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PHIL HEATH WINS A LOT
Starting with his first show in 2003, he’s 17-7, and he’s finished atop the bodybuilding world at the last seven Mr. Olympias. He’s won so much this decade it’s hard to remember him ever losing. But no one is a born winner. Success is a mindset that needs to be learned, practiced, and perfected. Phil Heath tells you how he did that and does that. These are not just lessons for bodybuilding success. Together, they’re a winning strategy for everything.
LEARN FROM YOUR LOSSES
Things came easily for Heath at first. In his only loss in the NPC, he still won his class. He turned pro on his singular try at the 2005 USA and then won his initial two pro shows in 2006. But he was still just a puppy—if a really good one. At 5’9″, he could’ve competed in the 212 division—if there had been one. He was winning with shape and conditioning, but he was undersized, and that was exposed in 2007 at the Arnold Classic. “On this bigger stage, the 27-year-old simply didn’t have enough,” I wrote about Heath then, after praising his conditioning as the best in the lineup and before singling out his legs as especially weak. He finished fifth. Afterward, many wondered if he was already maxing out and if he’d ever have enough for the Arnold title, let alone the Olympia.
A little less than a year later, Heath shut up every critic when he stepped onstage at the Ironman Pro at a peeled 230. Bodybuilding, meet your future. For a year, Heath had replayed that humbling Arnold loss and the resulting criticism and used it to fuel his workouts. There was no way he was ever again going to flex weighing less than 225. Every day was focused on his workouts and his meals. He was determined to become a unicorn, that thing they said didn’t exist—the advanced bodybuilder who thoroughly transforms his physique in a single year. He never would’ve done it had he stubbornly stuck to what had already brought him great and rapid success. No, he had to admit defeat and accept why he was defeated in order to devise a plan to overcome.
Before preparing Heath’s meals in their Las Vegas hotel suite in the final days before the most recent Olympia, Heath’s fiance, Shurie Cremona, scrubbed down the kitchen counters and sink with bleach.
This might seem like bacterial overkill, but a bodybuilder’s immune system is stressed precontest, and Heath got sick before the ’09 Olympia, likely from food poisoning, and slipped to fifth place. At an earlier show, his food didn’t arrive, and he had to scramble to get his meals prepared. Ever since, he’s anticipated anything that could derail him, even if it only appears under a microscope. Be proactive. Strategize to stave off every potential problem, and have a contingency plan just in case something slips through.
Not long after Heath hoisted his first Sandow in 2011, he started talking about collecting nine more. The record, held jointly by Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman, is eight. And only 13 men in 53 contests have earned one.
But having become No. 13 at the relatively young age of 31, Heath needed a new and grand motivation. Why shoot for three or five or even eight— as tremendous as any of those tallies would be?
No, the ultimate bodybuilding number is nine, and for good measure, he tacked on one more—10. As the poet Robert Browning wrote, “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for?” It seemed ludicrous at first—10!— but year after year, Heath could quote another poet, DJ Khaled: “All I do is win.” Now it appears as if the Gift’s celestial goal might just be within his grasp in 2020. Aim high. Set a goal that challenges you to be great.
ALWAYS BE A STUDENT
In the summer of 2006, coming off victories in his first two pro shows, a year after his one-and-done win at the USA, Heath was flying high. Then, in a happening destined not to stay in Vegas, he trained back with his friend, Jay Cutler. A photographer and I chronicled the event for FLEX readers.
There was no sugarcoating it. Heath got buried by the pace and the poundages of Cutler’s back barrage. It only magnified the fact that he was a rookie and still a puppy, while Cutler was an alpha dog who just two months later would win his first of four Olympia titles.
The Gift came back down to earth, but, more importantly, he discovered firsthand what it would take to build Olympia-worthy muscle. And he’s never stopped discovering. No matter how high you rise, chances are there is someone who has risen higher, perhaps someone who took a completely different route up the mountain. Life is a never-ending seminar. Even when you’re a teacher, you need to remain a student, too, because there’s always something more to be learned.
