Mus­cles Maketh the Man…or Do They

SLOW Magazine - - Contents - Text: Do­minique du Plessis Im­age © Al­bie Bre­den­hann Photography

I’m not go­ing to lie, see­ing PCA pro body­builder, Cobus van der Merwe, walk up to the ta­ble is slightly in­tim­i­dat­ing. Com­ing from Pre­to­ria, I’m used to see­ing my fair share of ro­bust men, but this is some­thing else. He has mus­cles. And I don’t mean fit­ness mag­a­zine mus­cles, I mean MUS­CLES. Like Thor, or the Hulk, or any of those other su­per­hu­man char­ac­ters you see in movies. I bet this guy could dead­lift me 10 times over with­out break­ing a sweat. I’m im­me­di­ately in awe.

“Wow you’re huge!” I blurt out as he comes to say hi. Ugh, what kind of an in­ap­pro­pri­ate greet­ing was that? He must think I’m a fool. Great, I think to my­self. But Cobus just laughs. He must be used to this kind of re­ac­tion. Thank good­ness.

Ice awk­wardly bro­ken, I sit down to have a chat with this phe­nom­e­nal ath­lete about how he does what he does. I ask him what it’s like to be a pro­fes­sional body­builder – there are only three of them in the coun­try – and he chats hon­estly and openly. Con­trary to pop­u­lar be­lief, it’s about far more than pro­tein shakes, testos­terone and hitting the gym.

In a kind of self-ful­fill­ing proph­esy, it’s the ex­act su­per­heroes he is likened to now that first in­spired his love for the sport. While most boys were play­ing with the char­ac­ters’ toy coun­ter­parts and read­ing about them in comics, Cobus was as­pir­ing to be them – and not in a play-play kind of way.

“When I was five or six years old, my dad used to buy me th­ese comic books – one ev­ery week – and in­stead of go­ing to bed, I would stay up late to read them,” he re­calls. “I got to­tally lost in them, en­thralled by th­ese su­per­heroes and their gi­ant mus­cles, and I guess that’s where my ob­ses­sion with strength and body­build­ing started.” But it wasn’t un­til he glimpsed the 1977 Arnold Sch­warzeneg­ger doc­u­men­tary, Pump­ing Iron, that he re­alised it was pos­si­ble. “I never imag­ined that peo­ple could look like that in real life un­til I saw Arnold on TV one night. I only caught the last 10 min­utes of the doc­u­men­tary, but I ran to hit record on the VHS and I watched those 10 min­utes over and over and over again.”

As any mother would, Cobus’ mom wor­ried about his new­found passion. “She kept say­ing it was bad for me, be­cause in those days there was a lot less knowl­edge about the sport, and no industry to speak of in South Africa.” But once his fam­ily saw the ded­i­ca­tion and hard work he was putting into it, they be­came his big­gest sup­port­ers. “I never changed,” he ex­plains. “I never be­came this big, scary, ag­gres­sive guy that most peo­ple think of when they think of a body­builder.”

He’s right. There is still, to this day, a cer­tain con­no­ta­tion to the word – one he’s changed

quite dras­ti­cally for me to­day. Cobus is a hum­ble, down-to-earth guy, maybe even a lit­tle shy, with ex­ten­sive knowl­edge on the hu­man body and nu­tri­tion, and how th­ese in­ter­act with one an­other. His ap­proach to ev­ery­thing is quite tech­ni­cal, as is ev­i­dent when he ex­plains the amount of time he needs to spend do­ing cer­tain things to main­tain a par­tic­u­lar size, or how to avoid go­ing into a catabolic state, or why there is such a thing as too much pro­tein and how it can dam­age your kid­neys.

It’s also not just about be­ing big. Cobus ex­plains that com­pet­ing as a pro is more about sym­me­try and def­i­ni­tion than bulk. “I’ve seen guys that weigh 80 kg beat­ing guys that weigh 100 kg be­cause of the way they’ve sculpted their bod­ies,” he ex­plains. “That’s what makes the sport so en­joy­able for me, it’s not just about the weight – body­build­ing caters for peo­ple of all sizes.” It’s the kind of David and Go­liath story we all love to hear. Well, ad­mit­tedly, a very buff David.

