Why are some pros able to go longer than others?
By Joe Pietaro. Joe is the Founding Editor of MuscleSport Magazine (www.musclesportmag.com), a hardcore bodybuilding publication available in print and online. Est. 2008.
Father Time can be a pain in the ass. Sure, there are ways to slow down the ageing process, such as cleaning up your diet, getting more rest and – most importantly – hormone replacement therapy. But even using all three of the aforementioned components there are some IFBB pros who have not had the same success as their brethren once 40 or more candles need to be blown out on the birthday cake.
There is a litany of reasons for this and, of course, as individuals react differently to everything. When you take into consideration what being a professional bodybuilder entails, it is no wonder that more of their bodies don’t break down sooner than later.
The Forty Something Club.
Take a look at the line-up for the 2015 Mr. Olympia and you’ll notice that many of the big names were a part of the 40-and-over crowd.
Dexter Jackson, the 2008 Sandow winner, is 50. The perennial runner-up Kai Greene is 44, as is Shawn Rhoden and Branch Warren. Then you have Johnnie Jackson (49) and Victor Martinez (46). All placed in the top-10 at the 2014 ‘O’ with the exception of Jackson, who finished 11th. So it goes without saying that bodybuilding is far from a young man’s sport.
In the case of Greene, the two-time Arnold Classic winner used to be nipping at the heels of Phil Heath, who is five years his junior.
Jay Cutler, 46, is a four-time winner of the IFBB’s most prestigious contest of the calendar year but last took the stage at the 2013 Olympia and received a very charitable sixth place finish in what was his unofficial swan song as a competitor. He suffered some injuries along the way and that surely played a part in his decline. Cutler was defeated by Heath in 2011 and then had to sit out the following year due to a bicep injury. But he still garners a lot of attention traveling the globe promoting both his own business (Cutler Nutrition) and as a sponsored athlete for BPI.
“I think that Jay would have been fine but his crazy traveling schedule and the injuries here and there over the years have resulted in him (allegedly) ending his career early,” says IFBB pro Zack “King” Khan. “So it’s all a game of luck and who is pushing their body the hardest, and how long it can withstand this torture. No one knows; only time will tell.”
While the forty-something crowd is aplenty in the pro ranks, it is the following decade of life that Gregg Valentino sees as being the cutoff mark. “It’s after you reach the age of 50 that you really don’t see guys competing anymore – unless it’s in a masters class,” the MuscleSport Magazine managing editor said.
Pre-dispositioned for greatness.
It’s no secret that genetics play a big part in someone having the ability to become a pro bodybuilder. But that aspect also dictates how long someone can do so and be effective. “When it comes to someone being able to do this for an extended period of time, genetics are a big part,” IFBB pro Lee Priest says.
Khan added, “It certainly has a lot to do with genetics. Look at Branch Warren’s training methods. They are crazy and most people would have been finished long ago by doing what he does, but that works for him and he’s still going strong.”
But Khan also reflected on the bodybuilders who have had to modify their training style as they aged, great genetics and all. “Other pros who train at high intensity but without the crazy amounts of weight … that seems to be working for them.”
Basically what a pro needs to do as they hit their forties is to have the ability to recognise if a change in style is needed to be able to continue. Regardless of how your body reacts, Priest points out what may be even more important just to have the opportunity to get that far.
“It really comes down to heart and mind,” he comments. “If you have it mentally and still have that fire, you can go on as long as you like or as long as your body lets you.”
What Priest did at the age of 41 is a perfect example of just that. After a seven-year layoff from the stage, he not only competed in but also blew away the competition at the 2013 Nabba Pro Mr. Universe competition in Australia.
Valentino agreed with Priest’s last point wholeheartedly and added: “Being hungry is crucial for prolonged success at the Olympia level,” he says. “Everyone at the elite level trains hard, eats good and is genetically gifted; that’s a given. But if a pro is burnt out and lost his or her drive, then they’re done. It’s time to hang up the posing trunks.”
Injuries are obviously a major concern when you are competing within the upper echelon, but illnesses are also part of the equation – especially when you factor in the amount of drugs that are necessary to become a pro and rise in the ranks.
“Some of these guys have to take a hiatus or even give up due to medical reasons – some that we don’t even hear about,” Priest says.
Valentino added that many of these competitors run into health problems with their liver and kidneys, as well as other areas that are not as common. Misplaced or poorly administered synthol shots didn’t exactly help either and often lead to muscle injury.
Common health issues that are expected as the human body ages are also magnified when decades of anabolic steroid use and contest preps are factored in. So when you tax your body in this fashion, it is bound to break down inside even though it appears strong from the outside.
The Size Game
What makes being a middle-aged bodybuilder even more risky is the immense size these men need to put on, maintain and add to year after year just to be a factor in shows. So this is another weeding out process that affects certain competitors before others.
“With Cutler, he kept trying to come in bigger each year and the result was a blocky build,” says Valentino. “And that happened with other guys back in the 1980s as well. Rich Gaspari went from being a close second to Lee Haney in three consecutive years to falling out of the top three when he tried to add mass. Samir Bannout won the Olympia in 1983 because of his sleek lines but lost them when he put on more size after that. So if that affected guys in their 20s, just image what it does to them in their 40s?”
For the bodybuilders who compete more frequently, the off-season is either much shorter or actually consists of more than one shorter period of time. So there are fewer chances to give their bodies time off from the daily grind of training and dieting, and more steroid cycles are being done. All of this comes into play in terms of how much their bodies are put through and that, in turn, will affect longevity.
That is the main reason why you only see the top names competing one or two times per year. In the case of two past Mr. Olympias (Cutler and Heath), they only entered that one show and perhaps another held right after that so that they do not have to endure another daunting contest prep cycle.
One exception is Jackson, who has always competed in multiple shows every year throughout his career and seems to peak at every one. In 2013, at the age of 43, “The Blade” won the Arnold Classic, Australian Pro Grand Prix and Tijuana Pro. He was the runner-up at the EVLS Prague Pro and made the top five at the Olympia. A year later, Jackson competed three times (fifth at the Olympia, third at the Arnold Classic Europe and first at the Dubai Pro) and has won his first two shows in 2015 – the Arnold Classic (Ohio) and Arnold Classic Australia.
By and large it makes sense to limit the shows when you hit the age of 40. But with the Olympia qualification system in place, there will be instances where someone may have to switch up their strategy halfway through the calendar year in order to qualify. For example, Martinez finished as runner-up to Juan Morel at the 2015 New York Pro and needed to accumulate more points to qualify for the ‘O’, which he did by placing fourth at the Arnold Classic Brazil.
Being a successful pro bodybuilder is difficult enough, but the longevity factor has many parameters that add to the task. Genetics, injuries, illnesses, the amount of anabolics used and the frequency of competing all play into it.