Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder by Sam Fussell is an amazing book that provides insight into the mind of an extreme athlete – a bodybuilder. The effort, dedication and discipline required to build muscle and shape a physique worthy of competition is mind blowing. This is a true account of how a “normal” guy immersed himself in the “gym rat” culture and transformed his body into a mass of chiseled muscle. It offers a detailed recollection of how he did it, and most importantly, why.
Regardless of your opinion of bodybuilding, reading an account such as this will evoke respect for the participants. Despite the drug use and abuse, the seedy underbelly of the gym life and the massive ego required to focus every waking hour upon your physical appearance – they do work incredibly hard to achieve what they do.
As a fat kid growing up, I used to buy Muscle & Fitness Magazine from the corner market. I was always a little embarrassed doing so because my physique was so far from those on the cover. When I was 11 years old I met Arnold and he autographed the cover of my M&F. I was hooked. At the age of 13 I began lifting weights in my basement- like so many boys my age – plastic weights my father filled with sand. The focus, of course, was on bench presses and curls (for the girls).
“The gym was the one place I had control. I didn’t have to speak, I didn’t have to listen. I just had to push or pull. It was so much simpler, so much more satisfying than life outside. I regulated everything, from the number of exercises I performed each workout to the amount of weight I used for each exercise, from the number of reps per set to the number of sets per body part. It beat the street. It beat my girlfriend. It beat my family. I didn’t have to think. I didn’t have to care. I didn’t have to feel. I simply had to lift.”
I continued to lift for sports through high school, but didn’t become hardcore until college. That’s when I decided I wanted to get huge and ripped. I devoted every waking hour to a regimen of lifting, resting, eating and a laundry list of supplements (I believed the magazines – had no idea about steroids). I killed myself for nearly two years with some good results, however, I noticed one significant problem: the better shape I was in, and the closer I stuck to my schedule, the more miserable I felt. I was doing nothing except thinking about my physique or acting on those thoughts. Nothing and no one else existed. I didn’t go out with my friends (those I still had) or do anything that might disrupt my diet or schedule (no ball games or concerts).
“It was simple at first – at least, so I thought. By making myself larger than life, I might make myself a little less frail, a little less assailable when it came down to it, a little less human.”
Around year two I had a come-to-Jesus moment. Realizing that my pursuit of the perfect physique had become a slavery of my own creation, I decided to abandon my quest. It was this experience that helped me truly connect with the story told by Mr. Fussell.
“To us, food represented fuel for the future.” Every gym rat knows that when it comes up bulking up, kale and tofu won’t cut it. It’s time to get friendly with the grocery store meat aisle. Fussell’s weekly grocery haul included 70 eggs, 14 tins of tuna, 10 and a half pounds of beef, 10 pounds of chicken, nine gallons of nonfat milk, four loaves of bread, and as many sacks of brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, baking potatoes, and fruit he could load into a shopping cart.”
The desire to put on a suit of muscle to create a barrier between oneself and the world. To be invested in a culture and a group of peers with whom you literally sweat and bleed (and sometimes throw up). To be so singular in your devotion to something – over which you have complete control – offers a tremendous sense of peace and purpose in a world that seems out of control.
“I became a bodybuilder as a means of becoming a caricature. The inflated cartoon I became relieved me from the responsibility of being human. But once I’d become that caricature, that inflated cartoon, I longed for something else. As painful and humiliating it is to be human, being subhuman or superhuman is far worse.”
Ultimately, it ends, for many, with the realization that this is a highly narcissistic and fruitless endeavor. The benefits are minimal – the cost considerable. The rigor required limits your life in a number or ways, the food and supplements cripple your pocket book and the payoff is for your ego alone – the belief that having the largest bicep makes you in some way superior. It is a shallow, selfish and extreme lifestyle choice, one that Fussell walked away from and never returned.
Be Strong. Stay Hungry. Walk Tall.
PS. If you are interested, here is a fascinating interview with Fussell – an update on where he is now and his thoughts on Muscle in retrospect.