Written by Peter McGough
14 October 2016


Kai Greene: The Early Days

Before He was a 3-Time Mr. Olympia Runner-Up



The road to professional superstardom for Kai Greene has been long and quite remarkable. This is his story of his rise to marquee status bodybuilder.

 Evolution: Stage One


 Kai Greene arrived in this world on July 12, 1975, in a rundown section of Brooklyn, New York. The number one record that week was Love Will Keep Us Together by Captain & Tennille; a title that was 180 degrees from what this newborn was to experience in the early life that lay ahead of him. More apt was the movie smash of that summer, Jaws, a story of murky waters and the dangers lurking therein. This is not a narrative of loving parents shepherding the youngster through the often mean streets of his birthplace. It’s not something Greene dwells on; suffice to say that he became a ward of court and into his late teens was ferried around various foster homes, orphanages and institutions. At age 11 he became inspired by action star giants Sylvester Stallone and Arnold Schwarzenegger and in trying to follow their muscular lead made primitive weights out of buckets and paint cans. He could never imagine that over 20 years later he would be standing onstage with Schwarzenegger to twice (2009 and 2010) accept the first place trophy of the contest that bears The Terminator’s name.


 The age-old conundrum that is asked is, is our character determined by our environment or some element deep inside the DNA we are born with? It’s a pertinent question in this feature because it must be ventured that Greene’s existence is one that would have crushed other teenagers and have them spin out of control, turn to crime or drugs. That his dark environment did not cause him to make it even darker would suggest that his struggles only made him more resilient. His ultimate victory was he survived in never completely accepting that it seemed the door of life’s opportunities would permanently remain firmly closed and locked to him. And then the door slowly creaked open …. just a little.


 Evolution: Stage Two


 The 5th Avenue Gym in the Park Slope area of Brooklyn has been described as a dirty, dingy, sometimes smelly, dark basement gym with no natural light. It’s not the sort of place which houses rubber balls and runs Zumba classes. It’s as basic as you can get. The sort of gym where spittoons would be removed for threatening to give the place a good name. No matter, when Kai Greene, aged 16, walked into it on a humid summer’s day in 1991, he found a home. He took to the gnarly feel of the battered weights as naturally as a politician takes liberties. Almost immediately he had a structure to his life; somewhere he had to be. Very soon he was working the front desk and undertaking cleaning duties. He was still living in a group home but never really felt safe there and so on many nights he would sleep in the gym. The gym really was his home and its inhabitants became his family. The big name at the 5TH Avenue muscle emporium at that time was Bernard Sealy who had finished 14th at the 1990 Mr. Olympia. Kai looked upon him as some sort of a God. Scanning the magazines he was impressed with 8-time Mr. Olympia Lee Haney, for his great size and tiny waist and by Russ Testo for his inventive and unique posing displays. Obviously platform-dancing skills resonated with this bodybuilding newcomer.


 Along with spurring physical development, this new life at the 5th Avenue Gym helped him grow mentally. In its sweaty environs he was in control of the weights he lifted, of the sets he completed, and it was the gateway to forming the habit of controlling things outside the gym. He started to look at things differently. In the gym, for the first time in his life, he felt he had a purpose – that he was achieving something. Each workout, each best lift was a victory. It was here that he first learnt the meaning of “work ethic” and how to apply it.

 Within a year of finding his 5th Avenue Gym lifeline Greene was entering local contests and progressed to the national level finishing second to Robert Washington in the heavyweight division at the 1997 NPC Team Universe Championships – a drug tested event. A year later he was third at the same event behind runner-up Les Jennings and winner Skip LaCour. In 1999 he finally won the heavyweight and overall at the Team Universe, which qualified for him to compete at that year’s IFBB Amateur World Championships in Slovakia where he finished sixth. From the early shots of Kai it can clearly be seen he had the muscle insertions and detail he just needed to build size. The genetics were there, and at that time he was in every sense of the word a natural. He stayed out of competition for five years before entering the 2004 rendition of the NPC Team Universe, where he again won the Heavyweight and overall titles, which then entitled him to IFBB pro status. In the years before that 2004 triumph he had lived rough, slept on other people’s couches, and done whatever he had to do to survive. A consequence of his bouncing days is a scar that runs from above his right eyebrow to his chin.


 As he prepared for pro action the bodybuilding community at large gave him a low expectations rating; a debut of 14th spot at the 2005 New York Pro seemingly justifying his unheralded entrance. The next year he did not make the first 15 at the Ironman Invitational or New York Pro and then eked out 14th spot at the Colorado Pro. Kai Greene was meeting expectations. He was a braided hairdo and scintillating posing skills in search of a top tier pro physique. He’d never be a top pro. That’s all she wrote.

