Pittsburgh weighs in on bodybuilding and its stars in documentary

| Thursday, Nov. 15, 2012, 9:01 p.m.

Pittsburgh may be the center of the world when it comes to championship-caliber football, but there's another sport that revolves around Western Pennsylvania — bodybuilding.

That's why the documentary “Generation Iron” was shooting Wednesday in Pittsburgh.

It's intended to be a follow-up to the legendary film “Pumping Iron” (1977), which popularized bodybuilding worldwide, and made Arnold Schwarzenegger a superstar.

“Pittsburgh is on the map because I'm here,” says Jim Manion, 68, who runs he main amateur and professional governing bodies of the sport — the National Physique Committee (NPC), and the International Federation of Bodybuilding (IFBB) — from his office Downtown.

“When I won ‘Mr. Pittsburgh' (in 1971), it was in the Boys Club in Lawrenceville,” Manion says. “We posed under the basketball hoop. Now, it's in big arenas, the biggest hotels, where thousands of dollars are spent just on lighting.”

Manion is what drew one of bodybuilding's biggest stars, Phil Heath (a two-time Mr. Olympia), to a cramped, bare-bones un-air-conditioned gym with holes in the ceiling, on the third floor of a nondescript building in Carnegie.

The NPC gym, now owned by Manion, started life as public gym in 1979. It's a physical link to bodybuilding's much less-glamorous past — as is Manion.

“It's a real hardcore gym,” Manion says. “There's not many of these left. The Steelers came here, WWF (wrestling) guys came here. When you look down that alleyway, it's not exactly Venice Beach. It's hardcore Pittsburgh. It's not for sissies.”

If there was one thing that turned the public on to bodybuilding, it was the original “Pumping Iron.” The documentary captured some of the sport's most-iconic characters. It focused on the ultra-confident defending champion Schwarzenegger, the Muscle Beach hedonist surrounded by beautiful women, whose expertly played head games shook the confidence of his rivals.

Among the contenders trying to beat him was the quiet, introverted Lou Ferrigno, who would later gain fame as “The Incredible Hulk.”

“I borrowed it (the film) from a friend, and think I still have it,” says Heath, whose musclebound frame appears to be almost as wide as he is tall.

He particularly loved the way Arnold would psych out his opponents.

“He made it look easy, giving advice, joking around ... while Lou Ferrigno looked like he was dying,” Heath says.

Director-writer-producer Vlad Yudin considers “Pumping Iron” one of his all-time favorite movies. He figured that a follow-up was long overdue.

“Before, it was looked upon as something that was kind of taboo,” Yudin says. “Arnold made it look fun, and beneficial for health reasons.”

Although most of “Generation Iron” has been already shot elsewhere, Yudin wanted a scene of Heath, 32, one of this generation's biggest stars, paying his respects to Manion, one of the old guard who helped shepherd the sport into its current status.

Yudin wants “Generation Iron” to be aimed at a general audience, not just the competitive bodybuilding scene. Like its famous predecessor, the film focuses on the personalities behind the muscles.

“Phil is like Arnold, top of the mountain,” Yudin says.

Of course, there are some eccentrics, like the European bodybuilder who is trained by a 70-year-old named “Grandma.”

Heath isn't shy about using psychological tricks to gain an edge, like waiting until the last second to get ready to go onstage — keeping your competitors wondering what you're doing. But it's the dedication to the craft that separates the champions from the dabblers, he says.

“Perfect practice,” he says. “Everything has purpose. Every meal, every minute of sleep. It's all about getting better.”

The end result should be obvious.

“Your body is almost turned inside out, like an anatomy chart,” Heath says. “We really do look like The Hulk.”

Michael Machosky is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at mmachosky@tribweb.com or 412-320-7901.

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