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Dave Mastorakis, 59, Strives to Get His Contest Body Back

In 1967 a popular contest venue for up-and-coming bodybuilders was Mountain Park in Holyoke, Massachusetts. The competitions were held under the auspices of the IFBB and were organized and promoted by a local man named Ed Jubinville. I traveled to Holyoke that year to compete in the Teenage Mr. East Coast contest. I still recall looking at the other competitors as we pumped up offstage and noticing two who clearly stood out from the rest. One was a fellow named Rich Giofu, who appeared to be at least 6’ tall and weighed 200-plus pounds. Though he could not have been more than 19 at the time, Giofu had the look of a national-level competitor.

The other man who caught my eye that day was far shorter than Giofu but seemed to have even more muscle. He reminded me of the classic Farnese Hercules statue and seemed to have no weak points on his 5’5” body. I learned that he was a local lad named Dave Mastorakis. When the results of the contest were announced, I wasn’t surprised to see that Dave had easily won the short class. In the tall class Rich Giofu’s massive body edged my own comparatively tiny 170-pound musculature, and I had to settle for second. Giofu also won the overall title that day.

It turned out that Dave Mastorakis was hardly a novice. Two years earlier, at 15, he had competed in the prestigious IFBB Mr. America, held at the hallowed Brooklyn Academy of Music in New York. Over a 17-year competitive career Dave won more than 75 bodybuilding titles, including the Mr. East Coast, Mr. Atlantic States, Mr. New England States, Junior Mr. America and Mr. North America.

In his heyday as a competitor Dave was featured on several magazine covers and in 1967 had a feature written about him by the great John Grimek. Among those he inspired with his ’65 Mr. America appearance was a 13-year-old Massachusetts boy in the audience named Mike Mentzer. Dave and Mentzer eventually met and became lifelong friends. In fact, on the day circa 1979 that I first met Mentzer at Gold’s Gym, Dave was with him.

Around that same time Dave became one of the first personal trainers in California. He became one of the most sought-after trainers in Los Angeles, working with such celebrities as Sharon Stone, Jane Fonda, Kim Cattrell, Linda Ronstadt, Jerry West, Sidney Sheldon, Jon Peters and Leonard Nimoy, among others.

Shortly thereafter, Dave retired from competition, feeling that he’d gone as far as he could. Over the years he came and went from the bodybuilding scene, with attempted returns rapidly halted by various injuries incurred while he was training in his home gym in Palmer, Massachusetts.

Fast-forward to 2005. At 55 he became motivated for another comeback by his own pathetic physical condition, coupled with a desire to dedicate his return to his friends Mike and Ray Mentzer. who had both passed away by then. Dave targeted the ’07 Natural Masters Mr. Olympia, which was scheduled to take place in Athens, Greece. While he placed well enough in several qualifying events, he had to postpone competing that year due to a family health emergency.

Now he’s back on track once again, and to say he’s facing a formidable challenge in his latest comeback would be putting it mildly. He has to overcome serious muscle and ligament injuries while battling the most formidable foe of all—time. How he’s accomplishing that is an inspiration to all who think that fitness once lost is lost forever. Read on and find out the truth.

JB: How old were you when you began bodybuilding, and what aroused your interest in it?

DM: I was about 14 1/2 and had gained about 15 pounds following a tonsillectomy about a year earlier. I was feeling very fat and asked my father for a set of barbells for Christmas. Since my two older cousins were also working out, I figured I could train with them. I began training, but perhaps too enthusiastically. My mother met Ed Jubinville, a former bodybuilder, well-known muscle-control artist and equipment manufacturer, and asked him to put me on a more structured training program. I continued to train under Ed’s guidance until I was 19.

Ed was also a judge and contest promoter. You may recall that the film “Pumping Iron” had some scenes involving Mike Katz shot at one of Ed’s contests.

JB: Who inspired you during the early years?

DM: Similar to most novice bodybuilders in the early ’60s, my first bodybuilding inspiration was the movie “Hercules” with Steve Reeves. Since Hercules was a character out of Greek mythology, and I am of Greek origin myself, I felt particularly attuned to Reeves’ character. I can still recall that first scene, when Reeves rips a tree out of the ground, with the camera then panning to his muscular back and arms. That did it for me. I wanted to be a bodybuilder right there and then. About that same time my mother picked up a bodybuilding magazine that had Tom Sansone [’58 Mr. America, ’63 Mr. Universe] on the cover. Looking through that magazine also inspired me.

