I write this in a lot of pain. Don’t give me sympathy, though. It’s of my own making.
A bookish 28-year-old writer at 149 pounds and with an ectomorph body type that means I’ve been referred to as “little weed” far too often in my life, I’m not exactly the kind of guy that you’d associate with bodybuilding. Yet that’s exactly the challenge I’m about to undertake.
A Personal History with Bodybuilding
Bodybuilding is actually something I was exposed to at an early age. My brother, departed now but very much present in my thoughts, was a large man — to my young five-year-old eyes, he was a colossus. Over six feet tall, he weighed in excess of 200 pounds and was remarkably strong. He would lift weights outside in the back garden or in his bedroom, and I would watch those makeshift dumbbells rise and fall, the tarnished silver bar in his reddening hands catching the light and flashing stark silver. I remember that clearly, as though the light cut into me and engraved the moment forever.
As part of this hobby, my brother would buy bodybuilding magazines from the paper shop down the road, back when bodybuilders still wore jagged psychedelic workout pants and skintight vests, and he’d sit reading those magazines while eating bowls full of chicken and rice. Sometimes he’d let me look at the pictures with him, naming bodybuilders for me: Lee Priest, Kevin Levrone, Dorian Yates, and of course the man we have come to know as the “Governator,” the unforgettable Arnold Schwarzenegger.
As kids tend to do, I wanted to emulate my brother and so when I scraped into being a teenager I also began dieting and working out with the weights he gave me. I had some moderate success. I was once very much thinner than I am today, but over the years, and moving from a home gym to a public gym, I’ve put on a bit of weight that, while not particularly impressive, means I am at the very least a great deal stronger and healthier.
Yet, and this is the regular trap of age, I accepted certain limitations — that, for instance, I’m what’s known as a “hard gainer” and so probably couldn’t get very much bigger — because, really, I wanted to put my energy elsewhere. My focus has always been twofold: my writing and my wanting to live as ethical a life as I possibly can. In the midst of working on a novel, and screenplays, and poetry, and fighting for causes I believe in, there was little time for dedication elsewhere. What little I did have has been split between my personal relationships and my sense of ethics. Working out, then, has mainly centered on health maintenance and not any other goal in particular.
Between the summer days of my childhood (I only seem to remember summer and Christmas) and my adult life, though, I became a vegetarian. I couldn’t stand the thought of contributing to the suffering of other animals, and anyway, what right did I as a moral agent have to purposefully kill another creature, especially when it isn’t necessary for a healthy life? Early in 2013 I made the definitive change to veganism, a decision that I personally only wish I’d made sooner. That prompted a bit of a rethink about the whole bodybuilding life.
Bodybuilding: A Vegan-Hostile World?
I was aware, in the way that one becomes passively aware of things on the Internet, that there were a number of competing bodybuilders who had varying degrees of a vegetarian diet. For anyone who isn’t aware, lean meat is for most bodybuilders a staple, as are eggs and milk and the derivative whey, which makes up a majority of the “mass-gaining” protein powders that have become synonymous with bodybuilding. All, of course, are now forbidden to me. The industry, though, has accepted to a degree that meat consumption isn’t the only way to muscle growth — but even then, there is strong skepticism (including a ridiculous amount of “bro-science“) against vegetarianism and especially against veganism.
Even so, about the time I became vegan I, out of sheer curiosity, started researching if there were any vegan bodybuilders. It turns out, there’s a strong community that is both growing and winning competitions. Names like Derek Tresize, Ed Bauer and Torre Washington, as well as female bodybuilders like Marcella Torres pop up frequently. These people are examples that, when it comes to a body that is often held up (whether rightly or wrongly) as the epitome of strength, a vegan diet (free of pharmaceuticals) can facilitate those goals.
So I’ve decided to be a part of that community.
Embarking on a Bodybuilding Journey for a Good Cause
As of last week I hired a trainer and have undergone my first, torturous workout. Let’s be clear here: I don’t enjoy it, and I don’t imagine I ever will. Yet, I am hoping that over the coming months and years I will be able to use my own body to become an example that health and fitness are not only possible with a vegan diet but that the body can be served well by it.
Through the course of this journey, I also hope to confront the ethical issues that this lifestyle provokes. For instance, living in calorie surplus in order to build muscle means I am taking in more food than I really need to survive. How do I justify this and off-set the impact of my increased food consumption and its possible impact on the environment and wildlife? Also, can I really justify it when there are people starving in the world? I will have to reconcile my ethics with these issues — perhaps that will put a stop to my journey, or perhaps satisfying answers can be found.
Another issue involves body image and the way in which they are increasingly turning to steroid abuse, as well as other dangerous stimulants, in order to get the body they desire because, at least in part, they can only derive self-worth by emulating the seemingly perfect bodies that we are bombarded with in the media.
With my bodybuilding goal there’s an undeniable risk of contributing to that body issue problem. I want to be quite clear: I have always seen myself in my mind’s eye as being physically larger than I am, I suppose in much the same way as many other people see themselves as smaller. This is about what image is right for me, and I can honestly say that, with a partner who loves me and a certain level of confidence in my personal appearance, this isn’t an exercise to have my looks validated or my self-worth confirmed by others. I would, though, like to answer the body image issues by being as truthful and honest as I can about this training journey, showing it for what it no doubt will be (and, my screaming thighs say) already is: hours upon hours of painful hard work.
Essentially, I want to show that there is no good dietary argument against veganism by taking this experiment as far as I can: by showing that you can go from what is essentially nothing (perhaps I’m being a bit unkind about my physique, but you get the idea) to a body that, while I’m under no delusion of becoming Mr Universe, is considered by most standards a muscular and strong body and, crucially, one that is healthy. For this purpose I will have to track my health as it is now, and how it is changing across the many variables like body-fat percentage, resting pulse, as well as weights lifted, for how long, and details like that.
The next post in this series, then, will see me doing just that as I work to solidify short term and long term goals as well as confronting some of the ethical problems I can see looming on the horizon. I hope you’ll join me for that next installment, as I anticipate that I’m going to need all the encouragement I can get.
Image credit: Thinkstock.