Bodybuilding secrets revealed: Sauna sessions and red wine

Everything about bodybuilding is extreme. They wear nothing on stage but spangly undies. Their smiles are a brighter white than a hipster café. Their tans stretch from Oscar-statue gold to shoe-polish brown. They look closer to the hulk than to a human. And they seem to be everywhere right now. 

It's the year of the girls who lift and the boys who shred, and bodybuilding has never been more in vogue. So how far do you have to go to look like a comic book character? Well it's basically the equivalent of taking on another full time job: time consuming, difficult, and intensely dull. 

Two people who know what it takes are Raechelle Veale, champion professional bodybuilder and fitness instructor, and Arkan Taha, civil engineer by day and Insta-famous bodybuilder by night.

 

In general bodybuilders stretch between the one off types, eg. "post-baby Mums who want an interesting challenge" to the lifetime devotees eg. "the tiny singlet wearing dudes with suspiciously spotty backs." 

Veale is at what you'd call the more normal end of the spectrum. She's as tiny as a pixie, albeit a ninja pixie that could bench press your dad. But she's also a hot chocolate drinking mum.

Taha is more of what you'd expect from a bodybuilder. He is gargantuan. His repertoire of sports clichés is even bigger, and bigger still is his 35,000 strong Instagram following who are kept continually abreast of our interview through his Snapchat.

So what do their training regimes look like when they're in 'on season'? (That's fitness speak for about 12 - 9 weeks out before a competition.)

Bodybuilding secrets revealed: Sauna sessions and red wine
Bodybuilding secrets revealed: Sauna sessions and red wine

If the graphic above strikes you as extreme, wait until you hear about 'peak week' which is the week before comp. In peak week, Raechelle ate just chicken, beans and peanut butter for three days before comp. However "some bodybuilders drop their carbs for 10 days - which is ridiculous." That's a lot of chicken and egg whites.

Taha drinks nine litres of water a day. The day before, he stops drinking all water, so the next day on stage he's totally dehydrated. The logic is that water in your body makes you look 'fluffy' and so you have to "unload" it to look your best on stage.

He tells me that bodybuilders often resort to desperate measures if they get their water prep wrong, like spending the day in the sauna while drinking red wine. Veale planned it out so she still drank some water on the day, but she's seen bodybuilders who are dry as roasted chestnuts on stage. "Some of them are so dehydrated they can't even lick their lips." 

Competition day is when things get really crazy. Before you go on stage, bodybuilders take an instant sugar hit so their veins pop out. This can be anything from a flat Red Bull to peanut butter, jam and jelly beans.

Some of the competitors just lose it. "I've seen some weird stuff backstage. I saw this girl," says Veale, "before she went on she was eating a whole cheesecake….there was this other guy….his mum brought him Maccas and he was just hoeing it down before he went on." 

Now clearly your body was never meant to ingest nine litres of water a day nor to 'flush it out' at speed. Taha couldn't sleep the night of his competition because he went to the bathroom four times.

It's not the only body function that malfunctions. Veale has heard of some body builders whose diet is so lacking in fibre that they can't even take a shit. They have to seek help. "When you need to go to the doctors to get something to help you…that is a warning sign," says Veale. "It's not a healthy sport, especially not long term."

Especially not with the extremely anti-social requirements of the sport, such as not drinking, restricted eating, and feeling exhausted constantly. So why on earth would you do this? Doesn't mixed netball on a Sunday look like a less stressful hobby? 

One of the reasons Taha started was that "girls love big guys and it's all about that in the beginning." It's one of the most common things I've heard from body builders and gym rats: girls love big guys. And yes, the current Hollywood hunk has abs. But there are also a lot of women who hate overly muscly men and especially the bodybuilder look. 

 

So it can't just be about getting chicks. It's also about how he feels about his body. "I was always really skinny," Taha paused, "And I didn't want to be that skinny guy. You just don't want to be a skinny guy next to a guy who's stacked." He's getting passionate now, "I started going to the gym and I never stopped. I went to the gym 960 times in a three year period," he says proudly. Ah, so it's about being a man.

But he's clearly well beyond the standard for 'A Muscly Guy.' Isn't he happy with how he looks by now? "I'm never satisfied. It's always about improving. I'm never happy." Ah. So there is no point, not even winning, when he'll think he looks good enough?

"You're never satisfied. Even if you win you think someone looks better than you." He says he doesn't want to ever get sick because he's terrified of being injured. "It's hard when you get sick and you can't train for 2 days. You look in the mirror and you think you've lost 10kg of muscle. You haven't. But mentally you think that." 

He clearly never thinks his body looks good enough. Will he ever be able to stop? He freely admits he doesn't want to  "I want to do this all my life!" Suddenly this is sounding like a much deeper thing than pulling chicks.

Here is someone who is utterly prepared to devote his life to his body. If he ever stops, even for two days, he gets worried he looks skinnier. He's worried he's going back to being that skinny boy again. 

Isn't this cycle just, well, depressing? He hasn't got an immediate answer. "Uh... Sometimes yes. Sometimes no." He brightens, "There's always room for improvement!"

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