“Come on man, one more!”
Josh Kuechler lets out a loud grunt. His friend, and fellow fitness fanatic, Ross, accompanies him on this Thursday evening in the Ball State rec center’s weight room.
Ross helps to encourage Josh – but so does the music that blasts through his black earbuds.
His playlist usually includes a variety of rock and rap jams, but right now, “The Greatest” by Futuristic is on full-blast – he says it’s the song that pumps him up the most.
Josh needs it. He is, after all, pushing up two dumbbells in the air that, together, weigh over 200 pounds.
His red hair drips with sweat underneath an American flag baseball cap. Each of his large arms is spotted with freckles, beads of sweat, protruding veins and a black, silhouetted tattoo.
The two dumbbells crash to the floor as Josh completes his last repetition.
His warm-up is over.
Josh rises from the bench and walks toward the mirror that lines the front wall of the weight room. He bends his knees and twists his hips, then flexes his biceps in a quick, upward motion. He’ll be posing just like this in a few months – but it will be on a stage, in front of an audience, underneath a spotlight. If that’s not intimidating enough, he’ll also be wearing a speedo and glistening from oil and self-tanner he’s slathered on his entire body.
Josh, a senior exercise science major at Ball State University, is a bodybuilder – one who devotes over 10 hours to the sport every week.
In high school, Josh was your average varsity athlete: He balanced schoolwork and friends in between meets, practices and games. Football and wrestling were his passions. He never considered bodybuilding.
Josh, though, began to develop depression and anxiety. He needed an escape – a way to feel better about himself and to eliminate some of the stressors in his life.
His friends knew the solution.
Josh saw a few of his pals get involved in bodybuilding. They loved it (plus, they were getting colossal muscles from all the time they were spending in the gym).
Josh started doing his research. Turned out, weight training was proven to release more “feel-good” endorphins. This, along with the motivation to get in better shape, helped Josh make his decision.
He was going to be a bodybuilder.
Earlier this year, Josh made his debut in the Mr. Ball State bodybuilding competition. He placed as the second runner-up - which wasn’t just beginner’s luck.
He’ll be returning to the competition next April, as well as competing in the Midwest Bodybuilding Championships.
Josh’s life revolves around bodybuilding – a sport that has grown and changed significantly since it first got its start.
Sandow sets the pace
Eugen Sandow was, without a doubt, a strong guy. He could lift people above his head. He could snap cables. He could pull apart heavy steel chains.
People in the 19th century, though, weren’t so interested in seeing him perform these feats of strength. Rather, they just wanted to see his buff body.
Sandow, who was born in then-Prussia, traveled all over England and the United States to pose in front of audiences– which eventually earned him a spot as a common household name.
As he gained popularity, Sandow also used his fame to encourage others to get healthy. Many of the exercise routines and diets he promoted are still used today.
Sandow is often cited as the “father of modern bodybuilding.” He set the stage, literally, for all the athletes who would come after him – including when the sport entered its golden years.
In the mid-1900s, bodybuilding began to explode in popularity. Many attribute this time to when the fitness craze began in the U.S.
Athletes flocked to Muscle Beach in Santa Monica, California, where bodybuilding celebrities such as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Joe Gold got their start.
Along with this, protein and nutritional supplements became more readily available, and fitness magazines exploded in popularity – which all resulted in more individuals becoming obsessed with the sport of bodybuilding.
Although bodybuilding is not as popular today as it was in Southern California back then, the athletes, like Josh, who participate in the sport still use many of the nutritional and exercise techniques that became popularized in the mid-1900s.
Josh will not be competing until next spring; he still has a set standard of rules, though, that he follows every week.
He spends hours in the gym each week pumping iron. But, Josh says this is nothing compared to the strict diet he follows.
Athletes preparing for bodybuilding competitions have to drastically reduce body fat - doing so, though, while not losing the muscle they have built up in the weight room. Most achieve this by decreasing their caloric intake, completing intense strength training, and increasing cardiovascular exercise.
Each Sunday, Josh spends around four to five hours preparing his food for the coming week. He eats a whopping eight meals a day, which he spaces out between every two to three hours.
Eating eight meals a day sounds like a dream - that is, if you could devour whatever type of food you felt like. Josh, though, mainly eats protein-packed foods, such as chicken, fish, eggs, and nutritional shakes. He says he cannot miss a meal, no matter what.
On a particularly busy day, Josh only had time to eat six meals before a three-hour evening class. He decided to bring Tupperware containers full of chicken breast, tilapia, and brown rice to his class, along with a giant container of hot sauce in order to give his food more flavor.
