California is the kind of place where you'd simultaneously see people drinking crystal-infused herbal tea that's been carefully placed on an orgone plate to remove "negative vibrations" while listening to a guru eschewing money, judging by looks and so forth (at a $5000 "retreat" mind you, and the guru arrives in a Mercedes), and people getting their tan, teeth whitening and summer body ready. And sure, I ended up in a weight room as opposed to a zendo but it was never about perfecting that bicep curl for me, but loving football and needing the strength to play it. There were the curl-and-cargo shorts brigades who'd do it for looks: heck, many gyms get slammed just before Friday night as people would get a quick "pump" before going out to try and hit up girls. I'd find them vapid, and move on. And for the record, whereas the girls do appreciate a "nice build", if you bring them Kai Greene covered in oil, they'd probably find him freakish looking.

Bodybuilding is the endeavor of using resistance, usually by lifting a weight, in order to enlarge and reshape the human body.
It's a strange kind of sport. As a hobby, sure - get into a gym and try and build your body up so that you can flex your arm and get an appreciative nod. The health benefits to eating cleaner and moving around are obvious, and for many people "getting in shape" is basically entry level bodybuilding.

I say strange because most sports have a completely objective way to "score" what goes on. In football you cross the plane of the goal line in the endzone with the ball, your team scores six points. Kick a ball between two uprights, three points for a field goal. After a game, which team has more points, it is the winner. Even something relatively nebulous like ice dancing starts you off with a perfect score, and then deducts points for either not completing all the required elements, or landing awkwardly and having to regain your balance after landing the triple lutz or whatever. The viewer at home may not understand the full intricacies of why Oxana Svetlanovitchka came in second behind Valentina Stalingrov but at least they understand that landing and flowing into the next arm flap and smile is good, landing just shy of a full turn and having to take a halting step, before extending your arms again and smiling is bad. Crashing to the ice and sliding into the hockey boards, having to get up and start skating again probably means you come in close to last.

But when you see professional bodybuilders: all spray tanned and oiled, standing there flexing every muscle and showing off extreme fat loss and dehydration, inflating cartoonish sized muscles in a row - you might have a personal preference as to who you think looks pretty good, and based on pre-show popularity ratings who are basically the top three. But just about everyone sits there and listens intently to the final call for the final ten or whatever, because it's absolutely subjective. Well, I'm sure there are technical guidelines, but in essence - arbitrary.

It used to be an adjunct to the strongman scene. A guy like Eugen Sandow in the Victorian era commanded heroic amounts of money - Rolling Stones tour tier money. Just to run your hands over his body cost a Victorian lady $300 - in modern money, $150,000. He commanded $3000 a week touring. Sandow was first and foremost a weightlifter and did strongman bits- breaking chains by flexing his chest and so forth - and won his first life changing amounts of money outlifting other people. But it was how he looked, chiselled muscle and rippling Grecian-statue looks that got him fame and fortune. Standing around in a swim suit flexing in a series of poses designed to show off his body made him a household name and legend. A new kind of star was born.

Of course, others got in on the act, and eventually competing in terms of having the best build became an endeavor in itself. What started out as arbitrary competitions became formal meets with a governing body, the IFBB. The barbell salesman from Montreal, Joe Weider, turned what was a niche interest into a household name, and made the sport (as a sport) what it is today.

It's big business these days as well. Most competitors don't really make that much from competing, as such. The heroic levels of drugs they need to take and the very demanding schedules they need to meet generally mean that they have to spend much of their lives looking for the money to make it into the upper echelons, if they ever do. Most drift into professional wrestling or acting - which is where they eventually make their money anyway. Some graduate to real starring roles. Lou Ferrigno played "The Hulk" on TV in the 1970s. Lee Priest was the model they did motion capture from for The Hulk in the 2000s. And of course, everyone remembers Conan/The Terminator/Ged into da choppah/Gid yo arss to Marss Arnold Schwarzenegger, who eventually became governor of California. But you've probably never heard of Frank Zane, Samir Bannout, Bertil Fox, Markus Ruhl, or even Lee Haney, one of the winningest bodybuilders of all time.

The bulk of that business is in lifestyle products, supplements, gym memberships, cool tank tops, and so forth. Go into a Wal Mart and chances are you'll see plastic dumbbells, weight belts, simple weight sets.

So back to the competition. Ignoring bodybuilding as a lifestyle - if you look at it from its actual sports definition - the gist of competition is that you show up to the day of a regional competition and out-flex and out pump people in your area to be one of the top guys in your state or state region. That moves you to further rounds where they winnow it down to the absolute top tier of the top tier, who are then qualified to attend the Super Bowl of bodybuilding, the Mr. Olympia.

