Bringing True Symmetry to Body Building
“Why do you train?”
That question alone could and would prompt a debate that not only stirs the passions of those who dedicate their lives to bodybuilding professionally, but also those of us who train 2, 3, 4 or 5 times a week on a less ‘professional’ basis in search of…..
Well... in search of what?
What are you and I looking to achieve and to see every time we look into the mirror after a hard session at the gym.
Bicep growth? Broad round shoulders? Curvy, solid glutes? Defined quads and calve muscles? I’m guessing for us all, male and female alike, the answer probably does include some, if not all, of the aforementioned socially sought after aesthetics.
Then there’s the way it makes us feel. Of course we feel great when we see ‘Progress’, whatever we perceive that progress to be. Add to that the science behind the ‘endorphin effect’; Self-made feel good ‘drugs’ that are an oh-so-welcome effect of the hard graft of every rep, every run… Arguably the reason we keep going back to our ‘addiction’.
So we want to look ‘good’. We want to feel ‘good’. All agree? But against which parameters? Or more to the point; against who’s parameters? It’s a pivotal question….
What is your frame of reference?
I somewhat crudely refer to bodybuilding with a broad brush. We are all to an extend building our bodies every time we rip, tear and break down our muscle fibres, providing we give our bodies the nutrients they needs to repair, bigger and stronger.
We are not all ‘Bodybuilders’. Rather we are people who are trying daily to make improvements to the way we look while balancing our lives’ other important responsibilities, but in the context of the traditional understanding of the ‘Bodybuilder’ the ‘Arnold Schwarzenegger’, the ‘Dana Linn Bailey’ this is where we first consider symmetry.
What is symmetry? Well Microsoft suggests the following synonyms…
Regularity, Balance, Equilibrium, Evenness and Proportion.
Makes sense right? We all want that don’t we? In our physical appearance and indeed in our lives.
Well I for one DO NOT look for all of these things in life.
Indeed while it might be a cosy thought, I can’t imagine a life mimicking these symmetrical synonyms to be one that builds character. Rather they are words that conjure images of non-productive satisfaction, apathy and stagnation.
So why do we, or does society, look so hard to find symmetry in the way we look physically?
Without revisiting the whole of the proud history of the sport, Bodybuilding originated in Ancient Greek and Egyptian culture before being popularised in a more recognisable way by ‘The Father of Bodybuilding’ and the person upon whom todays Mr Olympia Trophy is modelled, Eugine Sandow between 1891 – 1929.
The first bodybuilding competition ever held is said to have looked for the following:
• General Development
• Equality or Balance of Development
• The Condition and Tone of the Tissues
• General Health
• Condition of the Skin
A more modern bodybuilding judging criteria is well illustrated in the IFBB Rules 2014:
‘Article 10 – Assessing of the Elimination Round, Round 1 and Round 2 (Comparisons in Mandatory Poses);
“When assessing a competitor’s physique, a judge should follow a routine procedure which will allow a comprehensive assessment of the physique as a whole. During the comparisons of the mandatory poses, the judge should first look at the primary muscle group being displayed. The judge should then survey the whole physique, starting from the head, and looking at every part of the physique in a downward sequence, beginning with general impressions, and looking for muscular bulk, balanced development, muscular density and definition. The downward survey should take in the head, neck, shoulders, chest, all of the arm muscles, front of the trunk for pectorals, pec-delt tie-in, abdominals, waist, thighs, legs and calves and feet. The same procedure for back poses will also take in the upper and lower trapezius, teres and infraspinatus, erector spinae, the gluteus group, the leg biceps group at the back of the thighs and calves and feet. A detailed assessment of the various muscle groups should be made during the comparisons, at which time it helps the judge to compare muscle shape, density, and definition while still bearing in mind the competitor’s overall balanced development. The comparisons of the Mandatory Poses cannot be overemphasized as these comparisons will help the judge to decide which competitor has the superior physique from the standpoint of muscular bulk, balanced development, muscular density and definition.“
10.2 Assessing the Male Physique:
“In assessing prejudging, overall shape and that of the various muscle groups is important. The judge should favour competitors with a harmonious, classical physique. The judge should look for good posture and athletic bearing, correct anatomical structure (including body framework, broad shoulders, high chest, correct spinal curves, limbs and trunk in good proportion, straight legs, not bandy or knock- kneed). The judge should also look for good skin tone with an absence of surgical or other scars, spots, acne or tattoos, which the IFBB considers as a skin blemish, tidily dressed hair, well-shaped feet, and toes. When having difficulty in placing two or more competitors who seem to be on the same level, the judge should look for faults in those aspects listed above which will help to differentiate among the competitors”
As you can see, there is reference to “correct anatomical structure”, “good proportion”, “overall balanced development”, even “an absence of surgical or other scars”
Firstly let me be absolutely clear. The competitors that have competed in such competitions historically and in the modern day are some of my heroes. They are people I look to, aspire to and am inspired by. I want to look and be like them like any other person who loves to train. Their dedication and commitment is widely underestimated. I’m humbled by their achievements. But the crux of this blog is to think about what constitutes our perception of the human physique in a wider bodybuilding context and then to encourage discussion around whether modern bodybuilding should also look at the context of the ‘body’ being judged, along-side the challenges that a given person has with their body in getting there. In My opinion, the judging should somehow be an assessment of whether the body is in its maximum possible condition, rather than being judged against a ‘list’ of ideals and importantly; rather than ‘hiding blemishes and scars’ they should be understood, discussed and celebrated.
