Columns > Published on November 7th, 2014

5 Things Bodybuilders Know That Writers Don't

I'd think it was crazy too if I were a normal person.

-Jay Cutler, bodybuilder

At the risk of going even further to the bro side of things than the title would indicate, I'll start with a little story about FHM.

Every spring, at the end of the semester, the college in my small town would roll out huge dumpsters. Most of the dorms would empty into them. All the cheap furniture and whatever weird, disposable chair Target pushed the previous fall would fill these giant trash bins as if the buildings tipped over and the entirety of their rooms fell inside. My brother and I were always there to root through the trash for some diamonds in the rough. "Rough" in this case being ripped binders, destroyed clothing, and more shower caddies than there were showers on Earth.

I made some good finds. Lamps, staplers, things like that. I made finds that were less good. A used Foreman Grill I fished out of a trash pile, took home, revived, and cooked on for a few years. Sure, every chicken breast pressed between that  grill was likely infused with a certain amount of what us trash connoisseurs call "garbage juice." And sure, the little cleaning spatula that REALLY helps clean a Foreman grill was not to be found. But I was living the high life, or a version of it, and eating leaner chicken than ever.

On one of these dumpster expeditions, I took home a box fan, a floor lamp, and a pile of discarded lad mags. FHM, Maxim, and the like.

I should reiterate, just in case you forgot about the Foreman grill plucked from the garbage, that this is not a story of pride. These magazines were scrounged from the garbage. Not next to the garbage, not adjacent—IN the garbage. They were not 100% clean. One even had notes left inside by the previous owner's roommate, and I would periodically find these notes and be reminded, "Oh yeah. I got these out of a dumpster."

As writers or artists, we can learn from anyone. I would suggest we can learn more from someone different from ourselves. Someone who has different experiences.

In other words, just in case you weren't sure, I'm not bragging. Not bragging about pulling semi-porn from a pile of garbage.

I had the chance to peruse these magazines many, many times, and there were...downtimes wherein I would actually read the articles. Yes, the text that someone makes lots of money to lay out such that it doesn't encroach on any part of Megan Fox's body. Do you think if one were to write an article about a model, there is a formula somewhere in the back offices of Maxim magazine that reconciles how many words can fit compared to how much lady? Do certain weird poses allow for the optimum ratio of semi-nudity to text? I haven't profiled any models for LitReactor (yet). I have a lot of questions.

The women posed in my dumpster magazines are long gone from my mind, but one of the articles stuck in my memory hard.

It was a profile of bodybuilder Jay Cutler. At the time he was shooting to win Mr. Olympia, the Stanley Cup of bodybuilding. I guess I should say it's the Super Bowl of bodybuilding, but everyone compares stuff to the Super Bowl. Live a little, guys.

Cutler looks shocking in the pictures printed alongside the article. There's one photo of Cutler holding a weed whacker for some reason. He's tanned a deep brown, copper the way a penny looks after it spends a few weeks on the ground at a gas station. In another picture, Cutler holds the end of a couch in the air with one hand, above his head, while he vacuums underneath. The vacuum's handle is tiny in his huge hand.

He's more naked than most of the female models in the magazine. He wears only tiny bikini briefs in a lot of shots.

Mr. Olympia is not a figure contest. It's not a CrossFit thing. This is for the spray-tanned gigantors of the world. The ones who cannot wear clothes off the rack. Whose hands are lined with veins, the fingers chubbed up with muscle. Cutler looks uncomfortable. His muscles bulge away from his body. He's gone past the place a celebrity goes to get ripped for a movie. He doesn't actually look like a human person anymore.

In one of the pictures, Cutler stands next to his father. His father looks like a regular dad. Khaki shorts. Glasses. He's thin. The sleeves of his polo shirt have a little room all the way around his upper arms. But when he's next to his son, it's hard to believe that these people are the same type of animal, let alone of the same blood.

I remember more than the pictures. I remember some of the things Cutler said. Before one of his competitions, he didn't drink anything for days. He dehydrated himself, then he ate uncooked oatmeal to draw the water out of his skin, which made his veins and muscles pop. He was so devoid of fat that he said his feet, there was no padding. He could feel that he was walking on pure bone.

He talked about a cruise he took with his wife, how he couldn't snorkel because they didn't have a life jacket that could buckle over his chest. How he got in the water and sank immediately. How the rich cruise food, which normally packs a few pounds onto people, had a huge effect on him. He was coming straight off a competition diet, and he put on 15 pounds. In 5 hours.