JB: You must have really gotten into the training. Before long you were the youngest competitor ever at the IFBB Mr. America. How did that come about?

DM: To chart my progress, Ed would take regular photos of me at a local park. He sent one of them to Bud Parker, who at the time produced the IFBB contests. I received a letter from Parker stating that I had been accepted as a competitor in the Mr. America contest at age 15. I thought that was strange because I had just competed in my first contest, the Novice Mr. East Coast, which was promoted by Ed, but I didn’t place at all. At the actual Mr. America contest I acted more like a fan than a competitor, taking pictures of all the great bodybuilders in the show.

JB:I know that you’re an adherent of high-intensity training. When did you initially become interested in it?

DM: I trained under Ed Jubinville’s guidance for five years, doing the standard type of training for that time—three sets per exercise, about eight to 10 exercises in all, doing basic movements, such as bench presses, squats, rows and so on. Ed would also throw in a few exotic exercises that you rarely see anymore, such as Jefferson lifts, and he would change the program about every nine weeks or so. At age 20, however, I declared independence from Ed’s Jefferson lifts and other routines and began copying the various training routines that I read in the bodybuilding magazines. I trained every day, continued to compete, but did nothing in competition. My lack of progress led me to quit training because I felt that I had no future in bodybuilding.

What changed my mind was my friendship with Mike Mentzer. Mike was in the audience when I competed in the ’65 Mr. America. He was younger than me, about 13 at the time, but felt an affinity toward me when he learned of my age and that I was from his home state. He got my address from Ed, then wrote to me, and we became close friends.

Mike had competed with and become friends with another bodybuilder named Casey Viator. Mike was training the same way that I was—using high volume, with plenty of sets and reps. Viator convinced Mike to try the type of HIT training that he was doing. Mike then convinced me to begin training again—I hadn’t touched a weight in two years—with the HIT system. It immediately dawned on me that the system wasn’t that different from the one that Jubinville had me on for five years, under which I had made the most progress. I began the HIT system in 1972, and within two years I placed second in the Mr. America.

JB: You won many titles after that but in 1982 again opted to quit all training. What was behind that decision?

DM: In 1980 I suffered a partial pec tear. After that I felt that I wasn’t getting the same level of muscle stimulation from my training, and my interest waned. I also began looking at some of the newly successful bodybuilders on the scene, such as Tim Belknap [’81 Mr. America] and Lee Haney, and I saw the proverbial handwriting on the wall. At 32 I had been competing for 18 years and thought this was the time to quit.

JB: Was your decision influenced by the growing trend at the time to use more extensive anabolic drug regimens?

DM: That definitely entered into my thinking. I realized that to stay competitive would require using similar drug regimens, and I wasn’t prepared to do that. My first wife was a nurse, and she would regularly warn me about the possible side effects linked to those types of drugs. I initially got into bodybuilding to lose bodyfat, then continued to train because I had a weak back from an injury that needed strengthening. But health was always foremost in my mind, and getting heavily into the anabolic drug scene just didn’t interest me.

JB: Even so, you returned to competition again. When and why?

DM: I decided to return to competition in 1998 and trained and dieted for a drug-free event. Unfortunately, I overdieted. While I did place third in the Natural Masters Mr. World contest, I felt that I didn’t approach the preparation correctly. I burned out so badly getting ready for the show that I laid off completely until 2000.

JB: What got you back onstage after that?

DM: I was training in my cellar, but I was in a yearlong funk after hearing that my close friends the Mentzer brothers had both died. I put photos of Mike up in my gym to inspire me and proceeded to train hard again for four months: Then I was laid up with a torn knee ligament. That was in 2003.

I had surgery on the knee in 2004 and stopped training again. I wound up gaining back all the weight I had lost, my blood pressure and blood fats were up, and my bodyweight rose to 200 pounds. Nearly all the weight gain came from inactivity. My mother would take photos of me every year when she visited. What snapped me out of it was a photo that she took in which I looked like my father.

JB: When did you know you really meant it?

Basically, I had been babying myself again, and my weight went back up to 200 pounds. I made a New Year’s resolution in 2005 to lose the weight and get back in shape. I started off lazy, losing only 6 1/2 pounds during the first two months. It seemed as if the weight wasn’t coming off, so I quit again in March 2005. Again, the lost weight returned, and I was back up to 195. Then I saw the photo my mother took, where I looked like my own father. There was little or no resemblance to a bodybuilder. The picture jolted me out of my complacency, and I decided to get back into shape. I picked a goal to motivate me. I chose the ’06 Mr. Natural Olympia, giving myself a year and a half.

