BODY BY BEANO: Brian “Beano” Wallace flexes his artillery.
POWERFLEX PUTNAM: Just another quiet afternoon at the gym.
MEN OF STEEL: Clay Spires on far left.
It’s the final round of the Greater Knox Bodybuilding & Figure Classic, and there’s only one title left to be seized: Mr. Knoxville, 2005. Three finalists—winners of their respective light-, middle- and heavyweight divisions—stride onto the stage, muscles bulging, veins protruding, bronzed physiques glistening with oil. From the audience, they look like anatomically correct Ken dolls, plastic caricatures of human form bending and flexing beneath the high-powered spotlights of UT’s John Cox Auditorium (formerly the Alumni Auditorium).
The announcer’s booming voice barks commands into the microphone. “Quarter turn to the right, please.” The competitors’ chiseled torsos swivel into place with taut determination. Their faces contort with the strain of rigid grace. After running through a set of mandatory positions highlighting different muscle groups—biceps, triceps, abs, legs—a blast of heavy metal kicks in through the speakers, catapulting the competitors into a freestyle gun-show of lock ‘n’ load masculine prowess. Grunting and snarling like rabid superheroes, the competitors bare their teeth and everything else not securely encased in spandex.
The audience—nearly 1,000 people—goes wild, and there’s little doubt which competitor is the crowd favorite. “Beano! Beano! Beano!” chants a chorus of burly voices, rooting on Brian “Beano” Wallace. Wallace is a veteran of the local bodybuilding scene as a competitor, personal trainer and judge, and the confidence shining through his poised grimace sets him apart from the other two competitors. They strike a final, mighty pose, and the winner comes as no surprise: No. 80, Beano Wallace.
Wallace accepts the trophy with a humble thank-you before briskly trotting offstage. Moments of glory are brief in the sport of bodybuilding, especially when compared with the months of preparation a single competition requires.
“Bodybuilding is a lifestyle,” Wallace explains. “It isn’t easy, and it’s a sport that not everyone can do. A lot of people talk about doing it, and a lot of people want to do it, but the commitment and the follow-through are the hard things.”
For Wallace, pre-competition training starts 12 weeks out. On a typical day, he gets up at 5 or 6 in the morning to do cardio (heart-rate raising activity on a treadmill, elliptical machine or stationary bike) before breakfast, lifts weights in the afternoon, and squeezes in another cardio session at night. “You have to work at it. You really have to go in there and lift the heavy weights and do the cardiovascular and go through the diet. It’s strict, and it can be pretty intense. It’s a regimen you have to follow every day,” he explains.
To optimize his body’s ability to process calories and build muscle, he eats between five and seven meals per day, consisting mostly of lean protein (chicken, fish and egg whites), leafy green vegetables, and carbohydrates with a low glycemic index, such as sweet potatoes or oatmeal. Any serious bodybuilder will tell you that diet is critical; a single slip—a handful of potato chips or a fast-food fix—can mean a major set-back. Most weigh each portion and carefully monitor weight and body-fat percentage, which hovers around 5 or 6 percent at peak performance and 11 to 13 percent during the off-season.
The formula for bodybuilding success, a balance between diet and exercise, sounds cut and dried—an agenda that any meathead with a lock on his fridge and a rack of iron in the garage could conceivably handle. But diet is more complicated than a simple calories-in, calories-out equation, and the physiological aspects of training involve much more than mere testosterone. Bodybuilding is equal parts art and science, a sport that uses chemistry to shape and alter the body’s malleable aesthetic form.
Honestly, the picture is a little freaky; the flexed bicep and forearm look like flesh-colored balloons encircled by a net of purple vein, completely out of proportion with the smallish fist they’re attached to. But that same element of freakishness—exhibited in characters ranging from the Bible’s Samson to Greek mythology’s Hercules to the strongmen of carnival sideshows—is what ultimately propelled bodybuilding into the popular sport it is today.
Though the practice of weightlifting has been traced back to 16th-century India, the advent of modern bodybuilding has its roots in North America. Eugene Sandow, a German muscleman who performed with the Zeigfield Follies throughout the late 1800s, is often credited with ushering the phenomenon into the public eye. Billed as “The Strongest Man in the World,” Sandow wowed audiences with his remarkable feats of strength: lifting grand pianos or platforms loaded with people and breaking chains wrapped around his chest. His striking resemblance to the physiques of classic Greek and Roman sculpture was no coincidence; Sandow actually measured the marble artworks in museums to develop what he called “The Grecian Ideal” and built up his own body to match their exact proportions.
By the early 20th century, muscle had become a marketable commodity. Charles Atlas, among a growing number of entrepreneurs, advertised a mail-order exercise course called Dynamic Tension in comic books, promising “muscles women would desire and men would envy.” Gyms opened across the country, and Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, Calif., rose to prominence as a bodybuilders’ mecca in the ‘40s.
