October 2013 Interview with IFBB Pro Mike Francoisby John Meadows on October 23, 2013
JOHN: I am very pleased to have this month’s feature interview be with the one and only Mike Francois. Mike is viewed by many to have been an uncrowned Mr. Olympia. To those here in Columbus, Ohio, Mike is also known as a highly intelligent, character driven man that we all aspire to be like. Mike, can you tell us a little about your background and how you actually got into the sport of bodybuilding, I think it might surprise many of my readers!
MIKE: First of all, I appreciate you having me do this interview for your site. I am not so sure all of those compliments you have attributed to me are true, but I have always strived to be that kind of a man and bodybuilder.
My background would be very lengthy if I went into great detail, but I’ll try to be as thorough yet brief as I can. I was born and raised in Iowa and I am one of nine kids (7th in the line of 9). I played every sport that was available to me growing up, baseball, football, wrestling, basketball and track and field. So, athletics and staying fit was always something that was a natural part of my life. I was all ready to accept a scholarship to play football at Iowa State, when I was injured in my 7th game of my senior year and those hopes died. Unfortunately, in the early 80’s, torn ligaments weren’t repaired and rehabbed like they are today. As a result I really did a lot of prayer and introspection. Soon after my senior year I felt a calling to serve God as a Roman Catholic priest, so I entered the seminary and undergrad studies at Loras College in Dubuque, Iowa. During that time I lifted weights as a way to stay in shape after high school and continued that throughout my four years of college.
Upon my graduation from Loras in 1987, I was assigned to theological graduate studies at the Josephinum Seminary, here in Columbus. Studying for the Catholic priesthood is an eight year endeavor, so I had four more years to go at the Josephinum before I would be ordained to the priesthood. I continued to train at the Josephinum, with absolutely no thought of ever competing in bodybuilding.
During my seventh year of the eight, I met a girl, fell in love and didn’t return for my final year and ordination. Roman Catholic priests aren’t allowed to marry, so it wasn’t the easiest of decisions to make and it took a lot of time, prayer and counseling. Now, of course, I can’t imagine what life would have been like had I not made that decision. As a result of leaving the seminary, I had a lot more time on my hands to train. Shortly thereafter, I decided to compete in a bodybuilding show and I caught the bug. That was the spring of 1990. And later that spring I competed and won my first three shows including the Mr. Ohio. Each subsequent year I moved up the ladder and eventually turned pro in 1993.
JOHN: I remember the first time I saw you or heard about you I guess is more accurate. You had just went to Chicago I believe and won one of those Muscle Mania shows. Even then you had a level of density to your muscle that seemed beyond your years.
How did you train back then generally speaking? Who influenced you? I remember you working out with another former Ohio winner Greg Greenzalis who was an awesome competitor back in his day.
MIKE: That is right. The Muscle Mania was in retrospect a big stepping stone for my career. In those days they had a lot of bodybuilding on ESPN, and that win afforded me national exposure which as one progresses in the sport can only help. Those were pre-internet days, so competitors weren’t as widely assessable and known to as many people as they are now, via the web.
You are right, Greg did help me back then and taught me many lessons in and out of the gym. As far as my back training in those days, I didn’t yet do a lot of deadlifting. Rows of every variety were a mainstay in my back training then. I did some deadlifting, but not nearly the amount of deadlifting I would eventually do in my progression towards trying to a thick, wide and dense back.
JOHN: Your back, yes let’s get to that. Your back was a so so bodypart early in your career, but I want to take you back to a moment I had one year at the 95 Arnold Classic. I was a big Flex Wheeler fan. You and he were clearly the top 2 in this show. I remember you taking him down in pretty much every pose from the front. I remember very vividly thinking wait until they turn around. Mike will be in trouble. Well what happened is that you turned around, and I and the rest of the crowd said, game over. Mike dominates from the back too. You left no doubt. Even being a big Flex Wheeler fan, there is just no way anyone could not have seen you as the winner.
I was training at Westside back then, and I know you also worked with Louie some. Is that were your back development really took off? Is this where deadlifting roots took hold?
MIKE: Great memories for me! I concur; my back was definitely a body part that needed a lot of attention (along with a lot of other body parts) early on. You hit it on the head with the progress I made while at Westside. Louis really knew what I needed to do to enhance both the thickness and width of my back. I did a ton of deadlifting, from every which angle and height you can think of. I did pulls off the floor, out of the rack (at various levels), box pulls, sumo etc. Obviously, I did the supplementary exercises like pull downs, rows etc., but I had always been doing those. The deadlifting, I feel, was the key ingredient to my progress.
This is why, when I get young guys that want to build their backs coming to me to train them, I always start out by letting them know how important deadlifting in its various forms is to building a great physique.
JOHN: When I was there Louie had me living on that reverse hyper machine. I don’t know that I ever deadlifted there!
What kind of rep ranges and sets were you using? Were you going all the way to a max?
