An Interview With Mr. USA John DeFendis.

John will be inducted into the WBBG Hall of Fame for his contributions to the fitness industries. I spoke with John on the eve of his induction and we discussed his life as one of the world's best bodybuilder's and top personal trainers.

John DeFendis' bodybuilding career could be viewed as an exercise in patience and perseverance. Noted as having the potential to go all the way in the iron sport, John as a teenager began training in 1978 with a view to some day capturing bodybuilding's biggest amateur crown, the Mr. USA title.

17-years-later, in 1988, he did just that with a physique hewn to perfection through many years of torturous training. The word torturous is not often used when describing the training protocols followed by most bodybuilders of today, but it is one that fits John's approach perfectly.

Typically bodybuilders train with intensity. Well, John's training bordered on insanity, hence the training system he helped to popularize: "Intensity or insanity." Along with his mentor and good friend, Steve Michalik, a 17-year-old John would learn the true meaning of gut-busting work under the guidance of the Triple Crown (Mr. Universe, America and USA) champion Steve.

Fast-paced, exhausting, exciting and intense, the "Intensity or Insanity" system of up to 60 sets per workout was not for the faint of heart. John thrived on it. The only teenager ever to win the overall Mr. New York, John is also credited with being one of the world's best personal trainers.

For the past nine years John has won personal training hotbed Florida's trainer of the year award and he has trained many celebrities and thousands of regular people using knowledge gained over 32 years of inspiring people to be at their very best.

Since he first began training at age ten with a Dan Lurie barbell, John has observed many training trends come and go. Today he is well positioned to separate training truth from fiction.

On August 25, 2007, along with other greats such as Harold Poole and Samir Bannout, John will be inducted into the WBBG Hall of Fame and honored for his contributions to the bodybuilding and fitness industries. The man whose barbells he used to craft his physique all those years ago, Dan Lurie, will present the award. I spoke with John on the eve of his induction and we discussed his life as one of the world's best bodybuilder's and top personal trainers.


[ Q ] What have been some of your standout moments in the bodybuilding/fitness industry, and as a competitor?

It has been an incredible journey and every moment in the gym and onstage has been a standout moment, even the bad ones because they always taught me something that enabled me to move forward and better myself as a person and competitor.

My best competitive moments were when I was fortunate and blessed by God to win the Teenage Mr. Metropolitan and Overall Mr. Metropolitan when I was just 19 years old. I was the only teenager to ever achieve that success in New York.

My second biggest moment in competition was winning the Mr. USA title in Las Vegas in 1988. This was a 17-year-old goal that I never let go of, and again, by the grace of God I was able to fulfil. Winning the USA was exciting and an incredible experience.

I also always looked forward to the magazine interviews and covers (24 total). It is always exciting to read the authors version of your interview. I still look forward to this as I just read an interesting article that was written this month on me in MD.

The most exciting moments and the moments that I will remember most though are the monumental moments in the gym - the "survive or be killed" moments that I spent training with the great Champion, Steve Michalik. The years that he brutalized me and educated me and instilled in me the will that I would need to succeed in bodybuilding as well as in life.

It was those seemingly endless moments in the gym that were responsible for the person that I have become: one that truly respects life, our God (probably because I was blessed to live through those moments), our journey and the legacy that we will leave behind.

I learned that you could accomplish anything in life if you have the faith, the passion, the desire, the discipline, the will and the ability to go after your goals. I managed to live through those workouts and they didn't kill me - they strengthened my body and my soul.

They taught me that anything that was worth having was worth working for. A work ethic that I try to instill in everyone that I meet - I call it "Old School Attitude."

It rarely exists in today's society but it needs to exist for the youth to realize that life is the most incredible journey if you are willing to work for it!

The last and most important standout moment is this one, the (WBBG) Hall of Fame event and award.

It is a lifetime achievement and one that I will cherish.

It is a culmination of 40 years of focus and effort towards a goal that I will now share with the greatest bodybuilders of all time.

