Brandon Curry wins the Arnold six months before winning the Olympia. / Dave Emery
Though The Barbell isn’t even two months old, that hasn’t deterred us from recounting the biggest stories in muscle, strength, and fitness from the past 12 months. From the death of the fourth Mr. O to the crowning of the 15th, and from world record lifts to billion-dollar sales to scientific controversies, what a momentous year it’s been. With 2020 vision, we look back at 2019.
MEN’S OPEN BODYBUILDING
There was a lot of drama involving who would or wouldn’t compete in the Mr. Olympia. Immediately after reigning champ Shawn Rhoden was charged with rape in July, he was banned from competing in the Olympia. Additionally, seven-time Mr. O Phil Heath and top contender Mamdouh “Big Ramy” Elssbiay (recovering from a shoulder injury) sat this one out. That made this year’s Arnold Classic champ 🏆 Brandon Curry the favorite in a diminished lineup. With added size and flowing lines, he delivered, becoming the 15th Mr. Olympia. The consistently conditioned 🥈 William Bonac was runner-up to Curry in both the Arnold and the Olympia; he also took the Arnold Classic Australia. Meanwhile, 🥉 Hadi Choopan, of Iran, finally received an American travel visa, and the Persian Wolf—thick, wide, and grainy—did not disappoint, finishing an eye-opening third (many observers had him second) in his Olympia debut and winning the People’s Champ Award. In contrast, last year’s Olympia third-placer and People’s Champ Roelly Winklaar took a step backwards in his conditioning and had to settle for humbling fifths in both the Arnold and Olympia. In the latter contest, Winklaar placed two points behind 2008 Mr. O Dexter Jackson, who, at 49, was, remarkably, still in Sandow contention.
With seven-time 212 Olympia champ Flex Lewis avoiding stages this year to grow into the open class next year, 47-year-old Libyan 🏆 Kamal El Gargni surprised with his crisp conditioning and became only the second 212 O winner, defeating favorite 🥈 Derek Lunsford. Nipping at Lunsford’s heals was 🥉 Shaun Clarida, who went high-def and, at only 169 pounds and seven years after he earned a pro card as a bantamweight (and four years after failing to place in his O debut), he earned the greatest buzz of the class against guys who outweighed him by over 40 pounds.
CLASSIC PHYSIQUE & MEN’S PHYSIQUE
Classic continues its rapid growth. In an apples or oranges decision (more classical shape vs. superior conditioning), 🏆 Chris Bumstead defeated two-time and defending champ 🥈 Breon Ansley by a single point for the Olympia Classic Physique crown (reversing the one-point decision of a year prior). Meanwhile, 🥉 George Peterson, who won the Arnold Classic Physique and was third at the O for the third straight year will be switching to the 212 next year. Displaying his stupendous delts, 🏆 Raymont Edmonds exerted his width (and height) advantage over online and onstage rival 🥈 Andre Ferguson to win the Olympia Men’s Physique title. As this class matures, the shoulder-to-waist ratio of V-tapers have widened.
WOMEN’S PHYSIQUE, FIGURE, BIKINI, & FITNESS
Women’s bodybuilding returns to the Olympia stage next year (after a regrettable five-year absence), joined by the new and curvy wellness division. 🏆 Shanique Grant, still only 24, repeated in the Physique division and, with her stellar structure and shape and consistent conditioning, seems likely to establish a dynasty. There was a remarkable dual in the Figure Olympia between two two-time champs as 🥈 Latorya Watson (2015-16 winner) returned to face 🏆 Cydney Gillon (2017-18 winner). Both were at their best, and with merely three points separating them, it was Gillon who hauled home the biggest check and title number three. The decision was even closer in the Bikini Olympia, where Brazilian 🏆 Elisa Pecini eked out a one-point victory over 🥈 Janet Layug. In the Fitness Olympia, 🏆 Whitney Jones bounded and flipped her way to straight firsts for her repeat victory, setting up a potential dual next year with four-time champ Oksana Grishina, who recently announced her return after a two-year absence.
