Mark Oakes – From Acorn to Oak
Exclusive to Natural Muscle
Photos by Fivos Averkiou and Jordan Chabinsky

Where to start? This year has been the pinnacle of my competitive Natural Bodybuilding career. I grew up with a solid base in strength and flexibility-based sports, beginning gymnastics at 4 years of age and practicing Karate from 7 to 21. I was always interested in sports and strength and I do believe that the approach to training which was embedded in us at Kyokushin Karate has really stuck with me in my bodybuilding career. At school I played Rugby and this introduced me to the gym. I began lifting at 15 years of age when my immediate group of friends started going. They trained with the aim of “getting fit” for a cycling holiday and it really suited me to train alongside the sports I was already involved in. I immediately got the bug and loved the way I was able to always push myself. In my early years I trained at the school gym and soon after at the local YMCA where I began to train with the gym manager. He himself was competing as a Natural Bodybuilder and I was encouraged to give competition a try. For me, the journey really began when I was 19. I competed in my first contest, the ANB South East where I came second... out of two! Fast forward to 2011 and at the start of the year I had very clear aims and intended that 2011 would be my last competitive year. That year I was aiming for the NPA Pro-Am, NPA Britain, UKDFBA Champs with a view to aiming for two world titles that year (UIBBN and INBF). I was in the eyes of many at a lifetime best, but finished the year with a record that didn’t reflect this. I had been fairly beaten in the UK and the US (Gozdecki and Burge respectively) and was without doubt disappointed, despite collecting my second Overall NPA British Title (third weight class) along the way.

In the immediate aftermath, I wrote this fairly telling message to a trusted friend from the bodybuilding community:

“This was a strange year in terms of results, since I definitely nailed the package I presented and although it is a cliché, was the best I have ever been. In no small part fuelled by yourself, mate... as we have discussed. Personally I believe that one of the greatest things we can tangibly achieve in bodybuilding is to inspire others. I always aim to do this wherever possible. You should know that you have inspired me equally with your focus, dedication and single-mindedness. And clearly the awesome results this year... an absolute juggernaut. I am glad I did the British, since this was a good win. I have no issue at all with the placings at Rugby, MWC or NYC. The NYC was also really close and probably could have gone either way, with Levi being a bit bigger and me having other attributes to my physique. To be honest, if it were me judging... I would have probably gone for the bigger guy also. It is bodybuilding after all!

As much as I won't say it in public, since don't ever really feel the "I was robbed" line cuts much mustard. I was proper p****d off at the judging in Italy and the odd video and pictures I have seen have done nothing to change this. But it is, what it is... no use dwelling on it. There were 9 judges after all, so the majority must have seen it the way it came out. I guess I was really driven to finish the season with a victory in Italy, which along with the British and quality second places in outstanding line-ups, would have made the season seem a little bit more successful on paper. In all honesty I have seen plenty of comments, which are all very flattering I am sure, but the reality is that only Heather and yourself really get where I am coming from.

You'll be glad to hear I took the wise approach today in the gym, of allowing myself to ease back in, ensure I guard against over enthusiasm fuelled by food and Performance Matrix, which our depleted physiques might struggle to cope with… NAH BOLLOX! Partial deadlifts with 6 plates a side! 2013 is coming!! Aiming to get a Pro Card at UKDFBA and win Pro Lightweight class in NYC (think I am a lightweight in the WNBF?) Might even have another go at the NPA British on the way... be rude not to.

Huge respect right back.”

Looking at this now, it was fairly prophetic and shows that the medium term goals are important.

When 2013 rolled around, I decided on the shows I would aim for, with the aim of hitting and succeeding in the goals I had come close to achieving in 2011. Ultimately my aim was to compete once more in the States with the INBF/WNBF, where I had been hugely impressed with both the organisation and standard. I had seen it to be far ahead of any other international shows I had been to.

2013 also presented what some would see as a “challenge”, whilst others might see an “opportunity”. That was that my wife, Heather, also decided to compete this year. In all honesty, this turned out to be phenomenal! We were able to support one another even more than usual and could really relate to the challenges of cardio and tanning as well as dieting and training. It also gave us the joint objective of winning an Overall Title at the same show, something which we didn’t think had been done before?

