Rich Piana was 6 years old when he started watching his mom train in the gym. A short time later, Piana watched her in a bodybuilding competition.
“It was inevitable that I was going to be a bodybuilder,” said Piana, who made an appearance at Pumped Up Fitness Nutrition in Hollister last month. “I started working out at 11 and competing at 15. I played football and wrestled, but once I started bodybuilding, it became my life.”
Even though the 45-year-old Piana retired from professional competition in 2009, he’s made a nice living in the industry through endorsement deals, merchandise and supplement sales and his social media channels. Piana is a big hit on YouTube and Instagram, where he has gained a legion of followers for doing something that might be frowned upon from fellow bodybuilders but is apparent to the naked eye: He admits to taking steroids.
Former National League MVP Ken Caminiti and ex-Raiders great Lyle Alzado both admitted to steroid use, and died at the age of 41 and 43, respectively. Many experts attributed their premature deaths at least in part to steroid use. Alzado died of brain cancer, and he attributed years of steroid use to the genesis of the cancer.
Linn Goldberg, a doctor and professor at Oregon Health Sciences University, was quoted in a healthday.com story: “For males in the U.S., heart disease is the number one cause of death, and steroid abuse makes heart disease even worse.”
Steroid use raises blood pressure and enlarges the heart, making it more susceptible to heart failure and an assortment of ailments. The 6-foot-1, 270-pound Piana makes no apologies for posting videos on the subject matter. The reality is Piana’s admitted steroid use has engendered him to the everyday people who feed off of working out and building muscle. Of course, Piana is far from the average person in the gym.
He is a cartoon-like, real-life Incredible Hulk, a result of gifted genetics, a hard-core training regimen, an extremely disciplined diet and the use of steroids. Piana recently made headlines for gaining 38 pounds in nine weeks, and most or all of it was muscle.
By the end of the program, Piana tipped the scales at 315 pounds, with single-digit body fat.
“Gaining that weight, most or all of that honestly was the eating aspect,” said Piana, who during the nine weeks ate up to nine meals and 6,000 calories a day. “If you want to keep gaining (muscle weight), eating is actually more important than steroids. If you’re taking steroids and not eating enough food, you’re not going to build muscle.”
But Piana isn’t talking about eating anything—he wants people to focus on real food. Fish, sweet potatoes, yams, oatmeal and blueberries are some of the staples of his diet. In fact, one of the products in his supplement line, Real Food, contains most of the aforementioned foods in dehydrated form.
“People don’t understand we’re not supposed to eat food (strictly) for enjoyment,” he said. “It’s about what is best for your body. What is crazy in this society is how so many people are uneducated when it comes to nutrition.”
Piana knows how to attract attention, but he’s honest, forthright and also provides useful tips and information for all things bodybuilding. Piana still eats healthy, but his diet isn’t nearly as strict when he was in competition. After all, one can only eat plain grilled chicken breasts and veggies without seasoning for so long.
“I try to stay healthy, but at the same time I still want to enjoy life,” he said. “All of those years torturing myself eating cold fish and asparagus for breakfast—those days are long gone.”
Piana had a solid pro career, as he won a handful of prestigious titles. Piana was fully immersed in the bodybuilding world at 16, training with pros and getting educated about steroid use. Piana competed in five shows before deciding to use steroids in advance of his sixth competition.
“I had not won a show, but I was close,” he said. “In my fifth show, I didn’t make the top five, which is not a good situation. That kind of devastated me, and it was the turning point. I knew all of the other guys I was competing against were on steroids. I figured I’d do steroids or I probably was not going to win the next show … From that point on, I won every teenage show I entered. I hate to give steroids the credit, but at that point it gave me a little bit of edge.”
Despite his use of steroids, Piana has a message for those thinking about taking them: do as I say, not as I do.
“It’s better to not take steroids,” he said. “Why not see how far you can get on genetics and hard work rather that with steroids? … There are so many things I learned the hard way, so I want to educate teens ahead of time to do things naturally.”
So why does Piana still take steroids? In Piana’s mind, he’s taking steroids in the safest manner possible. And there’s the other important matter that he’s making a living off his body.
“If you’re going to take them, at least be as safe as you can,” he said. “The thing is everyone has a choice of how they want to live their life, and I want people who choose that road to do it in the safest way possible. Steroids are like any other drug—it’s very important to give your body a break. The damage is done when you stay on it. I wouldn’t say it’s safe, but it’s safer if you cycle them.”
Piana was at Pumped Up Fitness Nutrition last month to sign autographs and talk with fans about his products and all things weightlifting. Piana lives in Southern California and knew nothing about Hollister, but he enjoyed the experience.
“I had a great time in meeting a lot of great people,” he said. “I want to help, educate and motivate people. I listened to their stories, and I heard some really incredible stories from them talking about how much I’ve helped them through my videos. It makes me feel good on what I’m doing.”