Where Brain Meets Brawn

A late-blooming bodybuilder finds the poetry in pumping iron

Arnold Schwarzenegger was piquantly overwhelmed as he took to the stage, the maddening crowd chanting his name over and over: “I felt their energy running through me like this fantastic pump,” Arnold said. “They were screaming, flashbulbs were going off, I was caught up in the strange, unreal splendor of it.”

No, this supreme moment wasn’t upon his election as California’s current governor.

It occurred when Arnold snagged the Mr. Universe title in 1967.

In “Bench Press,” a wildly imaginative, quirky meditation on bodybuilding, Sven Lindqvist explores the obsession with big muscles, as well as his own fascination with the history of fitness training through the ages. Comprised of 85 chapters, some a mere couple of sentences in length, the slender-but-not-slight volume strives to plumb hidden truths behind bodybuilding and its rich history, and even reveals actual dreams Lindqvist envisioned during intense work outs. The book is illustrated with old-style line drawings that are so dorky they’re hip.

Lindqvist was like any other Swedish fellow in the 1980s. He tried to keep fit by swimming, but spent most of his energies on his career and raising two children. Suddenly, at age 53, a kind of archangel, in the form of a skinhead muscle boy, conversed with him in the gym sauna and changed his life.

The “plastic-looking” sexy hulk “exuded self-confident, aggressive masculinity,” claiming that weight training had cured his headaches, shyness, even depression. At once repulsed and intrigued, Linqvist wanted some of that cocky power for himself, and allowed the Atlas to become his personal trainer.

Before long, Lindqvist was hooked—religiously lifting weights and dedicated to vanquishing subcutaneous fat. He became a groupie at Mr. Olympia contests (the world professional bodybuilding championship) to worship these oddly gleaming muscle gods.

For Lindqvist, working out is a keenly spiritual endeavor, “…the concentration necessary for great exertion creates an inward stillness that is liberating… I breathe right from my groin.” Between sets, he hallucinates more clearly than in actual dreams at night, believing these episodes are more therapeutic than the tangible physical results, which, he admits, are also pretty darn therapeutic.

The historical accounts of physical conditioning, worthy of a special feature on the Discovery Channel, are among the more engaging segments in “Bench Press.” We learn that the Greeks used dumbbells and metal plates for weightlifting in ancient times. The word muscle derives from the Greek word “mus” (which means “mouse”) because muscular bodies looked like they had mice “scampering around under the skin.”

Lindqvist quotes Marcus Aurelius, the famed Roman emperor-philosopher of the second century A.D., who believed physical training had sacred medicinal value. In the 18th century, Taoist physical training was instituted for all citizens in China, aimed at easing arthritis, asthma, and constipation. Centuries later, Mao instituted European-style gymnastics for all citizens.

Nearly 150 years ago, Gustaf Zander, a fitness teacher in Sweden, invented the first modern gym equipment, with adjustable weights and levers, opening a training institute in 1865. The diagrams look amazingly like the Cybex machines found at any upscale health club in New York City today.

The Weider brothers, bodybuilders from Canada, started the first modern fitness magazine, “Your Physique,” in the 1930’s—their health and publishing empire continues to thrive. Seminal books about bodybuilding, like Charles Gaines’ “Pumping Iron” in 1974 and Arnold’s autobiography “The Education of a Bodybuilder” in 1978, forever changed the way Americans viewed their bodies and themselves.

Unfortunately “Bench Press,” first published 15 years ago in Sweden, feels more than a bit stale, despite being a “revised” edition. An American version that explores the continuing proliferation of the gym culture now would be worthwhile. Perhaps this new edition might consider the significant gay component to the bodybuilding world that Linqvist, who comes across as straight or closeted, ignores—after all, weren’t those muscle mags from the 50s and 60s precursors to Honcho? There is a book of comparable thoughtfulness in the sweaty connection between physical fitness and gay sexual arousal.

At times, Linqvist’s unacknowledged ambivalence towards his subject is exasperating. One moment he likens serious bodybuilding to a mental illness, or anorexia, labeling it “revolting.” The next, he decrees a mega-defined body, all fat-free with sinewy veins, a “work of art,” comparing it to the Centre Pompidou in Paris, which displays its inner workings on the outside.

If Lindqvist’s dreams or fitness history put you off, you’ll still find his mastery and sheer love of the pump inspirational. Lindqvist declares, and Arnold would surely back him up, that the way to get results is to shock the system. Vary your routine. Change leads to growth. Another valuable workout tip: “…come to rest at the point of maximum load.”

“Know yourself! Know your body!, Lindqvist urges. “Discover its potential, its educability, its strengths, joy, beauty. Exercise! Exercise! Exercise! It’s never too late to start. You can always achieve results.”

Now get off your ass and go to the gym. And leave your MP3 player and headphones at home.

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