Darrem Charles is bodybuilding’s ultimate iron man. He launched his pro career way back in 1992, as did Ronnie Coleman, who retired at 43 sixteen years ago! Somehow, Charles, who turns 55 in July, is still going. The Masters Olympia this August will be his…how many pro contests?! Musclememory.com lost count, but it’s more than 90, and it’s a record that likely will never be broken. Along the very long way, he’s won 18 pro shows (nine in open, nine in classic physique), more than such Mr. Olympia legends as Dorian Yates, Phil Heath, and Jay Cutler. And he’s done it all with a less-than-ideal structure and mediocre DNA for making muscle. This should encourage all of us. Charles simply maximized what genetics he was given. And, four decades later, he still is.
Let’s get to know Darrem Charles and learn what he has to teach us about building a classical physique for the long haul.
DARREM CHARLES: THE EARLY YEARS
Darrem Charles was born on July 22, 1968, and grew up in Arouca, a small town on the Caribbean island of Trinidad. He had racked up a slew of break-dancing titles when curiosity drew him into a weight room. He was 5’9” and a whopping 115 pounds, but his flesh responded rapidly to iron. Encouraged by friends, Charles entered and won a local bodybuilding show in 1986. Then, at 154 pounds, he took the teenage Trinidad and Tobago title.
Darrem Charles placed second in both 1990 and 1991 in the light-heavy class of the IFBB World Championships and advanced to the IFBB Pro League in 1992 with a rookie class that included Ronnie Coleman and Kevin Levrone. Charles was simply too undersized to make an impact in the big league then, and if anyone had noticed they probably thought he never would. With his wife and young son, he moved to South Florida in 1995, where he began his long career as a personal trainer. That same year, he returned to pro stages. After placing third in a pro show, he entered the 1995 Mr. Olympia and landed in next-to-last place.
The 1990s was bodybuilding’s second Golden Age (the Arnold era was the first, and it fueled the second), and Darrem Charles jostled to get noticed in talent-laden lineups. Carving out his own niche, he was the perpetually peeled dude with the pointy biceps, zippered quads, and ice cube abs. Showcasing his breakin’ background, he was also, arguably, the best poser in every show he entered. Never mind that he was competing at a slender 215 at 5’9″, his strengths propelled him into posedowns, highlighted by a second in 1998 behind only the legendary Flex Wheeler. Still, 10 years into his pro career, he had zero wins. All the while, he had been slowly growing while remaining vigilant not to blur his lines.
DARREM CHARLES: THE PEAK YEARS
Darrem Charles’ work eventually paid off. Annually, he won at least one pro show for the seven years from 2002-2008. Partly, this was because the pro lineups had retreated from the sky-high standards of the ’90s. But mostly it was due to Charles’ persistence and his consistent high-def conditioning. He competed in a whopping 37 contests over that span, winning nine; and though he never placed higher than seventh in the Olympia or sixth in the Arnold Classic, he weighed 225-230, and his posing excellence allowed him to maximize his strengths (arms, abs, conditioning) and minimize his weaknesses (lack of back and leg size).
DARREM CHARLES: THE PREMATURE GOODBYE
As he aged into his 40s, Darrem Charles’ career wound down. He entered his 11th and final Mr. Olympia in 2009. The man who had once competed in nine shows in a year only did one annually from 2011-13. You were as likely to see his son, Renel (winner of the 2013 Southern States lightweight class), on stage. Charles was seventh (out of 34) in the 2012 Masters Olympia, the most recent edition of that contest. At 44, he received a surprising invite to the 2013 Arnold Classic, where he placed ninth and once again wowed the crowd with a scintillating routine in what seemed like his last dance.
DARREM CHARLES: THE LATE RENESSANCE
But he kept dancing. With the creation of the IFBB Pro League classic physique division in 2016 and its emphasis on aesthetics and cuts, Darrem Charles decided to return. Did he ever! Twenty-five years after his pro debut, the ageless Charles’ distinctive physique was again a very common site on professional bodybuilding stages. He was sort of the unofficial ambassador for the new division, competing in 12 pro classic physique contests in 2016 and winning six! At 48, he was fifth in the inaugural Classic Physique Olympia in 2016. There were more contests and more wins, but Charles’ stage career wound down again. And yet he’s still not done. At 55, he’ll be onstage in Cluj-Napoca, Romania, in August, competing in the classic physique division of the Masters Olympia, against mostly guys who were born more than a decade after him.
DARREM CHARLES: AGAINST ALL ODDS
Darrem Charles has had one of muscledom’s most remarkable careers, and what makes it so is how unlikely his enduring success has been. In open pro shows, he was undersized. In fact, he was often the smallest guy in the top 10. And in classic, he lacks a classic structure. There’s no X-frame here, no vacuum pose, and his development isn’t particularly proportional or flowing. He’s no Chris Bumstead. But he’s Darrem Charles, and he’s maximized what he has, he presents it masterfully, and he’s almost high-def.
