MIKE ARMSTRONG: Symmetry Mixed with Artistry

Irene L. Hause
Photos by Michael Neveux
Muscular Development
Volume 17, Number 1

January/February 1980

The snowstorm was so bad that bus service had been halted. Mike Armstrong stood on the roadside shivering, trying to hitch a ride from one of the few cars that dared to brave the slick roads and blinding snow.

I was on my way to see my very first physique contest,” he said, “and nothing was going to stop me. I didn’t think anyone would ever pick me up, but I finally made the 20 miles. I was freezing cold when I walked into the auditorium — as the contestants were walking out. The contest was over, only half of the contestants had showed up. They started early, and I’d have been the only person in the audience even if I’d been there! I was really upset, and with a very empty feeling I turned around and hitchhiked back.”

That was back in 1966 when Mike attended the University of Oklahoma at Norman, had no car, and took the bus to work out at the local YMCA. Now in 1979 the sun shines in Santa Monica, California as he walks the few blocks from his beach-front apartment to the World Gym or drives the two miles to Gold’s Gym in his classic 1966 Lincoln Continental.

Winner of the coveted Most Symmetrical trophy at both the 1978 and 1979 Mr. Western America contests, the native Alabamian had once been a facsimile of the “98-pound weakling.” Like many teenagers who are turned on to weights, Mike got his first set for Christmas. Enthusiasm grew until his bedroom looked like a small gym, and he realized he had to train at a real gym. He chose the Magic City Health Studio in Birmingham, the gym that later inspired the novel and subsequent film, Stay Hungry. It wasn’t all that long until Mike tipped the scales at over 190 and won several powerlifting contests in the Southeast.

When I was powerlifting, it seemed as if I always had a sore back, knee, or wrist. So I slowly shifted into bodybuilding. I made the change by entering both the bodybuilding and powerlifting competitions at shows, often on the same day. Gradually I moved entirely to bodybuilding, and since I work to exhaustion with medium weights, the injuries stopped.”

Interwoven with the years of weight training were four years of college in Oklahoma and Alabama which led to a B.S. in Education. Mike had started out as an accounting major, but boring summer jobs in accounting with a boss who expected Saturday work without pay triggered the change from accounting to his long-standing interest — art. An ornery kid in his pre-college days, Mike was given special permission to take art for three hours a day in high school. “That’s how they kept me out of trouble!” admits Mike. He is particularly interested in ceramics, painting, and photography.

The former problem student is now a teacher himself. With 30 post-graduate hours in art at the University of California at Los Angeles, Mike now teaches ceramics at a tough Los Angeles inner-city junior high school where gang fights on the school grounds are not unknown. He also coaches an after school weightlifting club for Los Angeles Youth Services. His own hard-earned trophies that once fought for space with the multitude of plants in his apartment have been given to his students in school-sponsored weightlifting contests.

Mike’s summer job, presenting bodybuilding seminars, is also with the Los Angeles Youth Services. The series was originated and taught by Frank and Christine Zane a few years back. Now it’s Mike Armstrong who travels from school to school throughout the sprawling Los Angeles Unified School District, often putting 600 miles a week on his car. “I go to two or three different schools a day, and the programs are open to anyone in the community from junior high school age on up. One day I was pleasantly surprised to learn that one of the four women powerlifters attending a seminar was a fellow ceramics teacher!”

He appears to be a natural-born teacher. Young people naturally gravitate to him, even during his “off duty” hours. “They come and ask, ‘What can I do to get this muscle to grow?” I tell them what exercises they should do. I also tell them that the muscle won’t grow unless they do the exercises, not just think about doing them. I have even helped students learn to read with Muscular Development. Junior high school kids’ interest in bodybuilding is fantastic!

I think bodybuilding is an excellent discipline — it teaches kids that they can get results if they set a goal and then work toward it. This is an especially valuable lesson to kids raised in the inner city where creative thinking and efforts toward positive goals may be lacking in their environment. They have so much potential!”

Mike’s Cherokee Indian heritage is evident in his straight dark hair, brown eyes, and skin that never seems to burn as he turns browner and browner in California’s summer sun. He has a quiet, stolid nature and rarely becomes loud or visibly angry. But his voice raises a few notches when he discusses judging. “No gym owner should ever be allowed to judge a contest if someone from his gym is in it! Just recently I personally saw a respected gym owner trying to throw a contest in favor of the representative of his gym. And I though to myself, if this man does it, then it must be common!”

To obtain and maintain his symmetrical physique, Mike has carefully designed his training program to exercise every muscle of a muscle group from every angle every time a body part is worked. “I am definitely not a believer in those new-trend routines where you run in the gym, race through two or three exercises for a couple of body parts, and are showered and dressed in 20 minutes. That’s just no way to develop symmetry and good tie-ins. I wish it worked for me, but with few angles worked, there is the danger of developing an incomplete physique. You don’t have to spend all day in the gym, though. If you train hard — with intensity — to failure, you can get away with fewer sets. The key words are intensity to failure.

