Baddest Mofos Ever- John DeFendis: Intensity or Insanity?
When people think old-school training, this is the guy they’re thinking about. “Oh, 5×5″” You ask?” Hell no, not even Reg Park himself trained like that- that was a goddamned beginner’s workout. That full-body three days a week horseshit you’ve been peddled was even more fanciful than Saddam’s WMDs, Justin Bieber’s impression of his own fighting prowess, and the belief that female ejaculate is just piss (pro tip, no one’s piss tastes that bitter)- the badasses of yore trained hard, heavy, and often.
John DeFendis came up in the 1970s, when training was all about crushing weights for endless sets, running around screaming like and asshole and bitch-slapping anyone dumb enough to get in their goddamned way. The entire concept of abbreviated training was as foreign to them as a clitoris to a male Redditor- they figured since some was good and more was better, a hell of a lot would yield insane results… and results they got.
Contrary to the speculation of endless droves of weak-willed internet pussies, this was not a mindset created by drugs, and a workout only survived through the consumption of copious amounts of anabolics- this was the way everyone trained, because they didn’t suck at life. Yeah, drugs played a role- the gym in which DeFendis trained had a massive sign over the door that read, “Message of the Day: Up the Dosage!” Nevertheless, people in the 70s trained like this irrespective of their anabolic and amphetamine regimen- it was just the way physiques were forged, rather than tailored. This is why people at that time who lifted weights never had to answer the question of whether or not they lifted, because the answer was pretty goddamned obvious.
John DeFendis’ Vital Stats
Weight: 225 lbs-245lbs. (though he weighs a lean 260 these days)
- 1977 AAU Mr. New York City
- 1978 AAU Mr. Atlantic USA (Teen)
- 1979 NPC Mr. North Eastern America
- 1980 NPC USA Runner Up
- 1980 NPC Eastern America
- 1983 NPC Western America Championships
- 1988 NPC Eastern America
- 1988 NPC USA Championships
Perhaps the best part about his story is that DeFendis wasn’t jacked at 16 like Dorian or Arnold- he was 5′ and 100lbs at the age of 13. His brother, as brothers will do, spent his free time kicking the shit out of DeFendis and forcing John to spend his allowance on ice cream as a bribe to stave off more ass kickings. After picking up a bodybuilding magazine featuring Dave Draper, DeFendis started going ham in the gym in an effort to build a physique that would make his brother think twice.
Six years later, after busting his ass working 60 hours a week in his brother’s deli and slaughtering upper body day after day, DeFendis stepped onstage at 168lbs… and came in dead last. According to DeFendis, not even board shorts would have helped him- he’d have had to have competed in jeans to have been anything other than a complete laughingstock.
After losing his first few contests, DeFendis decided to train with Steve Michalik, the local bodybuilding guru and lunatic, and found himself in the hospital within a week
“Steve put me on a very vigorous training program. I had let myself run down and I contracted a very bad strep/tonsillitis infection. I’ve had problems with this in the past, but this time my throat closed completely. I was running a 104 degree temperature, and was hospitalized for two weeks in mid-December. I went into the hospital at 204 pounds, looking pretty decent. I got out two days before Christmas at 184, smooth, and looking like ‘poppin fresh dough.’ I figured my chances were over. “I went back to training in my basement. I had eight weeks for the Mets, but there was also another contest at the end of January – the Teenage Suburban. I wanted to enter it, but 10 days before the contest my temperature shot up, my throat closed, and I was back in the hospital. “Taking these contests meant a lot to me and I did not want to blow them. I called up Tony Pandolfo and he told me to keep pumping and flexing all my bodyparts whenever I could to keep up the muscle tone. I was doing 500 situps a day with the intravenous needle still in my arm. It popped out two or three times and the nurses had to re-jab me. It was painful but I wanted to win. The doctors thought I was crazy, but they helped me as best as they could” (DeFendis).
