An interview with Clarence Bass, local bodybuilder extraordinaire
By Thomas Gilchrist
Clarence Bass has the lungs of a cheetah, pecks that could snap a leather belt and abs that give his fitted T-shirts rug burns. Not bad for a 69-year-old.
The Albuquerque native started his lifetime obsession with fitness during puberty and hasn't stopped since. His junior year of high school he won the New Mexico state pentathlon title, and his senior year he became one of the best weight lifters in the country, garnering national recognition. After graduation, his eyes were on the Olympics, but he instead decided to turn his focus toward bodybuilding, where he would gain still more national acclaim, winning “Best Abdominals” and “Best Legs,” among other awards, at the 1978 Past-40 Mr. U.S.A. contest.
But it wasn't until 1994, at the age of 57, that Bass truly embraced his calling, leaving a career in law to focus on fitness and health full-time. In the last two decades, he's written eight books on fitness, including Ripped: The Sensible Way To Achieve Ultimate Muscularity, and authored a column for Muscle and Fitness magazine for 16 years. His achievements culminated in 2003 when he received the Vic Boff Award for lifetime achievement by his peers at the Association of Oldetime Barbell & Strongmen. The Alibi talked with Clarence last week to find out what makes the nation’s most fit member of the AARP keep picking up that barbell.
You started regularly exercising when you were 13. What inspired you to start at such a young age?
My dad, mainly. He grew up in Cimarron, N.M., up in the northeastern part of the state, and he was basically the whole track team by himself. In fact, he placed second in the state track meet. He was a discus thrower, high jumper, a pole vaulter, a broad jumper, and I think that’s about it. I’ve heard that story from authoritative sources. My dad brought home a barbell set about the time I was in the fifth grade, and he really didn’t use it much. But it didn’t take long before it was in my bedroom, and I started using it, and I guess I was too dumb to stop because I am still using it.
You’re 69. What's your secret to staying young?
Lifestyle. I think a lot of people take about a 30-year hiatus in the middle of their life. I mean, they’re in pretty good shape in college, and then when they get to be about 45, they realize they’re not going to live forever and then they get back interested. But I never stopped, and that’s my secret: I’ve always been interested in diet. When I was in high school, I was the only boy in the home-ec class because I wanted to learn more about nutrition. Also, writing the column for Muscle and Fitness, I had to look for topics to write about every month, so that helped to broaden my knowledge as well.
What's your guilty pleasure?
Well, one of the secrets is that you have to enjoy the exercise and enjoy the diet. I enjoy what I am doing. It’s not anything that I force myself to do. It’s not compulsion, it’s not discipline, it’s just something I want to do. So except for going to movies, I don’t think I have any guilty pleasures.
So let’s say that I’m really craving a breakfast burrito from Dos Hermanos, what would you say?
No hesitancy at all, I’d tell you to go eat it! Because if you deny yourself things that you really want, then your cravings build up--it’s important to keep your cravings under control. But if you’re at home, and you have a gallon jug of ice cream, if you’re like me, you’re going to keep eating it until it’s gone. It’s not a denial thing. If you tell yourself that you can’t have something, it’s human nature to want it.
What are some of the worst things that people can do to their bodies?
Let themselves get fat, not take care of themselves, not exercise. People on average gain about a pound a year after the age of 25, and by the time you get to be 55, you’re going to be in pretty piss-poor shape. But you can stop that by just eating a little more on the straight and narrow, the type of things you should eat: lots of fruit and vegetables and lean proteins, and staying active. It just annoys the hell out of me when people say, “We don’t know what’s causing all this obesity.” It’s ridiculous. Damn well we know what’s causing all the obesity.
Do you consider people in Albuquerque to be pretty healthy?
Well, you don’t have to look very far to see fat people any place you go, but there’s also a lot of healthy people. There are a lot of bicyclists, there are runners. Lots of people come here to train, because we have a wonderful climate year-round where you can exercise. So we have both. I see it as a pretty healthy place. But you can go into any McDonald’s and see a lot of fat people, and I can’t say we don’t have that because we certainly do.
What are the best things people living in Albuquerque can do to take advantage of the community and get healthy?
We have wonderful biking trails. Use the weather--there are only a few days a year when you can’t get out and walk. People should get out and do things they enjoy. We have skiing up on the Crest, many golf courses and tennis courts, and many good gyms. The key is to find something you enjoy doing. You’re not going to continue doing something you don’t enjoy.
You experimented with steroids early in your life. How do you feel about that now?
I think my book Ripped is one of the best nonjudgmental reasons for not taking steroids, particularly if you’re going to be a lifetime athlete like me. It’s a roller coaster physically and emotionally. There’s a picture of me on my website--I haven’t taken steroids for 25 years or more--look at those pictures, I bet you can’t tell the difference between the way I look now and the way I looked when I was on steroids. I think it’s a bad idea.
I woke up this morning and decided to go for a 10-minute run, and afterwards it hurt like hell. What do you suggest for people who want to get healthy to stay motivated?
The main mistake people make is that they’re in too big a hurry. The key is that you’ve got to start out slowly. Instead of going out for a run, go out for a walk, and eventually you get to the point where you’re enjoying it. When you feel like you’re making some headway, you can jog for awhile, and then walk for awhile, and slowly build up. You have to start slowly, with a plan, and build intensity as your fitness improves. And if you do it that way, you’re much more likely to continue doing it.
What part of your body are you most proud of?
Probably my brain, but from a physical standpoint, clearly, my best body parts are my abdominal muscles and my legs. I’ve never tried to focus on any particular body part. I train my whole body and hope for the best. And, in my case, it’s been quite rewarding.
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