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Build Muscle: A Tale Of Two Giant Men And A Look At Appearances

bodybuilder Jay Cutler

Too much? Not enough?

I have seen two truly gigantic men in my life. Men that would be right at home in the pages of Muscle and Fitness. One was in the Denver airport, exiting the plane that we would board a few minutes later.

The other was in the library, about a year ago. Both airport-man and library-man wore  MC Hammer pants and sleeveless shirts. Both were very tan. So tan that their eyes looked so bright in contrast that I noticed them in my peripheral vision.

On the surface, both men appeared to be more confident than anyone I had ever met. They made eye contact with everyone possible, making an effort to be noticed. It was impossible not to notice them, so their efforts were unnecessary. I wondered if other aspects of their lives would bare out that sense of confidence. Was I seeing those rarest of creatures: men without insecurities?

The muscle man in the airport was gone as quickly as he had appeared. I actually got to spend some time with the guy in the library.

Biceps. Serious biceps

He walked slowly through the building watching other people watch him. He was huge. His bicep muscles were about as big as my head, and my head is enormous.

His pants swished and whooshed in the quiet department. Finally me made his way over to my desk and looked up at me–I was taller than him sitting in my desk chair.

“Can I help you?” I asked.

“Where are the bodybuilding books?”

“Right this way,” I said, walking back to the stacks.

“I’m a bodybuilder,” he said when we got there.

“I thought you might be,” I said.

Increased muscle is a result of training, whether you chase it or not

I’ve been strength training consistently for a few years now. The methods have changed, but the reasons have stayed the same. It is a fact that if you do enough lifting, whatever tools you use or however you do it, you’re going to put on some muscle. You do a movement while loaded with weight and your body lays down tissue along the line of stress.

I won’t lie–I like to see my appearance improve. You’re never going to see me in a muscle building magazine, but it has been fun to see my shoulders broaden and my arms and legs get bigger. I used to leaf through the magazines and think I’d like to look like that. Maybe. I just never wanted to do what it would take.

Making peace with appearances

I’ve never been obsessed (for a grim potrayal of bodybuilding obsession, check out Chemical Pink) or particularly interested in  my physical appearance. During a rebellious phase, I used to have long red dreadlocks, huge sideburns, and an eyebrow ring, which my parents hated. I was the opposite of a looker. I was insecure about all kinds of things, absolutely, but building muscle never seemed like the answer.

Whenever I wanted more muscles, it was because I wanted girls to pay attention to me. They paid attention to me because I was funny and had a band, both which came more naturally than lifting all day or taking steroids.

One of the greatest decisions I ever made was to make peace with my appearance. I have no problems with what anyone else does with or for their looks. As long as they’re not trying to murder me, I don’t question people’s morals and don’t want them to question mine. There’s no judgment here.

So a couple of questions for you, ladies and gentlemen, purely for conversation:

1. What is your opinion of bodybuilding? (The actual sport of bodybuilding, physique competition)

2. How much muscle is too much? Or is there no such thing?

3. If you have had some success building muscle, what works for you, just in case anyone here is interested?


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Amy Harrison July 20, 2010, 2:56 am

    I find the extreme side of body building fascinating if a bit intimidating, and whilst I appreciate an incredible amount of work goes into it, I’m more appreciativen of other types of sports and fitness.

    I used to work as a lifeguard and the guy who ran the gym at the leisure complex was very good at bodybuilding, and strutting, and uber confident.

    He decided to train as a lifeguard to increase his pay grade and thought it would be simple, but he couldn’t swim because his shoulder muscles were too big and he didn’t have the fitness to run very far.

    Personally, I think when you’re losing agility for muscle, that’s too much muscle. I prefer guys to look like they could be useful as well as strong. Just my thoughts! 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne July 20, 2010, 1:30 pm

      Amy, there’s a book called “Chemical Pink” that you might get a kick out of, if you want to read a spoof of the extreme side of things.

  • Kris Wragg July 20, 2010, 5:36 am

    I think professional body builders for the most part look pretty damn freaky. Plus none of them got their bodies purely through hard work, they all use roids!

    I’m currently working to add some mass to my frame (with help from Adam Glass), but my end point certainly isn’t to look like a freak! I just want to look a little more defined and manly as opposed to a twiggy geek 🙂

  • jean sampson July 20, 2010, 5:54 am

    I like a balance between muscuature and aerobic capacity. Runners who do no upper body work are way too skinny and extreme body builders who look like their skin can’t contain their bulk don’t speak health to me, either. I really like that lean but well- muscled “lion” look.

