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Generation Iron - Is This The Next Pumping Iron?

Bill Dobbins


Generation Iron is “Pumping Iron for the modern age,” says director Vlad Yudin. Upon its release this fall, Yudin hopes his new documentary will promote bodybuilding tothe mainstream public just as the original Pumping Iron movie did back in 1977.

That’s a pretty tall order. The book and film Pumping Iron were hugely influential  in  bringing  bodybuilding  and   Arnold   Schwarzenegger to the general  public’s  attention  and  making them part of modern culture. I know  because  I was there when it happened. I was a young man when I moved to Venice, California, in the ‘70s and rented a house on Pacific Avenue, just  four doors down from a place called Gold’s Gym. I’d been a Steve Reeves fan  since  the  movie  Hercules, but knew nothing about bodybuilding  or  a big,  muscular  Austrian  with  a  funny  name  and a thick accent.

Then I saw a copy of Pumping Iron. Featured in the  book were the gym down the street and a lot of bodybuilders I saw walking in the alley behind my house every day. I’d been looking to get in better  shape, so I joined Gold’s and was taken through a workout by gym manager Dan Howard. When people talk about being “intimidated” working out in a gym filled with  bodybuilders, I can only smile. Here I was, the only “pencil  neck” in the whole place, trying to sneak in and use pieces of equipment without interfering with the work- outs of Franco Columbu, Robby Robinson, Frank Zane, Denny Gable, Roger Callard, and, of course, Arnold himself. Nobody minded my being there, as long as I didn’t get in the way.

The Pumping Iron book had been out for a while, and George Butler was just finishing the movie, so I had the chance to be awitness to history. I went on to help promote the  gym and stage  a contest with owner Ken Sprague. This brought me to the attention of Joe Weider, who  picked me to be the founding editor of Flex. Eventually, I got  the  opportunity to collaborate on three books with Arnold.

Yudin acknowledges Pumping Iron as a great inspiration inmotivating him to create his own bodybuilding movie, but says so much has changed in the world of professional, competitive bodybuilding that Generation Iron will be a very different experience for movie audiences and bodybuilding fans.

“In the ’70s,” Yudin says, “bodybuilding was very much a niche activity. To many, just a freak show. Contest were frequently held in venues like a high school auditorium, prize money was very low, and very few competitors actually made a living from bodybuilding.”

But within a few years, the public became highly aware of bodybuilding as a sport, Arnold became a major movie star, Gold’s Gym evolved into a major international gym chain, Muscle & Fitness was hailed as the “publishing miracle of the ’80s,” and elite athletes, actors, lawyers, and housewives alike began adding weight training to their fitness regimens.

Here’s a graphic example of this sea change: Look at the  difference in Sylvester Stallone’s physique between the first and  second  Rocky movies. He doesn’t show  much  muscularity or definition in the first film. But after working with champions such as Franco Columbu, he became hard, muscular, and ripped—like a bodybuilder. In fact, you  now  rarely  see an action/adventure hero who isn’t muscular and in great shape.

But as Generation Iron makes clear, the pro-level bodybuilding physique has itself changed  drastically over the years. Arnold, at over 6' tall, stood onstage in his best condition weighing 235 pounds (give or take). Phil Heath is four inches shorter and competes ripped to shreds at about 250 pounds. Nor is Heath among the very biggest. Nowadays competitors weigh in at 270 pounds or well above.

These bodybuilders are huge! In fact, they’re so big, thick and muscular that they don’t  entirely look human. This level  of  muscular size and thickness is so extreme that nobody would have thought it possible a few decades ago. Without a doubt, no human beings in history have come close to displaying this combination of huge muscles, low body fat, balanced proportion, shape, and definition. Their bodies are simply mind-blowing.

Yudin admits that in some ways the development of these top pros has gone beyond not only what the public is willing to accept, but what many bodybuilding fans themselves want to see. “Bodybuilding has always been in large part about shape and symmetry as well as size,” he says. “Many of the top competitors are so big and thick that some have trouble perceiving that they are also still symmetrical and aesthetic. It’s going to take more time for many to get used to this.”

Joe Weider always differentiated between the “Apollonian” (distinguished predominately by shape, symmetry, and aesthetic quality—e.g., Frank Zane or Darrem Charles) and “Herculean” (thicker and more massively muscular—e.g., Casey Viator, Mike Mentzer, or Dorian Yates). But it would be hard to describe many of the top Mr. Olympia competitors  featured in Generation Iron as primarily Apollonian. Some may be more shapely and aesthetic than others, but almost all fall somewhere on the Herculean spectrum.

