KABUL, AFGHANISTAN — Mr. Afghanistan is doing his best not to break the leg press as he flexes his toned calves, pumping away under the fluorescent lights of Iron Men Gym. It's a small basement facility in a strip mall off one of the city's many dirt alleys. Written on the concrete walls above the mirrors in Dari script are the house rules: "Please refrain from talking about politics and laughing."
Iron Men is among about 200 gyms that have sprouted in the capital since the time of the Taliban government, which allowed bodybuilding to reemerge as one of the country's favorite pastimes. Some women are even training at a dozen female-only gyms.
Along with the proliferation of gyms has come an increase in anabolic steroid use among bodybuilders. Afghan authorities say they have struggled to combat doping but, unlike in the U.S., the drugs are not considered controlled substances here.
More than 1,000 gyms have opened nationwide, using billboard advertising that features shirtless, spray-tanned, wannabe Arnold Schwarzeneggers and Jean-Claude Van Dammes posing for passing crowds.
But Hamidullah Sharzai is no wannabe.
Sure, he grew up watching "Rambo" and "Terminator" like all the rest. But last year he won the lightweight Mr. Afghanistan title. And the year before. And the year before that. Last week, he was determined to win this year's heavyweight title at the annual three-day competition at Kabul's Olympic Stadium.
That's his shirtless likeness beaming down from the sign outside the gym, his life-size photo plastered across the gym's front wall -- his thick neck and shaved torso spray-tanned, six pack gleaming. He is sporting a pair of jeans so tight his quads threaten to burst the seams, Hulk-style. In other photos in the trophy case and taped to the many mirrors, Sharzai appears nearly naked, competing in tiny bikini-like posing trunks.
Under the Taliban, he and other members of the national bodybuilding team were allowed to train but forbidden to shave, tan or don the trademark skimpy briefs. Taliban fighters would visit his gym and beat him for not praying enough, he said.
Now 36, Sharzai is a trainer and a newlywed, with a baby due this month. He still manages to work out twice, sometimes three times a day.
"To be Mr. Afghanistan," he says, rising from the weight machine to grab free weights for some lunges, "is my only goal."
The title does not come with endorsements, cash or any other valuable prizes. Mr. Afghanistan gets a plastic trophy, a tracksuit with the Afghan flag on the front and a spot on the national bodybuilding team.
"If there was a prize, people would probably try to kill each other for it," quips Noor-ul Hoda Sherzad, a former bodybuilding champion who owns the gym. The crowd of hard bodies surrounding his desk guffaws.
Among them is Ahmad Shekib, 36, a finance expert at an Australian consulting firm whose thick neck strains his dress shirt. Shekib is also competing for the Mr. Afghanistan title. He has two young sons, and his wife sometimes complains that he spends too much time at the gym instead of helping around the house.
"My answer is, it's better than if I smoke or use drugs," he says.
Both Shekib and Sharzai say they do not use steroids, which are banned by the Afghanistan Bodybuilding Federation and international bodybuilding groups.
But others do.
Steroids were on sale last week at Bush Bazaar, a maze of stalls named after President George W. Bush because merchants hock U.S. military surplus and other American wares, including bodybuilding vitamins, shakes and powders with names like Mega Mass and Great Gainer.
Among the vendors was Zalmai, 23, who goes by one name and keeps steroid vials and tablets stashed on a shelf in his shop behind bottles of "power capsules" sporting the likeness of Jay Cutler, former Mr. Olympia.
Steroids for sale include systanol, testoviron and deca durabolin. He also sells human chorionic gonadotropin, or HCG, a hormone used to enhance steroids' effects.
Each box of steroids sells for about $5, he said. The Health Ministry inspector who visits regularly does not ask about the steroids -- he mainly checks to make sure the protein powders have not expired. Steroids are not illegal, so Zalmai -- an aspiring bodybuilder himself -- has never had a problem.
"These are only for professionals," he said, adding that he makes those new to the sport wait four months before selling them steroids.
"The people who don't know how to use it are damaging their bodies," he said.
It was rumored that steroids contributed to the death of last year's Mr. Afghanistan heavyweight title winner. Arif Sakhi, 26, died last June after suffering liver and kidney failure, typical side effects of longtime steroid abuse.
Ustaad Bawar Hotak, the head of the Afghanistan Bodybuilding Federation, and others in the Afghan bodybuilding community deny that Sakhi was doping. In a country rife with corruption and organized crime, where conspiracy theories abound, they insist he was killed by his enemies.