When done properly, bodybuilding can be a great way for people to build strength and get in shape. The most beneficial long-term effect of bodybuilding, of course, is increased muscle mass. “Long-term bodybuilding changes your body composition,” writes Laura Niedziocha of LIVESTRONG. “Through resistance training, your body becomes stronger and leaner. Not only is this change a positive adaptation for your short-term health, but it can also help as you age. With age comes a loss of muscle mass and strength attributed to”
But for some, bodybuilding can be an addiction, and the desire to have the biggest, leanest body can lead to unhealthy behavior, such as substance abuse. Some bodybuilders want so badly to be the biggest and best that they’re willing to sacrifice their health. This is known as the “Goldman’s Dilemma.” In 1992, osteopath Robert Goldman asked athletes whether or not they would be willing to take a drug that would guarantee success but also take off five years from their life, and more than half of the athletes said yes. In the case of bodybuilders, however, often they’re sacrificing more than just five years.
Here are 15 bodybuilders who went way too far.
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15 Dave Palumbo
Palumboism, as evolutionary.org points out, “is the name of the condition found in individuals who have developed an enlarged stomach from abusing human growth hormone (HGH) and insulin. In fact, it is also known as GH gut and roid gut.” The condition is named after Dave “Jumbo” Palumbo, the founder of the bodybuilding magazine RxMuscle and the supplement line Species Nutrition. A retired American bodybuilder, Palumbo competed for close to a decade and a half, with contest weights ranging from the low 200s to more than 280 pounds. Due to steroid abuse, his body began to take on an unfortunate shape, with deflated arms and a distended midsection—thus, Palumboism.
14 Nasser El Sonbaty
The 1999 Arnold Classic winner Nasser El Sonbaty is one of many bodybuilders who met an untimely end. In 2013, at the age of 47, he passed away in his sleep while on a trip to Cairo. Prior to his death, he had been hospitalized for breathing problems, at which point he was diagnosed with kidney damage and heart failure.
Nicknamed “The Professor” because of his signature thick glasses and degree from the University of Augsburg in history, political science, and sociology, he was described by Muscle & Performance as “one of the most popular bodybuilders of his era.” When not competing, El Sonbaty was anywhere between 310 and 330 pounds, more than 150 pounds over the recommended weight for a man his height.
13 Flex Wheeler
With five Arnold Classic Championships and three Mr. Olympia second place finishes, Flex Wheeler is one of the most successful bodybuilders of all time. Unfortunately, he paid a big price for his success.
In 1999, he was diagnosed with a kidney disease called focal segmental glomerulosclerosis, which forced him to receive a kidney transplant in 2003. Wheeler claimed that the disease was genetic and therefore not caused by steroids, but as Mark Emmons of Mercury News pointed out at the time, at the very least “prolonged steroid use probably accelerated its onset.”
Thankfully, Wheeler appears to have recovered nicely from the kidney transplant and has since switched from bodybuilding to martial arts.
12 Mike Matarazzo
After retiring, Boston bodybuilder Mike Matarazzo spoke openly about the dangers of abusing steroids, telling muscleprods.com in 2009: “It has affected my whole life, so to all those guys who are on an eternal quest to have 21” arms and 20” calves, and who are so vain about their never-say-die attitude, I say, ‘Change your attitude.’ Worry about keeping that body of yours as healthy as possible, because it’s going to have to last you not just through your next contest or to the end of your bodybuilding contract, but for a long time. And a long time for a human being is nothing. It goes by real quick, even quicker when your health is gone and you have nothing to stand on.”
Those words rang eerily true when, just five years later, he passed away at the age of 48 due to complications from prolonged steroid abuse. Prior to his death, the official cause of which was cardiovascular disease, Matarazzo had undergone open-heart surgery in order to fix severely clogged arteries.
11 Moustafa Ismail
Egyptian bodybuilder Moustafa Ismail holds the Guinness Book of World Records for the biggest arms, measuring in at 31 inches in circumference. Despite the fact that he claims his record-breaking arms are largely the result of genetics, you probably won’t be surprised to learn that he didn’t get them just by working out. Instead, he injected synthol, which gives him that unnatural, Popeye-like look.
Ismail started off as a traditional bodybuilder who worked on his entire physique, but he soon focused all of his attention on making his arms as big as possible. Aside from grotesque deformity, so far Ismail appears not to have suffered an injuries as a result of his synthol use, but if he’s not careful, he might end up like Gregg Valentino.
10 Gregg Valentino
Gregg Valentino is infamous for being the subject of the documentary The Man Whose Arms Exploded. After years of abusing steroids and synthol, his arms ballooned to grotesque proportions and eventually popped.
What motivated Valentino to want to be a freak? According to Valentino himself, it was the result of a small man (or Napoleon) complex. “I'm only like five foot five and a half,” he told T-Nation, who dubbed him “the most hated man in bodybuilding and an embarrassment to the sport. “I mean, a guy with 27-inch arms who's only 5'5" with a 27 inch waist...it looks ridiculous. But then again, if I can't grow taller, then I'm going to be the biggest freak I can be.”
9 Trevor Smith
At more than 400 pounds, Trevor Smith made guys like Jay Cutler and Ronnie Coleman look small. Smith never competed professionally, but he was a coach and writer and a prominent figure in the bodybuilding world. He was also known to be a heavy steroid user. According to T-Nation, he died in 2004 from a heart attack in his early 30s.
In an interview with Gear UZR Magazine, Smith gave an example of his excessive diet, which, in conjunction with the steroids, led to him ballooning to more than 420 pounds, claiming to have eaten more than 50 pieces of sushi in a single sitting and chasing it down with two gallons of Gatorade.
