When you’ve got a nickname like “The Gift,” you’d better be able to live up to the hype. Fortunately for Phil Heath, a healthy dose of natural ability coupled with intense drive has earned him recognition as one of the world’s best bodybuilders and heir apparent to his sport’s top title, Mr. Olympia. And at 31, he’s only just starting to approach his physical peak, which means that Heath should be the gift that keeps on giving for years to come.
For all appearances, it would seem that Heath was born to be a bodybuilder. But if it weren’t for his inability to reach higher heights in his first choice of athletic endeavors, he might never have discovered bodybuilding at all.
“I was playing basketball as a point guard/shooting guard at the University of Denver,” he recalls, “and a few of my buddies were really into bodybuilding at the time and would be talking about guys like Kevin Levrone and Flex Wheeler and Ronnie Coleman. I didn’t know who they were but was blown away by their physiques.”
Throughout high school and college, Heath planned to take his b-ball game to the next level, namely the NBA or the European pro league. As he neared college graduation, however, it became increasingly clear that no pro teams would be knocking down his door. He was good, but he knew that it takes more than good to play alongside Kobe Bryant and his NBA cohorts.
After graduating, Heath set his sights on a new goal. The competitive fire still raged within him, and at 22, he had a surplus of physical energy he needed to channel. It was at this point that he decided to try following the direction in which his friends had been trying to push him for years.
“Even before I started lifting, I had thick arms and pretty well-developed calves,” he says. “My triceps would grow just from dribbling a basketball, and all my friends would notice this and be like, ‘Man, you have to try bodybuilding!’ So I figured I’d give it a shot.”
Michael Jordan himself couldn’t have taken a better shot. Less than six months after Heath’s first bodybuilding workout, he won his first contest, the 2003 NPC Northern Colorado Championships. His uncanny ability to pack on muscle seemingly at will inspired one of his friends to dub him “The Gift.” It was a prophetic nickname.
Despite a small stumble in his next contest, in which Heath won his weight class but lost overall honors by a single point, Heath was off and running straight toward bodybuilding’s pro ranks. “That was when I realized that I had to take this sport seriously,” he says. His third competition was the 2005 NPC Junior Nationals, which he won handily, qualifying him to compete for an invitation to the pros. A month later, he would compete in the USA Championships, one of the two most prestigious amateur events, and a pro qualifier, winning the heavyweight class and overall title, not to mention entry into the world of professional bodybuilding.
Although 5 feet 9 inches tall and less than 215 pounds — light by pro-bodybuilding standards — Heath was determined to prove that there’s more to bodybuilding than just overwhelming mass. “It’s called bodybuilding,” he says, “not mass-building. Anyone can pack weight on to their body randomly, but it takes discipline to build quality muscle in the right places. That’s always been my goal — to build a muscular but proportioned and aesthetic physique. I want the kind of physique that makes other guys say, ‘Man, I’d like to look like that one day.’”
In April 2006, Heath plunged into the pro ranks feet first and came out a winner. In his rookie debut, he stunned the crowd at the IFBB Colorado Pro with a physique that harkened back to the days of Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane in terms of symmetry but with the mass and conditioning of a 21st-century champ. That he bested pre-contest favorite and multi-title winner Darrem Charles in the process made his victory that much more impressive.
Just a week later, Heath would take his one-man show on the road to New York and would leave the Big Apple with yet another victory. It was less than three years since he’d first picked up a weight with the intention of sculpting his physique, and already Heath’s competitive record was 6-1 with wins in his first contest, his first Junior Nationals, his first pro qualifier and his first two pro competitions — a week apart from one another. It was clear then that the buddy who had given Heath his nickname should have considered applying for a job with Psychic Friends Network.
After his red-hot pro bow, Heath was the talk of bodybuilding. Not only was he 2-0 in his first two pro shows, but he also possessed a multitude of ancillary tangibles — and intangibles — from good looks to a solid home life to an engaging personality, all of which would go a long way toward making him a star. As 2006 turned to 2007, bodybuilding was Heath’s oyster, or so it seemed.
The Big Leagues
Heath decided to sit out the 2006 Mr. Olympia contest in order to better prepare for his assault on bodybuilding’s second title, the Arnold Classic, held the following March. While he brought his typically stellar conditioning to the stage in Columbus, Ohio, he couldn’t match the mature mass of guys like winner Victor Martinez and runner-up Dexter Jackson and would end up placing a disappointing fifth.
After his sobering placing at the Arnold Classic, he decided to forgo the 2007 Mr. Olympia contest, too. “I didn’t want to just show up without any realistic chance of winning,” he reasoned at the time. Going back to the drawing board once again, he worked to add even more mass to his frame.
