Maybe it was the cover of Atlas Shrugged that caught the attention of the weight-lifting community. Artist Nick Gaetano’s iconic cover art depicts a mountain of a man, chiseled and sculpted, lifting the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Or maybe it was the spirit of the woman, philosopher Ayn Rand: determined, fearless, disciplined.
In any event, her fiction and philosophy has sparked ongoing attention from bodybuilders around the world who look to her words on focus and individualism as foundational for their training. Bodybuilding is a celebration of human strength and beauty. It’s also about changing yourself with knowledge and willpower.
In an August 2016 post on the website StrengthAwakening.com, Rand made the list of the top bodybuilding quotes. Coming in at #18 out of 80, the magazine attributed this quote: "The question isn’t who is going to let me; it’s who is going to stop me.”
While that quote is in fact a condensation of a scene in The Fountainhead -- in response to the Dean of Architecture asking young Howard Roark, “My dear fellow, who will let you?” (i.e. build his mold-breaking designs), the hero answers: “That’s not the point. The point is, who will stop me?”
The spirit is one of those who make their own way -- and for better or worse, sometimes their own rules.
The ranks of flamboyant, indeed controversial bodybuilding Objectivists include the artist Richard Minns and the psychologist Arnold Nerenberg. Both men achieved some notoriety for breaking laws -- but also deserve a measure of respect for breaking records.
At 71 years of age, Dr. Nerenberg set a world record for doing a pull up with a chain belt with a weight of 140 pounds. And that’s not the most impressive part. He accomplished this mere months after having his prostate cut out! “I was the only athlete going to the weigh in wearing a diaper! We all had a good laugh.”
Is his dual passion for bodybuilding and Ayn Rand just a coincidence? “Hell no!” Dr. Nerenberg said. “Rand was one of the greatest storytellers of all time. She told stories of men and women as heroic individuals. Each of us have that own power in our own lives -- do we write our narrative as victims, or victors? I went from a 14 year old coward who ran from fights to one of the strongest men in the world -- and Objectivism helped me do it.”
Richard Minns, the Objectivist sculptor whom I recently profiled in Artist as Atlas, told me: “I have spent a lifetime in sport and bodybuilding, slowly sculpting the muscles of my own body until I reached physical perfection. Now I use my skills and knowledge of anatomy and how the muscles work to bring to life the heroes of the Bible and the Grecian gods and goddesses.”
Whoa? Heroes of the Bible? Aren’t Objectivists supposed to be all staunch atheists? Well, Rand certainly was, but the ranks of philosophically-pure Objectivists are dwarfed by the legions of those like Minns, and others, who enjoy both Ayn Rand’s literature, and their own spiritual or religious practice.
One of those is former bodybuilder Judy Scheffel, a renaissance woman who currently serves as a Senior Vice President at one of the country’s largest financial institutions. “For me, competitive bodybuilding was an intellectual exercise, much more so than a physical regimen,” Scheffel told me. “It’s about mind-building, character-building, pushing your limits. That would resonate with a lot of Rand fans,” she said, even though she herself, as an outspoken political progressive, has mixed feelings about the author and her philosophy.
A far less ambivalent endorsement of Rand as as inspiration for bodybuilding success came from the late champion Mike Mentzer, whose national titles included 1976 Mr. America, 1978 Mr. Universe, and 1979's Mr. Olympia.
“Anyone familiar with Ayn Rand's system of ethics,” wrote Mentzer, should be able “to see how bodybuilding can be logically related to Randian morality: Because bodybuilding is pro-health, it is pro-life and pro-man (and therefore, good). Further, a bodybuilding regimen must be followed by choice and requires effort. Any issue which is open to man's choice and relevant to the quality of his life--physical fitness included--is a moral issue."
Mentzler’s friend and publisher David Sears explained: “Mike's ideas on bodybuilding were allowed to emerge because of his Objectivism...His approach to critical thought, analytical thinking, and knowing there is one truth, all allowed him to buck conventional thought and push onward with his own mental effort."
Men of muscle may have admired Ayn Rand -- but what would she have thought of those who devote so much time to developing their brawn, vs. their brains?
Perhaps she would be delighted, knowing that she was attracted to handsome, rugged men. The heroes of her books, John Galt and Howard Roark, weren't hulks, however, but lanky -- as was her husband Frank O’Connor.
I think she would have admired anyone who pursued their physical betterment and personal happiness with such ruthless determination. I know I certainly do. Many of my friends scratched their heads in bewilderment when I married a man who eschewed the arena of ideas for fighting in the actual ring of the MMA as a black belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu. But I admired the way Rapha organized his hierarchy of values, putting his will to succeed at a goal of physical competition above all the slothful behaviors and fattening foods.
Jennifer Anju Grossman is the CEO of the Atlas Society.