8 Romario Dos Santos Alves
Romario Dos Santos Alves went to extreme lengths in order to look like his favorite cartoon superhero: The Incredible Hulk. Not content just to lift weights, however, the Brazilian bodybuilder, dubbed “Synthol Man,” “turned to a cocktail of oil, painkillers and alcohol to pump up his biceps.” The results were indeed cartoonish.
He became so addicted to injecting himself with the synthetic filler that he nearly lost his life—and his arms. "I remember the doctor told me that they would need to amputate both arms,” he told The Mirror in 2015, “they said everything in there, all my muscles, were rock.” Luckily for him, the doctors were able to spare his arms by removing the “synthol rocks.”
7 Daniele Seccarecci
With an in-season weight of nearly 300 pounds, Italian bodybuilder Daniele Seccarecci held the Guinness Book of World Records for heaviest competitive bodybuilder in 2010. But like so many other extreme bodybuilders, his size would prove to be too much for his heart to handle, and he would eventually die at the tender age of 33.
According to The Telegraph, “Seccarecci attributed his physique to a brutal exercise regime, six or seven separate meals a day, and a cocktail of dietary ‘supplements.’”
A few years before his death, Seccarecci was charged with illegal steroid marketing and sentenced to prison. However, after just a few days, he began to suffer side effects from steroid abuse—such as water retention—and was allowed to serve out the rest of his sentence in home confinement.
6 Tom Prince
Tom Prince, who took home the top prize at the NPC Nationals in 1997, is lucky not to have joined the likes of many of his fellow bodybuilders who passed away prematurely. In 2003, while preparing for a competition, his kidneys began to fail, forcing him to retire early or else risk death.
Prior to his receiving a kidney transplant, Prince reflected on the damages he’d done to his body: “It means in all likelihood my kidneys will give out early. I'm not going to live to be 85 years old. I will probably die younger than normal, 65 or something like that, but 65 is better than 35.”
Prince learned from his near-death experience and quit steroids altogether.
5 Nicole Bass
Wrestling fans will best remember Nicole Bass for her time in the ECW and WWF, but before that, she competed in bodybuilding throughout the ‘80s and ‘90s, taking home top prize at two NPC events. At 6-feet-2, 240 pounds, she was bigger than some of her male counterparts, and years of abusing steroids had indeed left her with masculine features.
In 2006 Bass was admitted to hospital with what was described as “steroid-induced pancreatitis.” Just this past week, at the age of 52, she was again submitted to hospital after suffering a major stroke. Soon after being pronounced brain dead she was taken off life support and passed away.
While her cause of death has officially been ruled a stroke, it’s likely that years of steroid abuse at least contributed to her early demise.
4 Andreas Munzer
Austrian bodybuilder Andreas Munzer was known for having close to zero body fat despite weighing 239 pounds during the competitive season. His obsession with leanness, however, would ultimately prove fatal, as he died at the age of 31 as a result of liver and kidney failure.
The autopsy later revealed that Munzer had almost no fat on his body, a heart enlarged to roughly twice the normal size, and tumors the size of ping pong balls in his liver. They also discovered roughly 20 different drugs in his system.
Nasser El Sonbaty, who would also die as a result of his extreme bodybuilding lifestyle, said of Munzer: “He was extremely dedicated to his profession as an IFBB pro. I personally think that Andreas was too deprived from fats and calories in the off-season so he must have suffered for much of his bodybuilding life.”
3 Dean Wharmby
Dean Wharmby is a prime example of how bodybuilders can go too far. Wharmby was left a shell of his former self after being diagnosed with severe liver cancer, which he believed to be the result of his extreme 10,000-calorie per day diet, which included burgers, pizza, bacon sandwiches, and seven to eight energy drinks, all in the search of becoming the “perfect” bodybuilder.
Wharmby claimed only to have taken steroids at the very beginning of his multi-decade bodybuilding career, but the coroner who examined his body suggested otherwise: “I find on the balance of probabilities that in such a fit, health-conscious young man the most probable cause of his liver tumours was the misuse of anabolic steroids” Furthermore, she warned, “Dean’s death and the precious loss of such a young life in such circumstances ought to send out a very clear message to all those involved in the body building and fitness industries. Use of anabolic steroids, which is apparently rife throughout, is not without inherent risk.”
2 Greg Kovacs
With an in-season weight of 330 pounds and an off-season weight of 420, Canadian bodybuilder Greg Kovacs was one of the biggest figures in the history of the sport. According to RxMuscle, he was also “regarded as the strongest pro bodybuilder of all time,” capable of benching 700 pounds for two reps and leg-pressing over 2,000 pounds.
His superhuman size, however, would prove to be his downfall. At the age of 44, Kovacs died of heart failure. According to Muscle Insider, not long before his death, he “had been suffering from water retention issues” and had undergone heart surgery.
Kovacs’s best finish came back in 2004, when he placed 13th at the Arnold Classic. In later competitions, he looked uncomfortably large, with a noticeably distended gut.
1 Mohammed Benaziza
Algerian bodybuilder Mohammed Benaziza won seven Grand Prix events from 1987 to 1992, but perhaps his biggest victory was beating six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates at the 1990 Night of Champions, thus earning him the nickname “Killer of Giants.”
After competing in the 1992 Mr. Olympia, Benaziza chose not to rest and instead jumped right back into competition. In order to prepare for an upcoming show, he injected himself with a diuretic, which, it was later revealed, caused him to become severely dehydrated and ultimately led to his fatal heart attack at the age of 33.
Ironically, not long before his death, Benaziza called American bodybuilders “sissies” because they were afraid of the potential risks of steroids.
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