Thomas Bengali has the kind of profile minted on an ancient coin, pecs like a Roman breastplate and abs that could be slathered with tomato sauce and served as ravioli. He's from Italy and speaks no English, but curling an EZ-bar, he fits in surrounded by Tony Freeman, an African-American bodybuilder from Georgia; Darrem Charles, a Trinidadian based in Florida; George Farah, who's half Lebanese, half Sicilian and lives in upstate New York; and Lee Powell, from Britain. No translation needed as they urge on Thomas, who has just been nicknamed the Italian Stallion.

Bodybuilders come from far and wide to compete in physique contests, and these five found themselves in New York City for the 2004 Night of Champions. Their rankings were as scattered as their addresses, but a love for hard training and big muscles has propelled each here, now, albeit along unique trajectories. Before heading home, they've convened to train arms and shoot the s**t about what went down the night before — which has pleased no one except winner Melvin Anthony.

So they've all got that going for them: a slightly sour aftertaste that has nothing to do with their protein shakes.

Here's another commonality: People tend to think bodybuilders spend hours in the gym inventing new ways to attack their biceps and triceps, yet while they might array their workouts differently, most of them do the same things you or I do. They just do it better, whether through heightened focus, better form, heavier weights, more consistency or greater intensity. Few of them waste time on trying to reinvent the wheel.

So it is with these five men. Here, their consensus on arm training:

>> The foundation of successful arm training is building the basic mass for the elbow flexors and extensors. This is best accomplished using conventional exercises: barbell and dumbbell curls for biceps; and dips, french presses, pressdowns and kickbacks for triceps.

>> Over time, you need to increase the intensity of your arm workouts to continue to achieve gains. One way to increase your intensity is to lift progressively heavier weights.

>> Periodize your arm training. If you're going to train intensely, keep the volume down. If you're going to train strict, use lighter weights and increase your volume.

>> Trial and error will eventually reveal the basic genetic shape of your biceps and triceps. Don't waste time trying to alter what your genes and chromosomes have directed.

Standing next to the Italian Stallion as he finishes his strict curls, Tony, who placed 10th the night before, no doubt remembers what's it like to be at the dawn of a promising career. Does he look vaguely familiar to you (other than the eerie resemblance he bears to actor Keith David, seen most recently in The Chronicles of Riddick)? In the early-to-middle 1990s, he marched through the amateur bodybuilding world like Sherman through Georgia. Weighing 160 at 21, he was moving serious weight by 28, having bulked himself up to 270 in the process. The three consecutive top-five finishes in the NPC Nationals under his belt suggested a star being born. Then the snake bit.

"I was doing inclines, and I was stronger than I had ever been that day," recalls Tony. "I did 405 for 12 reps and then 315 for 20, so I went back to 405 to see if I could do it for another 12 or 15. 'Cause it was so light the first time. I was listening to my ego."

He never saw it coming, perhaps because he had been taking pain-dulling meds for shoulder pain resulting from a car accident two weeks earlier. On the third rep, he heard a loud pop, the sickening sound of one of his pectorals tearing, at least partially. Rather than taking time off to have it repaired, Tony attempted to train around it while continuing to compete. But at the 1996 Nationals, he plummeted out of contention and then out of the top 15. As reality took hold, he slid into depression, cursing fate for his setback, not even stepping foot in the gym, let alone training.

It wasn't until 2000 that Tony opted for surgery, intent on competing again. Back in the gym in August 2001, he found that even in bodybuilding, the wisdom of experience could at least partially replace the raging T of youth.

"I know how to make my arms grow now without trying to kill 'em," he says. "When I was younger, I thought that just training heavy was the key, but it's not. For me it was finding a weight that I could keep under control, and then eating for the size. Over years and years, it compounds, and then you end up where you are." In addition to one balls-out arm day a week, three exercises per, Tony also "taps" either biceps or triceps briefly after back.

To demonstrate, he picks up a barbell and reps for Hot 'Lanta.
"C'mon, brother, focus."
"Squeeze, squeeze."
"That's it, brother."

Diaper Dandies Tony's strategy worked, as he won the Nationals in 2002, turning pro. This new lease has also extended to his personal life, mostly in the form of a new son, 6-month-old Antonio Xavier Freeman. "You can see all of his muscles in Pampers," says papa between heavy breaths. "He was a preemie, but he's quadrupled his bodyweight in six months. He has capped delts and biceps and traps, and in diapers he has abs, I swear to God."

Speaking of diaper dandies, stage right, is the aforementioned Brit, 29-year-old Lee. Fresh off his second pro show in the States, he picks up the barbell now with his guns. After unloading a clip, he thunks the bar down and flexes before the mirror, his brow oozing sweat.