    I love it when women are strong-looking. But that can be over-done, also. I really don’t like women whose bodies are as developed as men’s (they are in every gym) —-don’t think they did THAT without a little help! Build as much muscle as you naturally can and keep up the aerobic activity.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 20, 2010, 1:29 pm

      I tell all of my female clients that the best thing they could do for their appearance is gain 10 lbs of muscle. The looks of horror on their faces always make me laugh. The ones that stick with it always admit that I’m right. Strong-looking, athletic women are very attractive to me.

  • Ray July 20, 2010, 6:42 am

    Kind of reminds me of NFL linemen. Ever notice how those 330 pound guys end up on sportscenter 2 years after retirement at 250?

  • Heather July 20, 2010, 7:00 am

    In response to the above questions:

    1. As a competitive sport, I have no problems with bodybuilding or bodybuilding competitions, male or female. I do prefer the natural approach though (no steroids). Women’s figure and fitness competitions are fun to watch, but I don’t think I would want to compete, because there is a dance round that also involves acrobatics. The hardest part of these competitions seem to be figuring out what THE JUDGES WANT.

    2. Speaking from the female standpoint, if you are a short woman with a naturally small bone structure and you easily gain muscle, it might look a little strange. Same thing for men. In fact, you can usually tell who the ‘roid monsters are because their muscles are big only in sections or parts, and it looks weird. Symmetry is a big deal for me personally, and even though EVERYONE is asymmetrical somewhere, you can pose and do things (spray-on tan, turn in just a certain fraction of an inch) to make things look more symmetrical.

    3. How I’m gaining my muscle: cut out all junk, salt, booze, soda, and processed foods. Sure it’s hard, but after those first 30 days your body is used to eating clean, decent, crap-free food, and suddenly wants GOOD food instead of crap. Drink lots of water too. Protein shakes have helped me. I like mine with bananas and all-natural peanut butter with the chocolate flavor, and I’m crazy about mixed berries in vanilla with a little milk. KETTLEBELLS! OMG, kettlebells are da BOMB! I also jog and I’ll do upper body stuff with dumbbells. Anyone interested in gaining muscle should DEFINITELY read Pavel Tsatsouline’s “Naked Warrior” and any of his other kettlebell books (From Russia with Tough Love, ladies! It’s can’t be beat!) or try some Convict Conditioning.

    Thanks for this, Josh, this topic rocks! 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne July 20, 2010, 1:27 pm

      You’re welcome, Heather. When are you going to write a guest post for me about this stuff?

      • Heather July 20, 2010, 5:02 pm

        Guest. . . .post. . . . ? OK, gimme a topic and I’ll see what I can do! 🙂

        • Josh Hanagarne July 21, 2010, 11:28 am

          Why do women underestimate themselves in the gym?

          • Heather July 21, 2010, 2:13 pm

            Good topic! Will do! Gimme a couple weeks, man, I’ll see how I can work this. . . . 🙂 AND THANKS!!!!!!!!!!

  • Eric | Eden Journal July 20, 2010, 7:08 am

    As far as professional body builders go, or even amateur for that matter, I don’t pay much attention. Everyone needs to do something they love, and for some that is extreme bodybuilding.

    How much muscle is too much depends on the context. For me, I just need enough to tote around my four year old daughter who loves to be carried.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 20, 2010, 1:26 pm

      I don’t pay much attention either, other than seeing the magazines every other day at the grocery store while we’re checking out.

  • As a kid and well into my teen years I was fasinated by all the bodybulding magazines I could get my hands on. No one told me that they didn’t get that way naturally however. I have been lifting weights since I was 13 (35 now) Went through every kind of powder and potion your could buy at the health food store and again, my small frame didn’t allow me to get very far… until my rabbit-like metabolism finally slowed down. Just as I have become at peace with the way I look, I have finally been able to gain some mass. I only weighed 130 pounds in high scool (now I weigh 200).

    I will always be impressed with body building. Since I find it so impressive, I don’t really think there is a “too much” for them. However, I do know that I am finally happy with who I am.

    The trick that has finally worked for me is that less is more. HEAVY weights with less repetition and plenty of time to heal. I only work out 3 days a week now. I used to do 7.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 20, 2010, 1:25 pm

      I can’t imagine what it would feel like to be 5’8″ and weigh close to 300 lbs. I train 4-6 times a week, but that’s just because I love it so much. I don’t push very hard so I recover easily.

  • Niel July 20, 2010, 11:35 am

    1) Not my cup of tea, but I can see why others compete.

    2) To each his own for the most part, but when it becomes a psychological problem it’s too much. When a person is never satisfied with their body then it’s something more serious.

    3) What works for me is adding in a variety of unsaturated fats, lots of fruit & veggies, and eating regularly throughout the day. Beyond that, adding a small handful of something here and there goes a long way too.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 20, 2010, 1:24 pm

      Niel, how many regular meals would you say you eat during the day?

