“I was a skinny and stuttering kid.” Born in Tennessee in 1948 but raised in Kentucky, Bob Birdsong was frequently bullied as a child over everything from his lanky frame and stuttering speech to his funny last name. With bullies and nicknames like “Birdie Legs” and “Tweet Tweet” following him throughout elementary and middle school straight into high school, Birdsong was 14 years old when he finally discovered a way to cope with his daily dose of criticism—bodybuilding. Inspired by idols like Arnold Schwarzenegger, Rick Wayne and Steve Reeves, it was easy for Birdsong to dream of transforming his own “skinny, bow-legged, flat-footed and tormented” body into a muscled masterpiece.
Throwing himself full speed ahead into his hobby with a new set of weights and a muscle magazine, Birdsong saw his confidence grow just as his 5’8” frame took on more and more muscle that quickly turned the tables and made him so intimidating that no bully dared to cross him. “Muscle men became my idols and bodybuilding became my God,” he told the Spokane Daily Chronicle. By the time he graduated from high school, he had enough confidence to leave the comfort of his Kentucky home and travel to Pasadena, California where he studied fine art at the Art Center College of Design. While there, he tried his hand at modeling with Cold Studios photographing him throughout the early 1970s.
Birdsong experienced the competitive nature of modeling firsthand and, because of his experience, knew that maintaining his physique was extremely important. He balanced his coursework and modeling with training (four hours a day, six days a week) and entered his first bodybuilding competition in 1973 at the AAU Mr. Los Angeles. Despite finishing in 21st place, he refused to let the loss discourage him and went on to compete in the 1972 AAU Mr. California and the 1972 AAU Mr. Western America where he finished second in each competition. This streak of success was exactly what led him to compete as an IFBB professional bodybuilder.
In 1973, Birdsong enjoyed incredible victory as a rookie when he won the IFBB Mr. International and the IFBB Mr. America competitions as well as the AAU Mr. Pacific Coast and the AAU Mr. Los Angeles. The following year he secured another first-place title at the IFBB Mr. America and second place at the IFBB Mr. Universe and the IFBB Mr. International events. Suddenly, as if out of nowhere, the former “skinny, stuttering kid” from Kentucky was a true contender in the world of professional bodybuilding—silly last name and all!
Birdsong won the IFBB Mr. Universe Pro and the IFBB World Pro Championships in 1975 before he took a break from competing to focus solely on training over the next four years with the hopes of taking home the coveted Mr. Olympia title. By 1979, he was more than ready to make his Mr. Olympia debut and finished in an impressive fifth place. Unfortunately, this would be his highest ranking after he finished in 10th place in 1984 and 11th place in 1985. Momentum fading, he never won another competition and unofficially retired from professional bodybuilding in 1989 after 18 years on the stage.
With his claim to fame in bodybuilding being his symmetrical physique and impressive muscular development—both of which were featured in Pumping Iron: The Art and Sport of Bodybuilding in 1974—Birdsong might have never won the Mr. Olympia title but he managed to gain a national audience in 1984 when ABC covered the World Pro Championships and Arnold Schwarzenegger commentated the event. In fact, Birdsong saw his career come full circle when his childhood idol used him as an example to describe muscle formation and development as well as the judging process for the event where he went on to finish in fourth place.
After his success as a bodybuilder where feature stories and covers in magazines like Muscle & Fitness, Flex and Muscle Mag International were simply part of the job, Birdsong used his fame to pursue other passions and start the next chapter of his life. After all, he was only 41 years old at the time. Part of that next chapter involved his Christian faith after he shared his story of overcoming bullies and a series of setbacks to find success on the bodybuilding stage with the Spokane Daily Chronicle in 1980. Columnist Alice Feinstein described him perfectly, “Birdsong pumps iron for the Lord, lifts weights for the Almighty, flexes his Mr. Universe muscles and, when he has your attention (He has it; he has it!), tells you what Jesus Christ has done in his life.”
Apart from sharing his Christian faith, Birdsong spent the first few years of his retirement further exploring a practice that worked well for him as a bodybuilder—neuromuscular therapy, which is using the mind and body to achieve the desired results. He attended the Bancroft School of Massage in Worcester, Massachusetts and the St. John Neuromuscular Therapy Seminars in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida where he earned his certification as a neuromuscular therapist in 1990. Over the next decade, he lectured to medical practitioners around the country and successfully transformed Massachusetts’ Canyon Ranch into one of the highest praised spas in America before opening his own practice, Patterns of Life.
While the 68-year-old former Mr. Universe may no longer sport 212 pounds of pure muscle, he certainly has no regrets over where life has taken him especially after rising above playground taunts of “Tweet Tweet” and “Birdie Legs” to become an IFBB professional, Christian missionary and therapist. Now living in Westport, Connecticut with his family and still making special appearances at bodybuilding and wellness events, a lot has changed since Birdsong took the stage but one thing remains the same and that’s the story of how he found strength in his faith. “I would expect people to see Christ in me before they see me as a bodybuilder.”