So, the next person I want to introduce is a person who is on the early, but rapidly rising, steps of his professional bodybuilding journey, and who has a story that already puts him amongst my fitness, and life heroes.
His name is Mark Smith.
Mark served with 1st Battalion Grenadier Guards, between 2003-2013.
In preparation for Marks second tour of Afghanistan in 2011, in a live-firing exercise, Mark was hit with a bullet that severed his femoral artery. 3 days later Marks leg was amputated.
Mark also sustained injuries to his upper body and shoulder.
I was first introduced to Mark during a conversation on BFBS (British Forces Broadcasting Services) Radio. I heard his story and immediately started following his journey through mainstream and social media; a story that inspires me every day and one that drives me in life and training alike.
Mark is changing the face of bodybuilding.
In the space of a year since he decided to pursue his ambitions in bodybuilding, Mark has shared a stage with 5-time Mr Olympia Phil Heath, Won at the Atlas Open, Hercules Olympia, and Pure Elite competitions, came 2nd at Mr England and guest posed at an IFBB Pro Show amongst other awards he is winning, quite literally as I write.
His proudest achievement on stage so far however, at the ‘Pure Elite’ competition, in Hayes, was that as well as taking part in the Mens Disability competition, he competed in the ‘Tall Bodybuilding Class’ amongst able bodied competitors.
This is where the Marks journey begins to let us in on just how significant his story is.
In the able bodied ‘Tall Bodybuilding Class’ Mark placed 5th. There were 6 in the category. He had beaten one of the able bodied competitors.
Mark, amongst others is doggedly ploughing the way for disABILITY bodybuilding. Indeed more and more federations are including the category in their shows and more and more are not the last category on the roster.
This achievement belongs to Mark and his fellow competitors. He has been filmed and followed by Forces TV and recently Channel 4. He is genuinely making history. On one leg Mark is making strides others with 2 legs only sit and dream about. He is a doer, an achiever and a dedicated family man.
To follow Marks story, start by following his facebook presence ‘Mark Smith Disability Bodybuilder’ where he regularly and passionately writes in detail about his competitions and the changes he is forcing in the industry across federations.
I want to talk about why.
At the very beginning my interest was what was inside Marks head.
I can see he has had serious physical injuries. I can see that he has overcome these in spectacular fashion. I can see that he will not be beaten. But I want to know why he turned to the gym; and why he turned to bodybuilding and I want to know… In the moment he feels down, demotivated, frustrated… What happens in his mind? What keeps him going?
I asked Mark what I consider to be the ultimate question when it comes to fitness. Very simply..
‘Why Do You Train?’
The response was mind blowing. Moving. He wrote what to me was a poem. It was a lengthy response.
I have thought about breaking it down for this blog, but every word carries meaning so, here is his full response;
“I had only really been interested in PE and sport growing up, so whilst others knuckled down for their GCSEs, I was just counting down the days until I could leave school to join the Army.
A lot of friends and family kept advising me that I should get a trade for when I leave the Army, but I saw this as a negative, as people were already talking about a career for me AFTER the Army, before I had even joined! I knew when I went in that careers office that I wanted to be an Infantry Soldier, as I could carry on that active lifestyle that got my interest growing up.
It didn't disappoint and I was enjoying my career, with not a single regret or intention of leaving.
It was in 2011, when I was injured, that fitness really became more than just an interest. Having been shot multiple times in both my right leg and right shoulder, hitting my femoral artery and causing me to need resuscitating on several occasions; I was later told in Hospital, that had I not been so physically fit, my heart would not have been strong enough to cope with the trauma.
Being fit and healthy had contributed to saving my life.
After 10 weeks in Hospital and over 20 operations, I had wasted away, to the point where I had become unrecognisable to friends, who on coming to visit me, walked straight passed me in my bed.
