It’s hard to believe that I won my first Natural Mr. Universe title 20 years ago. I still vividly remember boarding a plane from Chicago to Los Angeles to compete in the ’92 ABA Natural Mr. Universe contest. The event took place at Venice High School, within walking distance of world-famous Venice Beach. Kent Kuehn, an old training partner of Arnold Schwarzenegger’s, was the backstage expediter. I remember his complimenting me on my physique before I walked onstage and my thinking how surreal it all was.
Winning the Natural Mr. Universe Overall that night meant more to me than any other victory in my 13 years of competing. I had dreamed of becoming Mr. Universe ever since I started bodybuilding at age 14. One of the first bodybuilding magazines I bought featured a report of Kal Szkalak pulling the upset of the year over precontest favorite Mike Mentzer at the ’77 Mr. Universe. Seeing pictures of the handsome and muscular Kal on the podium with his Mr. Universe trophy made an indelible impression on me, and I resolved that one day I would win the Mr. Universe title myself.
Before I retired from competition in 2004, I had won the Natural Mr. Universe title twice as well as the first Natural Mr. Olympia title, in 1998. After 25 years of getting onstage, I did not think I could improve on my previous best condition and decided to hang up my posing trunks.
In 2011 I was motivated to get into top shape again and get as ripped as possible to make the cover of IRON MAN. Although I had been writing this column since January 2000, I’d never had the privilege of appearing on the cover of my favorite bodybuilding magazine.
After months of dieting, I brought my bodyweight down to 190 pounds and was featured on the September ’11 cover, fulfilling another longtime dream. I was so happy with my new ripped physique that I maintained that condition for the rest of the year.
By the end of the summer many of my friends and bodybuilding associates were urging me to compete again. At 48, I could enter the pro masters division in a natural contest and do very well with my new conditioning. After thinking about it for a couple of months, I decided to go for it and enter the ’11 Natural Olympia contest in Reno, Nevada, in November.
Unfortunately, I was completely unprepared for my return to the stage. Naively, I thought I could merely step onstage with my new ripped physique and take first place easily. After seven long years away from the stage, however, I could not believe how totally out of place I felt. I had a difficult time hitting the poses correctly next to my experienced competition, and I even messed up the whole pumping-up process backstage by not giving myself enough time to prepare properly. Needless to say, it was not a memorable night for me.
I was so upset with myself for underestimating the competition and what it would take to compete again that I immediately resolved to come back the next year and win. When the International Natural Bodybuilders Association announced that the INBA Natural Mr. Universe contest would be held in my hometown, Chicago, in 2012, I knew that would be my next contest. I set out a game plan for myself to improve my weak points and step onstage both physically and mentally ready to win.
I started training on Monday, January 2, 2012, with the specific intent of winning the Natural Mr. Universe contest on September 1. When I realized that it would be the 20th anniversary of my first Natural Mr. Universe win, I looked at it as destiny that I would conquer the competition and win again, despite my long absence from the stage.
My plan was to build up my strength and my muscle mass before I started my precontest diet. After a full year of dieting in 2011, my strength and size had really suffered. Although I was not going to “bulk up” as I had in the past, when I was younger, I had to spend some time focusing on building back some muscle before I started my diet for 2012.
I combined power cycles with Hell Raiser Training during my short off-season. The power cycles concentrated on the basic exercises with low reps. I needed that type of training to build back some of my strength before beginning my long contest diet. A stronger muscle is a bigger muscle, and it felt good to start lifting heavy again.
Each power cycle was about six weeks long, but I would stop at five weeks if my joints were hurting too much or my body felt as if it needed a rest. For each muscle group I did two compound exercises and one isolation, or shaping, movement. Depending on the size of the muscle, I would use three working sets for each exercise.
I picked a weight that I could handle for all three sets and for the required number of reps. The goal of the power cycle was to build up my strength slowly over the six-week period. For the first exercise I would use reps ranging from three to five. The second exercise would be in the four-to-six range and the third exercise (the shaping move) would be seven to nine reps. Here’s how I used the power cycle for my chest workouts (weight x reps x sets):
Bench presses 225 x 5 x 3
Incline dumbbell presses 90 x 6 x 3
Flyes 65 x 9 x 3
Bench presses 235 x 4 x 3
Incline dumbbell presses 100 x 5 x 3
Flyes 70 x 8 x 3
Bench presses 245 x 3 x 3
Incline dumbbell presses 110 x 4 x 3
Flyes 75 x 7 x 3
Bench presses 235 x 5 x 3
Incline dumbbell presses 100 x 6 x 3
Flyes 70 x 9 x 3
Bench presses 245 x 4 x 3
Incline dumbbell presses 110 x 5 x 3
Flyes 75 x 8 x 3
Bench presses 255 x 3 x 3
Incline dumbbell presses 120 x 4 x 3
Flyes 80 x 7 x 3
After each power cycle, I would switch gears and use the Hell Raiser Training program. HRT uses moderate weights but works each muscle to failure with both positive and forced-negative reps. Typically, I would do eight positive reps followed by four forced negative repetitions in which my training partner would apply pressure on the negative rep and I had to resist it for a four-second count.
Because of the intense nature of HRT, I would do only two working sets for each exercise, using two to three exercises for each muscle group—depending on the size of the muscle. Although this is an intense form of training, the resistance has to be drastically reduced in order for someone to get all 12 reps before the muscle fails. If the weight is too heavy, it will be impossible to do all the positive reps followed by the four forced negatives.
The combination of the two training strategies worked great for me. I was slowly building both my size and strength during the power cycles and giving my joints a rest while building more muscle with the HRT.
Next month I’ll describe my winning diet.
Editor’s note: John Hansen has won the Mr. Natural Olympia and is a three-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Check out his Web site at www
.NaturalOlympia.com for more information about how you can be a part of his exciting, new Natural Olympia Fitness getaway. Send questions or comments to John@NaturalOlympia
.com. Look for John’s DVD, “Natural Bodybuilding Seminar and Competitions,” along with his book, Natural Bodybuilding, and his training DVD, “Real Muscle,” at his Web site or at Home Gym Warehouse, www.Home-Gym.com. Listen to John’s radio show, Natural Bodybuilding Radio, at NaturalBodybuildingRadio.com. IM