March 2000

Pillar of Strength

Utah Jazz MVP Karl Malone loves to pump iron


By Pete Williams


The view from Karl Malone's doorstep is jaw dropping. On one side, Salt Lake City fans out below -- a growing metropolis in the valley of the Wasatch Mountains. Behind us, the peaks rise skyward. They serve not only as a pleasant backdrop but also, on many days, as the setting for one of Malone's grueling workouts.


At the moment, Malone is watching workers install a multi-layered pond in his front yard. There will be fountains and waterfalls and trout -- all things Malone loves -- but what has captured his attention is a machine dropping a boulder into place. Malone loves the sight of heavy equipment; he recently bought a dump truck so that he and his son can "move some dirt around." But he also has a hearty appreciation for hard work and lifting heavy weights.

The 20,000-square-foot dream home on 22 acres is a testament to both. There is also a ranch in Arkansas, a future retreat in Alaskaand numerous business interests, all the results of a 14-year career in the NBA marked by an unparalleled, obsessive dedication to self-improvement and conditioning.

At 6-foot-9, 256 pounds, Malone is as solid as the boulders that will frame his trout pond. Named one of the NBA's All-Time 50 Greatest Players in 1997, he also informally ranks as the greatest power forward ever. He recently passed Michael Jordan into third place on the league's all-time scoring list. Perhaps no player in basketball history has combined raw power with quick moves and a soft shooting touch better than the Utah Jazz player known as "The Mailman."

"Everything I have is the result of hard work," Malone says, gesturing toward his home. "Nothing's ever been handed to me. My attitude has always been that no one is going to outwork me."

When the first two months of the 1998-99 season were canceled because of a labor dispute, many players stopped working out. Malone, meanwhile, was pushing his body to the limit, working out his customary 5 to 6 hours a day. He spent long stretches in the weight room, hiked and ran through the mountains and pushed himself through grueling conditioning routines he has created.

It's not that Malone was any more optimistic about a quick resolution to the lockout. He just couldn't bring himself to stop working out. At 36, he is perhaps the league's best-conditioned player, a man so dedicated to fitness that Mark McKown, the team's strength coach, has a difficult time getting him to take a day off.

"He's extremely obsessive about it," McKown says. He's got more knowledge about what what he needs to do for his body than the vast majority of athletes out there. And he's ultra-competitive about it. If I tell him someone did so many reps or finished a run in a certain time, he will not rest until he's done better."

When play finally got under way last season, Malone had much more of an advantage than the players who let themselves get soft during the work stoppage. He won his second Most Valuable Player award, the latest honor bestowed on this superstar. The trophy is heavy, which is only appropriate for a man who pumped tons of iron to obtain it.

"You could call it an obsession, but it's what I've done for 15 years and it's worked for me," Malone said.
"It would be hard for someone to come and tell me now that I have to stop lifting weights as much when this is what I've done. When you play at this level, every little edge you get, you want to make it count."

Unlike many NBA players who are touted for greatness in grade school, Malone wasn't a preordained basketball star. One of nine children raised by a single mother in near-poverty in rural Louisiana, Malone was just the 13th player selected in the 1985 NBA draft. He didn't have much of a jump shot, was a poor free-throw shooter, and was considered something of a project.

He entered the NBA with the same weight he carries now between 255-260 pounds -- but with a body fat percentage much higher than his current 3.6 percent. After enduring the physical pounding and marathon travel of his rookie season, Malone decided it was time to do something different. So he hit the weights.

"Without a doubt, the weights have been my edge," Malone says. "I wanted to find a way to separate myself from everyone else. Back then, everyone was saying, 'Don't touch a weight in the summer.' There used to be an old myth that if you lifted, it would mess up your shot."

Now, the only time Malone refrains from serious lifting is on game days, and even then he will do a light shoulder routine as a warm up. He has weight equipment in each of his homes, including the Alaskahunting lodge. "Even after my career, I'll still be lifting," he says. "I'm going to have the quality of things I need to train before I get my day started. It's part of my ritual, plus it's a good healthy living."

So admired is Malone's work ethic that other player have asked the Mailman to train them. Except for teammates, Malone has refused all queries. "Maybe after I retire," He says. "For now, why help out the competition?"

His teammates have been inspired by his routine. Two years ago, center Greg Ostertag signed a $40-million contract extension with the Jazz, then was quoted in a magazine saying he was "lazy" and didn't have Malone's work ethic. Malone was furious. These days, they get along better, in part because of Ostertag's renewed dedication to conditioning. "You see him and it inspires you to go heavier and harder," says Ostertag, who has since dropped 10 pounds and improved his strength.

