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An Introduction to Heavy Duty Training, Part 1

n the early 1970s Mike Mentzer exploded on the bodybuilding scene like a meteorite blazing across the sky. Bodybuilding impresario Joe Weider was quick to spot Mentzer’s mass-market appeal. Thinking that Mentzer, with his handsome face and incredible Herculean physique, would be a wonderful walking endorsement for his products, Weider secured Mike’s services to write for his magazine, Muscle Builder/Power, which was the forerunner to Muscle & Fitness. Weider recognized the coup of having Mike on staff, as he could see that Mentzer had the potential to be one of the greatest bodybuilders of all time.While Mentzer did lend his name and image to certain Weider products, it quickly became obvious that his sights were set on something other than being a beefcake model. For one thing, he was philosophically oriented, well read and could write exceptionally well. 

For another’something that must have come as a shock to Mr. Weider’Mentzer had definite ideas about what he wanted to write. He had little interest in contributing to the filler that passes for writing in most health and fitness publications, and, having himself been an impressionable young bodybuilder who was taken in by the deceptive advertising claims made in those periodicals, Mentzer had no interest in simply toeing the party line to capture the purses of a new generation of starry-eyed newcomers. He was interested in training, in discovering the cause-and-effect nature of the muscle-growth process and in communicating that information to those of like mind.

And that worked out fine’for a while. In his quest to find bodybuilding truth, Mentzer recognized no sacred cows. If he spotted a contradiction or a fallacy in an approach to training or diet that a fellow bodybuilder was taking, he pointed it out (usually directly but never malevolently). Over the years he systematically developed and refined his own radical approach to bodybuilding training. While his contemporaries were performing upward of 20 sets per bodypart and heading to the gym twice a day, seven days a week, Mentzer was experimenting with abbreviated workouts that lasted (then) a mere 45 minutes, consisting of five sets per bodypart, and abbreviated schedules that had him training no more than four days per week. Mentzer believed that if bodybuilders could get the same or better results in bodybuilding by training less, they would have more time to develop their other human attributes, such as intellect and an appreciation for the arts.

His approach struck a chord, and soon his following was growing so quickly that many of his competitors were resentful, while many of the higher-ups in the bodybuilding establishment began to grow concerned. When Mentzer began to question the marketing and promulgation of bodybuilding ‘supplements,’ the establishment started to believe that it had created a monster’a creature who was now running amok and single-handedly destroying a revenue stream that they had labored for many decades to establish.

Mentzer had found his calling’the pursuit of truth’and truth is an exacting mistress, demanding her suitors’ full devotion. He redoubled his devotion to his cause, and his writing took on a new and more passionate intensity. He stepped up his research into the science of muscle growth. The muscle magazines that had once populated his gym bag were now permanently evicted, replaced by physiology and of course philosophy textbooks. He applied the results of his research at home to his efforts in the gym, reducing both the frequency and the volume of his training’and gained even more muscle.

The rest of Mentzer’s story is well known: He never once wavered in his commitment to discovering a better way of training. Despite his tragic passing in June 2001, Mentzer’s legacy and teachings continue to flourish, largely through the efforts of his longtime friend Joanne Sharkey, who has worked tirelessly to keep his teachings alive and ensure that they remain undiluted. Joanne is now president of her own company, Mentzer-Sharkey Enterprises, and she remains devoted to educating the public about Mike’s legacy. Also meriting mention is this magazine, which Mike read throughout his career and which always provided a forum for his views.

As we pass the two-year anniversary of his death, another generation of bodybuilders who would benefit from a valid, consistent and potent system of training that will see them make the best use of their time and effort is heading for the gym. The time is right, therefore, to present an introduction to Mentzer’s revolutionary Heavy Duty Training System’the result of his great quest for truth. Heavy Duty was the training system that made him the most admired and feared bodybuilding authority in the world.

Over the next few installments of this series I’ll present the fundamentals of Mentzer’s system. (Obviously, the complete discussion can only be found in his books, High Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way, Heavy Duty, Heavy Duty II: Mind and Body and Muscles in Minutes’all available through Mike’s official Web site at or via the ad located elsewhere in this issue.) Readers who are already familiar with Heavy Duty can consider this a refresher course, presented mostly in Mentzer’s own words. I have merely edited the materials into a consistent narrative that, I hope, will shed some additional light on his approach.

