Intensity Or Insanity
By John Defendis
It was 1977. Richard Dreyfuss won the award for best actor, the New York Yankees won the World Series, bread was only thirty five cents a loaf, and little 18 year old John DeFendis was learning the most masochistic style of training in his quest to becoming a champion bodybuilder. You see, I was that teenager who had trained for 8 years and competed on nine separate occasions without ever taking home a trophy. In my determination to excel, I happened to make a decision that would greatly affect the next fifteen years of my life. I chose to train with Mr. America, Steve Michalik.
It all started one day when I decided to take a trip to the gym where all the so-called “champions” trained, Mr. America’s Gym. This was not your ordinary family fitness center. The walls were painted jet black and the equipment was red, reminiscent of an old gothic torture chamber. There was a two foot syringe on the wall over the front desk mounted on a plaque that read, “Message Of The Day: Up The Dosage!” The daily sign in sheet was also accompanied by yet another syringe with a pen inserted through it, for sign-in purposes.
I walked in and asked to speak to Mr. America himself. This was my first mistake. Steve Michalik was not your typical gym owner. He didn’t care about the business, nor did he care about hurting anyone’s feelings. As a matter of fact, Steve Michalik really didn’t care about much of anything except training. Now I don’t mean training as mere mortals refer it to. No this type of training had a whole new meaning. After all, Steve’s motto was “Train beyond the pain… and death is your only release.”
The gym attendant pointed towards an area of equipment that was roped off and said, “Steve is over there training but I wouldn’t bother him if I were you!” Well, Mr. Gym attendant, you’re not me, I thought to myself. After all, I was an aspiring champion who had placed fifth in the recent local teenage contest and I figured that Steve would be happy to talk to me. Well, our meeting went something like this… “Hi Steve, I’m John DeFendis, and I wondered if…”
I didn’t even get to finish my sentence when this hulk of a man transformed into something monstrous. I wished that I had brought along a cross or a wooden stake to drive through his heart because that would have been the only way to prevent what was about to happen next. He threw the dumbbells he was curling at my feet and started screaming hysterically, “I’m going to kill you if you don’t get the hell out of here. I’ll kick your ass. Get the hell out, and don’t ever come near me while I’m training!”
Talking To Mr. America
At this point, I kind of got the impression that I might not be welcome here and figured that I should probably make myself scarce. So I left. My enthusiasm to excel in bodybuilding far outweighed my will to live, so later the same evening I journeyed back to the gym for some more abuse. This time I was sneaking around outside and looking in the window when I felt this hand tap me on the shoulder. As I turned around and stood face to face with my worst nightmare, I noticed deltoids that looked like cantaloupes, and biceps that resembled large grapefruits. It was he… Mr. America.
As I stood there waiting to get blasted, he looked straight in my eyes and said, “What is it that you want? And make it fast because I have to catch a meal.” I replied, “I want to become a champion, just like you. I want to be Mr. America. I thought that maybe you would train me to make this goal a reality.” Steve replied, “Oh you want to become a champion? What makes you think that you possess the qualities that it takes to become a champion?” Before I could reply, Michalik continued, “Okay hotshot, Mr. Champion, you meet me here tomorrow at 5:00 a.m. and we’ll see if you have the balls to train like a champion. Don’t be late Mr. Champion… Don’t be late.”
The following day I was like a little kid going to the candy store. I was so excited to be able to train with Mr. America. This was my chance. I came rushing in the gym expecting to see Steve waiting there to explain the fundamentals of his training to me. But instead of waiting for me, he was engrossed in an intense workout. Beads of sweat poured off his brow, and he had this look in his eye that was hypnotic, almost frightening.
When he finished his set, he dropped the weight and slowly turned my way. “It’s 5:05 and you’re late. Get the hell out of my gym and don’t waste my time,” he said. “Get the hell out of here! Be here tomorrow at 5:00 sharp and I’ll give you another chance.” The next day I was there at 5:00 a.m. There was only one problem. No sign of Steve Michalik. I sat on the curb waiting. It was 6:00, then 7:00, and finally 8:00.
Steve ultimately showed up to open the gym at 9:00. As he got out of his car, I said “This is bullsh*t, where the hell have you been?” Well, that’s not exactly what I said, but it was something on the lines of, “I’m sorry Mr. Michalik for showing up 4 hours early for the workout. May we train now?” Steve just unlocked the gym door and mumbled something about today being his rest day and that we could resume training at 5:00 sharp tomorrow if I had the guts to show up.
Once again I left disappointed. That night I didn’t get much sleep because I was determined to show Michalik that I was tough and indestructible. The next morning I was at the gym at 4:45 a.m. and Steve showed up shortly thereafter. He asked me if I thought that I trained hard. I chuckled, and with a co*ky attitude replied, “I train harder than anybody!” Steve chuckled a little himself and said, “Well good Mr. Champion, then let’s get started“.
