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At 6 feet 2 and 173 pounds, Sergeant First Class Isaac Engle was at a distinct disadvantage in his first bodybuilding competition, which was called the National Physique Committee and held in Canyonville, OR, in October. Almost all of his fellow NPC competitors in his category—men’s physique over 6 feet—tipped the scales at around 200 pounds.
“I definitely have some growing to do,” Engle says a week after the event.
He’s being hard on himself. Engle has made great weight strides already.
He’s also ripped to shreds.
After a remarkable transformation, Engle, who’s with the Oregon National Guard’s B Battery, 2/218th Field Artillery Battalion, has become a motivational figure in his Guard unit. He’s taking his newfound wisdom—and chiseled form—into a new career as a personal trainer. And after a few promising showings in amateur competitions, he’s looking to launch himself on the Natural Bodybuilding circuit for athletes who abstain from performance-enhancing drugs of any kind.
At the NPC event, he earned the center spot in the judges’ second callout among a dozen participants, a status that identified him as the showcase pick of the second tier of competitors.
Recently, Engle was preparing for his second competition, this one in the state of Washington, two hours from his home in Salem, OR. “The longer I stay in it [and] the better I do, I will have to travel,” he says, noting that a top-three finish in the NPC would have qualified him for the national championship in Orlando, FL.
“I’ll go wherever it takes me,” he says.
That’s also been Engle’s attitude toward his service in the National Guard, where he works for Oregon’s Pre-mobilization Training Assistance Element (PTAE). “All units on the chopping block to deploy—we help get ’em ready,” he says. Engle himself has been deployed twice, to Iraq from 2004 to 2005 and to Afghanistan from 2011 to 2012. It was his tour in Iraq that first inspired what has become his life-changing commitment to working out.
A TOUR'S TOLL
“I came right out of Basic [Training] and was deployed,” Engle says. “We were driving around in the back of the M998 Humvees, which had plywood sides and back for our armor. To get out, we had to do a three-point crawl over the side. Or, if you were stopping to take care of a situation, you just jumped. I was literally jumping over the side of the Humvee with all my gear multiple times a day, and that compressed my spine.”
Though the back injury did not require surgery, it did lead him to physical therapy to strengthen his core. But it wasn’t until a second injury—a fluke accident in 2009—that Engle truly set his mind to changing his body.
“We were doing some training in and around razor wire, and I severed my tendon leading to my ring finger in my right hand,” he recalls. “That hand was useless for a few months.”
At the time, his wife was pregnant with the first of their two daughters. For the first time in his life, the Soldier, now 31 years old, began to gain weight.
“I come from a pretty skinny family,” he says. “I thought I could eat whatever I want.”
While his colleagues spent their free time working out, Engle, unable to exercise, says he sat in his room and watched movies. At age 27, he put on 30 pounds in a couple of months.
“I weighed 216 pounds with a thirty-eight-inch waist,” Engle says. When he learned he was headed to Afghanistan, he knew he had to get back in shape. So he started weightlifting.
Soon, however, Engle found that he wanted to maximize the efficiency of his workout routine. Mixed martial arts (MMA) training got him going. “I used to box when I was a little kid, and I absolutely loved it,” Engle says. “I’m one of those weird people who loves to get punched in the face,” he adds, laughing.
Back in the gym, he began using the INSANITY workout, a 60-day interval-training program that builds stamina and core strength with intense three-to-four-minute bursts of activity followed by 30 seconds of “cool down,” which are then repeated. From there, Engle moved to the P90X program, the 90-day exercise regimen that combines elements of cross-training with a rigorous nutrition plan.
By the time he left for Afghanistan with the 1186th Military Police Company, Engle was all in. Overseas, he researched best practices for his training. “There were three posts I was in charge of, and when I wasn’t checking on my guys, I was in my office reading [health and fitness] articles,” Engle says.
Soon, he set his sights on a goal—to be a featured athlete in one of the fitness magazines he was reading. In July 2013, just two years since committing himself to his personal transformation, Engle was featured as the Military Bodybuilder of the Month on Bodybuilding.com.
Engle, friendly and forthcoming, now uses his own motivation to inspire others. “I think I can help [them] with my story,” he says. It runs a little deeper than his desire to give himself a physique worthy of competition: Engle admits that he was not quite the man he hoped to be before he started working out.
