Mike O'Hearn's Total Arms

If you're willing to do Michael-level work, and replicate his approach to life, you just may be able to develop the type of babe-magnet physique that earned him the Natural Mr. Universe championship and the 1999 Super-Heavyweight Mr. California title.

But be prepared. Michael O'Hearn's arm workout is a perfect reflection of his approach to life: careful thought and analysis, close attention to preparation and details, and one hell-load of gut-busting old-fashioned hard work. Michael O'Hearn was born with some enormous genetic advantages, but he's maximized his potential with a drive that's second-to-none:

Overall Workout Philosophy

"I leave everything on the gym floor," says O'Hearn. "I never like walking out feeling that I could have done more. Not another rep. Fatiguing the muscle is what has gotten me to this point. I don't really believe in pumps as a reliable indicator of my workout. If I have a lot of carbs in me and I superset everything, I'll get a better pump, but that's just blood going into the muscle. When I can't do another rep, no matter what, that's when I know I've done enough on that set."

Sets & Reps for Arms

"My choice of arm exercises, and the numbers of sets and reps, are a little bit tricky," notes O'Hearn. Tricky, but accessible, if you put your head where Michael's is (no, not next to Midijah's. This is his mental "head"). Remember Michael's approach to life --- thought/analysis, thorough prep and detailing, and hard work --- and you can almost see how he designs his workouts.

"If I'm totally recovered, my workout is pretty straight-ahead: four exercises for the biceps, four exercises for the triceps, with each exercise getting three sets of 12 reps." That translates into 12 sets for the biceps and another 12 for the triceps, for a total of 24 sets of arm work --- not counting any additional forearm exercises. That's a lot of work.

Using Michael's Approach

But as you use Michael's life and workout evaluation process, you begin to notice the fluidity and flow of his arm workout can change. Michael usually does triceps first, and then does biceps work. But if the flow feels wrong, he could switch to the sort of bicep-tricep super-setting this layout seems to indicate. This is not too surprising, because of Michael's fascination and success with judo, where flow is constant. "Judo isn't something you just do on the mat and forget," says O'Hearn. "It becomes a working metaphor in your life, so I constantly try and figure out how to spend less effort to get more results." Notice that this does not mean doing small amounts of work...it means using your opponent (in this case, a stack of weights) to help you perform the required work to most quickly and effectively achieve your goals.

Thought & Analysis

What's this have to do with sets and reps? "Just like in judo, sometimes less is more," says Michael. "If I'm tired I may still have the mental strength for 12 reps, but the physical ability to do only eight." This is the thought and preparation process: knowing he is not fully ready physically --- and with the incredible demands of not only fighting opponents in highly challenging environments on Battledome, but learning and delivering the acting lines and working on the set for 12 hours a day, who could fully recover?! --- Michael will trim down the number of sets per exercise. Sometimes he'll reduce the number of reps. Occasionally he has to do both. "I love to push heavy weight and constantly see if I can improve my strength, but an essential part of my planning and revising my routine for the day is knowing just how much I can do. Not want to do. Can do."

Preparation & Detailing

On-floor preparation for Michael mandates that he thoroughly warm up. One miscue or false move and a small injury in the gym can turn into a disaster on the Battledome battleground. Half the male cast of Battledome is too injured to fight during the first weeks of shooting the series, but Michael is alive and well, in part due to his care in preparation. "Warmups are essential for the arms, because you have a lot of smaller tendons and not-too-sturdy attachments that can be traumatized easily, " notes O'Hearn. "After the warmups, I decide how I'll use poundages that day. I may come into the gym mentally prepared for some crushing work, but if my arms don't feel right, I'll adjust the weights and the ascension accordingly. If I'm going to use 70-pound dumbbells for curls, I may use an ascending poundage scheme like 40s, 50s, and then 70s. Sometimes I can move from 40s to 60s and then 80s. But there are times when a 40/45/50/65-pound is what works best. I have to listen to my body as I do the exercises for the clues and details. The inner self will tell you, but you've got to listen. There's a tendency to just bull through a workout, and sometimes that's really valuable. But you don't want to miss the cues your own body is handing to you."

Hard Work

Listening to your body and pushing as hard as you can, simultaneously, is a delicate balancing act. No surprise that the California super-heavyweight judo and bodybuilding champion is a master at this: judo is balance, and success in bodybuilding involves a lot of hard work. Watching O'Hearn rip out 1,100-pound leg presses at five in the morning quickly teaches the observer that this balance is never allowed to tip away from his daily capacity to perform the hardest, most intense work he can.


Given the incredible demands on his time and physicality during this period, however, O'Hearn's choice of weights can vary markedly. "Again, it's really not just the amount of weight, " emphasizes Michael. "It's pushing or pulling the maximum amount of usable weight for that exercise on that particular day." Following Michael's 12-hour day of shooting a Battledome combat segment, which included one apparently genuinely pissed off Olympic heavyweight wrestler who lost his battle with Michael on the parallel ladder, O'Hearn was in an emotionally good state, but physically depleted. The solution? Dropping the number of sets, rather than the reps. "I sensed that I could move the weight I wanted to, but that my muscular stamina was still being restored, "observed O'Hearn. "In this case, there's a temptation to reduce the number of reps, but it wasn't total explosive strength I was missing, but the sheer ability to sustain that strength. No matter how good your food supplement scheme is, you have to realize that sometimes your body needs just a little more time, or a little more consideration of some sort, to optimally repair itself."

