Written by Ron Harris
19 May 2020





True Courage

Harold Kelley Is the Greatest Pro Wheelchair Bodybuilder Alive


By Ron Harris


“Walking is overrated.” –Harold Kelley, at a seminar the morning after winning the first Mr. Olympia Wheelchair in 2018


What Was Your Excuse Again?


One thing we humans seem to share an innate talent for is coming up with excuses. Bodybuilding is no different. Why don’t you have the physique you wish you could? Where do we begin? We don’t have gifted genetics. We don’t use drugs, or we don’t have some wealthy Middle Eastern benefactor sponsoring us with all the food and gear our hearts desire. We can’t afford the best foods. We are too busy with work and other responsibilities to train and eat ideally. Maybe we have injuries. All well and good so far. But let me ask you this: can you walk? Can you move from the waist down? I bet you can’t imagine living like that. Could you imagine running your own auto body shop as well as training every day in the gym and winning almost 20 pro titles so far, including two Mr. Olympias and five Arnold Classics? You’re about to meet a man who has defied the odds and shown us what true courage looks like, Harold “King Kong” Kelley.


Life Before


Harold grew up on a farm in rural South Carolina and played football in high school and college. Weight training was part of his daily routine, and he continued after the gridiron was behind him, even doing some fitness modeling. Several members at his gym competed in the NGA natural organization and urged him to try his hand on stage too. Kelley was good enough to earn his pro card quickly. It was just one week out from what would have been his third pro show that tragedy struck.


The Day That Changed His Life Forever


Having relocated to Irving, Texas. Harold was driving through Oklahoma with his wife and daughter to see her aunt in Arkansas. A deer ran out into the road in front of him. Swerving to avoid it, he spun out, went off the side of a ravine, and crashed into a tree. In most cases seat belts save lives, but in this case, it led to his life-changing injury. “My torso snapped forward and broke one of my vertebrae,” he tells us, “this shifted and pinched my spine.” He managed to push his daughter out to go get help. Moments later, they heard their daughter screaming as she ran back to warn them that the car was on fire. Harold and his wife Ana escaped the vehicle, but the damage had been done. “I could not feel my legs,” he says. An initial surgery attempted to line up the vertebrae with rods and clamps to stabilize it, but the final analysis was what they call a complete T11-T12 spinal injury. Harold, the champion bodybuilder, was now a paraplegic.


“Don’t Worry About What You Can’t Do.”


Many of us would have instantly fell into an abyss of self-pity and depression had this fate befallen us. Luckily for Harold, he’d been instilled from an early age not to let unfortunate circumstances dictate his outlook on life. “My father was a Vietnam vet and a farmer,” he explains. “One thing he always told me was, don’t worry about what you can’t do. Worry about what you can do, and get it done.” And so, Harold never once focused on his new physical limitations. After 30 days in a rehab hospital, he was back at work as manager of a 24 Hour Fitness, and back to the weights. “Obviously leg training was out of the question, but I found there wasn’t too much for the upper body that I couldn’t do,” he shares. More on that momentarily. Harold sold his family’s two-story home for a one-story, but very little else changed in his life. He owns a collision/auto body shop called King Kong Nation Autoplexx and continued his normal routine there. “I get cars at auctions, tow them to the shop, then pick parts off, frame them, pull them, and paint them for resale,” he tells us. “The only thing I can’t do anymore is paint the roofs!”


Training Adaptations

Harold started training in 1990, so he had 16 years of experience with the iron before his accident. Since then, the 48-year-old has grown steadily bigger and stronger. Think about that the next time you feel like you’ve reached your full potential. Harold trains around 6:00 p.m. most nights, and relies mainly on his wife Ana, an NPC Figure competitor, as his spotter even when bench pressing 500 for reps. “She was my spotter back in the day when I would squat eight plates a side, and she’s still my spotter today,” he tells us. “Big guys will always come over to try and help, but I’m like it’s OK, she’s got me,” he laughs. “If you need that much help in the first place, it’s too much weight for you.”


Harold uses an XXL belt to strap himself down to the bench, which is his specialty lift. He’s done a max with 535, and can do 225 for 35-40 reps and 15-20 reps any day with 315. He’s even done dips with six 45s strapped on, something I’ve personally never seen anyone do. Though he typically does train with a group of guys, the only thing he really needs them for is to hand him dumbbells once he gets into the 150- to 200-pound range. His nickname “Kong Kong” stems from his strength and power. “At 24 Hour Fitness, they used to call me Silverback, because I was older, but I was also the biggest, strongest guy in the place,” he said. “My mother-in-law used to call me Kong, and this kid at the gym used to yell that as loud as he could across the gym floor at me. Eventually it just turned into King Kong Kelley.”