I had lost almost 30kg in body weight and seeing myself in the mirror every day and how skinny and malnourished I looked, upset me a lot more than losing my leg.
When I got to Headley Court, my rehabilitation could begin and this was where I would get onto a prosthetic leg and begin walking again, but a lot of lads had found comfort in food there and had become too overweight to be able to wear prosthetic limbs.
That wasn't going to be me, I felt I was still representing my regiment and it was my responsibility to keep fit and I knew it would benefit my ability to walk.
On my first day at Headley, I was shown where everything was for physio, etc... and when asked if I had any questions, I asked where the gym was.
I was still in a wheelchair at this point and due to my shoulder injury was barely strong enough to get up on crutches and I still had a vacuum pack attached to my leg, draining any infection away. I was dosed up to the eyeballs on tramadol and morphine, but the only medicine I needed was to never look this ill again.
I was determined to eat right, train often and get walking. When others would be resting on their beds between sessions, I'd go down the gym. I'd spend every spare minute there. It became my own rehabilitation.
It was the only place where I didn't feel disabled.
The weight soon came back and my strength began to follow. People were now not commenting on my injuries but on how well I was looking and it made me feel good, that people would see my efforts in the gym and not my injuries.
I had accepted that my time in the Army would come to an end and that I'd never soldier again, but I still wanted to be active. I contemplated becoming a PE Teacher, I took my FA coaching badges, became a qualified Boxing coach and a Level 3 Personal Trainer, but I still wanted to push myself more.
I had heard for so long in hospital and Headley Court, that I won't be able to do this or that and all I wanted to do was prove people wrong and push the boundaries, do things other amputees hadn't tried before. I wanted to highlight what could be done and not what couldn't.
Becoming a Bodybuilder became a natural transition as I began to miss the structure, discipline and routine that the Army had given me for so long.
The lifestyle of a Bodybuilder seemed to suit me and gave me another chance to prove what could be done
I realised when I left the Army and started working as a PT, that working in a Gym and training in one were two different experiences. I got down working in a gym and within weeks of committing to my first competition, I was thriving off the challenge of pushing myself and seeing my body change for the better.
People would stare as I trained, especially when I'd train my leg, but it seemed they weren't staring because I shouldn't be there, but because I didn't moan about my lack of limb.
I train to set an example to my children, to lead by example, to show them that no matter what cards they are dealt, to not make excuses and to work hard. I train to make new memories of what I can achieve now and not live off my previous career.
I train to see just what I can achieve, so that when I am on deaths door next time, I know I made the most of my second chance at life.
I train so that I will never see that ill, skinny, malnourished shadow of a man in the mirror again."
I can’t draw such a subject to a ‘conclusion’ as it is a discussion that I think will gather pace. Rather I just wanted to bring a different way of thinking to the fore.
Bodybuilding; once far removed from the everyday gym goer, is no longer a distant concept, because of people like Mark.
Indeed what more perfect example do you need;
A soldier. A man with a wonderfully supporting wife and young son. An avid football fan (We will forgive the fact that I’m an Posh fan and he’s an MK Dons fan) and a man who loves the gym despite his physical ‘imbalances’.
The thought that ‘My body isn’t the right shape’ is no longer valid.
The thought that ‘I have injuries that will prevent me from being my best’ is no longer valid.
The idea that bodybuilding, or to drill down to a more profound level, being proud of your body image, is reliant upon a god given gift of muscle definition, natural symmetry and steroids, is certainly not valid.
What Mark is proving is that a normal person, who has endured abnormally amplified levels of trauma, both physical and mentally, can decide to plough a furrow for himself and for people who need inspiration simply by making a decision to do so.
Marks determination has done some remarkable things. It is raising the profile of disability bodybuilding, but it is also doing something far more significant.
A man who’s physically symmetry was taken away is bringing true symmetry to the industry. With the lead of people like Mark, we can now think of Mr Olympia in the same way as we think of an amputee from Milton Keynes in the gym. Both men have an unrelenting determination. Both men have awe inspiring physiques. But the biggest change is that now, instead of recognising the goal, we start to recognise the painful, difficult journey in getting there. We start to recognise the importance and power of mind and personality.
For us all, men and women, maybe the most powerful moment isn’t standing on stage. The most powerful moment is that second you look in the mirror on a Monday morning and feel dissatisfaction because your symmetry isn’t quite right, or your shoulders aren’t big enough, or your bum isn’t pert enough, but you realise you have 2 choices, be disappointed and give up, or be proud of what you’ve become so far and make a decision to spend your week working toward being better.
That quiet determined moment you say to yourself…. Let’s try again.