Get Real

Bodybuilding magazines — pro or con?

I find that I ask myself that question often. Do the mags serve their purchasers by providing useful info, motivating stories and inspirational photos or do they erode enthusiasm, misinform readers and develop expectations that are unrealistic?

Let examine the goals of bodybuilding magazines. First off, as in any business their goal is to turn a profit. In the muscle mag industry, that entails revenue from advertising income and/or the sales and promotion of in-house products.

The early Weider magazines promoted both Weider Nutrition products and the IFBB, which they controlled. In its heyday Muscular Development was owned and served as a marketing vessel for Twinlab, just as Muscle Media 2000 operated to promote EAS. With plenty of competition on the newsstands, they need to grab the reader’s attention and the best way to do that is to promise them their deepest wish… preferably delivered quickly with next to no effort!

Publishing moguls in the mainstream like Rupert Murdoch and William Hearst have turned over huge profits based on eschewing accuracy and journalistic integrity for raw sensationalism. Bodybuilding mags have followed that trend. Despite the formulaic regularity in which they each boldly declare themselves “the truth,” they all serve to propagate a number of dangerous myths.

Grabbing just the top twelve random bodybuilding magazines off my shelf I found the following cover blurbs:

  • Be a Friggin’ Freak! Smash Your Bench Up 100 lbs.
  • Rock Hard in Three Months
  • Fast Track to Growth
  • Strong & Ripped in 6 Weeks
  • Gain 10 lbs. of Muscle this Month!
  • You Can Look Great in Just 14 Days. Here’s How!
  • Huge Arms in 8 Weeks
  • Leaner & Stronger in a Month!
  • How I Built 23-inch Arms. Lou Ferrigno Did It — Here’s How You Can Too
  • Super-size You! 23 Pounds in 12 Weeks
  • Add Ten Pounds in 60 Days
  • 6 Weeks to Bigger Pecs and Delts

While some of these may sound possible (in the right situation), most of them seem incredibly improbable.

I doubt we can all build Ferrigno-sized arms and if any training program could make someone look great in just 14 days, then it would be an immediate international sensation and I doubt anyone in the civilized world would NOT look great.

What about the Internet? Do the online communities provide a more grounded, realistic approach to lifting? This, of course, varies. On many online bodybuilding forums it appears as if everyone on there is a self-professed genetic freak with single-digit bodyfat, powerlifting champion strength, and are just biding their time before claiming their pro cards. These sites also tend to be frequented by keyboard hit men anxious to blast newcomers rather than providing a supportive encouraging environment. With notable exceptions being in the minority, random online surfing can lead to a demoralizing experience.

Football is referred to as a game of inches, with every play being a tooth-and-nail battle for territory, driving towards a first down and eventually a touchdown. Similarly, training in the gym is a battle of ounces. Each five to ten-pound strength increase, added ounce of muscle, percent reduction in bodyfat brings us closer to our ideal. It is not a six-week solution or a three-month transformation. It is the cumulative effect of YEARS of consistent hard training and proper nutrition. It is the continued effort, the nearly imperceptible, gradual progress that brings about an impressive physique or notable lifting total.

Some Real World Examples:

Recreational Bodybuilder: Ryan

Ryan has been lifting for four years, beginning his junior year of high school and continuing on in college. A voracious reader of the bodybuilding magazines, he could recite the training programs (each bodypart) of at least a dozen top pros. Naturally skinny, he packed on about twenty pounds in his first six months training at home. While he was hesitant to declare his goals, he dreamed of winning an IFBB pro card.

Encouraged by the twenty pounds he gained, Ryan got a membership at a commercial gym and, using their equipment, was able to emulate the training of his pro role models. After three months, he noticed his interest in training starting to diminish, despite having four versions of lat pulldowns to choose from. He bought a fourth month pass at the gym but only used it twice the first week. He just was not seeing the progress that he expected and he started wondering if something was wrong with him.

After an extended layoff, he came across a small listing in the yellow pages for a fitness center one town over and went to check it out. He found a dusty cinderblock walled gym. Planning to just look at the equipment, he was called over to give the owner a spot since the place was empty and ended up working in with him. The still burning embers of his passion for bodybuilding reignited, he started a solid moderate volume no-BS program that the gym owner wrote up for him.

Ryan no longer buys the magazines or follows the top names in the IFBB. Although he made the huge twenty-pound jump in his first six months, he can credit himself with thirty-five more solid pounds in the four years he has been training. He realizes that he probably will never get on a bodybuilding stage, but people sometimes ask if he has ever competed. Most importantly he loves training and the way it makes him feel. 

Beware of following the flashy training routines by the top pros

Loser No More: Catherine

Catherine has always been heavy — not morbidly obese, but as her mother always said, “naturally big-boned.” Having never really been an athletic person, she was inspired by watching “The Biggest Loser.” Seeing average, unathletic types lose 50, 70 even 120 pounds in a ten-week period made her feel like she could make some real changes in her own body.

After three weeks of haphazard dieting and doing cardio work to the point that she felt like she was going to sleepwalk right onto a treadmill, Catherine topped out the scale without losing a single pound. She realized she needed a coach like the people on the show.

Catherine lucked out; getting a sensible trainer that was nothing like the over-the-top camera preening trainers on “The Biggest Loser.” He mapped out a basic, no frills program for her. He even pulled out a Time Magazine article that showed that the show’s Season One winner had gained back almost all of his weight (weighing in at 307), and stressed the importance of fitting a realistic program into her lifestyle, since she was looking for lasting change, not a temporary solution.

