tech

Bodybuilding Forums Are One of the Last Relics of Web 1.0

Bodybuilding forums occupy a weird space between anonymous forums and Facebook, where users build reputations around their usernames and avatars, discussing the most noble pursuit of them all—bodybuilding.

by Kate Davis Jones
Mar 26 2015, 4:20pm


Photo via Wikimedia Commons user United States Army

"A WEEK IS NOOOOTTTTT SUN-SUN!!!! IT'S SUN-SAT, S-E-V-E-N- DAYS!!!!"

Thus spoketh Bodybuilding.com forum user Justin-27, in a 2008 thread that was innocuously enough titled, "Full Body Workout Every Other Day?" The thread quickly devolved into a trainwreck of internet commenting, featuring more than five pages of users going back and forth, arguing about how to count days in a week and if one can effectively train four days every week. Last January, a Reddit user dug up the thread and posted screen shots from it to r/funny. From there, the thread quickly made the rounds, with writers from all corners of the web using this content as an opportunity to flex their humor muscles. It was also a nice reminder of when forums ruled the internet.

In 2011, the New York Timesbemoaned the inevitable death of web 1.0 forums like Bobdybuilding.com's, citing their inability to be properly monetized as their killer. In the same way that Napster was co-opted and eventually replaced by services such as iTunes and Spotify, forums have been supplanted by Facebook and Reddit. Unlike forums which allow people with similar interests to talk to each other anonymously, Facebook wants to be the hub of your personal and public social life. And it's not just the place you talk to friends and family, it's also a place where you scope out businesses and buy stuff. Facebook has got your life story on their servers, while back in the golden age of forums, your life story was spread out over several, less monetizable threads.

But the Bodybuilding.com forums are still kicking and it's largely thanks to the fact that it's supported by Bodybuilding.com, which is a fitness empire on the internet that boasts workout videos, diet plans, and a hell of a supplements store. Bodybuilding.com, is the 298th most visited site in the US, according to Alexa.com rankings. That's even higher than Gaia Online, which includes a forum full of anime-style virtual sprites, comedy site and forum Something Awful, and Battle.net, where the WoW forum lives. (Note: Alexa tracks overall site traffic, not just the forums.)

All screen caps courtesy of the author

Users of Bodybuilding.com forums can chose to be anonymous or work to build reputations around their usernames and avatars. When another user gives you a boost because they like your content, the brahs call that "repping"—one of the many slang terms they use that has its roots in exercise lingo.

The forum has a strong sense of encouraging the reader to be the best they can be—but in very particular and strangely detailed ways. Here, you can learn how to determine your genetic potential for achieving great biceps. It requires you take off your shirt and strike a double-biceps-flexing pose in the mirror, then measure the distance between your elbow and the edge of your bicep. And people actually do it.

"This is a really old post, but it was just what I was looking for," responded user realtime247, ten years after the original post.

The response pushed the post to the top of the forum, sparking gleeful responses on the post's resurgence.

Other users commented as well with simple acknowledgements that they'd read the post. Forums are inherently archival, and since most were established in their heyday of the early 2000s, it's not uncommon for decade-old posts to emerge from the depths.

"Forums still serve a purpose for specific info and reference guides, based on information posted over multiple years," says James Auerbach, founder of thebiggestboards.com and watchfreeks.com. TheBiggestBoards is an automated catalog of the web's forums from largest to smallest. Though it hasn't been actively updated since 2008, Auerbach's code still crawls forums and archives its number of users and posts. It's a relic of a time before the ubiquity of Google, when users needed directories to find people with their same niche interests, like bodybuilding or watch-collecting.

User Sy2502 maintains a journal within the Bodybuilding.com forum, detailing her experiences preparing to compete. Much of her training centers around the forum. She even met her bodybuilding coach on the site. "I chose her to train me after seeing the quality of her posts and overall demeanor on the forum, and her philosophy," she tells me via forum private message, "And I was not disappointed." Her coach trains her virtually—they don't live close enough together to interact in the flesh. Her journal is a mix of workouts and diets, questions, balancing her routine between her job and her husband, and the occasional joke that only other bodybuilders would really understand. And of course, progress photos.

Sy2502 started journaling in November 2013, preparing for her first competition. "My main concern at the time was not knowing if I could stick to a rigid competition prep plan, so I thought a public journal would make me accountable to myself and others," she says. "When I am working out and maybe not putting all the effort I could, I think that tomorrow I need to write in my journal what I did, and I am not going to write that I did the bare minimum or just went through the motions." Her readers are friends she interacts with across the forum boards, aspiring competitors looking for an insider's view, and colleagues working through similar training plans. It's something a little more than just her coach's diet plan or her supportive husband.

No one on the forums casually chats about what got them started in bodybuilding. Users rarely mention a time before it. It's like a themed cruise: you're there to get away with kindred souls, not discuss life back on the shores. There's an entire board for people seeking motivation—but it's motivation that can only come from other bodybuilders, motivation to push through a plateau or climb out of an emotional slump. That's the nature of forums. If you've sought out a forum, you're already invested. You're not looking for anyone to convert you.

User Turtora began weightlifting in 2010, after he was diagnosed with autism. "A lot of people on the autism spectrum generally develop what are called 'obsessive/special interests,'" he explains, "Where they tend to focus on learning everything they can about just one thing. Weightlifting became mine." He was 20, underweight, a college dropout, and living alone in a moldy-walled cottage. He wanted to get his life back on track. Lifting stuck.

He looked to the T-Nation forums for guidance, which he now describes as "a cesspool of misinformation, internet experts, and mostly shitty advice." He migrated to the Bodybuilding.com forums, which proved a more supportive environment. "In the four years I was a member of the T-Nation forums, I made about 300 forum posts," he tells me via email. "I've made over 1000 posts in the last six months on the bbcom forums."

Turtora spreads his knowledge on the forums through detailed training programs and the Prehabiliton Broscience series. The series "is an effort to help save people from the mistakes that I've made," he tells me. "I've torn cartilage, muscles, and developed tendonitis among other things... It all comes down to helping people. I've struggled a lot in my life, and I just want to do everything I can to prevent people from making the same mistakes that I've made." Tortura went back to school at 21. Now 25, his goal is to deadlift 725 lbs.

For every place like the Bodybuilding.com forums, there's another place like WatchFreeks, or the Classic Horror Film Board, or BoardGameGeek. "The nice thing about forums," Auerbach tells me, "Is that you can anonymously be an active member of a community that cares about a topic, you can come and go as you please with no pressure, and learn from others who have your same interests." He points out that the forum-style of communication has shaped the way we communicate online—it exists on the comments in Facebook pages (ever noticed how a new comment will "bump" a thread to the top of a Facebook page?), Yahoo Answers, and Yelp. "[Forums are] still relevant if you have the ability to ask a question and get an answer."

Facebook has a tight grip on the internet, but it hasn't devoured the longstanding forums yet. Their age keeps them alive, because they have a wealth of unique insights, like how to determine if you are genetically predisposed to looking kickass when flexing in the mirror. No one on Facebook wants to see your deadlift progress photos. But guess what. The people on Bodybuilding.com do.