Pumping Iron, the book that brought bodybuilding to the mainstream, came out in 1974. It was eclipsed by the documentary of the same name three years later, so much so that many who can recite from memory every line from the latter film don’t even know the book exists. But Pumping Iron the book was a sensation, a well-reviewed bestseller that helped introduce a still little-known Austrian named Arnold Schwarzenegger to the general public and, via its title, popularized a slang term for weight-training.
It remains a great read with a treasure trove of as-it-happens photos. At this writing, Pumping Iron has an impressive rating of 4.36 (on a scale of 1-5) at GoodReads, ranking it between very good and excellent. It has long been out of print, though you can find used, paperback copies online for, typically, $15-$20.
Pumping Iron grew out of a Sports Illustrated article Charles Gaines wrote and the late George Butler photographed on a regional bodybuilding contest in 1972. For the book, they expanded on that coverage to also focus on the 1972 Mr. Universe in Baghdad and the 1973 Mr. Olympia in Brooklyn. The best parts are Arnold, his pal Franco Columbu, and all the legends and wannabe legends training in the original Gold’s Gym, Venice, California, in that magical golden era.
With the late Ed Corney on the original cover (there were two later covers), the book is ultimately a weird and wonderful amalgamation of Gaines’ New Journalistic style, including fly-on-the-wall reporting, lengthy quotes (some included below), philosophical insights, and a chapter-length bodybuilding history that dates to Ancient Greece, combined with timeless photos by Butler (co-director of the movie) who was in the right places at the right times. Together, Gaines and Butler captured a muscle subculture that almost no one knew about—but they were about to.
“If we felt at times a little like 19th century explorers, it was because we found bodybuilding to be as primeval and unmapped as parts of Labrador. Nobody, we discovered, had been back into it to send out a report on what it was like. This struck us then as peculiar, and it still does. America is a country of subcultures, and most of them, including ones as esoteric as midget wrestling, pimping and the Roller Derby, have been thoroughly explored and documented. Like those activities, bodybuilding is an obsession, a living (for a few), and a way of life for the people involved in it—a subculture, in a word, with its own values, aesthetics, and vocabulary. The fact that it seems to us a far more fascinating and resonant one than any of those other three might sound simply practical for the authors of a book about it, but it is also true. And yet no one had undertaken seriously to describe it. To our knowledge, this is the first book ever on the subject.” — Charles Gaines
“The better you get, the less you run around showing off as a muscle guy. You know, you wear regular shirts, loose shirts—not always trying to show what you have. You talk less about it. It’s like you have a little BMW—you want to race the hell out of this car, because you know it’s just going 110. But if you see guys driving a Ferrari or a Lamborghini, they slide around at 60 on the freeway because they know if they press the accelerator, they are going to go 170. These things are the same in every field.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger
“And my mother, the clergy at the church and everyone saying, you know, ‘What are you doing? Take a day off.’ I say, okay, fine. Sundays I’m going to rest. Sundays I find myself doing one-legged calf-raises on a street corner somewhere. Because when I’m up on that stage, I’m there by myself. Me alone. I’m not up there with a baseball bat. I’m not up there with a football. I’m there with just me. My body.” — Steve Michalik
“I don’t get hung up thinking about it, but sometimes I do. You know you’re not normal, because normal is six feet tall, 150 or 160 pounds, you know, fairly skinny or a big fat person. So that you know that because you’re superiorly built, and you’ve trained and developed that way, that you do look odd. I mean, you do look unreal.” — Mike Katz
“There are some girls who are turned on by my body, and some others who are turned off. But for the majority I just use it as a conversation piece. Like someone walking a cheetah down 42nd Street would have a natural conversation piece.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger
“The quality is known as finish. It is the ultimate achievement for a bodybuilder, and it is very difficult to get….But the rest can recognize it whenever it is put up in a mirror for them, and see in it what each of them is working toward—where, with luck, the sweat and pain and discipline of this morning and all the other training goes. None of them moves until Schwarzenegger is finished check-posing the muscles he has worked. Nobody wants to. They all know they are somewhere special, doing something important. One person, if he is big enough, can give a place this feel.” — Charles Gaines
And from the updated 1981 edition:
“He thinks he might someday get into politics.” — Charles Gaines about Arnold
“I think I could be and will be a heroic character. I would like to do heroic films. I’d like to be like Clint Eastwood, someone who takes what they have and makes something out of it, not trying to change.” — Arnold Schwarzenegger
Pumping Iron: The George Butler Interview
Sex, Steroids, and Arnold: The Inside Story of Gold’s Gym