In this interview, natural bodybuilding competitor, judge and promoter Ken Arsenault gives us a behind the scenes look at running a natural bodybuilding event. Ken also discusses drug testing, training, and talks about the special comradery that takes place at OCB and IFPA events.
Muscle & Strength: Ken, you've been a competitor, promoter and judge. I want to start by asking you about judging natural bodybuilding shows. What do you look for out of a physique? Is there a magical combination of size and aesthetics, and does being ripped trump everything?
Ken Arsenault: The first thing I have to take into consideration are the organization's criteria. Is there a magical combination? I think so… A solid combination of size, symmetry, and conditioning are preferable. Unfortunately, the number of natural competitors who bring all three to the stage is small in natural competition. This is what makes our job so hard. In the OCB/IFPA the judging system is to place the competitors 1 through however many competitors are in the class. So, the first thing I do is place the competitors based on symmetry. Once I have them placed… I look at size and condition. Conditioning is important, but not at the expense of size. If I’m comparing two competitors, and one is slightly more conditioned than the other… but, the other competitor has more than slightly more size, I will place the competitor with more size ahead of the more conditioned competitor. Hopefully, when all is said and done the competitor with the best symmetry, size, and conditioning will place highest.
Judging is the toughest job there is in bodybuilding competition. As a competitor too, it gives me a whole different perspective of our sport.
Muscle & Strength: How did you get involved with the promotion of natural shows, and what are some of the biggest behind the scenes challenges when trying to keep a show on the tracks and running smoothly come game time?
Ken Arsenault: My first experience with actually being involved in a show other than being on stage was the 2006 OCB Spirit of America. The show was, and still is promoted by Sean and Deb Sullivan. My job was to be a test judge at the show. I was trying to become qualified as an OCB/IFPA judge, and the Sullivan’s kindly allowed me to be a part of their show. I watched Sean throughout the day, and just couldn’t believe the amount of work that was involved with running a show. As a competitor you just have no idea how much goes into it.
After getting qualified Sean (Sully) and I became great friends. I also met, and became great friends with James Carron. He’s the promoter of the OCB Cape Cod Natural, which also has an IFPA Pro event along with it. It was the passion that I watched Sully and James show during their events that convinced me I wanted to be a promoter.
I promoted my first show in 2009. The OCB Bay State Natural was a huge success in many ways. First, I lived through it. Secondly, I learned just how much of a family the OCB/IFPA really is. I had twice as many offers of help then I could use. Without the support of all these great people… the show just can’t go on. As a promoter, you’re only as good as the people behind you.
In 2010 I will be promoting 3 events. The biggest behind the scenes challenge I have found outside of running a show is in finding venues. I’m still a little shell shocked at how bodybuilding is perceived by people in general… but, more so from venues who charge money for the use of their facility. There is still a stigma attached to bodybuilding that limits our ability to put a show together. I always thought the fact that I was promoting drug free bodybuilding events would make a difference… but, it’s just not the case. So I think you see events held at particular venues throughout the years because our options are limited.
There’s lots of challenges to actually running a show and keeping it on the tracks. You can screw up a lot of stuff and the competitors will roll with it. But, don’t run a show that isn’t smooth and continuously moving… you’ll have problems. Nobody likes to sit around doing nothing. As a competitor I hated that the most.
The number one thing I learned from my first experience as a promoter is to be completely prepared before the show, and to leave yourself extra time before the show in case of catastrophies.
My first promotion was a major challenge because the venue staff with the key to open the doors never showed up. We ended up opening the doors over an hour late which combined with my inexperience… had the show start an hour late. Luckily, we made up for the late start with a perfectly smooth running show once it got started. My secret to success in my first show… Sean Sullivan and James Carron had my back the entire day. Without those two guys I have no idea how I would have gotten through it.
Muscle & Strength: Let's talk about drug screening. I hear you have a policy on screening that is fairly unique?
Ken Arsenault: In the OCB/IFPA we have mandatory polygraphs to enter every event. The competitor has to take and pass a polygraph to compete. If the show is a pro qualifier or pro (IFPA) event, the overall winners have to take and pass an additional drug screen at the end of the show. Any failures from those drug screens are met with swift and appropriate actions by the organization.
My unique drug screening process is related to non-pro qualifiers. There are far more events that aren’t pro qualifiers each season. In a non-pro qualifier there is no additional drug testing outside of the polygraph that is mandatory. The reason for this is simple. Non pro qualifiers are usually smaller in size, and therefore, the resources available to administer the additional testing is too high. I think competitors would be surprised at how much a typical urinalysis costs a promoter. So, I have yet to attend a non-pro qualifier that administers the additional testing.
