“Are you sure? I haven’t got my second coat yet,” Liam Curtin said when asked if we could take his picture outside of the spray tan booth. We were in a small conference room on the third floor of a Hilton in downtown Houston, one skybridge away from the George R. Brown Convention Center, where Curtin and others would soon face off in the third annual bodybuilding competition known as the Summer Shredding Classic. The room at the Hilton had been converted into a tanning salon, with a dozen vinyl and wire pop-up booths, plastic protecting the carpeted floors, and the steady hum of spraying machine motors. “Remember guys, the longer you take to get undressed, the longer it’ll take to get your tan,” one of the employees shouted, sternly, as contestants stripped down to their skivvies. 

“Tanning is not required, but it is HIGHLY RECOMMENDED,” read the event’s website. The recommended skin tone is a hauntingly fake one, and when applied to the numerous white competitors it’s a shade so dark it would get them canceled in literally any other social setting. But it serves an important purpose for bodybuilders: it makes competitors essentially all the same color, and keeps them from getting washed out under the harsh stage lights. Thus, the definition of their traps, lats, and delts can properly pop for the judges. And in person, they sure do pop. They come right at you, like the shark in Jaws 3-D, sending shivers down your spine. 

The Summer Shredding Classic was started by Christian Guzman, a 29-year-old Missouri City native who also happens to be an international fitness superstar. Guzman first blew up in 2012, when he began vlogging his workouts as a freshman at Texas Christian University, quickly racking up hundreds of thousands of YouTube followers (his total count today is one million). He eventually decided to drop out and become a full-time influencer, growing his audience on YouTube until he could make money from advertising sponsorships. It’s paid off. He’s expanded his empire to include a clothing line, Alphalete Athletics, and a line of low-calorie, high-caffeine beverages, 3D Energy. His newest endeavor is his riskiest and most expensive yet: Alphaland, a 30,000-square-foot fitness center plopped down in an office park in Guzman’s hometown. It has three gyms, a restaurant, a VIP lounge, a retail space, a soccer field, and two basketball courts. He’s calling it “Disneyland for bodybuilders,” and he hopes that people will come to Missouri City to vlog their workouts the way they make pilgrimages to take a selfie with Mickey Mouse. 

Ahead of the competition, Jeff Paul and Liam Curtin get spray-tanned in a hotel conference room. Photograph by Arturo Olmos
Two of the “Men’s Physique” contestants, tanned to match. Photograph by Arturo Olmos

Just as Guzman had hoped, bodybuilders had flown in from New York, Oregon, Mexico, and all over North America for the Summer Shredding Classic. There was even talk of a très musclé Frenchman in our midst, though I never spotted him. The event was an extension of a one-man festival Guzman’s been throwing annually on his YouTube channel since 2013, dedicating all of his Q2 content to the idea of “summer shredding,” the process by which he gets mega-jacked for pool party season (“shredding” is a bodybuilding term for losing weight and building muscle, fast). His followers have long joined him in the annual endeavor, uploading videos of their own workout journeys to their social media accounts, and in 2019 he started a competition in which they could show off their results, which he hoped would attract even more customers to Alphalete.

Many of the shredders I met were relative newbies, having been introduced to the bodybuilding world by Guzman’s social media content. Liam Curtin was getting his second coat for what was only his second-ever competition. Another lifter, Jeff Paul, had flown in from Florida for his first. “This is my life now. I’m trying to go pro,” the former nursing student told me. Both Paul’s and Curtin’s Instagram accounts were now dedicated to their bodies, and they both encouraged followers to direct-message them for fitness tips. Attending Summer Shredding—competing, working out at Alphaland, meeting Christian Guzman, and networking with the thousands of prospective fitness influencers that were descending upon the Houston area—was an important step in their careers. They both spent their weekend in Houston sharing content—pics of six-packs and videos of themselves flexing in front of mirrors—attaching the relevant hashtags and tagging other influencers, helping the algorithm to put their stuff in front of any fans following the Alphalete weekend from afar. 

“Transformation” winner Dalton Musselwhite poses in front of his “before” photos.Photograph by Arturo Olmos

No competitor was a bigger star that weekend than Dalton Musselwhite. The winner of the “Transformation” title, one of four categories in the male division of the Summer Shredding Classic (there were also three in the women’s division), he walked onstage to rousing applause. Musselwhite had already made a name for himself online, documenting his 330-pound weight loss on Instagram, but this was his first bodybuilding competition. I never saw the crowd of several dozen bodybuilders with their families and friends wilder than when Musselwhite flexed under the bright lights of the convention center. When he pulled about six inches of extra skin away from his abdomen, a stark visual reminder of the impressiveness of his transformation, they just about lost their minds. 

The “Transformation” category is a relatively new one in the bodybuilding world, but it’s central to everything that Guzman has built. These competitions have always been about aesthetics, but the idea underneath is that they reward work and perseverance. Sometimes the bodies that don’t yet have the protuberant top-heaviness we associate with the mega-jacked can be the most inspiring of all, and inspiration is ultimately the product that fitness influencers are selling. And Guzman is particularly good at it, since he now has a whole business and infrastructure to inspire his followers. Do enough bicep curls and you could be a millionaire. This is what shredders like Musselwhite, Curtin, and Paul are in turn trying to peddle themselves. And it’s an inexhaustible market, because everybody wants to transform. And the more people who transform themselves into versions of Guzman, the more pressure there is for others to follow suit. Which is why Christian Guzman was confident that if he built it (Alphaland), they (shredders) would come. 

