It sounds like a fable: a 27-year-old bodybuilder of astounding promise emerges out of obscurity to nearly win his class at the NPC USA Championships. One year later, he disappears. As other champs come and go, he is forgotten, a shooting star from the Yates years. Then, more than seven years later, he reemerges at age 36, only to again come within a few points of winning a pro card. It’s a vanishing act and comeback tale reminiscent of The Natural. Where did Leo Ingram come from? Where did he disappear to? And now that he is, finally, an IFBB pro, how far can he go?

ASIC TRAINING Maria Ingram raised her five children on a nurse’s salary in Atlanta, Georgia. Her oldest son, Leo, born in 1969, took up weight training when he was a 14-year-old high-school football player and was attracted to bodybuilding by the camaraderie and joy he witnessed in the film Pumping Iron. He soon idolized fellow Atlantan Lee Haney and dreamed of his own bodybuilding glory. “I used to read FLEX and wanted to be up onstage one day,” he remembers. “I didn’t just want to get bigger; I always aspired to compete.”

SHIPPING OUT First, he had a big blue world to explore. Yearning for adventure and wanting a secure engineering job, Ingram joined the navy after high school. “A lot of men in my family had been in the military; my dad was in the army. I joined because I wanted to get away from my hometown and experience different cultures and meet different people,” he says. “I’ve lived in San Diego, Japan and Hawaii; I’ve been to Jordan, Egypt, Iraq — you name it, I’ve probably been there. I’ve seen the whole world because of the navy.” Much of what he’s seen doesn’t appear in any Lonely Planet guide — he’s been involved in both Iraq wars.

RECONNAISSANCE With its emphasis on physical fitness, the military proved a good fit for Ingram’s growing bodybuilding passion — at least when he was on solid ground. In 1993, while stationed in San Diego, he entered his first physique contest, the Armed Forces Championships. Weighing 211, he placed second in his class. In rapid succession, he won the Los Angeles Championships and the Gold’s Classic. Then, encouraged by friends, the 23-year-old entered the 1993 NPC USA Championships, where his winning streak came to a screeching halt: he failed to even make the top 15. “I just wasn’t ready for that level yet,” he states. “You have to walk before you run.”

Ingram set about bringing his upper body in line with his stupendous quads, and he placed second in the heavy class of the 1994 Jr. USA before winning the overall at the 1995 Jr. USA. Back on the USA stage in 1996, he was deemed the 11th-best heavyweight. So, as you can see, he didn’t exactly come out of nowhere in 1997. It only seemed that way when he defeated the favorites and very nearly bested Ken Brown in the 1997 USA heavyweight class, which featured 10 future pros. (To illustrate how fleeting bodybuilding fame can be, Ingram has yet to make his pro debut, but the pro careers of five of the other nine — including Brown — have apparently ended.) Ingram had the most impressive collection of muscles onstage at that USA, and observers marveled at the young bodybuilder’s pro potential. Too smooth, he slipped to ninth in the new super-heavyweight class at the following year’s USA. Then he vanished.

PATROL Ingram’s nearly 19 years in the navy have been divided between lengthy sea voyages and extended stints working on naval bases, first at San Diego, then at Yokosuka, Japan, and presently at Honolulu, Hawaii. In his current shore patrol position, chief petty officer Ingram runs a diesel engine repair shop. During his sea assignments, he oversees a ship’s main propulsion area, making certain all machines function properly. Prior to being stationed in Hawaii, he was on the USS Vandegrift, a 453-foot guided missile frigate that typically protects the other (slower and larger) ships in a battle group.

“We call them the 911,” Ingram says of the frigates. “We know if anything happens throughout the world, like September 11, the Gulf War, etc., we’ve got 48 hours to deploy.” For four and a half years, Ingram lived most of his days on the Vandegrift, based out of Japan. This explains where he disappeared to, for he simply couldn’t train or eat for competitive bodybuilding success while on a small ship. “For me, if I can’t do it 100%, I’d rather not do it at all,” he states.

What’s more, without the discipline of a strict diet and regular cardio, his weight ballooned. He wouldn’t tell me what he tipped the scales at when at his heaviest, but when I ask if it was more than “three bills” (300), his laughter belies the affirmative answer. Still, throughout the seven years away from the stage, he continued to lift regularly, and he remained certain he would eventually compete again.