* * *
Mentzer would typically start off any lecture or discussion of his revolutionary approach to bodybuilding with the following preliminary statement:

My primary goal is not merely to provide the individual with one more training program and expect him to go off and blindly follow it. These days you can buy a muscle magazine for $4 or so and get 20 programs out of it, follow those programs blindly and be no better off than you are now. I will, however, provide you with a detailed outline of a training program [which I’ll discuss in a future installment’J.L.], but beyond that, my primary objective here is to help you develop a firm understanding of some basic facts and some truly valid scientific principles of exercise so that you can learn to think more logically about those subjects for yourself. This will allow you to guide your own efforts more successfully, with a greater degree of confidence and certainty about what you’re doing, so you won’t have to continue to rely on’if you have been’the contradictory information published in the muscle magazines.

Mentzer called his approach to bodybuilding a rational approach, as it was logical, scientific and reality based. The basis of a rational approach to bodybuilding’and life in general’he argued, is the recognition that ‘only the specific appropriate knowledge can lead one to engage in the purposeful action required to successfully achieve a goal.’ The key words here being ‘specific appropriate knowledge.’ Mentzer would ask readers to keep in mind (and I recognize this is an unlikely venue in which to make this particular statement) that muscle magazines are not sacred scripture; they’re not even science journals. They’re simply muscle magazines. What the bodybuilder is looking for’and what Mentzer found’is precisely the specific appropriate knowledge necessary for you to achieve your goals.

The Means by Which Knowledge Is Obtained

As Mentzer was a devout student of the philosophy of Objectivism, he held that we are not instinctual creatures whose knowledge is hard-wired into our nervous systems at birth. In other words, there is no such thing as an ‘instinctive training principle’ that we can rely on to guide us unerringly in our training efforts. Rather than being instinctual creatures, we as a species have to gain our knowledge through a voluntary mental effort; that is, we have to choose to think to gain knowledge. And because most people have never taken the time to learn how to think and judge critically, they often make wrong choices and never thoroughly cultivate the ability to distinguish truth from falsehood. Mentzer believed that phenomenon extended far beyond the realm of bodybuilding’that the entire world was ‘literally awash in a sea of false ideas.’ He did not, however, hold that valid knowledge didn’t exist. On the contrary, he believed that it most certainly does, and, more important, that it’s available to any human mind willing to exercise its power of serious thought.

Mentzer’s favorite analogy in this respect involved the National Aeronautics Space Administration. He would ask his students, ‘Why has NASA been so successful in sending men to the moon and bringing them back safely?’ When no answer was forthcoming, he typically answered the question for them:

NASA has been so spectacularly successful not because they just ‘kinda, sorta’ know what they’re doing but because they have a firm intellectual grasp of the one and only possible valid theory of space travel. They have the specific appropriate knowledge necessary, and, as a result, they’ve succeeded with each of their man-moon missions. Taking a cue from NASA, you should view each of your workouts as a sort of a mission, and, as NASA does, you should fully expect to succeed with each one.

Mentzer would then ask his students to envision a scenario in which such ‘specific appropriate knowledge’ was absent:

Imagine that we’re in Houston at NASA’s headquarters, right before a moon launch. We look over and see that the director is wringing his hands, crying, ‘Oh, gee, I hope we make it this time!’ Can you imagine such a thing? Of course not. Why? Because the people at NASA are supremely confident. They have little doubt that they’re going to succeed because they have the ‘specific appropriate knowledge’ relevant to success in their task.

Theirs is a rational approach based on an understanding of logic and science and all the things that help make Western civilization possible. I emphasize this because many bodybuilders find it impossible or difficult to believe that they’re going to succeed with each one of their workouts. So I take the time to point out that if NASA can succeed with its missions’an enormously complex goal requiring abstract theoretical knowledge of physics, electronics, astronomy, engineering and mathematics’you can’t tell me we can’t succeed with each one of our missions to the gym here on earth.

The Relationship Between Science and Human Progress

Central to Mentzer’s belief that the ‘specific appropriate knowledge’ was available to all human beings who were capable of seeking it was the understanding of a definite relationship between science and human progress.

‘Why is life today so much better in so many ways than it was 50, 100 or 500 years ago?’ he often asked. ‘The answer is largely because of the advances of science. The purpose of science is to identify the facts of reality and from them to derive a theory whose principles will serve as a guide for successful human action.’

