Named for former California Governor Schwarzenegger himself, the Arnold Sports Festival is an annual fitness gathering held in Columbus, Ohio. Although centralized around the Expo — a zoo of an event with companies dishing out free goodies, building rapport, and selling products — it’s also home to many sport competitions, fromOlympic Weightlifting and powerlifting to bodybuilding, CrossFit, martial arts, gymnastics, and more.

Pictures of the famed Expo are littered over the internet. It’s no secret: the Expo is a madhouse. Seemingly shoulder to shoulder, people maneuver through rows of both new and old fitness companies looking to cement their reputation in the industry.

So I (generally) knew what to expect. The problem is, my expectations weren’t what they should have been. Shoulder to shoulder was more like chest to chest. Walking was more of a waddle. Booth lines for recognized brands such as snaked through out the event. The wait time for free goodies was best measured with a sundial.

My personal favorite of the booths, however, was‘s. They sold what is known as the Slingshot — a tiny shirt-like creation that claims to increase bench press strength. Unlike the companies launching supplement samples into large crowds like some kind of new age Halloween candy give away, had a unique selling point: just try it. Passersby snugly packed into the Slingshot, plopped down on the bench, and promptly fell in love with their new-found, equipment-assisted strength.

The crowd, though enormous, was expected. The atmosphere, however, blindsided me. Body painting, bare skin, and chin-up competitions were all too normal. Near the middle of the Expo room sat “The Cage,” an area sponsored by supplement company Animal Pak, which was just that — a fenced in area where people stronger than four average humans trained in real-time. Even bodybuilding greats Frank Zane and Lou Ferrigno were standing by signing autographs for fans young and old.

A storied mainstay of the event is the bodybuilding competition, which is held in a separate location, requiring separate (pricy) tickets. Although not as big as the Mr. Olympia contest — the world’s foremost bodybuilding competition — the Arnold draws a massive crowd. Branch Warren was this year’s repeat winner — a surprising feat considering he tore his quadriceps from the bone not long before the competition.

Perhaps the coolest part of the weekend was the Sunday sit-down with Arnold himself. The Governator dove deep into personal stories such as his antics with former training pal Franco Columbu, capturing his essence and showcasing not only his intelligence but also his sense of humor.

Below are my summarizing thoughts from the weekend with tips for future event hopefuls:

  • To beat the crowd, the Expo is best tackled Friday. Free t-shirts and supplement samples are easy to come by, but be prepared to stand in line and exchange your name and email address for the goods.
  • The Expo is a one time, one day experience. (In my opinion.) So if you plan on visiting for the weekend, budget for other events.
  • There are a lot of events to attend that run simultaneously with the Expo. So if you get claustrophobic, there is a chance to back out, check out some Olympic Weightlifting, and regroup. (Provided the Olympic Weightlifting space isn’t completely occupied.)
  • Chat with online friends and plan a get together. There are a ton of people at the event and there’s likely at least one person you know in some capacity floating about. I was fortunate enough to meet with John Romaniello, which was worth the trip in itself as he’s a genuine, knowledgeable, one-of-a-kind guy. I also crossed paths with someone others who follow my writing, which was an awesome and humbling feeling.

Although the event was overwhelming and not something I’d jump at the chance to return to, I think anyone interested in the fitness scope owes it to themselves to go at least once. If not for anything specific, then at least for the story and prestige.

Above all else, the 2012 Arnold Sports Festival taught me that the health & fitness industry’s momentum owes a lot to Arnold Schwarzenegger and what he has done to popularize the space. Whether or not bodybuilding is quite your “thing,” we can’t forget his attempts to push the industry in the right direction by advocating that gyms be ever-present, even in formerly unconventional locations such as hotels and workplaces. He’s been giving back for a long time and continues to do so.

Thank you, Arnold. We are forever indebted.

Photo by Anthony Mychal