The “Hell On Earth” Workout
Steve started to set up several different exercise stations. After strategically placing dumbbells on a number of benches and machines, he roped off the area with a large thick rope. I later named the roped-off areas in our workout, “Hell On Earth.” This was where all the action took place. Michalik made me believe that we were gladiators who were going to battle. The roped-off area represented the battleground and you would only emerge a successful warrior if you could withstand the pain and survive the battle.
On my way to victory I made several journeys to visit the porcelain throne. In other words, I puked my guts up. I was forced to do a series of exercises without any rest, until I had to make a pitstop at the toilet. Instead of doing forced reps, I found myself doing forced sets. I was forced to do them. After a week of these tortuous workouts I found myself lying in a hospital bed trying to recover from a depleted broken down body.
I learned my first lesson. Do not try to keep up with Michalik. He is bionic. As I lay there trying to figure out what went wrong, Michalik was telling all the members of the gym that I was mentally weak and that I should try my hand at badminton or croquet. This infuriated me and I was even more determined to show this cyborg that I had what it would take to become a champion.
Winning The Mr. U.S.A.
So the day after I got out of the hospital I was back at the gym and right in Michalik’s face. I boldly said, “What will not kill me will only make me stronger!” We then became a team. We eventually fueled each other to reach for the sky and settle for nothing less than the stars. My ship had come in and I was rocketing towards my goal. I would win the Mr. New York title, then Mr. Eastern America, Mr. Western America and finally the Mr. U.S.A. title.
But in my quest I made every sacrifice along the way. The workouts were brutal and my name became synonymous with the saying “Intensity Or Insanity.” People often wondered if my workouts were incredibly intense or if were they considered insane. We never did less than 40 sets for each body part and sometimes as much as 100 sets for a single area.
When Michalik trained, the fires of hell burned in his eyes. The man was an animal. I lived each waking moment anticipating the ass kickin’ workouts that lay ahead that day and wondering how in hell I would be able to overcome them. I lived by a quote from Friedrich Nietzsche: “That which will not kill you will only make you stronger.”
Surviving The Workouts
The key was to figure out how to survive and even thrive and grow on these workouts. It wasn’t easy at first, but I was determined not to quit. I wanted to win the U.S.A. and claim a spot in the record books. I was not looking to be fit. I wanted to be the best. If you want to be a champion you have to make sacrifices. Michalik was not only a champion but he was the Vince Lombardi of bodybuilding. Win at any cost. Winning meant everything. He would always say, “Train beyond the pain… and death is your only release!”
It was a hot sunny day in the summer of 1979 and we just finished a brutal 55-set leg workout. Yes, that’s right. 55 sets. It may sound stupid today and you may think that it was overtraining but at 20 years old, I was sporting 28 1/2 “ripped-to-the-bone” quads. Big, thick, muscular thighs at a time when Bill Phillips probably couldn’t even pronounce the word “creatine” and way before I ever heard the words “growth hormone.” Makes you think about training harder in the present era of IGF-1, insulin, and growth hormone.
Anyway, the freak Steve Michalik invited me to catch some rays at the beach in preparation for the upcoming U.S.A. On the way to the beach I kept asking Michalik what it was going to take for me to win the USA Championships. What would I have to do and what sacrifices had to be made beyond the ones that I was already making?
Steve was quiet. He just kept looking out the window but refused to mutter a word. A short time later we arrived at Jones Beach, dropped our towels on the sand, and proceeded towards the water. When we were out far enough for the water to cover my head, Steve grabbed me and aggressively shoved me under the surf. I managed to surface for a moment. I gagged, coughed, and was shoved under again.
Michalik would allow me to come up for one breath, and then proceed to shove me under again and again. I frantically kicked and fought until I finally grew weak and went limp. Michalik dragged me from the water and threw me on the beach. As I spit up water and tried to catch a breath, he started yelling like a madman. “Tell me how it felt to have one breath… How bad did you want that little breath of air? When you want to win as bad as you wanted that one breath of air, then come back and see me. That’s what it will take for you to be the best!”
That day marked a hiatus that lasted for the next three years: Michalik as the demanding mentor, and I was the willing punching bag. Day after day and week after week I started to grow bigger and better. The workouts were unbelievable. Michalik taught more than training though; he instilled in me a will to win that was almost supernatural.
Living In The 70’s
I lived to train, eat and sleep and I worked enough to afford all of life’s luxuries which consisted of a 1972 Chevy Vega with no front end, an endless supply of chicken, a basement apartment with a mattress on the floor, and a cupboard full of vitamins. But looking back now, I realize the meaning of the phrase, “Happier than a pig in sh*t.” My lifestyle would have been misery to most, but to me, I was on top of the world. I was doing what I wanted to do and I was skyrocketing towards my goal.
It didn’t matter to me that I was waking up at 5:00 in the morning to eat egg whites so that I could be at the gym by 6:30, and it didn’t matter that I was dragged through the last half of the workout like the gladiator in the chariot scene from “Ben Hur.” What did matter was the fact that I was training with Mr. America and that even though he was mentally and physically beating the living sh*t out of me day after day, I was improving dramatically.
