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The OnFitness Interview, Part One

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Laree dug up another interview she said you haven’t seen and might like. It’s a long one…we’ll do this in two parts. Here’s Part One.

Q) Can you give our OnFitness readers a thumbnail sketch of your career in bodybuilding? When and how did it all begin?

You’d see a small boy in small New Jersey town outside NYC who wants to be bigger and stronger and more significant, and doesn’t really like baseball and the usual team sports offered up like mash potatoes. Chins and dips and pushups became my favorite pastimes when I was 10 years old, and I bought a pair of slightly used dumbbells at 12. For five dollars my future was molded in steel.

I played with these disagreeable objects as most kids played football, stick ball and tag in empty lots during their vigorous and formative years. I could tackle the next guy, but when they weren’t looking I was lifting weights in the corner of my crowded basement. Dave, your supper’s getting cold. Be right there, Ma.

One day at Weehawken High the coach began calling me ‘Arms’ and aimed to recruit me for the wrestling team and football squad. What? Spend another second in school more than I absolutely have to? I don’t think so. I have overhead presses, standing barbell curls and bent-over rows today. See ya.

The basement gave way to the Elizabeth YMCA to be followed by a Vic Tanny’s in Jersey City, which led to a job for Joe Weider at Weider Barbell Company in Union City. I won Mr. New Jersey in 1963, and was 21 when I moved to Santa Monica to join George Eifferman at Joe’s new West Coast office and train to the beat of Muscle Beach champs. There I learned ‘what it was’ and ‘what it took.’

Train hard, eat right and be strong.

I won Mr. America in 1965, Mr. Universe in 1966 and Mr. World in 1970.

Q) You say you started lifting as a boy and as time went by almost by accident your body took shape. At what point did it become a real science for you?

Science is for scientists.

I don’t regard weight training any more of a science than the ordinary act of growing from infanthood to adulthood. You naturally gather and assimilate information from your environment and apply it in a positive direction -- crawling and growing up, squats and curls. You practice it, organize it, observe and expand it, improve it and grow.

The more I intellectualized, the less I understood my training. The more I questioned what I did, the less confident I was. The more I researched, the more tedious the act became. “Do it,” is my credo. That doesn’t work, do it again... another way.

I learned about protein and its importance from my mother, and everybody with a brain knows sugar and junk food is bad for you. I was a kid. I lifted weights and my muscles grew. I was in high school. I lifted harder and my muscles grew bigger and stronger. Science 1A.

The Muscle Beach dungeon was the university of superior learning, and the characters who trained there were the instructors and professors in ragged t-shirts. It was 1963. I was 21 and supersetting intensely. The crash course took a few years and I’ve been active ever since -- modifying, adjusting, tuning by ear.

Q) Do you believe genetics plays an important role in body shaping or is it all hard work and dedication?

Of course, genes are significant determining factors in our muscle-building potential. All the training and determination an adult might rally cannot add an inch to his height or change her hip-to-shoulder ratio. However, the real muscle building comes from the heart, and hard training and impervious determination decide the grand total of our possibilities. You can beat a rug, but you can’t beat a bodybuilder with heart.

I dare say there are one or two giant muscle guys walking across the stage who don’t have the heart, but they do have a dandy pharmacist.

Q) You have said that nothing you possessed in the way of large bone structure or body chemistry was outstanding. If this is true, what do you believe was the most important element to your incredible success?

The first thing I must do before answering this question is remove the word incredible from the sentence. Success is dubious enough. Now, I can’t complain about being six feet tall and having bones like clubs, and I wasn’t shaped like a pear when I was a kid. But somewhere along the way I got the desire to be muscular, strong and respected. This desire was backed by determination.

In one word, determination, we have that single most important element. Yet attached to that single element, like tin cans strung to an alley cat’s tail, are perseverance, commitment and hope.

Discipline and patience come later as the tug and rattle of tin has us ripping forward.

Q) You started weight training at 12 years old. Some personal trainers feel that may be too young for developmental reasons.  What are your feelings on this?

Pushups, chins and dips, leg raises and crunches, running and jumping are great conditioners for kids as soon as you can get their attention. Encouragement from generous adults to properly engage the rascals helps them understand the purpose of the activities, instills priceless disciplines and directs the safe and effective execution of the exercises without diminishing the playfulness. Oh, boy, do we need some of this. Take the smart phones and video games to the dumpster, and don’t forget the soda and chips on the way out.

When weight training comes into the picture, wouldn’t it be nice if they were already prepared for the activity with the above healthy fortification? A little thoughtful coaching goes a long way for a 12-year-old who stands before a barbell for the first time. Teaching the basic exercises to a healthy youngster with an earnest heart is okay in my experience.

