There are only a handful of true ‘superstars’ in the bodybuilding world, men whose names are recognized even by those whose only contact with bodybuilding publications is glancing over at them while grabbing a copy of Sports Illustrated or GQ off the magazine rack. Ronnie Coleman and Jay Cutler would definitely have the most recognition, closely followed by a very short list: Lee Priest, Dexter Jackson, and Germany’s biggest import since Volkswagen, Markus Ruhl. Being sequestered over in Europe, Markus has plenty of photos in the magazines, but not many of us know his background. Yes, we know that as the title of his popular DVD says he was ‘Made in Germany,’ but there is more to the story. Listen to the story of how Ruhl went from a scrawny teenage soccer player to one of the most massive bodybuilders to ever stalk God’s earth.
Markus Ruhl was born in Darmstadt, Germany on February 22, 1972. His father died when little Markus was just seven years old, leaving his mother, a dressmaker, to raise her two sons and a daughter on her own. Wild and adventurous as a child, Markus was always one of the taller kids for his age and excelled at soccer. American youths thrive on baseball, football, and basketball, but in Germany as in most of Europe, soccer reigns supreme and many a young player dreams of one day representing their nation in the World Cup. Had everything turned out that way for Markus, we would never have known the awesome spectacle of mass that inspires crowds of thousands to join in a hearty chorus of ‘RUUUUHHL!!!’
1990, and construction begins
Markus tells us how it all began in the very beginning of his DVD. As we watch home video footage of a very stocky young Ruhl posing for us in the Hot Skins lycra shorts that were fashionable among meatheads the world over back then, he says:
“I can’t believe it. These pictures are from 1992, and I just training two years when I make these pictures. I started bodybuilding at the age of eighteen years, and I was a very, very small guy because I play soccer ten years before, and my bodyweight was 120 pounds before I go in the gym the first time.”
It should be noted that even in this early footage, you can see the genetically weak and strong points that are still clear today with a hundred pounds more muscle. His chest, traps, biceps, and legs were already quite developed, while his lats and particularly triceps lagged behind. In fact, in his side chest pose back then, his triceps flat-out sucked. Rather than being two-thirds of the upper arm, they appeared to comprise less than half the total mass. We then see footage of him outside with his back to a car, grabbing it from underneath and pushing with his legs to lift it a good foot off the ground in a playful stunt. We also see him in the gym using a standing shoulder press machine, quite similar to the one in the footage of him training in 2003 later on. He continues:
“The reason why I go in the gym was my doctor says to me, I have a big injury in my left knee from the soccer, and I have to go in the gym and build some muscles in my left leg, that’s the reason why I go at this time. So when I start training, I will say not bodybuilding, but training for fitness, I don’t want to go on stage one day, or I want to be a professional bodybuilder. I just go to the gym to have fun and be a little bigger than the other guys, or my friends.”
As it turned out, Markus quickly grew estranged from his childhood friends, and forged new friendships in the gym with those who shared his interests in getting bigger and stronger. Gradually, as his body expanded and took shape, a new sport called his name.
“So, after five years of training, one day I say to me, I am so big I have to go on stage, and that’s the reason why I go on stage after five years of workout.”
Actually, Markus had planned on competing after four years, and had targeted the 1994 Newcomer Championships in Hessen as his first show, but injured his shoulder while preparing for that. It was 1995 when he made his delayed debut at the Bachgau Cup in Babenhausen, winning the Heavyweight and Overall titles at 5-11, 243. Can you imagine that, weighing 243 pounds at your first contest? Even Ronnie Coleman was only about 212 at the same height when he won his first show, the NPC Texas. The next week Ruhl went to the Grosser Preis von Hessen, or the Hessen Grand Prix, and took second in the Heavyweights in a tougher lineup. He knew he needed more size before he was ready to advance to the higher levels of competition beyond his native Germany. For two years, he put everything into his bodybuilding aspirations while working at a Volkswagen car dealership.
