Once upon a time, the forums associated with sites like Muscular Development and Bodybuilding.com offered users everything they could have wanted: an opportunity to interact with top pro and amateur bodybuilders, a chance to share workout tips, a safe space to learn about anabolic drug use and the possibility of trolling and insulting every other user on the site. The posts were episodic, the rants were epic and the rivalries were enduring. You joined one or more of these forums, selecting some kind of made-up handle (“69UglyKidJoe420” or “IronPounderXXX”), and then went to war. These places, forgotten with the rise of social media and the resulting end of anonymity, weren’t so much marketplaces for ideas as battlefields on which a unique kind of subcultural identity coalesced.
During the rise of the “alt-right,” many articles attempting to trace the genealogy of the movement pointed to 4chan and 8chan (and related information repositories such as Encyclopedia Dramatica) as the furnaces in which all this rebellious, nihilistic, world-hating clay had been forged. The comedy website Something Awful, by contrast, launched the careers of plenty of so-called “dirtbag left” podcasters as well as “weird Twitter” figures like dril. The bodybuilding forums, however, covered a vast sort of middle ground, exemplified by my Grantland-reading, anabolic steroid-loving cousin Doug Alexander.
“I hated all authority, and I wanted to know the truth about muscle,” Doug, a convicted felon who “did it all for the swole,” tells me when I ask him about his decade spent lurking on bodybuilding forums. “I was very into aesthetics at the time — a lot of my handles and nicknames on the sites were variations on ‘AestheticKid’ with some numbers at the end — and I believed I had to learn from the best. There was a lot of bullshit and lies on those forums, even the private ones, but you could also get access to steroid sources, read good information from top gurus, keep up with the gossip and follow all the trash talking.”
Much of what Doug was reading happened to be the legacy of individuals like fitness journalist and author Anthony Roberts, one of several writers who pioneered anabolic research on the newsgroups of the 1990s that preceded the bodybuilding forums of the 2000s. Newsgroups were functionally similar to the later forums where many users migrated, but operated via usenet servers and newsreader software rather than a direct web-based interface.
“The newsgroup era was the actual golden age of all of this, with Anthony Roberts and Bruce Kneller and the other smart guys who were publishing posts back then,” says Aaron Singerman, the CEO of the supplements company Redcon1. “These were people who had a more direct connection to very cutting-edge 1980s researchers like Dan Duchaine, and they were building off that work and exploring further in terms of supplementation, nutrition and performance-enhancing drugs.”
“Steroid users wanted to talk shop and couldn’t, usually,” says Roberts. “If you were someone living the bodybuilding lifestyle back in those days, nobody besides ‘gym friends’ wanted to talk about that nonsense with you. And honestly, most of the guys who want to talk about steroids, want to talk about them all day.”
The newsgroups offered a convenient place to compile information and share contacts, but the number of users — like the number of internet users generally during the 1990s — remained small. It was only after the discussion migrated to web-based forums that participation, and especially trolling, increased dramatically.
“You had individuals who operated their own private forums, like the bodybuilding coach Chad Nicholls, and then you had notable publications like Bodybuilding.com and Muscular Development, which had a decent-sized print presence back in the 2000s, that hosted forums,” says Singerman. “And on the MD forums, you had these specialty sub-forums like ‘The Pit’ that you could qualify for after making several hundred posts. Once you got in The Pit, which is a place I had no real desire to visit, you were instructed to write hateful, vicious posts. That was what you were there to do. Racist stuff. Trolling. Doxxing your enemies. Whatever came to mind, no matter how bad it was, it was all encouraged. And remember, we’re talking about something operated by a major magazine, a magazine that was on the shelves at supermarkets, and here one of its special features are these online forums where people can write absolutely insane content. It would be unthinkable today.”
Venturing into “The Pit” or even more innocuous forum sections required a thick skin. Because it was there where people like bodybuilder Vanessa Adams developed reputations as feared trash talkers. “I was ‘dvsness’ on MD, [Bodybuilding.com] and other sites. By the time I got on there, I was a grown-ass woman, and Brooklyn raised me. These people weren’t ready for it.”
Brandon Edwards, an African-American bodybuilder who now works in supplement sales, also used the forums to talk trash. “The racism was pretty phenomenal, particularly in The Pit, but what was interesting was that some of the most hardcore posters there weren’t all that interested in bodybuilding. They’d rush to hit the number of posts needed to enter the Pit, and then they’d spend all their time in there, saying crazy stuff. Some of them didn’t even work out. But that was fine, because I’d dish it right back at those guys. I’d get them fired up. I’d say things to provoke them, because they were so easily triggered. Interracial dating was a trigger, for example. I developed a thick skin, as anyone would in that environment, and I became interested in how much control I had over these people.”
“I was one of the few people who began using his own name,” says Singerman. “Initially, I was on some of the sites under an anonymous handle, ‘AaronS889,’ but I realized I wanted to get my real name out there and make actual business connections in preparation for entering the supplement industry. But when some folks learned that my last name was Singerman, it didn’t take them long to start with the anti-semitic stuff.
“Like anyone who came out of that era, though, I developed an immunity to trolling and hateful comments. It came with the territory, but I blocked it out, because you could also virtually meet actual bodybuilding pros and notable coaches on those sites. Here was this sport, in fact, where many of the top contestants were right there on the message boards with you, trading advice and insults. There really wasn’t anything else like that in the mid-2000s. You couldn’t do that with football or baseball players.”
