Nine-year-old Ben Barkes sat in the basement of his parents’ Columbus home fingering through his step-dad’s muscle magazines dreaming of the day he would become a professional bodybuilder.
Now 35, the Columbus North graduate still can’t believe his childhood dream finally became a reality July 22 after winning the masters 35-and-older light heavyweight division of the 2017 Teen, Collegiate and Masters Nationals in Pittsburgh. Barkes also placed third overall for entire competition, but winning first place in his division earned him his International Federation of Body Building pro card.
“It’s very surreal,” Barkes said. “It’s a huge honor to compete at this level. Very few people reach that, and to know that I was blessed enough to get to that level, it still hasn’t set in.”
Only about seven cards are handed out each year in Barkes’ weight class, and he beat out 50 other bodybuilders in the running for the one card. Barkes never knows who is going to show up at these competitions on any given Saturday, so he just focuses on doing the little things right like maintaining the right diet to put him in the best possible position to succeed.
The competition starts by bringing each bodybuilder out in groups so the judges can get a quick look while they do a few turns. The bodybuilders who are in the first call are usually in the top five, and Barkes’ was the fourth to be called. The judges moved him around in the lineup four times before placing him in the center.
At that moment, Barkes realized he had a legitimate shot to win. He said the bodybuilder in the center is usually the one who the judges think will do the best.
“Once I was in the center, I had a pretty good idea that I was going to be first or second,” Barkes said.
The seven judges examine and compare each bodybuilder through a series of 13 different poses while trying to decide who is in the best physical condition. Barkes said the judges are looking to see if the bodybuilder has good size, body symmetry and if he is the most overall complete package from head to toe.
The criteria at the national level is so subjective that the placing could hang on the color of a bodybuilder’s trunks. Barkes describes it as the equivalent of a male beauty pageant. That’s why he likes to keep it as simple as possible when deciding how to present himself. He keeps his hair short and even cuts off his full beard for competitions.
“I don’t like my hair anything too flashy,” Barkes said. “I like a black pair of trunks. It makes my waist look small, and it’s not overly flashy to take away from (looking at) my body.”
Winning a pro card gives Barkes the opportunity to possibly win tens of thousands of prize money at pro shows. Although it has always been a bucket-list dream of his, Barkes said his relationship with bodybuilding is much more profound than solely chasing a pro card.
Barkes said his entire life, from opening the Barkes Fitness gym in Indianapolis to meeting his wife and having their three kids, is a direct result of starting bodybuilding at 12 years old.
A soccer player until middle school, Barkes originally wanted to get his legs stronger for soccer. He ended up training his entire body and fell in love with it. He would wake up at 4 a.m. to be in the gym by 5 a.m. every morning from his high school freshman year until he enrolled in weightlifting class as a senior.
Barkes’ pro debut will be at the Indianapolis pro show in March. He doesn’t have any high expectations of himself as a professional and said he is just glad to have made it to this level.
“It’s like going from playing high school football to being drafted to the NFL — a completely different league,” Barkes said. “You went from being a big fish in a small pond to a big pond, and I’m the little fish. Nothing to be taken for granted … No grand illusions on being an Olympic winner. I’m just honored to stand on stage with these other elite athletes.”
Weight: Weighed in at 198.2 pounds
Division: 35 years-and-older light heavy weight
National competition results: First in division and third overall
Pro debut: Indianapolis Pro Show in March