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How To Get Swole

Todd Bookman with bodybuilder John McLean

By some counts, there are more than 600 different muscles in the human body. Some say 700. Others put the number at 800.

Muscles can be wide or flat. They can be shaped like triangles or diamonds or circles. They can be puny. Or, they can be huge… like John McLean’s muscles.

John McLean is deep in training for an amateur bodybuilding competition. In case this isn’t your sport of choice, bodybuilders lift weights to grow and sculpt their muscles but when they compete on stage, they’re judged by their posing and flexing. They don’t lift anything.

John’s day job is as a personal trainer at the YMCA in Exeter. It’s not uncommon for him to put in his 9 to 5, and then spend a few more hours at the gym afterwards.

John is not the biggest, most rugged dude. He’s about 5’7’’, square jawed with blonde hair. He got into lifting in high school and began following bodybuilding in college. In 2008, he started prepping for a bodybuilding tournament. But he was dealing with insomnia at the time. His body just couldn’t handle the training.

The sleep issues stayed with him for nearly a decade before he got on the right medication. It sounds bad. John doesn’t like to talk about it.

But today, he’s feeling and sleeping a lot better. So at the age of 37, he’s going to compete in his first bodybuilding competition- the Granite State Open. It’s the same tournament he started to train for in 2008.

On competition day, John and every person in his category will get brought onto stage twice. First time, the entire group will come out for what are called comparisons. Side by side, the athletes will go through a series of poses that highlight different muscle groups: lats, biceps, quads. 

The second time athletes go on stage, they do it alone. They get to perform a choreographed posing routine set to music. John has chosen the 1986 song “Your Love” by British rockers The Outfield.

He starts his routine with a side flex before turning his back to the audience. Then he pinches his back muscles to the beat. His right leg is spiked, highlighting his hamstring and calf muscle.

John then spins to the side, pumping his right arm before sliding into a classic front double bicep flex.

At this point, his face explodes into a smile. It’s meant to show the audience that he’s in total control of his muscles and that this abnormal physique is perfectly normal for him.

Nearly all competitors get spray tans before going on stage, even people with naturally dark skin. The bronzer helps create an even skin tone, covers up stretch marks, and counteracts the washout effect that happens under bright stage lights.

Bodybuilders tend to favor an industrial strength tan. This is far more bronzer than a bride-to-be may choose. Five to six coats applied with an air gun.

Within seconds, McLean changes from--by his own description--whiter than a fish’s belly to something more mahogany.

The effect is immediate. Mahogany John is instantly more muscular, more defined. With it, he’s one more step closer to being that guy onstage that he needs to be, the confident sculpture.

Confident sculptures have to eat. John eats 7 meals a day. It’s all carefully calibrated and measured: 4.85 ounces of brown rice pasta, 4 ounces of chicken, .25 ounces of peanuts.

The meal plan varies, but some days, McLean is downing as much as 300-grams of protein. That’s more than 5 times what the average male consumes

On the day of the 24th Annual Granite State Open, it’s pouring rain. The event is held inside the Dover High School auditorium.

Backstage, 84 athletes from across New England are getting in a final pump.

There are a bunch of different categories in this day-long competition, different age groups, couples posing, bikini judging. John is competing in what’s called the Male Novice Category. It’s for athletes making their bodybuilding debut. 

It’s still pretty early in the afternoon. John and three other chiseled men walk out in their speedos.

John is stage right, wearing royal blue. His tan looks great.

John McLean on stage at the Granite State Open

The judges, sitting front and center, call out a series of posing commands. Judges look to see if the muscle groups are built up equally and are well-defined with little to no fat. The biggest guy doesn’t always win, though being biggest can help.

It’s still a few more hours before the individual posing routines kick off.

Because of some sort of administrative glitch, John wasn’t on the roster when he checked in this morning. So he was assigned number 84. 84 out of 84. He’ll go last this evening.

Later that night, John walks out on stage. Turns his back, hits his mark.

But something is wrong.  The sound system worked fine for the previous 83 competitors. But now his song is playing too slow, some kind of glitch.

John is understandably thrown off. He yells out “speed it up,” but there’s no fix. He works through his routine in slow-motion and tries to smile through gritted teeth.

When the trophies are awarded later on in the night, John’s is the smallest in his category.

The competition didn’t turn out exactly as he’d hoped. But John hasn’t given up. He’s got a plan for the next competition, sometime in the spring.


Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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