These days, anyone can pick up Malone's training secrets by purchasing "Karl Malone's Body Shop," a four-cassette series of workout videos. Malone is also the first major athlete to have a Web site devoted to fitness:

The final cassette -- "A First Class Life" -- chronicles the hard work that took Malone from Louisianato the NBA. "Most workout videos feature actresses, ex-models and aerobic gurus," says Grant Monson, co-producer. "We believe Karl has a wide appeal to both men and women."

Remarkably, the entire video series was shot in three days, largely because of Malone's knowledge of fitness. He comes across on camera the same way he does in person: passionate, hard-charging and motivational.

"I can serve as your coach, but motivation comes from within," he says. "I hope people will buy the series because they see how Karl Malone looks; that I did all of this myself and that you'll want to change the way you look and feel. I merely took what God gave me and tried to make it better. The video is real; everything in there I do. I guess part of my reason for doing this video is that I got tired of everyone asking me how I train."

Malone loves pumping iron. While he uses machines and barbells, the bulk of his workout is with dumbbells. He incorporates medicine balls, balance boards, stability balls -- even bungee cord and parachutes -- to increase strength, speed metabolism and improve range of motion.

In the video, Malone outlines much of his philosophy in his "Six Secrets of Fitness." The first is a series of dumbbell presses he calls "Three-in-ones." Sitting on the ground, he takes a heavy plate and presses it horizontally for one set of eight to 12 reps, at a 45-degree angle for another, then above his head for the final series.

He used the balance board, the second secret, for dumbbell curls and dumbbell triceps extensions. By forcing himself to concentrate on balance, he enables himself to build stability that will keep him from getting knocked over during games. He also does a series of lifts, twists, throws and catches with a medicine ball -- Secret No. 4 -- to strengthen his abdominals and torso.

His fifth secret thing is a stability ball, which he uses on certain days for all dumbbell lifts and squats (against a wall) and for hamstring work. On the track, he uses mini-parachutes and bungee cords to produce resistance when he runs.

The final secret -- "power hiking"-- sounds simple, but it's perhaps the most grueling. Malone puts on a pair of hightop boots and hikes, jogs, slides and runs through the mountains behind his home, climbing 3,200 feet until he's reached an altitude 8,000 feet above sea level. Sometimes, he'll run up hills backward wearing a weight vest and come back down in a wide stance similar to the position a basketball player would employ on defense.

Why so many different routines? "Workouts can get boring and monotonous if you do the same thing over and over," Malone says. "I wanted to come up with something that was fun and different, but still had the same effect."

Malone's conditioning has prolonged a career that shows no signs of slowing down, even as contemporaries such as Michael Jordan and Charles Barkley move into retirement. Entering the 1999-2000 season, Malone had just missed two games because of injury in a 14-year career. Last summer, he signed a four-year contract extension worth $67 million. Should the Jazz pick up the option on a fifth year, Malone would retire just a few months short of his 41st birthday, possibly as the NBA's all-time leading scorer.

So impressive is his build that when he competed in a professional wrestling event in 1998, he looked right at home, even though his physique is all natural. Malone does not so much as use creatine.

Not surprisingly, Malone could hold his own in a wrestling ring, even if the action was scripted. Since joining the NBA in 1985, the game has become more physical, with bodies clashing under the boards and arms flailing everywhere. Malone is quick to admit that Lakers' center Shaquille O'Neal, who is four inches taller and at least 40 pounds heavier, is the league's strongest man. But no one has better used the combination of speed and power to his advantage than Malone.

Much of Malone's workout might seem like a bodybuilding routine, but it's actually very basketball-specific. "A lot of it is about being strong," Malone says. "You have to have body control. You have to be able to finish plays, which is strength. You have to be able to run all day, which is endurance."

"But I enjoy it because it's not part of basketball. I don't touch a ball during the summer. It's my way of getting away from basketball so when I come back to camp, I'm excited about it. Basketball is such high intensity and so stressful that I want to get away from it. But because of my conditioning, I'm fired up about it again when I do come back."

Malone manages to work out up to six hours a day around an NBA schedule and a long list of business endeavors that include car dealerships, Burger King restaurants, Jiffy Lube outlets and a new line of stores that feature hunting and fishing equipment. He and his wife, Kay, even opened a bed and breakfast recently. His workout routine, he says, serves as the foundation for all his endeavors.

"I've had people who doubted Karl Malone all his life," he says. "Growing up as a kid inLouisiana, people always told me I couldn't do something. Now, this might come across as a cocky or conceited, but when I was 5 years old, I knew I was going to be the best, or one of the best at something. I knew what was instilled in me from my mom on working hard and I was never afraid of work. I'm not saying I'm more talented than the next guy, but I will go out on a limb and say that you will not outwork me. I've been fortunate to have been given an opportunity and I'm not about to let it slide."

© Copyright 2000 Muscular Development