 Evolution: Stage Three


 May 12, 2007 was the day “she” started writing again. It was the occasion of that year’s New York Pro and 19 athletes had assembled to dispute honors. Kai Greene was number 18 and just before the Big Apple masses would have their first a look at him the press gang were busily compiling their top six from what they’d previously seen. “Kai Greene was next, but he’ll be an also ran” was the consensus.” Then the also ran walked out and elbows began to be nudged. “Wow, Kai sure packed on some muscle” was the collective murmur. He sure had, being about 240 pounds –20 pounds heavier than the previous year. The talk of the contest was Kai’s improvement; He was a revelation. In the end he was placed sixth, but should have been higher. This was seemingly proved three weeks later at the Keystone Pro when he placed third behind winner Dennis Wolf and runner-up Desmond Miller, but ahead of New York Pro champ, Branch Warren. Even better seven days later he took first and $25,000 at the Colorado Pro. The also-ran had arrived.


 So what had sparked this growth spurt in a 32 year old who had been training for 16 years? Well among other factors in 2006 he started working with contest advisor and former competitor, Oscar Arden. The two had first become acquainted at one of Kai early contests, with Arden’s main memory of that encounter being, “I saw this kid with crazy ass hair and a crazy ass routine.” The pair first examined Kai’s training. Over the years he had drifted towards using a lot of isolation and machine movements under the premise that such specialization helped him better recruit the mind/muscle connection. It probably did, but he wasn’t gaining a ton of muscle with that approach. Under Oscar’s tutelage the cornerstone of Greene’s routines became basic movements such as squat, deadlifts, bench presses, with which he could use heavier poundages and stimulate more muscle growth. The benefits of all the new factors invoked were plain to see in the 2007 edition of Kai Greene.

 With this newfound muscle generating newfound funds the breakthrough of athlete of 2007 was able to relocate to an apartment in a project complex in the Flatbush Gardens area of central Brooklyn. He lived there until early 2012 when he bought a town house. Still, he didn’t feel ready for the Olympia and bypassed it in 2007 and 2008 (in that latter year his record was Arnold Classic 3rd; New York Pro, 1st). In 2009 he won the Arnold Classic, the Australian Pro and was third in his Olympia debut.


 Evolution: Stage Four


 In March 2010 Greene won his second successive Arnold Classic title, relegating Mr. Olympia in waiting Phil Heath to runner-up spot. By now his contest bodyweight had grown to 255 pounds and going into the Olympia he had more momentum than Bill Kazmaier on a runaway bobsled. Like the Las Vegas’ Orleans arena stage in September he had Mr. Olympia written all over him.

 In the biggest shock of the contest he slumped to seventh place. He wasn’t included in the first two callouts and stood there as the best placed spectator, as the title he felt certain could be his was fought over by others. It is said the result left him almost heartbroken. It was the lowest point of his whole career. For weeks he didn’t want to talk about it or go on the Internet to see what was being said. He insists he trained and dieted harder than ever before but based on photographic evidence agrees he was off. He didn’t blame anyone: didn’t blame the judges -- feeling they were right; didn’t blame Oscar. His belief was that people can help advise, cajole but essentially you have to take total responsibility for everything and anything that happens to you.


 A couple of months after the 2010 Olympia Kai and Oscar ended their contest prep relationship and the two-time Arnold Classic winner began working with George Farah. Their initial venture was a win at the New York Pro in May 2011, followed by third spot at that year’s Mr. Olympia when Phil Heath became the new champion. With the target now being the aesthetic Heath and not the sheer mass of Jay Cutler, Farah figured a change of emphasis was necessary. “I got opinions from people in the game who I respect. They told me, ‘Kai should be more streamlined. Bodybuilding is not about being a mass monster --its about lines and conditioning.’”

 The duo set to work to deliver that new package in 2012. For the first time in his pro career Kai didn’t do an early season show and concentrated fully on the Olympia. A major part of the strategy was that Kai would stay leaner in the offseason than he had previously when he would tip the scales at over 300 pounds. This time around he never went above 285 pounds. They worked on bringing his waist down and generally working on refinement rather than an onslaught to build sheer mass. The result was that on September 28th, 2012, Kai Greene walked onto the Olympia stage with a re-invented physique. Gone was the blocky waist, replaced by one that had been reduced and added immensely to his shape and lines. This new, and best ever, version of Kai Greene had announced his arrival as Phil Heath’s main challenger. And that’s the way it has been these past three years (2012, ’13, ’14) as he carved out the runner-up spot on each occasion.


 Evolution: Stage Five


At nearly 40 years of age Kai Greene has established himself as a bodybuilder from a mold we’ve not seen before both in a physique sense and a personal sense. His musculature appears almost cartoonish at times; like something he’d skillfully sketch during leisurely moments. His persona, complete with braided hair, and groundbreaking posing skills (although as the posing round doesn’t count anymore he may as well stand on his head …. wait, he’s already done that) all combine to mark him as the sport’s most avant-garde competitor. On the back of three consecutive Olympia runner-up spots he goes into this year’s event on September 19th leaving us guessing what he has in store for us next. Watch this space, because like – I’ve said before – watching Kai is like a Coen Brothers movie, the storyline is full of twists and turns, and fascinating to watch, even though sometimes you don’t know what the hell is going on.