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We all exaggerate from time to time, usually with a feeling of guilt, unless we happen to be reporters or politicians, in which case exaggeration becomes a normal way of life. Exaggeration has
always been used to good effect by sportsmen, especially in bodybuilding, where it is now accepted by publishers, encouraged by readers, and believed by impressionable beginners who are not yet
cynical enough to employ the same tactics. Is it just harmless rhetoric, a practice we all take for granted, or does it damage our image in the eyes of the public? Measurements, weights lifted,
even experience are all pushed to the limit, causing those of us who know better to shake our heads in disbelief.
Everyone stands guilty of exaggerating on occasion, either for personal satisfaction or, all too often, to impress others. Unfortunately we have gone a little too far. Claiming an extra inch of arm size, adding twenty pounds to a bench press, and deducting a couple of inches from the waist are hardly criminal offenses. The problem is knowing where to draw the line. What nay start as a slight exaggeration here and there has a habit of growing, until claims are clearly at best optimistic, at worst an insult to knowledgeable fans.
We are all familiar with people who boast of their achievements, often grossly exaggerated, but rather than question their claim or insist on proof we simply go along with it, boosting their ego while making everyone else feel inferior. More important, exaggeration can demoralize - even confuse - beginners struggling to build a 45-inch chest or 16-inch arms, when almost every bodybuilder they read or hear about seems to have measurements at least 20 percent larger.
Would-be powerlifters and weightlifters suffer in much the same way. They can be put off by the heavy training poundages attributed to persons not even specializing in strength events.
As a further humiliation, nearly everyone who knows you diligently train with weights three or four times a week evidently has a brother, cousin or uncle who is not only stronger than you but also looks better. Nothing can knock the wind out of your sails faster than being informed, usually in front of friends, that your personal best on the bench press is only half what someone else has done - and he's been training only three months! Realistically we should take this kind of remark with a grain of salt, but for some reason we let it bother us.
Discussing any part of your training with laymen is often a mistake, one you normally live to regret. I recall giving a talk to a group of businessmen on the benefits of weight training, the squat in particular. When asked what the top men lifted, I mentioned a figure in the region of half a ton (more impressive-sounding than pounds or kilos), only to be informed by someone who probably couldn't perform a full squat with an empty bar, that must be twice what the average man would be capable of!
Over the years I've been called on to verify lifts that were not only wildly optimistic, but also differed in their interpretation of performance compared to mine. A so-called strict curl with 220 pounds resembled a reverse power clean. A man attempting a bench-press record of 500 pounds made no mention of the arch, two-inch padding on the chest, a bench-press blast shirt or assistance to lock out. When I dismissed the lift, his training partner said, "Well, I couldn't see anything wrong with it."
Military presses of 300-plus pounds are not only a real test of shoulder strength but also few and far between, except when executed with a knee jerk and enough back bend to remind me why the lift was removed from competitive weightlifting over thirty years ago. I've seen leg presses with an impressive array of weights but only about eight inches of movement, and deep knee bends where the lifter, handicapped by layers of bandages and a dangerously tight belt, had to be virtually carried onto the platform in order to perform an excruciating half-squat with little more than 500 pounds on the bar. A properly executed repetition in any of these lifts would involve a considerable reduction in weight and loss of credibility, leaving nothing much to brag about.
Even measurements are not all they appear. They are often taken with muscles fully pumped, chests expanded, and waists sucked in to thirty inches, rather than the thirty-five they really are.
Anyone closely associated with our sport should be quite capable of assessing not only measurements but also training routines, and I soon realized the information passed to me was stretching the tape a little, if you'll excuse the pun.
At 230 pounds bodyweight my arms never exceeded 17 1/2 inches, so I knew exactly how arms this size should look, and yet here I was writing about bodybuilders weighing 20 pounds less who claimed biceps three inches bigger than mine. Sadly this exaggeration affected nearly every measurement, spilling over into their training routines. There's no point claiming 20-inch arms if your routine shows you curling only 100 pounds for sets of 8, or bragging about 28-inch thighs alongside a 300-pound squat.
Eventually I became disillusioned, listening to claims of and reporting on measurements and poundages that were at best wishful thinking, at worst downright lies. Claims of 53-inch chests that were nearer 48,18-inch calves not a fraction over 16, and arms exaggerated out of all proportion were some of the problems I faced. Even heights and weights were overstated. If you stand 6'1" and look down on someone insisting he is 6'2", perhaps it's time to consider a different vocation.
The final straw occurred when I watched a top bodybuilder struggling to complete 8 reps on the bench press with 300 pounds, fairly respectable at under 200 pounds' bodyweight. However, the training routine handed to me listed 3x8 with 385. We all have off days when for some inexplicable reason our strength level is way down, but this proved to be one exaggeration too many. Oscar Heidenstam, editor of H & S, shared my concerns, and so we decided against further articles of this nature. We agreed the real giants of bodybuilding - from John Grimek to Steve Reeves, Reg Park to Bill Pearl - never made claims they couldn't substantiate. Neither, I believe, did Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates.
This obsession with exaggeration applies not only to size and strength. Food - at least the quantity of it - can also be confusing. Diets are suspect when they include 36 eggs a day, 8 pounds of best-quality steak, ten quarts of milk and a dozen cans of tuna, all washed down with ten quarts of water. In addition there are steroids on offer in most gyms and a whole array of food supplements to consider.
What are young bodybuilders to believe when faced with the prospect of digesting 10,000 calories or more a day, including over 400 grams of protein? Daily weight-training and aerobics sessions, culminating in at least ten hours' sleep, further compound the challenge. Hardly surprising bodybuilding has the highest failure rate of any sport when the examples and expectations are so far removed from reality. The exaggerations we accept as part of bodybuilding, although initially inspiring to beginners, can also cause them to feel inferior, as the prospect of making the transition from average physique to Mr. Olympia contender proves a bridge too far.