It is a defining moment in my life, one that I will share with my mentor and trainer, Steve Michalik, a great champion, and one that I will share with Bob Gruskin, a great leader.

[ Q ] Provide some background on your bodybuilding career. How did you get started?

I started training at age 10 when my father first handed me a barbell - a Dan Lurie barbell.

I continued and at 13 I was reading the magazines and got really inspired.

The standout article was a few years later. It was an incredible article on the great champion Dave Draper, now a good friend and fantastic human being. Dave inspired me and made me realize my goal of one day winning the Mr. USA title. At 16 years old I met Bob Gruskin and he started helping me.

At 17 years old I met Steve Michalik and he tortured me. Well, it seemed like torture at the time but I soon realized that his workouts were the beginning of what would be a great future for me. For that I appreciate every workout we ever had. The rest is history. With Bob and Steve in my corner the outcome could only have been a good one!

John's Competition History:

      • Teenage Mr. New York (1978)
      • Mr. New York - metropolitan (Only person to win as a teenager) (1978)
      • Mr. North Eastern America (1979)
      • Mr. USA (runner-up at 20 years old)
      • Mr Eastern America (1980)
      • Mr. Western America (1983)
      • Mr. Eastern States (1988-to re-qualify for the USA)
      • Mr. USA (1988)

[ Q ] What recent projects have you been involved in?

I currently oversee and manage the most successful personal training operation in the country. It is called Ultra Fit Personal Training. I have the pleasure of surrounding myself with the greatest people. Our trainers care. They are truly the best.

I also am blessed to be working with a great team of managers, which include Nationals Champion and IFBB Professional bodybuilder, Mat DuVall. Mat is one of the most incredible people I have had the pleasure of getting to know.

He epitomizes the word champion in every way.

I respect him and admire his Integrity, work ethic and passion to succeed and help others succeed.

I also work with Shawn Kephart and Tony Racanelli.

These are two individuals that care about helping people attain their goals and I rely on them to manage my clubs.

We have employed over 250 personal trainers and we have helped thousands of people reach their fitness and health goals. My life for the past 32 years has been training people to be the best that they can be. This includes Health, Fitness, Bodybuilding and Sports training along with many other types.

I have personally trained over 300 bodybuilding, fitness and figure champions and taken more than 100 pounds off of more than 200 individuals in the past 2 years. (100 pounds each, that is).

My team of Ultra Fit personal trainers at Coop's Health and Fitness in Greenville and Anderson, South Carolina and TNT Family Fitness in Port St. Lucie, Florida is the best. We work together to afford people a healthier life and a better quality of life. It is what we live for!

I am also in the process of authoring the course and textbook for the Business Course for Personal Trainers for the ISSA.

I was offered this great opportunity because of the success that we have had in managing our Ultra Fit personal training operation. The course should be complete and available within one year. It will revolutionize personal training.

[ Q ] What is your current training philosophy?

It is and always has been Intensity or Insanity Training.

To train hard, to put everything you have into it.

This applies to bodybuilders and anyone with a goal, especially one to be healthier. We challenge everyone to be the best that they can be and do the best that they can.

It is amazing what each individual is capable of doing when they are pushed and challenged. Everyone improves!

[ Q ] What is your personal approach to nutrition?


Ultra Fit Nutrition is a program that I designed over 20 years ago.

It is the best program for anyone looking to be healthier, leaner, more muscular and better. It is the best there is.

The premise of Ultra Fit is to feed the body the best sources of quality proteins, carbs and essential fatty acids to enable it to recover and build more muscle.

We focus on Weight Training and not cardio when in the fat loss stage.

Because of our success with Ultra Fit, we have been featured on almost every major television show there is.

This includes:

  • 20/20 with Barbara Walters
  • Hard Copy
  • Good Morning America
  • CNN
  • ESPN
  • The Joan Rivers Show
  • NBC Sports
  • FOX News

[ Q ] Exactly what gains did you get training with Steve Michalik and using the "Intensity or Insanity" method you mentioned earlier?