Professional Strongman was a triad this year as three giants with difficult-to-pronounce names alternated positions in the two premier contests. In March at the Arnold Strongman Classic, they finished like this: 1. 🏆 Hafþór Júlíus Björnsson, 2. 🥈 Matins Licis, 3. 🥉 Mateusz Kieliszkowski. Then in June at the World’s Strongest Man, they finished like this: 1. 🏆 Martins Licis, 2. 🥈 Kieliszkowski, 3. 🥉 Björnsson. With his victory, it was the first time Licis had even cracked the WSM top three. It’s also notable that strongmen celebrities Björnsson, Eddie Hall, and Brian Shaw continued to rise in public consciousness this year with TV programs like the now-departed Game of Thrones and the History Channel’s The Strongest Man in History, as well as their giant-sized social media presences.
The CrossFit Games were déjà vu all over again as 26-year-old Australian 🏆 Tia-Clair Toomey won the women’s title for the third straight year, 29-year-old American 🏆 Mathew Fraser four-peated in the men’s division, and the team that Fraser captains, 🏆 CrossFit Mayhem, was victorious for fourth time in the past five years (they were second the other year), though with a different lineup on each occasion.
There was one huge story in weightlifting. In winning his fourth World Championships 🏆, Olympic gold-medalist, super-heavyweight Lasha Talakhadze smashed his own world record, set in April, for the 🌎 biggest total of all-time in any class: 484 kg. (1067 lbs.). The 25-year-old Georgian (the country, not the state), who weighs 371 at 6’6”, also set world records in the 🌎 snatch (220 kg., 485 lbs.) and 🌎 clean and jerk (264 kg., 582 lbs.). Talakhadze is approaching three once-seemingly-insurmountable boundaries: the 500 kg. total (1102 lbs.), 500-pound snatch, and 600-pound clean and jerk. We can’t wait for the 2020 Olympics.
Dozens of powerlifting world records were set in 2019 in the various classes and categories. We’ll focus on just one especially jaw-dropping record (or, in the case of the dead, two) for each lift, plus the total.
Super-heavyweight 🌎 Ray Williams squatted (1080 lbs.) and totaled (2452 lbs.), raw, drug-tested, and without wraps. Both are world records. Incredibly, the tested, wrapless squat is also more weight than any human has squatted untested or tested-with-wraps.
Super-heavyweight 🌎 Julius Maddox had been a bench press juggernaut. Less than three months after the 440-pounder set the all-time raw bench press records at 739.6 lbs., he broke it with a bench of 744.1. And it seems like he’s just getting started.
We have a dead heat in the dead between a man and woman who each pulled over 4.3 times their bodyweight. Poland’s 🌎 Krzysztof Wierzbicki set the 220-class raw record at 953 lbs. (belt-free, too!), and 🌎 Stefanie Cohen pulled 529 in the 123-class, a raw world record. Both raw records exceed the equipped records.
Not only did Russian 🌎 Yury Belkin set the 242-class world raw record (2303 lbs.), but, four months later, he tacked on 47 lbs. to set the world raw record (2350 lbs.) in the 220-class! Now you’re just showing off. Belkin is the best all-around powerlifter in the world today.
There were, of course, many exercise and nutrition studies this year, challenging, confirming, and altering what we thought we knew about growth, fitness, and recovery. We’ll limit our focus to only three broader stories.
🔎🥩 Meat or meatless? A comprehensive, international analysis of the research disputed the long-held contention that red meat is linked to heart disease and cancer. On the other side, the documentary Game Changers proposed that athletes perform better on vegan diets. Both stirred up mainstream attention and ongoing debates.
🔎 🛌 Workout recovery. The book Good to Go by Christie Aschwanden challenges old and new recovery methods—cold, compression, foam rollers, electrical stimulation, cupping, etc. Spoiler alert: She mostly just recommends sleep. We think of this as more of a continuation of a conversation and not a mic drop. Research and developments in workout recuperation are moving fast.
