Image by Sam Woolley

As many people do, I enjoy watching Youtube fitness personalities who range from eccentric to dangerous to themselves. There are the classic accounts like Scooby, a fedora-wearing older man with a pleasant voice and numerous dietary theories; there are the newer folks on the scene like Kinobody, something of a Patrick Bateman Lebensborn who tells his followers to fast like it’s Ramadan before working out; there are even more artistic lifters, most notably Frank Yang, who emphasizes mentally strenuous exercises and thought experiments to optimize the gym hobbyist’s personal growth.

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But I have two favorites. These two men are as different as a pair of massive weightlifters can be. Their contradictions as men, as avatars of their nations, and as exemplars of their sports run deep. They are polar opposite social-media physical specimens, but compliment each other perfectly, as most opposites do.

“I AM THE BEST BODYBUILDER IN THE WORLD”

Rich Piana is a widely-followed California bodybuilder and entrepreneur who offers far more than just the theories and techniques that his counterparts spit at you in between isolation curls. Piana gives viewers a comprehensive look at his lifestyle, his workouts, and, most controversially, his steroid cycles. It’s clearly resonating, as his videos routinely get 200,000 or more views despite each being around an hour in length.

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Piana is profane as he is enormous, to the point that his supplement company, 5% Nutrition, offers a product called “Full as Fuck.” (“Who would put that shit on a label? Who would put the word ‘fuck’ on a fuckin’ nutritional label? I never thought that would ever happen,” Piana mused in a recent video). He’s usually wearing black tank tops and hats with slogans like “Welcome To My World” and “Fucking Kill It” on them. His body language—the way he leans in close while holding court at his kitchen counter, which makes his already monstrous trapezius muscles double in size like they’re about to burst out of the skin; or the way he randomly bounces a pec while telling a story—reinforces just how big he is.

Rich Piana preaches to the public. Image via Youtube

His world is one of excess. His homes are sprawling fortresses. His multiple cars are expensive and highly modified. His meals give a normal person sympathetic stomach aches just to look at. His workouts are grueling and intensive. His steroid doses are so big that other bodybuilders make videos pleading with him to stop.

His size extends past the physical realm. His presence is so great that there is a cottage industry involving other large men wearing t-shirts with motivational slogans on them garnering hundreds of thousands of views simply by screaming about Rich Piana. Sometimes they yell about his steroid cycle in empty offices; other times they nasally intone that he’s going to die in front of their PC gaming setups. The Piana reaction industry is booming.

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Despite his leviathan presence, Piana espouses some unexpectedly egalitarian ideals. He talks about how bodybuilders shouldn’t act like they’re the landed gentry of the gym and how everyone working out is an equal because they’re all after the same self-improvement. He was on the show Tosh.0 recently, and his combination of intimidating size and an affable personality seemed to disarm the usually mocking Daniel Tosh, turning him into a giggling fan. In a video he titled “I AM THE BEST BODYBUILDER IN THE WORLD,” Piana even states that he isn’t close to being the best bodybuilder in the world; what he means by his bold claim is simply that he gives it his all.

Piana’s ethos, which makes him the Liquid Snake of Gold’s in Venice, involves surrender to the idea that because we are all prisoners to our genetic fate, the bodybuilder is to be admired less for his size or symmetry than for his willingness to do whatever it takes. And Piana always does whatever it takes. He has, he says, been taking steroids for over 25 years, after not placing in his first bodybuilding competition at age 15. (He now holds multiple titles, including Mr. California.) He does 8-hour arm workouts. He’s currently on a bizarre quest to become as gigantic as possible to prove an uncertain moral point.

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“Whatever it takes” is also a warning that Piana is about to do something insane, dangerous to his health, or utterly nonsensical. During his current journey for size, he disappeared from social media for about a month right after announcing a massive steroid cycle. It led many to believe that he was in jail, or hospitalized. In the continuing “Bigger By The Day” series of videos, Piana has frequently complained about how difficult being over 300 pounds is, and how awful it makes his life. He shovels ludicrous amounts of food into his mouth in increasingly shorter time intervals, in addition to sucking down protein shakes big enough to drown a toddler in.