I mentally pick apart each muscle group, isolate each component, do a warm-up set, then two sets of four to five exercises for each. I usually work out alone, but when I have a training partner, I used forced negatives. The hardest part of training for symmetry is learning to feel each muscle in your mind as well as in your body. It takes a lot of concentration, the same kind of inward focusing used in many meditation techniques. I love to train to loud, hard rock! The morgue-like silence in some gyms breaks my concentration. Perhaps it’s not the silence, but the laughing, joke telling, and general B.S. that you hear from the social lifters. If the music is loud, you don’t hear the talk.”

The weight room at the University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa stands as evidence of Mike’s determination to use the best possible weight training equipment. While in school there he very quickly tired of traveling off campus to a poorly equipped YMCA. Since no one but football players could use the campus weight equipment, Mike began a crusade to develop a campus weight room for the other enthusiasts. After many visits to everyone from the Dean on down, funds were allotted for a weight training facility which both men and women could use. Along with it, Mike started the Bama Barbell Club. The University of Alabama at Tuscaloosa now boasts one of the finest, most progressive weight training facilities in the South. Contests are held regularly, and the gym recently doubled in size.

Mike’s basic diet is the same as that of most other serious bodybuilders — lots of protein and little refined sugar or refined carbohydrates. “As I learn more and more about nutrition, I find myself modifying my diet, making it more balanced. I’ve replaced much of the red meat in my off season diet with chicken and fish, which has a lower fat content. Fresh fruit, vegetables, and tofu are now a larger percentage of my diet. I also drink a lot of fresh juice, the kind you prepare yourself or buy at health food stores. I believe that once your body gets used to natural foods it will rebel if you try to fuel it with cake, cookies, and processed foods that are loaded with preservatives . . . although sometimes I love to ‘pig out’ on pastries!

Despite all the new theories, the best pre-contest diet is the old standby — high protein, low calorie, low carbohydrate. I’ve tried the high carbohydrate, low protein diet, but it just didn’t work with my metabolism.” Mike’s curiosity about nutrition has also led to considerable study and some experimentation with the still controversial merits of vegetarian diets and juice fasts. “After a long stretch of pre-contest dieting, I feel that a juice fast may be very useful as a post-contest cleansing diet.”

Peaking has been a problem for Mike, but he is overcoming this by a trial-and-error method. “It’s very hard to find and maintain the fine line between smoothness, caused by too much fluid in the system, and the drawn look from not enough fluids. In past contests I’ve used the bulk-up/cut-down method. Now, throughout my training for future contests, I keep my weight right around my contest weight.”

Mike has had to develop an exceptional amount of self-discipline in order to continue in competitive bodybuilding while coping with the pressures of his job. “I do it by very strict scheduling. It calls for a lot of sacrifices in other areas of my life, but right now, at least, it’s worth it. I train five or six days a week. On school days I get up at 4:30 a.m. and am in the gym by 5:30. After my workout, I commute 20 miles on a jam-packed freeway to be at work by 8:00 a.m. After work it’s back to the gym again. I often have dinner at a local café that caters to bodybuilders’ diets, and many nights I’m sound asleep by 7:30 p.m.”

Time is very precious to Mike, as he indicates. “Although I’ve chosen to devote a large portion of my life to bodybuilding, I sure wish I had more time for travel, art, and books. And music — there just is never enough time! I love music, as anyone who has ever tripped over the hundred of records in my apartment can tell you. My secret wish is, someday, to play the piano.

Even a quick Sunday afternoon trip to the San Gabriel mountains with a certain lady is something extra special to me. Besides the fine company, I find a break from hard training really beneficial. I go back to the gym with more energy and enthusiasm.

I guess if I had to be remembered for just one thing, it would be for my art. I can feel it building inside me because, you know, art is the projection of everything you’ve ever felt and experienced. Certainly bodybuilding is art. I wish that it were as easy to mold my physique as it is to mold the clay that I have in my hands all day. But then, where would be the challenge?”

Mike Armstrong, an artist who expresses himself in many forms of art — ceramics, painting, photography, and bodybuilding. And, what other bodybuilder do you know who sets up his easel next to his car on the top floor of the Santa Monica parking structure? “I’m across the street from the gym. I can paint before or after a workout and still get a good suntan doing it. At this spot I have a fantastic view of Santa Monica and the Pacific Ocean. Nobody cares if I spill a little paint, and there are plenty of health food restaurants around for a quick snack,” he adds. Mike leans back in his easy chair and smiles, quite content in his new California lifestyle.

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Note by neckberg: Thanks to Irene for sending this great piece of bodybuilding history. I enjoyed it!

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