Though he managed a decent showing at the Juniors show on which he’d had his sights set, he continued to get his ass kicked inside out at every other show he entered, at least until he re-enlisted the help of the king of the assholes, Steve Michalik. Though Michalik was renown for throwing dudesthrough the front window of his own gym, chasing down motorists and beating them down in the street, and other assorted violent insanity, DeFendis fully credits Michalik with his success onstage.
“My whole body was smooth and small when I returned to training, but in one month’s time it began to change. I was getting bigger and more muscular. The change was incredible. Each day I trained under Steve I learned something new. In fact, I am still learning. Just a turn of the wrist, or bending your knees a little can make a big difference and give a different tension and movement. “I believe that Steve Michalik is he greatest person to train under because he is a perfectionist, like me. I’m never entirely happy with myself, and I guess that’s what leads you to greatness. It’s the guys that are too happy or contented with themselves that stop growing (Gruskin)”
And lest you fall into the trap of thinking that what you’re about to read held back DeFendis’ progress, as the wunderkinds on Getbig and Bodybybuilding.com seem to think, think again. DeFendis had at this point tried thre days a week, five, and six, going up to a completely reasonable 18-20 sets per bodypart, but he was not seeing the success he wanted. The hyper-extreme methods of Michalik were exactly what DeFendis’ body needed.
“I had next planned to enter the AAU Apollo in October, and had begun training intensively eight weeks earlier. I was doing 40-60 sets per bodypart, training 6 days a week, maintaining a strict diet, and taking in plenty of vitamin and mineral supplements. I was really looking good within three weeks, so I decided to enter the AAU Gotham on September 16th. If all went well it was my plan to hit the AAU Region 1 the next day. Steve drove me into the ground. I’d train at seven in the morning (for about three hours), go home, and then be in a coma for the next six hours. After that there was work. It was very tough. I would do arms, then legs. He would rush me to the nearby track where he’d start screaming at me until I completed my laps. There was no way I was going to slow down because he’s a madman, but also I knew he was busting his ass for me” (Gruskin).
To DeFendis, winning was all, and he didn’t care what the cost was. Like Ted Arcidi, when he was training to utterly mangle the world record in the bench press, training was the end all, be all, and DeFendis let nothing whatsoever stand in his goddamned path.
“I lived to train, eat and sleep and I worked enough to afford all of life’s luxuries which consisted of a 1972 Chevy Vega with no front end, an endless supply of chicken, a basement apartment with a mattress on the floor, and a cupboard full of vitamins. But looking back now, I realize the meaning of the phrase, “Happier than a pig in shit.” My lifestyle would have been misery to most, but to me, I was on top of the world. I was doing what I wanted to do and I was skyrocketing towards my goal. It didn’t matter to me that I was waking up at 5:00 in the morning to eat egg whites so that I could be at the gym by 6:30, and it didn’t matter that I was dragged through the last half of the workout like the gladiator in the chariot scene from “Ben Hur.” What did matter was the fact that I was training with Mr. America and that even though he was mentally and physically beating the living sh*t out of me day after day, I was improving dramatically. My 18″ biceps were now well over 20″ and the peaks were getting higher by the hour. Dumbbells that I had once used for heavy incline presses were now my warm-up weights for exercises like dumbbell curls and lateral rises. “Intensity or Insanity Training” was as routine, like breakfast in the morning. Every time someone said that we couldn’t do something, it inspired us to try it anyway. 50 sets of heavy barbell curls? Been there. 30 sets of squats. 500 pound inclines. 100 pound dumbbell curls. 90 pound dumbbell laterals. 60 set back workouts” (DeFendis).
John DeFendis’ Intensity or Insanity Training
It was in Michalik’s gym that he and Defendis put the finishing touches on what has since been regarded as the benchmark for weight room lunacy. Like most people who actually enjoy training and don’t regard it with the modern enthusiasm of a Soviet factory worker, they had no set program: split the routine into two parts- legs and back the first day and chest, shoulders, and arms on the next day. Calves and abs are worked at every training session. Train two days in a row and rest the third day, though abs and calves are done six days a week.
