To be honest, I had no idea which direction this interview was going to take.
I was calling to interview former Mr. America and Mr. Universe Steve Michalik. Known for his near perfect symmetry and waif-like waist during his meteoric rise to bodybuilding super-stardom in the early 70's, Michalik was later dubbed "The Phantom Bodybuilder" by Arnold after Michalik's inspiring 1980 bodybuilding comeback from a serious accident.
But to this day, Michalik is also known for other, less celebrated reasons. In what is sometimes a cruel sport where only the strongest and fearless survive, Steve Michalik was as hardcore a bodybuilder as you'll ever find.
There was nothing he wouldn't do to stand in the winner's circle, whether it was to eat monkey brains, train so hard his would-be partners wound up hospitalized, or suffer endless hours of excruciating physical therapy to rebuild his broken body from the nightmarish confines of a wheelchair.
Or, take an escalating amount of steroids — all for the next chance at two minutes of bodybuilding glory.
As the phone continued to ring that morning, I wasn't sure which Steve Michalik would answer. Would it be the father of hardcore bodybuilding and author of the aptly titled Intensity/Insanity training system?
Or would it be the other Steve Michalik; the outspoken anti-steroid crusader who draws upon his own experiences with steroids to warn teens about the dangers of performance enhancing drugs?
I was about to double-check the number when a cheerful New Yorker suddenly answered.
""Michalik Psychiatry Services, Dr. Michalik speaking. How can I help you today?"
I laughed out loud. I could work with this Steve Michalik.
Captain (Mr.) America
Most boys grow up wanting to be a fireman or play professional baseball. But as a youngster growing up in Brooklyn, Steve Michalik had a different goal. "I wanted to be Mr. America," says Michalik, 60. "I became interested in bodybuilding at age 8. My original inspiration was Captain America because he was strong and wise and powerful. But since I couldn't become Captain America, I decided to become Mr. America instead."
And Michalik did just that. He won the Mr. USA title in 1971, and the following year won the coveted Mr. America on his first try. He made his reign a triple crown by winning the Mr. Universe title in 1975 at 250 pounds of perfect symmetry.
But that's when Michalik's dreams were crushed. Literally.
"Shortly after the 1975 Mr. Universe, my car was rolled over by a large dump truck," says Michalik. "The accident left me in the hospital, paralyzed from the waist down and confined to a wheel chair for 3 years."
"The doctors said I would never walk again, much less compete," he says. "But the doctors didn't understand who they were dealing with."
"Let me show you how fate works," says Michalik.
What the doctors didn't know was that shortly after high school, Steve had volunteered to serve his country in Viet Nam. On R & R days, while his comrades would head into town and chase women, Steve was getting an education of a different kind. "A British journalist offered to take me to see these Taoist monks that would come into town and perform amazing feats for food, coins, or blankets," he said. "What I saw with my own eyes was incredible. They'd catch arrows shot at them with a 50 pound bow, stick needles in themselves and not bleed; I even saw one lift an elephant."
"They used their minds to conquer their physical surroundings. So I spent every spare moment I had learning from them how I could manipulate time, space, energy, and matter," he said.
"So years later, I'm home and in a hospital and the doctors are telling me I'll never walk again. And I told them no way."
For the next three years following his accident, armed with his Eastern teachings and dogged determination, Steve proceeded to do the impossible, rehabbing himself from a wheelchair to a gym to eventually, the bodybuilding stage.
"My brother Paulie would help drag me around the gym. He would move my legs around and massage them because I had no feeling in them."
"When the feeling came back, that's when the pain came back," he says. "But I just used my techniques that I had learned to block out the pain, and to redirect it into a positive energy to heal my body."
Enter the Phantom
Steve made his famous comeback on stage at the 1980 IFBB Miami Grand Prix event, where then television commentator Arnold Schwarzenegger introduced Steve as "the Phantom Bodybuilder." Steve placed a respectable fourth and the Phantom nickname stuck.
The Grand Prix circuit allowed Steve to capitalize on his renewed fame, even selling Phantom merchandise like hats and T-shirts. But unfortunately, he was about to face even greater challenges.
Another cruel brush with fate
Over the years that followed, the grueling Grand Prix circuit had Steve fueling his body with an escalating dosage of steroids that slowly took its toll on him. The negative side effects started when he began passing blood in his urine; a symptom of the liver tumors that doctors later discovered.
Even after Steve retired from competing and swore off steroids completely, the devastating effects of his steroid abuse lingered on. He suffered a heart attack that doctors directly attributed to steroids, and later a stroke.
Always the survivor, Michalik recovered to become an anti-steroid campaigner, and today tours gyms warning teenagers about the dangers of steroid abuse. He also works with many pre-contest bodybuilders and does a little personal training and phone consulting.