Most importantly, he’s been persistent. He may be the best manifestation of the old saying that 80% of success in life is just showing up. He showed up, again and again. After not winning for his first professional decade, after which most pros would’ve hung up their posing trunks, Charles just kept going and going, showing up in peeled condition again and again. He’s now won 18 pro contests! Darrem Charles is one of the winningest pro bodybuilders of all time. And he holds a perhaps unbreakable record for most pro contests entered, somewhere north of 90. (Albert Beckles is second with 82 and holds the record for open pro contests entered.) Against all odds, Darrem Charles has had one of the most inspiring of all pro bodybuilding careers, and, at least for one more contest, it continues.
DARREM CHARLES BODYBUILDING TECHNIQUES
What follows are the tenets that bred Darrem Charles’ unlikely success.
If you thought Charles filled his workouts with light pumping, as if to gingerly chisel away at his sculptured flesh, think again. During the 2000’s, he pyramided most of his sets, using progressively heavier weights for fewer reps. For example, his typical biceps routine, circa 2005, consisted of alternate dumbbell curls, EZ-bar curls, and one-arm dumbbell preacher curls. All were done for four sets which progressed from 12 reps to 10 to eight to six. This winner of both the New York Pro and Toronto Pro in 2005 was forever endeavoring to get more reps so he could increase the weights next workout.
Beyond the beginner stage, gains didn’t come easy for this Trinidadian, at least not when compared to Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, and the other goliaths he faced for two decades. He was tempted to eat himself to a much bigger offseason weight, but he resisted that lure. You won’t find any photos of a bulked-up (i.e. fat) 260-pound Darrem Charles. “That might work for some guys, but that wouldn’t work for me. My thing is bringing the cuts and the shape to the stage,” he said during his peak years. “So bulking up just to be bigger would only make it harder for me to get into shape.” Throughout his long career, he’s remained within 15 pounds of posing shape. As a result, his waist is always wispy, his abs are crisp, and he perpetually delivers the details.
Science has proven the 8-12 rep range best for muscle growth, but going lower can boost strength and size. As we can see from his biceps workout, Charles liked the 6-12 range during his prime. For bigger body parts, like chest and back, he’d sometimes go as low as four reps on a pyramid’s apex set. When he did straight sets, he stayed mostly in the 6-10 range.
THE ART OF THE POSE
“I’ve always seen bodybuilding as an artform and not just a static presentation of developed muscle. It’s about being able to display that muscle as beautifully as you can.” So said Charles, one of bodybuilding’s all-time greatest posers. Of course, he had that break-dancing background, but Prince Charles never relied on merely popping and locking. Instead, he continuously explored diverse ways to present his hard-earned sinews as artfully as possible. “When I’m developing a routine, I’m brainstorming all the time,” he said. “Anything that I see could serve as inspiration.
“Some bodybuilders who come on the scene do routines that are built purely for audience reaction. People get carried away and talk about what a great routine it was, but if you dissect the performance you realize he wasn’t really hitting any poses or holding the shots correctly. Posing involves a lot more. You need proper alignment of your body, and it’s important how you flow from one pose to the next. I put a lot of time and focus on those details so that I bring my best routine to the stage.”
“I like to cheat just enough so I can still execute the exercise correctly—that is, feel it in the muscle I’m trying to hit. Ultra-strict repetitions are what I call a Jane Fonda workout, which is using very light weight, so that nothing else moves,” Darrem Charles said. “In bodybuilding, you have to go a little bit heavier. Other muscles help lift the weight so you can apply extra stress to the targeted muscle.” He cautioned not to switch too much stress to other muscles. Focus on the targeted area, make sure it gets a full stretch and contraction, but don’t be afraid to use a bit of momentum to help you eke a few more reps.
MAKING CLASSIC ART
“Our sport doesn’t have to be about just brute strength and size. It can be something beautiful to look at, especially when it’s done to music. To the general public, our sport is often viewed as harsh and bland. I try to bring beauty to it,” Darrem Charles said in 2005.He was classic physique before classic physique was cool—or, more accurately, after and before it was cool, because once upon a time every physique was classic. Then, with the growth market of the ’90s and ’00s, bodies ballooned away, racing away from an artistic ideal. Then, in classic physique, Prince Charles found a new home. He didn’t care about his bodyweight. “I’ve always looked bigger than my weight was,” he said. Forget the scales. He’s always trained and dieted to improve what he sees in the mirror. To him, bodybuilding is foremost an artform, and, as a bodybuilder for life, Darrem Charles will never be finished with his very personal work of art.