IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

In Iraq, muscle is a growth industry

The advent of affordable gyms and the influx of supplements, including many steroids illegal in the United States without a prescription, have turned bodybuilding, an obsession for many Iraqis, into a booming industry.
Image: Iraqi man lifting weights
Adnan Homadi, 17, lifts weights at the Future Body Building and Fitness Gym in Baghdad on May 30.Andrea Bruce / The Washington Post
/ Source: a href="" linktype="External" resizable="true" status="true" scrollbars="true">The Washington Post</a

Younis Imad, 18, started lifting weights at the Future Gym along Baghdad's Palestine Street a little over a year ago. "I was overweight," he said, taking a break between sets. "I was very upset about that." He was also in need of a job.

The gym's entrepreneurial owner, Ali Torkey, took Imad under his wing, gave him dieting tips and put him on a whey protein regimen. Four months ago, newly buff after weeks of working out, Imad secured work as a security guard at a radio station in Baghdad, a city where improving security is reflected in the revival of everyday activities such as bodybuilding.

"I feel better when I come in and exercise," said Imad, having arrived straight from the station to work out wearing jeans, a fitted red T-shirt and combat boots. He works out six times a week, and in the past year he has shed most of his body fat and grown a thick chest and huge biceps.

Booming industry
The advent of affordable gyms and the influx of muscle-building supplements, including many steroids illegal in the United States without a prescription, have turned bodybuilding, a longtime obsession for many Iraqis, into a booming industry.

Iraqis' interest in bodybuilding, a male-only activity here, soared during the 1980s, when such figures as Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger gained worldwide celebrity.

Gyms were regulated by the government, and membership was limited to people with official connections. Those who worked out elsewhere used makeshift equipment and were barred from formal competitions.

But since Saddam Hussein was deposed in 2003, gyms have opened all over the capital. When violence in Iraq soared shortly after the U.S.-led invasion, security companies tapped into the bodybuilding community to hire guards. As a result, extremist groups opposed to the U.S. occupation began targeting the thick-biceps-and-bulging-chest crowd.

"Many of them were killed for working with foreigners," said Haider Adil, 24, the owner of a nutritional supplement store in central Baghdad.

For a period, many bodybuilders kept a low profile, avoiding gyms and wearing loose-fitting clothes that hid their builds. "Many changed their lives," Adil said.

Improved security
That has changed over the past year as security has improved, in part because of the arrival of more U.S. soldiers.

Many Iraqis still join gyms to build muscle in the hopes of landing a high-paying job in security, which, like bodybuilding, is one of Iraq's few growth industries.

Torkey, the owner of the Future Gym, has capitalized on the craze. He trains bodybuilders and administers steroids, which he injects himself.

"I cannot give it to someone who is new," explained the 24-year-old high school dropout. "After two or three months I begin giving it to him."

One day last week, most of the men at Torkey's gym were working out barefoot. Since the gym's two treadmills were broken, a cardio workout was not an option. The stereo blasted songs by Lil' Kim, the Pussycat Dolls, Shakira and Eminem.

Before the U.S. invasion, bodybuilding aficionados relied on months-old, dog-eared bodybuilding magazines for information about muscle-building protein supplements, which were banned by the government, and other techniques to lose weight and build muscle.

"We used to see them in magazines only," Ahmed Ridha, 30, a bodybuilder and personal trainer at the Dragon Gym, said of the supplements. "We didn't have them."

With government oversight gone, gyms started opening in virtually every Baghdad neighborhood and in other large cities. Some bodybuilders started smuggling whey protein and other substances into Iraq, but their exorbitant price made them inaccessible to most.

Large posters of ripped men in briefs showing off oil-slicked bodies appeared on the streets. Owners began importing weightlifting equipment from Asia and the United States, and many bodybuilders started taking supplements.

Baghdad's first few gyms, including one named after the governor of California, opened in Karrada, a relatively secure neighborhood. But they soon started appearing -- and filling up -- in volatile areas such as the impoverished Shiite district of Sadr City.

Monthly memberships cost $10 to $15. The more expensive gyms have newer equipment and offer perks such as personal training and cardio machines. Through the years, upticks in violence hurt business, but the industry found ways to cope.

"Even if there are mortars, even if there are sandstorms, people come in and exercise," Ridha said. Adil's nutritional supplement business, which opened two years ago, now has two locations in Baghdad.

"We have a big store on the other side of the river," Adil said proudly as customers walked in and out of his small shop. "The situation is very good."

The shop owner said he doesn't sell steroids because he said they can have significant and long-lasting side effects. Ibrahim Talib, 37, who coaches a youth bodybuilding league, said steroid use has killed some bodybuilders.

Torkey was a scrawny teenager when he started lifting weights five years ago.

He has a photo on his wall to prove it, alongside a more recent one that makes for a startling contrast. In his late teens, as he began hanging out with professional bodybuilders, he started hitting the gym almost daily.

Whey protein and steroids allowed him to enter competitions. His office is filled with medals and photos of him posing in tiny briefs, muscles flexed, as men rub oil on his body.

He says he is judicious about whom he sells steroids to and says they can be used safely. As their physiques have improved, Torkey and other bodybuilders who compete in tournaments have grown fond of veterinary steroids, which he said produce quicker results than regular ones.

But he doesn't recommend them to everyone. "Those who are amateurs, we give them something else," he said.