MIKE: I used the reverse hyperextension as well, however I did a lot of deadlifting too. Truly I can’t recall the exact poundage. I would say that my lifts were in the 700-800 lb. range off the floor and 800-900 lbs. out of the rack. By no means was I the strongest guy there. But I had to keep reminding myself that I was there to get bigger and bring up my weak points not to be a world champion power lifter.
JOHN: You were a really good squatter too if I remember correctly. I remember doing my 8 x 2 speed work on a really low box and the guys telling me you were doing around that weight too. Ha! Made me feel pretty good.
Your legs were a strong bodypart, but did Louie have you train your squat there as well?
MIKE: I don’t specifically remember squatting at Westside. I think I did legs mainly on my own. Not to say that Louis had no impact in that area, but I guess I just didn’t focus on those as much there. Legs are a genetic strong point for me, and so I tended to know what I needed to do to make them better. I did do a lot of the 5×5 and 8×2 squatting. I also incorporated a lot of box squats and some high rep work in too.
JOHN: When I hear the term PowerBuilder, meaning somebody who combines powerlifting with bodybuilding for maximum hypertrophy, I always think of you. One thing that I do not recall, is you ever getting injured? Did you have the normal aches and pains like most us old men get? Did you have any major tears?
MIKE: Through the grace of God and some luck, I didn’t have any major tears or injuries in my bodybuilding career. I had a few very minor micro tears or strains, but nothing that really affected my training to any large extent. Looking back on it, as heavy as I trained, I was truly blessed to not have had any major setbacks.
JOHN: You were also known as being an eating machine, meaning you ate perfectly year round. I don’t remember you ever being fat and bloated either now that I think about it. When I saw you guest pose, you were always in tremendous shape.
Did you consciously try to stay lean, or was it just a byproduct of eating a clean diet?
MIKE: I did eat clean year round. I began eating clean when I was in high school. My whole goal then was to be the best athlete I could be, and I guess I realized at an early age that eating well would only enhance that. So, as a result when I began my bodybuilding venture, the eating part was never a challenge for me. I am lucky, because I know for most people that can be the toughest part of the equation when growing or getting ready for a contest. Believe me, I was hungry many many times, but the urge to cheat or go off the diet was never tempting for me. I had a goal and I wasn’t going to let food or hunger stand in the way of me achieving my goals.
JOHN: This gets to the roots of one of my core philosophies. I don’t think you have to do a traditional old school, powershove 10,000 kcal diet to grow the fastest. I believe that excess fat actually slows down gains due to impaired insulin sensitivity for one thing.
Do you remember when you were growing your fastest, how many times a day you were eating and an approximate calorie count?
MIKE: I always tried to eat 5 times a day. Any more than that never seemed to work for me. I would guess I was eating around 6,000 calories a day when I was in peak growing phase.
JOHN: That is an interesting number. Many of the interviews I have done with very knowledgeable people in the field think that 5 meals seems to be the most optimal number for the largest % of people trying to gain muscle the fastest.
How about grams of protein a day? Did you use a formula such as 1.5 grams x your bodyweight in lbs or something like that?
MIKE: As far as the amount of protein, I did try to take in between 1.5 and 2 grams of protein per lb. I weighed. So, in the 500-600 range per day.
JOHN: Since you stayed so lean, I would assume you didn’t have to kill yourself on a zero or very low carb diet, but I could be wrong. How did your carb consumption change (if it did) throughout the course of a contest prep for you?
MIKE: You’re right I didn’t zero carb it. I was always taking in carbs. I would say a low of 150 and a high of 350 in contest prep time. My off season weight topped out around 290-300 lbs. and my contest weight would be 255-265 lbs. So, taking out 15 pounds for water, I never really had a lot of fat to get rid of.
JOHN: Wow, that is a lot of muscle. Still boggles my mind. One of the things I see is that the majority of people who compete actually look better a week or two before the contest. Heck it’s happened to me a bunch.
What would you say are some of the key mistakes competitors make in the final week and days leading up to a show?
MIKE: There are quite a few mistakes made in the final days of prep before contests. A few that come to mind are:
[li]Eating too few calories, thinking they can make up for lost days in not sticking to the dieting process.[/li]
[li]Eating too many carbs at the very end, reading too many articles on “carbing up”. If you are not shredded to the bone, no amount of carbs is going to make you hard.[/li]
[li]Over training. They think they aren’t where they need to be, so consequently they do way too much training and they end up flat and stringy looking. When in fact, they should actually be cutting back in the last days to let their muscle fill out a bit. If you do it right, most everyone, believe it or not, is a little over trained going into the show. With all the cardio and cutting of calories etc. it is understandable for this to happen. However you have to then reduce training volume, yet keep the intensity high and maybe cut back or cut out any cardio.[/li]
[li]The last thing I will mention is a little personal, but I am sure most trainers have experienced it. Stick with the plan!! Don’t read a million on line articles or listened to your buddy or your buddies mom! Whatever plan your trainer has set out for you, stay the course. It is only then that you can make adjustments to things after the show…win or lose. The goal is to get better, but you can’t do it by abandoning the plan. This happened to me as a competitor and has happened to me as a trainer.[/li]
JOHN: What mistakes did you personally make that you learned from in this regard also?
