At the height of his physical prowess, Arnold Schwarzenegger said: “Training gives us an outlet for suppressed energies created by stress and thus tones the spirit just as exercise conditions the body. What we face may look insurmountable. But I learned something from all those years of training and competing, all those sets and reps when I didn’t think I could lift another ounce of weight. What I learned is we are always stronger than we know.”
Reading this made me question if I’d been underestimating my own strength, and physical achievements all these years. If I’m honest, my journey with the gym has hardly been one of unrivalled triumph, but rather occasional exiguous glories.
It’s difficult to feel anything otherwise, when looking around the sterile rooms of gymnasia at the other bodies on display. But then I read recently how a health charity had reported a staggering 645% rise in steroid users visiting its 21 needle exchanges in the UK from 290 to 2,161 between 2010 and 2013.
Could this explain this new archetype of man I’d been noticing in increasing numbers, flexing and posturing in the mirror, and unfavourably comparing myself to - the type which don’t quite look natural, less so normal? It looks almost a parody of masculinity - a male drag as it were, a more pronounced and inflated body (literally). Like someone has stuck a bicycle pump up their arse!
My observation was, I thought, on account of recently qualifying as a Personal Trainer and spending too much time in the gym, but perhaps there’s more to it. Government figures estimate that around 60,000 people have used anabolic steroids in the last year, though the reality could be much more, with reports of teenagers as young as 15 injecting to build muscle.
A friend, not long out of his 20s, recently started using Primobolan and testosterone cypionate in a quest to lose body fat and gain lean muscle. Egged on by his oleaginous cohorts down his local gym, he described it to me as 'a miracle in a bottle', and laughing off any associated risks.
I'd also observed the progress of others in my own gym, including one young lad whose average body rapidly transformed into one of supreme cathedral architecture.
In the early days, I'd identified with his tedious final set; the pained facial expression and trembling limbs. Now he swaggers across the floor with his bulbous delts, washboard abs and finely calibrated serratus, a contender among those grotesque Neanderthals who only a few months back would knock him over to get to the bench press, as is the usual dynamics of the gym's invidious hierarchy.
How he achieved this when his workout seemed not entirely different to mine became a prevailing question? There were several possibilities: He has a top trainer elsewhere, and our mutual gym is merely where he has top-up workouts? Yes, that would be it. Or there’s a girlfriend - or boyfriend - of an epicurean bent lurking back home only too eager to cook several high-protein meals, and placed neatly in Tupperware, to be consumed at regular intervals through the day. Or he’s the secret love child of Schwarzenegger. You know, after that dalliance with the maid that time in the broom cupboard, or was that someone else? But more than likely, he was on his final course of steroids, administered mischievously out of sight, as the splattering of back acne attested to.
In the interest of accurate reportage, lets just say I’ve been weight training on and off and to variable levels of success for ten years. I use success loosely since I've yet to sustain significant injury, and am no longer described as skinny, that horrid adjective with its concomitant feeble connotations which was the bane of my adolescence and twenties.
Although I’d very occasionally be described as ‘buff’ or ‘well-built’, any gains were rendered less obvious, to me at least, due to the tsunami of negative voices - I can’t do it. I need a spotter. I lack genetic strength to lift the necessary weight. It’s too hard. And who would blame me, having sat behind a desk for 9 hours each day?
It was easier when I had a work gym within metres and could be all self-righteous waltzing off for a power-session every lunchtime, before returning to the office in the grip of a Nietzchean superiority complex as sedentary colleagues remained sluggish at their desks nibbling a Tesco pilchard bloomer.
I decided instead if it wasn't steroids Schwarzenegger Jr was injecting, then he’s simply a mesomorph - the ultimate genetic blessing. For the uninitiated, a mesomorph is also known as a stocky short-arse who can make massive gains by just looking at the lateral pull-down. My old carcass would too be mistaken for Jason Statham's if I were 5 ft. 5 and not an ectomorph - also known as more beanpole than beefcake.
But if all excuses are invalid as they say in body-building circles, a more likely, but less satisfying scenario was that I was just not working hard enough. But how hard is too hard?
“It’s mind over matter,” said a trainer to me once. “Why lift 40kg, when you can do 60kg? Why 8 reps when you can do 12?" And then, “…stop making excuses for your genetics. You’re the master of your own genetics…” or some shit. “Go harder or go home,” he barked.
I was too exhausted to argue. But he had a point. I realized the young guy I’d been observing had probably just been following an effective and extensive training programme, (the acne a natural sign of post-adolescent hormones), unlike me whose haphazard and random efforts changed from week to week, hence to no avail.
So I decided to get serious. To beat the plateau, I decided to qualify as a personal trainer. It would probably be cheaper than hiring one, I conceded. So I spent 5 weeks in a class above a gym in Fulham with a group of loquacious teens and Polish knuckle-heads with ADHD, learning my Rotator Cuffs from my Tere Majors.