“I almost lost my wife and kids,” he says, referring to drinking alcohol regularly and staying out too late in his younger years.
Now, Engle says, he can use his personal history to help his colleagues and new recruits overcome their own struggles. “I don’t believe in hiding my past,” he says. “I don’t like to relive it, but I believe in being open and honest. I know I can help somebody. And you don’t have to be as drastic as I am, prepping for competition.”
Engle’s transition from the bars to the weight room completely altered his lifestyle, to the point where he inadvertently lost touch with old friends. “It’s a different crowd, the bodybuilding crowd,” he says. “I found a new addiction—eating healthy and living in the gym every morning. Better I spend an hour in the gym every morning than all night out at a bar.”
Engle grew up in Salem, attending the private school (now defunct) that his grandfather, a pastor, established. “I was a very sheltered kid,” he says. “We had a small high school [with] forty kids total. My graduating class was just eight kids. The school didn’t have [many] sports, just basketball and volleyball.” Both his grandfathers served during WWII; Engle’s two younger brothers would both join the military after him.
Between his deployments, Engle worked odd jobs and helped render Military Funeral Honors, a responsibility he loved. After his wife delivered their first daughter, he joined the Guard full time. During his second deployment, he reclassed as a military policeman, then was promoted and rejoined his old artillery unit.
“Our job is making sure guys are prepped and ready for the field,” he says of his responsibilities with the 2/218th. “Because of my passion for bodybuilding, I was put in charge of turning around our PT test failures and nonpassees. I came up with a program of extra PT with Soldiers one weekend a month.”
In his duties with the PTAE, Engle helps supervise the validation process of the deploying units inside the state of Oregon. “We validate each unit—warrior tasks, battle drills [and] a ton of briefings,” he says. “We make sure they’re training to standard.”
Eventually, Engle would like to become a full-time personal trainer. “I actually have two gyms ‘competing’ to hire me,” he says. “It’s always rewarding to help someone.”
One of the main lessons he imparts is proper technique. That might mean “floating” when running—“trying to move forward instead of up and down, running soft instead of hard” to reduce the pounding on your knees, he says.
In the weight room, Engle emphasizes full extension: “When you’re doing a range of motion, the extension is getting the most development—it’s not the contraction. When you’re releasing down, you want to do a nice, slow progression down,” he says. “That’s where your muscle really grows.”
Reps don’t have to feature your max weight to be effective, he advises. “Drop the ego, drop the weight,” he adds. “Form is everything.”
“I change my routine fairly often,” SFC Isaac Engle says. “I like to keep my muscles guessing. The body will adapt to a certain function. If you do something day in and day out, the body is going to find a way to use the least amount of effort, where it’s not burning as much energy or calories.”
It’s essentially a three-week progression, he explains. “You get results in the first week. In the second week, you’re learning how to do it a little better, and by the third week, you’re kind of starting to adapt. That’s when I like to change it up.”
The most important piece of advice he gives to trainees, he says, is to lower the size of their weights until they can manage an exercise with full, measured extension. That’s where the greatest gains are made: “from the negative reaction, not the positive,” he says.
“Don’t just throw the weight around,” Engle continues. “It’s not about how much weight you lift. It’s about getting the full extension and contraction of the muscle by using slow movements going down and forceful movements going up. A lot of weightlifters will do a heavy bicep curl instead of standing still and using proper form for a full range of motion.”