After seven years of training, Ruhl dieted down to a new high bodyweight of 258 pounds and demolished his competition at the Hessen Championships before blowing away the field at the German Nationals a week later. Wayne DeMilia was so impressed at the blonde giant that he became the first German to be granted his pro card solely on the basis on his national title (typically Europeans have to win the IFBB European Championships, or their weight class at the IFBB World, formerly known as the Universe). So, shortly afterward, Markus jumped right into that year’s IFBB Grand Prix held in Offenbach. His tenth place may not seem too impressive until you take a look at the top five in that show: winner Kevin Levrone, followed by Nasser El-Sonbatty, Lee Priest, Paul Dillett, and a Texan named Ronnie Coleman down in fifth. In tenth place, Markus was right behind veteran pro Vince Taylor and ahead of Mike Matarazzo.
After such an overwhelming experience of being thrust among the world’s very best bodybuilders before the ink on his pro card had even had a chance to dry, Markus took a good look in the mirror and knew he needed to be better next time to stand as an equal among them. He and his training partner Marc Arnold went back to the gym with a vengeance, his goals being more mass combined with a more refined and detailed look. Ruhl was coming to American for the ’98 Night of Champions, and he wanted to make an impact his first time on US soil. Markus arrived in New York at 265 pounds and looked to be top-six material, but the judges only allotted him ninth place. The crowd, however, took notice of him and would be on the lookout next time. One thing about the New York fans is that they appreciate a freak. Markus would become something like the mascot of this show over the next few years. Though he was disappointed at not doing better, the crowd response fueled his motivation.
Markus set his sights on the 1999 NOC and returned looking every inch the champion at 270 pounds of shredded prime beef. In a highly controversial decision, Ruhl was deemed an inexplicable fourth place while Paul Dillett, considerably off his best condition, was called out as the winner. New York fans don’t take such injustice without letting their dissatisfaction being known. Loud chants of ‘BULLSHIT!’ reverberated angrily inside the Beacon Theater as trash was hurled on stage. Head judge Steve Weinberger turned to face the mob, looking on the verge of violence himself in all the heated emotion. But there was one positive outcome for Markus – he had qualified for that year’s Mr. Olympia. Stoked at the chance to get on stage with the likes of Ronnie Coleman and Flex Wheeler, he managed to gain another ten pounds and came to Las Vegas at 275 earth-crushing pounds. But as is often the case for Olympia rookies, he didn’t get called out for comparisons until quite late in the prejudging. To make matters much worse, his urine tested positive for diuretics and he was disqualified. Still, encouraged by the experience of competing in his first Olympia, he went on to the British Grand Prix in Manchester and finished seventh in a show won by Ronnie.
Y2K would be a breakout year for Markus. In February as he began preparing for the Toronto Pro and his third try at the NOC, he tore a ligament inside his shoulder joint. His doctor advised him to take four to six weeks off from training. Having a flashback to 1994 when he had to bail out of his first contest with an almost identical injury, Ruhl decided to abbreviate his time off to just five days. He had a feeling this spring was his time to make it or break it, and sitting out would be a missed opportunity. Instead, he carefully worked around the injury and lightened the weights when necessary. His instinct proved to be correct, as Markus defeated Dexter Jackson in Canada to win his first IFBB show. Along with the prize money came a new motorcycle, which Markus was forced to sell, as he didn’t know how to ride it and had no desire to learn. Next he placed second to Jay Cutler, who was also scoring his first pro win that year at the NOC. At that year’s Olympia, Markus competed too heavy at 280. Though he was the heaviest man in the show, the best he could manage was seventh place, which was still a major improvement from 1999 where he didn’t officially place at all. Ruhl also competed in the British Grand Prix again and placed fifth. Meanwhile, his bellybutton had ruptured while in the final stages of preparation for the Olympia, and as soon as the grand prix contest was over he had hernia surgery. While he was recovering back in Germany, I did a Star Profile interview with Markus for Musclemag International. I asked him if he felt that he was at a publicity disadvantage, since the judges were far more familiar with the more famous names like Ronnie Coleman, Kevin Levrone, and Flex Wheeler. “That is true,” he replied, “but one day the famous names will be Ruhl, Cutler, and Jackson.” Did this guy call it, or what? I also asked him where he saw himself in five years. In a true Jean Dixon moment, he told me he would be top five in the world by then. Less than four years after this prediction, he placed fifth at the Mr. Olympia.
