Mike O’Hearn is one of the most popular personalities in the fitness industry—a place where few have enjoyed the kind of longevity he has. O’Hearn is 47 years old and has been in the spotlight for over 30 years, covering hundreds of magazines and starring in both the original and the reboot of the athletic competition game show American Gladiators, where he went by the name Titan.
A powerlifting, martial arts, and natural bodybuilding champion, O’Hearn is often dismissed by novice lifters as a guru to fitness fanatics, but his knowledge base has just as much application to regular folks who are just starting out. Here, he talks about why he wants true beginners to hold back a bit in the gym, why you should delay your cheat meal, and what has motivated him to stay on top of his game for all these years.
RI Magazine: A lot of people probably don’t want to take advice from you. They look at you and they say, “Well, I’m not trying to look like him. I just need to lose some weight and get into some kind of shape.” And so they’ll discount what you have to say. Because they think you’re intimidating or that their goals couldn’t align with your philosophy.
Mike O’Hearn: First, let me just say what my philosophy is. My philosophy is you only have one life, so be passionate about it and wake up every day ready to attack life and get the most out of it. The last seminar that I did, it got completely away from nutrition advice, completely away from how to exercise and the whole time we were up there I was, at moments, crying, and the crowd was with me doing the same thing. I was talking about how I dropped to a low and got depressed when I lost my mom, and I was talking about how to come out of that, wake up every morning with such passion that you jump out of bed.
I realize I have traveled a different path. I started doing this when I was 9, 10 years old and I got passionate about it and it stayed with me. That passion made me a multimillionaire. So, I understand people looking at me going “I don’t want any advice from you. Don’t act like you know who I am.”
RI: In your mind is that a mistake?
MO: Look, you need character actors, someone for everyone to relate to and I realize that. That’s the way humans are. Are you going to go up to the guy with the tattooed face on the Harley and assume he’s good guy? Society would say that guy is mean and probably breaks the law. But—and I’ve seen this over and over—that guy might be the sweetest, must humble guy on the planet. He’s probably less judgmental than some people coming out of church on Sunday.
To get back to the question, I think anybody successful in anything can teach you something. Phil Heath (5-time Mr. Olympia) can teach you something even though he’s a massive, monstrous man. But I agree some people look at him and decide they don’t want advice from him because they don’t have aspirations to be a bodybuilder. But even if you don’t want to look exactly like him, he’s been so successful at it. There’s something there that everyone could definitely learn from him.
RI: This goes along with newcomer intimidation. A lot of people who are very heavy starting out, they want a program that won’t put them in the gym, at least to start with, because they’re afraid of people in the gym judging them. They’re self-conscious and afraid. Is it a mistake to try to train outside of a gym for a prolonged period of time, say, a month or more? Would it be better to just get it over with and get to the gym?
MO: If someone said that to me, I’m 100% on their side. I actually think that less at the beginning is better. I try to do the least amount of work to continuously get better. Opposed to saying, “Let’s get the nutrition 100%, vitamin intake to 100%, and in the gym training five days a week.” I don’t believe in doing that. It’s a ladder, one step at a time. We don’t need to jump to the third step. I think that’s why I have success with people. I want them to baby step to their goals.
When I work with people to start with, I don’t want them worrying about supplementation right away, and I only ask for 70% in the gym. Anyone that wants to go faster than that, I say no. All I need from them is to do the nutrition correctly. Let’s just get a handle on that and your body’s going to change.
And I do understand when people are uncomfortable. When I was powerlifting and doing shows like Battledome, I had to put on a lot of size and didn’t like to take my shirt off at the time, so I can relate to that.
Dialing in the nutrition will create a lot of good changes and make people feel better. Before long, they’ll be ready to go the gym.
One of the things that has always scared me is you see someone come in after three months off and the first thing they do is hit the treadmill running. Relative to the person that comes in there, jumps on the treadmill, and just starts walking.
Because the walking is more than he’s been doing. Your body is so smart it’s going to understand that what you’re doing now is more. That’s doing enough at that time. Relative to the guy that comes in and goes “I just ran six miles my first day back at training.” You’re traumatizing your body.
RI: Do you have a go-to template for starters? Are there basic things you want everyone to do?
MO: No. I know a lot of people have these programs you can get as soon as you sign up and they’re making a bundle on it. But I do everybody individually—and that starts with finding out where each person is mentally. And no matter how excited they are, they don’t need to go 100 miles an hour out of the gate.
RI: Because that sets you up for burnout, doesn’t it?
MO: It sets you up for burnout and it also sets you up for having to be this person that’s always on. The worst thing you can do is get away from the balance of life and understanding that you’re going to hit and miss. Sometimes all I need you to do is get the foundation work in. We will take months on one part of and it, then if we have a huge goal we’ll do a big push—and then we’ll come back down and we’ll breathe. We’ll let the body recover and start again. You’re putting your body through trauma as you’re of pushing that fat off and trying to maintain the muscle mass all at once. This is why sports have off seasons. It’s funny how even powerlifters and bodybuilders forget about that at times. They keep pushing and keep pushing throughout the year and that’s where I see them burn out. Their bodies give up.