Though his workouts were never the same week to week, DeFendis’ training looked something like this- a two day split of chest/back/biceps on day one and delts/legs/triceps on the second. Every single set was done to failure and beyond- though they’re out of vogue these days, DeFendis and Michalik used a combination of forced reps, supersets, negatives, drop sets, and rest-pause in order to increase the intensity and force greater growth.
Day One: 140 Sets Total
Chest – 45 sets total, 5 sets per exercise.
- Cable Crossover
- Dumbbell Flys
- Pec Deck
- Incline Bench Press
- Flat Bench to Neck
- Decline Bench Press
- Single Arm Alternate Cable Pullover
- Dumbbell Pullover
- Dumbbell Incline Flye
Back – 55 sets total, 5 sets per exercise.
- Cable Pulldown to Front on Angle
- Cable Pulldown to Back
- Cable Pulldown to Chest
- Seated Cable Row (straps)
- Reverse Grip Pulldown
- Seated Cable Row (different handle)
- Standing Straight Arm Pulldown (close grip)
- Pulldown Machine (wide grip bar)
- Nautilus Pullover
- Cable Rear Laterals (bent over)
- Bentover Barbell Row
Biceps – 40 sets total, 5 per exercise.
- Single Arm DB Preacher Curl
- superset with One Arm Dumbbell Curl
- Standing Barbell Curl
- superset with Barbell Concentration Curl
- Cable Curl (seated on floor)
- Machine Preacher Curl
- superset with Nautilus Machine Curl
- Lying Down Pulley Concentration Curl
“Our lives could have been characterized by the quote made famous by Walter Gagehot, ‘A great pleasure in life is doing what people say you cannot do‘” (DeFendis)
Day Two: 145 Sets Total
Shoulders – 55 sets total, 5 per exercise
- Nautilus Lateral Raise Machine
- Dumbbell Lateral Pulley Laterals on Cable Crossover
- Barbell Behind the Neck Press (pyramid up to 150 lbs.)
- Barbell Behind the Neck Press (150 x 5 sets)
- Nautilus Behind the Neck Press
- Nautilus Rear Deltoid
- Dumbbell Rear Lateral (flat bench)
- Pulley Rear Lateral
- Shrugs (in front)
- Shrugs (behind body)
Triceps – 45 sets, 5 per exercise
- Triceps Pressdown (angle bar)
- Triceps Pressdown (straight bar)
- Triceps Pressdown (Nautilus Close Grip)
- Cable French Press
- Single Arm Cable Pushdown (top setting of crossover machine)
- Cable Kickback (bottom of crossover machine)
- Close Grip Dips
- Wide Grip Dips
- Reverse Grip Cable Tricep Dip
Legs– 45 sets, 5 per exercise
- Leg Curl
- Leg Extension (Nautilus Multi-Leg)
- Leg Extension (Nautilus Extension)
- Leg Extension (Leg Extension Table)
- Leg Press (toes straight)
- Leg Press (toes pointing out)
- Paused Smith Machine Squat (2 second pause at bottom)
- Machine Hack Squats
- Regular Squats
- Running – total of 1.5 miles, within 15 minutes after squatting. Jog 2 laps, sprint 1 lap, rest 30 seconds, repeat 3 times.
Michalik and Defendis became famous for ultra-heavy training filled with insane amounts of intensity multipliers that involved 40, 50, and even 75 set-per-bodypart workouts. They would rope off their area in the gym, scream at anyone who came near, and wreak havoc therein.
“Michalik struts across the gym floor with a set of 60 pounders for incline flyes. I know the routine. Three benches, three exercises, all sets to failure. Nonstop ass-kicking supersets. Steve begins with almost 300 pounds on the incline Smith machine. He then proceeds to the second bench to complete a set of incline flyes, and finally, pullovers across the last bench with a 100 pound dumbbell.” and this: “50 sets of heavy barbell curls? Been there. 30 sets of squats. 500 pound inclines. 100 pound dumbbell curls. 90 pound dumbbell laterals. 60 set back workouts” (Defendis).