2001 was something of a setback for Markus. He decided to forego the spring shows and just do guest posing and appearances until gearing up for the Olympia that fall. Because he had been too heavy at the previous Olympia, he made up his mind to be totally shredded this time. In his zeal, he performed two hours of cardio every day, in addition to two daily weight-training sessions of two hours each. His upper body lost much of its typical fullness. Then, five weeks out from the show, his belly button ruptured again, with no time for surgery. This time it looked far worse, like a big fat fleshy knob poking out of his navel. Probably repulsed at this disfigurement, the judges failed to give him decent callouts, and he wound up in fourteenth place. After all the time and effort he had put into getting ready, Markus went into a depression. In his frustration and intense sense of disillusionment, he very seriously contemplated retirement at just twenty-nine years of age. Thankfully, friends and family, along with his legion of fans, encouraged him not to give up and that the best was still ahead of him. Markus eventually came around and shook off the horrible fall of 2001.
Markus had learned his lesson from the overtraining follies of the previous year. Determined to finally win the NOC title that had thus eluded him on three occasions, he cut back on his cardio and volume of weight training. Ruhl shunned the scale and went only by the mirror, judging his fullness and condition visually as he knew the judges would. 2000 NOC champ Paul Dillett was way down in sixth this time around, and when the evening came to a close, it was Ruhl’s hand that was held in victory. Elated and humbled both at the judge’s recognition of his superiority that day and the tremendous adulation of the New York crowd, Markus felt his spirit renewed. While carbing up for the Toronto show the next week, some spoiled oatmeal gave him digestion problems that led to him losing ten pounds of fullness, from 280 at the NOC down to 270. This opened the door for Art Atwood to beat him and nail his first IFBB win, and Markus shook his hand and congratulated the rookie. Ruhl rounded out the year with an eighth place at the Olympia.
The following year, Markus continued to cement his position as one of the sport’s best. Oddly, he had never competed in the Arnold Classic before, and he made his debut there with a powerful third place behind Jay Cutler and Chris Cormier. Ruhl also took second place to a far lighter Darrem Charles at the inaugural (and only, so far) version of the Maximus Pro event in Rome, Italy. While training for the Olympia that August, the specter of injury returned to haunt Markus once more. In the midst of performing a set of barbell bench presses, he tore his triceps and had to visit a surgeon yet another time to have it reattached. He was out of the show. I can say that he did attend, and despite not being able to train properly, Ruhl was so enormous from the back that when I saw him exiting Ruffles Café Thursday night that Olympia weekend, I thought he was the late Trevor Smith, a mountain of a man who tipped the scales at 400 pounds.
Markus began 2004 with a return to the Arnold Classic, where he dropped to fifth. Popular opinion decreed that this was a screwing, as he was clearly better than fellow Kraut Gunter Schlierkamp, ahead of him in fourth. Ruhl continued on to the Australian Grand Prix and took third to Dexter and Real Deal, before his landmark fifth place at the 2004 Mr. Olympia. There, he was a huge crowd favorite, and also picked up an additional ten thousand dollars courtesy of MD as their choice for the Freakazoid Award publisher Steve Blechman offered that year. Markus chose after this to wait until the 2005 Olympia to compete again, with the plan of repeating his top-five status and hopefully moving up.