What I have been seeing lately, is there is starting to be a disturbing trend each season. We’re starting to see competitors competing in non-pro qualifiers that are potentially pro caliber competitors. However, they compete and win the non-pro qualifiers, and never enter pro qualifiers. That leaves allot of doubt for far too many competitors.
The OCB allows all promoters to administer drug screens in addition to the polygraph at any show they promote… non-pro qualifiers included.
So my policy is simple, but rarely, if at all administered. I will have additional drug screening at all of my shows. All overall winners will undergo the additional drug screen, as well as several random competitors. What it really comes down to is money… and, I have decide money will not be an acceptable factor for not doing additional drug screening in any show I promote. I’d rather lose money promoting a show, and know I promoted the fairest show possible for all competitors.
Any competitor who fails the additional drug screen will be banned for life from any event I promote, and will be disciplined under the organizations guidelines. My goal is to someday start a drug screening fund that will aid my fellow promoters who can’t afford to administer additional testing.
Muscle & Strength: Can you give us an idea of how much a single drug screen costs to administer? I also want to ask why you believe "suspect" individuals are competing in non-pro qualifiers and winning, instead of just entering other non-natural federations that don't test?
Ken Arsenault: A typical urinalysis can cost the promoter $150 or more. Multiply that by a minimum of 3 overalls, and you can see why promoters don't administer them if they don't have to. In today's bodybuilding events most promoters would feel good about just breaking even and not losing money. Most of them promote because we love the sport, and want to give something back to it. Promoting is probably the most satisfying thing personally, that I have been involved in during all of my years in the sport.
Why a competitor would want to compete in a natural event while knowingly cheating is a great question. If I had a dime for every bodybuilder I have met through all of my years in the sport that said they were clean, only later to find out it wasn't the case, I could promote an entire show without taking a penny out of my pocket.
Maybe it's ego, maybe it's because they're able to convince themselves that the drugs aren't responsible for their physiques. I'd love to get several competitors who have failed a drug screen after a show, put them in the same room, and get an honest answer to the question. I don't know that I will ever completely understand it. I'm not sure I want to. All I know is that it continues to happen. It hurts our entire sport... and unless promoters like myself, put a line in the sand, and say we're not going to allow it anymore, it will continue to happen.
The great thing is that the OCB/IFPA, in my case, backs us 100%. There's nothing tossed under the rug. You fail a drug screen (not polygraph), you're banned for 7 years from competing in either of our organizations.
Luckily, the number of competitors who fit into this category is small. But, even one bad apple can spoil the bunch.
Muscle & Strength: What are the toughest aspects of show promotion? And what are the most rewarding?
Ken Arsenault: The toughest aspects of show promotion...obtaining the venue would be number one on my list. After that it's mostly the small details. The one thing I do more than most promoters is to actively promote any show I'm involved in. Aside from the customary poster, I always create a show website with show information, online registration and fun, free giveaways right up to the show. I try to go out of my way to find ways to give discounts to competitors through several promotions. With today's economy the way it is it's a real challenge to convince competitors to compete in a show. There are a lot of shows to pick from, and you need to promote a show that puts the competitors first. I put allot of effort into that aspect of promoting.
During a show... obviously making sure the event runs smoothly, and without glitches is always tough. This is why it's so important to surround yourself with the best people possible.
Our judging panel at last year's Bay State consisted of 3 of the 4 qualified OCB/IFPA head judges in New England. I'm the 4th, so you had all 4 head judges involved with the show. Our expediters were two of the best Masters competitors in New England. I couldn't give those guys enough credit for how they treated the competitors, and how they kept everyone informed and ready at all times.
The most rewarding part of promoting is interacting with the competitors. I make it a point to try and talk to each and every one of them during the show. You'll find me out back for most of a show. I especially like watching first time competitors. It brings back a lot of memories.
I received many emails after last year's Bay State from competitors letting us know what a great time they had, and how it was one of the best shows they were ever involved in. It couldn't get any more rewarding than that!
Muscle & Strength: I want to ask you another question about the behind the scenes workings of a show. How are judges selected for a show? Are you involved with the selection process, or does the OCB/IFPA provide judges? And do you have any input with how the show is judged - do you discuss guidelines - or is that completely handled by the federation and the judges?
Ken Arsenault: Yes, I am directly involved with the selection of the judges. The way it works, is that all promoters receive a list of qualified judges in our area from the organization. It’s then up to us as promoters to select the judges for our show. Most promoters in our org always have at least one or two test judges during the show. We’re always trying to qualify new judges.
The qualification process consists of having to judge a minimum of two shows. We send the judging sheets to the organization and they run the scores through a complex formula. In some cases some people have to test judge more than twice before they are qualified. The organization has set guidelines for all judges to follow. Before each show the promoter goes over those guidelines with each judge on the panel.
Muscle & Strength: How does training for natural bodybuilding differ from training under the influence of steroids and other drugs? Should a natural train differently, and how?
