UFC fighter Frank Shamrock says that Mike Mahler's training tactics are unique, innovative, and one of a kind. And that seems to be on the mark, as Mike is proving to be much more than just another "kettlebell guy."
Coach Mahler has published about a dozen articles here at Testosterone, but we've never sat him down and picked his brain... until now.
T Nation: Sum up your overall training beliefs for us, Mike. What's at the core of your philosophy?
When it comes to a comprehensive training program for strength, health, and well-being, there are five important areas that need to be addressed: strength, cardio, joint mobility/flexibility/balance, nutrition, and restoration.
I don't like to waste time, and don't want my clients and readers to waste time, so my strength training approach focuses on compound exercises that provide the most bang for your buck. There are five areas I like to cover: presses, pulls, hamstrings, quads, and core.
If you hit those five areas with compound exercises such as the standing military press for pressing, weighted pull-ups for pulling, Romanian deadlifts for the hamstrings, barbell squats for the quads, and hanging leg raises for the core, you have a great training program that'll cover at least 80% of your needs.
T Nation: What about the other 20%?
The other 20% may consist of specialty work to address injuries, such as rotator cuff work. Or if you're a bodybuilder perhaps a lagging body part like calves.
Whether your goal is size and strength or fat loss, the above five areas should be your focal point. The differences would be in execution based on your goals. For example, if your goal is fat loss, you can do circuit-style weight training several times per week. If your goal is size and strength, you can do high volume work via a split routine.
Finally, you don't have to do the same five exercises indefinitely. Keep the five pillars covered, but feel free to rotate exercises to keep training fun and to avoid overuse injuries.
What training implements you use are up to you. You can cover the five pillars with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, sandbags, or even TC's Real Doll. You can also mix and match implements.
T Nation: What's your take on cardio?
I like high intensity cardio for efficient fat loss and heart health. An example would be doing twenty 100 yard sprints. Run as fast as you can for 100 yards, jog back to the starting point, and repeat. This doesn't take long, is much more fun than running on a treadmill, and it's great for ramping up fat loss.
Another area I focus on is joint mobility. This is important before and after each workout and is incredible for anti-aging. Five to ten minutes of joint mobility work each day is enough to cover the bases.
We should also spend some time on restoration. Many people know how to train hard but don't balance the equation properly with restoration. Get a good massage every other week or at least once a month. Meditate for 20 minutes after each workout and get quality sleep every night to optimize hormone production.
T Nation: Okay, a lot of what you do might be categorized as "functional training." That term has been abused though, and seems to have lost its meaning. How do you define it?
One element of functional strength is strength that carries over to real-world activities such as carrying your groceries to the car, putting your carry-on bag in the overhead compartment, being able to carry your child effortlessly, etc. Those of us that actually have even a small amount of strength and conditioning take such tasks for granted, but I've seen a lot of people that have a hard time with daily activities that should be effortless.
Another element of functional strength is having strength and conditioning for the activities or sports that you love to do such as hiking, surfing, grappling, and mountain climbing. Not only strength that carries over directly, but balancedstrength so that you avoid injuries.
Finally, the most important part of functional strength, the part that's completely overlooked by most people, is this: It makes you a stronger and tougher person overall, not just strong in the context of working out.
I've seen many people that are training bad-asses, but are complete pushovers in their personal and professional life. They avoid risks like the plague, don't have the courage to pursue the lives they really want, and couldn't make a tough decision if their lives depended on it.
They always go with the flow, never trust their instincts, and constantly look to others to make decisions for them. They've completely compartmentalized their strength and conditioning and don't carry it over to any other aspect of their lives.
While they have strength and toughness in the context of physical training, that strength doesn't carry over to where it really matters. It's wasted. If you're strong and in shape when it comes to working out, but a wuss everywhere else, then you're not a strong person overall and you've missed out on the most important benefit of training.
Hard training teaches us how to push through when things aren't easy and finish what we start. Transforming your body and building a high level of strength takes a lot of discipline and hard work. Physical accomplishments, whether it's losing 30 pounds of fat, adding 50 pounds to your bench press, or running a marathon, teach you a lot about yourself and help break mental barriers that hold you back in life.
It's a complete shame if we only have that strength and mental toughness in the context of working out.
