Many people die as they live. There are the Reinhard Heydrichs who go out feeling the same pain they caused in their lives run through their urethras before the light flickers out, the King Fahds who sit in luxury as their hearts murmur then finally flatline, and the Michael Jacksons who perish in circumstances as weird and inconclusive as the latter parts of their lives were. Rich Piana, who died earlier today at 46, was not one of those cases.
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He did not go with the largeness that marked his life. That he’d been placed in a medically induced coma only went public well after the fact. For someone who documented so much of his life, and responded to all the positive and negative charges leveled at him, the silence was eerie. This lack of Piana was unprecedented in his life, apart from a blackout period last year, when many speculated he was hospitalized. We always saw what Piana wanted to show us, but he offered more than most of his ilk. In his last days, the absence of his voice was confirmation that he was not long for our world.
Piana was outsized in every way. His death makes sense from a logical standpoint: He was a leviathan of a man whose heart strained just from waking up in the morning. His organs were bloated and fatigued from his unusually heavy steroid cycles, which he famously posted for all to see. Bodybuilders, even ones much smaller than Piana, don’t typically make it long enough to become AARP members.
His passing is shocking anyway. Maybe it’s because Keith Richards types—people who defy the odds of their lifestyle to outlive those who do boring stuff like jog and eat boiled chicken breast—are so lionized. The few pickled humans who roll lucky on the longevity odds get so much attention that the mean outcome can be shocking.
Though anybody could have seen it coming, this one is particuarly shocking because Piana’s entire being was the exaggeration of his marginal physical and personality qualities. There was the way his triceps flared out like wings on a bat trying to frighten a predator; the way he started every video with a self confident “ALLLLRIGHT” or “it’s MOTHERFUCKING [insert action] time!” but spent the next hour showing you the minutiae of his daily routine, speaking of every habit and ritual with the excitement of a child being asked about themselves by someone they admire; and the unseemly extravagance of his food orders, as much a part of his personality as his gregariousness and candor. Piana offered up his margins at their most inflated as his self. It’s jarring to see the failing of his core, even if it was the logical conclusion.
He was far from a perfect man. Months before his death, a decade-old recording of a virulently racist rage-filled tirade to an ex-girlfriend surfaced. In the year before, he slap-boxed a learning-disabled Youtuber who had ordered a massive harassment campaign on Piana and his then-wife. In short, he had done some things you may expect from a SoCal guy who looked like he did.
Much about him defied logic: his eight-hour arm workouts, his often dramatic personal life, and, most of all, his celebrity on the fitness side of Youtube. On the surface, Piana’s videos weren’t all that exciting. Yes, there was the divorce, the fight, and other scattered kinetic moments, but those things weren’t in 99 percent of his content. An hourlong Piana vlog usually followed a staid formula: Rich wakes up, talks about a new trick for burning fat or making the bis pop while swilling a milk carton full of amino acids, makes the exact same shake, yammers on the phone about nonspecific business deals, goes to the gym and works out on machines to music that sounds like it was lifted from a loading screen (lovingly called “the natty anthem” by Rich’s viewers), eats a horrifying amount of food, and finally closes things out as he lazes around some part of his McMansion while ruminating about his past day.
There’s no obvious reason why these videos racked up hundreds of thousands (and sometimes millions) of views, but I do have a theory.
Those who dedicate a lot of time to the gym are different from those who go because they’re trying to finish the latest Malcolm Gladwell audiobook on becoming a brain genius while using the elliptical. If you’re one of the latter, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that, and good on you for not avoiding family and friends so you can shred your obliques or do snatches until you’re not mad that you woke up anymore.
But for gymgoers who have made this a larger part of their life, there is an isolation to their time among the clanging plates and terrible looping gym music. Even if you have a workout buddy, you’re spending a lot of time in total silent solitude. You wait between your sets, trying to look like you’re not just some slack-jawed dullard gawking at him- or herself in the mirror, alternately examining your own imperfections and the features you like. All the pertinent numbers to your routine and current fitness dart around your head in Rain Man-like fashion. But most of all you compare yourself either to an idealized state you’ve been in or to those around you.