Ken Arsenault: I definitely think training for natural bodybuilding is a lot harder, because for one, your muscles don't recover as fast. Then, there's at least a zillion training methods aimed at natural bodybuilders because it's so hard to pack on muscle naturally. I've seen athletes on steroids. They can do very basic movements and never change anything in their training, and they still grow! A natural competitor always has to find a different way to stimulate their muscles. They have to constantly change their training to keep their bodies from adapting.
Leaning out for a show is tougher as a natural too. It can be tricky, and if the competitor doesn't get it exactly right, it can destroy a lot of hard training and dieting come contest day. To me this is what makes the sport of natural bodybuilding so great. We constantly see different competitors show up that surprise everyone.
Muscle & Strength: Can you tell us about your training philosophy? Are your routines in a constant state of flux, or are there some staple routines/approaches that you stick too?
Ken Arsenault: My training philosophy is pretty simple. Every 5-6 weeks, I completely change everything. Things from the exercises and reps, to the amount of time between sets. If I was doing barbell movements predominantly, I'll switch to dumbbell movements, etc. I love trying new routines I get from my great friend Sully. They kick my butt, but I've never trained so creatively. One of my favorite training techniques is something I'll do with a training partner.
It doesn't matter what bodypart(s) we're training during a particular day... each workout, we switch who decides what we're going to do for exercises, sets, etc. We go at it like it's a competition, and a winner needs to be declared. lol
Those are usually the days this old physique needs a couple of Naprosin when it's over...
Muscle & Strength: Ken, you've been around the sport, and involved with the critiquing and judging of physiques. It's a popular belief on many Internet forums that naturals can get as big as they want, if they only train hard enough and long enough. What are your thoughts on this?
Ken Arsenault: Just not true. I believe that without the help of steroids, what will be the biggest factor in how big a natural competitor will get is their genetic potential. During the first few years, a natural competitor will start to reach their genetic potential if they train and eat correctly. After that, most naturals will struggle to put on even a few pounds of lean muscle per year. And, even that won't last forever.
Supplements have probably led to this belief. They have made a huge difference in the natural competitors we see today compared to even 10 years ago. We definitely have seen a size increase in competitors over the last few years. There's always going to be what I would call natural genetic freaks. Doug Miller is a great example of that. He's as big as I've ever seen a natural competitor.
There's a guy who has amazing genetic potential... trains harder, eats better, and is a master at building his physique. But besides the few great natural competitors we have, I completely disagree that training hard enough, and long enough will lead to endless muscle gains.
Muscle & Strength: What separates the OCB/IFPA from other organizations? What makes you passionate about your choice to align with the OCB/IFPA?
Ken Arsenault: Over the years I competed for several organizations. I liked each and every one of them for different reasons. My favorite was the ANBC, but after they shut down I felt kind of lost.
I only found out about the OCB/IFPA through an old ANBC website. After being involved in my first OCB/IFPA experience one thing stood out more than anything else. Everyone treated each other like best friends. They were helping each other and cheering each other on. My first thought was “What the heck is going on”. I was used to the competitor who stared you down back stage. Everyone would find their own space and would build a wall around themselves.
It was an unbelievable experience. One that I have experienced over and over in the OCB/IFPA. One thing that also stands out about these orgs is the sportsmanship. I could count the number of times I’ve seen poor sportsmanship at one of our shows on one hand. And, half of those cases, the competitors apologized afterwards to everyone involved.
Don’t get me wrong, I’ve had some involvement with the NGA local shows in the last few years, and the same thing is going on within that org. I don’t want to give the impression that other orgs are the opposite of what I’m talking about. I just know that I know that I couldn’t have found a better organization to be involved with as a competitor, judge, or promoter.
Muscle & Strength: How has the sport changed since you started competing? Are there some good and bad changes that have taken place?
Ken Arsenault: The thing that stands out the most to me is how much conditioning has taken over the sport. In the beginning (25+ years ago), you best competitors were usually in the 5% body fat range. Now half the competitors are in the low 4% or under. You really can’t expect to place well if you’re not. It worries me sometimes that size and symmetry are taking a back seat sometimes.
You can still look at pictures of some of the winners from the ANBC days and they are incredible. But… they’d be lucky to place well in some of the shows you see today. The top competitors today are big, symmetrical, and conditioned to the bone.
Muscle & Strength: Who are/were your role models in the sport of bodybuilding, and why?
Ken Arsenault: Honestly, I’ve never been much of a role model guy. Most of the bodybuilders I grew up seeing in the mags were enhanced. That always turned me off.
But, if I had to pick one... it would have to be Bob Paris. To this day, I don’t know if I’ve seen anyone with the balance he had. I’ve always trained with symmetry in mind because of him. You didn’t have to be the biggest guy on stage when you had that kind of symmetry.