As far as back training, Harold just needs to be strapped down for pulldowns and rows on a bench, though he can also do chin-ups with two to three 45-pound plates hanging off him at an off-season bodyweight of 185. If you’re floored by some of these numbers, so am I. And if you’re curious about how he can do cardio for his contest prep, he uses the cardio cycle bike found at some gyms and most rehab facilities, pedaling with his hands. At 45 days out from a contest, he starts with 20 minutes a day, increasing his bouts to 30, then 40 minutes. For his first Olympia win, he wanted to be extra conditioned, and did two daily sessions of 35 minutes each. “I also found that if your diet is right and you never let yourself get too out of shape, you don’t need a ton of cardio,” he notes.


Back to the Stage – Better Than Ever


After Harold’s accident in 2006, he assumed his bodybuilding competition days were over. But in 2010, he was approached by Nick Scott, a pioneer for Wheelchair Bodybuilding. It was Nick who was instrumental in petitioning the IFBB to institute Pro Wheelchair in 2011, since athletes had been earning pro cards at the NPC Wheelchair Nationals since 1994 yet had nowhere to go from there. Harold was always up for a new challenge, so he entered his first pro event in 2011 with no expectations.


“Bodybuilding has always been a hobby to me, and backstage a few of the other guys were definitely bigger than me, so I was just there to do my best and have fun,” Harold said. But the years of heavy lifting and his condition made him stand out, and he won. After his fourth or fifth win, it dawned on Harold that he was better than he had thought he was, and that was no accident.


“I’m a spiritual man, and I realized that God gave me this gift to use to inspire others. That meant I owed it to Him to take it to the highest level I could.” Now, less than a decade later, Kelley is the most dominant wheelchair bodybuilder of all time. To date, he has 19 pro wins, has won the Arnold Classic five times, and the Olympia twice. I’ve been there for almost half of those wins so far, and what also struck me was the genuine camaraderie among Harold and his fellow wheelchair pros. On contrast to other, able-bodied competitors, they are incredibly supportive of each other.


“To me it’s like bodybuilding used to be long ago,” he says. “Arnold and those guys used to train together, eat together, and hang out at the beach together, like a family. That’s how it should be. None of us can stop each other from improving, so why not help each other? The fellowship and friendships I have developed with all those guys is worth more to me than any trophy or title.”


Continuing to Inspire – and Win


Harold serves as a powerful inspiration to both able-bodied and handicapped alike and is in constant contact with dozens of wheelchair bodybuilders around the world on a daily basis to help motivate and educate them. He keeps busy with a regimented daily schedule of a full day that starts with training clients at his private studio, then running his auto shop, his own training, then coaching online clients before calling it a day. Though he has a list of wins and titles that anyone would be proud of, Harold is far from done.


“Typically once you have the Olympia title, you only do that contest every year,” he begins. “I will always do the Arnold Classic as well, because I absolutely love that show and the way they run it.”


As good as Harold looks, like any true champion, he’s far from satisfied. “I always wanted people to say, wow! He looks great! Not just, he looks great for a guy in a wheelchair. I want more back thickness and detail, just to keep improving every time I compete.”


With a great support system that includes his wife Ana, his family and friends, and most recently, a contract with supplement giant RedCon1, look for King Kong Kelley to keep winning, and to keep showing us what’s possible when we refuse to allow even the most daunting obstacles to keep us down.


IG: mr.o_wheelchair

Website: https://www.kingkongnation.com/


For more information on Pro Wheelchair bodybuilding, please visit https://www.wheelchairbodybuilding.com/


Harold’s RedCon1 Stack


Total War

Big Noise




Contest History


2006 NGA Southern States Natural

Second, Heavyweight


2006 NGA Pro Universe

Fifth Place


2006 Natural Pro World

Sixth Place


2010 NPC Wheelchair USA

Middleweight and Overall


2011 Houston Pro



2012 Houston Pro



2013 Houston Pro



2014 UK Bodypower Pro



2014 Dallas Pro

Third Place


2015 Texas Pro



2015 UK Bodypower Pro



2015 Toronto Pro



2016 Arnold Classic



2017 Arnold Classic



2017 Arnold Classic South Africa



2017 Toronto Pro



2017 Europa Dallas



2018 Arnold Classic



2018 Europa Dallas



2018 Olympia



2019 Arnold Classic



2019 Europa Dallas



2019 Olympia



2020 Arnold Classic



From 2011 on, all events are IFBB Pro League in the Pro Wheelchair division.


Ron Harris got his start in the bodybuilding industry during the eight years he worked in Los Angeles as Associate Producer for ESPN’s “American Muscle Magazine” show in the 1990s. Since 1992 he has published nearly 5,000 articles in bodybuilding and fitness magazines, making him the most prolific bodybuilding writer ever. Ron has been training since the age of 14 and competing as a bodybuilder since 1989. He lives with his wife and two children in the Boston area. Facebook Instagram












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