That’s not to say that he’s a chronic complainer. Piana is, like most Youtube fitness personalities, unrelentingly positive; in fact, his complaints only seem to reify his message of positivity. If he can do this—this being put on so much muscle that living his life hurts him—he can do anything.

The man who was forged from steel

If Piana is loud in both volume and appearance, profligate, and generous with the most intimate details of his life, his perfect opposite is my other favorite, Dmitry Klokov.

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Klokov is a former competitive weightlifter from Russia—he specialized in the snatch and the clean and jerk—who won gold at the 2005 World Championships and 2010 European Championships, as well as silver at the 2008 Summer Olympics. While Klokov is far from the best Olympic lifter of our time, he commands a massive following, partly because of his truly extraordinary physique. (While most larger Olympic weightlifting competitors carry a bit of extra fat, Klokov appears to be forged from steel.)

His day-to-day videos are the total opposite of Piana’s. While Piana consorts with other massive and extremely positive men, he also takes time to take pictures with strangers and go on diatribes about Chipotle’s rice to his wife. Klokov only seems to consort with other champions as equals.

Dmitry Klokov expresses himself. Image via Youtube

A typical video features Klokov going into the gym, performing a few astounding feats of physical strength, coordination, and skill, and then talking in very broad and flat terms about life. He’s funny and charismatic, but reserved (at least in comparison to Piana). While Piana tells you exactly what you need to do in life with real estate investment, diet, and forearm specific exercises, Klokov is mostly there for you to marvel at.

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The differences in their outlooks on life are more pronounced than the gulfs between their physical appearances or demeanors. Piana could be analogized to a megachurch preacher who illuminates a path to prosperity in all areas of life, but Klokov is a rabbi who answers your questions with his own set of interrogations that illuminate your own ignorance.

Piana offers a holistic motivational message rooted in the idea that anyone can do anything within certain logical constraints. He spends great amounts of time and money documenting his “Bigger By The Day” journey for people to view for free, partly so that fans so inclined can do it with him. He thinks it’s beautiful that everyone can get big together. Klokov, on the other hand, has a few instructional series for sale, but is only ever going to tell you how to be a good athlete; even then you’ll never really be like him. He’ll say he loved being a competitor and that he still pushes himself, but he’ll never tell you how he really accomplished what he did, or offer much beyond vague encouragements and nostrums about pushing oneself and determination.

The Klokov view is best explained through a scene with his father from the IWF documentary Lift the World. Klokov recounts a childhood memory of overhearing an argument between his former competitive weightlifter father and his coach:

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“They were sitting in our kitchen in our apartment at the time, arguing about what kind of future should I have. My coach tried to tell my dad that he had high hopes for me, but my father just kept that I’ll become an academic or something. And then my coach said, if he sends me to Oxford or somewhere similar, I’ll come back with a broken brain like all the little rich kids that have been to places like that.”

From there, his father recounts how Klokov would swim in their apartment building’s swimming pool, first thing in the morning, every single day, no matter if it was below freezing or not. His willingness to swim these waters was less about doing whatever it takes than a very Russian ethos of doing something painful on purpose to harden the soul.

Dmitry Klokov trains on the beach in Duba. Image via Youtube

That hardness is deep with Klokov, who often returns to various refrains about building character. When Piana talks about the difficult and painful parts of fitness, it’s in pursuit of self-assurance and material gain. Klokov, dating back to the time he began swimming in that frigid pool, seems to have performed duties out of a moral obligation to be a hard, steely-eyed motherfucker who can fling over 400 pounds above his head at a moment’s notice.

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The two men also have quite different views on chemical use. While Piana says that he doesn’t recommend steroids to everyone, he will and does give his views on the best kinds and the best dosages, and, as stated before, on the exact cycle he’s doing. (His openness about his usage is actually refreshing in contrast to the defensiveness more typical of bodybuilding spaces.)

Klokov, on the other hand, is murky on the topic. He predictably states that he doesn’t use, though there are reasons to be skeptical. His pal Aleksey Lovchev blew a test in 2015, for one, and so did his other buddy Dmitry Lapikov in 2012; it seems that people on his former team got caught a lot, in fact, and anyway it would be odd if a high-level competitor like Klokov had never used. This isn’t a moral judgement; it’s just true that the human body hasn’t evolved to hoist that much weight above the head without injury, and that people who would know are pretty consistent about the ubiquity of PEDs in the highest echelons of sports.

