By John Hansen
One of the most disturbing trends in the world of competitive bodybuilding over the last 20-30 years is an alarming drop off in talented teen bodybuilders. Decades ago, a variety of incredible teenage bodybuilders would battle it out at various national level competitions. Today, the teenage division in bodybuilding is lightly contested at best and often completely neglected.
Apparently bodybuilding isn’t the only sport experience a drop off in younger participation. A similar drop-off is now taking place in one of the most popular sports in America, football. According to recent data, football has seen players between the ages of 6-14 decline by a massive 27.7 percent in the last five years. Many football experts are worried that, unless they can reverse this decline in players, the future of the most popular sport in America may be in jeopardy.
Although there is no comparison in popularity between bodybuilding and football, the downward trend in participation among younger competitors raises similar concerns. If there are no more younger bodybuilders interested in the sport, what does that say about the future of bodybuilding? Where will our future superstars come from?
Many of the bodybuilding Legends that we continue to admire today got their start as great teenage bodybuilders. Arnold Schwarzenegger developed an incredible physique as a teen, placing second in the prestigious NABBA Mr. Universe contest at only 19 years old. Arnold sported massive 20 inch arms at that age and was so impressive that he was brought out for an unprecedented encore at the evening show. Arnold went on to win the Mr. Universe one year later at only 20 years old, a record that still stands today.
Check out this list of future bodybuilding superstars who got their start competing in teenage bodybuilding competitions –
Jerry Daniels – 1963 Teenage Mr. America, Mr. America in ‘65
Dennis Tinerino – 1965 Teenage Mr. America, won the Mr. America in ‘67
Boyer Coe – 1966 Teenage Mr. America, won the Mr. America in ‘69
Casey Viator – 1970 Teenage Mr. America, won the Mr. America in ‘71 (at only 19 years old!)
Ron Teufel – 1975 Teenage Mr. America, won the Short Class in the Mr. America in ‘76 (at only 19 years old).
Lee Haney – 1979 Teenage Mr. America, won the Mr. Olympia a record 8 times!).
Mike Quinn – 1981 Teenage Mr. America, won the NPC USA in ‘87 and the NABBA Mr. Universe in ‘84.
Victor Terra – 1983 Teenage Mr. America, won the Mr. America in ‘85
Franco Santoriello – 1984 NPC Teenage National Champ, won his class at the ‘89 NPC Nationals.
Shawn Ray – 1985 NPC Teenage National Champ, won the ‘87 NPC Nationals.
Shane DiMora – 1986 NPC Teenage National Champ, won his class at the ‘86 NPC Nationals (at only 19 years old!).
Branch Warren – 1992 AAU Teenage Mr. America, ‘93 NPC Teenage National Champ, Mr. Olympia Runner-Up!
This list does not even include the myriad of great teenage bodybuilders who did not win the Teenage Mr. America or Teen Nationals but either won their class or placed high in this prestigious national level event. Men like Harold Poole, Tom Platz, Lance Dreher, Mike Mentzer, Lou Ferrigno, David Hawk, Rich Gaspari, Eddie Robinson, Bob Cicherillo, Chris Cormier, Jay Cutler, Jose Raymond – to name few.
When I began competing in teenage bodybuilding contests in 1979, the competition was extremely tough with many talented and impressive teen bodybuilders competing in every teenage event. Growing up in Chicago, the most prestigious teenage bodybuilding contest you could win was the AAU Teenage Mr. Illinois. This competition was wisely divided into age groups instead of height classes. The different divisions included the 14-16 year old age group, the 17-18 year old age group and the 19 year old class. The first year I competed in the Teenage Mr. Illinois at 17 years old, I was competing against 40 other teenage bodybuilders. That’s not a typo, there were 40 teenage bodybuilders competing in a state level show in only one class! The total number of competitors in the Teenage Mr. Illinois that year was over 80 teens.
This trend continued throughout the 1980’s. In the 1981 Teenage Mr. Illinois, there were over 100 teens competing in the contest. Just to make the top ten in your class was an honor. To win the Teenage Mr. America in that era was a tremendous accomplishment! It’s no surprise that many of those winners of the Teenage Mr. America went on to become some of the best bodybuilders in history.
What this tells me is that there was a large number of teenagers in the 1980’s who loved the look of the top bodybuilders in the sport. Just as athletes like Hank Aaron, Muhammed Ali and Michael Jordan inspired millions of kids to start participating in sports such as baseball, boxing and basketball because of their incredible performance and charisma, Arnold Schwarzenegger similarly inspired a large number of teens to start pumping iron and get onstage to compete for teenage bodybuilding glory.
When the movie “Pumping Iron” was released in 1977, most of the country was in the dark about the joys of experiencing a pump or building up the muscles. It was largely because of Arnold’s great physique and magnetic personality that opened the door for the sport to be exposed to the general public.
Another big factor in the popularity of bodybuilding amongst younger competitors in the 1980’s was the look of the top bodybuilders in the sport. Bodybuilding superstars like Arnold, Frank Zane, Robby Robinson, Mike Mentzer, Samir Bannout, Lee Haney, Bob Paris and Lee Labrada had “The Look” that inspired thousands of teenage bodybuilders around the world to attack the weights in an effort to look like their idols. The best bodybuilders in the world in the 1980’s had big muscles, great symmetry and shape. They looked heroic, handsome and magnetic. Looking like real life superheroes, the top bodybuilders of the 1980’s looked like they could save the world, turn heads and attract women all at once. Who wouldn’t want to look like that?
As the sport of bodybuilding evolved, the top competitors got bigger and freakier. The judges became enamored with this new, never before seen freaky bodybuilder and began awarding the top prizes to the biggest and most ripped physiques. Shape and symmetry took a back seat to size and hardness as Mr. Olympia competitors broke previous boundaries in massive development and proportions.
This look was far less admired by the youth of our country who soon abandoned bodybuilding for other interests. Teenage bodybuilding competitions began to dwindle down until we reached the current situation of only one or two teenage bodybuilders competing in each local show. The inspiration of heroic bodybuilders like Arnold and Mentzer has given way to freaky, out of this world bodybuilders who seem to be too unattainable to inspire today’s teen.
Perhaps the new division of Classic Physique will bring back some of the heroic physiques that inspired so many young men to begin pumping iron thirty years ago. Muscles, shape, symmetry, proportion. All good things come back around eventually. Here’s hoping today’s youth finds a reason to start building their physiques and get onstage to compete for top honors. Our sport needs you for the next generation of bodybuilding!
A three-time Natural Mr. Universe and the first Natural Mr. Olympia champion, John is the author of the book Natural Bodybuilding (2005, Human Kinetics). A 14 year columnist for Ironman Magazine, John is the founder of FloridaPhysique.com where he covers the NPC Florida Bodybuilding scene and interviews legendary bodybuilders. John is also the promoter of the NPC Natural Suncoast Classic and offers consultations on training, nutrition and posing – in person and online.