🔎 ⚰️ Bodybuilder mortality. The Barbell’s analysis of all Mr. Olympia and Arnold Classic competitors from 1965 to the present, concluded that, despite perceptions, elite pro bodybuilders are dying at a lower rate than the average American male. However, they are dying younger than other elite athletes, and the very high incidence of heart disease is alarming.
💰 🍫 Simply Good Food Co. (best known for their Atkins line) purchased Quest Nutrition for $1 billion. Born in 2010, Quest revolutionized the protein bar market with its tasty, low-sugar bars.
💰 🍫 Soon afterwards, the candy company Hershey acquired another low-sugar protein bar maker, ONE Brands, for nearly $400 million.
💰 💊 The Canadian cannabis corporation Canopy Growth acquired Bio Steel Sports Nutrition, further solidifying the melding of the CBD and sports supp markets.
💰 ⌚️ Google acquired Fitbit for $2.1 billion, which makes sense from a technology standpoint as it gives Google a lot of workout and body data to monetize.
🍔 🥟 Plant-based meat burst into the mainstream when the Impossible Burger showed up on the Burger King menu and Beyond Meat foods appeared everywhere from Del Taco to Dunkin’ to your local supermarket.
😟 💊 There were failures, too. Ultimate Nutrition, formed in 1979 and formerly a powerhouse supplement company, went under without warning in August, shocking even its employees.
😟 🚴🏿♀️ After airing a controversial ad (Is it sexist? Elitist?) Peloton lost, at least temporarily, nearly $1 billion in market value from the backlash.
🎬 💰 💪🏼 Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, with over 235 million social media followers, continues to do more than anyone to popularize big muscles—and it’s very big business. His and Jason Stratham’s Hobbs & Shaw made $760 million worldwide and Jumanji: The Next Level has already pushed his b.o. year past $1 billion. But the biggest news was the announcement of his Athleticon to be held next October 9-11 in Atlanta, a fitness extravaganza sure to rival any worldwide.
💪🏼 🎬 Speaking of fitness festivals, Arnold Schwarzenegger, of course, continues to promote his Arnold Classics worldwide (there were five this year). He returned as the T-800 in Terminator: Dark Fate, which mildly disappointed at the worldwide box office but still raked in $260 million.
Ed Corney (Jan. 1, age 85) 💪🏼 pro bodybuilder; competed from 1967-98, 1972 Mr. America & Mr. Universe, appeared in the book and movie Pumping Iron, master poser
Daryl Stafford (Jan. 11, age 58), 💪🏼 pro bodybuilder (1994-10)
Jeff Everson (Feb. 25, age 68), 🏋️♀️ powerlifter, 💪🏼 bodybuilder, journalist; publisher of Planet Muscle magazine, (divorced) husband of 6-time Ms. Olympia Cory Everson
Kent Kuehn (July 4, age 83), 💪🏼 pro bodybuilder (1979-80)
Terry Todd (July 7, age 80) 🏋️♀️ weightlifter, powerlifter, journalist, strength historian; co-founded the Stark Center for Physical Culture and Sports, husband of world-record-setting powerlifter Jan Todd
Gene Rychlak (July 26, age 51), 🏋️♀️ bench presser, 🌎 first person to bench press (equipped) 1000 lbs. (2006)
David Dearth (Aug. 5, age 56), 💪🏼 pro bodybuilder (1990-01)
Franco Columbu (Aug. 7, age 78), 💪🏼 bodybuilder, 🏋️♀️ strength athlete, 1970 Mr. Universe, 1971 Mr. World, 🏆 🏆 1976 & 1981 Mr. Olympia, one of the strongest bodybuilders of all time, Arnold Schwarzenegger’s best friend
Glenn Pendlay (Sept. 5, age 48), 🏋️♀️ weightlifting coach, originator of the “Pendlay row”
Jusup Wilkosz (Nov. 8, age 71), 💪🏼 pro bodybuilder, 1979 World Amateur champ,🥉1983 Mr. Olympia third place
Stacey Bentley (Dec. 31, age 64) 💪🏼 pro bodybuilder, fifth in 1980 Ms. Olympia