I know for a lot of young guys reading the magazines and looking at the pictures of all the champions, it can sometimes be discouraging to see how far they have to go before their physiques remotely resemble those incredibly muscular men. But take it from me, a guy who has won the Arnold Classic, the Mr. Universe and Nationals and was runner-up at the Mr. Olympia three years in a row, everybody starts somewhere. In the beginning, I was just a skinny kid from New Jersey. So how did I start out?
A discovery in the basement
I had a friend over on the next block named Johnny Curtis. In his basement was his dad's weight set and stacks of old Muscle Builder magazines. One day I started looking at them, and my world changed forever. I saw Arnold, Robby Robinson, Dave Draper, Franco Columbu, Lou Ferrigno, and Frank Zane. To me they were living superheroes, and until that day I never knew humans could even look like that. From then on, Johnny started getting upset because instead of being outside playing baseball or kickball, I would spend about an hour every time down in that dark, dingy basement reading those magazines. By the time I was 13, I felt I was ready to start lifting weights. My older brother had a bench, a York barbell set, and a pair of adjustable dumbbells in our basement. I did bench presses and curls, but I was entirely clueless. Luckily for me, Johnny's dad knew how interested I was in his muscle magazines. He wouldn't part with those, but he did give me his copy of The Barbell Way to Physical Fitness by Mr. Universe Bruce Randall. That book became my bible, and I studied it cover to cover. Not long after that, I found out Arnold Schwarzenegger was coming to a bookstore at the nearby Menlo Park Mall to promote his book The Education of a Bodybuilder. I rode my bike over with a piece of paper for him to sign, since I didn't have any money. I waited in line, shook Arnold's hand, and told him I wanted to be just like him! Arnold looked me in the eye and told me, "Train hard, eat right, and believe in yourself." My parents got me the book for Christmas, and I was on my way.
The Early Gyms
I lived in Edison, New Jersey, and Rutgers University wasn't too far away. I figured their weight room had to be a whole lot better than my basement, so I rode over and snuck in the back door, which was kept open for ventilation in the spring and summer. It did have plenty of free weights and a Universal multi station. I used to work out as fast as I could because I knew sooner or later I would get busted and thrown out. Still not even 14, I sure couldn't pass for a college student! That happened about a month later. Finally, I was headed to my first real gym - Health and Strength in Highland Park. You walked down these stairs into a dimly-lit, musty hardcore dungeon where I saw actual competitive bodybuilders for the very first time. The first guy I happened to see was a pro from the old WBBG organization, a Caribbean guy named Joe Spooner who had 20-inch arms and a tiny waist. I was too intimidated to ask him questions, so I would watch him train and imitate what he was doing. A few guys there competed locally, and as far as I was concerned they were all pros. I would ask them all a million questions about how they trained and what they ate, and some probably remember me as 'that annoying question kid.' The manager saw how enthusiastic I was, so he gave me a job sweeping up, cleaning the bathrooms, putting weights away, and making protein shakes for the members. The really cool thing was when the older guys invited me to go watch local contests with them.
My first rival, and choosing my first contest
There was only one teenage competitor at the gym, and he happened to go to my high school too - Joe DeRusso. Joe was a Senior and I was a sophomore, and he was pretty dismissive of me. "You're okay," he told me, "but you'll never beat me." That's all I had to hear. From that day on, my goal became to beat Joe! I just had to prove I was better. I found out he was planning on doing a show coming up called the Physique '80. Joe had a really good structure, with wide clavicles and a wide back, along with a small waist. His chest was okay, but his arms and legs weren't very good. Even then I had big legs and calves, and my chest was thick. I also had good abs and I was always very vascular. I knew I could beat Paul with gnarly condition. I started dieting, based on what I had read in magazines and books. The articles I paid the most attention to were about the top amateurs at the time like Ron Teufel and Tim Belknap, because that's where I aspired to be in a few years. The diets back then weren't so far from ketogenic. We ate chicken, steak, eggs, and very little carbs. I stayed covered up and boosted my workout intensity with techniques like super sets and tri-sets to burn more calories and improve my muscle quality. My training partner was Dave Sinnott, who now lives in LA and has been a trainer to stars like Demi Moore and Angela Bassett for years. I dieted down from 185 to 162.
I knew from the magazines that you had to shave your body. I'll never forget how horrified my mom was when she walked in on my shaving my legs in the bathroom! I also knew from watching Pumping Iron that the guys would tan before contests. The contest was in early June, so I used to come home from school every day and lay out on my deck. There was no Pro Tan or anything like that yet, so I asked the guys what else I should do. They told me to mix iodine into my baby oil, and that would give me better color. Luckily I had a base tan so I only looked slightly reddish from that. Some other guys looked like lobsters with that mix! The guys also told me all the stuff I needed to eat on the day of the contest to finally 'carb up' after 8 weeks of barely any carbs: stacks of pancakes drenched in syrup, eggs, rice cakes with jelly, and candy. Needless to say, I felt bloated and gassy all day!
Teenage bodybuilding was a lot bigger back in those days. Eddie Robinson, Shawn Ray, and Mike Quinn were just a few top pro's who had won national teen titles around this time. My teenage class wound up having 40 guys in it. Backstage, I finally took my sweats off and Paul actually paid me a compliment. "Wow Richie, you look pretty good." But we all knew who the winner would be. There was a 19-year-old named Lucio who was simply in another league of thick muscle mass, hardness, and vascularity. I made the second callout and eventually placed sixth. Paul didn't place. Years later I told him how much wanting to beat him had motivated me, and I thanked him for lighting that fire under me. I was a little discouraged at taking sixth, so I asked the judges and some of the older competitors what I needed to work on. "How old are you?" most of them asked. Upon learning I was only 16, they all said to just keep at it and get bigger, and I would certainly do better in the future. I vowed that I wouldn't do any other contests until I won that show. At 17, I came back the next year and took third at the Physique '81, then finally won both the Teenage and the Men's Overall at age 18 in 1982. From there I was on my way, doing just a couple more regional shows before winning the Junior Nationals, the Nationals, and earning my pro card at the Mr. Universe. But as you can see, I started from very humble beginnings. That's why you should never let anyone tell you what you can and can't achieve. We all start from somewhere, and the only real limits are the ones you put on yourself!