One motivating factor was that I was recording my progress on a bodybuilding forum on the Internet. The feedback and encouragement that I received drove my training and dieting efforts. While I was preparing to compete in the 2006 natural show, the contest promoters changed the venue from Las Vegas to Australia. That was too far for me to travel. When I contacted the promoter, he told me that the contest was scheduled for the following year in Greece. Since my family is from Greece, that proved particularly motivating for me. In the meantime in that year and a half I went from 199 pounds down to 163. But I realized that I wasn’t at my best at 163 and needed to drop more weight. My prior best contest weights had ranged from 172 to 176.

JB: What were the most difficult aspects of returning to training?

DM: For one, I had not trained heavy for more than 17 years and as a consequence had lost extensive muscle mass. It was as if I was starting all over again. I had retained nothing from my past training efforts. Because I lacked a heavy muscle base, I was losing fat and muscle simultaneously.

JB: What are the major challenges faced by those over 40 who decide to get back into top shape or even return to competition, as you did?

DM: The biggest challenge for me was avoiding injury. Since I had already hurt my knee in a prior comeback attempt, I kept the strength training low key. I was deathly afraid of reinjuring the knee, since you need stable knees for cardio training. I trained twice a week, working upper body only. I did overhead presses, lat pulldowns, standing curls. I did no leg training because of fear of another knee injury. I think it’s vital for anyone to begin slowly after years of inactivity to avoid possible injury and accustom the body to training again.

JB: What differences do you find today in terms of exercise recovery and building muscle as opposed to the past?

DM: It does take longer to recover between workouts now than it did. It’s also harder to build muscle, although my initial efforts have mostly involved fat loss. I’m now just beginning a more pure muscle mass style of training. I’ve done an extensive amount of aerobics to lose bodyfat, and I think it’s hindered my strength gains. This is especially difficult because I’m doing it totally drug-free, so I have no chemical crutch to blunt muscle loss.

JB: Do you find it harder to lose fat as you get older?

DM: I do think it’s more difficult to lose bodyfat every year past 40. Losing an extensive amount of muscle mass, as I did from lack of training, adds to the effect because muscle is what accounts for the resting metabolic rate. In the past when I competed I had a full-time job that required a lot of activity. I never had to diet that much as a result, just made sure I ate clean. I didn’t do any cardio in those days, either.

JB: As you know, many men show lower testosterone levels past age 40. While you are training drug-free, have you ever considered taking some form of testosterone to speed muscle gains and lose fat?

DM: Since the contests I’ve targeted are natural shows, they do demand drug testing of all competitors, so for that reason alone I cannot use any type of anabolic drug. My option is to use various food supplements that are legal for competitive use but are touted to boost testosterone levels.

JB: Let’s say that you weren’t training for a drug-tested event but were shown to have low testosterone. Would you then consider using supplemental T?

DM: If I were shown to be deficient in testosterone, I would likely take it. I think there are clear health benefits when men who are in that situation are given amounts that would bring the hormone to normal levels. The aspect that I wouldn’t consider is using athletic levels of anabolic drugs.

JB: Are you an exceptional case, being a former champion bodybuilder, or can most people over 40 get in great shape?

DM: I think a lot depends on individual genetics. Anybody can improve or even aspire to a competition. But for someone who hasn’t done it before, it’s difficult to predict the ultimate results. It’s similar to when you begin training when you’re young. It’s often hard to predict who will wind up a bodybuilding champ compared to someone who just gets in good shape.

When I gave seminars years ago, a common question was, When is the best time to start using anabolic drugs? My response was, you should train and diet first, and see how far you get naturally before considering adding drugs. If you lack full development in muscle groups, you may never overcome that deficiency, and drugs won’t help in that case. I trained drug-free for the first eight years that I competed and won many shows without using any drugs.

JB: You mentioned that you did an extensive amount of aerobics to lose the bodyfat that you accumulated over the years of inactivity. But doesn’t that go against the philosophy of HIT, which warns that overtraining hinders muscle gains?

DM: Losing muscle is a big concern for me, since I began this comeback with an extensive loss of past muscle mass. I try to minimize that loss by using various food supplements that may offer anabolic effects to help offset the catabolic effects on muscle related to training. I know I’ve been overtraining, but I felt it was necessary to lose the high bodyfat level that I started with. I am just beginning to focus more on adding muscle now that I’ve lost most of the excess fat, and that means less intensive cardio and more heavy lifting.

