Intensity Or Insanity
By John Defendis
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 lie 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 only make you stronger."
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 USA 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 and you may think that it is overtraining but at 20 years old I was sporting 28 1/2 inch 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, Growth Hormone, and 16 quart jugs of Phosphagen. Anyway...the freak (Steve Michalik) invited me to catch some rays at the beach in preparation for the upcoming USA. 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, 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 as 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. I lived to train, eat and sleep and I worked enough to afford all of lifes luxurys 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. (Sorry Bill...no Creatine!) But looking back now, I realize the meaning of the phrase, "Happier than a pig in shit". Because 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. I was, in essence, happier than a pig in shit! 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 the movie 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 shit out of me day after day, I was improving dramatically. My 18 inch biceps were now well over 20 inches and the peak was getting higher by the hour. Dumbells that I had once used for heavy incline presses were now my warm up weights for exercises like dumbell curls and lateral raises. Intensity or Insanity Training was as routine as breakfast in the morning. Every time someone said that we couldn't do something, it inspired us to do it anyway. 50 sets of heavy barbell curls? Been there...done that!
30 sets of squats...500 pound inclines...100 pound dumbell curls...90 pound dumbell 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 I was possessed by Michalik. 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. Michaliks gym. It was different as I had once stated in a previous article. No aerobics classes...no cardio equipment...no sauna, steam, or pool...no raquetball! 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 in 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 bullshit! One day a guy with ELS (Exaggerated Lat Spread) came in to workout and Steve stopped him and told him that he was 3 months overdo on his membership dues. The guy said, "yeah, whatever, I'll bring money in next time" and then he proceeded to workout. Steve reached into the bottom drawer of his desk and 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 guys Corvette and smash in the headlights. Just as the guy came running out of the gym, Steve started wacking 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 now."
As I look back I realize that I was living in a very corrupt environment. My morals and attitude were distorted because of Steves philosophies. Buying 30 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. And 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 only make you stronger, and if it does kill you... You shouldn't have been training with us to begin with!"