Walk a mile in my over-muscled cramp-prone freakish physique

May 26, 2007 | By | 63 Replies More

I don’t know anything about bodybuilding, or I didn’t until I watched Raising the Bar 2, a brand-new documentary by Mike Pulcinella (Mike wrote it, shot and edited it).  Mike often submits comments to this site, and we have corresponded by e-mail a number of times.  A couple weeks ago, Mike asked me whether I’d be interested in watching his new documentary, and I jumped at the chance.  Based upon Mike’s many comments to this site, I know him to be a thoughtful guy. I knew that he must’ve found something worthy of his time in this freakish-seeming endeavor of “bodybuilding.” 

In this documentary, Mike follows his brother Dave Pulcinella (and Dave’s significant other, Jenn Emig) as Dave trains for and competes in high-level bodybuilding competitions.  Before you jump to the conclusion that this is just some guy following his brother around with the camera, take a look at the trailer for “Raising the Bar 2,” available at Mike’s site. As you will see, Mike is a skilled filmmaker and storyteller and he is careful to make sure that this story retains real-life texture.  Mike’s edits are crisp and the soundtrack works well.  As for the storytelling, this kind of video could only have been accomplished by a filmmaker who had gained the complete trust of the participants.  In sum, this documentary is not always a glowing endorsement of Dave.

The documentary was compelling on several levels.  First of all, viewers will have an opportunity to see what is really like to compete in the sport of bodybuilding.  Full disclosure: before I saw this film, I thought that this sport was freakish.  I still think the sport is freakish, although I have now been reminded that the participants are real human beings and they are not physically or emotionally homogenous.

The sport ostensibly involves bodies, of course, bodies as machines, but as Dave Pulcinella comments, “It’s always a mind game.”  How could it not be?  After all, while the competitors are working up to the actual competitions, they must repeatedly force-feed themselves enormous amounts of food–Dave jams down 18 chicken breasts each day, to go with apparently endless numbers of eggs.  Simply hauling home the food from the grocery store would seem sufficient to build up muscles.

So why do these people participate in the sport?  Maybe the answer can be found in a joke often told by bodybuilders:

Q: How many bodybuilders does it take to screw in a light bulb?
A:  Three.  One to screw it in and two to say “Dude, you’re huge!”

The documentary moves us toward Dave’s participation in the Masters National Competition in Pittsburgh.  As you can imagine, there are ups and downs along the way.  Simply watching the workouts is exhausting.  What was surprising to me is that sculpting one’s body in such extreme ways requires a tremendous amount of planning and discipline.  It’s not like you can just go to the gym a few times a week.  These guys are really going at it with numerous specialized training techniques, apparently building up their bulk all waking hours.  And when they are not actually working out or jamming food in their mouths, they’re fretting about how they will best get those surreal mounds of muscle to pop out of their frames, laced with barely subcutaneous blood vessels, glistening for the cameras and judges.  There are many types of bodybuilders, old and young, thoughtful and single-minded, male and female (just when you thought you’d seen it all, you are presented with the a peek at the grotesque physique of veteran female bodybuilder, Debbie Bramwell). 

There are dozens of techniques for getting those judges to like your physique, and you’ll see that each bodybuilder has his or her own spin on the best way to get the job done.  They spend a lot of time on the right amount of hydration and they spend long hours considering how to peak for the competitions without bringing on cramps or worse (as the documentary demonstrates, high-level bodybuilding can be extremely dangerous).

I won’t spoil the ending of this documentary, because I really found this video to be compelling viewing up to the end.  I will say, however, that for 80% of the video, the voice in my head kept asking “Why?  Why?  Why do they do this to themselves?.  There are hints throughout.  As Dave told another competitor (Lance) he was helping to train: “You still look like a human being and that’s not going to work.”  And all that obsessive grueling work can’t really be about those relatively tiny trophies that only some of these hulking mammoths get to carry around, if successful. 

Mike really pushes this “Why?” point with his interviews of his sister (and Dave’s sister) Christine.  She weighs in at length at the extended family table, surrounded by tiny Pucinellas, where it is clear that the novelty of “Uncle Dave’s” bodybuilding has long worn off.  She looks straight into the camera and talks in a way that lets you know that she’s repeatedly considered and rejected Uncle Dave’s hopes and dreams.  “He’s taking nutrition and health and distorted and abused them. … They are probably the most unhealthy people around…. It’s like he’s walking around in a costume.”

Mike makes it clear that this is a sport with winners and losers, where even the winners are often losers given the incredible amount of time and energy they must pour into this profession.  Understandably, Mike doesn’t directly address the issue of steroids, even though this topic occurred to me whenever the characters experienced emotional flare-ups.

It is clear that, for Dave, bodybuilding was not just a big part of his world, but it became his entire world.  The film is a reminder that humans are equipped with potent imaginations that give them the ability to turn themselves into big heroes within a tiny subset of human activity.  The video reinforces that we are capable of turning things that are surprisingly un-compelling to most people into the only thing for ourselves.  Human beings are capable of converting intensely mundane activities into sacred undertakings.

