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Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder

Read about Muscle author Sam Fussell's journey from egghead to meathead, plus his tips for embracing the culture.

Confessions of an Unlikely Bodybuilder

Eyes wide. Mouth agape. That’s how you pored over Portia de Rossi’s tell-all, Unbearable Lightness, in which the actress-turned-author divulges the extreme habits and unhealthy routines she turned to during her addiction to being thin.

But one doesn’t have to be an A-list celeb to understand de Rossi’s desire for physical perfection. It’s a universal theme. And it’s one author Sam Fussell knows all too well.

Rather than lose weight, Fussell wanted to gain it. A lot of it. A scrawny, Oxford-trained, twentysomething New Yorker, Fussell feared the dog-eat-dog culture of the big city. So he joined a gym, put on about 100 pounds, then wrote about it.

The result: Muscle, a harrowing, often sad yet mostly funny, memoir detailing his quest of achieving a bodybuilder’s body, poetically mapping out the dedication, drugs, and extreme dieting it took to get there.

Though it’s not a training manual, it’s a must-read for anyone who’s ever wanted an inside look at the culture — the good, the bad, and the ugly — that surrounds those huge, veiny muscles.

Stacks of Jane Austen and Dan Brown weighing you down? No biggie. We’ve pulled some of Fussell’s not-too-extreme tips for going from bony bookworm to hunky hard body.


Double Weightlifter

Photo: Double Weightlifter / Courtesy of The Brooklyn Museum

1. Embrace the Free Weights
“Look, you want a chest bigger than Dolly Parton, right?” Fussell’s new gym buddy, Mousie, asks him. “Then follow me to the bench press.” Though weight machines are a good place to start for beginners, mastering the free weights will take you to the next level.

2. Master “The Walk”
“Who would you rather look like, Carl Sagan or Lou Ferrigno?” Don’t laugh. Perception is everything, even at the gym. So sweep your arms out to the side, burrow your head into your shoulders, then swagger forward with your legs spread wide. Puff out your chest and bask in the power you now command.

3. Buy a Second Refrigerator
“To us, food represented fuel for the future.” Every gym rat knows that when it comes up bulking up, kale and tofu won’t cut it. It’s time to get friendly with the grocery store meat aisle. Fussell’s weekly grocery haul included 70 eggs, 14 tins of tuna, 10 and a half pounds of beef, 10 pounds of chicken, nine gallons of nonfat milk, four loaves of bread, and as many sacks of brown rice, whole-wheat pasta, baking potatoes, and fruit he could load into a shopping cart.

4. Find a Bodybuilding Family
“Sometimes they band together. Mostly, they walk alone. Bodybuilders.” Find a support group to spot you on the bench press, recommend the best protein powder, and encourage you during those dreaded leg workouts. For Fussell, that group was Nimrod, G-Spot, Vinnie, and Bamm Bamm, always there to help him to prepare for comps and in the crowd cheering him on.

5. Strut Your Stuff
“I was swabbed in posing oil and competition color, flexing with all my might.” For most, oily biceps and an orangey complexion is a bit much. We get it. But for those seeking competition, just know a bodybuilding comp is not a show of strength — it’s a show of mass. For Fussell, that meant showcasing his 52-inch chest and mammoth limbs.

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