The Risks of Body Beautiful : Fitness: For a few precious minutes onstage at Laguna Beach Classic, competitors pump up, oil up--even starve.


“Looking good, Joe!”

“Hit it, Chuck!”


“Punch ‘em up! Squeeeeeeze!”

On stage at the Laguna Beach Arts Theater on Saturday afternoon, cheered on by shouts from familiar voices in the darkened auditorium, five well-oiled men strained for perfection with all their considerable might.

Clenching every bulked-up muscle as tightly as possible, they smiled, grimaced, tightened, smiled and tightened again as the judges examined each body for strengths and flaws.

“Fifteen seconds,” announced an authoritative voice, and suddenly the sweat beads sprang up everywhere, on biceps and quadriceps, trapeziuses and deltoids, sparkling in the spotlight against the contestants’ chemically tanned skin.


“Thank you, gentlemen,” the voice said, and the men relaxed and retreated. From stage right, five new competitors in the Laguna Beach Muscle Classic stepped to the center for their turn.

Outside in the open courtyard at Laguna Beach High School, still more contestants prepared for their chance onstage, doing pushups against the picnic tables, pullups from the porch rafters, picking up the free weights scattered all around for repetitions of curls, presses and extensions, anything to get those muscles pumped up.

By this time, after spending months or years lifting weights for an hour or two nearly every day, doing a triceps extension or behind-the-neck press seems as natural as walking across a room.

They smeared on oil and artificial tanning chemicals, both considered almost mandatory methods of making muscles look better under the lights.

Some ate a few bites of tuna, straight from the tin. Others popped handfuls of vitamins, nibbled plain cooked rice, or simply squeezed honey into their mouths straight from the bottle.

But nobody ate much of anything. Nobody does in the weeks, days and especially hours before a contest. They call it “dieting down,” although at 500 to 1,000 calories a day or less, some might refer to it as starvation.

Those who had already taken a turn slipped on sweats and packed up to go, treating themselves to a few swallows from their water bottles. But only a few: Even the slightest amount of water can reduce muscle definition and thereby reduce a contestant’s chances of winning.

And although the judges make their decisions based on the daytime preliminary competition, all contestants must come back to perform again for the finals at night.

The idea behind the deprivation, as well as all the work leading up to the competition, is to make contestants look their absolute best for those few moments they’re on stage. But however strong they look, bodybuilders may well be at their weakest during a contest because of the health sacrifices they make.

“The pre-contest diet is normally not a long-term healthy diet,” explained Geoffrey Ricchio, a Dana Point chiropractor who works with many bodybuilders. “What they’re trying to do is maintain muscular density and size, but remove the subcutaneous and intramuscular fat. And that’s difficult, because the body wants to maintain the fat for survival. In the short term, it’s OK, but there can be problems.”

Cramps, insomnia and dizziness are just a few of the dangers bodybuilders face just before and during a competition, Ricchio said. He advises his own patients to use supplemental vitamins, eat natural foods, and work with a trainer or doctor.

Weightlifting itself, however, has found increased acceptance from doctors and fitness experts, many of whom now recommend it as “the most important exercise a person can do to strengthen the body,” Ricchio said.

In the third row, far right, just behind the row of video cameras recording the day’s proceedings, Kelley Rakow, 25, of San Clemente decided to treat herself to a piece of gum to wet her mouth.

During the final days leading up to this, her first contest, she began craving water so desperately that she longed to swallow when she brushed her teeth.

But she was only hours away from the goal she’d set last year when her husband, Marine Lt. Steve Rakow, left for the Persian Gulf, so she was confident she could hold out a little longer. She had hoped he’d be back in time to see her compete, but his unit isn’t scheduled to return to Camp Pendleton until the end of August.

In the seat next to her, Shelly Serrecchio, also 25, of Laguna Niguel was making plans for dinner.

“Tonight, when it’s all over, I want to go to a sushi place and just graze until I can’t eat any more,” she said.

Rakow’s fantasies were more conservative.

“I’d just love to have a fruit salad,” she said.

Rakow lost 12 pounds in the months leading up to the contest, and Serrecchio lost 19 pounds after deciding to compete only a month before.

Both Rakow and Serrecchio were entered in the novice women’s class, one of eight overall, and both were being guided through the proceedings by their trainer, Lou Gaudio of Dana Point. Gaudio conceded that the starvation and dehydration he and other trainers recommend for bodybuilders aren’t healthy in the long run, but he feels they do no harm in the short term.

Out in the courtyard, contestant Joe Juliani, 26, of Anaheim, admitted to feeling some ill effects from his training.

“If you’ve ever dieted, you know you weren’t fun to be around,” he said. “With this, it’s much worse.”

Juliani said he does not use steroids, however.

“The people who do are even harder to be around. They set off really easy,” he said.

Although steroids are illegal, without drug tests, contest organizers can’t determine which contestants may be using them. That’s why Juliani said he was looking forward to an upcoming contest in San Diego where all the contestants are tested.

“It’s harder to do (weightlifting) naturally,” he said. “But overall, it’s much better this way.”

Juliani was surrounded by his cheering section--his brother Nick and friends Scott Young and Silvio Delligatta. All four have been training together for years, and each of them takes a turn in a local competition about every six months.

Despite all the warnings about the dangers of steroids, Ricchio said they are still “very much in the forefront. Any top bodybuilder is going to use drugs to a certain degree. It’s a problem, but it’s a fact of life in bodybuilding.”

Ricchio said that even in competitions with drug testing, competitors often use water-based steroids, which cannot be detected by normal urine tests as soon as three days after use.

Humans have been showing off their muscles to each other since the species developed, although formal competition didn’t begin until this century.

During the 1950s, the sport became more widely accepted. Today, several competitions are under way somewhere in body-conscious Southern California on any given weekend.

Robert Sherman of Lawndale, who was Mr. Los Angeles in 1984 and is this year’s Mr. Inglewood, said Steve Reeves’ Hercules movies were his inspiration when he was younger.

“Now the iron bug has me,” Sherman said. “I plan on doing it until the day I die.”

Bob Lenhart of Sylmar, at 62 the oldest competitor, said he began training three years ago. Since then, he lost 50 pounds and changed his diet.

“I’m a borderline diabetic, and this has really improved my health,” he said.

Don Larsen, 42, of Canyon Country, said bodybuilding has kept him from aging as fast as his contemporaries. He’s been practicing the sport since he turned 30, but only began competing two years ago.

“Since then, I’ve won three out of five contests,” he said.

Serrecchio, a hairdresser, has used bodybuilding to recover from two car accidents, one of which caused her a serious back injury.

“I do have to be careful with it,” she said, “But overall, it really has helped me.”

Rakow placed third in the novice women’s class, while Serrecchio came in fourth. Overall winners were Steven Earle, who also won the heavyweight men’s unlimited class, and Julie Wolfe, who won the heavyweight women’s unlimited title. Sherman won the men’s master’s division, Larsen was second, and Juliani placed fourth in novice men’s.

Rakow said she’d like to compete in another contest, but “probably not right away. A part of me would like to, but another part of me knows I need to concentrate on my husband coming home.”