What’s interesting isn’t his use, or non-use; it’s what he says about it. In a video from last year, he answers fan questions during a stationary-bike workout. One of them is about synthol, a fluid bodybuilders inject into underdeveloped muscles in order to bloat them for symmetry’s sake. “I know that bodybuilders use it for muscles to blow up,” the subtitles read. “You do not need to lie to yourself. [...] As [Russian strongman Mikhail Koklyaev] once said, you use steroids to take medals or win money that’s one thing, if you use them to look great from outside, but you’re old man inside, then it’s silly. So I have a bad attitude to synthol. It’s bullshit. I have a good attitude to synthol in Brazilian women’s asses.”

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Piana, on the other hand, lives and dies—one video actually carries an “IF I DIE I DIE” postscript—by aesthetics and the use of steroids towards those ends. He’s said that he’d prefer to be 180 pounds and shredded than 290 pounds with a distended gut; he’s also claimed that steroids make a user look better-endowed because they shrink his balls, making his dick look bigger by comparison.

“Five percent of people will do whatever it takes”

The differences between these two men aren’t really surprising. After all, Piana is a bodybuilder, and Klokov is a competitive lifter. It makes sense that they have totally different philosophies towards training, chemical use, and diet, because they worked toward totally different goals in their competitive lives.

Their completely different personalities, however, are surprising, because they occupy such a similar space in their post-competition lives. Both make money on seminars, appearances, and endorsements, driven by their numbers on Youtube, Instagram, and Facebook. In this market, that means they’re going after similar groups of young men transfixed by their extraordinary bodies and unique personalities.

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And, to those ends, they are perfect opposites, so much so that they represent—even embody—the stereotypical national characters of each of their countries.

Rich Piana is America. He’s vulgar and consumptive. His rabid desire to be as big as possible is almost pathological; he clearly hates it, but continues, because it’s part of a point he must prove. That point is never defined, but it’s definitely there, a fitness-enthusiast mirror to the neoconservative quest to provide meaning for America’s existence by combatting evil in an endless series of wars.

Rich Piana meets an admirer. Image via Youtube

He espouses the ideas of equality and opportunity, but lives a stratified existence. (No one’s quite sure where all his money comes from.) He beams with positive truisms. Everything he does is cloaked in his own personal branding, and he espouses his own form of American exceptionalism in his “five percent of people will do whatever it takes” credo.

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Dmitry Klokov, for his part, represents Russia with all the interesting qualities we Westerners tend to ascribe to Russia—he’s inhumanly hard, laconic, a bit mysterious. Klokov’s videos feature him traveling to exotic locales, where he sometimes performs squats on pristine beaches or windy sand dunes. He’s always nominally on vacation or teaching a seminar, and there’s a weirdness about it reminiscent of Vladimir Putin’s adventures in judo and the like.

For all these reasons, I get a lot of enjoyment from both of them. I do Klokov’s weightlifting program, even though I’ll probably never be as huge or as strong as him; I watch Piana’s story videos, even though I’ll probably never own a supplement company, much less a Bentley. These videos are just fun to watch, and I always end up learning something, whether or not the lesson was being intentionally imparted. Maybe Rich will have a good insight on why it’s good to be positive. Maybe Dmitry will perform a muscle snatch in a way that makes me see what I’ve been doing wrong. Maybe I’ll pick up a diet tip, or figure out that I’ve been wrapping my knee wrong.

More than any of that, though, these videos are an escape. These men become enormous and maintain their size far past their competitive peaks; they give us words of encouragement backed up by their hulking muscles and enviable lifestyles; and they perform great tests of will and character as we, their viewers, motionlessly gawk and wonder how they got to be this way and whether we can too. They’re enormous avatars onto which we can project our personal hatreds, desires, and ambitions. Everyone who watches is sharing a rich experience.

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Rich Piana and Dmitry Klokov may be vastly different men, but they share a space in my heart and on my Youtube playlists.


Felix Biederman (@ByYourLogic) is a writer and cohost of the podcast @ChapoTrapHouse.