“I watched Richard Jones, Mark Dugdale, Chris Cook and Phil Heath all make it to the pro ranks while I waited. So here it is, 2006, and I’m trying to see if I can finally get mine, you know?” Omar Deckard tells FLEX.

It’s four days before the 2006 NPC USA Championships, one of the two most prestigious amateur bodybuilding competitions in the country – one that 6’1″ 255-pound Deckard has been trying to win since 2000. The location is a very nonhardcore 24-Hour Fitness center in posh Manhattan Beach, California, and 33-year-old Deckard is catching a breather between sets in what will be his final workout before the contest that would forever alter his life. “In 2000, I placed right behind Quincy Taylor. He was eighth and I was ninth [at the NPC USA]. Then, in 2001, I didn’t even make the top 15. I was holding a lot of water. Quincy wound up winning that show. In 2003, even though my look changed, I still didn’t know how to really peak. I just needed the help of a more knowledgeable person. After working with [nutritionist] Hany [Rambod], I was able to dial it in, which I did at the 2005 North American Championships [where he placed second in the super-heavyweight class].”

FLEX photographer Kevin Horton signals that he’s ready whenever Deckard is. Calmly, purposefully, he drops onto an incline bench loaded with a 405-pound barbell. He positions his hands on the bar about a foot wider than his shoulders. Inhaling deeply, he pushes the barbell up, past the supports, and shifts his extended arms so the barbell is in a vertical line with his upper chest. Then, methodically, he lowers the bar to a point just north of his nipples before pushing skyward again, piston-smooth. He repeats the movement six more times, the 45-pound plates jangling on both ends of the bar, then places the barbell back on its supports.

This is a “light” chest workout for Deckard. In the days leading up to a competition, a bodybuilder is at his weakest, thanks to a precontest diet that normally lasts 12 weeks and would starve a house cat.

“It feels like you’ve never lifted a weight before. I have the strength to lift the weight, but the feeling in my muscles is different when I’m low carb, like I am now. Everything is shaky. The coordination is all off. It’s a weird feeling.”

By set number four of incline bench presses, Deckard’s chest is clearly flooded with oxygen-rich blood as his XXL tank top is stretched to its limit. At the request of Horton, he hits a few poses while still seated on the bench.

The subject of this FLEX photo shoot may be Deckard’s chest routine, but as he proceeds to flex his biceps and pulls out his lats, it’s hard not to notice the rest of his physique.

In bodybuilding, athletes are often categorized as either “mass monsters” or “aesthetic” – as Deckard raises his arms into a front double-biceps pose from his seated position, it becomes instantly apparent that he has traits of both. The guy’s got mass aplenty – full arms, ridged deltoids and sweeping lats, all to go with his phonebook-thick pectorals. Yet there’s nothing monsterish about the way these muscles are put together.

“The first one was Arnold Schwarzenegger,” Deckard says of his early influences. “I know it’s a common story, but when I saw him in Pumping Iron, I was hooked. After that, it was Lee Haney. Then, the guy whose physique I really wanted to emulate was Flex Wheeler. After seeing him, I looked at my own body and thought, Hmmm, I have a few things I need to work on. A lot of those guys of the ’90s inspired me, like Lee Labrada and Vince Taylor. Vince still inspires me and he’s 50 years old.”

After finishing his fifth set of incline bench presses, Deckard strips down his bar and moves on to the cable crossover station. He had planned to do flat-bench dumbbell presses next, but both flat benches are being used. No worries. Horton’s lights are already in the vicinity of the cable crossover and Deckard is easy as Sunday morning. Next up: cable crossovers.

He sets the pins on the opposing stacks to 100 pounds and reaches up to grab one handle, then the other. As he draws the cable handles down and together, as if hugging a large barrel, the fibers in his chest fire and pop and stream across his upper torso like a fireworks display. Standing a foot and a half in front of the station’s pulleys, Deckard proceeds to grind out eight slow picture-perfect reps. “I think they [crossovers] can definitely be considered a mass builder. They’re like dumbbell flyes, but you get a better range of motion. Of course, it’s also good for isolating the pecs because you get such a good stretch and can really squeeze at the bottom, so they’re a good finishing movement, too.”

Deckard knocks out two more sets, same weight, seven reps each. The pump has transformed his upper body to the point where it’s becoming mass-monsterish. Not quite, but almost. With a flat bench finally free, he grabs a pair of 80-pounders off the dumbbell rack and walks them over as Horton swivels his lights around. Deckard rests the weights on his knees as he sits at one end of the bench. He gazes at the floor for a moment, takes a breath and swings the dumbbells backward until he’s prone, the weights resting at his shoulders. Once again, he displays machinelike precision as he pumps out nine full-range reps. It’s clear that 80 pounds isn’t much for him, at least not under normal conditions. The week of a competition is not normal conditions, however, and 80s do the trick just fine. “When I started out, I didn’t even use dumbbells. I did some dumbbell training every now and then, but for the most part, I just stuck to barbell work – mostly flat bench presses and then inclines. But dumbbells are good because they give you a fuller range, especially at the bottom. I can stretch my pecs at the bottom of the movement.”

After completing a second set of eight reps, Deckard deposits the hefty dumbbells back in their allotted spots on the rack. Either flyes or dumbbell pullovers usually finish off his chest workout; he determines that today it will be pullovers.

Returning to the rack, Deckard grabs one of the 80s again and proceeds to the same bench he used for presses. He places the dumbbell on end on top of the bench and positions himself next to it, so that his shoulders and upper back are the only bodyparts touching the bench. Reaching across his chest, he grabs the dumbbell, raises it directly overhead and slowly swings it back in a wide arc, so wide that the dumbbell almost touches the floor at its low point.

“I really feel it in my serratus and, of course, my chest. I remember reading how Arnold said to do them when you’re young so you can stretch your rib cage. I still do them, even though my ribcage isn’t going to be growing at this point. Still, they’re great for so many reasons. I even feel my lats working when I do these.”

A set of seven followed by a set of six and it’s a day. In fact, it’s Tuesday, July 25, and with those two sets of pullovers, Deckard has completed his final workout before competing in the 2006 NPC USA Championships. He’d done all he could do. At long last, all the elements had come together for him: muscle maturity, intensely focused training, a nutritional adviser with whom he bonded and an unconditionally supportive girlfriend. He was ready to follow in the footsteps of Jones, Cook, Dugdale and Heath. Omar Deckard, all 6’1″ and 255 pounds of him, was ready to carve out a bit of history all his own. For the next four days, however, all he could do was wait.

POSTSCRIPT On Saturday, July 29, Deckard won the overall title at the NPC USA Championships, as well as the IFBB eligibility that goes with it. As he was announced the contest’s overall winner after a spirited posedown with the other six class finalists, Deckard gazed out at the cheering crowd and let the tears flow, among shouts from the press pit photographers: “Hit a pose!” “Hold up your trophy!” “Smile!”

During his postvictory interviews, Deckard thanked, first and foremost, his girlfriend, Alisa Trammell, who gave him the opportunity to be “in the game,” and then Rambod, who gave him the chance to win. He answered questions and took pats on the back and handshakes with gracious ease. On the inside, he reflected on the years he dedicated to the gym, to his diet, to his profession and to that massive chest he puffed out proudly. Or maybe it was just pumped from the posedown. Either way, one thing was for sure – Omar Deckard was finally getting his due