Bodybuilding, the mental game
How many times have you gazed at one of those ripped studs on the cover of a fitness magazine or in an ad for the latest miracle exercise gadget or diet pill and thought, "I want to look like that"? Or "I wish my boyfriend/husband looked like that"?
Stuart MacDonald experienced those longings and decided to act. When bodybuilding champ Jeff Willet opened a gym close by, MacDonald asked him to guide a transformation.
Willet was game, and MacDonald chronicled his quest for those elusive six-pack abs in I Want to Look Like That Guy, an informative and entertaining documentary that shows how difficult it is to attain such an extraordinary physique.
MacDonald is an affable fellow with an impish sense of humor. Not only does he run his own video production company but he's also a magician, a volunteer firefighter, and an impresario of a seasonal haunted house.
Physically, he is pleasantly ordinary - balding, schlumpy, well-padded around the middle. At the documentary's outset, his body fat measures a plump 27 percent.
It was "morbid curiosity" that inspired the project, MacDonald quipped by phone from his home in Adrian, Mich. Specifically, he wanted to know how much lard a person could shed through weight training alone.
So, for 18 weeks, MacDonald pumped iron under Willet's direction. Willet follows a method of muscle building called Maximum Overload Training. In essence: heavy weights, low volume (only four to six reps per set), and plenty of recovery time.
Sure enough, MacDonald's body begins changing. The paunch flattens, the love handles shrink, and after 18 weeks, his body fat dips below 21 percent.
Still, he's a long way from a washboard.
After a break, during which his weight climbs to a peak 204 pounds, MacDonald resumes, with a twist. Not only will he train with weights, he also will follow a strict diet. To increase the challenge, he will become lean and muscular enough to compete in a bodybuilding contest six months away.
With admirable dedication, MacDonald works out in Willet's gym 40 minutes a day, five days a week, gradually increasing the loads he hoists. The iron-pumping sessions are followed by 16 minutes of high-intensity cardio, running or biking. As MacDonald grows more muscle, Willet further restricts his diet. He is surviving on nutrition supplements and minuscule amounts of oatmeal and chicken. His body fat drops into the teens, then single digits.
MacDonald begins resembling Adonis - rippling arms and shoulders, emerging abs, a tapered torso, massive thighs. But he feels horrible - "raw," to use his word, isolated, emotionally brittle. In one scene, he tearfully reproaches himself for undertaking such a foolish venture. In another, he confesses to sneaking a forbidden burrito, and in near despair, tells the camera:
"It's getting scary how hard it is to get as lean as I need to get. . . . It's a lie, a complete lie. . . . Nobody can do it and function. These guys are starving themselves to near death. . . . You've got no life. You've got no energy."
When MacDonald confesses to Willet that he's feeling lousy, Willet shares the memorable words of his bodybuilding mentor: "You've got to feel real bad to look real good."
In a telephone conversation, Willet, 36, elaborated: "To have an extreme physique, you have to be willing to live an extreme lifestyle. To get that lean, you're fighting every natural instinct. Your body doesn't want to go there. It's not functional and not practical. We're being sold an image that's not realistic."
Willet is an intelligent student of the sport and understands viscerally its paradoxical agony. All the anabolic gingerbread may suggest tremendous physical strength, but achieving it requires enormous mental strength. Willet is a stern taskmaster who brooks no excuses and continually urges MacDonald to "execute."
On contest day, MacDonald is running on fumes and adrenaline. His body fat is at or near 5 percent, perilously low. Every vein and sinew stands out with the clarity of an anatomical chart. Tipping the scale at 154, he has lost 50 pounds in six months.
The judges award MacDonald two trophies: third place in the masters division, second place in his weight class. He does indeed look like the superbly buff guys in the fitness ads, and he has done it through "old-school hard work" - no steroids, no human growth hormone. He's giddy with triumph, and wiser.
"Achieving single-digit body fat is totally unreasonable for the majority of people with normal lives and families," he declares. "It's unsustainable and unhealthy."
Three days after the contest, he's gained 10 pounds, and his abs have faded.
Today, MacDonald, 46, still works out five times a week at Willet's gym. He weighs 177 pounds, and his body fat ranges between 17 and 20 percent. He is happy with the way he feels and looks, and so is Willet.
"Stuart proves you can achieve a great body drug free if you're willing to walk through the fire," Willet says. "He also proves you can be fit and toned with defined muscles and a flat stomach and still enjoy a normal life."
For information on "I Want to Look Like That Guy," visit www.jeffwillet.com.
Contact columnist Art Carey at 215-854-5606 or firstname.lastname@example.org.