Young ambition takes many forms. Josh Vogel's is compact and bulky and rises before dawn to mix powdered protein shakes and cook chicken.
At 17, Josh is a competitive bodybuilder, an identity that shapes his days. He measures his food in cups and ounces. He discusses proper form for calf exercises on his Facebook page. At a birthday party last year, he skipped the cake and ate only tuna. It was his own birthday.
"I don't think I ever stop thinking about it," he said of his fitness regimen.
But is it healthy to be so health-conscious? What should we make of teens who adopt nearly ascetic lifestyles, not just for the payoff of a fourth-quarter touchdown or a top score on the gymnastics beam but for the payoff of an exquisite body?
According to a study published in the journal Pediatrics in November, we should be a little concerned. The authors said boys are obsessing over unattainable bodies, just as girls have long been known to do. And while girls' struggles with weight loss are well known, researchers said boys too eager to bulk up — a phenomenon often called "bigorexia" — are prone to risky behavior, such as illegal steroid use.
"Care should be taken to emphasize moderation in behaviors and to focus on skill development, fitness and general health rather than development of a muscular appearance," the authors wrote.
But what does moderation mean when you're a 17-year-old boy with a purpose?
• • •
Josh is soft-spoken and serious, a kid who shakes hands and says "ma'am" and "sir." He graduated from East Bay High School a year early, with academic honors. He takes classes at Hillsborough Community College, works two jobs and offers training advice on the side. He's in bed by 11 p.m.
He is 5-foot-4 but moves like a bigger man, holding his shoulders back and walking with the precision required of someone with 27-inch thighs. He often speaks with the austerity of a teenage boy — or, perhaps, of a careful politician making his first public remarks.
What does he enjoy about bodybuilding? "Results."
Is he dating anyone? "I choose not to."
He's a different person on the stage. During last year's National Physique Committee amateur bodybuilding contest in Orlando, Josh flashed a toothy grin for judges as he showed off his biceps, pointed his toes and flexed his back until it rippled — all while keeping beat to Whitney Houston's version of I Will Always Love You.
Josh says he was a skinny middle school kid whose main activity was playing guitar in his room. But once in high school, he saw that the popular, older boys were getting ripped.
He joined the wrestling team and shrank to a very lean 105 pounds. He thought about going for something different after he saw the muscle magazines his brother Justin brought home.
"They had these huge guys on the front," Josh said. "I thought it was cool, I just thought it was different."
As he worked out and changed his diet, his body changed. Josh's father and brother are wiry. But Josh was starting to resemble his barrel-chested grandfathers.
He was hooked.
One day Josh went into Southern Muscle, a supplement shop in Brandon, and told co-owner Anneliesa Perez he had a goal.
"He said, 'I want to be a bodybuilder,' " Perez recalled. "You think, he's 14 years old and he's not going to take it seriously."
She laughs now — at herself.
• • •
Here's a typical weekday for Josh:
4 a.m.: Wakes up, fixes a powdered carbohydrate shake and chicken.
4:30 a.m.: Heads to the gym in Brandon. Lifts weights for about an hour, then heads home for a shower, a protein shake and oatmeal.
8 a.m.: Classes at Hillsborough Community College.
Noon: Returns home, cooks rest of meals for the day, does homework.
2 p.m: Heads to work at Southern Muscle or Winn-Dixie.
10 p.m.: Returns home.
10:30 p.m.: Goes to bed.
Josh grew. Between his freshman and sophomore years, he went from 105 pounds to 125 pounds. The next year he got to 140. Now, he's around 180.
Most of what Josh learned came from the owners of Southern Muscle, Perez and Jarrod Gelling, both bodybuilders. They became his mentors, suggesting protein supplements, diets and workouts. They gave him a part-time job at the store.
"He realizes the time it takes, he realizes what it means," said Gelling. "You talk to him and you think, 'They don't raise kids like that anymore.' "
At first his parents — dad George works for National Gypsum Co. and mom April is a legal secretary — didn't know what to make of his aspirations.
"He didn't get it from me," said April Vogel. "I like the chocolate."
Themselves fit, the couple were impressed with their son's transformation from shy teen to showman. "I'm amazed by his self-discipline," said George Vogel, sitting recently in his living room with April and Josh.
Josh, who had to remind his parents they once worried he was overdoing it, has gotten stricter with himself.
In the beginning, "I kind of cheated. I thought if I had salad and chicken it allowed me to have a cookie," he said. "Now, I go 12 weeks without touching junk food. That's how long it takes me to diet down."
"Get shredded," he explained.
"Get that magazine look," said his father.
• • •
Josh said he has never hurt himself lifting weights. The last time he saw his pediatrician was for a flu shot last year, he said, and she remarked how impressed she was by his diet and physique. He checks his blood pressure routinely and it's always fine. His body fat, which he measures with calipers, ranges from 4.5 percent to 8 per cent, depending on how close he is to show time.
Male Olympic 100-meter sprinters have between 6 and 8 percent body fat, according to a 1999 medical study.
Athletic teenage boys tend to have at least 10 percent body fat, said Dr. Brian Knox, a USF Health professor who sees adolescents at a clinic for weight management and eating disorders. "Below 5 percent is concerning," as it could signal excessive exercise in a very muscular person, he said.
The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends teens avoid competitive weight lifting and body building "until they reach physical and skeletal maturity." But it also says there's no evidence lifting stunts growth.