2005 – a year Markus would probably like to forget
This year began with everything looking up for Ruhl. He had finally broken into the top five at the Olympia, granting him elite status among his fellow pros. Marriage had united he and longtime girlfriend Simone as man and wife, and they moved into a beautiful new home outside of Frankfurt, Germany. Ruhl began negotiations to buy the Ottwald Gym in nearby Kelsterbach, his training headquarters that was featured in his best-selling training DVD, Made in Germany. In the spring, things began to slowly unravel. That’s when the IFBB issued a mandate informing all athletes that from that point on, distended abdomens would be marked down, and V-tapers and pleasing, aesthetic shape would be rewarded over sheer bulk. Since brutal mass was Ruhl’s trademark and he had never been known for having a particularly small waistline, it sounded like the IFBB was coming down on him personally. All of a sudden, it seemed like he had better somehow morph his physique into a smaller, more streamlined version, or else. Going against everything he believed in, Markus stopped training as heavy as he was accustomed to. He hated it, but gradually he saw that his waist was coming down – along with everything else. As if all this weren’t bad enough, in late August he had to undergo surgery of the nasal passages. Constant use of nasal spray to ease free breathing while he trained had eaten away the membranes, resulting in nosebleeds that would not stop. Markus also suffered a slight muscle tear in an undisclosed region (he isn’t saying) just weeks before the Olympia. Still, he managed to keep it all together and arrived in Las Vegas in very good condition. He knew he was smaller, but he had given the judges what they asked for by improving his taper. At the last minute, an error in his carb-up caused him to spill over. With the clock ticking away to the moment he had to get on stage, Ruhl did his best to shed the excess water, but went too far. In the end, he took the stage smaller and flatter, and knew in the pump-up room before the show started that any hopes he had of remaining in the top five had gone up in smoke – or down the drain, to be more precise. All of us in attendance that Saturday afternoon were in shock at his appearance. That night, he finished fifteenth, the lowest he had ever placed in the Mr. Olympia. Actually, this was the worst placing he had ever had since he began competing. A dejected Ruhl returned to Germany, where he soon regained his motivation and vowed to redeem himself.
2006 – The Rühler is back!
Critics and Ruhl’s own heart told him the same thing. He had tried to be something he was not, and the consequences had been disastrous. It was time to bring back the German Nightmare, the earth-quaking Freakazoid that we all knew and loved. Markus went back to the heavy weights with a fury. Ironically, the previous year of training lighter had given his joints a break and a chance to heal, and he was able to now train heavier than he had in years. His weight climbed to an all-time high of 340 at 5-11, and he was ready to seek his vengeance.
Ruhl qualified for the O just weeks before with a controversial runner-up spot to Paco Bautista in Paco’s native Spain at the Santa Susanna Pro (with a few Spanish judges on the panel), then proceeded to Las Vegas. This time he was ripped and ready at an enormous 280 pounds, the second heaviest man in the show after Ronnie. Though he was hoping to do better than eighth, he accepted it and was grateful to be back in the top ten where he belongs. “This was a very tough Olympia this year. You had a lot of guys in very good shape, and everyone was trying to take the title away from Ronnie. I was just glad to show everyone that last year was not the real me.”
The future of the Freakazoid
What does the future hold for Markus Ruhl and his career in bodybuilding? Consider that as you read this, he’s only thirty-five years old and still has a few good years of competing left in him. Markus is still a relatively young man in this sport of increasingly more seasoned athletes. He doesn’t need any more size, just more detail, and even then mainly from behind. It’s been said many times that if Markus were as hard from the back as he is from the front, he would be a far more formidable competitor. Since we all witnessed the phenomenon of Gustavo Badell, a man who catapulted from an also-ran to a top name based on just such an improvement, and more recently Victor Martinez leaping into the top three at the Olympia based on improved condition, I would not count Markus Ruhl out. The German Beast, the Freakazoid, whatever you like to call him, is still on the way up in this game. Ruhl represents the hardcore ideal both in his training and his Herculean physique, and he will always have our utmost respect.
Markus’s Rühls to Grow Huge By
Keep it simple, dummkopft!
