'I was told I couldn't achieve this without steroids'

-Credit: (Image: Nick Upton)
-Credit: (Image: Nick Upton)

A Welsh bodybuilder, who was told he was "too small and skinny" to make it without taking steroids has proved his doubters wrong. Growing up in Carmarthen, Nick Upton spent most of his teen years lifting weights at a local gym with his friend - often using Arnold Schwarzenegger’s book the 'Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding' for training tips.

Little did he know back then, as a self-confessed "small and skinny" 16-year-old, that his interests in the bodybuilding world would take him on a similar path to that of Schwarzenegger. By now, 34-year-old Nick lives and runs his own business in personal training, Shredd Society Fitness, over Los Angeles, California.

The fitness model is also in the pro-division with FMG (Fitness Muscle and Glamour) and is setting his sights on competing for the Natural Mr Olympia competition in Las Vegas this year. “As a younger child, I always enjoyed wrestling,” Nick explained. “The physiques were always impressive to me. It was something that I always aspired to look like.

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“But I was a small child, I played football and rugby growing up - I was small but I was very fast. But when I was 16, my friend who was bigger and had a stronger physique, introduced me to the gym to help me with my rugby.

“We started training at Tony Toms in Carmarthen, which was like a warehouse or a shed. We started training through Arnie’s book, we’d pick a handful of exercises and try to imitate what we could see in the pictures. And the rest was history - I was hooked. That quickly progressed and I soon started lifting weights religiously. I loved the sport, but I never thought of turning professional.”

In 2011, Nick completed his degree at the University of South Wales in sports development and coaching but was unsure what to do afterwards. For the next seven years, he would pick up a series of jobs, which included working as a personal trainer, landscape gardener, a holiday rep in Ibiza and a football coach in California.

Nick said he was "small but fast" as a child -Credit:Nick Upton
Nick said he was "small but fast" as a child -Credit:Nick Upton

"I was in limbo in life," Nick said. “I didn’t have much of a direction on where I wanted to go. I had been working out in America coaching football since finishing my secondary school, so in between my studies, I would go over and work contracts in the summer.

"After I finished university, I started doing longer contracts but I was limited with my visa. The first time, I was on the east coast, but on the second time, I was in California and I just absolutely fell in love with the place.

"I loved the lifestyle, and I just knew that was where I wanted to be and where I wanted to work. But I just didn’t know how to make it work, especially in a very expensive place, but that was the goal that was set for me. I’ve always followed my gut in life - whether it made sense or not. I’m a big dreamer and this was the target for me."

Nick when he was 18 years old -Credit:Nick Upton
Nick when he was 18 years old -Credit:Nick Upton

But in 2017, the American Dream nearly slipped through Nick’s fingers as he was rejected on work visas due to the USA’s immigration clamp-down at the time. In between his trips to America, Nick would work as a landscape gardener but continued with his bodybuilding training. For the latest Carmarthenshire news, sign up to our newsletter here.

This would continue into 2018 until a friend suggested that Nick try and get a bodybuilding pro card, which once obtained, means that you are a professional bodybuilder that can pursue a career in the industry. The pro card would also be a way for Nick to get a Green Card and be able to move to California.

"People started offering suggestions and saying that I should do a show," Nick said. "I ended up doing an eight-week cut, all self-taught in autumn 2018 and we went straight to a show." At the WBFF - Europeans (World Beauty Fitness and Fashion) in the O2 Arena in London, Nick finished in fourth place and was awarded a pro card, which gave him the opportunity to apply for his athlete visa.

Nick moved to Los Angeles in 2020 before making his pro debut on the bodybuilding stage in Las Vegas in 2021. Commenting on the experience, Nick said: “It was incredible. But I’m actually quite a nervous person, so I had a lot of nerves getting on stage.

"I enjoy the process, I enjoy the training, I enjoy the discipline, but to get on stage and do all the posing, that was the hardest part for me. And people really do underrate how hard the posing is, where you have to turn all the muscles and present the physique in the right way because that is key.

"By now, I enjoy the experience whereas before it was the first thing that I was dreading. I think it was down to imposter syndrome, and thinking to myself: ‘who am I to do this?’. I’ve coached myself to enjoy it."

For the last three years, Nick has continued with his bodybuilding career. Having obtained his Green Card in 2023, which allows him to stay in the US for 10 years and paves the way for citizenship.

Nick’s career on stage has grown from strength-to-strength, but he has seen his fair share of challenges along the way, namely the influence of performance-enhancing drugs on the industry. PEDs have the ability or potential to drastically change the human body and biological functions, including the ability to considerably improve athletic performances. However, these drugs can be extremely dangerous, and in some situations, can be deadly - something of which Nick has seen first hand in the bodybuilding industry.

Nick's dream has become a reality and his now a professional bodybuilder in America -Credit:DennisMcruz_WBFFPhotographer
Nick's dream has become a reality and his now a professional bodybuilder in America -Credit:DennisMcruz_WBFFPhotographer

“Over the years, plenty of people and competitors have said to me that I’ll struggle to place and win without taking PEDs,” he said. “But now that the natural world is growing there is a lot more opportunity. Before nobody cared about natural but now with all the health repercussions from PEDs coming to light and a lot more people passing there is much more interest.”

The Carmarthenshire bodybuilder wants to show that bodybuilders can achieve success without performance-enhancing drugs. “You look at the industry and there are hundreds of pros who are dying from abusing steroids,” he said. It is so detrimental to your health. And for what?

“To look unrealistic and damage your body - that’s not health and fitness. My goal is longevity in the sport and I’m not interested in PEDs. A lot of people don’t think my physique is natural. I get criticised a lot – closer to shows people will ask what’s my cycle and what am I taking?

"Most people don’t believe it when I say I’m natty [natural] but if you look at my skin it’s obvious. I am prone to acne and steroids bring that out but I still have very clear skin.

"PEDs are a muscle hardener too. You get old man skin and look a bit leathery – especially with long-term abuse. I also can’t train as much as someone taking PEDs.

"My legs will take three to four days to fully recover – whereas if you’re on [steroid] testosterone you can wake up and train legs the next day and feel brand new. I can’t do that but it’s nice to show that this physique is possible but it takes time. And the longer you do it, the better the rewards."

Ultimately, Nick hopes that he can be an inspiration for those who want to follow the same path. He said: "My parents have always pushed me to dram as bas as I can and to never give up. Now, I hope I can inspire others that have felt lost in life to keep going and never give up."