It was an interesting journey, not only in witnessing such military solipsism among my fellow students, but also since I was offered a course of steroids in my first week. The reason? I'm just 'fat and bone' apparently. If this doesn’t make one succumb to the temptation of testosterone, it certainly helps in pushing oneself harder.
But for each person who, like me, decides to take their training up a notch, there are many others who refuse to capitulate to the pressure, and cancel their gym memberships altogether. A friend achieved an unencumbered life in his mid 30s due to a deliberate abstention from the normative pursuits of fitness.
He quit the constant stream of gym visits and instead maintained physical activity with weekly yoga and gentle swimming. “I was tired of weight training to the point of inertia, goading my muscles to reach a stage in which they have no other option but to grow, which they seldom did,” he explained, before adding: “I don’t want to live a life where my worth is measured solely on account of the girth of chest.”
This echoes a sentiment of a female friend, who simply and succinctly put it like this: “Who for fuck’s sake has ever fallen in love with a bicep?”
To understand the psychological motivations for people to continue, one first has to deconstruct in the most forensic way the perhaps futile, psychologically destructive false promises of a booming fitness industry.
In reality, men are now experiencing the same doubts and insecurities over their bodies that women have endured for years. We're now bombarded with perfect specimens of manliness on magazines and in advertising; Beckham in his pants and pound signs in his eyes; a pneumatic Ben Cohen waltzing shirtless on Strictly; or the British rugby team, the physical manifestation of tensile strength emerging from Australia's effervescent waters, all six packs and bulging veins like spaghetti that's been thrown at a wall.
No wonder then that young men across the land are going to extreme lengths to obtain a bigger build while seriously risking their health. While some men are driven by dysmorphic perceptions of their own body, the residual symptoms of childhood bullying or feelings of inferiority, others simply see muscle mass as synonymous with masculinity and strength, which in turn leads to social and sexual power, and ultimately success. And who doesn't want that?
The pressure is immense, and yet it's perpetuated by ourselves. You'll see men at the tills of WH Smith rapaciously clutching Men's Health magazine as if holding its glossy pages to ones chest will somehow initiate a superhuman ability to grow gargantuan pecs.
What they don't tell you is those images, no matter how effortless they look, are still airbrushed and cannot be replicated without a 24/7 hardcore commitment and customised nutrition and workout plan by a team of professionals for that model's somatotype.
The rise in image and performance-enhancing drugs, that 'miracle in a bottle', may perhaps then be alleviating a modern crisis of masculinity, but at what cost?
As a qualified fitness professional, I now know that genetics are paramount in achieving the body beautiful, no matter how many protein shakes you throw at it. The toil of Sisyphus can thus often seem futile and tiresome. Which makes me loth to admit, but the offer of a legal Class C drug that lets you train harder and for longer, promising a significant increase in muscle mass, is a seductive proposition.
Who wouldn't risk a spot of acne and a little shrinkage down below for the confidence that comes with a body many men would envy and women desire? But is such a body sustainable, unless you make steroids a constant part of your life? No, and therein lies the danger.
So I’ll resist all offers, as well as refrain from becoming one of those unassailable trainers who wield authority solely through their smug expressions and non-addictive positivity.
I won’t fret about the delineation of my abdominals, nor post the minutia of any regimented workouts on my FB news feed, post pictures of every pre-and post work-out meal, and then write shite like:
“POW! Mega phenomenal chest session in gym today with Godzilla and the squad.. I smashed it with a final meaty bicep blast and awesome abs attack. BOOM.. Gonna kill it at backs and triceps tomorrow and then to Vegas for the ProteinPower expo, with gr8 m8s and 10 days holiday. Loving life. Live it, love it, fuck it. Be positive, nation. No room for negativity here.”
The mind boggles at such explicit rectitude. But these days it seems that surface is all that anyone finds meaning in. Obsession with appearance has become the ultimate malady.
Isn’t life too short to overly worry about muscle growth and impossible perfection? Most mere mortals have to suffice with only a limited amount of fitness time, usually a few hours in the gym’s peak time rush when it’s a challenge to get on any equipment.
If you don’t believe me, just try getting on the bench press in my gym at 6pm when a vociferous congregation hovers about it as if trying to negotiate their way into a gang rape.
Here’s the truth. I'd happily discard the all-consuming weight-training 'lifestyle' in the bin of youthful folly, and yet I've strangely come to enjoy it and the frustration and energy it allows me to expend, the high fitness levels I'm able to maintain and see the curious yet natural progression of my body – sans drugs.
Regardless of any torment at seeing those so-called beefcakes lift exactly the same weight as me and not even break a sweat, while I look like I've been pissed on by the ladies Zumba class on the mezzanine level, it’s something I’ll do until my somnolent metabolism grinds to a halt.
And training others as I’ve started doing also holds its own path to fulfilment. Its rewards, if done properly, can be endless. This I’ve learned.
So when the creeping shadow of self-doubt rears its head, it’s beneficial to take solace in the words of the poet Max Ehrmann, who said: "If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain or bitter, for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself."
It was ever thus.