There were so many little details about what a personal hell this was. It has stuck in my mind for over a decade. I wrote a first, complete garbage novel with a character based mostly on this interview.

It's been a long time since I dumpster-dived those magazines. Since I threw them away. All it takes is one move to a new place. Am I going to pack dumpster magazines in a box? Likely not.

I'd like to think I've graduated to a new level of class, one where I may still find myself in seedy corners, but those corners are digital and don't involve a lot of panicked questions about whether the creature that ran past my feet was a rat or a squirrel. I don't eat off that Foreman grill anymore. And I started exercising a bit myself. Which is why I started cruising the internet for workouts and found Jay Cutler again.

Since our last meeting, he's won Mr. Olympia four times, his last win being in 2010. Wikipedia lists his height as exactly the same as my own. His contest weight is me plus 100 pounds. His off-season weight is me plus 135. His thighs are 30" in circumference. That means the belt I put around my waist, tightened by one notch, would fit his thigh.

When I saw him, saw him all these years later still at it, it reminded me of that article from those dumpster pornos. Of how bizarre his story was, but also why it stuck with me.

Because I'm a normal guy and sort of make everything about me at some point, I thought about what I pursue in my life with dedication. And the answer is writing.

I've never gone on a water fast, but I've certainly done some accidental coffee dehydration. I've never set an alarm to wake up every two hours and eat a full meal, but I've certainly skipped meals on accident or lost sleep to work. I haven't won a Pulitzer, which is sort of the Mr. Olympia of writing, or the Stanley Cup or the Super Bowl, but I've entered a few things here and there and learned a lot about winning and losing.

It's not easy to look at someone like Cutler and think he's smart. We don't think of bodybuilders as smart. We think, in cultural shorthand, that someone like that builds his body to compensate for a weak mind.

The more you read up and watch these men and women, the more difficult it is to dismiss them as dopes. Simpletons who build these strange bodies because it's all they can do. Watch Pumping Iron. Arnold Schwarzenegger is an ass, no doubt. But you can't call him stupid. The way he lines up the competition, the way he completely gets in Lou Ferrigno's head. He's evil, but he's no dummy.

Even though I don't agree with their choices, especially their aesthetic choices, I have to admit to myself that bodybuilders do something I cannot do.  And whenever someone can do something you can't, it pays to listen to them.

There are some smart things that bodybuilders do. Some really smart things, actually, that apply to a lot more than lifting heavy things and putting them back down.

As writers or artists, we can learn from anyone. I would suggest we can learn more from someone different from ourselves. Someone who has different experiences.

So what are the five things bodybuilders know that writers don't? What are the 5 bodybuilding practices writers could use? Put down that pen, pick up a dumbbell, and follow me.

1. Cramming Doesn't Work

Pull-ups are not easy. Reach your left hand across the front of your body as far as it will go. Then, use your right hand to feel the muscle. Put your thumb in your armpit, then cup your back with your fingers. You're feeling the latissimus dorsi. The muscle that will make or break your pull-up.

A pull-up motion is key to most bodybuilders. If you did 10 pull-ups every other day for the last year, you'd have 1,825 pull-ups under your belt right now. When one considers the number of people who've done zero pull-ups in a lifetime, that's a hell of a commitment.

What would happen if you tried to cram all those pull-ups in during one day?

You'd fall apart. Literally. If your hands could curl around the bar after the first 30 pull-ups, you'd probably feel it in your shoulders next. You'd hang, tired at the bottom of every pull-up, and you'd feel bones pulling out of place. If you pushed through that, managed to keep your bones where they belong, there's a good chance you'd tear a bicep next.

If you missed your writing session on Tuesday, maybe you double up on Wednesday. But is the work as good?

As writers, we've all been there. You set the goal. "1,000 words a day, every day, no matter what."

You get a day behind, so you figure it'll be easy to jam out 2K tomorrow.

Then you get another half a day behind, and you start thinking about 7,000 per week, how you can divide what you missed and get it all in.

On Saturday you're looking at a 5,000-word weekend warrior situation.

By Sunday, all is lost. By the spring, if you've been keeping track, you basically have to write a novel per day, plus perhaps a greeting card, to get all those words back.

Here's what a bodybuilder knows: if you didn't get it done yesterday, you start again tomorrow. You can't jam it in. There's no such thing. If you try and slam three workouts into one day, you'll be more behind than you will be caught up. If you want to get in 1,825 pull-ups, you have to spread it out.