My 18″ biceps were now well over 20″ and the peaks were getting higher by the hour. Dumbbells that I had once used for heavy incline presses were now my warm-up weights for exercises like dumbbell curls and lateral rises. “Intensity or Insanity Training” was as routine, like breakfast in the morning. Every time someone said that we couldn’t do something, it inspired us to try it anyway. 50 sets of heavy barbell curls? Been there. 30 sets of squats. 500 pound inclines. 100 pound dumbbell curls. 90 pound dumbbell laterals. 60 set back workouts. Our lives could have been characterized by the quote made famous by Walter Gagehot, “A great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do.”
It was about this time that my parents realized that Michalik possessed me. They despised him for turning me into a living, eating, breathing, training machine. They tried to keep me away but it was too late. Once I realized that these long, hard training sessions were the key to my progress, there was nothing on earth that could have kept me away from the gym.
Ah, the gym. Michalik’s gym. No aerobics classes. No cardio equipment. No sauna, steam, or pool. No racquetball! Just big, heavy black steel machines and benches with red padding to remind you of the old torture chambers. When you came to Mr. America’s Gym to train, there was only one way, one speed: very hard and very fast.
The facade and grounds to the front door were hosed down several times a day to wash away lost breakfasts and lunches. This was the hardcore Mecca of bodybuilding, a shrine to gut-wrenching, ball-busting workouts. No Tony Little exercise tapes found on these premises. If you didn’t train hard, you were shown, or should I say thrown through the back door. Medals were won by how many brutal workouts you could endure and you were only as “bad” as your last workout. You were respected not so much by how you looked but as how hard you could train.
Steve didn’t take any bullsh*t. One day a guy with ELS (Exaggerated Lat Spread) came in to workout and Steve stopped him and told him that he was three months overdo on his membership dues. The guy said, “Yeah, whatever. I’ll bring money in next time,” and then proceeded to work out. Steve reached into the bottom drawer of his desk, took out a hammer, and headed out the front door.
Oh boy, I thought. This is gonna’ be good. I gotta’ see this. As I walked out the front door of the gym, I saw Steve walk over to the guy’s Corvette and smash in the headlights. Just as the guy came running out of the gym, Steve started whacking out the passenger side windows. The guy was screaming frantically, “Stop! Someone call the cops. What the hell are you doing to my car?” Steve just nonchalantly looked at him and said, “It’s okay now. We’re even. You can go train.”
As I look back I realize that I was living in a very corrupt environment. My morals and attitude were distorted because of Steve’s philosophies. Buying thirty pounds of chicken to fulfill my protein requirements was more important than paying the overdo rent on the apartment. It was much more important to be on time for the workout than it was to be on time for work. If someone trained with us and they ended up in the hospital (which was the case several times), we didn’t even visit them but instead passed them off as mentally and physically weak.
As I sit here and think about the past, I have one thing to add to that Friedrich Nietzsche quote, “That which will not kill you will only make you stronger.” And that is, if it does kill you, then you shouldn’t have been training with us to begin with.
Pain! Pain!! Pain!!! Why is it that, in a lifetime full of suffering and hardships, some of us will take it upon ourselves to inflict even more pain? As I sit here and look back on the Michalik era, it is not difficult to understand why I would subject myself to such torture. My perseverance stemmed from wanting to win, the will to become a champion. We all have it buried somewhere within us. We all have the desire to accomplish goals. Sometimes we make excuses for our shortcomings. But, there are no excuses. A champion is a champion, and will never succumb to the obstacles that are thrown in his path.
Mr. America’s Gym. Michalik struts across the gym floor with a set of 60 pounders for incline flyes. I know the routine. Three benches, three exercises, all sets to failure. Nonstop ass-kicking supersets. Steve begins with almost 300 pounds on the incline Smith machine. He then proceeds to the second bench to complete a set of incline flyes, and finally, pullovers across the last bench with a 100 pound dumbbell.
He moves methodically like a cyborg on a mission. I can see him out of the corner of my eye, on my way to the flye bench. He is indestructible, but I can’t slow down or miss a beat because within minutes he will circle behind me and humiliate me. I realize now that I have not been training at this level since I left Steve years earlier. On the third cycle of exercises I feel exhausted and I begin to panic. Just as fear starts to overtake me, Michalik screams, “Come on, look at you! You pathetic piece of sh*t. What the hell have you been doing these last couple of years? Sitting on your ass eating nachos?”
Oh, man, I’m pissed off now and I manage to find the energy and guts to shift my body into high gear. At this point I must have totally lost my mind because I remember yelling, “Come on! Bury me if you think you can… Just try to put me in the hospital again. You’ll be the one driving off in the ambulance Mr. Champion!” Oh, sh*t. I couldn’t believe it. Those words actually came out of my mouth. I started to sound like a Michalik clone.