The 2008 season started out promisingly for Heath, with a runaway victory at the year’s first pro competition, the IFBB Ironman Pro Invitational. The following month, he would step back on to the Arnold Classic stage, this time taking a close second to Dexter Jackson. Although he didn’t meet his goal, the fact that he took “The Blade” to the wire gave Heath the confidence that he was finally ready to step on to the Mr. Olympia stage.
Later that fall, in just his third year as a professional bodybuilder, Heath placed third at his sport’s top competition, in a contest that could have arguably gone in his favor. “I’m probably the happiest third-place winner ever,” Heath said moments after stepping off Las Vegas’ Orleans Arena stage. “I’m thrilled right now.”
Thanks to his impressive showings in 2008, talk throughout the bodybuilding world centered on the fast-rising star’s imminent ascent to the peak of Mount Olympia. Many chose him to win the title in 2009 — and then go on winning for years to come. Still just 29 (young by pro-bodybuilding standards), Heath was thought by many to have a shot at breaking the record of eight Olympia wins, held by bodybuilding legends Lee Haney and Ronnie Coleman.
Having qualified for the ’09 Mr. Olympia with his third-place finish the previous year, Heath spent the next 12 months setting himself to the task of becoming the best bodybuilder on the planet. “I was ready to take that next step,” he says. “The thought of finally being the best in the world and of becoming Mr. Olympia consumed my thoughts.”
He brought his training intensity to new heights. He doubled-down on his diet, finding new ways to squeeze out extra fat and water from his body. Photos taken days before the competition revealed a bigger and far better Phil Heath than had ever been seen before. Then disaster struck.
The day before the contest’s prejudging round, Heath suffered a bout of food poisoning. Dehydrated, depleted and flat, he showed up at Friday night’s prejudging a shadow of the man who had stunned Vegas the year before. “I was so weak. I wasn’t even sure I was going to make it all the way through prejudging,” he admits.
By the following day, he’d pulled it together enough to eke out a fifth-place finish, but it was far from the result Heath had hoped for. Bodybuilding circles buzzed about the prospect that Heath may never realize his full potential. Maybe The Gift would stay wrapped forever.
Back on Track
Heath didn’t win any contests in 2010, but he did take second to an enormous Kai Greene at the Arnold Classic and second to an equally massive Jay Cutler at the Mr. Olympia. In both contests, a good number of bodybuilding pundits saw Heath as the rightful winner, based on his superior lines and conditioning, along with added mass.
Nevertheless, Heath’s performances at both events gave him the confidence he needed to take that final step. “Everything is happening exactly when it’s supposed to,” he says. “Had I won [the Olympia] earlier in my career, I wouldn’t have been prepared for the responsibility of that title. But I’ve matured over the past couple of years. I’m more focused and disciplined than ever before, and I’m ready to take on the responsibility of being bodybuilding’s premier representative.”
So now Heath prepares once again to reach for the highest rung on his sport’s ladder, and the bodybuilding world eagerly awaits the 2011 Olympia Weekend, when they may at last see his enormous promise ful-Phil-ed.
PHILLIP JERROD HEATH
Born: December 18, 1979, Seattle
Weight: 275 lbs. (offseason); 250 lbs. (anticipated for the 2011 Mr. Olympia)
Residence: Arvada, Colorado
Well, not foes exactly, but the following men figure to be among Phil Heath’s biggest threats as he vies for his first Mr. Olympia title.
The four-time and reigning Mr. Olympia “discovered” Heath back in 2004 and has since become a good friend and mentor. He edged “The Gift” last year. Can he hold off the charging star again?
The only other man to defeat Heath in 2010 was Greene, at the Arnold Classic. Like Cutler, Greene is larger than Heath and is capable of similar conditioning. But Heath has the edge in shape.
This year’s Arnold Classic winner has become a favorite among pro-bodybuilding judges in recent years. He’s known for his thickness and definition, yet he lacks Heath’s proportions and lines.
The 2008 Mr. Olympia winner is a perennial threat, despite being on the other side of 40. He has beaten Heath several times in the past, but at a decade younger, Heath is reaching his peak while Jackson is passing his own.
When asked for a supplement he simply can’t do without, Phil Heath is quick to respond:
“I use Nitro-Tech Hardcore Pro Series every day. It mixes easily and goes down smooth. You know, it’s made by MuscleTech, who sponsors me, but the truth is that I’d use it even if I didn’t have any connection with them. It’s that good. It’s also full of branched-chain amino acids, which are critical for postworkout muscle growth, and the taste is awesome. I love the chocolate milkshake flavor.”
PHIL HEATH’S CAN’T-MISS ARM ROUTINE