Is it really possible for an ordinary guy to turn himself into a beast? On the other side of 50, this writer went in pursuit of the ‘impossible’ body – then had it judged under the burning spotlight of competition.
I try to deal with my advancing years with an attitude of amused resignation. At 53, there’s little I can do about my craggy face, which bears all the signs of a life well lived. And I have to laugh one day when a twenty something colleague asks, “What colour was your hair before?” “Before what?” I reply, watching him redden and shift in his seat as he realises he may have hit a raw nerve. “Before I went grey? Or before I went bald?” I’ve been a gym-goer for years, but even so, everything’s slowly heading south. I feel a bit paunchy, a bit man-booby. Is it downhill all the way from here? Not yet, I decide. Not if I can help it. I need a new challenge.
Many guys in the throes of a mid-life crisis take up running or cycling. But weightlifting’s always been my first love. Why not take it to a new level? It’s mid-2018. I give myself one mofo of a goal: in a year’s time I will strip down, step out on stage and show the world what I’m made of. Oh, and I’ll try not to make myself a laughing stock in the process. “You’ll need a trainer,” my partner says when I announce my decision. I’m wary, though. I’ve had a couple of trainers who didn’t take into account my needs as an older guy. Then there was the one who tried to coax me into using “chemical enhancement”. “Fair enough, your choice,” he said when I declined his offer of anabolic steroids.
I know I have a Herculean task ahead of me, though, and I’m wondering how I’ll do it. Seeking Instagram inspiration, I’m bombarded with images of guys whose physiques clearly owe as much to what they inject into their butts as the hours they spend in the weights room. I’ve read all about the effects steroids can have on your mental and physical health, and a user I knew died from a heart attack in his 40s. Yes, I want to build a bodybuilder killer body. But I don’t want to kill myself in the process.
I start listening to a podcast by the US-based 3D Muscle Journey team. They follow an evidence-based approach to natural bodybuilding that focuses on mindset as much as nutrition and training. And when I hear them referring to their clients as “athletes”, I’m sold. I haven’t thought of myself as an athlete since I won the 1500 metres in high school. I send off an application to join their program. They pair me up with a coach who turns out to be ideal – the founder of 3DMJ himself. At 48, Jeff Alberts has been competing in bodybuilding for 26 years. Known as “The Godfather”, he’s held two pro cards, claimed 16 class titles and in 2014 won the prestigious IFPA Pro International. With a record like that, I’m sure there’s no way Jeff’s as easygoing as he sounds on the podcast. I’m anticipating three-hour weights sessions and being constantly harangued to “make friends with pain”.
Instead, Jeff is relaxed and affable when he lays out our game plan via Skype. Each week I’ll need to send him a 10-15-minute video check-in from my home in Sydney, and he’ll reply by video from his home in California a day later. He’ll set up a shared Google spreadsheet into which I’ll need to enter every detail of my bodybuilding life: my weight each morning, my daily workouts, every gram of protein, carbs and fat I consume, the steps I’ve walked. There’ll be columns for my hunger levels, tiredness levels and recovery levels. The first thing Jeff does is to reduce my workouts. He wants me to train less, not more. This comes as a shock. I’ve fired up of late and have been exercising up to six times a week, combining weight-lifting with cardio sessions. Jeff drops my training days to four.
He explains I’ll need more rest days to allow my body to recover because, well, I’m getting on a bit and the risk of injury is high. He adds that I won’t actually be looking to build more muscle. Rather, the goal will be to lose body fat, because bodybuilders need to be ultra-lean. But there’ll be no cardio in my program.
My head spins. No cardio? “You’ll need to lose body fat slowly and steadily, and you’ll need to hold on to as much muscle as possible,” Jeff explains. “That becomes harder as you get older, and with all the walking you do, your daily activity levels are enough.”
It takes me a minute to recalibrate my thinking, but I can see the pluses. But how much weight, exactly, will I have to lose? I’m 175cm tall and have dropped a couple of kilos in the past few weeks and now weigh 78kg. Jeff reckons my contest weight should be 68kg. Sixty-eight! I haven’t been that light since I was 22. I’ll look like an emaciated whippet. “Let’s see how we go,” Jeff says. He’s smiling. Maybe he’s trying to put me at ease. Or maybe it’s the first sign of a latent sadistic streak. I’ll need to keep an eye out for that.
FIRST STEPS: EASY DOES IT
Jeff gives me a traditional upper body/ lower body split and tells me I’ll no longer be training to failure. Again, what?! No more grunting and straining to push out those last two reps on every set? Nope. Jeff favours the “reps-in-reserve” method – he wants me to stop when I still have a couple more in me. “If you’re doing eight to ten reps, leaving one to three reps in reserve is sufficient to activate both fast- and slow-twitch muscle fibres,” he says. “Don’t feel you’re not working hard enough if you’re not working to failure.”
