Muscles Maketh the Man…or Do They
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 email@example.com, or visit www.pcasouthafrica.co.za.