Since Lee lives near Dorian Yates' legendary Temple Gym, I ask him about it — only to hear the shocking rumor that it might be closing. "It's far too hardcore for most people," says Lee. "You go down a big flight of steps, and it's like a dungeon — really, really dark and cold, with stuff growing off the walls."

"So if you're a housewife looking to do cardio, you're SOL, huh?"

"There are only like two exercise bikes in there," he says, laughing. "But it's a good gym for the hardcore."

No one is more bent out of shape about the show than George, who follows Lee with a set of bench dips — normally a great alternative when you don't have the strength to do full bodyweight dips, only George does his with four 45-pound plates stacked on top of his thighs. The Lebanese diamond and gold wholesaler transplanted to upstate New York is ballistic over slipping to sixth place at the night show, after having been called out at the prejudging in sequences that might have suggested a top-five finish. Making matters worse, fourth was given to a personal rival, Ahmad Haidar, also from Lebanon. And talk about buzzard's luck: George tied with Pavol Jablonicky for fifth, only to have a computer tiebreaker slot him sixth, the highest ranking that doesn't qualify one for the Mr. Olympia.

George has earned the right to bitch about anything he wants, though. When the photographer jokingly compares his own weight, 155, to that of his subjects, George, standing there at 213, notes that he was 129 in 1997 — after awakening from the coma into which he had slipped after having three hollow-point bullets rip through his midsection during a jewelry heist, and then watching sections of his stomach and bowels flow onto the asphalt in a river of Pepsi and blood. When he came to in a hospital a month and half later, he was half the size he had been and stitched up like a baseball. "Man, looking at myself in the mirror, I remember all those scars, the colostomy bag, and I was just like, Awww," he says. "I looked in the mirror and just cried, you know? I couldn't believe this was me."

Left with little but a cool nickname, "Bulletproof," George trained his way out of the abyss. "I went to the gym every day, starting a couple of weeks after I got out of the hospital," he says. "I could barely walk, but I started riding the bike nice and slow, and lifting 5-pound dumbbells. Eventually they removed my colostomy, and six months after that I won the New York State Bodybuilding Championships."

Charles in Charge
I ask George whose arms he envies in the sport. The first name out of his mouth is Ronnie Coleman; the second is Darrem Charles, who's curling 40-pounders nearby. His back stays ramrod-straight, but the shapes under the skin of his arms shift like a cyborg.

"Show 'em, Darrem," says George, smiling. "That's what I mean. Beautiful."

"Darrem has awesome arms, and what I like is that you can tell they're real," he continues. "A lot of guys have arms these days, but God knows what's in 'em. If they don't have the striations and the veins, you know somethin's wrong."

Before the training session had begun, Darrem, whose physique was cut to ribbons for the show, had vented frustration over not winning. "Second is maybe the toughest spot to swallow," he'd said. "You just keep thinking that one spot further, you would have done what you came to do. I just thought I'd come to a stage where I'd finally get my due. I thought I was better than the guy who was No. 1, and a lot of people had the same view. To be honest, I didn't think it was close."

Now, with the session unwinding, Thomas approaches Darrem, clearly thrilled at the chance to talk shop with a star he has admired from afar for years, even if their conversation consists mostly of smiles and gestures. Darrem is a worthy role model, one whose praises have been undersung for years. Lee and Thomas are still young enough perhaps to compete one day for a major title, and Tony and George have overcome obstacles to get back on the wagon. But Darrem, who started at 17, turned pro at 23 and is now 35, has scratched and chipped his way forward as deliberately as that Clint Eastwood character who tunnels his way out of Alcatraz prison.

That kind of persistence and determination is a hard sell these days. Pills, injections or implants that promise to inflate their arms as easily as a bicycle tire can easily distract young bucks. Some would have you believe that actually training hard and eating right to sustain growth long term is a waste of time. Archaic. Old school. Just so … 20th century.

Bull. Rep by rep, workout by workout, year by year, inch by inch — that's the only way you build strong, striated arms with peaked biceps like Darrem's, and that's how you build a career in his sport as well, assuming you want to and are blessed with some decent genetics. Just ask him. "I'm a very good planner, and I'm very patient," he says. "I look where I want to be a year from now, two years from now, whatever it might be in my life, and I look at all the steps I need to get there, and then I concentrate on each step at a time. The way my body works and the way I do everything where this sport is concerned is a lot different than a lot of other guys. And my body reflects that onstage. What takes another guy six months might take me 15 months. That's my choice, and that's why I've been able to stay in the game so long and be consistent. I'm trying to do it the right way." M&F