T Nation: Mental toughness goes along with something we've written about here at Testosterone before: self-talk. What is that exactly?
Mahler: Well, one of the great potential benefits of hard training is it teaches us how to use our minds to push forward. If you give up mentally, it's over. You could have the best training technique in the world, but if you're not mentally tough, you'll give up when things get arduous.
We're all constantly having internal dialogues without ourselves. If you're telling yourself that you're weak and that it's time to give up, that's exactly what you'll do. On the other hand, if you tell yourself to keep pushing forward, that'll drastically increase your odds for success in your workouts and in life in general. The dialogues that we have with ourselves are "self-talk."
I learned about self-talk from Richard Machowicz, author of Unleashing The Warrior Within.
When Richard went through Navy Seal training, he saw a lot of physically impressive people give up because they weren't mentally tough, an example being when his group was ordered to run several miles. Just when everyone thought it was over, the instructor ordered several more miles. Half the class collapsed on the spot.
Were they defeated physically at that point? No, they probably could've kept going if they were mentally prepared for it. They were defeated mentally. Richard pushed through not just with great physical conditioning but by giving himself the right messages via self-talk. No matter what was happening to him, he knew that he was going to pass. He burned his bridges with failure and there was nowhere left to go but the other way, to success.
I look at strength and conditioning training as much more than just being impressive physically. We all want to look good, be in shape, and be strong, but what's the use if it doesn't carry over to other areas of life such as business, integrity, and our personal lives?
When you push through hard workouts and learn the discipline of training consistently in order to reach a goal, you have very powerful self-knowledge and skill sets which can help you push through in other important areas of life. However, if you compartmentalize who you are as a trainee from who you are in the rest of your life, the benefits won't carry over. That's a travesty!
Ironically, I see many people train the way they should be living their lives and many people live their lives the way they should be training!
T Nation: So give us an example of mental toughness training.
Ori Hofmekler has a system called Controlled Fatigue Training where you purposely put yourself in a fatigued state before strength training. For example, go do ten 100 yard sprints, then go do your strength-training workout. That fresh strength you normally have is gone and now you have to push through mentally.
In the beginning you'll be weaker and many will say screw it and give up. Others will push forward, and once you adapt your strength comes back and goes up.
It's one thing to be strong when everything is perfect. You slept eight hours the night before, you timed your pre-workout meal perfectly, and you're in a great mood. However, what can you do when things are far from ideal? Most likely you'll have to apply your strength at times when things aren't perfect. If you haven't trained yourself to be able to do so, then you're in trouble.
T Nation: Interesting. Now, you're known mostly for kettlebell training. Kettlebell training has gone from obscure to mainstream, some would say to fad level. Where does it stand now in the big picture?
Mahler: I define a fad as something that's here today and gone tomorrow. Kettlebell training is definitely here to stay.
I think a lot of people got turned off by kettlebell training by some of the over-the-top marketing that was associated with it. Several years ago, Dragondoor was the only company that was selling high quality kettlebells. They were also the only information provider for kettlebell training. When only one company is doing any one thing, no matter how good or bad it is, it'll be regarded as a fad.
But now there are a lot of companies such as Lifeline USA, Ader, and the American Kettlebell Club that are selling high quality kettlebells and offering kettlebell training information. As a result, the prices for kettlebells have come down a great deal and there are several options for customers to choose from for kettlebells, training info, and certifications.
I see kettlebells everywhere, and a lot of serious athletes and coaches use kettlebells, including Frank Shamrock, Mark Philippi, and Randy Couture. However, they don't use kettlebells as a stand-alone tool, but as a great addition to their training systems.
No single training tool can offer everything, and people who think that kettlebells are the be-all, end-all of strength training are just delusional. Kettlebells are simply a great training tool to round out a solid training system.
T Nation: Nice to hear a "kettlebell guy" actually say that! Now, you say that every hypertrophy program should have a focus on strength. But many people see size and strength as two different goals. What's the real story?
Mahler: Even today the most successful bodybuilders are very strong. Some examples that come to mind are Ronnie Coleman, Dorrian Yates, and Kevin Levrone. Back in the day wasn't much different. Arnold, Franco Columbu, John Grimek, and Reg Park were all big and very strong. Even if you could get really big without getting strong, why the hell would you want to? Why not have it all?
