilding has nothing whatsoever to do with improving one's health. Its purpose is to get massive and ripped, and to display this onstage. This is not news.
Now: if the public wants to know if bodybuilders are "only" using steroids, they should watch Ronnie Coleman's workout video. Although I'm personally against his high-set, high frequency approach, holy cow he trains hard. However, if you look at the difference between physiques of various eras, drugs accounted for almost all of that. Yeah, we know more about nutrition now, and people now know how to dehydrate themselves, but it all comes down to drug use.
That being said, I should point out that my book is not intended to be a "wake-up call" that will prompt people to change things. It's simply a chronicle and analysis of all the events, throughout the years, that contributed to the evolution of bodybuilding. It's also written in a narrative format, so it tells a story; I thought this would be better than just hitting the reader with a blizzard of facts.
Muscle & Strength: Thanks for pointing that out. Your book is a narrative, and does an excellent job of presenting an unbiased history of bodybuilding. In doing your research, was there anything you unearthed that caught you off guard or by surprise?
Gordon LaVelle: I was surprised how extremely accidental the invention of bodybuilding was. There was a series of unlikely events, of sheer chance and dumb luck, that led to its creation. It's for this reason that I begin the book by comparing the appeal of competitive sports to that of bodybuilding. Sporting competition has been around for thousands of years and nearly all cultures invented sports. Even cultures that never invented the wheel or written language invented them. Bodybuilding is a totally different story. It was invented only 118 years ago, pretty much by one person, and it could have as easily never been invented. And I'm not talking about weight training; I'm talking about standing onstage and flexing your muscles.
Muscle & Strength: Speaking of unlikely events, let's talk about Bob Hoffman and York Barbell. Early in the book you talk about Hoffman's dislike for bodybuilding. Am I correct in saying that Bob Hoffman was actually instrumental in reviving bodybuilding after World War 2? And can you share with us a bit how the Hoffman/Weider feud originated and grew...
Gordon LaVelle: Hoffman was in charge of the weightlifting division of the AAU. He thought that bodybuilders were men who should be competing in weightlifting but were wasting their time and energy. He knew that couldn't stop bodybuilding however, so he decided to control it. That's why he formed the bodybuilding division of the AAU in 1939.
He staged a national championship in 1939 and renamed it "Mr. America" in 1940. Since my book is also an analysis, I offer the conjecture that this name was partly chosen for cynical purposes - because it made the contest sound like a male beauty pageant. Of course, this is just my own theory.
Hoffman mandated that the contest be held at the tail end of the national weightlifting championships. In at least the first installment, bodybuilders were also required to enter the weightlifting championship in order to compete. Both these things were done for the purpose of increasing interest in weightlifting. Neither worked.
At about the same time, Joe Weider started his magazine business. I've looked, and I've yet to see any type of explanation for how he was able to avoid serving in WWII. For example, John Grimek got a waiver because of an eye injury. Joe's brother Ben joined the army (although he gave no details about what role he had in WWII). Clancy Ross was in the Air Force. Armand Tanny was in the Coast Guard. Steve Reeves joined the army, saw combat in the Philippines, and contracted malaria. Joe Weider meanwhile stayed home and printed muscle magazines.
Because of this, by 1946 Weider had the wherewithal, and enough clout, to start holding contests. According to him, the Weider brothers obtained an AAU sanction for their first contest, the 1946 Mr. Montreal, but the AAU yanked the sanction at the last minute and threatened to ban anyone who competed. The brothers on the spot invented the IFBB. This story has been subject to some dispute, but the IFBB, though tiny, was now very real. It was also on Hoffman's radar, because he now had competition.
In his magazine, Strength & Health, Hoffman repeatedly bad-mouthed Weider and the IFBB. This gave the Weiders free advertising. However, the writing was already on the wall. Not only did the Weiders actually like bodybuilding, their organization was bodybuilding-only. There were no weightlifting contests before shows, and no weightlifting requirements for competitors. The AAU also appeared to render racist judging decisions. Not until 1970 did a black competitor win the AAU Mr. America. The AAU told guys like Harold Poole and Sergio Oliva that they weren't good enough to win. The IFBB in comparison seemed far more fair. Poole won the IFBB Mr. America on his first try. Oliva won the Olympia on his second. And say what you want about the Weiders - and there's plenty to say - those guys worked their butts off.
The book doesn't delve deeply into the particulars of the Hoffman/Weider feud, because that would be getting a little off-topic. The important thing is the transition of leadership from from Hoffman to Weider, and the transition of the world's top contest - from the AAU Mr. America to the various Mr. Universes to the IFBB Mr. Olympia.
Muscle & Strength: "My job was to pull as many young boys off the street and into the gym as I could using the advertising that I did. By the time you realized it was bullshit, I already had you hooked into a healthier lifestyle of working out and eating better." - Joe Weider.
Did this attitude of Weider's spill over into bodybuilding competitions? I guess the question is...did Weider elevate certain bodybuilders or rig competitions because he believed it was for the greater good?