I feel like my world has tilted on its axis. A few weeks in, though, I’m loving this new way of doing things. I leave each training session feeling I’ve had a solid workout, but not so toasted I can barely walk for three days. The changes to my diet are tougher. I’ve long considered myself a healthy eater, but my portion sizes had gotten out of whack. Jeff leaves me to choose what to eat, but I have to hit the daily macros he sets me. These start out at 200 grams of protein, and I can vary the fats and carbs so long as I end up at 9790 kilojoules a day. I figure I’ll have no problems paring back my consumption.
How wrong I am. My video check-ins soon take on a sheepish tone. “So, I did pretty well for four days last week, but I stuffed up on the other three days,” I say. “Sorry, Jeff, I feel I’m letting you down.” He allows me a little leeway but it’s not long before he changes tack, leaving me no wriggle room. “Nigel, your goal is to compete,” he tells me. “You’re paying me to help you reach that goal. You need to knuckle down.”
He tightens up my daily macros, telling me to stick to 80g of fats and 200g of carbs. It’s not exactly an order, and Jeff’s certainly no drill sergeant. He tells me he sees me as a human, not a robot, and he reassures me I shouldn’t worry about letting him down. In that case, I realise, there’s one inescapable conclusion: the only person I’m letting down is myself. I realise I absolutely want to give this my best shot. More importantly, I don’t want to be that skinny-fat guy on stage who looks like he started his contest prep last week.
I start calculating my macros with laser-like precision, recording them in a phone app before each meal, tweaking and adjusting every item to get the kilojoules spot on. Just as I’m getting on track, Jeff drops my daily intake to 8950kJ, trimming back the carbs and fats. A few weeks later he slashes it to 8120kJ, while leaving my protein intake at 200g.
At times he allows me refeed weekends, but even these require precise calculations: I can have 1200 kilojoules more on Saturdays and Sundays, but my fats can’t go above 60g. No bingeing on chocolate or chips just yet. Now it’s me who becomes the drill sergeant, setting myself a highly regimented food plan: I have the same breakfast each day, the same number of coffees or teas, the same protein-based snacks.
I narrow down my lunchtime food options near my workplace and stick to them rigidly: noodle soup with chicken, chilli and vegetables; salad with grilled chicken or salmon; grilled steak and vegies; a wrap with grilled lamb and salad. At home my partner leaves all the cooking to me, fed up with me barking, “How much oil are you using?” or obsessively weighing each potato. I think I’m avoiding arguments by taking over the kitchen, cooking tasty dinners from a healthy-eating app I’ve found. In reality, my partner’s just counting the weeks until our lives can return to normality.
I’m not a drinker these days, which is just as well – I’d have to say no to nights out at the pub. And Jeff advises me to keep restaurant meals to a minimum. “The chef doesn’t care that you’re training for a bodybuilding contest – he’ll throw in as much oil or butter as he wants,” he explains.
MID-WAY: OMG! I’M JACKED
Slowly but surely, the body fat melts away. Two months out from my first contest, I’m lighter than I’d ever imagined possible: I’m now 70kg. In my clothes, I look far skinnier than I want – one friend tells me I look gaunt – but beneath my shirt those muscles are poppin’. My body’s taken on the look of a topographic map, with shadows and contours in places that had previously appeared flat and featureless. My shoulders are more bulbous, and parallel grooves appear on my triceps, like furrows in recently ploughed fields. These are the striations I’ve heard about but have never seen in the mirror.
“Jesus! Those abs,” I think as I peel off my top after a training session. I twist and turn in front of the mirror, marvelling at my stomach as if it’s a previously undiscovered insect I’ve just trapped in a jar. A fellow gym-goer walks in on me loving myself sick. “Sorry,” I mumble, embarrassed at being sprung. He stops in his tracks. “Wow,” he says, staring at my torso. “When did you get so ripped?”
The most astounding development is when veins spring up all over my body. I know this vascularity is a sign my body fat is dropping to the desired levels. Even so, I hadn’t expected to see such a profusion of bulging veins on my pasty, middle-aged skin. They run across my shoulders and along the length of my arms. They span my chest and thread their way down my stomach. I realise it won’t be long before I’m ready to get up on stage. That day can’t come soon enough. I’m constantly hungry, which is cruelling my sleep. I often wake at 4.30 and find it impossible to nod off again.
So I use the extra time to practise posing, sending videos of myself to Jeff. He sets up a series of 5.30am posing sessions in which – watching me via Skype – he tweaks the angle of an arm or the tilt of my hips. I can see why he focuses on the tiniest detail. Turning my leg by just a few millimetres radically changes the way my muscles look.
