Some people argue that Mike Mahler is the exception to the rule; he's huge, powerful, and thrives on a vegetable-based diet. As a respected member of the fitness community, he's got the strength to challenge stereotypes and prove that you can get big and strong without eating any animal products (Paleo what?). He has built an empire as impressive as his quads, with DVDs, books, and a voracious following. He has trained some of the most impressive athletes like five-time UFC Middleweight Champion, Frank Shamrock and helps form routines for military and contact sports trainers and coaches. Mike answered a few question I threw at him last week:

The Discerning Brute: What the hell is a Kettlebell, why have some of us not heard of it, and why should we get down with it?

Mike Mahler: Glad that you asked. Imagine a black bowling ball with a suitcase handle on it and you have an idea of what a kettlebell looks like. A kettlebell is a big hunk of iron that comes in several sizes: 8lbs, 12lbs, 18lbs, 26lbs, 35lbs,44lbs, 53lbs, 70lbs, 80lbs, 88lbs, 97lbs and for super strong men and women 105lbs! You can do standard weight training exercises with kettlebells such as: bench presses, curls, and rows. However, the unique of kettlebells is derived from ballistic (fast exercise) work such as: snatches, swings, cleans, and jerks.

In addition to giving you incredible muscular endurance when done in high repetitions, with a proper nutrition plan any excess fat that you have will melt off rapidly. Ballistic exercises are not the only exercises that you can benefit from, kettlebell exercises such as: the Turkish get-up, Bent Press, and Windmill will develop a rock-hard midsection and increase shoulder flexibility and stability. As a result many chiropractors are using kettlebells with their patients for rehab.

If you are a man or woman that wants to increase size and strength, try doing some of my favorite kettlebell exercises: Double Clean and Press, Double Front Squat, Renegade Row, Double Swing, and the Double Clean.

If you are a man or woman that wants to lose weight and tighten up your glutes, quads, abs, and arms, apply a steady diet of kettlebell training ballistic work with some low rep kettlebell training strength work and you are all set.

DB: You're huge and ripped... what is the general reaction you get when people find out you don't eat animals?

MM: People are very surprised to say the least. Most people respond by saying most vegans they meet are small and skinny. This stereotype is often true. However, there are many high-level strength coaches such as Jon Hinds of Monkey Bar Gym and Ory Ortega of Briga Training that thrive on a plant-based diet. Both have told me that they have never felt better. Many athletes also excel on a plant-based diet such as MMA superstars Jake Shields and Mac Danzig. Both look great and display incredible athleticism.

As more athletes and physical culture experts show that one can thrive on a plant-based diet, more people will realize that they can make it work as well.

Animal protein is directly correlated with being big and strong and that message is sold to the public very effectively.

DB: You've been called "one of the premier strength trainers in the world " by mainstream fitness experts. Why do you think so few people in the fitness world take plant-based nutrition seriously?

MM: People often feel that I am the exception to the rule. This is a clever way to justify avoiding change in life. Just say someone is special and that others will not get the same results, and you can stay where you are in life. People do this everyday in a multitude of contexts.

Animal protein is directly correlated with being big and strong and that message is sold to the public very effectively.  Most people take the path of least resistance. In addition, there is social pressure to eat meat especially in the fitness industry. If you try a plant-based diet and tell anyone, just about everyone you know that eats meat will try to talk you out of it. Very few people have the backbone to handle peer pressure and cave very easily.

I met a guy at a party one time that used to be a vegan but gave it up. I asked him why and he stated that he was tired of feeling out of the loop at social functions. This was a grown man by the way not a teenager. Eric Hoffer has a great book on mass movements and how people will do anything to be part of the group. Very few people like to stick out and are willing to go out of their way to accommodate others. This is why our country and world is in the shape that it is in. No one wants to say what needs to be said and instead just want to go with the flow.

At the same time, there are a lot more trainers that are trying plant based diets these days and people are much more open to it then they used to be. This does not mean that they will give up meat completely, but it does mean that they are adding more plant based food to their diets.

DB: You've said that strength training is about more than just physique. It's also about mental strength and character. Can you explain why this concept is important?