Regardless of the level of competition, there are required poses to hit when posing for judges - you must include them all. How you flow from one to the other is up to you. How you execute that pose to show your body off to its fullest potential is also up to you. What I learned from watching a couple of documentaries recently is that Arnold would compensate for a relatively thick midsection by turning his waist slightly to give it a slimmer appearance when posing. Turning your wrist slightly to flex the forearm while doing a bicep curl makes the entire arm more imposing. There are coaches you hire to evaluate how you look in a pose and suggest slight alterations to bring out the "best" in how you look. After you hit your poses (and when you aren't actively posing, you still have to "flex" while standing in the background to maintain the look to subconsciously influence the judges) judges look at your size, aesthetics, symmetry and muscularity - and determine a winner.

Oh yes, and by muscularity, I'm referring to a state that is exceedingly dangerous to hit. In order to make your muscle definition stand out, you need to bring your body fat level down to at least 8%, which is a brutal affair especially when trying to not lose muscle at the same time - and not something you can maintain for long. In order for judges to see striations in those muscles and those veins really pop, you also need to shed the water under your skin which means sweating, water restriction and diuretics. In order for your muscles to look thicker, not only do you "pump up" with weights or bands behind the stage before going on, but there are blood thickeners in your system. You in essence have to repeatedly flex your muscles as hard as you can under lights while technically being half-dead. And they have pulled competitors off stage recognizing imminent death from electrolyte imbalance or dehydration. Some never make it to the stage but die enroute to the show.

Just before the show, you need to shave your body hair, get a base tan, hire someone to airbrush a fake tan on to you (putting in the occasional extra here and there to give the illusion of shadow) - even if you're black - and then coat you in a layer of oil so that your muscles shine and show all their definition and size to full effect. (Cleaning the hotel shower after the show is an exercise in elbow grease).

And you have to do this multiple times a year, planning your entire life, meals cardio and lifting, around those explicit dates. You have to make friends with doctors, make friends in more unsavory places to get growth hormone, testosterone, anastrozole, Dianobol, clenbuterol, trenbolone acetate, and more. Some simply move to a country for a while where you can get whatever you want without a prescription, and return home for the shows.

The toll on the human body is incredible. Not just in terms of having to crank out lift after lift after lift - not for strength but to tear up as much muscle as possible, and get that lactic acid burn. But the metabolic toll - injecting insulin with every meal when you don't need to (if you don't have diabetes, insulin is anabolic) can really mess you up, never mind the side effects from ludicrously dangerous levels of drugs. A typical therapeutic dose of testosterone for hormone replacement therapy is 52.5mg twice a week. This routine is conservative - I've heard many an amateur bodybuilder claim to use an entire gram of testosterone a week - ten times the therapeutic dose to put someone with near one into a normal metabolic range. And that's just testosterone, never mind the other anabolics they "stack" it with. As stated in the linked article, these guys can spend almost $20,000 for a "cycle".

But the thing that makes this the most interesting endeavor is that at the end of the day - even though there's sweat, testosterone, foul language and clanging weight plates - the whole thing is an art form. If you look at bodybuilding from a thirty thousand foot view, the real end goal of the whole affair is to create some ideal of an ideal body. Just like how a bonsai master has an idea of what a "tree" is, and sculpts it out of a living plant - the bodybuilder has an idea of what aesthetically pleasing looks like, creates that from his own tissues with his own efforts - sculpting in a bit more clay here, removing a bit elsewhere, and so forth.

Over time, this has changed. Sandow's body was considered incredible because of how he resembled statues of classical antiquity. He developed phenomenal looking oblique muscles doing the bent press and those were highly prized. Arnold was part of the massive chest brigade, one that believed the best body was one with a huge imposing set of pecs. Frank Zane, the only Olympia winner under 200 pounds, ever, thought that the classic look of 1950s Steve Reeves was the ideal and bucked that trend, thinking that Armold's "slab" aesthetics took away from other body parts. The 1990s saw improvements in sports supplements and drugs to create 330 pound monsters lke Markus Ruhl, whose idea of the perfect body was a gigantic tank of muscle with a vestigial head. You'd think that a competition in which big muscles count hands the trophy to the biggest muscles, but Ruhl is evidence that isn't always true. In the 1980s Tom Platz was known as "Quadzilla" for having massive thigh muscles, which others thought detracted from the other components to a physique, namely symmetry and appeal.

It doesn't always change with better techniques, either. Arnold in his prime in the 1970s wouldn't even place today, but there's a yaerning to end the arms race to bigger, thicker, cartoony and a new "classic physique" division was born. Part of the dark side of all the drugs is that you get gigantic bodies with little bodyfat, but bloated, almost pot bellied midsections - not from fat of any kind but simply side effects. And that ruins what a lot of people think is the goal of bodybuilding - a V-taper, large shoulders, thin waist, shapely legs.

It's a strange, evolving sport in which you are hopefully born with the right raw materials, the right genetic gifts, and the right genetic shape in order to achieve whatever the beauty pageant of your time considers the very best a man can look. It manages to straddle the athletic desire to beat the competition but also the Miss America style search for beauty in this world.