The man who won Mr. Olympia 7 years in a row between 2011 and 2017 probably needs no introduction to anyone familiar with bodybuilding, but as an athlete and a man, there is a lot more to know about Phil Heath than his legendary run of success.
The story of how Phil Heath rose to dominate Mr. Olympia, who he is away from competition, the way he trains, and his attitude to life in general, are inspiring stories with lessons for us all. Those days when you want to quit, where you feel like putting in less effort, Phil’s story is for those days, to let you know where you can reach if you want to.
Where it all started
The man who was to become one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time and known around the world as ‘The Gift’, was born in Washington, Seattle in 1979. An uneventful childhood was marked by parents who encouraged self-sufficiency, and Phil developed the focus and self-motivation here that remain a mark of his success today.
He quickly discovered an aptitude for athletic activities, especially basketball. His determination to be successful saw him adopt the healthy lifestyle and commitment to training that his career has been built on, and he quickly found himself in the position of being a key player in his high school varsity team.
That determination to maintain the right training regime and a healthy approach to life paid off when he won a full athletic scholarship to the University of Denver. Combining his on-court success with a degree in IT and business administration, Phil had secured his position as point/shooting guard for the Denver Pioneers, and his career went from strength to strength.
It was here at Denver that Phil developed his love of gym work, finding himself enjoying the camaraderie and competitive support of the weight room. This led to a weightlifting program designed to help with his basketball career, focused on helping improve his jumping power and court strength. However, as his time at university progressed, Phil began to find more enjoyment and fulfillment in the gym than he did on the court, and the pull of bodybuilding competition just couldn’t be denied.
The focus, perseverance, and determination that had taken him so far in basketball proved just as important in the weight room too, and with an eye on becoming the very best in the world, Phil Heath’s bodybuilding journey began.
Becoming The Gift
By 2002, Phil was working multiple jobs, a basketball academy trainer, bouncer, and web developer, with every minute spare devoted to training and learning about the bodybuilding world, and what it would take for him to reach the top. By October of that year, Phil committed to his bodybuilding career and began training for competition.
Naturally gifted as an athlete, Phil found his training enjoyable, and results came with relative ease, so much so that in 2003 he entered his first competition. It was the Rocky Mountain National Physique Committee USA Champion Northern, for which he entered as a light heavyweight at 192 lbs. The result was an overall win, and that spurred him on to more.
Just 8 weeks later he was in his second competition, again as a light heavyweight, but this time it wasn’t a win, finishing second by just one point. This turned out to be a valuable lesson, his innate athletic ability could only take Phil so far, and he needed to rethink training completely to get where he wanted to be.
In the story of Phil Heath, it is here that you begin to see how he achieved everything that he has, the mindset required to excel, not just in bodybuilding either. His willingness to self-analyze, quickly spot his errors, and adjust to overcome them is consistent throughout his career both in and out of bodybuilding.
While we can learn a lot about bodybuilding from Phil’s approach, and how he trains and lives his life, of course, it is his absolute focus on being the very best he can be that shines throughout. Never settling, never accepting second place, always seeking improvement, those are the lessons we can all take from him, in every aspect of life.
His response to defeat was to train more, train harder and train longer. Switching to a new gym, this more intense training regime paid dividends, and in 2005 Phil was weighing in at 215lbs, earning his IFBB card and becoming a professional bodybuilder. It is here he earned his nickname, The Gift, and his first outing as a pro was at the NPC Colorado State Show, where he won the title of Mr. Colorado.
This time, the results kept coming, as he followed up with a win at the New York Pro Championship, and with those two wins under his belt came eligibility for Mr. Olympia in 2007. However, while qualifying was a dream, Phil declined to enter the competition, and here is another lesson we can learn from the great man.
He didn’t enter because he knew he was not ready, he couldn’t win, so he focused on being ready for the next one. This takes incredible mental discipline, to first acknowledge you haven’t got to the level you need to be, not to talk yourself down, but to be realistic about your goals. But above all, to get your first chance at a dream competition, the pinnacle of everything you work for, and say no, because when it happens, you want to be ready to win.
Many athletes will tell you that just taking part, and being involved in such a high level of competition is an honor, and there is truth to that. But for those who are dedicated to being the best, just competing is never, ever enough. Phil’s climb to almost unprecedented excellence is fueled by these moments, where the tough choices now provide space for success later.
Coming Back Stronger
Taking the hard decision to not enter Mr. Olympia in 2007 allowed Phil to continue to work on his body in earnest, and in 2008 he won the IFBB Ironman Pro, then came second in the Arnold Classic. This set him up for another chance at entering Mr. Olympia, and this time he believed he was ready. The first time Phil Heath entered the competition that has since become synonymous with his name, he didn’t win, but he did come third, which for a relative newcomer was a great outcome.