      • Niel July 21, 2010, 9:49 am

        Usually a minimum of 4 meals, but sometimes I hit 5 or 6.

  • Joel | Blog Of Impossible Things July 20, 2010, 12:10 pm

    I don’t want to be huge. I want to be fit. I’d rather be funcitonally strong rather than just brutally strong. If that makes sense. In other words, I don’t want to necessarily be able to bench 350 but I do want to be able to be strong enough to compete in races, go on adventures, and do generally awesome things. Also, I want to look good naked. hah.

    Bodybuilding is hard. I’ve had friends compete and I definitely respect the effort that goes into making your body look like that, but it’s not for me.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 20, 2010, 1:24 pm

      Yes, I get annoyed sometimes when someone says “Well it’s just steroids.” Steroids allow someone to work out harder, more often. It isn’t a shortcut to less effort, but more effort. Not for me, but I know how disciplined they have to be.

  • mike @ This Old Brain Dot Net July 20, 2010, 1:01 pm

    I was a body builder slash power lifter a lot of years ago. I am somewhat socially shy (introvert) so I may not quite fit the stereotype. Even now, at 62, I still carry the same habits and discipline of exercise and taking care of myself, so I guess it paid off in that way. It can also be overdone.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 20, 2010, 1:23 pm

      If you have good habits at 62, it sounds like your lifestyle has been well worth it. Thanks Mike.

  • Chris Beardsley July 20, 2010, 1:41 pm

    I’m quite passionate about this topic at the moment, so please don’t be offended if I get a little “earnest”…

    I’m a so-called “functional strength” fiend and I used to be very careful to distinguish what I did from bodybuilding because of many of the points mentioned above.

    However, I now realise that bodybuilding has a lot more in common with powerlifting, strongman and other strength sports than it does with other pastimes. Getting stronger and building muscle are inevitably intertwined (except for a very tiny minority of talented people).

    I also used to think that bodybuilders were uniformly inflexible and “muscle-bound”. Then I learned about John Grimek.

    I thought big muscles were pumped up by high reps and weren’t strong. Then I learned about Bill Kazmaier, the powerbuilder.

    I thought that bodybuilding wasn’t healthy until I read Biomarkers and disovered that muscle mass is the single factor most closely correlated with a long and active life.

    I thought that bodybuilders who used steroids just sat on their asses and took drugs all day. Then I met some and realised how hard they worked. I wouldn’t do it myself but I can see why they do.

    I thought that bodybuilding was easy until I found out how much I had to eat to gain 20lbs and how little I had to eat to lose enough fat to get into single digit body fat.

    Bodybuilding is really, really hard and anyone who has the guts to compete has my absolute respect.

    Great topic, Josh.

  • ami July 20, 2010, 2:25 pm

    Confession time: my initial impressions of extremely muscle bound men (and women) resembles some people’s initial impressions of good looking blond women (and men): there’s probably not too much going on inside. Horrible generalization, I know. But the time and the work required to create that kind of body (especially if unaided by steroids) seems (to me) like it could be put to better use . . . (is that shallow?)

    That being said I do think it’s important for women (and men) to be strong and fit. At least strong enough to climb the mountain away from the ravenous wolves and fit enough to outlast the zombie hordes. Strong enough to lift their own body weight should do it.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 21, 2010, 11:29 am

      you’re not alone. Whether or not they’re accurate, I do think first impressions say a lot about our mindsets.

    • Michael Cummings July 28, 2010, 6:38 pm

      I used to think the same way (despite being a psychiatrist…you would think I would know better). A couple of years ago I got a very non subtle reminder that things are not always as they appear. A woman who was extremely well muscled was always picking up her kids at daycare the same time as me. Bright red hair, mini van dented (she was always hitting the curb on the way into the parking lot). I assumed she competed in fitness events. I also assumed she was a ditz. After a couple of years, our kids ended up at the same birthday party and we spent an hour or so talking. Turns out she had a PhD and was chair of the psychology department at a local collage. I try to remember that experience every time I am quick to judge someone based on appearances.

  • David July 20, 2010, 5:15 pm

    I look forward to working out through crossfit and eating Paleo.
    Yet, I am older (in my mid-fifties), trying to gain some of the atrophied muscle due to age and running. I am struggling with gaining muscle. Just started to eat more and have gained 3 to 4 lbs the past two weeks. But, I know this isn’t muscle gain because of the sudden increase. Is it possible to gain muscle without gaining fat (from eating more calories) at my age? Anyone going through the same experience?

