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Sunday, Sept. 22, 2002
Pecs, posing and living sculpture
"The main thing I want people to understand is that bodybuilding is the real thing. Bodybuilders are doing what all athletes are doing -- dieting, working out. There are no secrets to it. But, if all people see is a bunch of oiled, near-naked guys striking poses up on stage, they're going to think it's pretty weird. If people understood the process, maybe they'd think differently."
Koichi Aikawa, 31, speaks with conviction, and a charming optimism. The "process" those people on stage have to go through requires an incredible amount of knowledge and dieting know-how. And, of course, they've had to train incredibly hard. Aikawa knows it.
As one of Japan's top bodybuilders, Aikawa has often been one of those oiled, near-naked guys on stage. Starting Oct. 3, too, he will be one of Japan's eight bodybuilding representatives at the Asian Games in Pusan, South Korea -- the first time bodybuilding has been in the event's lineup of 38 sports.
In July, Aikawa felled the near-legendary, 14-time national champion Toshio Konuma to win a berth in Pusan. It was a personal high point and a day that will be remembered in the small but impassioned world of competitive bodybuilding in Japan. Here, in fact, a mere 1,200 men and 200 women are registered with the Japan Bodybuilding Federation, the sport's main organization here, which sponsors five out of the more than 40 competitions nationwide -- including the premier Mr. and Ms. Nihon Championships. Although numerous other organizations sponsor competitions in Japan, the JBBF is known for its strict dope testing and drug-free reputation.
Though the number of people who reach competitive level is relatively few, many more are involved in weight-training and bodybuilding to a lesser degree. What sets these people apart from the competitive crowd, however, is, generally speaking, body fat. Whereas the average person's body fat is about 20 percent of their weight, competitive bodybuilders of both sexes must diet that down to around 3 percent to show judges the fruits of their labor through the thinnest possible skin covering.
"Bodybuilding is about the perfection of the physique, the body's proportions and balance, the amount of muscle and the amount of fat -- and it involves all sorts of dieting and training skills. It's made up of all those things," says Aikawa. "There are still a lot of people who think it's just a matter of lifting a few weights and drinking a little protein powder," he says. "That is so far from the truth. If you try it you'll see. Right now bodybuilding is the center of my life. Everything more or less revolves around it. It determines the day's rhythm, and because of it I have a healthy lifestyle. I'm looking ahead. I have a challenge to meet every day and every day I feel primed for action," he explains.
Primed is an understatement. To see Aikawa in action is to feel like you're watching a tiger ready to spring. There is total stillness as he turns inward and builds his concentration, then turns to the weights. The concentration builds and holds steady as he pumps out the reps -- the pain and the effort pulling his face taut as his muscles near exhaustion point.
There is extreme effort involved, but it is coupled with awesome control. Being witness to it almost makes you want to avert your eyes. You feel you shouldn't be merely standing by and watching a person being taken to their physical and mental threshold, even if it's by their own choice. It makes you want to move some iron too, not stand around like a sadistic voyeur.
Weight-training -- the pump of blood in your muscles, the flush of adrenalin as you go heavy -- is addictive. Many people never feel compelled to go near the stage; others find it a source of motivation. The reasons people get into bodybuilding are many and varied. Some like the feeling of their body taking up space. Many say they like seeing the immediate results of their efforts. Others are attracted to the mental and physical challenge of pushing their limits. Others are moved by the beauty of a highly trained body.
"I like shoulders that swell up, big, with huge caps on them," says training enthusiast Sayaka Karasudani, 28, "like a wide back tapering in a V to a small waist. I like the flare of a strong thigh. I think that's beautiful. I think that's art."
Where bodybuilding diverts from mere weight-training is in its concern for the whole. A bodybuilder must look at the whole picture with the eye of a classic sculptor and the mind of an engineer; think how to add a bit more here, a bit more there. Blowout biceps and pecs are meaningless if you don't have thighs, calves, triceps, abs -- i.e. everything else -- to match.
More than mere size, it's the balance that counts. When Aikawa trains, there's no sitting around shooting the breeze between sets. He'll jump off the leg-extension machine to do knee-bends. When the burn becomes nearly unbearable he's back on the extension machine for his next set. It's just one technique of many used by bodybuilders to stimulate the muscle for growth.
"You weaken the stronger muscles in order to stimulate the smaller ones," Aikawa explains. "For example, if you do bench presses, in between sets you do dumbbell flys. Your arms are still strong but your chest muscles have been weakened. If you exhaust certain parts then the balance changes. You can hit certain areas better then."