But physiques aside, one of the most memorable aspects of Pumping Iron was featured bodybuilders’ personalities. These guys were a fascinating group of characters. Certainly, the movie wouldn’t have been as successful without Arnold’s presence. But there was also “The Incredible Hulk” Lou Ferrigno, a much more insecure individual in his youth than the mature person he subsequently became. And there were others such as Mike Katz; the volatile Ken Waller; the thinking man’s bodybuilder, Frank Zane; the “Black Prince” Robbie Robinson; and Arnold’s best friend, Franco Columbu. Just put this cast of characters in a room and turn on the camera and you’re sure to get magic.

Yudin is very aware of the importance of interesting personalities in making a successful documentary of  this kind. And  he’s  also  heard the criticism that today’s pro bodybuilders simply aren’t  as  interesting as the champions of the ’70s. But he strongly disagrees.

“In many ways, pro bodybuilding is a much more serious business than it was in the days of Pumping Iron. Today’s pros take very little time off. They are involved in training, dieting, and pursuing their careers on a 24/7 basis. There is a great deal more mone y involved. Bodybuilders in the ‘70s were the equivalent of small businessmen. Today’s pros are more like CEOs of major corporations.  So they tend to go about pursuing their careers, onstage and off, in a more serious manner.”

It isn’t that today’s champions lack personality, Yudin believes. It’s just that they’re so serious, professional, and dedicated to an all-consuming lifestyle as well as the increased business demands of being a bodybuilder that their personalities are just not as much on display as was once the case.

That’s why Yudin has worked hard to document the private and personal lives of his cast in addition to their professional efforts to win titles such as the  Mr. Olympia. He tries to get up close and personal to show all sides of these athletes, their feelings and concerns, and, of course, their  humor.

“We spend time with  these guys to show that the idea that they aren’t as interesting or don’t have the personalities of bodybuilders  from earlier times is simply not true,” he says. “These are very bright, capable and complex athletes who are very interesting to be around. And you’ll have a chance to see this when you watch Generation Iron.”

There’s no doubt far more public awareness of bodybuilding now than there was 30 years ago. But public acceptance is another matter. Thanks to Arnold, Joe Weider, Pumping Iron, and other factors, bodybuilding developed a much more positive image in the 1980s than in earlier years. But that’s much less the case nowadays. This is largely because of the drug issue. The public tends to believe that modern pro bodybuilders’ massive physiques are only possible because they use anabolic agents such as steroids, that they  would  look  nothing like they do without drugs and that winning bodybuilding championships involves “cheating” to the same degree as with Lance Armstrong winning Tour de France titles.

“Of course, we have to deal with the drug issue in Generation Iron,” Yudin  explains. “It’s  the  elephant  in  the room  as  far  as  bodybuilding  is  concerned. But a documentary of this sort is  not  the  proper  forum  for  dealing with all the complexities and details of a controversy like this. Our goal is to describe the nature of the sport rather than  pass  judgment  on  the  choices made  by  some  competitors.  But  I think one point is important to keep in mind: If all athletes in a sport have access to the same advantages,  the winners as well as the losers, then you have in effect a level playing field and you  have  to  assume  that  those  who emerge  as  the  champions  are  genuinely the best and the most deserving.”

Unfortunately, the public has been subjected to five decades of anti-anabolic   propaganda,   resulting in a very one-sided view of the  subject. In the ’60s, experts said steroids didn’t work. In the ’70s, athletes were told they were extremely dangerous. When athletic competitors found they did work and that very few developed any serious side effects, the authorities changed their message: Anabolics may work and be (relatively) safe, but because they’re against the rules, their use constitutes cheating.

But professional sports survive and prosper because of their fans’ support and enthusiasm. And as  far  as the fans of elite bodybuilding are concerned, they want to see the biggest and best physiques that modern approaches to training, diet—and drugs—can produce. Because of this, a documentary such as Generation Iron needs to closely observe and report on what the sport, the competitors, and the create a documentary that takes a positive or negative position on anabolic substances, those subjects are available to them. (See Chris Bell’s Bigger, Stronger, Faster, for example.)

Pumping Iron featured the stars of bodybuilding in  the  mid-’70s. The top of the food chain now includes the likes of Phil Heath, Kai Greene, Dennis Wolf, Dexter Jackson, Branch Warren, and the other “monsters” who have risen to the top of the IFBB pro bodybuilding ranks. The details of who they are and how they’ve  achieved such elite status in such an extreme and demanding sport are what makes a documentary such as Generation Iron so significant and fascinating.

“I wanted to get  the  point across,” Yudin adds, “that bodybuilding is a  sport, but it  is more  than  a sport. It is a total way of  life. The way preparing for competition and developing a career totally takes over a bodybuilder’s life is unique in athletics. For the modern bodybuilding pros, this effort goes on 24 hours a day every day of the year. The degree of discipline, motivation, and effort involved in almost unbelievable. But without this kind of dedication, even the best genetics for bodybuilding imaginable will get a competitor no-where. The champions have worked extremely hard for a very long time to get where they are—and what they go through in this effort is the basis of what Generation Iron is all about.”