Yes, we all have those golden days where we're unstoppable writers, where we can write forever. Bodybuilders have those days too. Where it feels like you're stronger at the end of every lift. That you'll get stronger and stronger as the workout goes on.

But the truth is, if a bodybuilder does a leg workout and a back workout on the same day, she has to question whether she was able to give her back all the work it needed. Whether she had enough energy after the leg workout to do the kind of back workout she would have done with a day's rest in between.

If you missed your writing session on Tuesday, maybe you double up on Wednesday. But is the work as good? Did you give it the kind of care and attention you would have if those thousand words were the first set instead of the second?

As a writer, consider sticking to the plan. Don't overtax yourself to make up for missed writing sessions. Try and get in there and write today. If you don't, figure out what stopped you, kill that roadblock, and start again tomorrow.

2. The Importance of Rest

When you lift weights, you're essentially tearing your body apart, and then your body puts itself back together. It's a complicated process bathed in some weird science and very specific cell types, but it's easy to think about it like this: tear something down, then build it up bigger and better.

What doesn't work is constant tearing. You can demolish a building to make a new one, but you need to let the rebuilding part happen too. If you run your demolition crew in there when the new building is halfway up, you'll never have anything completed.

Bodybuilders know that you can't work out every day. You can't. The physical process your body goes through requires rest. Bodybuilders plan their rest and stick to it with the same fervor they plan their workouts. The workouts are important, but without the rest they are futile.

Writers often have the spirit to work every day. And yes, there's a difference in a physical mandate and a mental/emotional need. However, writers would do well by themselves if they took a page from one of the many bodybuilding books and planned some rest into their schedules.

I know, we like to think of writing as so different. That we're the iron men and women, going for long stretches without a break. But rest is essential to a bodybuilder, and is there harm in trying it as a writer?

What would happen? How might your life as a writer change if  you rested? If you were that 1,000 word/day person, what might happen if you said "Two days where I get in 1,000, then a day off"? What if you planned it out so you could spend every Sunday binging on Netflix and still meet your goals? What if you planned it out so the nights you work late, you don't have to worry about writing as well? What if you tracked yourself for a month, saw that most of the days you missed were Thursdays, and adjusted accordingly?

Doing it all, doing it every day, is not easy. Give yourself time to rebuild. Time to think about your work without typing it onto a page. Try some rest.

3.  Everything Matters

If you read a bodybuilding book, if you actually read it instead of flipping straight to the workouts, you'll see pages and pages of advice on sleep, diet, and almost every aspect of life. These are usually the boring, filler pages of the book, and they're filler and boring because they have a lot of advice that everyone knows. Sleep at least 8 hours. Eat healthy food. Don't drink and smoke. Avoid spending time in areas where it's likely you might be exposed to deadly bacteria, such as dumpsters at your local college.

What bodybuilders know that writers don't, or what they practice that writers don't, is the lifestyle where sacrifices are made in service of the goal. A bodybuilder might really enjoy beers. But if you drink 3 beers, you add lousy calories to your diet. You don't sleep right. You wake up maybe the smallest bit hung over, and as a result you don't eat the right breakfast. Then you work out, and it takes half the workout to get back to feeling normal.

What bodybuilders understand is that all these choices, all these decisions about treating the body like the machine it is, have effects that go way beyond the immediate.

Reading is work. It's part of the writer's job. It's absolutely essential. It's the base.

Writers are not exactly famous for taking care of themselves. There's this idea that sacrificing one's health, that human suffering, is sort of the ultimate in artistry. But if you care about truly great writing, consider the possibility that maybe you're a bit sharper when you're rested and fed. Maybe talking to a therapist will clear some stuff out for you. Maybe getting the recommended 20-30 minutes of exercise every day will lend focus to your work, or just the ability to sit in a chair for a couple hours without standing up and walking away. Maybe you're a better writer when you preserve your liver instead of battering it with booze.

Now, the good news here is that as a writer, you can make a lot of healthy sacrifices without going bodybuilder overboard. You don't have to eat 10 egg whites. You don't have to pile your kitchen counter with those hideous, day-glo supplement bottles. Instead, your "sacrifices" can be about stuff you should do anyway. Eat sensible meals, food that doesn't make you feel lousy. Get in a good 8 or 9 hours. Yeah, you can get by on 5, but are you doing your best work? Are you sleeping 11 hours every Saturday, chopping your best writing day in half to catch up? When you sleep 5 hours, are you blown out by the end of the work day, unable to get any writing done?