JB: Do you feel that your current HIT routine of doing only one set per exercise, twice weekly, is enough to stimulate maximum muscle gains?

DM: I think that volume is enough because of its high-intensity design. As I noted earlier, I have to take into account such factors as reduced recovery ability. The major changes I’m making are less focus on high-level cardio and more focus on heavy training to build muscle.

JB: Would you suggest a similar mode of high-intensity training for those over 40 seeking to get into top condition?

DM: I don’t think that most people would want to train at a similar intensity to what I do. Training to failure is easier said than done, and in my experience, most people aren’t capable of training to true failure. Many people who think they’ve done it are just fooling themselves. Those who actually do are usually convinced about the merits of this type of training.

JB: One major criticism of HIT is that it takes a toll on the body. With your awareness of past injuries, how do you respond to that?

DM: My experience is that exercise stress is related to the number of reps. I try and keep the reps to eight to 10, which I’ve found imparts less stress on the muscles. I also modify joint angles, reducing or changing them as needed to lessen joint stress, which offers preventive effects against injuries.

JB: You do two basic training routines, with one focusing on unilateral, or one-arm and one-legged, movements. What is the purpose of that?

DM: You can use more weight on unilateral movements, and that promotes greater strength and muscle gains. I do that workout just once a week. It also adds a variety factor that makes the training more interesting.

JB: What rationale do you use for your extensive supplement program?

DM: Again, I’m trying to choose supplements that will help me maintain and build muscle while losing bodyfat. Because I was away from the sport so long, I didn’t know what was available. So I’ve read everything I can about how these supplements work. It’s experimental for me, and I’m learning as I go along.

JB: Do you think the supplements have thus far helped in any way?

DM: Judging by my strength increases, I do think the supplements are making a definite contribution. The true test will be how I respond when I cut back on my cardio, which I’ve just begun to do.

JB: You also consume a lot of dietary fiber, which is unusual for a bodybuilder. Any reason for that?

DM: I was diagnosed as having diverticulitis, which is related to fiber intake. So I began increasing my fiber. The high fiber helps control my carb intake. A high-fiber diet limits fat and simple-sugar intake, which aids fat loss.

JB: What is a typical day’s eating for you?

DM: My first meal is a protein shake with a cup of bran and strawberries added. An hour later I’ll have a snack of two pieces of fruit, usually an apple and an orange. For lunch I’ll have steamed vegetables with either canned tuna or salmon and beans. For dinner it’s six to eight ounces of either pork chop, turkey, chicken or beef. The chicken is usually baked. I don’t add any butter to my food. I eat two slices of double-fiber bread with my dinner. I do deviate from the diet, but it isn’t planned, and I try to eat those off meals on a training day. At such times I might eat some candy, such as frozen M&Ms.

JB: Are you trying to prove something with this comeback in your late 50s?

DM: I just didn’t like the way I looked or felt. I was disgusted with myself. People used to say to me that if I had your genetics, I would never quit training. Getting into shape this time was much more difficult than it was eight years ago and far harder than it was 25 years ago. Even posing hurts these days.

JB: What’s your opinion of present-day pro bodybuilders?

DM: Back in the ’70s [the IFBB] used to hand out these gold-colored plaster of Paris idealized bodybuilder statues as awards at the various contests. We used to say that no one could really look like that. Now, except for the waist, many of today’s competitors have equaled the look of that statue. In fact, many have even more muscle than the statue. What they lack are the pleasing proportions and perfect symmetry shown by that statue.

I once saw Jay Cutler walking toward me, and he looked about 4’ tall. As he got closer, I realized that he was much taller, but he was so broad that he looked short from a distance. While I appreciate the level of muscle mass shown by many current competitors, I also think that it has resulted in a loss of appeal to the public, who can’t relate to these guys at all.

JB: Who in your opinion was the greatest bodybuilder ever?

DM: Probably Steve Reeves during his competition days. Reg Park was also impressive.

JB: What are your future plans? Will you continue to compete?

DM: A lot depends on how I progress. I’m looking forward to training hard again. It all depends on how I’m responding.

JB: Whatever your plans, you are an inspiration to me and I’m sure to many IRON MAN readers. If the motivation is there, it’s never too late to get back into top shape, as you have proved.

Editor’s note: To contact Dave Mastorakis, go to IM

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