The BarBend Staff’s Favorite Stories of 2023

The team at BarBend produces a lot of content. Our news and editorial staff work tirelessly, week after week, to bring you the latest developments and most interesting stories in the worlds of strength and fitness. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t play favorites, too.

From rigorous, months-in-the-making, long-form human interest stories to breaking news and some truly thought-provoking pieces from our wonderful contributing writers, it’s hard to pick just one favorite story of the year. So we picked a handful.

Here are — in our very humble opinion — a few of the best works BarBend published in 2023. We hope you enjoy reading them as much as we enjoyed bringing them to life.

1. Showmanship on the Sand: The Rise and Fall of the Original Muscle Beach

Credit: Mattias Frenne, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

As an editor, I love bringing obscure historical anecdotes into the spotlight. Writer (and BarBend editor) Alex Polish nailed it with their retrospective on Muscle Beach.

No, we’re not talking about the Muscle Beach in Venice, California, that the likes of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane made famous in the ‘70s. We’re talking about the original incarnation in nearby Santa Monica.

Alex recounts the fascinating — and unfortunate — history of this iconic locale in riveting fashion with a feature that spans decades and touches upon the naive glamor of the nascent fitness industry. It also exposes the deep-seated prejudice that helped bring an early end to the original Muscle Beach and the conflicted legacy it left behind in its wake.

— Jason Serafino, Senior Editor

2. The Story Behind the Chaotic Drug-Tested 1990 Mr. Olympia

Credit: Lee Labrada / YouTube

Since its debut in 1965, the famous Mr. Olympia competition has been no stranger to conflict and controversy. The 1990 installment arguably trumps them all.

1990 was the year the IFBB tried their darndest to rid the sport of steroid use through strict drug-testing protocols. The results were disastrous for fans and competitors. For us at BarBend, though, it proved fertile ground for one of our best features of the year.

Written (and painstakingly researched) by fitness historian Dr. Conor Heffernan, this roller coaster of a feature examines the public and political outcry about steroids from the late ‘80s and early ‘90s and its impact on the biggest bodybuilding show of the year. The result is an entertaining slice of sports history that basks in the behind-the-scenes drama that made the 1990 Olympia stand out for all the wrong reasons.

— JS

3. How Strong Is Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson?

Credit: @TheRock / Instagram

I’m not saying I can identify The Rock by his forearms alone, but…well, I try not to tell lies. Whether you know him best from his pro wrestling days or from his newer iterations as a wholesome but badass girl-dad action hero, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson has held sway over more than one generation of strength athletes.

There was no better writer than BarBend contributor Ian Douglass to break down the muscles behind the myth. Can “The Rock” really bench press you and your kids at the same time? How strong, really, is the unit that can bring down helicopters with sheer grit on the big screen? Douglass sifts through years of verifiable Rock research to let us know exactly how strong the legend really is. Spoiler alert: pretty freaking strong.

— Alex Polish, Editor

4. Can Your Gut Health Impact Weight Loss?

Credit: Meeko Media / Shutterstock

Everyone from your personal trainer to your mom has been into probiotics lately. “It’ll help you lose weight,” they say. “Your gut health is just as important as those muscles you’re building in the gym,” they holler. No time to go read all the research yourself? All good. One of BarBend‘s expert writers has got your back.

Certified Health Coach Gabrielle Fundaro, Ph.D., lays it all out for you. She explains what the heck all the buzz is about your gut in a way that helps you feel like a scientist yourself. You’ll understand more than you ever thought you would about the bacteria living inside you because she breaks the research down into (dare I say?) bite-sized, digestible pieces.

And as for the big question — can probiotics and improving your gut health fuel weight loss? — Fundaro busts myths and gives actionable tips left and right. You’ll leave this read with a brain full of knowledge and a gut ready to keep your weight loss goals on track.

— AP

5. The Risks and Rewards of Extreme Leanness on the Road to the Bikini Olympia

Credit: denisproduction.com / Shutterstock

We know we know: abs are made in the kitchen. However, when chasing a physique ideal that relies on deprivation (less body fat, fewer calories, taking up less space), you might not be serving yourself enough at the dinner table. Simultaneously, you could be getting after it too much in the gym.

In his sensitive, thoughtful exploration of 2023 Bikini Olympia champion Jennifer Dorie’s journey to competition-ready leanness, BarBend contributing writer Christian “XN” Matyi embodies nuance. While Matyi could have simply reported on the stats of Dorie’s pre-Olympia prep, he instead uses her insightful video to help readers dispel myth after myth about what constitutes “healthy” body fat levels.

Drawing on peer-reviewed research and his own deep knowledge of bodybuilding lore, Matyi explores the ways that you might be able to get lean enough for competition, but at great potential cost to your body and your psyche.