DAY 1: BACK & BICEPS
Warm-up: 10 minutes
Dead lift: 5 sets of 4–5 reps
Pull-ups: 5 sets to failure
Dumbbell one-arm row: 4 sets of 8–12 reps
Hammer-grip lateral pull-down: 3 sets of 8–10 reps
V-bar handle middle-back row: 3 sets of 8–10 reps
Iso-lateral pull-down: 4 sets of 8–12 reps
Straight bar curls: 3 sets of 8–10 reps
Hammer curls: 3 sets of 8–10 reps
EZ bar curl 21s: 3 sets of 7 full curls, 7 low to mid curls, 7 mid to high curls
DAY 2: CHEST & TRICEPS
Warm-up: 10 minutes
Incline chest press: 5 sets of 4–6 reps
Dumbbell chest press: 3 sets of 8–12 reps
Bench dips: 3 sets of 12–15 reps
Dumbbell incline flyes: 3 sets of 8–12 reps
Weighted dips: 3 sets of 8–10 reps
Cable reverse-grip triceps extensions: 4 sets of 8–12 reps
Incline EZ bar triceps extensions: 3 sets of 8–12 reps
Incline EZ bar chest press: 3 sets to failure
One-arm dumbbell triceps extensions: 3 sets to failure
DAY 3: LEGS
Warm-up: 10 minutes
Squats: 4 sets of 4–6 reps
Calf press: 4 sets of 15–20 reps
Hack squat: 3 sets of 8–10 reps
Two-position calf press: 3 sets of 15–20 reps
Leg extensions: 3 sets of 8–10 reps
Leg curls: 3 sets of 8–10 reps
Seated calves: 3 sets of 10–15 reps
Box jumps: 3 sets to failure
Weighted walking lunges: 3 sets of 10 each leg
DAY 4: SHOULDERS
Warm-up: 10 minutes
Shoulder dumbbell press: 4 sets of 4–6 reps
Wide-grip upright rows: 4 sets of 6–8 reps
Heavy dumbbell side laterals: 3 sets of 6–8 reps
Seated dumbbell rear lateral raise: 3 sets of 8–10 reps
Dumbbell shrugs: 3 sets of 15–20 reps
Straight bar front raise: 3 sets of 8–10 reps
Standing cable rear delt flye: 2 sets to failure
Clean and press: 2 sets to failure
DAY 5: ARMS
Warm-up: 10 minutes
Straight bar curls: 3 sets of 10–12 reps
Seated dumbbell hammer curls: 3 sets of 10–12 reps
One-arm dumbbell preacher curls: 3 sets of 10–12 reps
Triceps rope extensions: 2 sets of 15–20 reps
EZ bar overhead triceps extensions: 4 sets of 10–12 reps
Incline EZ bar chest press: 4 sets to failure
Weighted dips: 4 sets of 8–10 reps
Cable reverse-grip triceps extensions: 4 sets of 12–15 reps
Cable reverse-grip triceps extensions: 4 sets of drop sets to failure
DAY 6: CARDIO/ABS
Warm-up: 10 minutes
Cardio: 30–40 minutes
Weighted decline crunches: to failure
Abdominal wheel: to failure
Oblique wood chopper: 20–30 reps each side
Leg lifts: to failure
DAY 7: REST
Since first taking up the P90X program, Engle has been tinkering with his nutrition intake for maximum benefit. He has the good fortune of skinny genes, he says, which for years let him convince himself he could eat “anything he wanted.” Now, Engle keeps to a strict dietary regimen, which includes eggs, fruit and vegetables, peanut butter, chicken, and tilapia. On a typical day, Engle consumes 2,958 calories, 230 grams of carbohydrates, 69 grams of fat, 344 grams of protein and 38 grams of fiber.
Orange juice (4 oz.), protein powder (50 g), branched-chain amino acids (4 scoops)
On Back and Leg Days:
Oats (.5 cup), powdered peanut butter (2 tbsp.)
Cottage cheese (1.5 cups), pineapple (.5 cup), raisins (.25 cup), protein powder (50 g), recovery formula (40 g)
Whole eggs (2), egg whites (.75 cup), ground turkey (6 oz.), baby spinach (1.5 cups), whole-wheat tortillas (2)
Whole-wheat bread (2 slices), low-fat Swiss cheese (1 oz.), tuna or egg salad (1 cup), baby spinach (2 cups), hard-boiled eggs (2), diced ham (2 oz.), kidney beans (.25 cup), mushrooms (.25 cup), broccoli (.25 cup), low-calorie ranch dressing (2 tbsp.)
Iced coffee (16 oz.), protein powder (50 g), apple cinnamon rice cakes (2), peanut butter (2 tbsp.)
Chicken breast (8 oz.), broccoli (1 cup), whole-wheat pasta (4 oz.)
Greek yogurt (6 oz.), granola (30 g), casein protein (1.5 scoops)