By John Burbridge firstname.lastname@example.org
CHARLES CITY — Zach Robbins went from a dark place to an even darker place.
The two-tour serving Marine found himself a whole world away from his native hometown of Charles City as an infantry machine gunner in Ramadi, Iraq — a highly contested strategic point at the heart of the Iraq War.
“An extremely violent place,” Robbins said. “It was a hell hole.”
Stark memories including the loss of colleagues and friends didn’t fade when Robbins returned stateside, which was then San Diego, Calif. Family life suffered as Robbins and his wife eventually divorced with a custody battle for their children in tow.
In the interim, Robbins let bad health habits drive his depression even further.
“If you had seen me three years ago, you probably wouldn’t recognize me now,” said the 31-year-old Robbins.
Things began to turn when Robbins decided to go “all in” when restarting his bodybuilding aspirations.
“It saved my life,” Robbins said of embarking on a rigorous 16-month training regimen in preparation for the National Physique Committee Western Michigan Championships, Nov. 4 in Grand Rapids.
“There were so many things I was losing control over,” said Robbins, who has competed in bodybuilding competitions before with the last one in 2012, “but I felt focusing on this would be something I could control. And it was great to have that feeling of control again.”
It has taken a lot of discipline. Robbins weighs his meals more frequently than he weighs himself, staying strict to a 2,200-calorie-a-day diet that generally consists of 300 grams of protein and 115 grams of carbohydrates.
Robbins eats seven meals a day.
“That’s really nothing new,” Robbins said of the seven-meal approach. “It’s been around since the 1960s.
“Some people believe in eating two or three big meals a day, but when you’re training you constantly need fuel to burn.”
Robbins likens an example of fueling a wood-burning stove.
“You put one big log in and it may take awhile for it to start burning hot before you put another log on top of it which will also take time to catch,” Robbins said. “But if you put seven smaller pieces of wood in one at a time, it’s going to be burning hot out all day.”
While trying to rid his body of toxins for the upcoming NPC championships, Robbins has decided to jettison some toxic relationships — or at least refrain from doing pub crawls with the boys.
“My social life is basically zero right now,” Robbins said. “Some of my old friends understand what it’s about … that I’m not going to jeopardize what I’m trying to do.
“But I’ve also made new friends while doing this.”
One of them is Kasey Brown, who incidentally is also a Marine who served in Ramadi.
“One thing I’ve learned from when I first started bodybuilding is that it’s good to be humble enough that you know you need a coach … someone to keep an eye on you,” Robbins said of his decision to hire Wilmington, N.C. resident Brown.
“We have a system where I (periodically) send him photos of myself, and he sends me back what I should be working on … where I should be at,” Robbins said.
Robbins will compete in the light-heavyweight division in Grand Rapids. A victory will qualify him to the nationals where further success may result in Robbins getting his “pro card” enabling him to compete at more lucrative events.
“We’ll see how we do after (the WM Championships) and we’ll go from there,” Robbins said. “I hope to eventually get my pro card within five years. It may take shorter, it may take longer.
“I know one guy competed for 23 years before he got his pro card.”
Robbins was a multiple-sport athlete at Charles City. His favorite extracurricular activity was football.
“And I was only 150 pounds in high school,” Robbins said.
Though all of his former sports commanded a good portion of his time and attention, none had fully immersed him like bodybuilding.
“In football, you go to practice and then you go home and that’s it for the day,” Robbins said. “But bodybuilding takes up a much bigger part in your life. Most everything I do … including eating my meals, sleeping and waking up at a certain times … have a result in what I’m trying to achieve as a bodybuilder.”
Robbins is a personal trainer who works with other aspiring bodybuilders. One of his introductory lessons involves the “mind over matter” dictum.
“There’s a neuropsychology when it comes to bodybuilding,” Robbins said of the act of utilizing brain neurons to target muscle contractions while enhancing resistance training and body sculpturing.
When Robbins digs deeper into the science (as well as the neuroscience) involved, you tend to feel like a lost high school sophomore inadvertently walking into a lecture at Johns Hopkins University.
“See, there’s a big difference in bodybuilding and just weightlifting,” Robbins said.