The experience drove him to continue improving, and in 2009 he entered again. Unfortunately, a stomach bug wrecked his preparations, and the result was a fifth-place finish. Not ideal. Undeterred, Phil kept working hard, knowing he was getting the results that would eventually deliver success. In 2010 his progress was cemented by a second-place finish at Mr. Olympia, the journey to the top was almost complete.
As 2011 progressed, Phil stood out as the best out there, and when Mr. Olympia came around, he got that much-deserved win. Finally, he had the title of Mr. Olympia and the impressive $200,000 prize that goes with it.
Most people know the story of what followed, Phil Heath set himself up as one of the all-time greats, winning the following six Mr. Olympia competitions, as his competition weight rose to 252lbs. This run, with seven consecutive wins, places him joint third in the record of the competition, tied with Arnold Schwarzenegger. Only two people have more Mr. Olympia wins than Phil Heath, and they are Ronnie Coleman and Lee Haney, with eight wins each.
It is a remarkable achievement, not just of his work in the gym, but of the mental toughness required to maintain the discipline needed to be at the top of the profession for so long. In 2018, when the run finally ended, he came second.
Missing out in 2019 thanks to complications from hernia surgery the previous year, he was back in 2020, finishing 3rd. That ability to keep returning, even after setbacks, and achieve incredible results is what sets Phil apart.
Dedication, perseverance, and an incredible drive to be the best all played a part in the incredible 7 consecutive Mr. Olympia titles Phil Heath won, but it takes a special training regime to deliver the performance on the day.
In Phil’s case, this means an intense workout that trains each body part twice, just as Arnold Schwarzenegger and Ronnie Coleman did before him. This routine includes two hours a day in the gym, and a week’s schedule includes 4 days of weightlifting and one day of cardio, with rest days in between.
There have been many reports of his specific workouts, but he does note in an interview that “The goal is always to find out what works. There are days when I don’t count sets at all, but then there are some days when I have to realize that I want to avoid overworking because I have an hour of cardio ahead of me or another training session later in the day.”
With that in mind. His basic weekly program consists of:
• Monday – Legs
• Tuesday – Chest and Triceps
• Wednesday – Rest
• Thursday – Back and Biceps
• Friday – Shoulder and Traps
• Saturday – Cardio Exercise
• Sunday – Rest
A typical leg session in the run-up to his 2017 Mr. Olympia triumph was reported as:
• Stiff-Legged Deadlift
• Lying Leg Curls
• Seated Leg Curls
• Standing Calf Raises
• Leg Press Calf Raises
• Seated Calf Raises
• Leg Extensions
• Front Squats
• Leg Press
• Hack Squats
These are performed with various numbers of sets, but usually around 12 reps per set. Much has been written about his training regime, but the exact nature of much of it remains a mystery. What is clear is that his willingness to accept criticisms, see faults and work on them led to the results that have won him so much.
Training is only part of the process of course, and his diet is just as important. Phil is known to consume around 400 grams of protein, and 600 grams of carbohydrates, and in the region of 5000 calories per day. This intake will lower slightly as competition approaches.
This amount of food is split over 7 meals during the day, with a typical day, according to interviews, looking something like this:
• 1st Meal – 1 Cup of oatmeal and 2.5 cups of egg whites
• 2nd Meal – 12 oz chicken breast, steamed vegetables, and 1 cup of brown rice
• 3rd Meal – 12 oz beef tenderloin and medium-sized sweet potato
• 4th Meal – Repetition of the 3rd meal
• 5th Meal – 1 cup of brown rice, 12 oz of chicken breast
• 6th Meal – Steamed broccoli and 12 oz halibut or tilapia
• 7th Meal – Repetition of 6th meal
In addition, he takes an array of supplements. Although the precise brands or products remain unknown, it is understood that this includes Pre-Workout, BCAA’s, Multivitamins, Creatine, and Whey Proteins.
A True Great
Despite winning 7 Mr. Olympia titles in a row, there is still a reluctance to recognize Phil Heath as a genuine great of the sport. He had to work hard to overcome his physical limitations, in his early years it was commonly thought his body was just not wide enough to reach the very top, and he did it and then some.
Phil Heath’s story is not just of a great bodybuilder with an amazing physique, although he is all of that, it is also of someone with an unmatched focus and dedication to the sport. To be the best, unbeaten at Mr. Olympia from 2011 to 2017, for such an extended period is a truly remarkable achievement.
The sacrifices made, the level of commitment needed, and the mental toughness to keep doing it, year after year, are achievements few will ever come close to, and that is why, when we look for inspiration, when we look to set new standards for ourselves, it is Phil Heath who is the standard we look to.
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