The Classic Debate

Bodybuilding is both a sport and an art, but that only begins to explain the tension. First, it’s the most subjective of all athletic contests. Which physique is ideal? Do you favour more mass or better proportions? Monster quads or a greater flow to the whole? And as art, styles clash, as if a lifelike sculpture by Michelangelo is next to an abstract painting by Picasso. Is bodybuilding foremost about the pursuit of harmonious refinements or the avant-garde urge to shock? On one side is Team Aesthetic, on the other is Team Freaky. And somewhere in the middle are men, like five-time Mr Olympia Phil Heath, who combine elements of both. The debate has only grown with the creation of the classic physique division, which launches this year. How did we get here? Where are we headed? And what exactly is classic?


With his X-frame, proportionate development, and chiselled handsomeness, Steve Reeves emerged as the paradigm of physique aesthetics in the late ’40s. When, a decade later, he achieved worldwide fame as Hercules in the first of his several mythological movies, his superhero looks influenced the generation who hoisted up barbells in his wake. Reeves was the classic ideal, and to many he remains so today.

Divergent approaches to bodybuilding emerged in the ’60s and ’70s. Although he possessed a svelte waist and symmetrical unity, Sergio Oliva overwhelmed the competition with an unprecedented abundance of mass during his trifecta of Olympia wins (1967–69). Conversely, Serge Nubret’s body foretold the men’s physique division – flawlessly sculptured when standing relaxed but lacking the heft to hang with Arnold Schwarzenegger in poses. Frank Zane later perfected the Nubret formula of aesthetics first, and he frustrated much larger competitors during his Olympia trifecta (1977–79) a decade after Oliva’s.

It was in the ’80s when the divide between classicists and the avant-garde widened. Bodybuilders like Bob Paris, Lee Labrada and Mohammed Makkawy emphasised the harmony of proportionate development. They resisted getting too big – a tipping point where muscle crammed on their frames looked unattractive. Meanwhile, abstract artists like Tom Platz (legs) and Bertil Fox (pecs, arms) were celebrated for their freakish parts despite their overall imbalance. Platz pushed his lower body to shocking dimensions, and he was immensely popular after finishing third in the 1981 Mr Olympia.

On the other end of the spectrum, despite having what some consider the most flawless physique ever, Paris resisted the extra growth and definition needed to secure pro titles. A third course was traveled by eight-time (1984–91) Mr O Lee Haney, who, like Arnold before him, won with both size and shapeliness. His dramatic X-frame remains a paradigm of mass with class.


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