Still, said Knox, too much time in the gym can put teens at risk for injuries. Excessive exercise also can be a sign of body image issues that could lead a teen to try steroids.
Josh said he has never taken steroids. But he has been accused of it, and that hurts.
Strangers have looked at his photographs on body building websites and declared he must be "juiced.'' People come up to him, point out his teenage acne and ask if it's due to steroids.
"That really bothered me for a while," he said.
But he said steroid use is common in his world. Andrew Bostinto, president of the National Gym Association, agrees. Though more teens are lifting weights, he said fewer are entering bodybuilding meets his group hosts because they test for steroids.
Josh rarely enters so-called "natural'' contests, not because he fears the tests, he says, but because he wants to prove he can win against teens and men who use steroids.
"I feel confident enough that I can compete with those guys and do just as well," he said. "I work out harder, I diet harder."
• • •
Images of men in popular culture have grown increasingly lean and muscular in recent decades, the Pediatrics study noted. Just as airbrushed models in fashion magazines have launched countless girls into self-scrutiny, so have these masculine images fueled boys' dissatisfaction with their own bodies.
Michael Ormsbee, an assistant professor of sports nutrition at Florida State University, said there's even a term to describe the condition of some males who never think they're big enough: bigorexia.
"He looks into the mirror," said Ormsbee of the well-developed man with bigorexia, "and sees a skinny person."
The phenomenon is especially prominent in physique-based sports like body building, which he said "either attract people with this condition or create it."
Josh said has heard the term tossed around by peers. "Like, 'Aw, man I've got bigorexia,' " said Josh, who dismisses them as trying "to look cool."
His parents said it's a stretch to link boys like Josh, who are trying to pack on muscle, with those obsessed with shrinking. "He eats," said his mother.
Knox, the USF doctor, said for anyone with a body image disorder, a key question is: How much do diet and exercise define daily life?
If relationships, school work or social life are suffering as a result of a workout regimen, he said, "that's a symbol the balance is out of whack."
Josh says he's happy with the balance of his life. He's okay with only rarely eating out. He'd rather go home so he doesn't have to carry his special food with him and look like a "weirdo,'' he said.
But he says he gets out enough. He went with friends to the batting cages one weekend. Another weekend it was Steak 'n Shake and video games with buddies.
On his Facebook page, Josh keeps up a saucy, competitive rapport with other workout buffs. On his Twitter account, he writes that he longs for a girl who exercises as much as he does — or else, singer Taylor Swift.
"I still hang out with people now and then. But we all have jobs now," he said. "We can't all hang out like when we were 12 years old."
• • •
One recent Sunday morning, Josh woke up early, ate a breakfast of steak and rice and headed with his parents to Jackson Springs Recreation Center in Tampa, where the doors were propped open with 35-pound kettlebells.
Josh had never participated in a powerlifting contest but wanted to test himself. He bought a black unitard and set goals, all of which would be personal records: bench press 290 pounds, dead lift 405, squat 365.
Other teens paced the floor as they prepared for their team events. Josh had entered an individual competition so he waited his turn with older men, some of whom had bellies hanging over their support belts and wives dispensing snacks in the bleachers.
The event opened with a prayer then eased into a rotation of Jimi Hendrix and heavy metal.
Josh smacked his hands with chalk and stormed toward the weights. The squat, then the bench, then the dead lift — he hit his goals each time, shouting with relief when he rose a final time on the dead lift and walked away with hands powdery and quivering.
No one else had entered his age and weight division. In the end, he had only himself to beat.
Jodie Tillman can be reached at [email protected] or (813) 226-3374.
So how much food does Josh eat when he's trying to gain muscle for a show? A lot.
Meal 1: Tuna or chicken.
Meal 2: Two Pop Tarts (he says this is his occasional junk food)
Meal 3: Canned chicken and two cups of cooked rice.
Meal 4: Protein shake mixed with one cup of oats and a banana.
Meal 5: Two cups of rice and 10oz of tilapia.
Meal 6: One cup of greens, 1.5 cups of rice and 8 ounces chicken or steak.
Meal 7: Two white potatoes, meat, one cup of vegetables
Meal 8: Apple, peanut butter, two rice cakes, protein shake and 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
He attributes some of his muscularity to the half-dozen supplements he takes: powdered shakes with carbohydrates; powdered protein shakes; creatine (an amino acid) powder; caplets that are marketed as a natural, non-steroidal anabolic supplement that increases lean muscle mass. (He estimates spending between $100 and $200 a month on the products.)
Several sports nutritionists contacted by the Tampa Bay Times reviewed his list. They noted that the protein and creatine supplements are not harmful though he probably doesn't need to take so many. They questioned the safety and efficacy of the non-steroidal anabolic supplement — and said they can't be sure what's really in them.
Supplements aren't regulated by the government. The American Academy of Pediatrics says adolescents should avoid them as they've never been tested on children. But nearly 35 percent of middle and high school age boys reported taking protein supplements, according to the journal Pediatrics.
Nancy Clark, a sports nutritionist in Boston, said the lack of regulations, especially on so-called performance-enhancing supplements, would deter her from taking them.
Josh "doesn't know what he's taking and he doesn't know what happens when you stack one on top of the other," said Clark. "If you think you have to take all these supplements, how do you ever stop? This is one, very expensive. Two, what is it doing to your body?"