Michael Phelps is learning to walk. The most decorated Olympian ever says it, and laughs, but then he claims straight-faced that’s he’s probably taken more strokes in a pool than actual steps, and with more than two-thirds of his life spent swimming, he probably has. He’s started playing golf (an 11 handicap and dropping), and he plays chef for his wife, Nicole Johnson, and their three boys, cooking all dinners and most breakfasts. “Taking six months off after I retired and just getting back into the motion, I’m starting to feel like my normal self on land,” Phelps, 35, tells The Manual.
After Phelps retired in 2016, he took a half a year to relax and unsurprisingly gained 30 pounds. It was a combination of diet and exercise (largesse in the former, lack thereof in the latter), and as he took stock of himself in the mirror, soft and still aching in his shoulders, he made a promise: He’d get back on horse before it was too late. Partnering with his longtime swimming coach, he radically shifted his training for more time out of the pool and on dry land. “My fitness has never and will never just be a hobby,” he says. “I’m out there every day trying to get better.”
Phelps has shed the pounds, getting so lean that rumors swirled he was considering a Tokyo Olympics comeback. (To be clear, he’s not.) But that hasn’t stopped him from training like he was, albeit not in the water. “I’m always intense,” he says. “That’s the only way I was able to do what I did.”
From his home in Phoenix, he spends 60 to 90 minutes, three times a week, in the gym lifting weights. On his off days, he’ll do some kind of cardio workout, which might include swimming. “It’s a mental break for me, a therapy session, because it’s the only time I can get peace and quiet,” he says. “It’s challenging when you’ve got three boys.”
Of late, he’s been working out with his wife, the former Miss California USA Nicole Phelps, at their home gym. The pandemic has presented challenges — “We’re still waiting on products,” he says, just like the rest of the country — but Phelps has been enjoying it, seeing her learn things and grow stronger. Unsurprisingly, it’s their relationship that has seen the biggest gains. “When we’re in the gym, that’s our time, and we cherish that.”
Even with a shared desire for fitness, Phelps and his wife haven’t slid seamlessly into alternating reps. “I like to motivate, and my way of motivating is to scream,” he says. Needless to say, Nicole doesn’t respond to the same stimulus. And then there’s her mindset. Scan her Instagram and you’ll see a few surreptitious photos snapped when Phelps is game-faced and getting after it. Still, their partnership in the weight room has been wonderful. “It’s amazing, it really is. You see how much your relationship grows and changes,” he says. “I’m thankful to have my best friend, my wife, with me all the time. We literally are connected at the hip all day.”
Without reservation, Phelps recommends working out with your significant other. These times provide a unique way of intimacy while also bettering your short- and long-term health and wellness. Still, there are a few points he recommends. First, start light: “You don’t want to overdo something early,” he says. So maybe skip the deadlifts and grueling CrossFit workouts and instead consider bodyweight-only routines like the HIIT workout he recently released via YouTube. Next, leave your eye-bulging grunts for another time. Instead, make it fun and keep it light. Maybe you won’t see bright lights by its end, but that doesn’t mean you and your partner didn’t benefit. “There’s something to be said for just getting your body into the motion,” he says.
Finally, after you two finish, diet is as important as the workout itself. “If you want to gain muscle, you’ve got to put the calories back in,” he says. Of late, Phelps and his family have been a big fan of a smoothie concoction which includes spinach, avocado, banana, cacao nibs, figs, and Silk Ultra, a plant-based protein drink. He tops it with fresh mint and adds them all in a blender. “It’s so much better than chocolate milk,” he says. “As I get older, I pay more attention to what is going into my body.”
Even with the glory of Olympic gold behind him, Phelps’ future is still studded with goals. His eponymous nonprofit foundation, which works to bring water safety and healthy living to underserved communities, continues to grow, and his golf game improves with every round. “The biggest thing for me is just learning the mechanics of it,” he says. Dropping his handicap to five will be easy, he thinks. “But to get down to zero will be exponentially harder.” He even has a few more fitness goals to notch along the way, despite his athletic success.
“Get some abs,” he says, “and get some guns. I want to try to get some big muscles.” His body is already starting to respond, and who knows? Arnold Schwarzenegger came out of a five-year retirement to win the 1980 Mr. Olympia, so Phelps could certainly achieve a sleeve-popping front double-bicep pose. “My triceps are starting to get back, and once they get back, then I have the freedom to go.”
But his biggest goals are now as much his wife’s, and as he watches her grow stronger by the day, focusing on her form, he’s been amazed. He remembers just a week before, witnessing her load a barbell with 135 pounds and execute 20 flawless hip thrusts, “an unbelievable amount of weight from where she started,” he says. “Watching her learn these motions, grow, and perfect them, that’s the coolest thing.”