UKBFF Leeds – I picked this show out of The Beef magazine, based entirely on the date. I have always found that I am not at my best on my first show and really wanted to ensure that I presented a finished package two weeks later at Lee Kemp’s UKDFBA UK Champs, so wanted something two weeks ahead. This contest really allowed me to try a couple of things in a low pressure environment, since I had no expectation and went into the contest very much with an open mind. The contest was huge in terms of numbers and the weigh-in was run efficiently.

Since this federation does not allow Dream Tan, I had to use something different for the first time in years. After asking Neil Ashley and Brandon Marjoram, both experienced and decorated champions whom I trust, Liquid Sunrayz was the solution I opted for. I did a practice run two weeks before and it worked well. I feel that practising with tan is important. I recognise it is costly, but such an easily amended detail so often trips people up. Either they use a product which reacts badly to their skin, or gets inappropriately applied. The Leeds contest also gave me stage time and an opportunity to try my posing routine for 2013. I came second in a four man line up and was pleased to get the season under way with a fairly good result in the open u80kg class. Ahead of the event, I was not too focused on placings etc... so interesting to see that when it came time to pump up and I looked around me, this all changed! “Game face” came out and I was working hard to win, so second was OK.

I was asked many times what it was like as a natural athlete to step onstage at the UKBFF. My answer, it’s all bodybuilding! At this qualifier, I didn’t give away a huge amount of size and my condition was as good as anyone’s, even at this stage in the season. It was a useful show. I qualified for the UKBFF Britain but as I would lose my invite through competing in the other shows in my plans, never even considered taking up the opportunity. Had the rules been different, I probably would have given it a go.

UKDFBA UK Champs – was the beginning of my priority shows this year. I was determined that I would win the Overall and Pro card after having lost out to Rich (Gozdecki) in 2011. This had been completely the correct result in 2011 and we all know what a stellar year the Champ went on to have. I was focused on ensuring that 2013 was to be my year. This was also to be the first contest that both Heather and I had contested on the same day.

Leading up to the contest, I was aware of some of the names who would be competing and had competed against many of them previously. In my weight class, Paul Douglas-Waller was said to be in great condition, although I did not remember him from previous shows. Damian Lees has shown himself to be a great physique with outstanding wheels and preparation and there was always the possibility we may fall into the same weight class. Michael Hannam would be gunning for the Overall, is a well-proportioned physique with a pile of experience and previous pro card. Nigel St. Lewis posses the genetic shape we would all love to have and I was convinced that it was just time before he brought the full package to a contest...would it be this day? At the time, I was pretty much unaware of Gordie Adam’s physique, having never seen him in the flesh.

The show was as efficiently run as we have all come to expect from the Kemps (Lee and Amy) and their team of officials. I weighed in at 1.5kg lighter than in 2011 and felt very tight and ready for the challenge.

I was urine tested at this show, which was my second test of the year, having been tested at a show earlier in the year where I was judging. I was pleased to have been tested, since whilst this would be a requirement if I were to take the Pro Card, it would be ideal for the nay-sayers following the contest.

On the day, Paul was in great condition and did push hard for the u80Kg, Michael had plenty of mass but was not dialed in enough to take the Overall title, Damian looked spot on (although as with the rest of us, got better in the year) and presented himself exceptionally well. In the heavyweight class, Gordie came from nowhere (for me) and was a great personality both backstage on onstage in the overall.

I was delighted to get the decision of the overall and the offer of the pro card.

This was, however, a tough day for the Oakes effort, which has since been termed #powercouple... (I think this is great!), as Heather came second. In reality, this was a reflection of condition not being where it needed to be and although feedback is useful... this was obvious from photos, DVD and my own eye. As someone who does judge, I do feel that athletes should look at photos and DVDs since often this is all the feedback which you need! Heather’s solution was inspiring, getting up the following morning to run 10 miles on the treadmill. Something which she did almost every day until we left for Boston at the end of the season. Whenever I was having moments in the gym where my own cardio was challenging, this really gave me an incentive. This was just one example of where we fed off one another with our prep.

