Some of the men that had the greatest impact on bodybuilding never won a Mr. Olympia title. You all know Flex Wheeler, Kevin Levrone, and Shawn Ray – three of the best physiques the 1990’s produced and every bit as respected as Dorian and Ronnie. In the 1980’s, Rich Gaspari and Lee Labrada were two others that changed the sport and were bigger stars than some of the men that held the Mr. O title in that decade. Yet none of these men had the profound influence that Tom Platz did. No bodybuilder before or since came on the scene and instantly made it imperative to develop a bodypart far beyond what had been seen and expected for decades. Before “The Golden Eagle,” there was never a shortage of big arms, shoulders, backs, or chests; but extreme leg mass had never existed. As soon as Tom arrived as a new pro in 1979, the bodybuilding world was both shocked at the amazing lower body he displayed, and immediately awakened to a new possibility of what could be achieved. The sport would never be the same again, and a whole generation took to the squat rack with a new purpose and new goals. Though Tom never won a pro show, he was one of the most popular guest posers of the 1980’s and went on to grace the covers of 25 magazines. Since retiring from competition over twenty years ago, Tom has gone on to teaching, writing, sales, and even a brief stab at acting. I relished the opportunity to speak to the legendary Golden Eagle at last about his career, what he thinks of today’s sport, and much more.
It’s been over 20 years since you left the stage, so why do you think we have yet to see anybody equal or even surpass what you achieved with your lower body? I mean, there have been plenty of genetic freaks that train hard and use all kinds of exotic drugs that weren’t even around in the 80’s.
TP: I was at the recent Arnold Classic and in terms of size; I saw a few pairs of legs that definitely rivaled mine in their prime. Branch Warren in particular has enormous quads, hams, and calves. As far as the quality and detail, the deep separations and the feathered cross-striations, I haven’t seen that and I honestly can’t say why that is.
Until you came along, nobody had huge legs at all. Was it a matter of the guys not trying to build them, or not training them hard enough? It just seems strange that for all those years, we never saw one bodybuilder with impressive legs when some of the other bodyparts from the 60’s and 70’s still stand up to today’s champion.
TP: It’s not my intention to puff myself up by saying this, but occasionally in the world of sports of business, certain things are done that are ahead of their time. Until this point, it’s assumed that this thing can’t be accomplished, but once that barrier is broken, everything changes. When I came on the bodybuilding scene at shows like the 1976 Mr. America or even as late as the ’78 Universe, nobody had big legs. The status quo that everyone at that time emulated was Arnold. Guys back then worked hard on arms, chest, shoulders, and back. Legs were something you might do as the afternoon workout after your ‘real’ workout for something like chest in the morning – an afterthought. When I first came out to California and trained at the original Gold’s Gym, all the leg equipment was almost hidden away in a back corner and didn’t get much use. I never had that lack of concern for legs. I was trained by Olympic lifters back home in Michigan in the early 70’s, and the squat rack was their altar. I was taught to revere the squat and work so hard on it that my life should pass before my eyes on the toughest sets. When I started training out west, people would see me repping out with 405 and said, “Don’t do that!” They thought it was dangerous, or that there was no need to train the legs so hard and heavy with squats. Nobody else did. Nobody else was trying to get huge legs. But it felt like the right thing to do for me. I still remember seeing the judges at the contests dropping their pencils when I came out and they saw my legs. It was easy to read their minds: “What the hell is that?” Within the next couple years, all the guys were coming in with bigger legs than before.
How much of your incredible leg development was genetic?
TP: I can’t deny that there had to be a certain amount of favorable genetics in my legs for them to look the way they eventually did. But ironically, when I first began competing in bodybuilding when I was still in high school, I was known for having a big upper body and just average legs. I used to squat with 95 pounds. Eventually my legs became a dominant bodypart, so after the 1979 Mr. Olympia I cut back to training them just twice a month. Much to my surprise, they still grew and got even more detailed. I eventually figured out that my muscle fiber composition was more white-fiber than someone like Arnold, who would be almost a pure red-fiber specimen. Arnold could train twice a day, six days a week with high volume and respond, whereas I was more suited to shorter, more intense workouts with a lot more recovery time.
How did you start bodybuilding? What were your influences?
TP: As a kid, I was very much inspired by Dave Draper. I saw him in the Tony Curtis movie “Don’t Make Waves,” and on TV shows like The Beverly Hillbillies. I remember sitting home watching TV and eating Pop Tarts when he would come on and I would yell like a madman for my mom to come in and see this guy. To me, his physique was unbelievable. What really did it for me was a photo Artie Zeller took of Draper. He was on the beach with one of those muscle crushers in his hands, and a beautiful girl in a bikini on each arm. I think I was only ten years old, but I showed my dad the magazine and said, “This is what I want to do.” He said that’s fine, but you’re getting your college degree first. My father was a retired US Army Colonel so when he spoke, my answer would always be, “Yes, sir!’ Reluctantly, I did wind up going to college, which turned out to be very useful once I retired from bodybuilding and went into teaching for some time. I mainly taught certifications for ISSA as a traveling professor.
Did your father help you get started, or were you on your own in that respect?
TP: He was very instrumental in my early years. When I was only eight years old, he bought me a barbell and weights for Christmas. It was a Weider set and came with a manual that my dad would read to me from so I could follow along. I still remember trying to do bench presses without a bench, laying on the cold cement floor of our basement and wondering why my elbows kept hitting the ground. Dad was a VP at Equitable Life Insurance, so when I was in high school we lived in Kansas City. Nobody was into weights back then, but I met a kid named Mike Tankel that wanted to be a powerlifter, and we trained for a while. Football coaches were just starting to think that weights might improve performance, but they weren’t sure. They would let us loose in the weight room but caution us not to do too much. I was on the football team when one night I happened to catch a broadcast of the Mr. World contest on TV with Draper, Arnold, and Reg Park. That’s when I really knew I had to be one of those guys. The very next day, I quit football and told my coach I was going to be a pro bodybuilder. He thought I was out of my mind.
Well, you do have to be just a little nuts to be a bodybuilder! You went out to Venice Beach back when it was still the absolute world’s Mecca of bodybuilding. What were your early days in LA like?
TP: I went out there in 1978 with fifty dollars to my name, and lived in a one-room apartment with 25 other people – but I got the couch! They respected me because they knew I was training with Arnold and those guys, and I was determined to be a top pro bodybuilder. I got a job at The Pritiken Center. It was right on the beach, and heart patients from all over the country and the world would come out there. Dr. Pritiken had a very famous heart-healthy diet approach that was really low on fats, high on carbs. Basically, my job was to hand out beach towels and lay out and work on my tan. I loved it because I was able to train twice a day and had plenty of time to rest and relax between workouts.
I recall reading once something very interesting you wrote about how you prepared for your leg workouts, with this whole ritual of what to eat and wear that began the night before. Can you run that down?
TP: It was actually an entire article for Musclemag that my wife wrote a couple years ago called “Squat Day Prep.” Mentally, I was rehearsing and visualizing what I would do for well over a week ahead of time. I would always eat pasta or pizza the night before, both for the carbs and to increase water retention around the gut. I had a favorite pair of sweatpants, socks, and sturdy lifting shoes. I learned from the Olympic lifters when I was a kid that you don’t just throw a random pair of sneakers on to squat. The colors red and yellow were favorites to wear because they always made me feel more powerful, and my sweatpants were skintight so I felt secure and strong. But I would say that the mental rehearsal was the most important aspect. I had seen and done those sets of squats over and over again many times before I actually got under that bar.