We bodybuilders get bored easily and are always looking for some radical new routine or training system to take us to the next level. Markus thinks this is where most of us go wrong. “For decades, straight sets with heavy free weights have been making men grow like nothing else. Training does not need to be complicated at all. The key is in challenging yourself to do more than you have before, over and over. I think some bodybuilders are always trying these crazy routines with drop sets and supersets because they just don’t want to push heavy weights. Circuit training that has you running around the gym and huffing for breath is not going to make you grow. Make your training very simple, but work as hard as you can – that’s how you get huge.”
You must get stronger to grow larger
When we started training, everything came easily. Every week we were able to use a little more weight than last time, and the mirror and scale rewarded us with evidence of our progress in packing on muscle. But after a while it becomes more of a struggle to increase the resistance, and often we settle for using the same weights forevermore. Hey, as long as we get a good pump and get sore the next day, that’s all that counts, right? “Nein!” bellows mighty Markus in response. “Whoever started this stupid rumor is either a moron or just plain lazy. Throughout my years in bodybuilding, I have always made it my goal to become stronger on all the exercises I do. I knew that if I made the muscles stronger, they would grow larger – and they did. If you have small thighs now and can only squat with 200 pounds, I can guarantee you that if you work up to using 300 pounds, your thighs will no longer be so small.” Go back to what worked to pile on the muscle back in your early days of lifting.
You can’t get freaky huge without free weights
Markus trains at a modern gym with all sorts of high-tech equipment, but he remains loyal to the humble barbell and dumbbells that have served him well for over a decade of training and gaining. “I do use machines and cables sometimes, but I think the hardest way of training is the most productive, and that means using free weights. Take squats, for example. I have tried every leg pressing and squatting machine out there, and not a single one of them was as hard as squatting with a barbell on my back. Take a look around and you will see that nearly all the biggest guys at any gym in the world use mostly free weights when they train. The smaller guys use less free weights and more machines. Do you really think this is a coincidence?”
Very heavy weights and a lot of sets is a winning combination
Some guys like to say they ‘train heavy, but with high reps.’ Johnnie Jackson recently told me this, describing how he often bench presses 405 pounds for 20 or more reps. No offense to Johnnie, but he is off the mark on this one. If you can do a weight for 20 reps, it isn’t really ‘heavy’ in the true sense of the word. Of course, that would be plenty heavy for the average lifter, but heavy is always a relative concept. For Markus Rühl, ‘heavy’ means using so much weight that he can only get an average of 4-6 reps, and sometimes even less. When critics say his standard 25-30 sets per bodypart constitutes massive overtraining, they usually fail to recognize just how low his reps are. If you add up all the reps he does compared to what his peers do with less overall sets but using reps in the 10-20 range, you understand that he isn’t really doing more. “Look at the top powerlifters in the world, the men who hold the records for bench pressing, squatting, and deadlifting,” he says. “These are some enormous men, and they got that way from doing multiple sets of 1-5 reps. I doubt any of them ever go much higher except in warm-up sets, because it wouldn’t help them become stronger. That is true heavy training. I go just a little bit higher in most of my sets, but I always make sure the weight feels nice and heavy all the time. Just because you can do 20 reps with a weight that your training partner can only get five reps with, don’t think it’s heavy.” Amen to that, my big German brother in iron!
Don’t be a cheater, do chase the pump
With the sickeningly heavy weights and low reps Markus uses, you could easily assume his form is loose and he rarely ever gets a pump. In both cases you would be wrong. “In my early days I used to cheat a lot, especially when training the torso muscles. I didn’t really know any better, because I still hadn’t learned correct form. But I had to learn after suffering my first serious shoulder injury when I was just 23 years old. Using good form means the muscle you are trying to target actually does do the work, and that’s the only way to get results. I could use a lot more weight than I do if I didn’t care about the form, but that would do nothing except put me at risk for more and more injuries, which are every pro bodybuilder’s worst nightmare (note: as Markus recently experienced yet again). Another thing people don’t understand is that even though I use very heavy weights and low reps, I always get a pump. The pump comes from having a strong mind-muscle connection. If you have that, you can get just a s intense a pump with six reps as you can with sixteen.”