The kids will listen as you caution them against poor form, over-straining, injury and goofiness. You can direct them toward moderation in effort, focus on exercise performance and the action of the muscle. They won’t be growth-halted, bent-boned or joint-separated if they’re instructed favorably and encouraged to eat well.

What an opportunity to mold a fine young person. Why, he or she may grow up to be the governor.

The trouble begins when the movements are done with too much weight, really poor form and very little focus on the purpose of each exercise. We usually see this in adults who should know better, but it seems they never learned. Nobody took the time to teach them.

Q) Do you feel weightlifting is more about instinct than science?

Been here in an earlier question, but I’ll elucidate further in case I didn’t confuse you enough the first time. It’s a mix of the two and I suppose it depends on the personality and mentality of the willing and able individual. Give me instincts and a dash of that science we talked about before.

There’s plenty of science if that’s what fascinates you and makes this business of building muscles more understandable. I know I never heard of the techniques and terminology and ingredients that are being propagated or advertised in the magazines and on the internet today. If I was stepping into the arena of bodybuilding for the first time and thought it was as complicated and scientific as it appears, I’d give it up and become a nuclear physicist instead.

Do not be led astray. This wonderful activity is built on basics and simplicity, hard work and devotion. Yes, brains, but the brains of a mother or miner, carpenter or store clerk, pastor or cop.

Yeah, you need to know carbs from protein and supersets from single sets, but after that it’s hard work, involvement, consistency, focus, discipline, courage and prayer... on the gym floor. Never give up, doubt less, and be strong.

Q) Did you concern yourself with learning much about physiology and nutritional biochemistry or did you just go by what others told you?

I wouldn’t mind having formal background in these areas, but I don’t. Not having been educated in any real depth has not interfered with my regular progress. It hasn’t once frustrated me or left me wondering what the heck I was doing. Both nutrition and physiology are fascinating subjects and must be important to doctors and healers, but they remain 90 percent a mystery to me. I know my hip bone’s connected to my leg bone, and my leg bones connected to my foot bone, but it doesn’t go much farther than that.

What I know I picked up from listening, observing, applying and experiencing. I strongly believe that concern about these areas would have interfered with my straight-forward thinking, logic and personal trust -- my instincts -- and would have frustrated my muscular growth. Spare me the details and take me to the gym. I’ve got work to do. Did you Sergio Oliva this question? What would Steve Reeves have had to say?

Q) You won Mr. America in 1965, Mr. Universe in 66, and went on to win Mr. World in 1970. You say you sensed a sifting of the gears in bodybuilding and stepped out of competition. What had changed for you?

I was out of step with the competitive world of sports. What has popularly become known as bodybuilding over the years has to me always been an activity about lifting weights and building muscle and strength. Title holding never entered my mind, while wanting to have big arms and a powerful back have never left. The Mr. America title, Mr. Universe and Mr. World are cool companions that have never left my side, but they were not my passion, not my driving force.

I won the titles and I was honored and grateful. I still am. But in the short time I competed, the world around me warped. Lifting weights, building muscles and building strength lost their identity in the confusion of the competitive world. Poses and posing, posing music and posing trunks, oil and lighting, the drama, the judges.  Okay, fine. On top of that the humble, relatively unfettered and wholly original diversion was being rapidly redefined by big selections business. It was becoming an industry. Big, cluttered and greedy.

Excuse me, conductor, wrong train. No need to stop, I’ll just jump off here.

Q) You often speak of weight lifting as glorious. What do you mean by this? Is weightlifting a spiritual experience for you?

Not exactly. It’s wonderful hard work; it hurts, it’s irritating and can be harmful if you’re not smart, and we are not all that smart. It’s time consuming, obsessive and can be boring. You never seem to improve and are rarely pleased with the results and no matter what you do, it’s either too much or not enough.

That’s nothing: You miss a work out and you get nervous, you miss two and you can’t talk civilly and if you miss three it’s best if you don’t go out in public.

No, come to think of it, weight training is not a religious experience.

The strange thing is -- and I’m not a lone maniac -- we love it. It’s absolutely amazing, soul energizing, irresistible and addictive, character building, mind clearing, stress reducing, honestly muscle building, fat eliminating and bone strengthening.

Training will take a broken human and fix that person, body, mind and spirit, and I’m not making that up or repeating what I heard.

Lift long enough and arrogance is replaced by humility, fear by courage, selfishness by generosity and rudeness by compassion and caring.

We all need some of that, don’t we?



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