The option of the Pro Card, whilst it had been my goal, did present options and thoughts which I hadn’t really considered, importantly whether to take it at all! In discussion with Lee, I understood that I would still be able to compete in the NPA Pro-Am and British Finals, as long as I submitted the paperwork at the appropriate times. So this was fine and would allow me to continue with the goals I had, especially since Heather and I were now even more locked and loaded on wining Overall Britain Titles at the NPA Britain. However, there was another “but” in my mind, and an element of self-doubt that I was not really used to dealing with, that was whether I should I go to the States as an amateur and compete in the INBF. My doubt was that I had been beaten by Levi Burge two years before and was pretty sure I could not beat him, especially since I had seen him progress (through the internet). Hence my question was whether to aim at a world title, even if be an amateur one... or whether to compete as a pro. Arguably, I left this decision alone for a time and focused on the next contest, aware that I didn’t need to submit entry forms for a couple of weeks.

NPA Pro-Am – came around just seven short days later. So we allowed ourselves a “Reward meal”, no more, no less on the Monday night and other than that both Heather and I were completely focused on this next contest.

For me this meant the Pro-Am class. Most will know that this is an “Invite-only” class held during the Mike Williams Classic Qualifier, in theory the invites going to British/World title holders. This was to be my third attempt at the title, having come second twice. Coming in behind Ian Duckett and Rich Gozdecki (2007, 2011) previously. I was excited for the prospect in 2013, as there was to be a great line up! Andy Palmer is a legend against whom I have battled in previous years. Andy is very thickly muscled and I have always looked up to him. Nigel St. Lewis was to be in the line up and I suspected would be coming hard for a win after his disappointment of placing second the previous weekend. Added to this mix were Steve Howarth, multi-titled British/World Champion and a real force when in condition. Also on stage were to be Henry Elsom and Scott Fruin. Ahead of this show, I was confident that I would be able to (finally!) take this title. I was convinced that I was a margin tighter than the previous weekend although weighed in at the same weight. The weigh-in was interesting since I was coming off a big win at the UKDFBA and many had either been there or seen coverage, so it was strange to be receiving such huge congratulations and complements ahead of a contest. I quickly put this to one side and focused on the job in hand, with my focus enhanced when I saw Andy weigh in. I had NEVER seen him so drawn in the face. Not unhealthy looking, just hungry and as though we were about to see something very different from the ton of muscle, which just needed more condition for the modern stage. In pump up, it was very apparent, very quickly that this was precisely what Andy had done! At the weight of an NPA middleweight he was exceptional. Nigel was equally full from the weekend before, although I did not see him as having progressed in the seven days. To me, it was clear that this was going to come down to the three of us. This was in no way underestimating the other three champions, but Steve was not in the condition needed to challenge at this level, whilst Scott and Henry both had areas in their physiques which would need improvement to challenge.

One of the things I really learnt in 2011, was “work onstage”. Previously I think I had attacked the stages, mainly during my actual poses and the routine. However, was guilty of not working the whole time. And by this I mean literally from the moment you are in front of the judges to the moment you leave. The judges are always looking and it may reasonably be when you are stood at the back of the stage when they see something which splits their decision. Equally hitting poses last or for short amounts of time won’t give the judges as much of an opportunity to be impressed. It was watching Rich (Gozdecki) take his WNBF title in 2011 which really showed me what work rate is required. At the Pro-Am, I worked hard. I aimed to be dominant on the stage and keep flexed at all times, especially working during my best shots. At no point in rounds 1 and 2 did I really feel that the judging was going my way, as good as I felt I looked. I felt I was not where I would want to be on the stage. Although NPA judging call outs can, in my opinion, be fairly deceptive in terms of positioning and rationale. I far prefer the INBF/WNBF approach of placing the leaders stage-centre and all athletes in every call out.