MM: It is not enough to just have a strong body. That is not real strength in my opinion. I see big and physically strong men and women frequently that cannot think for themselves and are at the mercy of the people around them. On the other hand, I know many intelligent people that excel in academia and in the business world. Yet, physically, many of them are weak and would be in serious trouble in any situation that required physical strength. They may be mentally strong, but overall they are weak.

For real strength and vitality a multifaceted approach is crucial. Eating right and training properly are both of course very important but we need to go beyond that. If you do not have a career that gets you excited and friends that hold you accountable to be your best, then you are really missing out. When you take charge of your life on multiple fronts, you realize how exciting and fulfilling life can be. That does not mean it all needs to be done at the same time. Focus on one component at a time. Perhaps you are out of shape and starting a solid training program and nutrition plan is the best move to make. Once you start losing fat and feeling better you will automatically start thinking about other areas of your life to improve. Never get complacent and always work on taking it to the next level. Maintenance is an illusion as we are either getting better or worse.

DB: Sometimes I feel like a broken record when people ask me about my lifestyle. Are there any misconceptions you continuously have to dispel again and again?

MM: There are several that I have to dispel often:

  1. 1. Getting enough protein on a vegan diet.
  2. 2. The myth of  the benefits of cardio for fat loss. Fat loss is about hormone optimization not burning a few calories. The best way to win the war on fat is too build as much lean muscle as possible. Hormone optimization is a crucial component of physique composition goals and over all well-being.
  3. 3. The fact that focusing on isolation training such as curls is the way to build a strong and muscular physique. The reality is compound exercises such as deadlifts, squats, and military presses,  provide the most bang for the buck.

DB: I often say that mainstream male identity is a roadblock to sustainability. Do you see any problems with mainstream machismo culture or male-identity in general when it comes to ideas about strength and power?

MM: I think men and women have an identity crisis right now. We have differences for a reason and these are things we should embrace not try to suppress.

I am not trying to say that women should cook and clean at home and that men should dominate. However, men should not be afraid to embrace their masculinity and women should not be afraid to embrace being feminine.

Masculinity is often associated with being sexist, physically aggressive, mean spirited, and acting like a moron. Thus many men feel they need to put on a face of being a jerk in order to be a man. Being compassionate is not often associated with masculinity even though it takes great courage and inner strength to be compassionate.

Being masculine is not about being a jerk that lets others define what being a man is. It is about taking charge of your life and having the courage to express your beliefs and stand up for what you believe in. It is about being able to make your own decisions and not be a pinball in the game of life. Real masculinity is strength of character and being a courageous member of society.

Unfortunately our society these days has a lack of real role models and also rites of passage into manhood. As a result we have a lot of lost souls that do not know how to be real.

DB: Let's say I'm Joe Shmo... the only exercise I do is walking to and from my house, office, and car, but I have dreams of being in good shape. What is the first thing I need to do to set me on course?

MM: Increase the intensity in a gradual and systemic manner. Incorporate strength training into your routine with a focus on compound exercises such as the military press, bench press, squat, deadlift, pull-up, and bent over row. These exercises work multiple muscle groups and provide the most bang for your buck. Try doing 2-3 full body workouts to get started. Three sets of each exercise in the 8-12 rep range is a good starting point.

In addition to strength training, incorporate some high intensity cardio such as sprinting, kettlebell ballistic work, sledgehammer tire strikes, jump rope interval work etc.

Clean up your diet by focusing on organic real food. Get all carbohydrates from fruits and veggies and load up on nuts and seeds, which are great for energy, hormone optimization, and recovery.

Double Kettlebell Military Press

DB: What's next for Mike Mahler?

MM: I have several projects in the works. One I am doing a joint venture with strongman competitor and top strength coach Mark Philippi. The project is a DVD that shows how to get super strong and fit with barbells, dumbbells, and body-weight exercises. This will be a great DVD for all levels.

Next, I have another kettlebell DVD in the works, which will be for advanced trainees that want to take their training to the next level.

Finally, I am putting out a book soon on my life philosophy called “Live Life Aggressively! What self help gurus should be telling you.” It is a hardcore approach on how to take charge of your life and the importance of brutal self inventory in order to evolve and thrive.