As I sit here and remember that moment, I wonder how many brain cells were missing from my cranium when I was born. Too many to count, I guess. “Masochism – n. a condition in which the subject delights in being hurt or humiliated.” “Masochist – n. John DeFendis.” Michalik was right. I was a very brash, co*ky kid. But at this point in time, I was a brash, co*ky kid who was about to get the beating of a lifetime.
My pathetic statements fueled the madman. His distorted face was overcome with a rage and fury that could have sent chills down Freddy Krueger’s back. He grabbed me and threw my body up onto the pec dec.
Then he frantically started running around pulling pins out of the various pieces of equipment in the gym. It didn’t take me long to figure out what was about to take place. I predicted pain and suffering ahead.
He strategically placed the pins in the weight stack, all five of them. The first set would be the entire stack, and as I completely failed with each weight, Steve would make me do a couple of forced reps before he extracted the pin. The pain was unbearable. I wanted to quit after the third drop but I knew it was not an option. To quit was to die. It felt like hours had gone by when I finally completed the series but it had only been minutes. Now, it was the Master’s turn.
I would thoroughly enjoy the moments that would lay ahead. His pain was now my relief and happiness. “Sadism – n. the deriving of pleasure from inflicting pain on another.” “Sadist – n. John DeFendis and Steve Michalik.” Michalik churned out rep after rep. He made it look easy at first but started to grimace after he completed the second set. After his final reps on each set, I rapidly yanked the pin out so that he wouldn’t get a second to rest. I wanted him to die so that I could go home a winner. Okay, maybe I would have been happy just being able to leave alive and in one piece.
Before too long I found myself back up on the machine. “Second round coming up,” Michalik shouted. I knew that there would be five rounds. This was one of Steve’s favorites. He wouldn’t be content until I could no longer move. He wanted to teach me a lesson by annihilation. Finally, I completed my last set in the series. I remember whispering to myself, “Get me the fu*k away from this machine!”
As usual, there was a crowd of wannabe Michalik trainees standing around, waiting to see if I would fail or quit. In all the years that Michalik trained with aspiring champions, there were only a select few who could keep up. Most of them are in isolated rooms at the mental hospital. If you get close enough, you can even hear them screaming, “No more, I can’t do another rep. Let me go home now!”
“Intensity Or Insanity Training” was not only a method of training that enabled me to become a champion, but it was a time that cannot and will not be duplicated. It was an era when most bodybuilders relied on ballistic and animalistic training to get big and grow strong. Bodybuilders utilized nutrition and vitamins to make progress and supplemented with minimal steroids in order to survive the torturous workouts.
Now, with drugs like growth hormone and IGF-1 accessible, the bodybuilders of today are crying “overtraining” consistently. With steroid use and abuse running rampant, I feel that the complaints of overtraining by a young, strong, juiced up “Champion” is unwarranted. But that’s just my opinion. And, we are all entitled to our opinion, aren’t we?
Fast forward to 1982. I’m sitting in my backyard at my new home, reading a Muscle & Fitness magazine. I’m married now, a little mellower, and my situation has transported me from New York to sunny Arizona. The article that I’m focusing on is about the upcoming U.S.A. Championships and includes two of my photos. The caption next to one of my photos reads, ” John Defendis, a terror from the East, is now living in Phoenix, Arizona, and is rocketing like a meteor toward the 1982 U.S.A. Championships with mass built by means of incredible 40, 50, even 75 set-per-bodypart workouts!”
I’m excited about the flattering press but I must admit, it creates undue pressure caused from the fear of possible failure. Immediately I run into the house and phone Michalik. I express my concern. Once again I realize that I made a mistake by calling him. He barks through the telephone, ” You feel pressure? You are afraid that you might fail and lose the contest? You gutless bast*rd! You have two choices. You can either quit bodybuilding and take up golf, or you can fly back to New York and pick up your balls where you left them and train for the show with me!”
Michalik has once again spoken and I can feel a knot of nausea well up in my stomach. At this point I proceed to explain to my good friend Mr. Michalik that my wife and I could not afford to pay for a plane ticket to New York and at the same time miss 6 weeks of work. His voice gets even louder and he starts to sound like a psycho who has gone completely out of control. “John, do you really want to win? Must you insist on being a failure or are you going to do what it takes to win the U.S.A.?”
He hesitates for a second and then asks, “Do you own a television?” I reply with a yes not knowing where this is going to lead. Then Steve asks, “Do you own a nice stereo system?” By this time I feel like a defendant on trial that is being led into a bad position through a series of questions, but I again said yes. I told Steve, “I do own a stereo but what does that have to do with winning a contest?”
At this point Steve screams into the telephone, “Sell your damn television and sell your damn stereo and do what you have to do to accomplish your goals! Anyone can own a television but only a small handful of people have the genetics to win a major bodybuilding title. Material objects don’t mean sh*t! Now you have to make a decision. Do you want to be a champion or would you rather sit at home and watch the real champions on your nice big color TV?”
