At first glance, it might look like Earl Bell worked his way up using his muscles.
A closer look shows that he used attitude and ambition to make the journey from Englewood to Homewood. Still, he credits weight lifting as the source of his success.
The Homewood businessman and owner of Ratio 1:1 Fitness has been a personal trainer for 28 years, and his work helped him leave behind a life of crime that began on the streets of Chicago’s Englewood neighborhood.
“It’s caused me to meet people and do things and go places that I would have never thought,” he said. “Coming from Englewood to owning your own business, it’s unheard of.”
Bell’s early life was rough from the start. He said his father was an abusive alcoholic who his mother divorced early on. He left school after eighth grade and finished his early education in the local gangs. He learned how to steal cars for a living.
He was learning from people who had little hope and expected to be dead or in prison by early adulthood, he said.
“What are they going to teach you? I took my lessons from them when I was younger. That’s what turned me into a gangbanger,” he said. “I never saw or knew anybody that was a success. I had to read about successful people, which I do to this day.”
The first turning point in his life came when his mother delivered an ultimatum after he got out of jail: Get a job or get out. Bell recognized the second option would lead to a dead end life, so he signed up for an auto mechanics class and got a job. He worked as a mechanic for a number of years.
It wasn’t a job he liked, but it helped him leave Englewood’s gangs behind. He moved to the South Suburbs and eventually found a place in University Park. That’s where another turning point occurred.
On his way to the hardware store one day, he decided to stop by a nearby gym.
“I walked into the gym and it was like I was born there. It was like I was always meant to be there,” he said.
He approached the owner and asked for a job. The owner, who was just getting the business started, said he couldn’t pay, but Bell offered to work in exchange for a membership. He did odd jobs around the place for about two years.
One day, the owner had to leave for a while and told Bell to mind the gym but not to sell anything or do any paperwork.
“I knew when he left there’s no way I’m not selling something,” he said. “When he came back, I had all this money. I signed up all these people.”
That moment showed Bell he was not only a weight lifter. He was a businessman.
In the years since, he has worked as a personal trainer for other gyms and he has operated his own facility. From the beginning, though, he took the business side of things seriously.
“Even when I was an independent trainer, I had my own corporation and insurance. I was always preparing myself for when I got to this,” he said, looking around at his gym at 1820 Ridge Road in Homewood.
Ratio 1:1 has been located in Homewood for six years and at its current location for three.
In the past, the business has been located in Glenwood, South Holland and Calumet City.
Bell and his partner, Chie Terui, not only emphasize the personalized nature of personal training but focus on mental preparation and building trust. The goal, Bell said, is an attitude change that will sustain health and fitness over time.
Bell knows from experience that lasting change starts in the mind. He’s a believer in taking responsibility for personal choices.
“When you make bad choices it creates bad circumstances. When you make good choices, it creates good circumstances,” he said. “If you don’t like where you are, make different choices. That’s what I did.”
That’s the heart of his message when he does motivational speaking, usually before an audience of young people. He tells them about the mistakes he made as a young person.
“The name of my seminar is ‘Against the Odds.’ I tell them I made all these mistakes and I still made it.”
Terui's story is similar to Bell's in that a change in attitude enabled her to succeed at finding health and success, although she started in a very different place.
After moving from Japan to America, she found the change in diet difficult to adapt to.
"American food got me," she said. She gained weight and in her mid-40s, with three children and very high cholesterol, decided something had to change.
Terui's transformation began with a return to the gym and a vow to return to healthy eating.
"I was determined," she said. "People were out partying. I was in the gym."
Bell said the key to Terui's success was her love of fitness.
"Unless you learn to enjoy the journey and the process, you're not going to make it," he said.
Her results speak for themselves. She said she is the first Japanese woman to compete in the Arnold Schwarzegger Classic, an annual international bodybuilding competition in Columbus, Ohio.
She has competed in amateur figure categories for a number of years. In 2010 and 2011, she placed third in the National Physique Committee Figure Class A category. In 2018, she placed second.
Figure competition is not a beauty pageant and not the same as bodybuilding. Bell explained that while it involves muscle development, competitors retain more feminine body proportions. The focus is on body shape and contour rather than on muscle size, he said.
She returns to Japan periodically for motivational speaking engagements and fitness seminars.
She said her example shows women, "you don't have to be young. I had three kids. I kind of give them hope."
Bell has competed as a bodybuilder, too. Although at 5 feet, 7 inches, he is not as tall as most bodybuilders, he competes at the heavyweight level.
He was successful in the 1990s, winning a state bodybuilding competition in 1994. He then turned his attention to promoting and judging bodybuilding events in the South Suburbs.
He enjoyed the business aspect of the sport even more than competing, but he plans to compete at least one more time. He plans to turn professional to compete at the Masters National even in Pittsburgh later this year.
"After that, I will retire," he said.
And turn his full attention back to Ratio 1:1 and the business of helping people find health and satisfaction through fitness.