The writer can be smart about it. You don't have to get extreme. You don't have to take all the fun out of food and make it into math.

4.  Never Forget The Base

In an article about the value of free weights versus machine circuits, the kind of machines where you sit, strapped in and bolted to the floor, one bodybuilder made an interesting case for free weights. This is the sort of debate that rages through the bodybuilding world time and again. Which heavy things to lift how many times.

The free weight proponent compared each muscle to a cannon. Let's say the bicep. Everyone knows the bicep. It's the classic flexing muscle. Hold your hands out in front of you, palms up, and then imagine someone sets a huge lunch tray in your hands. Now imagine they're filling the tray with rocks. The muscles that hurt first, those are your biceps.

So imagine your right bicep as a cannon, and your body is a boat. The cannon is meant to fire from the boat. If the cannon overpowers the boat, if it was built separately and without considering the boat, you'll have a problem. Imagine firing a large cannon from a rowboat. Or from one of those swan boats that are in a lot of romcoms, which are romantic only because it's a movie and you can't smell the water surrounding them.

The idea is that free weights are necessary. They force a person to build the whole body. To maintain a strong base. You can build an awesome cannon, but if you can't fire it from your boat without tipping over, it's a useless showpiece.

You, as a writer, need to maintain a strong base. A bodybuilder makes sure to keep up with free weights. You have to read.

It can get tough. Who has the time to read AND write? They're both time-consuming activities. Time-destroying. Time-annihilating! I'm trying out some workout terms here.

We've all done that thing, that thing where you're reading a book, but all you're thinking about is how you should be writing. How you should be working instead of doing something fun.

But you have to read. Not just research material. Good writing.

Reading is work. It's part of the writer's job. It's absolutely essential. It's the base. It's what keeps your cannon mounted on a huge ship with awesome pirate flags. It's what keeps you from tipping over in the tiny rowboat that is your experience with the written word. It's the only thing that keeps your swan boat afloat over that cesspool of cigarette butts and green water.

5. Work Your Weakness

With this one we can start with writing, go to bodybuilding, and then come back around to writing.


Your friend and, mine Chuck Palahniuk, is famous for saying, "Find out what you're afraid of most and go live there."

To a bodybuilder, that means something pretty simple. Which lifts are you afraid of? Where are you weak? Whatever part of you is weak, easily identified as the muscle group you dread working, that group should become your focus. If your chest is sunken, live on the bench. If your back isn't broad enough, camp out under the pull-up bar. When you say, "Oh crap. It's shoulders day," then you know what you're doing is more important than any other day that week.

A bodybuilder can't enter a competition lopsided. There's someone waiting to check that box right away. Is this person in proportion? Symmetrical?

As a writer, it's easy to live in a cozy home. To find something you do, your thing, the thing you're good at, and stay there. It's easy to trick yourself into thinking no one will notice your skills aren't in proportion, but really you're the fella walking around the weight room with huge biceps, giant traps, and tiny little legs. Yes, we all noticed. Immediately.

You won't be a great humor writer if you can't write a serious scene to save your life. You'll struggle to write bizarro fiction if you can't write dialog that makes sense. If you think you've got nothing to learn from poetry, then you're exactly the kind of person who should try out a sonnet.

Even though a reader of your turn-of-the-century crime novels might not profess an interest for heartfelt memoir writing, those skills will help. And even though your reader won't check a box, they'll feel the absence of the mark.

Find your weakest writing muscle. Dialog. Settings. Character traits. Figure out the place you're afraid of, rent the U-Haul and move there.

One of the last details I remembered from the magazine I dumpster-dived, Jay Cutler has a custom keyboard. His fingers are too big for a regular keyboard. I'd say too fat, but they're not fat at all. They're wide. Huge. They rub against each other.

Bodybuilding is a sport that requires sacrifice, dedication, and a bizarre personal drive, an almost aggressive stance on not caring what people think of you. For a lot of us, I know writing is the same way.

If you're looking to take it further, if you are ready to sacrifice, and if you don't care what people think, heed the wisdom of the bodybuilder. At least up to the point that said wisdom requires the purchase of tanning airbrushes and special keyboards. Feel free to stop short of that.

About the author

Peter Derk lives, writes, and works in Colorado. Buy him a drink and he'll talk books all day.  Buy him two and he'll be happy to tell you about the horrors of being responsible for a public restroom.

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