A lot of people that want to get bigger would do very well on a powerlifting style of training. Try keeping your size down and getting your bench press up to 350, deadlift up to 500 and squat up to 450. Even if you're not trying to put on size, you will. Sure, we've all seen people who aren't too big that can bench press 350, but these people usually can't squat 225 to save their lives.
Eat a lot of good food, make sure that 30% or more of your diet comes from good fats to optimize hormone production, sleep well every night to ramp up GH, focus on getting strong on compound exercises, and you'll get bigger.
T Nation: What's your take on training to failure? Is it different for performance vs. bodybuilding goals?
It really depends on how you define training to failure. For some it means literally working against the weight until you fail and then doing forced reps or some other set-extender to really shock the muscle.
I look at training to failure as training to your limit. For example, you do ten reps on the bench press and the tenth rep is really hard and takes everything you have to complete. You know you won't get an eleventh rep, so you stop there, rest up, and grow stronger for another day.
Using this definition of training to failure, I think it has a lot of merit when used appropriately. If you never push yourself to the limit you'll never know what you're capable of. So yes, it's important.
However, it does not and should not be done at every workout. A periodization approach should be applied. Spend some time each year working on high volume training where you don't train to failure. Spend some time working on moderate volume such as the 5 x 5 program where the fifth set is sometimes pushed to failure, but not necessarily at every workout.
Then spend some time on a high-intensity protocol where the volume is pretty low (two to three sets) and push it hard on each set. Such training is good for four to six weeks and then it'll be time to shift gears.
Training to failure shouldn't be avoided like the plague as some recommend, nor is it something that has to be applied at every workout. It has its use, and when used properly it can be very beneficial for hypertrophy goals and strength gains.
I really like Louie Simmons's approach of working on force production one day with fairly light weights and working on maximum effort later in the week. It's hard to argue with the results he and his team have produced, and many bodybuilders work with him as well to blast through plateaus.
T Nation: Let's talk overtraining. Some coaches claim that it practically doesn't exist. Other well-respected coaches make us think that we're all overtrained! What's the deal here?
Mahler: Here's what I've found: People who love to train are more likely to go into a state of overtraining than those who hate to train or those that are indifferent.
Why? People who love to train are often addicted to the stimulus of training. They look forward to each workout and love everything about training. The last thing they want to do is train four times per week at 45 minutes or less per session. They've made the stimulus of training the goal, and any other training goal is secondary at best.
Once you're addicted to the stimulus of training, going into an overtrained state is inevitable. Moreover, they're not just addicted to working out but to the feeling of being wiped out after every workout. They think they should barely be able to walk from the gym to their car after each workout! They also want to be super sore after every workout and will complain if they're not. Not only do such people go into overtrained states easily, they're probably there most of the time!
I can see why many coaches don't believe that overtraining exists. Most people have never trained hard enough to be overtrained! The average person watches four hours of TV every night and considers walking a form of exercise. (Of course, this means walking from the living room to the kitchen.)
When it comes to work, many people like to focus on doing as little as possible to stay employed. These people, who represent a good chunk of the population, aren't in danger of being overtrained any time soon.
On the flip side, the training stimulus addicts often have a hard time reducing training. They have a fear that they'll lose it all if they don't train long and often. Moreover, these people push it hard, yet are often sleep-deprived, are terrible at stress management, and have nagging injuries and mediocre diets.
They know how to push themselves, but they haven't balanced the equation with restoration. Once we get their training more precise so that it fits them as individuals, really cool things start happening. In addition to getting stronger, leaner, or bigger if that's the goal, they feel much better. And ultimately that's the goal that all of us have in common.
Yes, overtraining does exist and many people who love to train are often overtrained. That said, many people take it too far and have an irrational fear of overtraining. If they don't feel perfect and energetic every day, they assume they're overtrained, which is rarely the case. I've had days where I feel like crap and have incredible workouts, and other days where I can't wait to jump into my workout only to have a terrible session. Our physiologies are just not that simple.
One way to avoid overtraining is to do a light week of training for every three weeks of hard training. This is harder than it sounds for stimulus addicts as they want to train hard all of the time. However, it's a simple and productive way to avoid overtraining.
T Nation: Good stuff, Mike. Looking forward to future articles from you!