Between them, Michalik and DeFendis sent more people to the hospital than AIDS and cancer combined. DeFendis himself spent a weekend in the hospital after his first week of training with Michalik, and they felt that it was a measure of a true man to cowboy up and return to Michalik’s den of pain for a second go at greatness after a quick trip to the ER with rhabdo. Shitting blood didn’t stop these guys- they were hardcore to a level of extremity that only the desperately mentally ill and the insanely driven reach. The best part about it? They laughed at the guys in the hospital and went around telling other gym members that the guys they just hospitalized was mentally weak, and might as well take up badminton or croquet.
John DeFendis’ Diet
DeFendis’ diet was just as extreme as his training, and frankly it astonishes me that he was able to train on it. Or eat all of it. Designed by a trainer and physician named Bob Guskin, who also trained 1984 Mr. Universe John Hnatyschak (trainers at that time were hardly the celebrities they are now, so it was a miracle I could dig this up from a 35 year old Ukrainian newspaper), DeFendis’ diet consisted of
“Eight pounds of chicken a day. I wish I had Frank Purdue as a relative! Six weeks on broiled chicken breasts with diet soda and supplements, and then two more on boiled chicken and supplements, this time minus everything but water. My only consumption was one-half cantaloupe after training. My energy was low, but this program did the trick. Like Vince Lombardi said, Winning isn’t everything- it’s the only thing. If you can shrug off a loss, you can never be a winner” (Guskin).
Since retiring, DeFendis has trained everyone from pro baseball star Mike Piazza to politicians like Newt Gingrich, pro boxer Andrew “I will punch you dead in the nuts repeatedly” Golata, and clothing designer Calvin Klein., in addition to countless regular people, many of whom he’s helped lose over 100 pounds and build respectable physiques out of what began as a pile of curdled mayo. He’s also a WBBG Hall of Fame inductee, an International Fitness Hall of Fame inductee along with fitness superstars Arnold Schwarzenegger and Jack Lalanne, and was “Trainer of the Year” for nine consecutive years for the state of Florida.
And if you think he uses a different method with then, think again- he trains them just as balls out as he trains himself. “Intensity or Insanity Training is great for everyone if they wish to eat perfectly, train hard and get enough rest and recovery. It just has to be applied correctly with each individual’s condition and goals in mind. If one variable is off, then they will not succeed” (Robson).
In other words, if you want sick results fast, train as heavy as humanly possible, moving as fast as possible through your workouts. Heavy supersets and drop sets should be the name of the game.
In his 50s and still doing 60 sets per bodypart.
The fact that Michalik and DeFendis lived through these projectile-vomit inducing workouts, much less thrived and grew on them is a testament to the human spirit and the ability of the human physical form to adapt to any and all stress and thrive. After reading about these workouts, I’m seriously embarrassed at the way I half-ass it through the gym, because if DeFendis’ story tells us one thing, it’s that we could all be going far harder in the gym.
Guskin, Bob. John DeFendis interview (1979). The Tight Tan Slacks of Dezso Ban. 5 Nov 2018. Web. 22 Jun 2019. http://ditillo2.blogspot.com/2018/11/john-defendis-interview-bob-gruskin-1979.html
The Mr USA Story, or how Steve Michalik trained in 1972. Eric’s Gym. Web. 21 Jun 2019. http://bodybuilding.ericsgym.com/trainingarticles/stevemichalik/index.htm
Defendis, John. John Defendis’ Intensity or Insanity Articles. DeFendis. Web. 19 Feb 2010. http://www.defendis.com/flash/index.html
Robson, Dan. An interview with Mr. USA John DeFendis. Bodybuilding.com. 28 May 2019. Web. 24 Jun 2019. https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/drobson319.htm
Staff Report. Mr. USA John DeFendis- A relentless pursuit and a focused vision. Muscle Sport Magazine. 28 Feb 2015. Web. 24 Jun 2019. https://www.musclesportmag.com/2015/02/28/a-relentless-pursuit-a-focused-vision/