Catherine realized that even though she may not change overnight she loved the way she felt after a workout. Starting her day with exercise also made her naturally eat better. She didn’t feel the need to treat herself since life was feeling pretty good. Training became a part of her routine and she forgot about the scale… until the day came that she realized her clothes were no longer fitting right.

In three months, she had lost twenty-five pounds, although she felt stronger and could see some new muscle in her arms and shoulders. She realized she was not actually “big-boned,” that was just a euphemism for “sedentary with poor eating habits.”

Over the rest of the year she gradually lost fifteen more pounds and gained a little solid muscle. She found that she could treat herself from time to time and her new body burnt it off. She was enjoying the process and, although she did set goals for herself, they were reachable objectives based on changes she could live with without feeling like she was not able to enjoy life.

Slow and Steady: Mike

For Mike, weekend flag football was more about post-game beers and male bonding than athletic excellence. The fun and games came to a screeching stop once a bad twist of his knee sent him into physical therapy.

Not wanting to lose his ability to function, Mike dedicated himself to rehab and found that he enjoyed the process. Once he was released from therapy (or rather once insurance decided to release him), he was determined to continue lifting. With no gyms in the area, he lucked out and found a group of guys online that had pulled together to create a powerlifting gym in a rented two-car garage.

The four guys training in the morning crew were glad to have some new blood and their post-workout encouragement eased him past the intimidation of the hardcore environment. At first he mostly helped spot, load plates and learn proper form. His knee felt strong enough that he was able to pull a sled and do light squats.

Helping the guys from his crew compete in a local push/pull meet showed Mike what the competitive side of powerlifting was all about. While tightening the belt for his team-mate CJ, who was going for a record deadlift, the crowd got whipped up into a frenzy.

Struggling to lockout, CJ looked like he was going to fold when, from the back of the room, a bellowing voice screamed out. A barrel-chested mountain-man with a scraggly ZZ-Top beard and crazed eyes quickly staggered up the center aisle screaming, “DO IT! DRIVE THAT SONUVA…” It was the last bit of willpower that CJ needed and he drove his hips forward to be greeted at lockout by three white lights!

The grizzled veteran with the scraggly beard was on stage lifting CJ off his feet with a congratulatory hug, even though CJ’s record pull had just beaten his own previous effort that day. Mike saw that powerlifting is all about everyone helping one another become their best. He was instantly hooked and told his crew he wanted to compete at the next local meet.

His first goal was just to not bomb out and to get a thousand –pound total. Six years later, he is closing in on an elite ranking. More important than his totals, Mike has found a lifetime passion in lifting. His work problems seem pretty miniscule after a day that kicks off with a good box squat session. He has become a leader on the team and served as a mentor to new lifters that have joined the power garage. He doesn’t miss flag football. The team of guys he battles the iron with four to six days a week are closer to him than brothers. He considers his knee injury the best thing that has ever happened to him.

Six Keys to Keeping It Real

1. Don’t judge yourself based on the superstars of bodybuilding and powerlifting you see in the magazines (or the self-professed “uncrowned kings” professing their superhuman qualities online). If you compare yourself to others, you will always find yourself lacking.

2. While it is okay to set difficult goals for yourself, make sure they can be realistically achieved. Setting the bar too high and being overly self-critical can easily lead to burn out. If you want to choose a role model, consider someone with genetics closer to your level than Flex Wheeler, Dorian Yates or Chuck Vogelpohl. A local competitor or someone impressive at your gym might make a better choice.

Choosing Flex Wheeler as a Role Model may lead to unrealistic goals and disappointment

3. Take time to look back and appreciate the progress you have made and the things you have accomplished. Often it may seem like you have been grinding your gears but if you step away and look back over your progress from the time you started (especially for those of you that have trained consistently for years), your expanded perspective may give you reason to be very proud.

4. Be patient. Rome was not build in a day and neither was a gladiator physique. Powerlifting champion Robert Wagner once told me that the key to success in powerlifting was to stick with it long enough and minimize injuries. Given time you will build a huge total.

5. Enjoy the process. Hard work and fun do not need to be mutually exclusive things. If you don’t enjoy the gym, then maybe you should be doing something else?

6. If your genetic abilities are lower than average, you might not make it as far and it may take you longer, but you can create a better physique and what you accomplish will be more rewarding because of the effort you have put in.

Accomplishments are relative. Placing in the novice class in a small local show may mean as much to someone as winning his first Olympia meant to Jay Cutler. Getting down to eight-percent bodyfat with a nice V-taper for an island vacation may be as important to someone as getting a Muscle & Fitness magazine cover might be to someone else.

Follow these basic guidelines and over the course of your lifting career (while you may not ever build 23” Ferrigno arms), you will in time build a physique that may surprise you. Either way, I promise you that the rewards of hard training are more about the changes you make on the inside than the physique you possess or the lifting trophies that you accumulate.

Written by Steve Colescott

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Get Real discussion thread.

About Steve Colescott

Known as the Guerrilla Journalist, Steve Colescott has written over a hundred published articles for many major bodybuilding publications, including Peak Training Journal, the innovative and well-respected magazine in which he served as Publishing Editor.

He is currently a staff writer for and has been a consultant to a number of top sports nutrition companies.

With his company, Colescott Metabolic Solutions, he has transformed the physiques of scores of average businesspeople, weekend athletes and housewives beyond their wildest expectations. Steve lives in Akron, Ohio and trains at the ultra-hardcore Body Builders Gym, an Ohio musclehead landmark.