A Classic American Story

Photos by Per Bernal

“I can’t wait to see how the classic physique division grows,” says Arash Rahbar as he drives on Long Island on his way to a chiropractic appointment. “I think it’s going to grow immensely. We’re probably going to see some of the most genetically gifted guys we’ve seen in two decades come out of the woodwork. I already see it. Guys are doing two, three classic physique shows, turning pro, trying to qualify for the Olympia, and a handful of them have, like, literally overnight.”

Rahbar is right. Aside from familiar bodybuilders of years past, like Darrem Charles, Stan McQuay, and Danny Hester, classic physique has brought some fresh, formidable competitors to the sport. Ironically, with two major IFBB wins in the division in May 2016 (Pittsburgh Pro and New York Pro) and a 2nd place finish on the 2016 Olympia stage, the most formidable of these new names just so happens to be, you guessed it, Arash Rahbar.

 

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 ALPHA IN TRAINING 

Long before the inception of the IFBB’s classic-physique renaissance project (announced officially in 2015) came the Iranian Revolution of 1979. This is what drove the Rahbar family out of Tehran to Long Island, NY, in 1981. Arash was just a year old.

Like many future bodybuilders, he was athletic as a child, but not through typical American sports like baseball, football, or basketball. Rahbar’s father, Saeid, was a martial artist, so Arash naturally gravitated toward combat sports, starting with judo and then getting into other disciplines like aikido, taekwondo, and Tang Soo Do.

“American sports were very alien to me,” says Rahbar, who grew up in Great Neck. “I didn’t really learn the rules of the games as a youth. I eventually played American football in high school, and I  remember getting on the field and not even knowing what a first down was. But I was athletic. I took to martial arts at a very young age and practiced it until my late teens. I believe that really gave me a great base for bodybuilding because of the strength in my legs, particularly my abductors. My legs always come in conditioned before my upper body, which is very rare for bodybuilders. I attribute that in part to the explosiveness of martial arts.”

Aside from the physical, these early activities benefited Rahbar mentally, too. Discipline through  martial arts isn’t merely a cliché; it’s real.

“It’s absolutely real,” he says. “My father was very disciplined through martial arts and pretty hard on me as far as expectations. I was a very good martial artist, but he always found fault. So I became a perfectionist, and it kind of made me into a machine compared with other kids. Kids my age weren’t serious about anything.”

Rahbar’s second love, at least where sports were concerned, was bodybuilding. His early influences in this area came not from home, but from complete strangers: men like Sylvester Stallone, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bruce Lee, whom he would see in magazines and on television. “From like, 8 or 9 years old,” says Rahbar, “I was infatuated with muscularity, that alpha-male image.”

That infatuation got him into lifting weights. Rahbar was only 11 years old when he started working out. He was uneducated regarding resistance training and lacked equipment, but he had a EZ-curl bar, some plates, and a beverage cooler in his basement at home, and that was enough to get him started. He used the cooler as a bench, and his workouts included little more than curls and the bench press. “I had no clue what I was doing,” he says.

That soon changed, fueled by an intense desire to add muscle and thanks to reading every bodybuilding publication he could get his hands on, sometimes reading a single magazine 10 times. By 13, Rahbar was training at the high school weight  room. At 15, he had a gym membership and was “full-on bodybuilding” (his words). At 17, he probably could have stepped onstage and competed if he’d wanted to.

“That discipline from martial arts transferred over to bodybuilding,” says Rahbar. “At that time in high school, not having anyone to mentor me, I went out of my way to make sure I got enough protein. Even though I didn’t know what I was doing, I ate five meals a day, I took creatine, and I lifted six days a week during the summer when everyone else was getting drunk. I got infatuated with the bodybuilders from the ’90s—Kevin Levrone, Shawn Ray, Ronnie Coleman, Dorian Yates. They’re still my favorites.”

 

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 VETERAN NEWCOMER 

When someone you’ve never heard of wins a major competition—as Rahbar did when he won the classic physique division at the Pittsburgh Pro and New York Pro in May of 2016—the typical question asked is, “Where did that guy come from?” Where physique sports are concerned, the answer is always the same: He came from the gym.

Rahbar first competed at age 33, but he was anything but a newbie. He’d been training and dieting like a bodybuilder his entire adult life. He regularly trained at Bev Francis’ Powerhouse Gym on Long  Island, and he dieted at least once a year for the summer or a vacation. He even had numerous friends who were NPC and IFBB competitors.

Maybe he was just too busy to get onstage. Despite his passion for bodybuilding, Rahbar never worked in the fitness industry. His family owned a Persian restaurant, so he helped with the business in all capacities—busboy, waiter, manager, whatever was needed—before eventually owning his own restaurant. For a time, he was a stockbroker in New York, having passed his Series 7 and Series 63 exams at age 17. Currently, his day job is in real estate, where he rehabs, develops, and manages properties in the mixed-use sector.