Today, he's promoting his book, Atomic Fitness, and his "Intensity/Insanity" training method, which he says allowed him to excel at such a young age.
"When I was young, I didn't want to be Mr. America in my 30's. I wanted to be Mr. America in my 20's so I could enjoy it," he says. "And I did. I won Mr. USA at age 20, Mr. America at 22, and Mr. Universe at 24."
"There is a better way for bodybuilders than the current crap out there. Trust me."
"What I call Intensity/Insanity could easily be called Quantum fitness," says Michalik. "The principles are based on quantum physics. I use space, time, energy, and matter to create force inside muscle tissue in order to bring about a positive change."
Sounds somewhat "Mentzerian." Is Intensity/Insanity just another version of Heavy Duty?
"Mike and I banged heads for 20 years on this," says Michalik. "It was interesting and it gave us both an outlet to be controversial."
"But a lot of what Mentzer said was very misleading. What he called 1 set wound up being more like 15 sets. But in reality, Intensity/Insanity isn't that far off from Heavy Duty other than I don't rely on heavy weights to contract muscle. I say contract the muscle using the weight. Do you see the difference?"
"In other words, when someone does barbell curls, they pick up a weight that causes them to fail at 8 or 10 repetitions. That's backward thinking. You should have your muscles flex as hard as possible with whatever weight you can."
"Let's take a bench press for example. Sure, a 300-pound bench press will put pressure on your pecs, as well as your shoulders and triceps. But that's inefficient. If you just load the heaviest weight, all the body wants to do is survive, so it will use whatever muscles, tendons, and joints it can to get the 300 pounds up."
"I say put maximum pressure on the target muscle first with a weight that will allow that. You don't let a piece of weight or barbell affect the muscle. You create the effect using the weight or barbell. It's a subtle difference, but it completely changes the feel of the exercise. It's like doing Charles Atlas dynamic tension with weights."
Michalik suggests that a better way to grasp Intensity/Insanity is to first look at how most people train.
"Go into the gym and just watch people," he says. "They see an incline press and say 'Gee, I guess an incline press will work my upper pecs.' They basically assume this, and it's absurd and it takes forever to build muscle that way."
"Rather than assume the angle will do this, why not get your mind inside the muscle to target the specific fibers?"
Michalik explains that once you let your mind take control of the exercise, then the muscles get the message. "Muscles don't grow from the brain and nervous system. Muscles just report to the brain, so why try to circumvent the brain? Try to and you just get tired, sore, or injured."
"The targeted muscle has to work in isolation. That's bodybuilding."
So does that mean the example of a 300-pound bench press performed the "normal" way would have to be scaled back to train with Intensity/Insanity?
"Absolutely," says Michalik. "That 300 pounds will drop to 225 or even 185 pounds. I've had New York Jets players that couldn't bench 95 pounds with just their pecs."
"The bottom line is you have to get your mind into the muscle to use the weight to grow the muscle. When you do that, it says to the brain 'Hey! Oh, you want pecs? Got it.' Unless you do that, you're missing it."
Where's the Insanity?
Using perfect form to control a weight hardly sounds insane, but Michalik says that technique is just part of the equation. It's how these perfect sets are executed that helped earn Michalik his insane reputation.
"You must overcome what I call 'the wall of fire', which is the point where the muscle wants to quit. Arnold said on the other side of the pain barrier is all the growth. He was right. But you have to suffer through the pain to get to where the growth begins."
"Once you get through the wall, the pain disappears and the body recruits more fibers to continue the set. And that's where your gains come from."
Michalik draws up on Darwin's theory of evolution to back up his theories. "The bear that developed fur is the one that lived. Muscle will only change if it is a non-survival situation. Why should it?"
"If all you're doing all day is lifting a cup of coffee, that's as big as your biceps will get. But all of a sudden, if that coffee weighs 90 pounds, that's different."
"That's how this system works: you're putting the specific muscles you're exercising in a non-survival situation. That's the only way muscle changes."
Taking Intensity/Insanity for a Test Drive.
Let's use the example of a biceps workout. You perform a set of barbell curls with 15 pounds to absolute failure; perfect form, constant tension, squeezing the muscle as hard as you can. At failure, you immediately perform a set with 25 pounds to failure, even if it's just three or four reps.
At failure, you go to 40 pounds; again, even if it's just for two or three reps. And you keep working like this until you can't do one single rep, even with a spot.
Michalik says that you can go to failure and then increase the weight because initially the brain only calls upon 30-40% of the muscle fibers anyway to perform a given task.
"Once you trained your brain, you can do it," he says. "It's the woman who lifts the car up to save her baby. Because she can!"
Once you max out, you perform the process all the way back down, until you can't even perform one rep with the original starting weight.
And then you're done? Hardly.