ASSESS YOUR FLAWS
Let’s jump ahead to the fall of 2015. Heath had collected his fifth consecutive Sandow. But, as always, he and trainer Hany Rambod assessed the contest photos and discussed what to improve. The answer was legs.
Considering the monster truck wheels of Big Ramy and Shawn Rhoden, top contenders could potentially exploit an advantage over the reigning king. So he and Rambod developed a routine to prioritize legs, hitting them twice weekly with greater volume and intensity.
As a result, his wheels were markedly inflated at the most recent Olympia. There’s always something to improve. You need to be honest with yourself and/or listen to the assessment of someone knowledgeable to determine your greatest weaknesses. If not, you’ll likely improve your strengths and neglect your flaws, only exacerbating the problem.
KEEP YOUR COOL
Winning is the art of not losing. That might sound tautological, but there are ways to not be a loser, even when the scoreboard says otherwise. Most important, you need to avoid letting your emotions get the best of you. When, in the 2014 Olympia, Kai Greene threw is hair at Heath and nearly threw a fist, the frustrated heir apparent had as much as admitted he couldn’t beat the king in side-by-side posing comparisons. He literally lost it. On the other hand, Heath has had to swallow some close and controversial losses, especially the one to Greene at the 2010 Arnold Classic. Graciously accept defeat, learn from it, and plot a path to victory. Save your emotions for winning.
REMEMBER WHERE YOU CAME FROM
Talk to Heath for long and he will inevitably mention basketball. It was on hardwood courts that he learned how to win. The Gift, who topped out at 5’9″, wasn’t genetically gifted for B-ball. Nevertheless, he led his high school team to a Washington state title, and he played for a Division I college. Basketball is a sport wherein steady nerves are at a premium. You may need to make crucial free throws while the opposing crowd mockingly chants your name. The current Mr. O goes back to lessons gleaned from basketball coaches and game experience and applies them to his preparation for the Olympia.
It all helps him sink the big shot, so to speak, on the Orleans Arena stage each September. Everyone has a past to learn from. Maybe it was things a coach, teacher, or parent said. Maybe it’s things you experienced, negative as well as positive. Maybe it’s simply remembering how skinny or fat or poor you used to be that motivates you toward a better physique and a better life.
The 13th Mr. O works out alone. That means it’s up to him to get up for every workout, whether it’s precontest in Armbrust Pro Gym or in the depths of the off-season in some ill-equipped dump far from home. When Heath played basketball, he could count on his teammates and coaches to help motivate him for practices and games. But bodybuilding is the most individualistic of all sports. When you train by yourself, it’s just you and the iron. Heath uses music, short-term goals, and the will to win another Sandow to drive him through each metal session and keep him on his meal plan. Whatever it takes to motivate yourself, use it. No one else can make you hit a personal best or grind through early- morning cardio. You have to do it for yourself.
When you’ve won seven Olympias, it’s easy to get complacent, to assume what you’ve done before is good enough, that it’ll always be good enough, to start to think maybe you’re just destined to win. It’s a trap. The previous three Mr. O’s—Ronnie Coleman, Jay Cutler, and Dexter Jackson— all lost their crowns (Cutler twice). The Sandow is never promised. Heath knows this. He was competing in the O the last three times the champ lost, and his first win knocked Cutler off the throne. Fear of losing is one motivation.
But what most drives him ever onward is the pantheon of legends in which he now resides. Last year, as he toiled to tie Dorian Yates’ mark of six O’s, a giant photo of Yates in Armbrust reminded him of the standard he was trying to match. This year, he reached Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Olympia tally of seven. Heath is chasing immortality. The lesson is to never grow complacent. Always have a goal, and when you reach that goal, make a new and greater goal. It was Arnold who said: “For me, life is continuously being hungry. The meaning of life is not simply to exist, to survive, but to move ahead, to go up, to achieve, to conquer.”