Were bodybuilders better in the 90’s than they are now? In order to answer this question, we must first define some of the common terms used to describe bodybuilders, e.g., symmetry and proportion.
Symmetry is probably the most misused word describing a bodybuilder’s physique. Many people mistakenly use it interchangeably with proportion, which is a pet peeve of mine. Because
symmetry and proportion are frequently used together, their true meanings have been skewed.
And quite frankly, many people are just too ignorant out of sheer laziness to know the difference. But, I guess it’s too much to ask for the average bodybuilder or enthusiast to know the difference, when the National Physique Committee (NPC) itself has no clue. Under the NPC Rules and Regs for Bodybuilding, proportion is not mentioned.
Symmetry simply means, having sides or halves that are the same. For instance, if you split a bodybuilder down the middle and his left arm is the same shape and size as his right arm, his arms are considered to be symmetrical. Likewise with the rest of his body parts.
Proportion, which has nothing to do with symmetry, is the correct or appropriate relationship between the size, shape, and position of the different parts of something. Are a bodybuilders calves too small for his legs? If they are, he is out of proportion. However, he may still be symmetrical if his legs are the same shape and size. Yes, a bodybuilder can be symmetrical but not be in proportion. Case in point Tom Platz, though outstanding and symmetrical, his legs overpowered his upper body.
Other terms, e.g., ripped, shredded, grainy, hard, are used interchangeably, but that isn’t really an issue. When somebody says, “He’s ripped.”, or “He’s shredded.” most everyone is on the same page.
So the question remains, were bodybuilders better in the 90’s than they are now? Before I answer that I would like you to watch this video below. Keep in mind while watching, this is the 1991 NPC Jr. National Bodybuilding Championships, not the NPC Nationals or USA’s.
Why did I pick the above video? Because I wanted a video of a junior national show, as far removed time wise from today’s athletes, so that readers could get a solid reference point for comparison to the national shows of today. I could have picked many videos throughout the 90’s from both junior and national shows that would have worked, but because this video is over 2.5 decades old, and the athletes aren’t even at their prime, it drives the point home.
Throughout the 90’s, especially the mid 90’s, the Jr. Nationals was considered to be the biggest NPC show for the depth of competitor quality. Both the Jr. Nationals and the Jr. USA's were perfect stepping stones for athletes wanting to eventually do well on the national scene. It’s a sad fact that the quality of the athletes over the last decade in these, and other national shows, has literally plummeted.
I believe this is mainly due to judge's incompetence, placing inconsistencies, and outright fixing of shows. Any genetically gifted, mentally healthy person will not put up with such unethical practices for long. This leaves a multitude of average and sub-average bodies vying for any crumb their given from the sanctioning bodies. Very sad.
Anyone who competed and/or judged shows in the 90’s like I did, knows the competitors were better then. The overall look, the detail, and the quality of the competitors so prevalent in the 90’s, is just not as prevalent today.
Let’s start by discussing symmetry. Humans are normally born symmetrical. If you split us in half, our 2 sides are very similar. This is usually not an issue for a competitor unless one has a torn body part, or a congenital defect. The 90’s bodybuilder doesn’t have the upper hand on symmetry.
Proportion is a different animal altogether. Not everyone is born with a beautifully proportioned body, a prerequisite for bodybuilding success. Only a fairly small minority of people actually have this extremely pleasing, God given attribute. Most people are born with some issue negatively affecting their proportions, e.g., long torsos, short limbs, wide waist, wide hips, narrow shoulders, odd muscle shapes, and an inability for certain muscles to grow. This is not to say that there are a lot of bad looking bodies out there. However, having a body worthy of competing and doing well on stage is far above looking good in the gym or on the beach.
Like previous decades, in the 90’s proportion was a highly sought after characteristic. So much so that many bodybuilders would forgo a little size to keep their most prized possession. They knew there was a tipping point when getting bigger took away from their detail, widened their waist, and wouldn’t be as pleasing.
These bodybuilders, some of them professional, were purists, and saw bodybuilding as an art form. Unfortunately, because they saw the turn bodybuilding was taking towards size at all costs in the late 90’s, a large number of truly gifted individuals stopped competing.
Of course bodybuilding is about having big muscles. And of course if you like big for the sake of being big, then today’s bodybuilding standards are for you. However, it’s irrefutable, that one can only get so big before they start to negatively impact their look. We’ve seen example after example of bodybuilders coming through the ranks, and eventually losing their detail, widening their waists, and looking less pleasing, all in the name of getting bigger.
The IFBB men’s 212lb class has kept the bigger at all cost mind-set at bay for many competitors. This class is so competitive and popular because many of them are forced to keep their weight down in order to make the class, yielding much more pleasing, attainable physiques. If any of you reading this haven’t noticed, there is a higher percentage of shredded, proportioned physiques in this class than the men’s open. Many competitors in the men’s 212lb class are reminiscent of the overall look in the above tape, which in my opinion is why it’s so popular.
In the above tape you saw the top men in the heavy weight class. Unlike many of today’s competitors, there was not one distended stomach. There was not one person with a thick waist, which is an unfortunate inevitability with a size at all cost mentality; a hall mark of today’s competitors. In the above tape, they were all in outstanding shape. In the 90’s being shredded with deep separation and striations was a common look many had that up and comers strived for. Today, you’re lucky if you see more than 3 to 5 of the top ten with the look close to what they had at the 1991 Jr. Nationals.
In conclusion, I would like to emphasize that I did not use names to make my point, because even though I don’t like the look of today’s bodybuilder in general as much as the 90’s bodybuilder, I respect the hell out of them. It takes a great deal of work, discipline and self-motivation to be a successful competitor, no matter what decade you competed in.
As I’m sure you may have guessed, I’m a purist concerning bodybuilding competition. It is definitely an art form in my eyes, which is a view I believe many in today’s bodybuilding community don’t share. This, in my humble opinion, is mostly due to judging standards. The drive to be the best is indescribably powerful, and competitors are going to do what they need to win. If that means putting aside a more pleasing aesthetic look to be massive for a higher place, a true competitor is going to meet that challenge.
It would be my wish that the standards for judging bodybuilders would revert back to a less large, more refined look. The NPC and IFBB have now created yet another class, a half-assed attempt to right the wrong in men's bodybuilding. This is similar to them creating the women's physique class, which only took the judges 3 years to destroy. At it's inception women's physique was very popular. But the good old boy, incompetent judges couldn't resist giving it the same fate as women's bodybuilding. Hence women's physique is dying.
It's indisputable the sanctioning bodies (NPC and IFBB) could give a shit about the competitors or ethics. There was a day when bodybuilding shows sold out auditoriums around the country with no other divisions. Those days are gone, and you should honestly ask yourself why?
Given the choice between training for the look of the first half of the 90’s as opposed to the look of today, I believe whole heatedly the vast majority of competitors would choose the 90’s. If you still disagree, just look at what divisions are popular, and which ones are bleeding out.