“With me it was really weird,” says Rahbar. “I was bodybuilding for 18 years with no shows. I didn’t compete ever. I always just kept putting it off. I was OCD with my eating and training. I was always very meticulous with my protein. I don’t think I missed a meal in 15 years. Finally, I got around to competing in 2014. I always wanted to compete as a bodybuilder, but I wasn’t at that level. So I went for men’s physique.”

He was dominant right away, winning the overall men’s physique title in his first show, the Bev Francis Atlantic States Championships in June 2014. Two weeks later he dropped to 12th place at the Team Universe; in hindsight, that looks like an anomaly, as he won the overall at the North American Championships shortly thereafter to earn his IFBB pro card. “Once that happened,” he says, “I was hooked.”

Rahbar competed in three physique shows as a professional without managing to qualify for the Olympia, admitting now that he didn’t look his best in those contests and was “still ironing things out.” Things changed when the IFBB announced its new classic physique division in late 2015. Rahbar suddenly found his wheelhouse—a competition that let him embrace his bodybuilding roots and shed the board shorts without having to add any unwanted size.

“When they announced classic physique, it wasn’t even a question,” says Rahbar. “Immediately I just jumped on that. The classic division was a dream come true to me. I love open bodybuilding. I wanted to look like Ronnie Coleman for years. But I just don’t want to get that heavy anymore.”

Rahbar shook up the Classic ranks right away with his wins in Pittsburgh and New York. His next competition, of course, was the 2016 Classic Physique Olympia. He was one of the clear favorites going in, but the pressure didn't seem to get to him.

“Being a favorite doesn’t change my mindset at all,” says Rahbar. “People asked me, ‘How did you feel when you turned pro?’ I felt the same as before. ‘How did you feel when you won Pittsburgh and New York?’ I felt proud, but my focus after Pittsburgh was 100% on New York. I didn’t celebrate. And my focus after New York was 100% on the Olympia. Yeah, I won these two shows. There’s a handful of us front-runners. It all just depends on how everybody looks on the given day. I didn’t think of myself like I’m the top guy heading into the Olympia. I don’t look at other competitors; I never have. I focus on myself.”

 

Arash Rahbar: The Journey

 5 BURNING QUESTIONS 

FLEX: You played football in high school. Which positions did you play?

ARASH RAHBAR: “I played both ways in high school—“iron man” football—and I actually played offensive and defensive line. I was pretty strong from working out. I was very fast, and I wasn’t very heavy, so I was really meant to be a linebacker or running back. I ran track in high school, too. I did the 4×100-meter relay, the 100m and the 200m.

FLEX: Do you feel having an athletic background benefits your physique now?

ARASH RAHBAR: “Definitely. Compared with my friends who compete who weren’t athletes, their bodies don’t flow as nice, they’re not as strong, and they’re more prone to injury. Most of the bodybuilders you see who have athletic backgrounds, like Phil Heath, are welldeveloped and are just very solid and strong.”

FLEX: What’s your overall approach to training?

ARASH RAHBAR: “I grew up watching videos of Dorian Yates and Ronnie Coleman. All I know is to train until you can’t walk out of the gym. And I know everyone talks like they do that, but they don’t. I believe in very high intensity and very low volume. You’ll hear guys say you can’t over-train, but if you want to train heavy and intense, you won’t last more than two exercises. That’s just a fact. I can train heavy and hard for three or four hours, no problem, but I know better. I don’t believe in light weight, superset, fancy stuff at all.”

FLEX: Are you happier in classic physique than you were in men’s physique?

ARASH RAHBAR: Yeah. I didn’t like men’s physique very much. I’m a bodybuilder at heart. But I don’t talk bad about any division. They’re all amazing in their own right. Men’s physique has been great for the sport. It’s brought so many new people into it.”

FLEX: You didn’t start competing until age 33. Do you plan to stick around for a while in the sport?

ARASH RAHBAR: “Yeah. I’ll never stop eating or training like this. I don’t diet and train to compete. I compete because I happen to diet and train like this. I want to be Mr. Olympia not only because I’m competitive and I want the crown, but I feel like I have a lot to offer the sport and to the youth especially—not only from my knowledge of diet and training over 22 years, but also just the way I carry myself and my outlook toward the sport and life in general. People want to be famous and want to be Mr. Olympia just to be on the cover of magazines, but they’re not really helping the people who look up to them at all. And the people looking up to them don’t really know them. It’s just this false image. I might be wrong, but I feel like that’s missing in our sport.” – FLEX