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Did you hear that at last year’s Track & Field World Championships, just before the start of the 100-meter finals, Usain Bolt was told, “Your world record is 9.58 seconds—run any faster than that and you will be disqualified”?
Did you hear about the baseball authorities recently proclaiming that any pitch over 90 mph will be deemed void?
Did you hear about those two incidents? No, because neither happened. All sports follow the iconic “Faster, Higher, Stronger” dictum of Baron Pierre de Coubertin, creator of the modern Olympic Games, encouraging all athletes to constantly better previous performances. Only one sport seems to consistently grapple with putting limitations on human performance and is constantly immersed in discussing the issue of “How much is too much?” We’re talking about bodybuilding and fitness.
Left: Rachel McLish, the first-ever Ms. Olympia winner, looks significantly smaller than six-time Ms. Olympia Cory Everson (right).
We old geezers nostalgically look back on what we call bodybuilding’s Golden Era of the ’70s, when the physiques of Arnold and the gang at Gold’s Gym in Venice, CA, seemed to represent an aesthetic, acceptable, and attainable look that didn’t scare the children. However, Arnold recalls that Marvin Eder, Mr. America competitor of the ’50s, once told him in the early ’70s, “You guys have taken it way too far. It’s grotesque.” Sound familiar?
Throughout bodybuilding’s history, the “How much is too much?” debate has raged. It manifested (or womanifested) most notably with the progression of women’s bodybuilding. While the ’80s physiques of Rachel McLish (the first-ever Ms. Olympia in 1980, who also won in 1982) and Cory Everson (six-time Ms. Olympia, 1984–89) kept within feminine dimensions, the ladies who came after them repped out with such drive and enthusiasm that they sculpted supermuscular physiques that caused their endeavors to dwindle in popularity to the point that there is no longer a Ms. Olympia bodybuilding contest.
The same up-the-ante evolution occurred with the women’s figure class, which was launched in 2001. As the years clicked by, the figure ladies became bigger, harder, and leaner. A similar scenario occurred with the bikini class, which debuted at the Olympia in 2010. It seemed that progressively they became so devoid of body fat (a body- building prerequisite), with ribs showing, that some didn’t look too well on contest day.
Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay weighs 300-plus pounds onstage. Big indeed.
And so, dear reader, we arrive at the present state of the IFBB Pro League men’s physique division.
That “How much is too much?” conundrum seems to be growing—like the physiques themselves—in this division. The guys who first competed in this class back in 2011 look a lot different—less developed—than their current peers. In the eyes of many, they are bordering on straying into bodybuilding territory, with many of the competitors now heavier than past Mr. Olympias Frank Zane and Samir Bannout. Whereas shape and leanness seemed to be the initial main criteria, we now have competitors being issued advice from judges like, “You need more upper-back thickness” and “Put some meat on those delts,” which are similar messages to what the bodybuilders are being urged to do.
How can these guys get even more muscular and bigger and still keep within the confines of how the men’s physique division was initially visualized? To be specific, the official IFBB/NPC rules state, “Judges will be looking for t contestants who display proper shape and symmetry combined with muscularity and overall condition. This is not a bodybuilding contest, so extreme muscularity should be marked down.” Well, increasingly, to these eyes at least, a lot of the MPD guys seem to be just a few reps and/or supps away from a bodybuilding physique. Which is not really a criticism. But again, the “How much is too much?” conundrum is raised as physiques in this division continue to get more muscular.
One can chart the progress of four-time Olympia Weekend physique champ Jeremy Buendia, who completed his quartet of Olympia wins with a frame that packs much more muscle than was evident during his initial 2014 triumph. Which is not in any way a criticism of Buendia’s progression. In fact it’s rather the opposite, as he follows the precepts of “Faster, Higher, Stronger” like all true sportsmen. A key element of the human spirit is to explore new limits to see how far you can go, and the physique guys are in pursuit of that goal.
The overall picture is maybe somewhat muddied by the 2016 introduction of the classic physique class, which offered an outlet for bodybuilders to compete within more “aesthetic” guidelines than is applied to their open bodybuilding brethren. However, the classic division introduced in 2016 does have limitations based on height and allowed body weight. Have we reached a point, a tipping point, where some level of constraint is on the horizon for men’s physique competitors?
Sticking one’s neck out may be a precarious venture (ask Louis XVI of France), but speculation is as much a part of bodybuilding as “I wuz robbed” proclamations. So here goes. Whereas 10 years ago we had no inkling of the impact of the men’s physique or classic physique divisions, what will the bodybuilding/fitness landscape look like in five or 10 years’ time? The blunt truth is that the men’s open bodybuilding division is losing traction in terms of spectator attendance at pro contests—and in the number and quality of those entering their ranks. Plus, there has been a drastic reduction in sponsorship opportunities being offered to them.
For the physique division, the opposite is true. That being said, there will always be an audience—albeit less than it was—for men’s pro bodybuilding. But is it possible that the classic and physique divisions will be fighting for preeminence in coming years? As a dyed-in-the-wool old fart and old-school zealot, I sincerely hope not. But then, I was one who said Velcro would never catch on.