"You repeat the process. All the way down and all the way up again. You'll be amazed at how your body will still have a few reps left in the tank. You keep doing this until there are absolutely no reps left in the tank. It may take 6 to 8 rounds before you're finished, but once you're finished, you'll know it."
As for rest between these sets?
"None," says Steve. "The moment you relax the muscles, muscle fibers start to drop off. That's why constant tension is so important. You don't want to lose muscle fibers. You will need tremendous concentration because the voice inside you will be telling you to quit."
"The guy that does 8 reps and then rests for three minutes won't get anywhere. That's not non-survival, cause he gets to rest for three minutes. But if you don't rest or rest as little as possible, the body has to change in order to survive."
Performed correctly, the workout will be just one set, comprised of 40, 50, or 60 mini-sets. But the workout shouldn't take more than 30 or 40 minutes.
Michalik says the brief duration is critical. "You have to get in and get out. After about 45 minutes, the body down-regulates Testosterone and thyroid and ramps up cortisol and adrenaline."
The 45-minute time limit is the only artificial limitation that Michalik believes in. Other strength training tenets like sets, reps, and rest intervals he says are meaningless in terms of building muscle.
"When I see 3 sets of 10, I say bullshit," says Michalik. "When you put a number on something, you're putting on a limitation. If the rep limit is 12 reps, what if the 13th rep is the rep of non-survival?"
Skeptics may challenge that Michalik's insane approach to training would only work for an athlete loaded up on steroids, but Michalik argues that he trained this way to win both his Mr. USA and Mr. America titles, and was totally natural for both victories. "I was actually very much against steroids throughout the early part of my career," says Michalik.
But that all changed following a meeting with French champion Serge Nubret on the road to the Mr. Universe contest. "I met up with Serge in Europe, and at 212 pounds it was clear that I was just too small to compete with some of the guys coming out of Europe," he says. "Serge told me all about steroids, what works and how it works. I then went home to discuss it with my wife."
"We talked about whether or not it was worth it for me to take the plunge," he says. "I was 23 and my career was just starting to take off. Do I quit now or do I try to see how far I could go? That was how I first I got involved."
Steve's challenges with steroids are well documented, and it wasn't long after he started that he found himself psychologically addicted to the drugs. But he argues that for years he had no idea he was doing anything that would potentially harm him in the future. "Back then, the doctors just gave it to us. There were no laws. I would walk into the pharmacy and buy 10 bottles of Deca, 1000 tabs of Dianabol. Whatever I wanted," he says.
"The thing about steroids is, there's no feeling when you take them. You feel no pain, no high, nothing. You just get stronger and have better recuperation. It's all positive, and the doctors never knew there was anything wrong with it."
As impressive as Michalik's physique was after he started steroids, would he have made a different choice had he known the price he'd ultimately have to pay? "I never would have touched them," he says. "But I had no idea there was anything wrong until I had been on it for 8 or 10 years. The thing is, the whole time that you're on it's slowly changing your chemistry. Had I known I'd have the heart, liver, and kidney trouble that I suffer from today I would have steered clear of them."
"Steroids are a ticking time bomb. Even when you stop taking them for 20 years like I did, the seeds of destruction are still planted."
Some might argue that there is a difference between prudent steroid use and outright abuse, but Michalik will have none of it. "What might be moderate for you could be lethal for me," argues Michalik. "Everyone knows a guy who can drink 20 beers and be fine, as well as a guy who can't drink three without getting drunk. You have no idea what potential problems steroids can kick start in each person."
"Lots of the guys I trained with from the Golden Era are in bad shape," says Michalik. "I'm not mentioning any names, but a lot of the big guys you remember aren't doing so hot."
"Some of them put on brave faces, but I know they are not doing that well."
Win at All Costs?
A fearless 'win at all costs' attitude is all too common among bodybuilders, often reflected in the insane lengths some go in order to compete at their highest possible level.
While the title of "craziest bodybuilder 2009" is debatable, there's no disputing who would win that title a generation ago: Steve Michalik.
First there are the stories of his insane workout intensity. Steve trained so hard he would put aspiring partners in the hospital, literally. As word spread of his gym ferocity, curious onlookers would stop by the gym to try to catch a glimpse of the Phantom in action.
Steve started throwing any rubber-neckers out the front door. "I learned from the monks in South East Asia that people can steal your energy just by staring at you," he says. "Granted, it was unintentional on their part. These people were just curious. But I would have none of it."
Unfortunately, on a few occasions Steve skipped the front door entirely and just threw spectators out through the front window. It got so bad that his brother Paulie would rope off part of the gym when Steve was training. "Don't watch him or he'll kill you," was all Paulie had to say, and no one questioned him further.
But along with the tales of his intense training are darker stories of other extremes. He reportedly took steroids with such reckless abandon that some of his lifter buddies would later comment, "Steve would drink a crankcase of motor oil to get big."