Viewing bodybuilding as a discipline that flows from medical science, Mentzer held that in order for it to qualify as a science, it had to be based on reality. If it could meet that simple criterion, then certain fundamental principles could be formulated that would suggest a valid guide for successful human action in the arena of building muscle tissue beyond normal levels. If you could do that, then progress’as in the NASA analogy’would not be something haphazard, experienced in unpredictable dribbles, but something you could expect to get from every workout. Obviously, Mentzer didn’t come to that conclusion blindly. He came to it because he understood that if a theory is valid (i.e., based on facts), then it can serve as a guide for successful human action. As a result, he believed that there was no reason to waste even one week by training unproductively’i.e., every workout should yield a dividend, advancing you a step closer toward your goal of building bigger, stronger muscles. Since muscles can grow bigger and stronger, there had to be reasons why they grew. If he could formulate those reasons into principles, Mentzer believed, he would have a legitimate theory of an actual science of productive bodybuilding exercise. In addition, once the principles were made clear, trainees would have a method by which to determine whether their workouts were successful; i.e., whether they were getting closer to their goal of building bigger and stronger muscles.

Strength Increases’Not Bodyweight Gains’as the Standard of Measurement

Mentzer often stressed that most bodybuilders used the wrong standard for evaluating workout-to-workout progress. They measured bodyweight increases. ‘I know of bodybuilders who walk into a gym and the first thing they do is step on a scale,’ he would say. ‘And if they’re not gaining weight at every workout or every week, they suspect something is wrong. In most cases something is wrong, but it’s not necessarily the fact that they’re not gaining weight.’

The problem of using a scale to measure your progress lies in the fact that daily muscle growth, even at best, is negligible. As a best-case scenario, let’s suppose that you have the genetic potential to build 30 pounds of muscle this year and you are also going to train properly and eat adequately to make that 30-pound muscle gain a reality.

Now, as impressive as 30 pounds of muscle gained over the course of a year sounds, it averages out to only slightly more than one ounce a day’not even enough to register on a typical scale. As there are 16 ounces in a pound, if you weighed yourself each week on a certain day, you’d only be seeing on the scale about one pound every 2 1/2 weeks or so. And if on that given day you had your hair cut or weighed yourself after a sauna or some sporting activity that caused you to sweat profusely, you might actually register a weight loss. Since muscular bodyweight gains show up relatively slowly, a bodyweight scale is the wrong tool for measuring workout-to-workout progress.

What, then, is the correct standard of measurement to determine your workout-to-workout success or failure? The answer is strength. When you’re training properly, your strength will keep increasing; that is, you’ll go up in reps or weight or both on each set of every exercise. That was the standard by which Mentzer determined his clients’ success or relative lack thereof, and it’s the reason he had hundreds of clients who made continuous progress for many, many months’in some instances even years. As he said:

All of my clients’every one of them’make regular, continual progress without a doubt. Most bodybuilders don’t know this, but, in fact, a properly conducted bodybuilding program is essentially a strength-training program. Train for strength, and evaluate your progress in terms of strength increases. Why do we use strength increases as a standard for evaluating bodybuilding progress? Simply because there’s a relationship between muscular strength and muscular size. In other words, if you want to get bigger, you’ve got to get stronger. I emphasize that point because there is a reluctance on the part of most bodybuilders to accept that idea. If you want to get bigger, you’ve got to get stronger.

Just the other day in Gold’s Gym a young man was arguing with me quite vehemently and at some length on the subject. I finally stopped him and asked, ‘What are you supposed to do to get bigger’get weaker?’ Finally, he saw the relationship. ‘Furthermore,’ I said, ‘if there was absolutely no relationship between strength and muscular size, it would be conceivable that people like Dorian Yates could curl only 25 pounds’when in fact Yates curls more than 200 pounds. He got as big as he did, in part, because he got as strong as he did. If you want to get bigger, you’ve got to get stronger.

Strength Increases Come Before Size Increases

Now, while the above passage is valid, it’s also true’and this is an important follow-up point’that strength increases typically come before size increases. Most people get stronger for a period of time prior to getting bigger; however, as long as they continue to grow stronger as a result of their workouts, they will’eventually’get bigger. Just how strong any person will get, or how long it will take him or her to gain size, are factors that are difficult to predict, as they’re dictated primarily by genetics. As long you’re growing stronger, however, you can be certain that you’re heading in the right direction. Mentzer recalled his experience:

I was one of those individuals who gained strength prior to size increases. In the early part of my training career especially, there would be periods of as long as four months during which I would get stronger on a regular basis and not gain any weight. As a result, I grew enormously frustrated and almost gave up more times than I care to remember. And when I say frustrated, I mean painfully, agonizingly frustrated. It was only years later that Arthur Jones pointed out’and I saw it was true in so many cases’that for most people strength comes first.