But the sport’s peak didn’t arrive until some years later, thanks to the 1977 documentary Pumping Iron . Featuring Arnold Schwarzenegger, the film did for bodybuilding what Rocky did for boxing, raising publicity about the sport and glorifying its emphasis on willpower, strength and masculinity. In a memorable line, the now-governor of California explains: “It’s as satisfying to me as, uh, coming is, you know? As, ah, having sex with a woman and coming. And so can you believe how much I am in heaven? I am like, uh, getting the feeling of coming in a gym, I’m getting the feeling of coming at home, I’m getting the feeling of coming backstage. When I pump up, when I pose in front of 5,000 people, I get the same feeling, so I am coming day and night.”
In the ‘70s, the sport’s renewed popularity arrived hand-in-hand with an increase in the use of anabolic steroids. Steroids still maintain an inevitable presence in present-day bodybuilding, but Putnam argues against the notion that bodybuilders must take steroids in order to be successful. “Because in our sport your physique is your uniform, there is an automatic speculation that some sort of steroids are involved. But really, it comes down to genetics.” He explains that no amount of hormonal enhancement can make up for a body that’s not cut out for the sport. Judges reward competitors who have the right “shape”: conditioned, symmetrical and proportional, with small, well-defined joints that make large muscles appear all the more massive by comparison. In summary, “you have to bring a package to the stage,” Putnam says.
Putnam insists that his own 29-year-old physique is as god-given as it is hard-won, a natural gift honed by years in the gym. As a high-school football player, he realized he had a talent for bodybuilding and began pursuing the sport more aggressively. At 5’6” and 195 pounds, he won almost every competition he entered—careening past bodybuilders who’d had years more experience—and his top finishes in national competitions eventually allowed him to turn pro. “I wanted to be good at something—not just good, but great,” Putnam says.
One trophy Putnam hadn’t banked on winning, however, was the affection of 22-year-old figure competitor Jessica Paxton. They met after winning their respective overall divisions at a bodybuilding competition in Chicago last summer and deciding to meet for dinner later that evening. Charmed by Paxton’s iron will, effervescent smile and beauty-pageant good looks, Putnam packed his bags and moved to Knoxville from Atlanta soon thereafter. Today, in addition to working as personal trainers at The Rush, they’re preparing to launch a training/consulting business, specializing in competition preparation, called Physique Pros (see peterputnam.com or jessfit.com for more information).
Swaddled in gym clothes and sporting a messy blonde ponytail, Paxton bears little resemblance to the buff, barbell-hefting cover girl of a recent issue of a magazine put out by her sponsor ABB/Optimum Nutrition. But the photo rightly identifies her an up-and-coming star; Paxton turned pro last July after winning first place in a figure division of 42 women. Her sport, figure, is similar to bodybuilding in that it emphasizes muscle strength and symmetry, but it also rewards feminine shape and presentation—everything from hair to nails to skin tone is judged. Paxton hypothesizes that she has an edge because she does have curves and a pretty face: “I look a little more soft. Some of these girls are starting to look like men because they’re using steroids.”
As a former cheerleader and gymnast, Paxton says she was drawn to figure competition because it combines athletics with audience presentation. “I’ve always wanted to be a performer,” she says. Figure, however, is only one of the bodybuilding subcategories women may choose to compete in; straightforward female bodybuilding is also available, as is fitness, which is comparable to figure but includes a gymnastic routine.
All are sports that, compared with male bodybuilding, enjoy only limited popularity among females, but Paxton would like to see that trend change. It’s time, she says, to reexamine culture’s standards of physical attractiveness—and figure, fitness and female bodybuilding competitions each offer a means of breaking the ice. “I’m passionate about showing girls that stick-skinny isn’t beautiful,” she says. “Beautiful is leading a healthy, active lifestyle.”
For Spires, organizing the competition was a way to give back to a sport that played a big role in his own life. Spires’ bodybuilding career was a classic scrawny-to-brawny success story: “When I first got started, I was 6’3”, 160 pounds, this thin, skinny guy. Me and the curling bar were about the same size.” As a college student, he recalls throwing towels over the ends of barbells to mask how light they were in the presence of his peers.
But he persevered and gradually grew stronger—much stronger—until six years later he competed in his first bodybuilding competition. And despite whatever embarrassment he suffered as a young weightlifter, Spire’s Adonis-like reincarnation receives only respect for his involvement in the sport, as a competitor, judge, trainer and, especially, as a bodybuilding-event promoter.
“The problem with most shows is that the promoters act like they’re doing you a favor, just putting on the show,” he says. “Compared with what you have to go through just to get on the stage, you’re putting yourself through this pure agony, and then you go and [all the divisions] are running late and you win a 12-inch trophy.”
The Greater Knox Classic is different. The event boasts divisions for every shape, size, age and caliber of competitor, from teens to senior citizens, first-timers to lifelong ‘builders. The competitors get gift bags. There’s edited music to correspond with their routines. Free t-shirts are periodically chucked into the audience.
Co-organizer Kasten agrees that competitors’ efforts to get onstage should be rewarded. However, she notes that health itself may be the best reward of all, and one that competitors can carry through into the long-term. “When you’re living this healthy lifestyle and you get in the pattern of eating five little meals a day and you’re exercising and you like the way your body looks, you want to maintain it.”