Christian Guzman backstage at the George R. Brown Convention Center in Houston.
Owner Christian Guzman, whose empire includes Alphaland; Alphalete, a clothing line; 3D, a brand of energy drinks; and millions of followers. Photograph by Arturo Olmos
The Alphaland headquarters in Missouri City. Photograph by Arturo Olmos

In the thirties, when Walt Disney first started developing a theme park that would bear his name, he was met with great skepticism. So too was Christian Guzman’s vision doubted when, in February 2020, he announced plans to turn an old factory into a mega gym (aided by a $17 million business loan). Was he really expecting people to fly in from all over the world to . . . exercise? The skepticism was heard mostly in a Reddit channel called Gymsnark, in which members of the bodybuilding community say bitchy things to one another. Guzman’s dream was the subject of many posts, with titles such as “WTF is Alphaland?” and “Can someone explain to me what Alphaland is supposed to be? Does anyone think it will be successful?” 

For a while there, it seemed it wouldn’t be. There were pandemic-related construction delays, and Guzman was working so hard and sleeping so little—powered by the nonstop consumption of his proprietary energy drinks, 3D Energy—that his family wondered if they should take him to the hospital. But eventually it all came together. By the end of 2021, Alphaland was ready to open its doors. According to Guzman, 1,800 people came to work out on opening day and, perhaps more important, to document themselves doing so.  

Alphaland isn’t a regular gym—it’s a cool gym. Well, it’s three cool gyms, plus an outdoor workout area with ramps for sprinting up and down, two basketball courts, a football field, an in-house chiropractor, a cafe, a pizza oven, a retail store, Alphalete’s corporate headquarters and its more than 250 employees, and a VIP lounge that has a full bar, a glam room and photo studio, and a Skee-Ball machine. 

On the Saturday after the Summer Shredding Classic, there were more meatheads pumping through the halls of Alphaland than had been at the competition itself. Guzman told me they were expecting four thousand, and while I’m not sure he achieved that, I do know I had to weave in and out among many young, buff, and good-looking people during my tour of the facility. The line to buy day passes was steady, and sometimes out the door. I don’t think I saw any unoccupied equipment, and every mirrored nook and cranny—of which there were several, as this is, after all, a space designed to support content production—was taken up by someone trying to capture a 360-degree view of their musculature in a single photograph. 

Inside the Alphaland weight room.Photograph by Arturo Olmos

Skeptical Redditors be damned: Guzmaniacs had flown into Houston and then willingly, even enthusiastically, visited one of its suburbs. Word around the complex was that James Harden had stopped by a couple days before. Guzman’s dad, Luis, who went through his own physical transformation a few years ago, seeing defined abdominal muscles for the first time at the age of sixty, even worked out with—or at least next to—the former Houston Rocket. “He’s such a nice guy,” Papa Guzman recalled proudly. “He said, ‘Man, I’ve been following your son, and he’s doing some really good stuff.’”

“He bought a membership!” Christian Guzman interjected. In person, he is more awkward than you might expect for someone who has built an empire on the concept of being “alpha” (all inspired by his husky, Nala, whom he thinks of as part wolf). During the few minutes we were able to speak with him during the day, he seemed dazed, perhaps from the excitement of the weekend or from the energy drinks, and the cadence of his speech was mumbled and breathless. But he was proud of everything he’d built. 

“It’ll have you in tears,” Guzman said of last year’s Summer Shredding final video, which he insisted on texting me. Guzman’s visual style is heavily edited to be dramatic and uplifting, sometimes using sweeping drone shots and what sounds like the twenty-first-century version of “jock jams.” He and his content creative director, Nabil El Hamdaoui, who has documented his own fitness transformation on his personal Instagram account, clearly nerd out on it a lot. The result is schmaltzy but effective, and Guzman’s followers eat it up. “Give your editor a huge raise, this is big studios–quality editing,” wrote one YouTube commenter under a video about Alphaland. You can even see them mimicking it in their own content. Both Paul and Curtin’s Instagrams, for example, are full of brightly lit reels soundtracked by hip-hop and EDM. Many of the shredders present at Alphaland that day came equipped with digital cameras and tripods. 

The content creation process in action at Alphaland.Photograph by Arturo Olmos

Bodybuilding Reddit remains unsure. Haters gonna hate, as the saying goes, and plenty of commenters are doubtful that anyone other than the most die-hard Christian Guzman superfans would be willing to make the trek. There is, it seems, some judgment from those who just like to work out toward their counterparts who like to document themselves doing so. But the fitness influencers are winning, I think. Because every time somebody watches a workout video and is inspired by it, then applies what they have learned and witnesses a change in themselves, they’re gonna want somewhere to show it off. And wouldn’t it be nice if that were a place with good lighting? A place where everybody knows your username? You might even see James Harden there. 

But even those who don’t aspire to follow in Guzman’s social media footprints have plenty to play with at Alphaland. Aside from the workout equipment, they can buy gear in the retail space and carbo-load in the cafe, or celebrate a good shred sesh with a slice of Mama Guzman’s famous lemon cake. There’s an onsite chiropractor who can do pre- and post-workout adjustments. And Guzman is nowhere near done with his plans. He had originally intended to open a hotel at Alphaland, but has canceled that in favor of building a coworking space. There’s also a spa in the works. 

As I toured the facility, it was hard not to get pumped up. I was surrounded by hundreds of very fit, very good-looking and tan, aspiring fitness influencers. I had to try hard to avoid reflections of my own extremely not-shredded self in the mirrors that were everywhere. But I didn’t walk away feeling bad about myself, really. I felt like there was work for me to do, and I was maybe even excited to start doing it.