Josh says it’s normal, though. At the beginning of the semester, when he brings his large cooler full of food to his classes, he does get odd looks from his peers. But, they normally grow accustomed to his unusually large meals.
Once the day of competition arrives, the hard work is finally put to the test. David Pearson, an associate professor of exercise science at Ball State, has coordinated the Mr. and Mrs. Ball State bodybuilding competitions for more than 30 years. Ball State’s competition, according to Pearson, is structured the same way as any other competition would be.
In the men’s division, there are two different classes: medium, for those who are 5 feet 9 inches and under, and tall, which includes men who are taller than 5 feet 10 inches. Josh, standing at 6 feet 4 inches, competed in the tall division this past year. Because the female division is so small, there is only one class. However, at larger competitions, women are also placed in similar categories.
A typical competition contains two rounds, explains Pearson. During the first, each class of competitors file out on the stage. The judges call out a pose to the bodybuilders. Then, each competitor twists his or her body into the same stance. This way, the judges can easily begin to compare the athlete’s arms, backs, and legs to one another. Once the judges are satisfied, the next round begins.
In the second portion of the contest, each is given a solo, 60-second timeframe. This, as Pearson explains, is the contestant’s “time to shine.” Some choose to do classic bodybuilding poses. Many contestants choose to incorporate costumes. And, especially for the female competitors, some even decide to do a routine that could be similar to what would be seen at a gymnastics competition. He says the second round of the contest is more about showing off to the audience and having fun.
In high school, Josh competed in varsity sports in front of huge crowds. But, for him, nothing compares to the feeling of being on stage at a bodybuilding competition. When he is the center of the audience’s attention at a show, he feels a huge rush of adrenaline as the crowd cheers and claps, admiring the body he has worked so hard for.
During bodybuilding competitions, judges are very specific on what they want to see. Nate Brown, an instructor of exercise science at Ball State, will be a judge at the 2018 Mr. and Mrs. Ball State bodybuilding competition. As an avid athlete and bodybuilder himself, he says judges typically look for three key points.
Is this healthy?
Preparing for these competitions takes work, time, and money — which, if taken too far, can be detrimental.
In the weeks before a competition, bodybuilders have to significantly reduce their food intake.
Many cut back on calories and not choose to eat any carbohydrates in
order to be as lean as possible on the day of the show. Most also opt to not drink much water, so that their muscles are as clearly defined as possible without fear of being hidden behind “water weight.” The extremely strict diet can make bodybuilders especially “hangry,” Brown says.
Another possible danger is muscle dysmorphia, which is essentially the opposite of anorexia: Rather than being concerned with being too big, those with the disorder are always worried they are not big and muscular enough. The sport of bodybuilding largely focuses on self-image; therefore, those who body build are especially susceptible to muscle dysmorphia.
These factors can negatively affect bodybuilders. However, anabolic steroids can be even more detrimental.
Anabolic steroids are drugs that mimic testosterone, the male sex hormone. When used, these steroids increase the growth of muscle tissue. They are often prescribed by doctors to treat various conditions, including anemia, breast cancer, osteoporosis, and HIV. These steroids are commonly abused by athletes who want to increase their muscle mass.
The use of anabolic steroids by bodybuilders began to multiply in the late 1980s. Suddenly, competitors grew to be impossibly huge. They gained weight rapidly while showing no visible fat on their extremely-sculpted bodies. Although illegal in the United States, the use of these drugs is still very prevalent in bodybuilding today, explains Brown.
Anabolic steroids can create a wide range of side effects, including acne, infertility, male-pattern baldness, rage and aggression, and even cancer and heart attacks.
Bodybuilders also spend large amounts of money on their sport. They must consider the costs of personal coaches, contest entry fees, gym membership costs, grocery bills, and spray tans needed before competitions. Josh says these costs can add up quickly.
It’s worth the risks
Bodybuilding is an energy and money commitment for Josh. And, as a full-time student, a member of a fraternity, and a part-time employee at T.I.S. Bookstore, bodybuilding takes up a big portion of Josh’s free time. For him, though, the sport is not so much about competing against others. Rather, it’s becoming a better version of himself.
The competitive aspect of bodybuilding is not important to most, explains Pearson. For many of the athletes he works with, it is about being physically and mentally healthy while also growing a community with others – which is exactly what Josh has done with his involvement with the sport.
After graduation, Josh is not sure if he will continue the sport. However, the exercise science major does have an ultimate goal of opening his own gym, where he can help others become the best versions of themselves through bodybuilding - just as he has.