BATTLE Just as Ingram didn’t exactly come out of nowhere in 1997, he didn’t exactly return from nowhere in 2005. Fittingly, he again entered the Armed Forces Championships, this time winning what had been his initial contest 12 years prior. Then, at the NPC Nationals, he must not have gotten the memo about it being Bill Wilmore’s coronation show. While most top super heavyweights stayed away, Ingram very nearly bettered Wilmore, because his strong points — quads and arms — were Wilmore’s weakest. It was only loose skin around the sailor’s midsection — the result of his dramatic fat loss after his equally dramatic fat gain — that delegated him to the runner-up position again.

This past July, nine years after his second-place finish at the 1997 USA, Ingram was back in Vegas and back in his usual position: second place in the heaviest class. He weighed six pounds more than at the Nationals and yet, via daily ab workouts, he had tightened his waistline significantly. Having landed three times in the heartbreaking “close but no protein bar” position, he was starting to feel like the Buffalo Bills of the early ’90s.

Seven weeks later, he won the super-heavyweight class and overall at the North American Championships. Thus, Ingram achieved his goal of becoming an IFBB pro — more than nine years after he nearly won the 1997 USA. Others have gone longer between their first try at a pro card and their ultimate success (Bob Cicherillo’s quest lasted 13 years), but nobody else ever came so close then had to wait so long. “I’ve never doubted myself,” Ingram says. “Others may have forgotten me or doubted me, but I’ve always known it was just a matter of time.”

SHORE LEAVE Ingram, now 37, is a husband, a father, a chief petty officer and a pro bodybuilder. The first three appellations come first. “I get a lot of support from the [naval] command. When I compete, I not only represent myself, but the United States military, as well,” he proclaims. “I try to create a balance with everything I do. Right now my first job is in the military, so it always comes above bodybuilding.” He can retire after 2007 with a full military pension, having put in 20 years, but he may reenlist.

It depends on his next assignment — he certainly doesn’t want to make a ship his home for years again and have to forgo his bodybuilding career.

Time is the most precious of all commodities. Our limited supplies are perpetually dwindling. Many people in Ingram’s place would look back and wonder What if I’d been onstage dueling with the best since 1997? He never does, for he is justly proud of his military service and of his dogged persistence. It’s easy to romanticize the answers to “What if?” questions, but more potential greats have come and gone in the IFBB over the past nine years than the number who are still making posedowns. Considering that, perhaps Ingram’s extended hiatus was a blessing in disguise.

It certainly makes him better appreciate his bodybuilding journey. Older, wiser and better, Leo Ingram is prepared for his next port of call. Now, anchor’s aweigh and the adventure begins anew as he embarks on another bodybuilding voyage for points unknown.


Barbell incline presses 4 10-15
Hammer Strength chest presses 4 12-15
Pec-deck flyes 4 12-15
Cable crossovers 4 12-15

Front pulldowns 4 12-15
Behind-the-neck pulldowns 4 12-15
Hammer Strength T-bar rows 4 12-15
Hammer Strength low rows 4 12-15
Seated cable rows 4 12-15

Hammer Strength overhead presses 4 10-15
Cable front raises triset with 4 12-15
Cable lateral raises and 4 12-15
Cable rear lateral raises 4 12-15
Seated dumbbell presses 4 12-15
Dumbbell or barbell shrugs 4 12-15

Barbell curls 4 10-15
Hammer curls 4 12-15
Cable curls 4 12-15
One-arm pushdowns 4 12-15
Reverse-grip pushdowns 4 12-15
Machine dips 4 12-15

Leg extensions 4 15-20
Back or front squats 4 10-15
Hack squats 4 12-15
Leg adductors 4 12-15
Leg abductors 4 12-15
Leg extensions 4 12-15

Standing leg curls 4 12-15
Lying leg curls 4 12-15
Seated leg curls 4 12-15
Stiff-leg deadlifts 4 12-15

NOTES: Ingram has no planned days off; he takes a day off when he feels his body needs more time to recuperate. He very rarely goes under eight reps per set, and now generally aims for 12-15 intense reps.

Ingram typically trains calves and abdominals every morning before his cardio session:

Standing calf raises 4 12-15
Donkey machine calf raises 4 12-15
Calf presses 4 12-15
Seated calf raises 4 12-15

Lying crunches 4 25
Leg raises 4 25
Seated machine crunches 4 25