Steve was instrumental in my success as a bodybuilder and Intensity or Insanity training allowed me to win the USA, train thousands of success stories and manage a team of great trainers, and has culminated with the Hall of Fame induction.

I would say that Intensity or Insanity training is powerful.

[ Q ] As the name suggests, this method is very intense. Could you describe how it works?

In a nutshell: Hard and heavy and a lot of sets.

40-60 sets per body part -INTENSE!

Fast paced, exciting, exhausting and - INTENSE!

[ Q ] Is this system suitable for the average person?

It absolutely is, IF all variables are set correctly.

Intensity or Insanity Training is great for everyone if they wish to eat perfectly, train hard and get enough rest and recovery.

It just has to be applied correctly with each individual's condition and goals in mind.

If one variable is off, then they will not succeed.

That's why a personal trainer is important.

We know exactly how to apply the training, nutrition and protocols.

[ Q ] How long have you been involved in the personal training industry and how did you get started in this area?

I got started in personal training at 18 years old when I realized that I had the knowledge to save and change people's lives.

My mother had some serious health problems and also weighed over 300 pounds. At 16 years of age I helped her and she lost over 180 pounds. It was a defining moment in my life. It was God's message to me.

God was giving me the ticket to my mission in life, which was to help others to become healthier, and to live a better quality of life.

My mother is now 76 years old and she is living a great life.

I was fortunate and blessed at a young age.

I have now been a personal trainer for over 32 years.

[ Q ] You are known for having trained many high-profile people. Who are some of more memorable people you have trained and why did they come to you?

My celebrity list is long and some of them are anonymous by choice. Some of my most successful clients have been:

  • Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich
  • Professional Baseball player's, Mike Piazza and Luis Alicea
  • Former CEO of American Express, Jim Robinson
  • Fashion Designer, Calvin Klein

Most of these people were sent to me by referrals and reputation in the industry. I was fortunate enough to embrace the opportunities and thankful for them.

Every one of my clients has been a blessing and a great experience in fitness and in life.

[ Q ] What are the secrets to your success as a bodybuilder and personal trainer?

God's will: My passion, persistence, knowledge, experience and ability to visualize a goal and go after it.

[ Q ] For the past nine years you have won Florida's Trainer of the year title. What separates your approach to getting results for your clients from other trainer's methods?

Once again...

God's will: My passion, persistence, knowledge, experience and ability to visualize a goal and go after it.

[ Q ] Recent research suggests weight training to be superior to cardiovascular training for controlling weight. Do you believe this to be the case? If so, why?

Without a doubt: Yes. Weight Training is the key to weight loss.

Your body is composed of Lean Body Mass and Fat Mass. Your body fat percentage as a total of your total body weight is your fat mass (in lbs) and the remaining weight, in lbs, equals your lean body mass.

Bodyfat %:
Lean Body Mass (LBM)
LBM in pounds
LBM in kilograms

Most people who are trying to "lose weight" are trying to decrease this body fat percentage, or total fat mass. Therefore, you must increase your lean body mass, or muscle mass, so that your body composition becomes less fat and more muscle- plain and simple. The most effective way in which to do this is to start a weight-training program with an Ultra Fit trainer.

The more muscle you have on your body, the greater the amount of fat loss. In addition, with a higher amount of lean body mass, the greater your resting metabolic rate will be because of the fuel needed for these muscles to work and perform.

If you are spending endless hours in a gym on an elliptical trainer for 45 minutes a day without any weight training program at all, and are not seeing any results, I am not surprised. Long bouts of steady paced cardio workouts (whether it be running or biking at one pace for an hour or two) without any variation in speed or intensity will not do much for making your body lean.

You may drop some weight in the beginning, if you are overweight and have never worked out before, starting this type of program. However, our bodies are smart and will start to adapt to this long, slow distance and your results will begin to plateau. Keep in mind that you can get more bang for your buck at the gym by lifting weights for 30 minutes rather than running for 60 minutes.

