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Inside the juiced-up, iron-pumped world of bodybuilding magazines
By Archie Bland



To listen to Muscular Development senior editor Joe Romano defend his article on bodybuildingradio.com,
click here.

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Muscular Development
editor Steve Blechman.
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Gregg Valentino's Ramblin Freak column .


I bought my first issue of Muscular Development at an Upper West Side branch of Barnes & Noble. It is not the sort of place where you see a lot of bodybuilders, and this reliable rule of thumb was unthreatened by my presence. A bodybuilder probably wouldn’t have skulked in the Men’s Lifestyle section pretending to skim Details while waiting for the aisle to clear so he could swipe the real quarry unobserved; nor would he have tucked it inside his newspaper as soon as he picked it up, in case a passerby should wonder whether he had been seduced by the cover’s promise of 24 INCH GUNS.

But then, bodybuilders do not live on the same terms as the rest of us. Theirs is a world where there is no higher aspiration than twenty-four-inch-circumference arms and no greater honor than being known as a freak. To get the swollen DINOSAUR LEGS on the cover of the December 2006 issue of Muscular Development is not easy: it requires a kind of commitment—financial and social as well as physical—that most of us could never countenance. It requires a relentless, unabashed will to self-projection. It also tends to require a stash of illegal drugs. This is the kind of niche that publishers refer to as “specialist.”

Even within that category, Muscular Development is somewhere out on the margins. At first glance, it’s not so different from Flex, its biggest rival and the magazine generally acknowledged as the market leader: both feature cover stars with muscles that look like tumors. Linguistically, they’re just as hard to distinguish, both falling into a combative rhetoric of illness that takes ironic aim at a world that thinks they’re weirdos. “SICKEST EVER LEG WORKOUT: TRAIN ‘TIL YOU PUKE,” Flex snarls; “FREAKY MASSIVE LEG BLAST!” Muscular Development retorts.

But the close reader will find telling differences between the two publications. Flex, with a market-leading circulation of 110,000, tries hard to position itself as a heavy-duty alternative to Men’s Health. Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, the magazine’s nominal executive editor until his election as governor of California forced him to resign, it yearns for the acceptance of the mainstream.

Muscular Development has no such interest; accordingly, it’s a much stranger, and much more interesting, read. Everything about the magazine’s approach speaks to a reader who has chosen to wear the hardcore bodybuilder’s inevitable isolation as a badge of honor. Crucially, it treats editing like a despicable form of authoritarian censorship, proudly telling readers that its star bodybuilder-journalists have it written into their contracts that their prose may not be touched by the dead hand of deskbound authority. Where Flex’s occasional literary aspirations can teeter on the absurd—senior writer Julian Schmidt is prone to using words like “proficuous” and “desideratum” and “erumpent,” for instance—Muscular Development’s prose retains a bracingly informal flavor.

This is nowhere more visible than in Gregg Valentino’s extraordinary “Ramblin Freak” column, seven or eight close-set pages that spectacularly fulfill their titular promise. In vast paragraphs of randomly distributed red, white, and blue type, Valentino waxes lyrical about such subjects as his ex-wife, his days in the pen, and the benefits of the Fleet enema. He is most animated about the absurdity of the general population’s opposition to steroid use. “IS TAKING STEROIDS CHEATING???????”…….BSOLUTELY- UNEQUIVOCALLY>>>NOT!!!!!!!!!!! ...NO FUCKING WAY!!!!!!” Valentino fumes. “I’LL TELL YA WHAT I THINK, I BELIEVE THAT STEROIDS ARE LIKE PROSTITUTION, NO ONE KNOWS WHY IT’S WRONG, OTHER THAN IT’S MORE OF A PUBLIC OPINION & A MORALS ISSUE…YET US ATHLETES GOTTA SUFFER FOR THEIR IGNORANCE!!!!!!”

Sic. Valentino, apart from his column, is best known for starring in a TV documentary about the highly dramatic consequences of his self-administered drug regimen. The program’s self-explanatory title was “The Man Whose Arm Exploded,” and its subject is nothing if not informed.

Steroids are, of course, the elephant in the room. Nowhere is the distinction between the two publications more visible than in their proposed routes to the fabled world of muscular hypertrophy. Flex and every other bodybuilding magazine essentially act as if steroids don’t exist; Muscular Development, on the other hand, has tried to establish itself as the straight-talking alternative to the predictable establishment line. While this approach may not be the route to mainstream viability, it has endeared Muscular Development to a subsection of the bodybuilding community. “I read it when I can find it,” said Manny Kirby, a personal trainer at New York’s Steel Gym, over a large plate of lasagna. “The other magazines want to be sold everywhere, but you’re not going to find Muscular Development in Duane Reade. They actually talk about real stuff.”

