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Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Building A Better Body: A Two Book Review

I don't normally bundle reviews like this, but I happened to read these two books back to back, and they are so intimately connected (at least, in one direction), that I feel like it's appropriate in this particular case.

The Education of a Bodybuilder
by Arnold Schwarzenegger

If you don't know who Arnold is, I really don't know what to tell you. I understand if you aren't a fan of his politics, or think his acting career has seen better days, but like him or hate him, the man has become a cultural icon, reaching a level of fame where he almost doesn't need a last name. Given his somewhat unremarkable beginnings, it seems that studying the man's path to success might offer some insights.

Education of a Bodybuilder is divided into two sections. The first half is an autobiography, covering Arnold's life from his childhood in Austria through his meteoric rise to become a champion bodybuilder. Written in the mid-70's, the book stops Arnold's story before his career in Hollywood takes off, and long before he had completed his transformation into the Governator. The second half of the book is an outline of Arnold's training program to take someone from novice to competitive bodybuilder.

If you want a good insight into the kind of mindset required to be an immensely successful competitor, this is an excellent book. Some will find it inspiring. Others will find it disturbing. Arnold does not hide from the sacrifices that he chooses to make, including an almost complete emotional disassociation from everyone around him. The positive self-talk and visualization that he uses to help propel him to sucess are unquestionably valuable and worth emulating. The obsessive puruist of a single goal...

I'm not really willing to make a judgment on that. Look, it's pretty simple. Becoming a success requires sacrifice. You can either make those sacrifices or not. But if you want a pretty clear picture of what kind of sacrifices are made by serious competitive athletes, this is a good place to look. Even if you don't like what you read, there are some useful ideas about mindset and visualization that are worth learning.

The physical training section of the book is okay, but not thrilling. For me, the most interesting part was the beginner program, mostly because it consists entirely of body weight exercises, and is actually quite rigorous on its own. If you can knock out 50-100 push ups, dips, squats, bodyrows, along with 30 close grip pull-ups, you're probably building a decent foundation for strength gains. But for all of that, the value in this book is really in the insight into Arnold's mindset, not his workouts.

Muscle: Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder 
Samuel W. Fussell

One day, while listening to me rant and rave about the various dysfunctional personalities that I have had to deal with throughout my martial arts career, my father suggested that I check this book out. Appropriately enough, he then ended up buying for me for my birthday, thereby ensuring that I could check it out. Smart man, my father.

Muscle is the story of Sam Fussell, the son of two (apparently famous) Oxford professors (yeah, I guess Paul Fussell is quite famous. I'd never heard of him before this. Maybe I'm ignorant.), who, terrified of his New York City existence, and inspired by Education of a Bodybuilder, among other things, decides to take up bodybuilding in an effort to protect himself from his fears. He spends several years going deeper and deeper into the bodybuilding world, eventually moving to southern California to train and compete, before finally throwing in the towel and returning to the world he had been trying to escape. Along the way, he meets a collection of strange and colorful characters who provide him with guidance, advice, and pharmaceuticals.

Muscle is...well, it's odd. I can't find another word for it. It is an easy read, and quite engaging, which I suppose one should expect from a man as apparently well educated as Fussell makes himself out to be. The characters are entertaining, and Fussell does manage to capture some of the perverse dysfunction that drives addicts in any culture. I could certainly see where there are some parallels to some of the weirdness and dysfunction that is found in the martial arts.

BUT

There is something that just rings inauthentic about the whole thing. Maybe its the fact that a man of Fussell's self-proclaimed intelligence could read Education of a Bodybuilder, yet somehow manage to show up at a YMCA with apparently no idea of how he was supposed to lift weights. Maybe its the way he constantly writes about his behavior without any sense that he ever thought he was doing the right thing--it is one thing to look back on a period in one's life and say "damn, I was being stupid" (I know, I do it a lot), but Fussell never seems to actually authentically buy into the persona that he's assumed. It seems as though from day one, Fussell thinks that what he is doing is inauthentic and stupid, but for some reason keeps going with it anyway.

And while I understand that part of what Fussell is driving at is that his attempts at bodybuilding are something of a failed attempt to reinvent himself, it doesn't particular seem like he gains anything from the failure. He begins the book as a confused, floundering, young man...and ends right back in the same place, but with a book manuscript. It appears (the ending is very vague, and it's hard to tell) as though he comes to the conclusion that all of his parents dire warnings about weightlifting were true, that it is all pointless and solely for idiots and crazy people.

I really don't know whether to recommend Muscle or not. As I said, it's an easy and fun read, but the substance feels...off, somehow. I may write more about it if I can find a better description. If you're curious about some of the weirder sides of bodybuilding, it might be worth checking out.

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