— AP

6. How an Unexpected Phone Call Could Get 36-Year-Old Weightlifter Caine Wilkes Back to the Olympics

Credit: William Johnson / @barbellstories

Full Disclosure: Team USA weightlifter Caine Wilkes is a staff writer for Garage Gym Reviews, which, along with BarBend, is owned by Pillar4 Media. This weightlifter-turned-writer found himself in the spotlight, detailing his incredible journey from the 2023 Pan American Games to the International Weightlifting Federation’s (IWF) World Championships, where he’s now positioned to possibly attend a second Olympic Games (in 2024).

BarBend Senior Writer Jake Dickson penned an enthralling and electric read that is as much an ode to underdogs everywhere as a celebration of Wilkes’ perseverance and passion. Over his 20-year career, Wilkes has accumulated over 20 international weightlifting medals, eight IWF Worlds appearances, and the respect of all of his Team USAW peers. He could proudly hang up his lifting belt with few regrets, but Wilkes’ pursuit is one of pure passion.

— Andrew Gutman, Head of Content

7. How Much Does It Cost to Compete at the Mr. Olympia?

Most great stories begin with a question. As the 2023 Mr. Olympia — a tentpole event for the BarBend news team — approached, the question on one staffer’s mind was, how much does it actually cost to compete in bodybuilding’s Super Bowl?

Writer Ian Douglass dug deep, speaking to two of the sport’s top contenders, to produce a detailed read outlining every factor that goes into being a champion bodybuilder. The seed of one curious mind sprouted into an informative, fun, and educational read for bodybuilding fans and casual readers alike.

— AG

8. What’s the Deal With the Mind-Muscle Connection?

Credit: ThomsonD / Shutterstock

BarBend is a site by lifters for lifters. So when it comes to writing an article on an ambiguous but popular search term like “mind-muscle connection,” our team takes extra care to provide a thoroughly researched and actionable article that provides a true benefit to the reader.

Editor Alex Polish left no stone unturned in their deep dive into the concept of the mind-muscle connection. It’s one of those reads a newbie may stumble on after hearing a training partner or fellow gym-goer mention the term. And, for us, that’s what it’s all about — breaking down the barriers of discomfort someone may come across during their gym journey, one article at a time.

— AG

9. Bodybuilding Is an Art, Which Makes It Hard to Treat Like a Sport

Credit: sportoakimirka / Shutterstock

There are some debates, both inside and outside the fitness industry, that seem to continue in perpetuity: Are egg yolks bad for you or not? Does meal timing matter? Barbell or dumbbell? Rabbit season, duck season. Is bodybuilding a “real” sport, or is it all just pageantry?

Contributing writer Christian “XN” Matyi peeled the onion on this question and got to the heart of the matter. There’s artistry present in most sports, and you can be damned sure that the competitive climate of bodybuilding really heats up once the Olympia rolls around.

But Mr. Matyi’s thesis is undeniably compelling: The statuesque physiques that bodybuilders bring to the stage are for admiration and evocation. The emotional response is the point, not the points racked up on the scorecards.

— Jake Dickson, Senior Writer

10. The Real Story of the 1975 Mr. Olympia Is Far More Interesting Than Pumping Iron Ever Portrayed

Featured Image: Harry Chase, Los Angeles Times, (CC BY 4.0) via Wikimedia Commons

Bodybuilding lore runs deep. Like, deep. And in many ways, the goings-on behind the curtains at shows like the Mr. Olympia competition — the submerged part of the iceberg — are more interesting than first or second callouts.

Bodybuilding historian and BarBend expert Dr. Conor Heffernan penned an enthralling tale of one of the most controversial and action-packed Mr. “O”s in history. The competition was the primary focus of 1977’s seminal documentary Pumping Iron, but what the camera caught was hardly the most interesting. Heffernan deftly unravels the plot threads behind one of the most influential events in physique sports history.

— JD

11. Aesthetics vs. Appearances: What Makes a Bodybuilder?

Credit: mrbigphoto / Shutterstock

In the bodybuilding world, what are fans and judges actually looking at with such reverence? Size, symmetry, conditioning, flow, something else? Everything contributes to an athlete’s aesthetics, which is the opinion of an appearance that alters depending on how it’s presented.

Mr. Matyi breaks down what we actually look at when admiring the statuesque physiques of elite bodybuilders and how to understand it more acutely.

— Phil Blechman, Senior Editor

More in ’24

The year 2023 has proven to be equal parts challenging and rewarding for the BarBend team. Still, we’re already planning to one-up ourselves next year, especially with events like the World’s Strongest Man, Olympia, CrossFit Games, and the Olympics in Paris on the docket. You can bet your backside that the BarBend team will bring you much more from the world of strength in 2024 and beyond.

Featured Image: @dereklunsford_, Instagram / Wikimedia (Abbye Stockton) / @TheRock, Instagram / Wikimedia (Arnold Schwarzenegger)



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