Heather agreed with me, following the prejudging and we both felt that I really needed to ensure that I continued to give it everything in Round 3 and every onstage moment. My routine went well and was followed by a high energy pose down. Posing against the other five Champions was a buzz! Then came the moment of truth as we stood waiting for the results. Sixth to fourth were announced and then the big three. I'm sure every athlete who has ever been in the mix for honours thinks the same thing, "don't say my name!", as they call the names. When Nigel was called in third place, I knew I was in with a good chance as I have managed to get the better of Andy in our recent show-downs... but as I wrote earlier, he was absolutely on it! When Andy was announced in second and I as the winner, I was elated! I had taken the title at the third attempt and amongst a class thick with talent, a great win! There was no rest though as Heather was on stage very soon after, so I was straight back to tan up duties and supporting her in the same way. In all the shows we have competed in together this year, I have been more nervous for her results than my own. I guess as I feel I have no control over it at all, and equally Figure judging does seem to vary from federation to federation or even across the season. Heather won the Overall Figure title on this day giving us both wins on the same day. Importantly, setting us up psychologically and physically for the NPA Britain.

NPA British Final - the three weeks between the Pro-Am and "The British" passed in a flash. The NPA British was my third drug test of the season, a very thorough polygraph this time, which I unsurprisingly (to me) passed with no problem. Once I have begun the contests in a season, I do find that I have no problems at all dialing in multiple shows. Indeed I would prefer to have shows every two or three weeks, rather than a long gap between a qualifier and final, for example. Also, after having done 16 weeks dieting, to keep tightening up and stepping up again just makes sense to me. It is, after all, a lot of effort for just one show? Added to which, I enjoy the contests.

Going in to the British, I was more confident than up to the previous shows. I knew I was getting better, pound by pound, and had a very good idea of who would be the threats... or at least on paper. That said, you do always wonder "what if?" and everybody who will be in the running at a British final deserves respect onstage and may always bring something you've not seen before. That said, I felt that I ultimately would end up in an Overall line up which would look similar to the Pro-Am, which with the win will give me a mental advantage over the others, I felt.

I was confident that I would be able to get the better of Andy (Palmer) again, believing that he had nowhere to go in terms of improvement in the time available. On the day, I saw a very similar package from Andy. However, big respect to the man who DID then improve from what I have seen to take the UIBBN World Title and I couldn't be happier for him! For me, the great unknown was Nigel St. Lewis. I have competed in the same line up as Nigel on a couple of occasions and obviously had beaten him just a few weeks previously. However, felt that the gap between the Pro-Am and the British may well be long enough for him to dial up his condition, which has been the only missing ingredient standing between Nigel and achieving his absolute potential. The athletes whom I felt would most likely win the other classes, whilst all deserving of respect, I felt I would beat on the day. Indeed many of them seemed to feel this way too from their feedback and comments!

From what I saw backstage, Nigel hadn't moved on as much as I thought he should have done in the three weeks. The result was my fourth British weight class win and third Overall title with the ANB/NPA. This is a great achievement of which I am definitely proud. The experience of the day was escalated, however, far beyond anything previously as Heather won the Overall Figure Britain also. As far as I know, this is the first time a married couple have won the Mr and Miss? It was a goal we shared and were both ecstatic to see come to fruition. However, what was unexpected was my sense of relief at winning the title.

Interestingly something which Heather also felt of her own third British title (NPA/BNBF). I did not feel the same sense of overjoyment as my first, or even second wins...but more a sense of relief? Reflecting on this immediately following, I really put this down to the sense of expectation that both I had and the community, as well as the high bar I was setting for myself.

However, there was not long to rest on our laurels. One "reward meal" followed on the Monday night and we were both back in the saddle for the two weeks of final prep before the big one!

WNBF Pro World Championships - So now I really had to decide, Pro or amateur, WNBF or INBF? Ultimately this decision took very little. I reflected briefly on the goals I had set myself two years previously, considered that I had achieved as much domestically as I had ever set out to do, won the UIBBN World title in 2007 and was very much looking to have this as my last competitive year. My aim to go out at the top and with a bang. My thoughts were that if I did the INBF and either won and was awarded the Pro Card, or placed highly, I would always wonder "what if" and not put myself onstage against some of the best natural physiques currently competing. Having been to the WNBF/INBF in 2011 I had seen that the standard of the amateurs is excellent, and a jump from the UIBBN, especially in terms of depth. But there exists a clear margin, whilst not always huge, a margin nonetheless, up to the Pro division. Whether the moniker "Pro" is currently appropriate is, in my opinion, irrelevant. These athletes are the next level! So I quickly decided I would be stepping on the WNBF stage and confirmed all my paperwork.