MIKE: As I intimated earlier, I made this mistake from one Olympia to the next. I won my first 4 pro contests after winning the Nationals to turn pro in 1993. So, in the 1995 Mr.O I lost (7th place) for the first time as a pro. So, like an idiot, I abandoned what got me to where I was, and went way overboard the next year. I came in too light and it wasn’t what the judges wanted to see, and my placing reflected that. The next year I got back with what I knew and those I trusted in the beginning and was right back on track. Lesson learned!
JOHN: Ok, moving on to something not so pleasant. Your career was cut short due to digestive issues. I myself had a vascular disease that resulted in emergency surgery, complete removal of my colon, and near death. People ask me all the time about my experience, and if I would change anything to avoid it if I could travel back in a time machine. My answer is no, it taught me about the fragility of life, and the importance of valuing and appreciating all the small and big things in life.
Can you give us a short version of how intense your issue was, as I believe it was a near death experience as well, and what did you take away from it as person?
MIKE: Although my issue was ulcerative colitis, we had a similar outcome, near death and a total colectomy or removal of the entire large intestine.
I was fighting it longer than I realized, once I started reading more about it and the symptoms. It was probably in the beginning stages as far back as 1996, but became very evident and debilitating in the Fall of 1997 in my prep for the Mr. O. Without going into too much detail, I was hospitalized 3 weeks prior to the O in 1997. I kept it completely quiet from everyone except my wife. I didn’t want Weider (my contract) or the judges to find out. I struggled through it and competed in the Mr. O, but did horribly. After the show I went on full blown meds and thought I had tackled the problem. My doctors gave me the go ahead for the Arnold in the spring of 1998. But, a week prior to the Arnold I was hospitalized and eventually had my colon removed a few days later. In a second surgery 12 weeks later that year to reattach my small intestine, I ran into many complications and actually was in an induced coma for a week or so. I had something called DIC among several other life threatening complications ranging from pneumonia to organ failure etc. I later learned that I was given my last rites twice by a priest and my family was told by my doctors that my life was in God’s hands and that they had done all they could do. By the Grace of God and many many prayers (and I have to believe great doctors, Eric Serrano being chief among them) I made it through.
Like you, it taught me that life is short and one should value each and every day.
JOHN: I didn’t know that about your 2nd procedure issues. This is also when I ran into further complications myself. I had a blockage that required an immediate 3rd surgery, and then a massive infection resulting in drainage tubes being inserted deep into my stomach and further extending my hospital stay. These surgeries then resulted in multiple incisional hernias. Those were very humbling times indeed.
Are you able to train and eat freely?
I have to be very careful with deadlifts due to internal stitching, and I can pretty much eat anything, but sugary food tends to fly right through me. Not good for a cereal lover! Ha!
MIKE: Yeah, it was a crazy time. Harder on my family than me though, I just slept through the month long ordeal!
I am free to eat and train as desired. However, my training is minimal. I just want to keep my body fat levels low and stay fit. The biggest issues I have now revolve around food transport time being so quick, it can conflict with activities and functions etc. I just know what and when I can eat and can’t eat according to my schedule. Other than that, no real issues.
JOHN: You also worked with Chris Aceto, who has an unbelievable track record, and is still coaching many of the top guys. How did you like working with Chris and generally speaking what kind of approach did he have to working with you?
MIKE: I loved working with Chris. We became close friends over the years he helped me and is like a brother. We have remained close and share a bond that I honestly will cherish forever.
Chris’ approach was a very simple one. He didn’t make things any more complicated than they needed to be. Consequently, it is the same approach I take with my clients now. He didn’t go overboard with things and take risks like many top trainers do. I always felt like I was in great hands and trusted everything he told me to do. This kind of goes back to what I had said earlier in this interview, it really is a pet peeve of mine when people I am helping ask 10 other people what to do or don’t follow my instructions to the letter.
JOHN: I certainly understand that!
I wanna wrap by you giving us your favorite exercise to build mass for each bodypart.
What is your favorite exercise for:
[li]Chest: incline barbell bench press (30* incline)[/li]
[li]Upper back: wide grip cable row to chest[/li]
[li]Biceps: barbell curls, hammer curls (tie!)[/li]
[li]Tricep: j-curls (It is a Westside exercise. Kind of a combo skull crusher and close grip bench. You take the weight down to chest (narrow grip) at the bottom of the motion you slide it back to about your nose (on the same plane the whole time) then slide it back out to your chest (on that same plane) and then press it up. Kind of an L shape really…but they are called J curls!)[/li]
[li]Tear drop/vm: low presses on leg press sled. Keep feet on lower portion of plate, with feet 6-12 inches apart.[/li]
[li]Quad sweep: front squats with heels elevated[/li]
[li]Rear delts: dual cable flies or reverse pec dec[/li]
[li]Calves: standing calf raises[/li]
JOHN: Also where can someone who would like to reach for your services do so?
MIKE: They can email me at [email protected]
Thanks John for the opportunity and will see you again soon!