Most people live in a state of fear that they’ll be humiliated in some way, and no matter how strong or sculpted you get, it’s still at least lurking somewhere. Unless you’re among a handful of people on earth, there’s always going to be someone better than you at something at your gym. While it’s mostly a great type of loneliness you have there, the fear that someone will think you’re a bitch because you’re weaker than they are can animate your thoughts on a particularly bad day.
This changes with time, and not always the way you’d expect. In the gym and in life, we will change around the margins at a constant rate, not noticing the overall shift because it amounts to adopting minor behaviors and traits we barely notice from our own perspective, but are the only thing others see in us. Maybe you start hitting accessory workouts that target your disproportionately weak hamstrings, or run hills until you don’t get winded on sets like you used to. These seem like small changes on the side, but after months and years, they reorient the central focus of what you do, and what you are. Now you’re the one with massive, bulging calves. You barely noticed it happening, but to the people in the gym you always compare yourself to, you’re in their grouping.
Even if you felt like you were a weak pussy some of those days along the way, no one probably knew you were thinking that, as they were too concerned about looking like a weak pussy about something either on the bar or in their lives. Now you’re just one of them, and they ask you to spot them, or they open up to you about having trouble with some lift, or they confess their steroid use to you in a very long, involved conversation you had no clue was going to happen. I’ve had all of these things happen at various parts of my gymgoing life and I’m not even that strong. Maybe it’s just a break people require in their loneliness, or it’s the only way some men can communicate as strangers. Whatever it is, it makes a place where people barely ever talk to each other seem more human than anywhere else.
In most gyms he entered later in his life, Rich Piana was the guy most people compared themselves to. In actual bodybuilding competition, he was very good but not the elite of the elite. On Youtube, it was a different story. Piana swelled in size through a completely singular focus on becoming the absolute biggest his body would allow. He would give the viewer his version of self-help prattle that other similar internet fitness stars would give, claiming that it’s about doing whatever it takes, working hard, and all the other stuff you’ve probably heard. But that’s not why people liked him so much. What resonated with people was that Piana was their nightmare caricature of that one guy at the gym, but he gave you the flattering openness it takes years to earn in person.
In every video, Piana would tell the viewer his true fears, inadequacies, and struggles. He had as much tough-guy bravado as any tattooed sphere of muscle in Southern California, but unlike them, he would look directly at the camera and say that he wished he had someone else’s body or that he felt like a child training next to a particular person. Often, he’d say something that was explicitly ridiculous, but you could tell it was part of a gnawing anxiety.
Piana motivated hundreds of thousands of people to do whatever it took in whatever sense they took that to mean, but he also gave parts of himself to the same audience. Any out-of-shape adolescent or former football hero with an injury could see this enormous man give them the parts of themselves that they hid in the gym, and for as much as people (myself included) made fun of him for his more absurd aspects, it was something he did not have to do.
He will be memorialized by friends and many fans, and in true bodybuilding Youtube fashion, several former foes will release videos with titles like “FORMER THOUGHTS ON RICH PIANA RIP” with some cookie-cutter shit about letting grudges go and a link to their merchandise. Some will talk about what a poor role model he was. Many will just miss their friend.
But his absence will leave a gaping hole in the scene. Other stars will rise up, getting similar or better metrics than what Piana got, but they will feel empty. The looks into their inner lives will feel stilted, or worse yet, boring. They won’t be able to combine Rob Liefeld-esque proportions with the almost ASMR-like quality Piana ordering fast food could have. There simply won’t be another like him. And no matter whether people watched his videos to brighten their day or to shit on him, they will feel a withdrawal pang at the back of their mind, a pit the size of Piana that will be felt in the world at large.
Rest in peace, Rich Piana. You gave us more than we ever deserved.