After graduating from the University of Denver with four years of Division I basketball under his belt, Phil Heath decided to buck the corporate world, and well, all things conventional. Instead, he devoted hours to bulking up in the gym, then donned very small skivvies to show off his physique front of thousands of spectators. In just a few years’ time, Heath transformed himself from a basketball star to a professional gym rat who took the bodybuilding world by storm.
The colossal 33-year-old, affectionately called “The Gift,” is a two-time reigning Mr. Olympia, the annual competition that crowns the world’s best bodybuilder (and the title that launched Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career). In 2003, Heath entered his first competition — the Rocky Mountain National Physique Committee USA Championship — and walked away with the overall title. Ten years later, he’s the biggest name in bodybuilding (but seriously, he’s huge).
We talked to the hulk-like superstar about his seven daily meals, training mind games, and starring role in this year’s Generation Iron (the remake of the 1977 docu-drama Pumping Iron, starring Ahhhnold himself). Find out how he transitioned from the court to the weight room, sculpting an award-winning body in the process.
What does it take to feed Phil Heath in a day?
Steak and pasta, for sure. A normal breakfast for me would be a cup and a half of egg whites and eight ounces of grilled chicken with a cup and a half of oatmeal.
Do you have any foods you steer clear of while training?
Any type of fast food. Especially before training, even if it is a cheat day.
What does “cheat day” mean for you? Do you stick to a cheat meal or have at it all day?
If I were to cheat it would be just a meal. Normally in my off-season [when the focus is on building mass] I have a cheat meal maybe every four or five days, and then pre-contest (that’s four months before a contest) I rarely do any cheating. I’ve done shows for the past ten years and I could probably count on one hand how many times I’ve had a cheat meal, let alone a cheat day, during my preparation for a contest. But when I do I have a good time. I don’t mind a good pizza, and I definitely don’t mind a good beer.
How did your training change from a team-oriented sport like basketball to a one-man sport like bodybuilding?
With bodybuilding, we’re targeting specific muscle groups, while in basketball we’re working on more explosive movements. In bodybuilding we work one area for one or two hours, whereas in basketball it would be 30 minutes and you’re done. You’d go three days a week, and that would be that. Now I train — in weights alone, not even including cardio — usually around 20 hours a week, usually over six days. I have the luxury of being able to train whenever I want to.
Do you ever absolutely dread training?
There are days where you wake up and you’re looking at your schedule and say, “how am I going to find time to get this workout in?” After the gym there’s easily another 15 hours of the workday that I have — meetings, or meet-and-greets, running my own website — a lot of business stuff. I always tell myself I can take a day off, but it’s not going to help me any. Luckily nowadays we have plenty of motivational things, like you can watch a video of some famous guy on YouTube right before you train and go kill it. Sometimes I listen to some Tony Robbins. You start really owning the fact that you are special and in order to reach that higher level, you have to invest that time. The cool thing about bodybuilding is that you get what you put into it.
After you’ve put in all that time training, what do you have to do to look show-ready?
You better get a good shave. You’ve got to have that… organized. I also go get a pedicure and a manicure.
Ya! Here’s how I look at it. You’ve got to make everything look good. And our hands are beat to crap from lifting all these weights. Let’s be serious. If you were judging something and you saw some guy with talons coming out of his toenails, that would be pretty gross. If your feet look like moldy bread, then let me tell you it’s going to detract from people’s attention. Plus, if you look good, you feel good. You better look good when you’re only wearing little posing trunks.
Beyond training, and a good shave, what does it take mentally to be Mr. Olympia?
It takes a lot more than people think. You have to own the fact that first of all you’re doing this because you really like it. Early on, I think a lot of guys and girls lift because they may have body image issues. Maybe they had someone pick on them, or they’re trying to impress somebody. Sooner or later you’re going to have to rewire your mindset and say, “Hey look, I’m really just doing this because I like the way I feel and the way I look.” Each day I have the opportunity to be better or worse. There’s no in between. There’s no such thing as practice makes perfect. For me it’s trying to live a perfect, driven lifestyle. Everything that has to do with my goal applies. Everything that’s outside of that goal does not.
Do you have any go-to mantras while you are training or up on stage?
I usually tell people that if it were easy then everyone would be doing it. If you want something you’ve never had before, you’ve got to be willing to do something you’ve never done before. I look at the weights and say, "It’s going to be a bad day for you and a good day for me."
Can you tell me a little bit about your new movie, Generation Iron, and what it feels like to stand in Arnold’s shoes?
Obviously being in the same conversation as Arnold Schwarzenegger is amazing. Never in my wildest dreams did I think that I’d be able to do that, especially with my background being a former basketball player. But now that we’re here, it’s awesome. Generation Iron is taking on kind of the same format as the docudrama, Pumping Iron. For me to be the king on the hill, I’m just very excited and honored to be in that position. I hope people really hone in on our hard work and dedication. I was able to show people that I can be funny yet serious at the same time.
Beyond the muscles and perfectly manicured toenails, what makes you stand out against your competitors?
Many bodybuilders are very introverted. I’m in your face. I’m almost like a WWE wrestler. People ask me, “Are you going to win?” No disrespect, but what kind of question is that? To me that’s like asking Steve Jobs when he was working at Apple, “Do you think the new iPhone’s going to kick ass?” I think Arnold and I share that intense bravado. I don’t like to use the term arrogance, because we all have big egos in this industry. But you’ve got to have a big head to be successful. Some people might say I’m cocky, but I’m just reminding some of these guys who say I’m no good, that I’m good.
Can you tell me about your nickname, “The Gift”?
To me it doesn’t have anything to do with being a gift to the world. It’s that I have a gift, and it’s not just one. Obviously I was blessed to be able to do what I do on stage, that’s a given. But we all have a gift and it’s our job to share that with the world. At some point you’re going to be called upon to do something outside of that craft that you’re really successful at. This isn’t the career path I knew I’d be on when I was in college, but I’m glad I’m in it because I get to impact people.
What mantras do you use to push through a workout? Let us know in the comment section below or tweet the author @nicmcdermott.