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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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