At this time I really didn’t need to reply because Steve and I both knew where this was going. He had too much of an influence on me. So, we borrowed the money for the trip. Delta Flight 228 was scheduled to leave Phoenix Airport at 7:30 A.M. It would be a long flight and would not arrive at Kennedy Airport until 4:45. At least I would be able to get some rest between the time that I left Phoenix and tomorrow’s workout.
As I sat in my uncomfortably narrow seat on the plane, I fearfully anticipated what would lay ahead. Fortunately, the plane arrived in New York on time. That was good. At the same time Steve was waiting for me at the terminal. That was real good. Unfortunately, his dress attire was not appropriate for the occasion. This was real bad. He sported a torn up old sweatshirt with a raggy tank top underneath and some ancient sweatpants with a giant hole in the knee area. For some strange reason, I had the feeling that this was going to be a very long day for me.
Steve didn’t waste any time. His warm greeting went something like this: “Let’s go. Get your ass in gear. We have to train our chest, back, and shoulders and still be able to get two more meals in today.” “But, Steve,” I replied, “I just got off the plane and I feel like I have major jet lag. Can we start tomorrow?” His face took on a transformation and his eyes started to bug out. So before he spoke, I reluctantly committed to my post-flight, nightmare workout. At the same time I came to the sick realization that I had wished that my flight had missed the runway altogether.
The car ride from Kennedy to the gym took approximately 45 minutes. In that time span, only four words were spoken. Steve said, “I hope you’re ready.” I just nodded and realized that he was on a mission. I knew that he wanted to once again prove to himself that he was indestructible and that he had the capabilities of annihilating anyone in his path. This was his M.O. Michalik had sent more people to the hospital than Hurricane Andrew and the California earthquake combined.
Upon arriving at Mr. America’s Gym, I noticed that nothing had changed since I had left three years earlier. A member was still forced to sign in with a syringe-pen and the atmosphere was still hardcore. No businessmen or ladies here. Just masochistic lunatics. As I entered the front door I was pleased to see that Michalik had a full size wall mural of me doing my trademark vacuum pose. Immediately several of my old friends approached me with their arms out. They reflected on the old days and expressed their congratulations on my accomplishments and articles in all of the magazines.
For a second I almost felt important and proud. But before I began to bask in my glory, it all ended abruptly. Michalik shouted across the gym, “Hey primadonna, don’t listen to their ass-kissing bullsh*t. Get the hell over here and let’s see if you have what it takes to be a champion. From looking at your pathetic condition I’m starting to get the impression that you’ve been spending most of your time rearranging cactus out there in Arizona.”
At this time, I knew that I was getting ready to face the greatest challenge of my life, and more than anything, I loved challenges. I figured that I would make my situation more interesting so I said to Steve, “I’m not a kid anymore, so don’t think that your attitude is going to intimidate me. I came 3000 miles to show you what I am made of, and I intend to do just that. So stop wasting my time and let’s get rock’n and roll’n!” Michalik looked at me in disbelief. As he finished setting up the roped-off battle zone, he sternly said, “You, my friend, are going to die.”
It’s 1997. Bill Clintons getting blown in the Oval Office while I’m busting my balls finishing up a wicked set of Bent over Rows. We all have our priorities! On this particular day my priority is annihilating my Back. I’m about 260, hard and serious. As I grind out my last rep and head over to the Seated Cable Row machine for more torture, I hear a loud co*ky voice yell out, “Hey you, don’t touch that! We’re not finished!”
I turn around and see two guys wearing doo-rags on their heads, walking around with their lats flexed, acting like Peaco*ks. The bigger and more bloated guy who can’t weigh more than a buck ninety, is wearing a shirt that says, “The bigger I get…The smaller you look“. With a smug grin on his face, he looks right at me and says, “Yeah, old man, we’re supersetting. Don’t touch that.” Old man? This wanna be punk just called me an old man? Okay, I would love to take the time to give him an ass whipping but priorities are priorities and right now finishing my back routine is first in order.
As I finish a set of machine rows, I look over and see these two morons doing one arm cable concentration curls on the seated cable row machine. The same machine where I wanted to do my cable rows. Besides the fact that they were clueless regarding exercise form, they were also using a weight 5 times heavier than they could handle and they were cheating so bad that it looked like one arm rows instead of one-arm curls. It pissed me off because they could have wasted their time on one of the other 30 cable machines in the gym instead of detouring me from doing my scheduled workout.
Anyway, after I finished my workout and was getting ready to leave I ran into the dynamic duo again. Without hesitating I told them that if they wanted to grow and get great results that they should stick to the basic exercises use proper form, and train hard. Mr. I’m not bloaty enough responded with, “Hey, you may know what works for you, but I know what works for me.” On that note, I decided that I was talking to two boneheads that knew it all, so I left. The next morning I came in to do shoulders. As I was getting ready to start I noticed Batman and Robin again. This time to my surprise and delight I noticed that they were getting ready to do shoulders also. I said, Hey guys, want to do a little shoulders with me today?
