It’s 5:40 a.m., and we’re in the weight room of the J.B. Chambers YMCA in Elm Grove. James F. Youngblood is lifting heavy things up and putting them down again in pursuit of the perfect body. He’s doing deadlifts, grasping an Olympic bar loaded with two 45-pound weights and extending his back until the bar is suspended in the air just below the crease of his hips. He grimaces and brings the bar back down to the floor, where it rests with a heavy biomechanical clank — the sound of joints and metal reversing pressure. One set of many. If you added up all the things Youngblood has picked up or put down in the last six months, you would get something really, really heavy — Like a car, or an SUV, or a cruise ship.
“I could get to a car in one workout with ease,” he said later that afternoon in the YMCA computer room.
Youngblood is often serious, especially when he’s working out. But sometimes he laughs, and when he does, his voice gets loud and bounces off the cinder block walls of the computer room, expanding it, making it seem bigger than it actually is. He’s talking about his preparations for the International Federation of Bodybuilding and Fitness North American Championships in Pittsburgh, where he will be competing in the amateur physique category. He’s been preparing for months, not only in the gym, but also at home where he makes the meals that adhere to his strict diet — a bit of fish here, some vegetables there, enough carbohydrates to keep him from passing out.
If he’s serious, about his workouts, about his diet, about his prospects, it’s for a reason. This is one of his last shots to turn pro, to get a sponsorship, to change things for his family. He’s 43 and has only two or three chances left — a couple more seasons — before the physical toll will become too great. There’s a lot riding on this trip to Pittsburgh, both personally and professionally.
Youngblood is from Bellaire but has lived in Wheeling for most of his adult life. Since 2013, he has worked as the Wellness Director and Front Desk Supervisor for the YMCA. Before that he worked in staff and management positions at Kroger, Walmart, and Wendy’s. He and his wife, Sheila, who is also a competitor in the bikini category, have eight children between them, ranging in age from 26 to 10. Youngblood’s journey to becoming a personal trainer and a physical fitness professional is, if not entirely an accident, a completely unforeseen set of circumstances.
“I never thought I would end up where I did,” Youngblood said.
Youngblood describes himself as a guarded person.
“I like to keep a lot of things to myself,” he said, describing how he initially resisted the idea of participating in bodybuilding and physique competitions, despite always being athletic and in good shape. “I don’t like to let a lot of people in. Exposing yourself to the world, being up on stage, it took time getting used to that.”
He also said that, as a younger man, he never envisioned himself becoming a personal trainer, though he spent a lot of time at the gym. He was focused on making money, providing for his family. His dreams took a back seat to more worldly concerns, perhaps for good reason. But after a difficult divorce, he decided to wipe the slate clean, to pursue ambitions he had long harbored but ultimately regarded as crazy dreams.
“Is money your full goal? Or is it to be happy?” he said. “I wanted to be happy.”
YMCA executive director Adam Shinsky said Youngblood first caught his eye when he saw him give advice to another member during one of his workouts. Shinsky, then the program director, offered Youngblood a position as a personal trainer, working a couple of hours a week. That job eventually turned into the position Youngblood holds now.
“He brings in a lot of members,” Shinsky said. “When you have someone near pro status like he is, when they see how built he is and that he lives what he preaches, it gets them motivated. He’s definitely a major asset down here at the Y.”
The Youngbloods were married in October 2013 and began competing together.
Things were falling into place, though this shouldn’t suggest life was easy. It’s been a difficult year for the couple. There were challenges, not the least of which was the sudden death, in June, of the couple’s 3-month-old granddaughter Ameliah. Then there was the death of Mrs. Youngblood’s aunt and her father’s cancer diagnosis.
“It was a nightmare,” Mrs. Youngblood said.
During those dark days, training was the one thing that kept the couple sane. Focusing on a goal, shutting everything else out, provided a kind of peace available in two hour swaths of gym time.
Though the sport of bodybuilding is to a certain extent about vanity — how you look physically to others and to yourself; it can go much deeper than that. It can provide discipline, focus and affirmation.
“Everybody wants to be noticed,” Youngblood said.
If Youngblood wants to be noticed, he already is. He’s an unmistakable presence at the YMCA, whether putting himself and a lifting partner through a grueling training session or working with one of his many personal training clients who are trying to turn their bodies into temples. But a victory at the IFBB North American Championships would mean more than just being noticed. It would mean having a voice.
It seems counterintuitive, this idea that the body itself, its external appearance, could give you a voice, until you think about it. To take the body and turn it literally into a mode of communication, to hone language not through words and edits but weights and exact measurements of macronutrients, is what Youngblood is trying to do. And when he talks about his body giving him a voice, he’s also talking about his body giving him credibility, the ability to speak with authority on matters of nutrition and physical fitness, so when his clients come to him and ask him how they can lose a few pounds or maybe look better naked, he can say something they will believe.
To be noticed, to have a voice, is to have worth. To submit to a training regimen and strict diet is to impose meaning on a world that can be chaotic, unpredictable, and unfair.
Now we are at the site of the IFBB North American Championships, which are held every year in Pittsburgh. The competition itself is a circus in three rings. The first, and main ring, is the stage where competitors pose, flex and smile for the judges, receiving shouts of encouragement from their families and supporters in the crowd, which was standing-room only on Sept. 3. The poses, which are designed to be casual — one of the more frequently struck involves placing the hands on the hips and standing in a grim approximation of relaxation — are obviously anything but. On the day of the competition, a Masters competitor in the over 60 category trembled visibly with the effort.
The second ring is the host hotel and the surrounding environs. Competitors cover the grounds of the Sheraton Pittsburgh Hotel at Station Square, spilling out from the lobby into the nearby shops and restaurants where they sometimes have to apologize to wait staff for snapping out of hunger.