“I was paid by some of the sites that ran these forums and message boards,” says Roberts. “I watched as all these users went from the creep at their university carrying the gallon of water and the dog-eared copy of Flex to one of the bros hanging out on the message board. For them, it became a viable social outlet. I wasn’t there to pal around, though. I was abrasive and wasn’t interested in coddling the terminally incorrect. I worked at one bodybuilding site where the entire comments section was blown up because the members were douchebags. The articles used to have automatic comments sections after each, but the members were such know-it-alls that the site, despite paying staff very well, had difficulty retaining authors. Eventually, that particular place nuked its comments because these members were just the worst type of internet experts, and authors didn’t want their serious work to be followed by a thousand forum comments that begin with ‘well actually.’”
“The appeal for me was the ‘well actually,’” says my cousin Doug. “I loved to see guys putting down various pros, calling out ‘fake nattys,’ claiming to be natty themselves or just lying about what steroids could or couldn’t do. Lying about how much you take, don’t take, how much you can lift, whatever. Not even lying, really, just talking nonsense. It was amazing, a free-for-all. Whole threads were nothing but misinformation. Everything everyone said seemed like a lie. I got obsessed. I guess when the legal stuff went down with me, when I was heavily into the lifestyle, I thought no one knew more than I did. I initially wanted to learn from experts, but the deeper I got into the lifestyle, the more my thoughts became grandiose. I loved reading these grandiose posts too, people just talking to correct and one-up one another. It was fantastic.”
For Roberts, the forums also offered an opportunity to move into a more high-profile journalistic role. “I suppose I started getting trolled when I distanced myself from the forums to focus on legitimate writing,” he says. “I experienced a lot of hatred from some relentless and dedicated trolls. But it didn’t last, because the value of the investigative reporting I was doing eventually became clear. For the fitness community, the tipping point was Operation Raw Deal back in 2007, the biggest steroid bust ever — four days, 150 arrests. I’d predicted it nine months before it happened, and I’d started learning to navigate the world of arrest reports and indictments. I was able to accurately describe the entire contours of the operation, blogging hourly for a week, and The New York Times consulted with me and mentioned my blog. By that point, trolls were apologizing to me, telling me that I helped the entire online bodybuilding community informed about what was happening.”
Singerman parlayed connections made on the forums into a multimillion-dollar business that now sponsors a number of athletes on social media, the method of communication and information dissemination that began supplanting the fitness forums in the mid-2010s. “Instagram is something completely different: You can read all these posts from fitness personalities, usually in the form of captions helping to promote one or more products, but the interactivity is gone, situations in which you could interact with notable people like Craig Titus and King Kamali,” he says.
“The bodybuilding forums where I got my start were a completely different animal,” he continues. “I’d fire any of the athletes I sponsor on Instagram if I saw them writing the nasty crap that appeared on the forums. It’s a much more public-facing, image-oriented space now. You can see their pictures and follow their workouts. But it’s also less honest, since they’re basically advertising themselves. Social media stars can’t talk about certain things they’re doing that might cost them revenue, like using steroids or engaging in other bad or possibly illegal behaviors. They’re certainly not going to argue back and forth with some punk kids, trading insults, because that’s not good for business, either. They don’t need to be interactive in that same way. You can watch them work out, but you can’t ask them about how they train in quite the same way. That forum era was very beneficial to me, but it’s long gone.”
But what, I wonder, were the long-term implications for forum users in terms of ideology and political engagement? Did they, like some 4chan and 8chan posters of today, find themselves drifting into the “alt-right?” Or is that perhaps the wrong type of question to ask?
“The legacy of the forums for me was that I became resistant to all abuse,” says Brandon Edwards. “I was already tough when I got on there, given my upbringing, but daily exposure to that sort of venom made me invincible. As for politics, well, I take people on a case-by-case basis. That’s about as much as I care to think about that.”
“I had no politics when I got on the forums, and I have no politics now,” says my cousin Doug. “I didn’t vote then, and because of my legal situation, I can’t vote now. Who cares? Everyone’s a liar or a con artist. The forums drove that point home. Everything sucks, and it’s all a load of crap. Just look good and live the lifestyle for as long as you can, you know? Say what you feel like saying. I want to be happy now. Fake it until you make it, but nobody makes it.”
Roberts, who has been on the forums and part of the subculture longer than anyone else I know, puts the question in a larger historical context. “Back then, it was a pretty standard cross section on the forums, which is weird because you’d assume steroid guys would be liberal because they’d be for drug reform. Some were liberal and thought drug laws needed to be repealed, but others were conservatives who wanted government to stay out of their lives — and steroids — as much as possible. Twenty years ago, you’d suspect these people would all be libertarians, but that suspicion would be incorrect. Libertarian types in 1999 were people like Jesse Ventura and Ross Perot, neither of whom was objectively cool. Joe Rogan and Elon Musk, two celebrities many kids may now think are ‘cool,’ weren’t part of the conversation. So no, I can’t say with any certainty that these people grew up to be Sanders supporters or Trump supporters or something like that.”
“What united everyone on the forums wasn’t a political outlook but rather affection for the steroid lifestyle,” says Singerman. “It wasn’t even a health thing for most of these people. You quickly realize that. They just loved something about the act of taking drugs, either for performance or just for recreational purposes, and everything that went along with it. People like that wanted instant gratification, and a controversial forum post would deliver it. Even if you weren’t being seen, the forums were a place where you could shout from your keyboard and be heard.”