The World’s Largest Biceps, which reside on the arms of a 24-year-old cashier at a gas station on Route 9 in Southborough, look like a cinderblock shoved into a sock the wide way. They measure 31 inches around, and they are still growing. Arnold Schwarzenegger had 22 inches at his peak. Hulk Hogan had 24-inch pythons.
Three weeks ago, Moustafa Ismail and his biceps were flown to Heathrow Airport in London, greeted by a chauffer holding a sign with his name on it, and whisked off to receive one of Earth’s strangest honors. The chauffer had been sent by the folks at Guinness, who had chosen Ismail to be one of their signature anomalies, the star of this year’s sideshow. He joined previous tallests and oldests and longests and oddests as the extreme human Guinness paraded around London for the launch of their latest book of world records.
Ismail proved to be a worthy choice, because his arms look impossible. It’s not just that his biceps and triceps are inhumanly large — the official Guinness measurement includes both muscles — it is that the rest of him is, comparatively, small. His forearms could almost be described as slim.
Courtesy of Guinness, his photo shot around the world in an Internet instant. Overnight, he became a global celebrity. And overnight, he became a target.
“I wish it was just steroids,” he said of the accusations being hurled his way. Plenty of people think that, but those who know steroids say even steroids probably could not do the job on their own. What he is being accused of is something he has a hard time pronouncing with his Egyptian accent: synthol.
In short, the bodybuilding community is accusing him of injecting an oil directly into his biceps to make them appear bigger by stretching out the fascia, the connective tissue that surrounds all skeletal muscles.
Ismail adamantly denies the accusations. He says he had never heard of synthol until the attacks came his way. He moved to this country from Egypt four years ago and admits that he took testosterone there because it was over-the-counter and drastically cheaper than supplements. In the United States, the opposite is true, and he says he could not afford steroids even if he wanted them.
“I’m a guy who works in a gas station,” he said. “I’m not Bill Gates.” His Colombian-American wife would never let him get away with spending their money like that, he said.
Moustafa Ismail did not need a Guinness world record, or the million anonymous accusations, to know people freak out around his arms. “Girls want to touch them and guys want to talk about them,” is his favorite description.
Hundreds of strangers have taken his photo over the years. The arms are impossible to miss, and it is almost impossible for him to get a shirt over them, so they are always just out. Even a 3XL short-sleeve shirt requires choreography, experience, and strong pulling. His wedding was delayed for a couple of months because he could not find a suit.
Ismail lives in Franklin and has been working in gas stations around there since he arrived from Egypt. He has been seriously lifting weights since he was 14 and says everyone who works out finds something they like, and what he liked was arm exercises. So he did them every day, sometimes twice a day, with very heavy things.
Until January, he was going to a gas station at 5 a.m., working a full 8-hour shift until 1 p.m., rushing to the gym — all arms, big and heavy and quick – and then going to another gas station at 3 p.m, to work another 8-hour shift. He did this seven days a week, and each day found time to eat four pounds of meat, $30 worth of supplements, and plenty of everything else. He watches TV curled up with a tub of mashed potatoes.
The goal was always to build huge, huge arms. “Not for Guinness,” he said. He did it for himself, because he likes how it makes him feel, and he likes what it does to others. “It is a gift to make strangers happy,” he said in his way, which is soft and with the tight word choice of aphorisms.
Last year, a friend contacted Guinness on Ismail’s behalf, and he later met judges at a hotel, where they took his measurements and lots of photos. They wouldn’t tell him what they measured or if he had the record; they just told him to lay low and they would be in touch. A year went by, then he got the call and a few days to pack.
Guinness does not drug-test its record-holders; they record extremes, not judge them, and the world expects them to know who has the biggest biceps, said a spokesman. But the uproar has been so loud since Ismail’s photo went viral that Guinness has announced plans to consult with medical specialists and review the biceps category. (Biceps is a bit of a misnomer, because the Guinness measurement is taken with a tape wrapped around the entire flexed arm; nearly half of Ismail’s girth is in his triceps.)
The accusations have hurt Ismail. He is distraught people would think he cheated to get his arms. To prove his point, he showed the Globe exactly where he got his arms: the World Gym in Milford.
There is no denying that Ismail is strong. He spends most of his time in the corner with the biggest dumbbells. When he uses a machine, he starts with the pin down on one of the bottom weights and quickly runs out of them. He is 5 feet 11 inches tall, 270 pounds, and says he has curled 400 pounds and bench-pressed 500. He spends most of his time in the gym moving giant plates onto bars until they’re full.
“That [synthol] stuff causes nerve damage, and you walk around shaking like an old car. You couldn’t lift this,” he said as 300 pounds flew into the air on his seventh set on a lat pull-down machine.
He has cut back to just one gas station job because his wife found work at the Calphalon store at the Wrentham Outlets, so he has had more time to work on his arms. In the 12 months since Guinness measured him for the world record, he has added 5 more inches. (His record in the 2013 book of records is just 26 inches.)
“He works hard; you’ve got to give him that,” said Pat Forbes, an assistant manager at the gym. “In the past year, his arms have ballooned.”
He is, by all accounts, a gentle giant who plays his role well. He will let you touch his biceps. He will put you up on his shoulders for a picture. He will answer your questions. “Are they real?” is a daily question. And there has always been a certain type of guy who wants to pick a fight. “They want to show off that they can deal with a guy like you,” he said. “I just say OK.”
As he sat for a steak-and-shrimp lunch in an Applebee’s near the gym, he was approached by several patrons and the waitress went on and on about his arms every time she came near the table. This is what it is always like, he said, but it has been magnified since he became the Guinnes poster boy. Forty kids from Gordon College recently tracked him down at the gas station to pose for photos. The attention, he admits, is his motivation. For all the ups and down, he says he has never looked down at his muscles and wished they were not there.
And now those muscles are in “the book.” Ismail says this a lot: He is extremely proud to be a Guinness record holder. He grew up looking at that book, connecting through it to the world’s extremes.
And being in that book allows him to finally answer the one question everyone has always asked him: Yes, they are the largest biceps in the world.
Billy Baker can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.