By the time I got to the end of the video, all those heaping mounds of living muscle looked a little less freakish than they did at the beginning.  This is a sad story in many ways, though a revealing one and a thoughtful one. 

Thanks to Mike for bringing his work to my attention.


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Category: Films, Food, Health, Meaning of Life

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (63)

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  1. gatomjp says:

    The bodybuilders think the Synthol guys are crazy…so that's gotta tell you something! When bodybuilders think you go too far, you know you've got problems!!

  2. gatomjp says:

    I thought that Ben and a few others might be interested in my latest short video about a one-day Strongman competiton in which four very pretty and feminine women competed!

    Comments and criticism about the content or editing are welcome.

  3. I liked the video. It's so impressive what these woman were able to do and it's true, they still look quite feminine. Unbelievable that you can lift so much weight without the mass of muscles that you see on the guys.

  4. By the way, how come they don't look so muscular? My mom said it's not so much strength and muscles, but that they are used to lifting so much weight.

  5. gatomjp says:

    It's a common misconception that lifting weights makes a woman look bulky and masculine. The only thing that can make a woman look like a man is testosterone. Lifting weights is the best thing a woman can do for her physique! Yes, you will become more muscular, but in a rounded, healthy and very feminine way. The four women in the video are living proof of that. Margaret Boyle is a mother of four but regularly beats women 10 years younger and can wear tights alongside the best of them.

    What discourages many women from weightlifting are the images of female bodybuilders who transform themselves, sometime irrevocably, with male hormones and the fact that as their own bodies build muscle and lose fat the scale may go UP even as they look better and better because muscle is more dense than fat.

  6. grumpypilgrim says:

    Further to Erich's last comment, building strength is about using big muscles and practicing good lifting techniques. But body building isn't about strength, it's about sculpting. As such, it involves exercises that recruit many small muscles that don't normally get used very much. There is also a lot of dieting to remove body fat, so that those small muscles become visible. The training methods are very different; thus it should be no surprise that men of smaller stature are good at lifting heavy loads. Just think of the Sherpas in Tibet. Being built low to the ground means having better stability, as well as shorter lever arms for maneuvering the loads.

  7. Erich Vieth says:

    I know that this is anecdotal, but it sticks in my mind. I hired a fellow to do concrete work on my house. He and his helper showed up and I was surprised to see how small they both were, probably 5′ 6″ and 155lbs. One of the guys looked at me and said “You probably thought that you were going to have bigger guys show up. Small guys can be a lot stronger than bigger guys, though. I was amazed to see how strong these guys were. They carried 100 lbs like it was 20 lbs. and they did it all day for several days in a row. No huge physique. No bulging muscles. Just strong as hell for their size. I assumed that working out like they did for 20 years did the trick. I know for a fact that their eating habits were nothing like those of body builders. They often took a lunch break to run to McDonald’s or Taco Bell.

  8. Ben says:

    There is a growing constituency of bodybuilders who support Intelligent Design…


  9. I found some videos with other senior bodybuilders.

  10. Here's another one you might find entertaining.

  11. Erich Vieth says:

    Mike: That senior fellow certainly does seem to be having fun out there!

  12. No matter what one may think of his "physique", he certainly was one of the most entertaining things I saw that day! A real ham!

  13. Kevin says:

    understand completly, I was a former natl lvl competotor my-self, the reason you see such huge physiques rarely is beacuse of homw much work an discipline it takes, the drugs, the force feeding every 2 hours,the crippling workouts when youar alreday exausted. I belive MOST bodybuilders have mental/emotial issues, I know iIhad poor self-confidence and it helped me identify myself with some 'group'Why did I start training? It wasn't so I could pick up women better or anything like that, I did it beacuse I was abused as a child and wanted to defend myself and my brother(boxing-martial arts followed later in life) I loved the feeling of lifting huge weight, of the 'respect I earned' I was 5'11" 270lbs with 4% bodyfat-a black belt in ninjitsu, and a real bad angry attitude, beacuse of all the chips on my shoulder and beacuse alot of steroids, Steroids are everwhere in sports. 99.9% of the natl guys/gals were using, I could afford growth hormone or I would have used that to, I also experminted with thyroid meds and insulin,recs as well. I thank God I have lost that 'bodybuilder mentality' that being big is the ONLY thing in life, It cost me alot though broken relations-ships,finacialyand now I have heart-faliure at 40. atrial fibulation and high blood pressure are heriditary factors for me, but the dr's belive the steroids could have compounded the problem, someone else said it they(high lvl competitive bodybuilders) are about the most unhealhy people on the planet, but please remember they are human-beings who make mistakes and have issues like you, and I would dare say if they are really big they have alot more issues than you.

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