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Some men are born great, others work at it, and then there are those who achieve greatness so well for so long that you’re not quite sure they’re human. An example? Mike O’Hearn.
O’Hearn, the ubiquitous fitness star whose accomplishments span four decades, has built a résumé as impressive as his physique. Not only has he won titles in powerlifting, bodybuilding, and judo, but his piercing stare has greeted consumers at newsstands for nearly 30 years.
In fact, he’s one of the most photographed fitness model in history, appearing on more than 500 magazine covers. This is his ninth time on the cover of M&F—only Lou Ferrigno and Arnold Schwarzenegger have more appearances—and he’s not done yet.
With his jutting cheekbones and flowing locks, O’Hearn is a uniquely constructed specimen, that rare Adonis who could pass as either Hercules or a bodice-ripping Lothario from the cover of a romance novel. It’s as if someone put Steve Reeves and Fabio in a blender and got the best of both. And, as you would expect, O’Hearn has checked those two feats off his list, having been a romance cover model and an actor in several sword-and-sandals productions.
But this is no pretty boy who sweats only under the hot lights of photographers. O’Hearn is an elite athlete who has earned multiple trophies as a bodybuilder. He didn’t just descend from Mount Olympus to mingle with us mortals for a few years—he’s the product of decades of relentless work in the gym, hoisting super-heavy weights to fill out his 6’3″ frame.
Usually, this kind of athletic/modeling/acting career spans only a few years, maybe 10 at the most. Not for O’Hearn. His run is unequaled, making him a kind of The Simpsons of the fitness world. Still highly rated, still in demand, and not about to be canceled any time soon.
I may not be the most talented guy or the most gifted, but I’ll outwork anyone.
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So how does he do it? As bodybuilder Dave Draper used to say, “The secret is, there is no secret.”
“I may not be the most talented guy or the most gifted, but I’ll outwork anyone,” says O’Hearn. “I know the baby steps are bigger than the leaps.”
It’s consistency and hard work that do the trick, he says. And if you put the work in, you’re prepared for the breaks when they come. And the breaks have come. O’Hearn admits that he’s lucky not just in the genetics department but also in the random occurrences of his life.
The youngest of nine children, O’Hearn had the benefit of growing up in Kirkland, WA, in a household of athletic role models who tutored him in weightlifting and martial arts. “I had great parents and older brothers and sisters,” he says. “My dad was a bodybuilder and played football. I got martial arts from my mom. All of my brothers and sisters were athletes. I had such motivation.”
He won the teenage Washington state bodybuilding title at only 14 years old, but he didn’t limit himself to oil-glistening posedowns. He fell in love with judo and powerlifting as well. After moving south to California, he became a four-time California powerlifting champion and earned the California state judo championship twice.
I’m that teenager doing what I love.
FYI: O’Hearn played both Thor and Titan on American Gladiators.
Mindset is an important part of O’Hearn’s approach. Idolizing Bruce Lee from a young age, O’Hearn learned to think big. “I tried to have a Bruce Lee mentality where you don’t set limits, you don’t imagine a ceiling,” he says. “I was in the right place and had the right focus.”
One of those right places was a gym where the young O’Hearn would watch men get beneath the bar and regularly squat 800 lbs. At the time, he didn’t know these men were champion powerlifters; he just thought that’s what guys lifted. So his mental approach and expectations were raised far above any common standard.
That mindset, combined with his work ethic and natural physical gifts, became a galvanizing force that drove him to develop unusual strength and musculature. When he got his chance to move up in the fitness world, he was ready for his close-up.
Potential met fate one night in Chicago in 1990, when O’Hearn attended the Mr. Olympia contest (one of eight won by Lee Haney). Also in attendance was Joe Weider, the godfather of bodybuilding and founder of the Mr. O competition.
“I was walking through the auditorium, and Joe Weider called me over,” O’Hearn says. “He said, ‘You’re a monster. Look at you. I want you in the magazine.’”
Weider stayed true to his word. He flew O’Hearn out to Los Angeles and photographed the young stud for a cover. Weeks later, Weider offered O’Hearn a contract. The Washington state native decided to take the plunge (it was an easy decision, he says) and relocated to L.A. He never left.
Suddenly, O’Hearn was walking in the exact footsteps of his idol Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was also discovered by Weider and invited to L.A. And, like Schwarzenegger, O’Hearn gained a mentor who taught him valuable lessons not found in any textbook or college course.
“I’d have lunch in Joe’s office and listen to him talk,” says O’Hearn. “He’d tell me stories about Arnold and the old days, and I’d soak up all that knowledge.”
FYI: O’Hearn regularly trains with a rep range of one to 30 but always keeps the weight heavy. His savage mindset has helped him build what is arguably one of the best physiques in the industry.
It paid off. Like his hero Schwarzenegger, O’Hearn has tried his hand at several entrepreneurial pursuits, including the adventure of starting his own vitamin line (Innov8 Nutraceuticals). And he continues to act whenever possible, including appearances in a range of television and film productions (e.g., Death Becomes Her, It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, Workaholics) and the upcoming film Minkow, scheduled for release later this year.
O’Hearn’s most visible role was on the 2008 reboot of American Gladiators, in which he played a character called Titan. It’s safe to say that the fan base he built as Titan has proven much more durable than the show itself, which explains why his worldwide tour of training seminars and guest-posing appearances is called The Titan Tour.
To me, bodybuilding is an art, not a sport. I loved doing it for me.
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Over the years he has befriended Schwarzenegger himself, who counseled him on a number of subjects, including real estate investment. O’Hearn has taken advantage of Schwarzenegger’s tips and built a nice portfolio. But the core of his identity is still bodybuilding and fitness.
After 40 years in the business, this veteran of workouts, photo shoots, and myriad competitions is still in demand. His accomplishments are so varied and span such a lengthy time period that it’s difficult to know where to place him in the pantheon of all-time fitness greats. He made a decision long ago to stay in his lane when it came to seeking bodybuilding trophies, a result of his dedication to muscle-building as an aesthetic pursuit.
“To me, bodybuilding is an art, not a sport,” he says. “I made the physique I wanted. I loved doing it for me, not to appease the judges or anybody else. It’s my art piece.”
More than anything, O’Hearn loves what he does. And that, more than how hard he trains or how much he lifts in the gym, may be the true secret to his success.
“Even today when I train at Gold’s Gym in the morning, I’m that 14-year-old kid doing what I love,” he says. “I believe in what Warren Buffett says, that you should ask yourself, ‘If I didn’t need to make money, what would I do?’ Whatever that is, do it.”