The little guy responded with, “No, we have our own routine and it would be too much rest for three people.” But before I turned away I noticed the great bloaty one kick the little guy and smirk. He then said, “Yeah, we don’t mind beating up on a has been, lets do it!” At this point, I couldn’t help but remember the scene from the movie “Carrie” when they play a joke on her at the prom and she ends up killing everybody. I felt that same anger come over me that had fueled so many of my previous workouts.
I was going to kill these misguided bast*rds! I started the workout very slow and light. The idea was to give these two idiots the confidence to think that they really had a chance to do this. I picked up a pair of 20-pound dumbells and performed 20 side lateral raises. Then I turned to Bluto and said you go…20 reps. He responded with, “That’s kind of light, isn’t it?” I told him just to do it and be patient. He completed his set and as the little guy picked up the 20 pounders, I grabbed the 25’s, so that there would only be a one-person rest. I completed 25 reps, put them back on the rack and told Mr. Big to grab them. Lets go, 25 reps! I was like a vulture just waiting for these two wise asses to bite the dust. I continued the fiasco. 30 pounders for 30 reps, 35 pounders for 35 reps, 40 pounders for 40 reps! On the set of 30, the little guy looked like he was doing shrugs. I lost Bluto on the 35’s. He only got out 14 reps before he crashed to the floor.
“It wasn’t too long after that when I noticed the two slip away and head towards the bathroom. Immediately I went to the front desk, grabbed the microphone and made an announcement over the PA system. Attention: Mutt and Jeff! Please come out of the bathroom now! We are not quite finished doing shoulders!”
At that point I told him that we would slow the pace up a little and start to go heavy. I grabbed the 50’s, 60’s and 70’s and slightly cheated 12 reps with each. The two nimrods were back at the 25’s and 30’s looking dumbfounded. After we finished the dumbbell laterals I set up a tri-set of more dumbbell laterals, cable laterals, and machine laterals. I started doing 12 reps on each and before too long I had circled back around and I was waiting for the “boys” to finish so I could get in my set. It wasn’t too long after that when I noticed the two slip away and head towards the bathroom. How cute I thought…these two are going to hold hands and throw up together.
Immediately I went to the front desk, grabbed the microphone and made an announcement over the PA system. Attention: Mutt and Jeff! Please come out of the bathroom now! We are not quite finished doing shoulders! Actually, we were just getting to the meat of the workout. Finally, not wanting to lose my pump, I went to retrieve my good buddys from the restroom. As I walked in I noticed the smaller guy lying on the floor inside the shower stall, fully clothed, with the water running all over him. I realized he was done. There was not much I could do to bring the little bast*rd back to life.
Just then I heard Bluto dry heaving in one of the stalls. I pushed open the door and told him that I was losing my pump and that I needed him to get his fat ass out in the gym and finish the workout. I quoted the line from the movie Rocky 3…”We got more to do Mick! It ain’t over…We got more to do!” Finally, through humiliation I was able to get Bluto to come back out. I told him not to worry because we were done doing lateral raises. When I said this, the stupid assho**e halfway smiled with a drool of puke running down his chin! What a fool, I thought. Doesn’t he realize that laterals are actually the easier part of the shoulder workout? I set up a bench to do heavy seated dumbbell presses. As I turned, I saw horror on Bluto’s face. He said, “We’re not going to do presses are we?” I just smiled and grabbed the 100-pound dumbbells. I slowly pumped out 12 strict reps, struggling on the last few.
When I finished, Mr. Bloat toad looked at me in disbelief, not knowing which dumbbells to grab for himself. He mumbled, “ I usually go up to 80’s so I think I should use 60 pounders.” I smirked. He had no idea what he was talking about. He grabbed the 60’s and couldn’t even throw them up to his shoulders. I told him that he might want to go lighter. He then grabbed the 50’s and hoisted them up but could only get 2 reps before they came crashing in towards his head.
I grabbed them so they wouldn’t damage his already brain damaged head. I wanted to make sure that he didn’t hurt himself because I wasn’t done torturing the fat fu*k. I told him that even though the 40-pound dumbbells were half the weight that “old men” and “has been” used, they were going to be the going weight for his set. He performed a very clumsy and pathetic set of 6 reps but I hadn’t expected more from him.
“Two sets later he was back in the bathroom stall revisiting his breakfast.”
After all, I had witnessed this same scenario so many times with co*ky guys that had trained with Michalik and I. After he finished, I grabbed the 110 pounders and completed 8 hard intense reps. He then repeated his academy award winning performance of his last set. Two sets later he was back in the bathroom stall revisiting his breakfast. I smiled, finished my workout and went home to eat. Funny thing though…I never saw those two assho**es in my gym again. Did I feel bad? Hell no! Why? Because everyday I see macho guys who haven’t learned how to train hard in the gym. These are the guys that wear the doo-rags, are juiced up on all kinds of drugs and walk around like they are Gods. They would rather over abuse drugs then to eat right and train hard. They are the wannabes of the world.