Steel Gym is an old-school bodybuilding establishment in Chelsea, and it’s one of the few gyms in New York where a musclehead can go and feel he’s among friends. But the hardcore market isn’t what it used to be, and Ken Hunt, who bought the gym with his partner John Cassese in May of last year, is trying to broaden its appeal. He emphasizes that steroids are strictly prohibited: “We want to be welcoming to everyone. We don’t condone illegal drugs at all.”

“If this gym was strictly bodybuilding, it wouldn’t survive,” Kirby said wistfully, taking another forkful of lasagna. “No one can ever understand what we do. The first thing a new client says is always, ‘I don’t want to get huge.’”

In such a climate, it is easy to see how those who do want to get huge might begin to nurse a persecution complex, and that instinct finds an echo in every page of Muscular Development. The magazine is sharply at odds with Ken Hunt, as it proved with an October 2004 cover story, “DRUGS: WHY THEY SHOULD BE LEGAL.” More lyrical still is Jose Antonio, Ph.D., in the April 2007 issue: “Anabolic steroids aren’t the lethal drugs portrayed by so many in the mainstream press. . . . With so many friggin’ fatties in this country, you’d think being bigger, faster, and stronger is a laudable goal.”

Elsewhere, a careful disclaimer explains that “MD does not condone any form of illegal drug use for bodybuilding or for any recreational purpose.” Luckily, it doesn’t need to, just as Playboy doesn’t need to explain the appeal of nudie pix. Articles like Antonio’s, which are legion, simply wouldn’t find their way into Flex or Iron Man or any of Muscular Development’s other competitors. Says Peter McGough, group editorial director at Flex’s publisher, AMI/Weider: “To glorify drugs is wrong. It sends out the wrong message to be so cavalier about it. If it were suddenly shown it would increase sales tenfold, I’d still say no on moral grounds.”

As his magazine is the acknowledged market leader, McGough’s principles seem unlikely to be tested. Although Muscular Development claims sales of more than 100,000, it is the only magazine in the field that is not independently audited. In fact, according to Angelo Gandino, a circulation consultant who has worked for the rival publication Iron Man, current newsstand sales are around 37,000, and subscriptions would be unlikely to make up the difference. “The whole sector’s in a slump,” he said. “The problem is, there’s a million soldiers overseas, and that’s their core audience, and so they’re in the toilet bowl because the government won’t let them send subscriptions there.”

Staff at Advanced Research Press, Muscular Development’s parent company, are reluctant to discuss its fortunes. Its president, Steve Blechman, deflected numerous interview requests for this article, and calls to other employees were always referred to his office. Managing Editor Angela Frizalone initially agreed to discuss the magazine, but a call at the appointed time was not returned, and subsequent queries were passed on to her boss, who was never available to answer them.

Blechman was not always so reticent. When he first took charge at Muscular Development in February 1997, he added All Natural at the front of the title and declared that only bodybuilders competing in drug-tested events would be appearing in the magazine. “If someone offers you steroids, tell them where to stick it,” the ad campaign ran; “I am natural—and this is the best I can be!” the cover subject announced. Blechman wrote an editor’s letter that amounted to a minor manifesto. The truth, as he saw it then, was this: “We believe bodybuilding, in the true sense, is synonymous with living a healthy lifestyle. There are those who believe otherwise, that bodybuilding is about how much muscle you can build by any means, healthy or not, even including the use of dangerous, illegal drugs, anything. This is not a magazine for them.”

In 1997, Blechman’s position must have seemed like a solid one—and not merely from a moral standpoint. “Natural,” it should be remembered, is a strictly relative term: even the most organic of musclemen rely on quantities of legal supplements that would seem decidedly out of the ordinary to your average Gatorade-sipping gym bunny. As a result, a magazine that decided to be aggressive in its anti-drug stance might have easily believed it could expand its share of the dietary-supplement advertising market. The prospect of a natural revolution would have been particularly appealing to Muscular Development’s then-parent company, Twinlab. Twinlab, named for the two pairs of Blechman twins who were the progeny of its founder, was a manufacturer of—guess what?—nutritional supplements. Before long, the connection between the two operations was unmissable. In one particularly brazen example, the February 1998 cover included the headline “BURN FAT! TWINLAB’S HERBAL PHEN FUEL IS HOT HOT HOT!” Business seemed to be covered from both ends.

Meanwhile, ESPN had decided to limit its coverage of bodybuilding to events that administered drug tests, and the market for sports supplements started to grow, expanding beyond the limits of the hardcore bodybuilding audience. The only direction for growth seemed to be into the mainstream. Blechman spoke excitedly about the chance to attract advertising from the likes of Nike and Reebok and boasted of letters from Ted Kennedy and Bill Clinton applauding his stance. The future seemed bright.

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