He’ll eat nutritious high protein and swallow raw eggs/Try to build up his shoulders, chest, arms and legs/Such an effort if only he knew of my plan/When in just seven days I can make you a man,” Dr Frank N Furter sings in The Rocky Horror Picture Show, about his plan to create a muscular man with the “Charles Atlas seal of approval”.
Since Charles Atlas made a name for bodybuilding almost a century ago, the popularity of the hulk image has not abated. Not least in the minds of men.
And some huge men – who have trained up bulging, cut muscle, often with the use of anabolic steroids and dangerous supplements – still feel they are puny. They suffer from a disorder dubbed “bigorexia”, or reverse anorexia.
Take Max (not his real name). He has virtually doubled his size in four years, from about 52kg at 21 years old to about 98kg. In the run-up to bodybuilding competitions he takes potentially lethal doses of fat burners and starves himself of food and water.
Despite winning championships, Max says: “When I look in a mirror I see a skinny boy with a fat stomach. I have such a complex when I go out I wear long-sleeve shirts and I never wear shorts – even in 30 degree heat.”
Unlike many bodybuilders, men with this disorder don’t exult in their size, though they endure punishing routines to achieve it.
Max, a personal trainer, says: “It is an addiction. We are so consumed by it. Everybody wants to look like Arnold Schwarzenegger but only a few are willing to go to those extremes. Bodybuilding is a selfish sport. You do not want to go out. Your life is gym, eating, supplements and sleeping.”
Max, who does not admit to using steroids, says: “There is no chance of a (sexual) relationship as your libido is shot.”
The obsession to build muscle comes at huge expense and cost to their relationships. Bodybuilders spend a fortune on supplements, fat burners and food according to Max, who has forked out about R25000 a month.
He says they swallow unsafe doses of illegal, toxic fat burners and steroids, even insulin. Some inject horse steroid directly into the abdominal muscles so they stick out more.
Max says: “I’ve taken DNP (dinitrophenol) and the main ingredient is pesticides. You lose half to one kilogram a day. It forces your body temperature up so that you constantly sweat all night. If you take it longer than a week you can die. I’ve been taken to hospital.”
He says that in season he does cardio training in the morning and lifts weights at night, and in between he just wants to sleep. “The training is horrible as you push yourself until you vomit, and feel like death.
“My size is really too big for my frame and sometime I get out of breath just walking up the stairs.”
Max says that for eight weeks before a competition he eats only egg whites and lettuce. The week before he goes on stage he dehydrates, drinking less and using black coffee, diuretics and glycerine to “force the last water into the muscle”.
The day before the pre-judging, he will drink only 100ml of water until he gets so thirsty all he can think about is water. Before contestants go on stage they take Viagra to pump up muscle, and some will even inject oil into their biceps.
Max says the banter behind the scenes, for example telling a competitor his hamstrings look skinny, is intended to psyche their opponents out.
“You want to get into their heads so they are not confident,” he says.
On stage the bodybuilders pose for the crowds, winding up their fans to admire their size and symmetry, gleaming under the spray-on tan. “You feel amped on adrenaline and squeeze as hard as you can,” says Max.
“If you win, it’s very rewarding but you may as well come last as be second. I’ve gone off the stage breaking trophies. Ninety-nine percent of us are sore losers.”
Max says he feels “flat, tired and miserable” if he walks away without a medal.
“The Sunday after the show you eat so much junk. Then the whole cycle starts again.”