That’s an important point for aspiring bodybuilders to retain, as understanding it will go a long way toward preventing you from becoming frustrated with your training efforts. Mentzer used to get calls on occasion from clients who would complain, ‘Jeez, Mike, I went up 80 pounds on my squats and 120 pounds on my shrugs in two months’but I only gained three pounds!’ That, he would point out, was precisely as it should be. He would then go into great detail, noting that if an aspiring bodybuilder were to gain three pounds every two months, by the end of the year he would end up with 18 added pounds of solid muscle’which would be a tremendous achievement. Some bodybuilders have difficulty thinking in terms of long-range achievement and can’t envision just how much muscle 18 pounds really is. For their benefit Mentzer would offer the following aid:

Take a moment and visualize a one-pound beefsteak sitting on your dining-room table in front of you. Now imagine 18 of them. It would probably be enough to cover the table. If you could sustain that rate of growth for two years, you’d end up gaining 36 pounds of muscle. Imagine 36 one-pound beefsteaks sitting on your dining-room table! I’m pointing all this out to you to help you gain a rational perspective on what you can reasonably hope to achieve and thus avoid frustration.

Frustration is often the greatest hindrance to bodybuilding progress. And, of course, part of the reason for frustration is ignorance of the facts regarding the proper standard of measuring bodybuilding progress. The good news is that you don’t need to be ignorant’or frustrated. There is a proper, rational perspective within which to view your bodybuilding training that will enable you to fulfill your genetic potential for muscle building’whatever it may be.

I recall a particular client of Mentzer’s who drove each week to Venice, California, from his home in Laguna Beach’which is no short trip’in order to train under Mike’s personal supervision. When Mike first saw the man, he was shocked by how thin he was; his legs in particular were very small and very weak. ‘I could see how anxious he was,’ Mentzer told me. ‘In fact, he was so anxious, it was written all over his face: He could barely smile; he was almost shaking. As a matter of fact, he passed out midway through our first workout’and not because I pushed him hard. I was very delicate with him, given his condition, even more than I am with most new clients. He was just simply overwhelmed by being in Gold’s Gym and being so thin. When he started with me, he weighed only 120 pounds, and in his first leg workout he could only lift 90 pounds on the leg extension machine. A mere three months later his muscle mass had increased substantially. He was weighing 143 pounds’a muscle-weight gain of 23 pounds!’and his strength on the leg extension machine had increased from 90 pounds to 240.’

And that was not an isolated case of Mentzer’s clients making such tremendous progress. Once Mentzer was able to accurately pinpoint the facts regarding the nature of the muscle-growth process and formulate the necessary principles to direct his clients in the purposeful action necessary to efficiently achieve their goals, he’like NASA’enjoyed a predictable and enduring success with each one of his missions.

100 Units of Progress

I recall once witnessing a young bodybuilder crow to Mentzer about how he’d trained in a haphazard fashion and had gained a solid eight pounds of muscle over the course of a year. Mentzer shook his head. ‘You have great genetic potential’there’s no doubt about it,’ he began. ‘However, your jubilation might be shortsighted. You are waxing enthusiastic about obtaining a mere 50 units of progress when, in fact, you were capable of 100 units. That eight-pound gain might well have been 16 pounds’had you a better understanding of the actual principles involved in the science of productive bodybuilding exercise.’ In other words, what the young bodybuilder lacked was a firm grasp of the ‘specific appropriate knowledge’ required ‘to lead him in the purposeful action necessary to successfully achieve his goal’ of bigger and stronger muscles.

Editor’s note: Next month John Little will reveal the three fundamental principles of Heavy Duty training that led Mike Mentzer’s personal-training clients to make such spectacular progress.

Little is now available for phone consultations to educate and elaborate on Mike Mentzer’s revolutionary Heavy Duty ‘ Training System. For information on rates and information, contact Joanne Sharkey at (310) 316-4519, visit her at Mike Mentzer’s official Web site at or see her ad elsewhere this issue for Mentzer-Sharkey Enterprises, Inc.

Article copyright 2003, John Little. All rights reserved. Mike Mentzer quotations that appear in this series provided courtesy of Joanne Sharkey 2003 and used with permission. IM


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