Supersets, forced reps, cheat reps, circuit training, progressive overload, pyramiding, periodization, muscle confusion -- these are just some of the terms used to describe techniques employed in the quest for muscular growth.
Karasudani, who has trained for 10 years but is only now aiming to compete, also talks about the mental aspects of lifting weights. "Training is not just for the body," she says. "Mentally, you become stronger. At work and in your relations with other people you become stronger. You have more resolve, more ability to deal with things. You can deal with people in a much calmer way."
She admits, "I was always bothered by the fact that I'm mentally rather weak. I'd get into a negative mind-set very quickly. After I started training, I was able to be more positive and optimistic, even when going through rough times.
"With weight-training, if you close down and escape, you won't get results. You learn to fight with yourself and against your weaknesses. As you keep at it, you get stronger."
The preworkout psych-up is important to top builders. "Before I go to the gym I go through what I plan to do in my head. I go through the feel and how it's going to feel using a certain amount of weight. I feel myself going through the movements," Aikawa says. "If I go to the gym with the thought of working on my arms, I can't just switch over and work on my legs instead."
Extremely high concentration is required to perform reps at the far end of your physical and mental stretch zone. "If you can't concentrate that'll spell the difference between being able to go one more rep or not. It's all tied to the brain," Aikawa says.
"Like tennis players or baseball pitchers, everyone has his or her way of entering a state of high concentration. There's a way-in to that place. My way-in is through a strong grip -- gripping hard, focusing intently on one point and listening to my breathing. Then I can get to that state of high concentration immediately," Aikawa says.
Concentration itself is a skill that must be trained. "I'll think about going very slowly on the negative part of the rep and going quickly when raising the weight," Aikawa explains. "You build your concentration as you're going slowly. If you try to concentrate on the lift phase, you'll get too much unnecessary movement, but on the release phase you can get a clean move."
Clean is another term heard a lot around builders. Eating clean is the aim, especially as a contest draws near. Nowhere is the saying "you are what you eat" more pertinent than in bodybuilding. Finding the right balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat -- not too little, not too much -- of any one of them or all combined, is critical to achieving the bodybuilding competition ideal of ultra-low body-fat levels and highly developed muscles.
Nowadays, protein powders (a godsend for builders on the run) have joined the old mainstays -- cans of tuna and skinless chicken -- as dieting essentials. Pre-competition eating imposes ascetic-like restrictions on bodybuilders. "You've got to take your food with you," Aikawa says. "I'll down protein while standing on the train platform.
Dieting is the true test of the bodybuilder. Not only is strict dieting hard to stomach, but cutting back on carbohydrates needed for energy can leave you light-headed. It does even less for your moods. Diet is considered by some to be 75 percent of the game plan. "You have to cut down on the overall amount of calories to lose fat -- but you have to maintain muscle. So you have to eat frequently, every 3-4 hours, to feed the muscle," Aikawa explains. "If you eat bigger but less frequent meals your body will turn part of the food to fat. If you don't eat enough, though, you won't be able to train as hard as you should, and you'll lose muscle that way, too."
Training hard while dieting breaks more than a few bodybuilding hopefuls. Only those made of tougher stuff than most of us can see it through. Aikawa illustrates just how hard it is when he says, "I don't allow myself easy days because if I have them I can't forget how nice they felt and the other days are just too hard to take. In order to make the hard days not feel so painful, I don't go easy on myself much." Ouch.
Though dieting is a crucial link from training to the contest stage, there's still even more to work on. To peak and attain what builders call "the ripped look," with every striation of muscle visible, it is necessary to become not only a master over fat, but also over the body's delicate water balance. Too much water and the effect on the appearance is the same as too much fat. Too little and the muscles will look flat.
And then there's the polish, oil, tans and body hair -- or lack of it. Deep tans, not just a leftover from bodybuilding's beginnings in the sun-worshipping days, are necessary to bring out the cuts, and add contrast to the highlights of the harsh stage lighting. The application of oil also enhances the cuts, and body hair must be totally removed so it doesn't interfere with the play of light over the ripples of muscle.
Why do they do it? Is it an obsession, a fetish, a form of masochism, a passion -- or merely a sport?
"When you put your all into something, you encounter things you hadn't seen before. If you push yourself, you come to understand things you hadn't understood," explains Aikawa.
"Not just with bodybuilding, but with anything," Karasudani says. "It's a good thing to have something you're passionate about. If you're not happy, the people around you can't be happy."
Ultimately, is it really that hard to understand bodybuilding's attraction in a world where efforts more often than not go unseen or unrewarded? Bodybuilding gives you what you put into it. It's truly a clearcut equation.