Take your sets to failure
Over the past couple years, a string of gurus and strength coaches have gone on record to say that training to failure is not only unnecessary, but will actually keep you from making gains due to the beating it puts on your nervous system. End your sets while you still have a couple reps left, they say. Markus doesn’t but into it for a minute. “To me, that sounds like someone who just doesn’t want to train hard. Oh, it’s starting to burn or feel heavy, I had better stop now. Who trains like that? All the great bodybuilders I have ever known pushed or pulled until they couldn’t move the weight. That’s how you shock a muscle into growing, not by babying it and being afraid to work it too hard. Can you imagine Tom Platz getting his amazing legs if he had stopped his squats with 315 at 20 reps when he knew he could get 50 if he kept digging and put out every last ounce of effort he had? I don’t end a set until I have to, and it has worked very well for me all these years.”
Don’t work too much muscle in one day
When we are beginners, it’s fine to work the whole body at once three times a week, or split it into upper and lower body workouts. As we progress and grow stronger, and can generate more intensity, we are able to work the muscles much harder than before. That’s when it’s time to start breaking the body down into small portions and give each muscle group its own training session. Look at how Markus has it arranged. Even biceps gets its own day! Some of you would consider this silly, but Rühl has his reasons for specializing. “I train heavy and with high volume. If I tried to train shoulders after chest, or arms after anything else, I know from past experience the second muscle group would not get a good workout. All of us do better in most things when we concentrate on just one area at a time. It is the same with muscles. If you go into the gym to train chest and shoulders, the whole time you are working your chest you are worrying about whether you will have enough energy for shoulders. Of course you won’t, not as much as you would if you trained shoulders in another workout. Only now you have ruined your chest workout because you were holding back, saving something for later. People try to save time by combining several muscle groups in one workout, but they are really cheating themselves of the results they should be getting.”
Pack in the food
You can train as hard and as heavy as any of the pro’s, but if you fail to support that training with good nutrition, don’t expect any spectacular results. It takes a lot of quality food to build extreme amounts of muscle, and no amount of training or drugs will ever build a giant physique without it. Markus Rühl eats an average of 7,000 calories a day in the off-season when he tips the scales (the freight scales, no doubt) at 320 pounds. And these calories come from mostly ‘clean’ foods like chicken, beef, fish, rice, and potatoes, not junk. “I take in 400-500 grams of protein a day, every day. If you want to get big, you can’t be afraid to eat. Eating has to become like a job. You don’t miss meals, and you always have to be conscious that what you put into your body is a building block for muscle. Eat crap and you will look like crap. It’s not easy to eat so much good food all the time, but this is what it takes to get huge. Unless you do this, don’t bother wasting your time training hard, or else it will just be for nothing.”
Amateur Contest History
1995 Bachgau Cup (first contest) Heavyweight and Overall Champion
1997 Hessen Championships Heavyweight and Overall Champion
1997 German Nationals Heavyweight and Overall Champion
Pro contest record
1997 Grand Prix Germany (pro debut) Tenth place
1998 Night of Champions Ninth place
1999 Night of Champions Fourth place
1999 Mr. Olympia Twelfth place
1999 Grand Prix England Seventh place
1999 World Pro Championships Seventh place
2000 Toronto Pro Invitational Winner
2000 Night of Champions Second place
2000 Mr. Olympia Seventh place
2000 Grand Prix England Fifth place
2000 World Pro Championships Fifth place
2001 Mr. Olympia Fourteenth place
2002 Night of Champions Winner
2002 Toronto Pro Invitational Second place
2002 Mr. Olympia Eighth place
2003 Arnold Classic Third place
2003 Maximus Pro Invitational (Italy) Second place
2004 Arnold Classic Fifth place
2004 Grand Prix Australia Third place
2004 Mr. Olympia Fifth place
2004 Grand Prix England Fourth place
2004 Grand Prix Holland Fifth place
2005 Mr. Olympia Fifteenth place
2006 Santa Susanna Pro (Spain) Second place
2006 Mr. Olympia Eighth place
2006 Grand Prix Austria Third place