Gordon LaVelle: I don't know if he did anything "for the greater good." It seemed like he had the greater good in mind when he instituted drug testing, but the speed with which he dropped testing makes me think that testing was put in place for other reasons, like money. All indications were that he thought the general public and the International Olympic Committee would never accept an activity like bodybuilding that was so strongly associated with steroids. But if he instituted testing, if he "cleaned it up" and labeled users as cheaters, then maybe the public would accept it, the Olympics would welcome it, and newspaper sports sections would be forced to cover it. If all those things happened, Weider would have become extremely rich. As it turned out, he would have to be content with being merely very rich.
If Weider had the greater good in mind, then I don't see how he could have made such outrageous and false advertising claims. He wouldn't have been out to rip off bodybuilders, the group he claimed to "love." In fact, the more I think about that claim - where Weider professed to have a love for all bodybuilders - I keep thinking what a strange thing that is to say.
Muscle & Strength: One of the sections of the book I personally enjoyed was your coverage of the deaths in modern bodybuilding. Do you feel these deaths were exceptions, or that they reveal a new reality...if you're going to compete at a high level, you must risk everything?
Gordon LaVelle: Oh, they're definitely exceptions. That's one of the reasons why I draw the comparison at the end of the book between bodybuilding and mountaineering. It turns out that bodybuilding is far safer. However, one reason why deaths are under control in bodybuilding is our system of medical response. Bodybuilders periodically go into severe dehydration shock right before (and sometimes during) contests. Almost always someone is right there to call 911. Shortly after that paramedics arrive, IV fluids are administered, and the bodybuilder is saved. Without paramedics, the bodybuilder could easily die.
Mohammed Benaziza didn't get emergency medical care until it was far too late. What did him in is that he was able to remain conscious long enough to keep refusing medical care. For the most part though, top modern competitors seems to have a good grasp of how far they can push things before falling over the edge.
Concerning deaths from less-acute causes, I simply state that there's a correlation between long-term competition-level drug use and early death. Of course, this isn't big news or some major revelation. It's simply a small part of the bigger picture. At the beginning, bodybuilding and good health were though to be inseparable. Around the middle part of the 20th century it was realized that this wasn't necessarily true, and at the end of the century it was finally realized that certain forms of bodybuilding are downright unhealthy. It was in the 1990s that the image of bodybuilding totally changed and its reputation went to hell.
Muscle & Strength: Since the book is about the evolution of bodybuilding, where do you see it headed in the future? I would also like to ask if you believe true natural bodybuilding will ever have a chance to grow and thrive, or if we have already jumped the shark, so to speak...
Gordon LaVelle: I felt the timing was right for coming out with this book, because it appears to be about eight years since the evolution of bodybuilding stopped. When Ronnie Coleman stepped onstage at the 2003 Olympia at 5'11" and 287 pounds, that represented bodybuilding's last significant evolutionary stride. Will the evolution continue? It's hard to say. It would take the invention of an entirely new drug for this to happen. I haven't heard about anything like this being in the works.
Bodybuilding's two big evolutionary strides were made possible by the availability of certain drugs, and both changes were seen coming, at least by a few people. Synthetic testosterone was invented in 1935. Although bodybuilders didn't start using it until the late '50s, a small number of people realized the effect the drug could have. On top of that, the discovery was very high-profile. Ruzicka and Butenardt won the Nobel Prize for it, after all.
By the time synthetic HGH was first synthesized in 1985, bodybuilders were already very much on the lookout for new drugs. They already knew about HGH extracted from cadavers, but no one had the money or connections to get some. But once synthetic HGH was created, a number of people knew it was only a matter of time before bodybuilders started using it. A large growth spurt took place, as predicted. To a lesser degree this happened with the IGF-1/insulin stack as well.
The next evolutionary jump will be caused by the emergence of some new drug, whatever that drug may be. The result is that bodybuilders will be even bigger and freakier than they are now. After all, this is what modern audiences want: the bigger and freakier, the better.
Of course this bodes well for natural bodybuilding, since some people love physique competition but can barely stomach the look of today's competitors. Will natural bodybuilding grow and thrive? For this to happen, it will have to attract more new competitors and fans, and it will have to convert fans of "regular" bodybuilding.
The addition of the NPC "physique" class will probably help. Have you seen this? They have guys with slight but lean builds stand onstage wearing baggy shorts. It looks like a casting call for a cologne ad. But anyway, I can see these guys doing natural shows on the side, since they all look drug-free. They're advertisements for natural bodybuilding. I don't know the exact criteria of judging, but it looks like they specifically want guys who have zero tell-tale signs of drug use. The physique class was an obvious ploy to cash in on the popularity of figure and bikini contests at NPC shows.
In defense of these contests, the entrants look far more like the Greek statues that bodybuilding was originally invented to mimic than what you see in the open classes, or certainly in the IFBB professional division - except of course for the gigantic shorts they wear.