Chuck Vinci won gold medals at the 1956 and 1960 Olympic games and the 1955 and 1959 Pan American Games, and set 12 world records in the bantamweight class of weightlifting. He was arguably one of the world’s greatest weightlifters before steroids and growth hormones were massively abused, primarily by behind-the-iron-curtain athletes.
On June 13, 2018, Vinci died at age 85 from congestive heart failure, a condition that has always been common in athletes who compete in sports requiring great strength. Their risk is probably increased because of the unproven, and likely false, belief that athletes become stronger when they eat huge amounts of food, including lots of meat and other sources of protein. Also, since the 1960s, the incidence of heart disease in strength athletes is increasing at a great rate because steroids have been widely used in sports requiring great strength. The athletes use them because they are known to make athletes stronger (NEJM, July 4, 1996;335(1):1-7) but can cause heart damage.
Early Years and Lifting Career
Vinci’s father was a janitor and Vinci spent much of his youth shining shoes in Cleveland, Ohio. He quit school when he was in the eighth grade and spent all of his free time lifting weights in Cleveland’s Central Y.M.C.A. He overcame his feelings of insecurity driven by childhood poverty by training all day, longer and harder than everyone else. At age 22, he moved to York, PA to train at York Barbell Club and earned money by helping to package protein supplements. At that time, weightlifters didn’t make much money.
When he was training for the 1964 Olympics, he tore ligaments in his back and had to abandon competitive weightlifting, but that didn’t stop him from continuing to lift very heavy weights almost to the very end of his life. At age 55, he was still able to do combined lifts of up to 400 pounds. In 2002, at age 69, the arteries leading to his heart were blocked by plaques so he had to have extensive heart bypass surgery. After his surgery and while still in his hospital room, he did push-ups and squats. At age 79, he had to have a heart valve replaced and told reporters that doctors said he could resume weight training as soon as he healed. At age 85, he died from congestive heart failure, a heart that was too weak to pump blood through his body.
Exercise and Heart Attacks
How could a great athlete who exercised all his life suffer such extensive heart disease? The scientific literature has shown overwhelmingly that exercise helps to prevent heart attacks and heart failure (The Lancet, Dec 6, 1980;316(8206):1207-1210). Both endurance exercise such as running and cycling and strength exercise such as lifting weights help to make the heart stronger and help to prevent heart attacks. Indeed, exercise is the most effective way to strengthen the heart to prevent heart failure.
Heart attacks are not caused by narrowed arteries, not even when an artery is almost completely blocked. A heart attack is caused by a sudden complete blockage of blood flow to the heart muscle. First plaques form on the inner linings of arteries, and then after many years, a plaque may suddenly break off from an artery leading to the heart. That area bleeds and then a clot forms to obstruct blood flow completely to part of the heart. The area of the heart muscle that suffers from complete lack of oxygen dies and is replaced by scar tissue.
Plaques are caused to a large degree by a faulty diet. Exercise helps to prevent heart attacks by stabilizing plaques so they are less likely to break off (Circulation, April 27, 2017;136:138-148; May 2, 2017;136:126-137). You can tell if you have lots of plaques by getting a Calcium score CT scan. You are probably at high risk for a heart attack if the scan shows that you have unstable plaques that are likely to break off (American Journal of Roentgenology, March 2015;204(3):W249-W260). Signs of plaque stability include extensive calcification, less lipid-rich areas, increased fibrous areas and structural changes.
Why Do Strength Athletes Suffer from Such a High Rate of Heart Attacks?
Even today, many coaches and trainers incorrectly think that eating a lot of protein makes muscles stronger. The truth is that once a person meets his needs for protein, taking in more protein will not help him grow larger and stronger muscles (Clin Interv Aging, July, 2012 ;7:225 – 234). You only need so much protein and when you take in more than you need, you gain no further muscle growth (Journal of Applied Physiology, Aug 1992;73 (2): 767–75). An athlete will gain maximum muscle growth from taking in up to 1.8 g/kg/day of protein (Journal of Applied Physiology, 1985;73 (5): 1986–95; Journal of Sports Sciences, 2004;22(1)). A male who weighs 180 pounds (82 kilograms) will gain maximal muscle growth on 147 grams of protein per day (82 kg x 1.8g/kg/day). That is 16 percent of the average weightlifter’s total food intake of 3700 calories per day. This means that he can get half of his maximal protein benefit by eating 10 ounces of steak, chicken or fish. No protein supplement offers more healthful protein than what you can get in food.
However, taking in less protein than you need (approximately 0.7g/kg/day) will cause loss of muscle size (JAMA, Jan 2012;307(1):47–55). You cannot prevent muscle loss at any age just by eating extra protein (J. Nutr, June 11, 2014). Protein supplements offer no added benefit for weight lifters (J Am Med Dir Assoc, Oct 1, 2016;17(10):959): see Protein Supplements Don’t Make You Stronger. Furthermore, protein loading, eating red meat or processed meats. or just overeating all turn on your immunity to cause inflammation that increases risk for heart attacks, heart failure and some types of cancers.
Drugs and World Weightlifting Dominance
Before 1960, American men dominated Olympic weightlifting; they won four out of the seven gold medals in each of the 1948, 1952 and 1956 Olympic weightlifting contests. In 1960, Vinci was the only American to win a gold medal in weightlifting. Since then, weightlifting has been dominated by the Soviet Union, Eastern bloc countries, Asia and the Middle East. The key to growing large and stronger muscles is to take an intense workout on one day and damage your muscles, feel sore on the next, go easy for as longs it takes for the muscles to heal, and then take your next intense workout. Anything that helps you to recover faster will make you stronger and a better athlete. Anabolic steroids are synthetic male hormones that help athletes recover so they can do more work and gain far more strength (Sports Med, 2004;34(8):513-54). Growth hormones also make muscles grow larger and stronger. However, both of these drugs come at a very high price. See Some Athletes Will Always Cheat to Win
Human growth hormones cause the heart muscle to enlarge beyond its limited nerve supply, which increases the likelihood of irregular heartbeats that can kill a person many years after he stops taking them (Heart, May 2004;90(5):473–475). Synthetic male hormones cause plaques to form in arteries, lower blood levels of the good HDL cholesterol and increase levels of the bad LDL cholesterol. Steroids can also cause lots of other serious side effects (J Sports Sci Med. Jun 1, 2006;5(2): 182–193). See my reports on Naim Suleymanoglu and Rich Plano
Lessons from Chuck Vinci’s Story
• Lifelong exercise can stabilize plaques to make them less likely to break off and cause heart attacks, but exercise does not keep plaques from forming.
• The medical literature shows that eating large amounts of red meat is associated with increased risk for premature death and heart attacks (Archives of Internal Medicine, March 2009), even for those who exercise heavily.
Feb 28, 1933 – June 13, 2018