The WNBF polygraph all their athletes the day before the contest, and the athletes who finish “in the money” are subject to a urine test. So these were tests four and five of the season. I only mention this as I feel all the natural/drug-free federations are doing their best to keep the sport clean and this should be acknowledged. Ultimately, despite the differing politics and personalities, the desire to ensure drug-free bodybuilding is clean does unite us all.

Inevitably in the modern era, following my decision to “turn pro”, I then set about "researching" (some might say “stalking”!) my likely opponents. I believed I could mix it up with Brian Whitacre and also Levi Burge once more. In all honesty, the pictures I had seen of Brian don't do the man justice! I know he has multiple titles at the Pro level which is to be respected, but did feel I would certainly be competitive. Levi, I did not really believe I could beat, so was perhaps hoping for second place at best. Before I continue as to how the classes actually fell on the day a further word on this. Brian in the flesh? If pictures don't do him justice, then words don't either! So incredibly well put together and absolutely dialed in. Great structure, excellent balance and a great guy to chat to whilst very supportive also. Levi looked, as I have see before backstage, as though be was a bit soft? However, when he poses onstage, all of this completely vanishes and he's rock hard and HUGE! Indeed I was a bit surprised that he was a lightweight at all!

So, the weight classes. This fell very much to my advantage. Prior to the weigh-in, Nancy Andrews confirmed that there were potentially nineteen athletes in the lightweight class. The decision was made that the class would be split around the mid-point and a Bantamweight class created. Weigh-in was first thing in the morning which I knew would be an advantage for me, since this is when I am at my lightest. I weighed in without any food or liquid inside me, aiming to be as light as possible and ideally at the top end of the lighter class. On their scales, I weighed in at 161.3 lbs, or just over 73kgs in "new money"! I certainly didn't feel that light, nor that my physique was flat or stringy. Although did feel a bit rough until I had some food and a litre or so of water!

The creation of the Bantamweight class completely changed my approach to the show. I switched from an approach of “this will be the icing on the cake, let's mix it up and see if I can place top three" to one of "this is mine to win, I will be bigger than many and as hard any!" My focus changed completely in a heartbeat and this was clear to both myself and Heather. I was now "in it, to win it"!

Pumping up backstage went really well. Everything clicked into place and we timed it perfectly. I could feel the other athletes looking me over when my back was turned, I knew I was in great shape. I ensured that I "shared the mirror" with athletes who looked like they might be threats and "practised" my best shots...I do love the mind games that go on backstage. Lee Kemp was highly entertained when he stated, "they're looking at you with envy", to which my reply was "it's not envy... it's FEAR!" To say I was "in the zone" would be an understatement. I was more fired than arguably ever before going onstage.

The prejudging at the WNBF/INBF is hard work. Hard work, but really makes for a great spectacle. It gives the athletes immediate feedback as to an indication of how the judges are thinking. Basically, all athletes start in numerical order across the stage. Call outs then shuffle the athletes, with the front runners being moved to stage centre. Everyone knows where the hot seat is! All athletes are in every call out. Another advantage to this approach is that it means wherever one ultimately places, you will have featured in call outs with the ultimate winners which will provide definitive "feedback" as to the gaps and areas to focus on in the future.

Rounds 1 and 2 (symmetry and muscularity) lasted over 25 minutes! The stage time I had had during the year, along with posing practice stood me in good stead and I was able to work constantly. My confidence grew as I was quickly shuffled to the centre of the stage in both rounds 1 and 2. Coming off, it seemed that the result was clearly coming down to three of us. I had chatted briefly to Rich Lauro and Andy K backstage, but not really been in a position to evaluate their physiques objectively. In the afternoon, I was getting great comments and feedback from both other athletes as well as officials and spectators. It was strange to have athletes getting their photo taken with me, ahead of the evening show! But flattering nonetheless. And obviously a boost to confidence.

The evening arrived very quickly, as Heather was competing in both the Figure and Fit Body classes. So between eating, tanning and pumping up, it was time to focus on Round 3 in no time at all.