The day finally rolls around that I’ve been dreading: my posing trunks arrive in the post. I shut myself in the bedroom and slip them on. They’re bright blue and extremely shiny. I feel like an extra in a girl-band video. You won’t catch me strolling along Bondi Beach in them, but I can see they serve a purpose, allowing the judges to see every muscle and separation in my thighs and hamstrings. And wearing them makes me feel different. I realise this is what it must be like for an actor to get into costume before assuming his role: when I put those trunks on, I become a different person. I become a muscleman. The final weeks pass by in a blur of training, counting kilojoules, posing and watching the scales drop until I reach 68kg. “Man, you are totally shredded,” says Jeff repeatedly. Even he sounds in awe of what I look like.
THE FINAL LEG: SHOW TIME
Finally, the big day arrives. I’ve been sprayed with three layers of a deep mahogany hue that looks nothing close to natural. I’m sporting my bright blue posing trunks and I’m pumping up backstage at a huge entertainment venue in Bankstown in southwest Sydney. All around me are guys in a similar state of over-tanned near-nakedness. Most of them are in their 20s and 30s, with sharp haircuts and taut skin.
Yesterday, as I stood wearing nothing but a sock over my junk and the lovely Sabrina waved her spray gun back and forth across my chest and abdomen, I found myself wondering, “What the fuck are you playing at, Nigel? You’re a journalist. A published author. A 54-year-old man who should be spending the weekend in his backyard cooking up a barbecue”. I’m now waiting in the wings with my fellow competitors, friendly guys I’ve been chatting to backstage. I’ve not come across any of the puffed-up pride I’d expected to find in a sport whose image is that of swollen men with swollen egos.
In a few moments I’ll walk onto that stage and stand in brutal lighting in front of hundreds of strangers and a panel of hawk-eyed judges. We turn to each other and shake hands – four post-50-year-olds who’ve toiled long and hard and are about to show themselves off to the world. I hear my name called. I fix a grin to my face, stride out and wave to the crowd and the judges from Natural Bodybuilding Australia. I have no idea how I compare to the others but as I go through each pose, I spot the judges pointing from me to another contender.
Finally, the MC announces they’ve chosen a winner. His voice booms out from the microphone as he reads out our names in reverse order. I wait to hear my name but it doesn’t come, not even when he gets to second place. Finally, I hear it. “And in first place, Nigel Bartlett.” The crowd erupts with applause and cheers. I stoop as a woman no more than half my age places a gold medal around my neck. Jeff once told me to enjoy each step of the process and not to worry about what might happen on the day. He was right. Winning is mind-blowing – and the sweetest cake-icing I’ve ever tasted. But more importantly, I’m proud of what I’ve done to get here and where I’ve ended up. I’m 54 and in the best shape of my life.
Bartlett’s Bodybuilder Workout
Bodybuilding coach Jeff Alberts prescribed an upper-body program to be done over two non-consecutive days per week.
The key points: leave 1-3 reps in the tank on every set; rest as needed between sets; use perfect form
Bench press: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
Seated row: 3 x 8-10
Incline dumbbell press: 3 x 8-10
Lat pulldown: 3 x 8-10
Lateral raise: 3 x 12-15
Triceps pushdown: 3 x 8-10
EzyBar curl: 3 x 8-10
Overhead shoulder press: 3 sets of 8-10 reps
T-bar row: 3 x 8-10
Incline bench press: 3 x 8-10
Single-arm dumbbell row: 3 x 8-10
Flat chest fly: 3 x 12-15
Overhead cable triceps extension: 3 x 8-10
Alternating hammer curl: 3 x 8-10
The downsides of shaping up
YOUR OTHER HALF MIGHT HATE YOU
Being on a strict diet is no easy ride, especially for your partner, who’ll have to put up with your OCD behaviours and hunger-induced testiness. “Practise patience when you’re about to lose it over something insignificant,” advises muscle coach Jeff Alberts.
OTHERS MIGHT HATE YOU TOO
Many people view bodybuilding with suspicion or even hostility. I posted on Facebook only occasionally, but even so, someone I’d known for years reacted with a vomit emoji, another told me I looked grotesque and another commented, “I feel very conflicted about this.” My advice: set up a separate Instagram account so only those who want to follow your progress see your pics.
YOUR HEALTH MIGHT SUFFER
“There’s a fine line between healthy and unhealthy in bodybuilding,” says Sydney-based fitness coach Luke Tulloch, who has a background in neuroscience. “Your body actively resists weight loss, so your metabolic rate slows down, your mental acuity is dulled and fatigue is a constant battle. Reproductive health and immune function can also suffer.” Fortunately, the pointy end of contest prep doesn’t last for long. Adds Tulloch: “Resistance training has both physical and mental benefits, and the camaraderie of the sport is what keeps many coming back for more.”
SHREDDED ISN’T SUSTAINABLE
It’s a massive ego boost to watch those abs and muscles pop in your super-lean state, but Alberts says it’s vital to up the kilojoules and get back to a normal weight pretty quickly after competing. “We need you sleeping and functioning well as soon as possible,” he tells me.