His straining muscles glistening under the spotlights, bodybuilder Arthur Peacock wowed the roaring crowd with a succession of choreographed poses. He popped his pecs and showed off six-pack abs with confidence and flair, outshining other competitors also well into their golden years.
Fifty years of training had brought him to his moment, and Peacock, a retired carpenter from the Sierra Nevada foothills of Jackson, was squarely in his element. A heart attack a month earlier hadn’t derailed him, and he had no intention of letting anyone or anything get in his way now.
“That was my second heart attack,” Peacock said later. “I’ve had bladder cancer, prostate cancer. I have a metal plate in my hip. I cut off my fingers and had them sewed back on. I’ve had all sorts of health problems; it boggles the mind. But still, I keep working out.”
And that July night, a few weeks before his 80th birthday, all that dedication paid off. Peacock won his division of the National Physique Committee’s Teen, Collegiate and Masters National Championships, the pinnacle of American amateur bodybuilding for younger and older age groups.
Thousands of fans packed the Sheraton Station Square ballroom in Pittsburgh to see the 250 male bodybuilders in the over-40 masters divisions. The older men were the undisputed stars and drew the loudest cheers. And with his stunning, time-defying performance, Peacock raised the bar for senior bodybuilders.
“That’s my favorite group, age 70 and up,” said promoter Gary Udit, who has run the NPC Masters nationals since 1993. “That’s the one group that blows people away the most. They’re so remarkable.”
Udit, a longtime trainer as well as promoter, said he has seen more older bodybuilders compete in masters divisions. “Interest is up; it’s proven here,” he said at the nationals. “More to the point, the guys in their 50s and 60s, there are more of them competing.”
The trend reflects a growing interest in weight training among seniors who see exercise as a way to slow if not escape the aging process. According to Bodybuilding.com, mature bodybuilders – ages 50 and up – represent the second fastest-growing demographic for the sport, trailing only men ages 25 to 45.
Research long has documented the benefits of exercise as people age. On average, men lose 30 percent of their muscle mass between ages 50 and 70. That can slow metabolism, contribute to weight gain, limit mobility and lead to other health problems. Regular fitness routines can help seniors retain muscle tone, mental focus and overall health.
“The skin goes first; it sags,” Udit said. “You can tell the guys who kept working out (without extended breaks). Guys who take off time – maybe 10 years with no training – it’s difficult to come back.”
Top-tier bodybuilders constitute an extreme end on the fitness spectrum, taking the commitment to muscle tone to unusual lengths. Typically, elite bodybuilders put in 20 hours or more at the gym each week.
Competitive bodybuilders share traits with other successful people, Udit said. “They’re self-motivated, driven. They know the importance of time management. They have the dedication and singular focus.”
Peacock is a prime example. Bodybuilding has shaped his life as well as his muscles. He is a three-time Mr. America in masters divisions and has won more than 150 trophies in his amateur career.
“I’m the history of bodybuilding on the West Coast,” Peacock said. “I trained with Arnold (Schwarzenegger). I was there when Joe Gold opened his gym (in Venice).”
That original Gold’s Gym, bodybuilding’s undisputed mecca, celebrated its 50th anniversary this year. Now, Peacock seeks to inspire men half his age. “My name is Peacock, and I’m proud as a peacock,” he said with a chuckle. “I don’t mind strutting my stuff.”
Honor Andruzzi, Peacock’s daughter, grew up watching her dad compete.
“For him to be so dedicated to something for so long, he’s a total inspiration to me,” Andruzzi said. “I think he kept at it because he didn’t want to look old. He wanted to feel good, and he does. And most 80-year-olds don’t look like him.”
In recent years, illness broke Peacock’s training several times and almost ended his bodybuilding career altogether in 2012, but he was determined to win another title to celebrate his half century of competition. In June, he suffered a heart attack minutes after he stepped offstage following preliminary judging in a Contra Costa County contest, his first in three years. Three weeks after his heart attack, he won Mr. Nevada and the invitation to the championships.
Part of Peacock’s prize for winning the nationals: an International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness pro card. It’s a hard-earned distinction that only a handful of bodybuilders ever reach.
“I’m now the world’s oldest professional bodybuilder,” said Peacock. “I don’t know what I’ll do as a pro; there’s nobody else for me to compete against. But I always wanted that pro card. It says I belong up there with the best of the best.”
Set amid oaks and pines on the outskirts of town, Peacock’s Jackson home is set up as one long interrupted workout. The floors and walls are crowded with weight-lifting apparatus; the tabletops and shelves are lined with trophies.