They want all the rewards but do not want to put in the effort. I love these guys. These are the guys that keep me young, strong, and motivated. There is nothing better in the world then giving a co*ky assho**e an ass beating in the gym. These are the guys that make my life worthwhile!
Standing onstage sucks…even when I won the USA. It was never about the contest… It was always about the workout. My battle was with the barbells and the dumbbells and my battlefield was the gym. My victory was beating the weights and machines and surpassing anything that I and anyone else had ever done before. Feeling my hands wrap around the cold bar and thinking about moving a quarter of a ton of steel was a thrill that only few will ever experience.
Everyday I am faced with people who ask me if I will ever compete again. Little do they realize that I compete everyday. Every time that I lift a weight I compete against myself. I strive to lift more in less time with better results. That’s right…Its all about the workout! Do people really think that standing onstage at the USA was the thrill of my life?
I stood up there feeling weak, tired and dehydrated. I stood there waiting for something to happen that would justify the 20 years that I had invested in the sport… The missed weddings and parties, the birthdays and holidays where I ate chicken and rice instead of birthday cake, barely paying the bills and the lost relationships due to my focus on winning a contest.
Then the next day came and it dawned on me… It was all about the workout! The 40 and 50 set routines that left me exhausted but proud.
Proud of the intensity and effort that went into each workout and every set. I would dream of new goals and go after them day after day. I love the feeling of strength and power and the look of a healthy, strong body.
The real thrill of bodybuilding was not in the contest onstage but instead the thrill came from the intense workouts and the achievements that were made in the gym. Squatting 450 for 40 reps to the floor, warming up with 315 on the Incline press for 30 reps, doing 50 sets of barbell curls for biceps and 60 sets of heavy back work! That’s what is was all about…the workout.
Standing onstage could not rival the feeling that I got from having fans travel from Belgium and Holland to Florida just to witness one of our Intensity or Insanity leg workouts. That was the pinnacle of greatness! To show the Europeans that we had more balls then anyone they had ever seen! I remember that day like it was yesterday…four of them had borrowed chairs from out of the sales offices and arranged them around the squat rack, leg press and lunge area. They sat there mummified like they were watching something out of Ripley’s Believe it or not! How could we let them down? How could we not put 110% into every rep and every set? We moved about like fine tuned machines, ready to take on any challenge.
That’s right…It was all about the workout and it was up to me to make sure that nobody did it better! I thrived on my reputation of being one of the hardest training bodybuilders in the country. That meant a lot more to me than standing onstage in little teeny bullsh*t posing trunks in front of a bunch of guys that never trained yet were there to judge me! That’s right…what gave Peter Potter the right to judge me? Did he ever lift a damn weight before? It certainly didn’t look like it!
To this day I resent the fact that they let someone like that judge my physique! As I sit here and think back I realize that it was always about the hard workouts and the discipline it took to move those weights and finish those sets. Everybody always told me that I was overtraining. They always said that I would burnout and not last. I sit here and laugh when I think about the 34 years that I have been training. I am still training and I feel great. I am 260 and hard at 44 years old.
Still playing with weights that would crush 20 year olds that are juiced up on every drug in the book. Trying my damndest to motivate the younger ones and have them realize that success is derived from hard work and dedication.
What More Could I Ask For?
Happily married, successful in my business and still training like a madman! Most people will read this and think that I am crazy… I am not nuts…just happy to be able to do what I love and do it with passion… TRAIN…TRAIN..TRAIN and motivate others to be the best they can be!
“Mentzers Heavy Duty one set and two set workouts were more the norm because we live in a world full of lazy mother fu*kers.”
I always believed in high volume intense workouts. The workouts that were originated by champions like Arnold, Tom Platz and Serge Nubret. Unfortunately the high volume workouts never became real popular. Mentzers Heavy Duty one set and two set workouts were more the norm because we live in a world full of lazy mother fu*kers. Everybody bought into the bullsh*t…half hour workouts so they had more time to be lazy. With all due respect to Mike Mentzer and his accomplishments…why was it that he hadn’t trained for the last twenty years and was in the worst shape of his life before his sad and tragic death?
If the Heavy Duty system was developed to prevent burnout, why did he ultimately burnout 20 years ago? Why was it that people still embraced every article that he had written prior to his passing and many of them adopted the Heavy Duty system?
It is a phenomenon that has amazed me to this day. Gone are the days of the hardcore gyms. The gyms that were engulfed in the atmosphere of blood, sweat and guts. Those gyms have been replaced by the Family Fitness Centers, Richard Simmons and electronic vibrating fu*kin abdominal devices. I miss the gladiators and the warriors that once trained behind the walls of Mr. America’s gym in New York. I miss the competitions that we had in the gym to see who trained the hardest and who didn’t make it to their cars after the workouts.
I miss the gyms that were loaded with barbells and dumbbells and void of cardiovascular equipment. Cardiovascular equipment? Bikes, treadmills, stairmachines? No way…they didn’t exist! After all…during our workouts our hearts were beating faster than Ringo Starrs drums when he was playing for the Beatles. We didn’t need to waste time doing cardio…it was already built in. It couldn’t get any better.