The evening show was run very efficiently with athletes called numerically to perform their routine. I found the music very hard to hear on the stage and my routine was sound, but not as in time as I would usually hope. Although it did get the job done and demonstrated my physique as I would have hoped. When all the Pro athletes had completed their routine, then we were called back in class groups for the posedown and results. The pose down passed in a blur and then we were lined up awaiting the results. All athletes will know what it's like to be wishing "don't call my name" as they go through the lower placings. I was ecstatic when they didn't call my name until I was announced the winner; "WNBF Pro Bantamweight World Champion". This was the pinnacle of my natural bodybuilding career.

Coming off stage to huge congratulations from everyone, there wasn't really any time to let the dust settle. They quickly announced the winners of the other three Pro weight classes and then we were back onstage for the Overall. I was competitive here, especially in my best shots. It was clear though that this was coming down to a two horse race between Brian Whitacre and Shevon Cunningham. The posedown was phenomenal! Their was huge camaraderie, respect, entertainment and fire from all of us! Shevon got the nod in a one point decision. Brian was clearly disappointed, as one would expect and want from a Champion who is aiming to win. He reacted very professionally and as an ambassador to the sport, doing himself complete justice, whilst Shevon sank to his knees.

It was over, I had won and Boston and a good meal awaited.

What next? - the milestones that I would pick from my competitive career are as follows:

  • 1992 ANB Britain - 3rd place junior
  • 2001 ANB Yorkshire - over 80kg, 6th place (first year competing where I did not qualify for the British Final. These are the results which drive you to evaluate, plan and improve)
  • 2002 ANB British Champion, under 80kg, (proud to have beaten Rob Hope in his first year!)
  • 2005 NPA Heart Of England Champion, under 78kg and Overall (first Overall title)
  • 2005 NPA British Champion, under 78kg and Overall
  • 2007 UIBBN World Champion, under 80kg
  • 2011 UKDFBA UK Champion, under 80kg
  • 2011 NPA British Champion, under 78kg and Overall
  • 2013 UKDFBA UK Champion, under 80kg and Overall (pro card qualification)
  • 2013 NPA Pro-Am Champion
  • 2013 NPA British Champion, under 78kg and Overall
  • 2013 WNBF Pro World Champion, Bantamweight

    I am satisfied! Satisfied that I have achieved all my competitive ambitions this year. Satisfied that I have achieved beyond what I hoped for all those years ago. Realistically, could I do it again and repeat the level of achievement in the future?

    I have generally competed every second year, with just a few exceptions. In two years time I will be 43. I hope that I would be able to repeat my condition and maintain muscle mass and density. Improvements would be minimal I suspect. So could I do better? I have always stated that when observers state "you look good... for your age", that this would be a time I would not want to be onstage in my trunks! Never say never, I guess. And perhaps ever so slightly sitting on the fence, but competing as a Master does not interest me. That is not to say the Masters class isn't competitive. Indeed it seems to become more so each year and it's no coincidence that at this year's Pro-Am, four of the six Champions on stage would be eligible for an over 40s Masters class. However, I would see it as a step backwards.

    The realistic and logical next challenge for me, would have to be the WNBF Overall. I need to be honest with myself and do feel this is a bridge too far. I was not out of my depth at all in the Overall line up this year, this was reinforced by conversations with the judges. I mixed it up with some of the best natural bodybuilders on the planet, and held my own at 5'7" and 75kg, however did place fourth. Although the rules have now changed and as a WNBF Pro I would be eligible to compete in many more Pro shows in Europe, as we can now cross federations. The reality is that they are few in number outside of the States. Besides which, "WNBF Pro World Champion"... it's got a definitive ring to it!

    I will undoubtedly and hopefully have other competing priorities over the coming years, as friends remind me constantly... "you'll be wanting a family next". And "little acorns" are certainly in our plans!

    With all that said, a bodybuilder is something I am, not simply something I do. One of my biggest achievements within the sport has been to receive feedback that I have inspired others. I aim to continue to do this. To contribute positively to the sport and lifestyle I have chosen to call my own. To support the organisations and individuals who have supported me. To continue to give back wherever this is welcomed. I have enjoyed my time onstage and aim to help others do the same, whatever their ultimate aim. I will still train just as hard and just as heavy, for as long as possible. I'm still training harder than many around me... it's going to be a long while before I let this change!

    Lift hard, be will succeed!

    Mark "Natural Oak" Oakes