He trains four to six times a week in intense one- to two-hour spurts. Using the pulleys and bars of his weight-training equipment, he fine-tunes individual muscle groups. Before his retirement, he’d often work out in the middle of the night.
“My workouts depend on my mood,” he said. “I schedule my exercise; abs one day, squats another. To motivate myself, I keep mixing and matching my program.”
Tucked into a corner next to his dinner table, he eased through a squat routine that would leave most people exhausted. “The key to all bodybuilding is squatting, but most of us hate it,” he said. “I’ve got great legs, and I know it. The more you squat, the bigger your chest gets, too.”
The right choice – and sheer quantity – of food has been key to his success, Peacock noted. For him, food is more fuel than pleasure. To maintain his weight of 190 pounds, he eats seven meals a day, spaced two hours apart.
“Take the word ‘diet’ out; I eat a balanced menu,” he said. “The hardest part when you get older is to maintain your weight. You can start to look thin and emaciated.
“Typically, I’ll start with six scrambled eggs, one cup oatmeal and a sliced banana; that’s my normal breakfast. If I’m trying to bulk up, I add 8 ounces of almond milk and two tablespoons of almond or peanut butter. Next meal, I’ll have 6 ounces of chicken, a cup of brown rice and a cup of broccoli, and so on. It’s all balanced carbs and protein, very low fat.”
He knows what his body can take, but he continues to tinker with his training regimen, packing more intensity into shorter sessions as he ages.
“If I can do it, literally anybody can do it,” he said. “I’m just a journeyman bodybuilder. I wasn’t blessed with a perfect physique. I’m not genetically superior. But I just kept working at it; I never gave up.”
Born in London, Peacock didn’t imagine himself as a man of steel. As a child, he saw his neighborhood destroyed by bombing during World War II. A wiry youth, he took up bike riding and eventually road racing as a way to escape the war-torn cityscape.
“I wanted to get out in the country, as far away as possible from all the destruction,” he recalled. “Cycling let me do that; it was my wings.”
A decade in the Royal Air Force included a Cambridge education – he majored in German. While in the service, Peacock built upper-body strength as a competitive water polo player. He moved to Santa Monica in 1965, wooed by California’s sunny mystique.
“I fell in love with the Beach Boys,” he said. “I had this image of what California beach life could be. I wanted to surf. And when I got here, I never left. I was young, good-looking, with an English accent. I had the time of my life.”
After arriving in California, Peacock got a job with the phone company. A lineman noticed his muscular forearms and invited him to a new gym opening in nearby Venice. That gym was the original Gold’s.
Soon, Peacock was immersed in the bodybuilding culture, and he discovered he had natural ability. In 1968, he won his first title: Mr. Venice Beach. The next year, he became the Amateur Athletic Union’s Bodybuilder of the Year.
“I was competing against the best pros of my day,” he said. “But I couldn’t become Mr. America because I wasn’t a citizen, so I quit competing.”
Peacock also felt he was at a disadvantage. He was a clean competitor during the dawn of the steroids era when many top bodybuilders started using drugs to bulk up muscle.
“I was so uninformed,” he said. “I couldn’t understand how a guy the same size as me could add 20 pounds of muscle almost overnight. But if I had used steroids, I wouldn’t be here today. They take too great a toll on your body. You won’t last to your 50s, let alone 80.”
A chance visit to a friend in Northern California in 1974 landed him in laid-back Jackson, far from hectic Los Angeles. “I fell in love with the place,” said Peacock, who bought a former chicken ranch on Highway 88 near Jackson Rancheria. “This has been my home ever since.”
In the greater Sacramento area, Peacock found work as a journeyman carpenter and eventually became a U.S. citizen. He married, had a daughter and later divorced. Now a grandfather, he never stopped working out, turning a former chicken coop into a gym and training other bodybuilders, often much younger.
“There were no gyms around here at the time,” he said. “Nobody else was doing what I was doing.”
He resumed competition at age 40, in bodybuilding’s masters divisions, reserved for older competitors. The titles, including Masters Mr. USA and Masters Mr. America, piled up and kept coming.
Peacock acknowledges that his chosen sport requires a certain degree of obsession. But ultimately, he said, he does it because it’s fun. Even after the heart attacks and injuries, Peacock feels he’s in the best shape of his life. His new national championship, he said, at his age is the greatest accomplishment of all.
“I’ve trained with the best in the world,” Peacock said. “Now, I’m an ambassador of the sport. My advice to younger guys? Never give up! If I can do it, you can do it.”