RI: The next problem we see with beginners is that the first 10-15 pounds can come off pretty quickly once they make some changes. Then, what they’re not ready for is that first plateau. And because they’re not ready for it, that sends them spiraling backward. They think it’s not working anymore and so they quit.
MO: Yeah, that’s a huge one. Because you get the initial water droppage and you cleaned up your diet and your body just kind of just drops that weight. They think that the body weight that dropped is pure fat. And then it slows down, the body starts to regulate… Some of the big things that I try to do, is I try to talk to them and explain all of this. Yes, there are going to be times where your body drops and then it doesn’t and it slows.
For those people that haven’t trained before and maybe read this article and want to start now, they need to understand that keeping that ultimate goal clear in the front of their mind is what will get them through.
RI: With regard to taking your foot off the gas or having de-load periods, do you program those in for everyone? Or is that individual as well?
MO: That, I think, is 100% individual.
RI: Because a programmed deload period might be too far away? Or even too soon, correct?
MO: I mean, if it’s an elite athlete, it’s easier to know that if you have a meet in three months that you’ll need two weeks after that meet to deload and relax. That’s easy. But for your individual that’s working 9-6, that’s got the family and got the kids and is running around and has to do homework with them and all that, I don’t think you can plan a deload. I think it’s going to be individualized. Late nights working, vacations, all those things will interfere with training time, so I would just encourage the slow rise up the mountain, rather than programming a lot of time off.
RI: Diet is so important to your philosophy. Do you have a short list of foods that you want everyone to eat?
MO: I work with everyone from regular guys and girls, vegetarians to vegans. I work with whatever their religious reasons or personal preferences are. For me, I’m the kind of guy that will eat anything and everything and I don’t run away from the typical gluten or breads or all that kind of stuff. I really don’t sweat it.
Avoiding any food invites a blowup when you reintroduce that food. Anyone that stays away from bread and carbs and then goes back to it can gain15-20 pounds within a week. Because their body’s just not used to it. You’ve taught your body to function differently. You’ve taught your body to use protein as energy instead of carbs. So, it’s one of those things that I believe in trying to keep all those foods in there. I would hate to tell somebody, “Hey guess what, you can’t have pasta ever again when you’re working with me as a client.” I can’t do that. Because I know I love pasta. Get rid of pasta and of course you’ll lose weight. I just believe in trying to keep a good balance, both mentally and physically.
RI: For macronutrient guidelines, what do you like to tell people? Do you have a certain amount of protein, carbs, and fat that you want them to have, relative to their bodyweight?
MO: I don’t break it down per gram per pound. Everybody is different. I try to give them a realistic amount of protein to eat at regular intervals. Let’s just take a couple girls I’m working with right now, twins, as an example. Both are working out five days a week and they’re trying to become bikini models, for the first time. They’ve never done anything like this in their lives. They were both a little heavy-set. So, I’m going to give them about 15-20 grams or protein every three hours. That’s just to support recovery and keep muscle. Then I factor in carbohydrates, fats, and vegetables from there. Usually I’ll go into and try to get their carbohydrates and fats up quite a bit at the beginning. So, their body is used to taking in calories and helps speed itself up. Do that instead of starving the person right from the start and breaking it down.
You know, I’m closing in on 50 years old now and my metabolism is doing better now than ever, just because I’m more on the nutrition daily and trying to keep that thing up there as high as I possibly can.
RI: Do you believe in cheats and if so, what is an appropriate way to incorporate those?
MO: Originally, a cheat day, or a refeed day, was always supposed to be a way to get an athlete through a plateau because the body was working so hard and getting in just enough food to support activity levels. You do the refeed day because your body is just not taking in enough and the refeed gets the metabolism going again. But somehow it transferred from an elite athlete or someone getting ready for a bodybuilding show to everyone on every diet, no matter what kind of shape they’re in, gets a cheat day. But it’s not one of those things that you just get to do because you feel like or because it’s Sunday.
So, what I want people to understand is a cheat is not a freebie. This is how I would like to approach a cheat day: If you have something to get ready for—could be a bodybuilding show, could be a class reunion—then use the cheat meal as a goal. Don’t just say, “It’s Sunday so I get a cheat meal.” Say, “Hey, you know what, if I drop six pounds in the next two weeks, then I’m going to celebrate with a cheat meal.” But if you’ve just started a diet and it’s your first week, that’s not long enough to know if your diet is even working yet. So it’s not time to do a cheat. It’s easy to go overboard with a cheat, especially early on in a diet, so I just want people to be cautious. The idea has been diluted from what it actually was meant for.
