Irving Peoples was 12 years old when he lifted his first weight, and his motivation was simple.
“That was because of a female classmate,” he said, smiling. “I was in sixth grade at the time and I wanted to capture her attention.” As Popeye wooed Olive Oyl with his muscles, so Peoples hoped to attract Marsha, he said.
“I had a large rock and I just lifted that rock,” he said on a recent afternoon. Soon, classmates took notice, even Marsha, though she still wasn’t interested, he said, laughing.
Peoples, who is often known by his stage name, “Hercules,” has been a natural bodybuilder for more than 30 years. A natural bodybuilder is one who has been 100 percent drug-free throughout his or her life or for five years or longer, he said.
“I’ve always admired strong physical prowess in a man,” he said. Growing up on a farm in Ettrick, he came to respect the heavy labor of his uncles.
Peoples was a standout football and track athlete in high school, he said, and he was one of very few athletes who lifted weights. He came by his nickname in summer 1970, when he had just finished lifting weights in Virginia State University’s weight room. Gregory Brewer, a VSU player, passed him and “loudly remarked about how my muscles were looking,” saying he looked like Hercules, Peoples said.
“I kept the name all those years,” he said.
After graduating from Matoaca High School in 1972, he played two years of football at what is now Ferrum College. He then played four years of semi-professional football, and ultimately tried out for the Washington Redskins in 1979.
“I got into bodybuilding in 1980,” he said. At that point, he was working at the Nautilus Fitness Centers in Petersburg and Hopewell.
Peoples entered his first contest, the AAU Mr. Tri-Cities, in December 1980. Elements of his preparation for the contest – “As a male bodybuilder, you have to shave all the [exposed] body hair off,” he said – were an “experience.” The strict diet was also new to him.
He won the AAU Mr. Tri-Cities contest in 1982. “Then, I just got on a roll after that,” he said. He’s won about 115 trophies through the years, he said, and major victories include: The 1990 AAU Mr. Old Dominion, the 1992 AAU Mr. Virginia, the 1992 ANBC Master’s USA, the 2001 NPA Master’s Universe and the 2010 NGA Master’s Mount Rodgers.
He’s always been known for his muscle shape, symmetry, definition and hardness, he said, and those characteristics have allowed him to place ahead of “much bigger” men in competitions.
When the fitness center he worked at closed down, a friend suggested he consider what else he’d like to do. That prompted him to consider law enforcement, he said, and he has been an officer with Chesterfield County Police for 23 years.
When he became a police officer, he promised himself that he would get out of it if it began changing him on the “inside,” he said. But, “the way I am right now is the way I am in uniform,” he said.
“Unfortunately, there are careers that go to people’s heads,” he said. People get their bodies built up and get “swell headed,” he said.
“I haven’t got that way because I realize if it wasn’t for God, I wouldn’t have anything I have,” he said. “I never get to the point that I think this is all me.”
But the sport is “tough, it’s very tough,” he said, especially when he’s preparing for a competition.
“Training for a bodybuilding contest is like having a second full-time job,” he said. “It takes a lot of discipline. … Bodybuilding is a sport where a lot of people give up. … You have to have that deep, deep desire within.”
And the sport takes its toll. There is a high rate of divorce and separation among bodybuilders and other “extreme athletes,” he said.
Peoples was married for 17 years to Sabrina Sands-Peoples, a well known aerobics instructor in the area, he said. Though the two are now divorced, she attends his contests when she can; her cheering voice can often be picked out in crowds of 500 more, he said.
Peoples said he’s never wanted to give up the sport he loves, but the scariest “thing was when I got diagnosed with cancer.” His father had prostate cancer, and “when I got diagnosed with it, I wasn’t shocked, I wasn’t even really surprised,” he said.
As part of his treatment, about 95 percent of his body’s testosterone production was shut down from 2009 to 2010, he said.
“That scared me,” he said. “I thought, “Oh my God, is this going to be the end of my lifting?”
But, his doctors assured him things would work out. “Thanks to them and by the grace of God, everything worked out,” he said, and he beat the cancer.
Peoples has two pro cards, he said, and his goal is to have five pro cards from five natural bodybuilding organizations. He will compete for his IFPA Master’s Pro Card in May, he said.
He’s also motivated several other people to try bodybuilding, he said. One of them, Pamela Willis, is a trainer at Wolfgang’s Gym, where Peoples trains.
“I’d watch him come in and have five- or six-hour workouts,” she said. “He would always say, ‘Come on, Pam.’ … He’s a good guy, a hard worker, dedicated.”
Ed Cooper, one of the gym’s owners, has known Peoples for years. Having someone like Peoples in the gym is “very refreshing,” Cooper said; he “smiles no matter how hard he’s working.”
“You always learn something,” he said. “He’s definitely a person of inspiration for me.”