  • Boris Bachmann July 20, 2010, 8:05 pm

    When I was younger I wanted to be freaky strong and “Brutally Huge!” (“Brutally Huge!” was actually the name of a muscle-building program by Anthony Ditillo if memory serves me right). When I finally got a little more serious about it, I ended up about 220 (at 5’8″) and my feet and lower back ached most of the time and I snored loudly enough that neighbors could hear it – probably had some apnea issues as well.

    Finally, after my son was born, and like a lot of guys, I got sick of being strong but feeling like crap all the time and what seemed like constant injury and rehab. What good is “strong” if “strong” won’t let you carry your 20lb bundle of joy around effortlessly? What good is “strong” if slipping on ice (just slipping, not falling) tweaks your back?


  • Jason July 21, 2010, 11:42 am

    I admire bodybuilders for their dedication. Yet I also feel bad for them, because it’s a competition where most people don’t win, and the judging will always have a subjective component to it. And bodybuilders compete on appearance. That has to be tough on the ego.

  • Mike T Nelson July 23, 2010, 8:51 am

    Good stuff Josh.

    I think everyone likes/loves the “side effect” of training of more muscles, strength and less fat.

    There is nothing inherently wrong with wanting to look and perform better. If we are not getting better, we are getting worse. I will be better please.

    Personally, as Chris talked about, I love the look and performance of the old time physical culturists/ strongman.

    They looked awesome and could perform many many different things from balancing on their hands, gymnastics to heavy lifting.

    David, hit me up via the contact tab on my blog.
    Rock on
    Mike T Nelson PhD(c)

  • Mark G October 11, 2010, 12:36 am

    @Joel: Your words ring true for a lot of folks. I won’t ever be anything but a scrawny runner, but I have nothing but respect for top bodybuilding pros that work their butts off. You’d be surprised at how hard they work at their craft and how seriously they take what goes into their bodies. Having had the opportunity to see it up close this year, I have a new respect for the top guys. No ‘roids. Just intense dedication/discipline and perfecting the art/science of nutrition. And let’s not gloss over the fact that genetics is one of the biggest factors.

    Kill it! (only applies to those who are > 158lbs)

  • Brent Partner November 23, 2010, 6:32 pm

    1. I think that in the modern age (post 1980’s) the aesthetic paradigm of bodybuilding has shifted from a display of strength, size and to a degree health to that of a standard of pure size, a degree of definition and not much else. When you look at the greats of golden-age bodybuilding, they for the most part lived long healthy lives, could the same be said for our champions today? I think not. Bill Pearl, one of the greats in my mind, laments the forgotten art of the barbell, the loss of the aesthetic and the predominance of steroids in bodybuilding today and I for one agree with him.

    2. I train for strength, so any size I gain is a nice byproduct of the process. I would say having too much muscle is when it impedes what you wish to achieve physically. In my case, besides strength training, I like to be able to run (not Jog) relatively quickly around a track for 400 metres, sprint (not run) for 100 metres, do 3 x 3 minute rounds on a punch bag at a reasonable pace. If I find I am starting to have difficulty doing these things I cut down strength work for three times a week to once a week until I am comfortable doing these things again.

    3. I have to go with the old stock standard pre-steroid process of building muscle. Train the whole body and do not waste time with isolation exercises. Try and squat at least twice a week, try and deadlift at least once a week. As a baseline aim to squat at least 1.5 x bodyweight (try for 2), deadlift 2 x bodyweight (try for 3), Benchpress 1.25 x bodyweight (try for 1.5), Press bodyweight (try for 1.25). If you can work your way up to these sort of standards and are eating cleanly and wisely you should be gaining a moderate amount of size. In short do your squats and drink your milk…

    • Josh Hanagarne November 24, 2010, 5:12 pm

      Brent, where are you at on those benchmarks? My squat and bench are way behind.

      • Brent Partner November 24, 2010, 6:32 pm

        I’m squatting around 1.8 x BW on my good days but that can fluctuate down to around 1.6 for lighter sessions. My deadlift is up to around 1.9 but seems to have stalled due to my grip. I’ve never consciously trained my grip but now I will have to. My bench is around 1.2 x bodyweight but I seem to have some serious fluctuations some weeks which I think is a combination of fear (subconsciously uncomfortable with that weight above me even with a spotter) and inconsistent technique. My press lags at around 80% x bodyweight and seems to have stalled. I’m a short, stocky sort of guy so these lifts suit my stature.

        I’ve never attempted kettlebell workouts or the more dynamic Crossfit style programs because as a normal human being I’ve been playing to my strengths. I think however I may throw in some six week excursions into these type workouts next year to see if they might help me become more well rounded strengthwise and perhaps assist my present lifts.