I know a lot of people want it because mentally it helps. But if you’re taking in the right amount of calories from good food sources, you shouldn’t feel crazed or famished or have wild cravings. If you feel any of those things early on in a diet, you probably cut out too many calories, you’re training too hard, or you’re not getting enough sleep. So you just have to be smart about it. Think about all the reasons you might feel that way before getting a box of donuts. I love my cheat days just like everyone else. But if I’m guest posing in three weeks, I’m not going to have a cheat day until after that’s done. Once a week, I think for most people, is too often. You have to do a little more to earn it.
RI: What’s your opinion of alcohol? Does it have a place in a diet?
MO: Alcohol is toxic to the body. Your body has to clean it out of your system because your body doesn’t function correctly with it in there. So, I would stay away from it. If you want to use it to celebrate, of course I understand that, but you should also understand what it does to you—how it acts as a sugar, how it disrupts hormone production, how it disrupts sleep. As much as you can stay away from it, the better you’re going to function and the better you’ll feel. I put in the same category as a cheat. Don’t schedule it as a guaranteed thing you’ll have every week. Set goals to get there.
Again, we’re talking about moderation. A glass of wine here or there has little adverse affect. It’s actually healthy. But it certainly shouldn’t be every day.
RI: Do you believe there are supplements everyone should take?
MO: I’m very big on branch chain amino acids for recovery. A multivitamin as well. Whether you’re training or not training, I believe in the multivitamin. Vitamins C, E, and D are big just for daily life. Never mind training.
RI: You’ve spoken a lot about meditation. In broad strokes, can you go over your approach to that?
MO: For me it’s about talking to myself and centering myself on what I want in life and the goals I want to achieve. Also, battling myself and pushing myself. I use it for my time, my alone time. Just to kind of look at life and value what you have. To be grateful. We all get carried away in this crazy life.
Something I love to do is take Sundays to go to the beach and just sit there and be by the ocean and just think about everything that’s happened that week. The good things, the bad things, how I can get better as a person. I would like to learn more about myself and about life. Meditation can be used for that. For me it’s truly refreshing. You feel energetic and more focused afterward.
RI: Your girlfriend, Mona Muresan, is an accomplished fitness competitor. Does having someone in your life who’s just as into fitness as you are make it easier? Or more fun?
MO: People have always told me that when you meet the right person, you’ll know. I’ve dated and I always thought I had the right girl at the time. Until I met Mona. And it really changes life and it makes it easier and more focused. It’s like having a baby, you can’t explain it until it happens to you. You can’t fully understand it.
I would say: Don’t try to find somebody that is good for you at the moment. Try to find somebody who’s better than you. That makes you raise who you are as a person. I think I am better now than I think I’ve ever been.
I’m not saying date the same kind of person that you are or that they need have to have the same profession, because it might not grow. But being with her has pushed me. I don’t think I’ve ever pushed as hard as I’ve been pushed the last three years of my life. And it’s all because of the motivation I get from her and our relationship.
RI: You trained with Robert. You’ve also trained with some of the strongest men in the world. How does Chef stack up? Were you at all impressed, or is too hard to impress you?
MO: What I loved about working out with Robert was that, first of all, he was stronger than a lot of the bodybuilders I’ve ever dealt with. He was much stronger. He’s intense. What I loved is his drive and his determination not to quit. Because most of the guys I train with all break. They’ll break emotionally and physically and something about him was different and this is why you can see that this guy is successful. He wasn’t just going through the motions. We were living in it together and working out together and he was passionate about it. He was like, “Let’s get into this, let’s get this fight going.” And that’s what I loved about working out with him.
And yes, I’ve trained with everyone. Martial artists, powerlifters, wrestlers, but Robert is one of those guys I’ll remember forever. His mentality is the same as mine. He didn’t start to take it easy when he turned 30. If anything, he hit it harder. People think they peak in high school or college, but, man you can get so much better. And he’s one of those guys that believes that, just like I do. He showed me that day when we trained.
RI: A lot of people actually just know you for your dogs. You have four, including three huskies. What do they bring to your life?
MO: They make me understand what life is all about. Somebody once said to me, “How the hell do you get up every day, for the last 30 years, to go train at 4 am?” And
I’m like, “How the freak do you get up every day and 7 or 8, go to work for somebody else till 6 at night, come home kiss your wife and the kids goodnight and go to bed and do it again the next day?” I really can’t comprehend not living this life with passion and doing something what you truly love. The dogs, besides the love they give, and the stimulation and calmness that they give, they have an excitement for every single day. You walk out of the house to get the mail and come back and they’re so excited they can’t believe it. Every day is special to them because it’s a new day. How wise are they? Much wiser than many of us.
Learn more about Mike and his online training programs at MikeOHearn.com.
Originally published in the June 2016 issue of Robert Irvine Magazine.