IFBB pro Mike Mentzer was one of the most successful bodybuilders of his time (1951-2001). The legacy he left to those in the Iron Game is his controversial workout program, Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty™.
Mentzer starting pumping iron at the age of 12 at a bodyweight of 95 pounds. By age 15 he weighed 165 pounds and could bench press 370 pounds. At the age of 18 he started competing in physique competitions, and two years later in 1969 he competed in his first physique competition. In 1976 Mentzer won the Mr. America contest, and in 1978 he won the Mr. Universe contest, becoming the only competitor to earn a perfect score of 300. In 1979 at the Mr. Olympia Mentzer earned another perfect score of 300 in winning the heavyweight division, but was defeated in the overall competition by lightweight winner Frank Zane. Mentzer retired from competition the following year after placing fifth in the Mr. Olympia, claiming the event was rigged.
In 1971, while competing in the Mr. America competition, Mentzer met the winner of that competition, 19-year-old phenom Casey Viator. “Not only was Casey the youngest man, at 19 years of age, to win the coveted title, he was also being favorably compared to Arnold (who was in York that day to check out the upstart). What made Casey even more interesting was the type of training he was doing. While Arnold, Franco, Dave Draper et al. were training up to five hours a day, Casey was training less than three hours a week!” said Mentzer in his book Heavy Duty.
Through Viator, Mentzer met Arthur Jones, founder of Nautilus and later MedX, who was training Viator at the time. Jones impressed upon Mentzer that, for optimal results, workouts must be brutally hard and brief and that training should be infrequent. Said Mentzer of his first conversation with Jones, “So awe-inspiring was his fiery oratory that the leaden fumes of my somnambulistic stupor evaporated in short order. For well over an hour, I listened in rapt attention as Jones explained to me, in the most scrupulously objective language imaginable, the cause-and-effect relationship between intense exercise and muscular growth; and why, in light of the fact that the body's ability to tolerate such demanding exercise is limited, high-intensity training had to be brief and infrequent.”
In the 1980s Jones changed his focus from bodybuilding and general fitness training to developing special machines he marketed to the health care industry to train the neck and lower back. Mentzer stayed with physique/figure transformation, and tried to improve upon Jones’ ideas. Mentzer soon became a popular writer for many publications, eventually became the editor of his own magazine, and wrote several books.
Mentzer believed that working to failure is essential to get the greatest muscle-building results from training. In High-Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way, Mentzer wrote, “Carrying a set to a point where you are forced to utilize 100 percent of your momentary ability is the single most important factor in increasing size and strength.” As such, he used several methods, such as forced reps, to achieve maximum muscular failure.
Another point Mentzer stressed was that only one set for each major muscle group is needed to achieve maximal results. He believed that additional work is counterproductive. For example, in his book Heavy Duty II: Mind and Body, Mentzer wrote, “It only takes one set to failure to trigger the growth mechanism into motion. Any exercise carried on beyond what is required to stimulate growth is over-training, your worst enemy.” Although his early writings suggest training three times a week, Mentzer later said that some individuals may need more rest time between workouts, perhaps by training only once every five to seven days.
Here is one of Mentzer’s earlier workouts (one set to failure for each exercise, generally about 6-9 reps per set):
Day 1 (Chest, Shoulders, Triceps)
A1. Dumbbell Flyes
A2. Incline Press
B1. Dumbbell Lateral Raise
B2. Bent-Over Lateral Raise
C1. Lying Triceps Extension
Day 2 (Lats, Traps, Lower Back, Biceps)
A2. Close-Grip, Palms-Up Pulldowns
B. Bent-Over Barbell Row
Day 3 (Legs, Abs)
A1. Leg Extension
A2. Leg Press
B. Leg Curl
C. Standing Calf Raise
Heavy-duty workouts such as this one by Mentzer can yield impressive results, but such training continues to be highly debated. As for taking five to seven days of rest between workouts, as Mentzer advocated later in his career, the benefits are less clear. According to Ellington Darden, former director of research at Nautilus and author of many books about Arthur Jones’ training, Mentzer’s method of training is performed too infrequently for maximum results. On the other hand, such a program might be a good break for those who are using especially high volume in their training. It’s been said that “fatigue masks fitness,” which may explain why many individuals experience impressive results when they first try Heavy Duty workouts.
Mike Mentzer was a colorful personality who influenced the way many bodybuilders and general fitness individuals trained. Many have claimed exceptional results using Mentzer’s Heavy Duty system, while others have complained of poor results. Whether you agree with his point of view or not, Mentzer’s training methods are still discussed and practiced within the Iron Game community.