He tells me about the explosion of body­build­ing in China and India, as well as Arab coun­tries like Kuwait – not the typ­i­cal coun­tries that spring to mind for pro­duc­ing heavy­weight cham­pi­ons. “The av­er­age Asian com­peti­tor is shorter, but as am­a­teurs they do very well. And guys in the Mid­dle East are fast ap­proach­ing their Amer­i­can com­peti­tors be­cause they’re spend­ing a lot of money on in­ter­na­tional pros and ex­perts to come over and train them, and share their knowl­edge.”

Nu­tri­tion, as one would ex­pect, is an­other cor­ner­stone of his ca­reer, and he ex­plains how im­por­tant it is to know what you’re eat­ing. “Most peo­ple think body­builders spend hours in the gym, glug down a shake and that’s it. But if you want good re­sults, you need to be aware of ex­actly what you put into your body, and when. You can’t eat cheap stuff, you’ll see it re­flect in your body. So when I’m mix­ing my shakes, for in­stance, I stick to pure whey pro­tein and rather mix in my own ex­tras like banana or al­mond but­ter.” Cobus ac­knowl­edges that it’s not cheap to main­tain this amount of mus­cle, and says he’s ex­tremely grate­ful to have food spon­sors who have helped him tremen­dously.

As much as I ad­mire his un­wa­ver­ing ded­i­ca­tion, I can’t help but won­der: Surely ev­ery­body – even the most dis­ci­plined of body­builders – needs to in­dulge ev­ery now and then? It must be ex­haust­ing to re­sist temp­ta­tion at ev­ery meal. He laughs at this. “Or­der the milk­shake if you want one, I re­ally don’t mind,” he says, smil­ing. “Right, so one sparkling wa­ter for me,” I tell the waiter, try­ing to ap­pear nonchalant. “And one milk­shake to go,” I whis­per. He laughs in a way that makes me feel he can re­late. “My big­gest in­dul­gence is a burger and slap chips, but I could sit at a ta­ble full of peo­ple eat­ing them now and not give in be­cause over the years I’ve trained my­self not to crave th­ese things, or even to pay at­ten­tion to them any­more. I go into this state of fo­cus, this zone where it doesn’t af­fect me. And this is where I’d like to take the next step in my ca­reer.” He’s con­quered the body and now, his next goal is to con­quer the mind as a men­tal, rather than phys­i­cal, coach.

Hav­ing made his­tory as the first South African men’s body­builder to take sil­ver in the World Cham­pi­onships, Cobus is sat­is­fied with scal­ing back his rou­tine some­what to make time for this new chal­lenge. “Suc­cess­ful body­build­ing re­quires a three­p­ronged ap­proach: nu­tri­tion, phys­i­cal health, and men­tal strength. The men­tal strength side of things ap­peals to me more now as I’m get­ting older. The strain on your body be­comes greater as you age, and it’s time to scale back to re­main healthy and pass down what I’ve learnt through 20 hard years in the busi­ness. Your men­tal strength is es­sen­tial to suc­ceed­ing in this industry, and I be­lieve I can coach the new gen­er­a­tion of SA’S body­builders to suc­cess in this way.”

Do mus­cles maketh the man? Not en­tirely, but they cer­tainly are im­pres­sive. There’s a lot more to Cobus van der Merwe than his shirt size. Who would’ve thought the big guy with the scary-look­ing veins and eye­pop­ping mus­cles could be a hum­ble in­tro­vert at heart? Turns out those men in the heavy weights sec­tion aren’t so scary af­ter all – well, not all of them any­way.

You can fol­low Cobus on In­sta­gram – @cobus­gym, and Face­book – Cobus van der Merwe. To book a ses­sion with Cobus email him at cobus­, or visit www.pca­

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