Perhaps the most bizarre story is the reported consumption of monkey brains for the Growth Hormone. Certainly this story must fall under the "internet legend" category? But Michalik admits it was true.
"We had no income and couldn't afford real GH," he says. "So we made a deal with some students in the local university chemistry department. They had access to the experimental monkeys, so they'd extract the serotonin and the GH from the dead monkey's brains and process it for us."
The $10,000 question is, did the monkey brains work?
"I think so," says Michalik. "If you look closely at the pictures of the guys back then, you can see around that time that they started to develop high ridges in their foreheads and cheek bones. My knuckles started growing and hurting."
Michalik's reckless behavior speaks to a win at all costs attitude in bodybuilding that isn't too different from the chemical insanity practiced by some aspiring champions today. But back then, the options were limited and more experimental — and often more dangerous.
"Some guys would even take snake venom because it suppressed the immune system," he says. "We found that when you suppress the immune system, your muscles grow. The problem was, guys would always get the flu so they ended up dropping that one."
"If it supposedly helped us build muscle, we'd find a way to get a hold of it and we'd try it," he says.
Like a vampire looking for blood
If the idea of eating brains or drinking venom to get big seems incomprehensible to most people, Michalik says you have to understand how addictive the bodybuilding lifestyle is once it gets a hold of you. "We'd do anything to get big. Anything. When you get locked into this sport, you're like a vampire looking for blood," he says.
"Especially if you're out in California with all the champions, it's like you're in another universe. You do whatever it takes to survive."
"Bodybuilding becomes your life. Literally," say Michalik. "It becomes your wife, your kids, your job, car, mortgage, everything."
"The drugs become everything, and you do anything to get them. All for those two minutes on stage," he says. "And it's ridiculous. Now that I'm out of it I can see that."
"But it's only once you're removed from something that you can look back and see how utterly ridiculous it is."
The State of Modern Bodybuilding
For someone who loved bodybuilding as much as Steve Michalik did, it's almost sad to hear the Phantom speak about the state of competitive bodybuilding today.
"It's an absolute disgrace," says Michalik. "The organizations like the NPC are mafia type organizations. It's all fixed. If you don't play their games you can't win. That's a fact."
"Back in the AAU days, the best guy won. Not anymore," he says. "Today, you have to bow down to the right people just to get a look."
Michalik's disdain of modern bodybuilding extends to the physiques that are being crowned as champions. "Once the wrong people took control it all went downhill," he says. "The freaks came in and started winning, the contests got fixed, the whole atmosphere got degraded with drugs and sex."
"Normal people out there got uncomfortable, and now bodybuilding is a cult thing. It's nowhere," he says. "Normal people want nothing to do with it."
For one of the most hardcore bodybuilders of all time to turn away from the sport he loved since he was 8 years old is surprising. Yet Michalik says you have to look no further than the stacks of comic books that served as his inspiration 50 years ago.
"Just look at all these Marvel superhero movies. The production companies could've used professional bodybuilders to play the superheroes. Instead, they choose to use computers or regular actors in rubber muscle suits."
"People used to want to be part of bodybuilding. Athletes, movie stars, they all wanted to be a part. Now it's branded as a freak show and you can't give tickets away."
"But the people in charge are making a killing and they don't want anything to change."
The Phantom Today
In some ways, the Steve Michalik of today is much like the Phantom bodybuilder of 30 years ago. "I'm in shape, just a little smaller" says Michalik. "I'm 220 pounds and have a 28-inch waist. I still train Intensity/Insanity five or six days a week. Unfortunately, because I'm 60, my skin just isn't quite the same."
Yet a life spent battling demons both on and off the bodybuilding stage have ushered in a more introspective Steve Michalik. The foaming at the mouth intensity has been replaced today by a calm demeanor and self-deprecating sense of humor. "I've stopped throwing guys out the front window," he says with a laugh. "Glass isn't cheap and the insurance companies are wise to me."
And, in reference to his monkey brain-eating days, he offers this, "To this day I can't pass by a grocery store without eating a dozen bananas."
It's also brought about a need to share his story with the world, in hopes of preventing young people from going down the same dark path he did. But while others his age might be embarrassed to have had battled such demons, Michalik feels no shame.
"What I did, I did. I'm not ashamed," says the Phantom. "But if I can help one person and share what I learned, then I'm happy. I don't care about putting on a brave face."
As our interview wound to a close, it became clear that the Phantom of today is really more like the Captain America that Michalik used to idolize as a boy: a strong, wise man capable of fighting any challenges that life might have in store for him. "I was paralyzed and I fought myself up from that. I had liver tumors and I fought through that. I had a massive heart attack, then a stroke, and I fought through all that."
"I'm ready for anything," he says with a laugh. "But hopefully I'm done!"
For more information on Steve Michalik's book Atomic Fitness and his Intensity/Insanity training system, please visit www.mramericas.com