J.R. Leigh, formerly of Jefferson, was a quiet, skinny kid while in high school at Lincoln Academy in the 1990s. He liked to tinker with cars and skateboard. He and his father bought and overhauled used cars, turning them into high-end machines teenage boys would love to drive.
Like many boys his age, he did not always hang out with the right crowd and make the best decisions. That all changed when he started weightlifting with a friend his senior year at Lincoln Academy.
Now, 20 years later, Leigh has transformed his life and his body. He grew up watching Arnold Schwarzenegger and Sylvester Stallone movies. These big, muscular men Leigh calls “manly men” were his role models and inspired him to become a bodybuilder.
At 5 feet 10 inches and 135 pounds in high school, Leigh was tall and lanky. He has put on 5 pounds a year and now dresses out at 230-235 pounds of mean and lean muscle.
“I kind of got addicted to it,” Leigh said of weightlifting. He has been working out every day since October 1996. He calls himself a “hard gainer” because of his high metabolism, which has prevented him from gaining weight quickly like many other bodybuilders.
He sticks to a rigid, healthy, and all-natural diet, which he supplements with protein powder, amino acids, glutamine, multivitamins, and other supplements. Some of the supplements help “muscles to recuperate faster and help you grow bigger faster. You have to eat the part to look the part,” Leigh said of his strict diet.
“I am a special exception because of my high metabolism and genetic makeup,” Leigh said. The more muscle you have, the more fuel you need to feed them, he added.
He estimated that he consumes 5,000-6,000 calories a day throughout the year, except when he is prepping for a competition, when he cuts his caloric intake to 3,000-3,500. His high-calorie diet includes many protein-rich foods, like ground beef, steak, chicken, and eggs.
He typically lifts weights four to six days a week in the offseason and works a different muscle group every day. “You have to give (muscles) time to heal in order for them to grow,” Leigh said.
“Sixteen weeks (before) a show, you start lowering your carbohydrates, your fat intake and calories, and increase your cardio training,” Leigh said of burning excess fat off his chiseled body.
During “peak week,” he works hard to “shed any extra little bit of fat” from his body. “You also start the dehydration process, to make you look more lean. Dehydrating is a fine line. You don’t want your muscle to feel weak. You have to slowly taper your water down,” Leigh said.
By reducing the volume of subcutaneous water stored in the dermis layer, the skin is triggered to wrap more tightly around underlying muscles. This helps make intricate muscle details pop out from under the skin to produce a more dramatic and visually pronounced appearance.
Typically in the week leading up to competition, he will drink 1 1/2 gallons of water on Monday and Tuesday, cut to a gallon, then a half-gallon, then stop drinking altogether with 16 hours to go before a competition in a process he calls “drying out.”
“A lot of people don’t understand what an extreme sport it is. There is a huge difference in being in shape and being in stage shape. To be in stage-ready shape, you have to diet 12 weeks out. Other bodybuilders call me a freak. Because of my high metabolism, I can get lean really fast.”
As a competition nears, Leigh begins to work on his poses. “Basically, bodybuilding is an illusion. We use spray tans to make the muscles look much bigger, and we put oil on our skin to highlight the muscles. We do all kinds of things to manipulate the body to make us look bigger,” Leigh said of poses.
Leigh said poses are very difficult. Typically, six weeks out he starts practicing his poses by holding each one for 15 seconds at first then increasing the time to 45 seconds. He said practicing his poses leaves him “sweaty and breathing hard. Every part of my body hurts.” During competitions, poses are typically held for about 10 seconds.
A week out, he stops working his legs so they have better definition for the competition. Leigh said stopping lifting reduces the amount of blood in the leg muscles and makes them look more lean and conditioned.
“I’m average in the bodybuilding world,” Leigh said. “You kind of have to work with what you have. Genetics plays a huge role.”
Competition is by weight class, except the open classes. In 2015 at The Panhandle Showdown competition, he placed second in Northwest Florida and third in Open Light Heavyweight. He typically competes in the light heavyweight division, but plans to move up to the heavyweight division this year. His next competition is in three weeks in Florida, where he now lives.
His girlfriend, Crystal Richardson, also from Maine, competes in the bikini competitions and has her IFPA pro card. Together they have started a business training and coaching other bodybuilders to get them ready for shows. Although based in Florida, they work with people from all over the country through the internet.
“Building your body up does not happen overnight,” Leigh said. “A lot of young kids do not understand. They think they can train for two years and be ready. They don’t understand it takes years and years in the gym. Diet is huge.
“When I started working out, I worked too hard. I did not give my body time to rest. There was a lot of trial and error. It is nice I can give back to younger kids, to help them train right so they don’t get hurt and teach them to rest and eat well.”
“You have to work at it every day. You have to live it and breathe it. It’s not for everyone,” Leigh said of the extreme sport of bodybuilding that has become his life.
Leigh said when he comes home to Maine, the reaction he gets is “most people will squeeze my muscles.”
He enjoys watching the reactions of young children. On a recent trip to the supermarket, Leigh was wearing a shirt with the sleeves cut off.
“The kids will stop in their tracks, turn and watch me,” he said. “At the beach, the little kids will stop and stare and say things to their parents like ‘Look at his muscles.’ It is cute, and makes all the hard work worth it.”