While Michael typically uses a fairly straightforward approach to his exercise sequence --- warmups followed by mass builders, and then tapering off to area isolators --- this too will vary. "You want the muscles involved to be capable of the workload, so I vary the sequence because I don't want the muscles to adapt too easily. Sometimes I need to intersperse the heaviest work with somewhat lighter and isolated area work as well, especially if I'm finding my usual between-set recovery time is not allowing the muscles to restore."

Barbell Curls

Michael begins with the classic mass builder that works particularly well in developing inner biceps thickness, taking care to make sure he's done a couple of very light warmup sets (at about 40% to 50% of his working weight). The exercise is almost self-explanatory: stand with your feet just a little wider than shoulder width and grasp the barbell with an underhand grip. Raise the barbell up to full contraction, but don't let it rest against your chest. Complete contraction occurs just an inch or two shy of how far you can bring it in; the remaining space actually lessens tension on the biceps. Lower the bar almost all the way, keeping constant tension on the biceps. If you allow the bar to come down all the way, you're resting, rather than working.


Dips are an excellent mass builder, and can work both the chest and the triceps: lean forward and the emphasis is on the chest; remain vertical and the triceps get the bulk of the workload. In either scenario, start by climbing on the apparatus and extending your elbows fully. (This is the only time they should lock out completely, except at the end of your last rep.) Begin the exercise by lowering yourself until your upper arm is just below parallel with the floor. Raise yourself back up until you almost lock your elbows out, and start again. Keeping your elbows tucked in places more emphasis on the triceps as well. Allow them to spread and the upper and outer pecs get more work. Note that Michael keeps his chin up.

Standing Dumbbell Curls

The second of Michael's big biceps mass builders, these standing DB curls can be done with a variety of starting and ending positions. Try not to arch the back too much: you can "throw out" a disc easily, particularly if you're alternating dumbbells and torquing your torso from side to side to assist in the cheat. Lower the weight if you find your form becoming sloppy.

Standing Dumbbell Incline Extensions

This is a tough exercise to cheat, and a great one for developing size. Note that Michael is actually using an incline bench, tilted at a very steep rake. You begin by placing the dumbbells behind your head, flat side of the plates nearly parallel with the ceiling. Extend the arms, taking care not to flop the elbows too far to the side, and end with your arms straight and perpendicular to the floor and ceiling, with the plates facing "out" (and your hands and arms in a position just like you were beginning an incline barbell press). That last twist provides a nice pump to the outer head of the triceps.

One-Arm Dumbbell Preacher Curls

If you think this routine has been tough so far, you'll find this a killer. Michael uses a unique twist on this --- literally. He begins with the weight cocked in slightly and pulls to contraction much like someone doing a seated dumbbell concentration curl. Leave the weight in a straight-on position and bring the weight straight up and you'll get more emphasis on biceps length and thickness, rather than on building a tall peak.

Standing V-Bar Pressdowns

Perhaps the most currently popular triceps exercise, and one that develops excellent mass over the full range of motion, pressdowns can be done with a wide variety of attachments to change the angle of attack and vary the emphasis on the three triceps heads. Start by hooking the v-bar to the lat machine. Begin the exercise by having your fore-arms slightly higher than parallel to the floor, and then press down until your elbows almost lock out. As with any triceps exercise, if you lock out completely you've taken tension off the triceps, switched that pressure to the elbow, and effectively begun to perform a series of single-rep sets rather than good sets of multiple reps. Locking out also places undue stress on the elbows. You'll find two minor debates about pressdowns at almost every gym in the country: 1) The forearm position to begin each rep is usually slightly above parallel, but by allowing the forearm to rise further you get a fuller range of motion. Which works better? We favor a position slightly above parallel, because the working weight for that range of motion is somewhat different from a higher starting point. You'll find a few guys using a "high" start once in a while, sort of like the partial dumbbell biceps curls that were popular years ago. But with cammed machines and so many different triceps possibilities, the nearly parallel start seems wisest. 2) Leaning into the exercise. The consensus is to use a slight lean, but you'll see major pros using everything from a straight-up torso position with elbows kept into the sides to leaning way over the hands with the elbows working way wide. Rather than say these various positions are right or wrong, we'll simply suggest that if you're using an extreme variation of the exercise, have a specific reason for doing so. The triceps love variation and thrive on slight changeups, but just make sure you're concentrating on the triceps and not the shoulders.

Machine Preacher Curls

Preacher curls help fill in the lower biceps area, and this cable-driven variation changes the workload slightly: rather than making the last six inches easy to complete, the angle, arms-in-front-of-torso position, and the constant tension of the cable combine for even harder work. If you can find a machine with a cammed "Nautilus"-style pulley, the emphasis will change and place even more load on the lower biceps. Note that Michael's starting position --- already showing the slight blur of motion --- is not quite fully extended, again underlining that arm exercises of all sorts work best when a continuing working tension against the muscle is utilized. Just adapt the protocols for standing barbell curls for this exercise.

Standing Incline Rope Extensions

This is a variation pressdown for mass and upper triceps work, and the way Michael (and wife Midijah) perform it adds two nifty little variations from the more usually seen standing rope pressdowns. The steep but defined incline prevents him from leaning his body into the movement, and adds additional isolation. You'll note that Michael is not flaring the ropes out as the exercise concludes. (That places even more work on the outside head, but this version still works the outside head a lot and give the middle head both a little more work and a unique hand position and angle).