We lived to train and trained to live…
and we loved every minute of it!
It was all about the workout!
And for me…it still is!
“There is no greater feeling on earth than the feeling that you have when you know that you have done everything humanly possible to achieve your goal and live your dream!”
Atlantic City 1987: The lights were bright and everywhere I looked I saw people gambling. Black Jack, Poker, Slot Machines, Craps and Roulette. I was never much of a gambler myself. That’s probably why I trained so hard every year but never showed up for the big day. I wanted to win the USA or the Nationals and turn pro but I couldn’t handle the risk of standing onstage with anything but the overall title and trophy.
No, the stakes were too high and I would rather not risk failure. It was easier to watch the others and excuse myself with promises of future victories. I remember that day like it was yesterday. My good friend Alex paid for my plane fare and ticket to the Nationals in Atlantic City, New Jersey. Perhaps he thought that it would inspire me to compete again and go after my dream of becoming a pro. After all, it was almost five years since I hit my trademark vacuum pose in front of a crowd.
What made the day interesting was the fact that I was drinking beer with my sidekick, Walter. Walter couldn’t believe that I was drinking and reveled in the thought that he was corrupting me. John DeFendis drinking beer? I never drank beer. The closest I came to alcohol was a Shirley Temple or Virgin Pina Colada. But this day was different. I was drinking to escape the truth and the truth was that I was slowly watching my dreams disappear. Another year was passing by and another Champion was about to be handed the trophy that I thought I deserved.
I was the fox in Aesops fable “The Fox and the Sour Grapes.” You see the fox wanted the grapes so bad and he kept jumping to pull them off of the vine. His attempts were futile and finally he fell to the ground, exhausted and grapeless. Knowing that he was never going to savor the sweet taste of the grapes he became vindictive and negative. As he lay on the ground he looked up and said, “Who wants those rotten, sour grapes anyway!”
As I sat in the second row with Alex and Walter I criticized the competitors onstage with my slurred speech. I kept saying, “Look at these guys onstage…they ain’t got nothin. They probably mortgaged their houses and sold their cars just to pay for their food, supplements and airfare. Most of them are going to go home with empty dreams and empty pockets!”
I downed another beer and kept saying that I would never make that mistake again. As I drowned myself in inner sorrow I tried to convince myself that I was totally content being a wannabe. Who needed this? Why would I want to subject myself to the rigors of contest training just to win a title? Even better yet…Why would I want to gamble and take a chance of losing in front of thousands of spectators? It was so much easier sitting there with my Budweiser in hand while laughing at the competitors. Or was I really laughing at myself for not following through on my goals and realizing my dreams?
The next day I awoke with a feeling of nausea and uneasiness. I was told that this was a hangover from my beer escapade, but I knew better. I knew it was much more serious than that. I knew what I had to do and I realized that I would not be able to live with myself until I followed through and won the USA.
I went back to Florida and I carefully planned out the next eight months with my focus on winning the 1988 USA. It would have to be a flawless plan…No mistakes, No miscalculations and No Regrets! Even though the contest was to be held in Las Vegas I refused to gamble…Knowing that I must be at my best and minimize any chances of defeat. Pulling My Head Out Of My Ass
I knew the drill well. Wake up at 5:00 am, cook all six meals, slam down some black coffee that resembled mud with a half of a cantaloupe and an Animal Pak. Then it was off to war. Every workout was a grueling testimonial of the effort that it would take to win the USA and solidify my dream. After all, it was 1988 and overtraining didn’t exist. It was the era of Intensity or Insanity workouts with 40, 50 and 60 set routines.
A typical leg workout consisted of a nonstop cycle of 400 pound Squats, 1200 pound leg presses and a leg extension machine that looked like it had its last day from the burden of countless repetitions with the pin buried at the bottom of the stack! Then there was stiff legged deadlifts, leg curls and seated leg curls for a hundred reps each followed by a 20 minute stretch of lunges around the outside of the mall with a hundred pounds on our backs. (The gym was connected to a shopping mall.)
Why were all the shoppers staring as we fell countless times and then regrouped and continued our trek? Did they feel sorry for me?
If so, I never understood why because I was living my dream…I was having the time of my life because I knew where I was going. I didn’t need anybody feeling sorry for me because I was on top of the world. Nobody was going to beat me because I made sure that I was going way beyond all limits that my competitors would have set for themselves. I lived and died in that gym every workout and every day!
There is no greater feeling on earth than the feeling that you have when you know that you have done everything humanly possible to achieve your goal and live your dream!
I lived my dream and I continue to set new goals and have new dreams. That is what life is all about…
Being the best at everything you choose to do and not settling for second place. Las Vegas is the gambling capitol of the world… I loved Las Vegas on that hot, dry summer night in July of 1988… But I never had time to gamble. I just went in and did my thing and got out. You know…I never was a gambler.