"People think it's the most vain, egotistical sport. But what you're doing is building the body like a sculptor does. It's the work that you put in to get the symmetry and the beauty like an Arnold Schwarzenegger or a Lou (The Incredible Hulk) Ferrigno."

Gregory Sacco, executive director, Amateur Bodybuilding Association

Gregory Sacco of Fairfax doesn't have the bulging muscles of a Schwarzenegger nor does he burst out of his shirt like The Incredible Hulk.

And he never intended to mimic those men when he began body building at age 21.

"My dad said 'Greg, you're underdeveloped. You have to build yourself up.' " Sacco, then a scrawny 118-pounder, took his father's advice and in five years, he developed 92 pounds of muscle and entered body building competitions.

Sacco has retired from competitive body building but he hasn't left the sport.

Now, with the newly formed Amateur Bodybuilding Association, he's channeling more energy into the sport than he did when he competed.

"I want to promote body building and enhance the sport," said Sacco, who, along with his father Joe Sr., and two brothers Joe Jr., and Todd, is organizing "The A.B.A. Junior Virginia Bodybuilding Contest" at Fairfax High School on Sept. 7.

The Saccos aren't the only people in Northern Virginia promoting body building at the local level.

The Thomas Jefferson Community Center in Arlington and the Amateur Athletic Union will be offering "The TJ Open," a body building competition, on Sept. 14 in the 715-seat T.J. Theatre. Both contests will cater mostly to the novice body builder.

It seems that finally, this sport almost exclusively associated with Arnold Schwarzenegger and the Mr. America competitions, has reached local communities, offering the novice and first-time posers a chance in the limelight.

"There's been a lot of growth in Northern Virginia in the last five years because body building became very popular when the fitness craze hit America and people are getting interested in health and training more," said 42-year-old Peter Miller of Falls Church, who heads the physique program for the AAU. "Plus Northern Virginia has had great growth in the number of gyms. Five years ago, there was only one major body building gym here. Now, there are four or five gyms."

"Actually, there's more support at the local shows than at the national shows," said 6-foot, 225-pound Ron Stone, 31, of Alexandria, who began body building eight years ago and plans to compete in the A.B.A. contest. "Most of the local shows are sold out."

Jeff Gillette, a 22-year-old fitness counselor from Reston who plans to compete in his first contest at Fairfax, said that "locally, I think that body building is growing faster than people ever expected it. In the last two years, promoters in Northern Virginia have been doing a good job as far as advertising and spreading the word."

Spreading the word on body building is not an easy task. First, the sport carries with it a stigma of machoism, egotism and cockiness. Second, it demands a rigid menu of workouts and diet to which few athletes are willing to commit themselves. And third, the end result, a well-defined muscular physique, is not something most people consider attractive.

"A lot of women don't understand," said 30-year-old Andrea Bonney of Reston, who, at 5-2 1/2 and 103-pounds, will compete in her first contest at Fairfax. "They think it's masculine.

"I think it is attractive as far as muscle development and proportion. It's the only sport where you can have total proportion. And I like the devotion that body building takes."

Devotion, Bonney said, like weightlifting and posing for 2 to 2 1/2 hours after an eight-hour day as a claims adjuster for an insurance company in Reston. Devotion, she said, like giving up ice cream and other sweets, poison to the body builder's low carbohydrate, high protein and no sugar diet.

Competitive body building can be divided into three categories: training (the mental and physical preparation), nutrition (the scientific use of diet and vitamins, mineral and protein supplements) and posing (a series of body positions arranged one after another to display the developed body to its fullest advantage).

Judges look for symmetry, proportion and low body fat, not necessarily the size of a person's muscles.

Recreational specialist Laura Lazour and Brian Kump of the Thomas Jefferson Center organized several clinics last month that concentrated on the three categories. "There's a lot of interest in body building," Lazour said. "The weight program here is second to basketball in interest."

"People don't care if they're all that healthy," said Lazour. "They just want to look great."

Lazour said that a brainstorming session resulted in the idea of a body building contest, the first contest of its kind to be organized by a Northern Virginia recreation department, she said.

"It was received well by people here at T.J. because we like to do innovative programs," Lazour said. "But the people in the Arlington Recreation department thought we were bonkers. We had to convince them that it was an extension of our existing program."

The TJ Open is sponsored by the AAU, which has been promoting body building, including the Mr. D.C. and Nation's Capital contests, in the Washington area for the past 50 years.

But Todd Sacco said the Saccos created the A.B.A. to give body builders an alternative.

"Body building needs more promotion," said Todd, 26, who finished fourth in the medium height (5-foot-8 to 5-foot-9) division of the Mr. D.C. contest last June. "The AAU has been the major body for body building. Having the A.B.A. gives the people another choice."

Nonetheless, both competitions have a majority of first-time posers and Lazour said that more women have entered the TJ Open than men.

"We have about 20 people already signed up," Lazour said. "We hoped it would be a larger event but we hope to get up an awareness. There are a lot of people who are very shy. It seems that the men are more shy than the women."