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Considering the sheer quantity of large and heavily muscled people in one central location, there is less menace in the air than at, for instance, a dart tournament. It’s as if all the testosterone in the vicinity is occupied — channeled into muscle and sinew and bone. It also probably helps that instead of alcohol, people are toting around tubs of chicken and rice in large custom-made backpacks and coolers. And most of the competitors, like Youngblood, are exhausted from preparing for the competition. Their bodies, deprived of calories, are draped across couches and chairs in the lobby of the Sheraton, cotton sheets provided by the organizers keeping the upholstery free of stains from the tanning lotion applied at the Olympia Spray tan booth.
The third — and most lurid — ring is actually in the men’s restroom in the hotel lobby. There, competitors mingle with casual observers making their way to the toilets. They stand, in their posing shorts, in front of the mirrors, boisterously talking and sometimes taking up the pathway as they practice posing. The air has a distinct scent, like a brand of bubblegum flavored in the style of anonymous tropical fruits, that is perhaps attributable to the tanning lotion.
Prior to the competition, Youngblood indicated that he intended to stay away from the “pump up area” where competitors worked with large rubber bands and bodyweight exercises to engorge their muscles with blood, giving them a fuller and more developed look.
“There are too many things to distract you back there,” he said.
It’s apparent from the scene in the restroom, which was adjacent to the posing area, that there are simply too many other competitors in one area, all vying for the same title, to maintain focus.
According to Rick Bayardi, owner of the Body Shop in Yorkville, Ohio, and one of the event organizers, there were more than 1,500 competitors at the Championships, which ran for three days this year and will run for four days next year.
Bayardi is also Youngblood’s trainer and mentor. He has been involved in the sport since 1980 and is a member of bodybuilding’s national governing committee. He helps put on the Mr. Olympia contest in Las Vegas every year. It was the Mr. Olympia contest and the documentary “Pumping Iron” that launched the career of Arnold Schwarzenegger.
“James is an incredible young man,” Bayardi said. “He’s incredibly nice, which is hard to find in this industry.”
Both Youngbloods describe Bayardi and his wife, Laura, as more than just coaches. They are family members, they said.
Bayardi said that he and another of the event organizers, bodybuilding legend Gary Udit, agreed that Youngblood is in the best shape he’s ever been in.
Youngblood competes in the physique category, which focuses more on definition and muscle tone than size. Physique competitors, with their focus on being lean and “shredded,” could, under the right circumstances, in the right clothes, appear almost normal. Bodybuilders could not. There are separate categories for different age groups, which are further divided according to height. Youngblood is scheduled to go on stage with the over 40 group of amateur physique competitors and, at 5 feet 7 inches tall, with the Class A subdivision.
With the number of divisions and subdivisions and the number of competitors at the Championships, the prejudging rounds go all day and the finals stretch well into the night.
There is time to reflect. Mrs. Youngblood talks about her journey from a car accident a few years ago to competing in bikini contests, despite being wary of the gym until she met her husband. She reflects on the death of her granddaughter, which she says tore her apart. It was only the gym that kept her going, focusing on her goal.
“I sat her down a couple of times and told her, ‘You don’t have to do this,’” Bayardi said. “She said, ‘Yes I do. I need this now more than ever.’”
Everyone at the competition has a reason for being there, according to Mrs. Youngblood.
“There’s some kind of tragic accident, some kind of incident to help them build up where they’re at,” she said. “Every one of them has a story.”
Finally, after waiting all day in the lobby and the backstage area, Youngblood walks onstage with his group of 10 amateur physique competitors. It all comes down to this. Months and months of preparation and sacrifice, hours of tense anticipation and fatigue, for 60 seconds on stage, a chance to show your stuff, a chance to be noticed, to make your voice heard.
Now, Youngblood has the stage to himself. He faces the audience, places his hands on his hips and opens his chest. The cameras flash.
Youngblood finished eighth in his category. It was a disappointment, but he was stoic about the result.
“After everything we’ve been through this year,” he said, his voice trailing off.
“All you can do is know you did your best,” Mrs. Youngblood said.
According to Bayardi, Youngblood’s trainer, the future is bright. Next year, a new division for amateur physique competitors may help open up some opportunities forYoungblood.
On Sept. 7, the IFBB and the National Physique Committee announced the creation of the “Classic Physique” division, which is intended to bridge the gap between physique and bodybuilding, according to NPC President (and Pittsburgh native) Jim Manion. The Classic Physique division is designed for competitors who are too muscular for the traditional physique division but not as muscular as would be required for the bodybuilding division. In the traditional physique category, judges will begin to look for less muscle density and a more toned and “fit” look, as opposed to size.
According to Bayardi, Youngblood could compete in either category, depending on the direction he chooses. In the meantime, his personal training business is expected to grow.
“In this area right now, if someone comes to me and says, ‘I want to be a physique guy,’ I shoot them over to James,” Bayardi said.
In the lobby after the prejudging, a performer presumably hired by the hotel sings an acoustic rendition of Bruce Springsteen’s “Dancing in the Dark” while competitors sip diet sodas and wait for the finals, giant tubs of peanut butter on more than one table.
“They say you gotta stay hungry/Hey baby, I’m just about starving tonight,” the performer sings.
“Tomorrow I’m going straight to the store,” Youngblood said. “Wait to you see the junk food I come home with.”
POSTSCRIPT: On Sept. 12, the Youngbloods competed in the NPC Elite Physique Championships in West Homestead, Pennsylvania. Youngblood finished third in the Class A Amateur Physique Open division, and second in the Over 35 division. Mrs. Youngblood finished first in the Over 40 Bikini division. The event was a national qualifier, but no pro cards were awarded.