In fact, lifting weights for three to four times a week for about 60 minutes each time, while increasing intensity, will get you the results you want, to not only increase your composition in favor of the lean body mass, but to help you gain some overall health benefits, such as an increase in core strength and higher overall aerobic capacity.

Also, your body will lose fat just through the muscle recovery process. Once you have finished training and have broken down muscle tissue... Your body must utilize quality foods to rebuild and recover the broken down muscle.

In the recovery process the body will break down protein (chicken, fish, lean meats, egg whites, etc) into amino acids and use those amino acids to rebuild muscle. Your body will also utilize the quality complex carbs to restore glycogen (fuel within the muscle). This process will increase your lean muscle mass, decrease body fat and support a normal healthy metabolic rate.

Cardio or excessive cardio will cause you to burn the quality calories ingested and prevent you from utilizing those calories to repair and build new muscle, therefore causing you to plateau in your fat loss.

[ Q ] What are your thoughts on the current state of bodybuilding?

I am a big fan of "Old School Bodybuilding." - The champions of yesteryear and the ones being inducted into the (WBBG) Bodybuilding Hall of Fame on August 25, 2007. They were the pioneers and the champions who believed in a vision and went after it. I have a home gym with over 100 photos of those great champions. (Michalik, Arnold, Draper, Scott, Coe, Bannout and Reeves)

The current state of bodybuilders is comprised of another era of great champions, but the new crop of bodybuilders have taken the emphasis off of aesthetics, symmetry, shape and a classic physique and placed it on sheer muscle mass.

It is a different look and one that I personally don't aspire to, but, it is still a difficult look to achieve and I respect every one of them for the hard work and effort that they put in.

The exception to the un-aesthetic rule is my favorite bodybuilders of this decade, which are Mat DuVall and Darrem Charles. I feel that they have great shape and size and the look that encompasses the greats of the past, but with more muscle.

These two gentlemen are also great representatives of the sport of bodybuilding and champions that I respect.

[ Q ] What are your future goals?

To continue the mission that God has given me, to manage and direct a team of great people and help as many people to live a better life and to focus on the future in fitness and health and to empower as many trainers with the passion, knowledge and materials necessary to make a difference in the world.

Most of all: To encourage and motivate as many people as possible to see the vision ahead and that they can all achieve great goals in an effort to be the best that they can be!

[ Q ] Who are some key people you would like to thank for helping you in your career so far?

First and most importantly, Jesus Christ for the gift of life and it's journey.

My mother for allowing it all to take place and for putting up with me and my father for handing me my first Dan Lurie Barbell.

Dan Lurie for inspiring me with Muscle Training Illustrated and his champions.

My mentors and trainers, Steve Michalik and Bob Gruskin.

And my wife Sherry, for being a great wife, a proud wife, a person that I would like to share the rest of my life with.

John DeFendis:

  • Director of Personal Training for Coop's Health & Fitness in Greenville and Anderson, South Carolina and TNT Family Fitness in Port St. Lucie, Florida.
  • Mr. USA
  • IFBB Professional Bodybuilder
  • International Fitness and Sports Hall of Fame Inductee - 2007
  • Member of the Board of Directors for the ISSA.
  • Member of the Board of Directors for the IFPA.
  • Awarded "Trainer of the Year" for 9 years while he was a trainer at the Congressional Gym in Washington DC.
  • Celebrity Personal Trainer (former or present clients include: Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich, Mike Piazza, Calvin Klein, Former CEO of American Express, Jim Robinson)
  • John has been featured on ABC T.V.'s 20/20, Good Morning America, Hard Copy, CNN, ESPN, FOX, NBC Sports and The Joan Rivers show. He has been a trainer for over 30 years and is the director of exercise with the ISSA.
  • Developed the ULTRA FIT program and can be contacted at by e-mailing him at:

Visit John's personal website at: