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High Intensity Q&A Part 1

John Little knew and worked with Mike Mentzer for well over two decades. They shared an abiding love of philosophy and recognized bodybuilding as both a scientific and aesthetic extension of human philosophical principles’the epitome of the ancient Greek ideal of a healthy mind in a healthy body. Their friendship resulted in a healthy infusion of philosophy into bodybuilding writing (Little’s work was published largely in Europe starting in the mid-1980s, and in the ’90s it began appearing in the United States). Between them they have authored more than 14 books and hundreds of articles outlining a more rational approach to bodybuilding, and it was not surprising that Mentzer chose Little to be the co-author of what would be his last book on the subject of high-intensity training (High Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way; New York: McGraw-Hill; 2002).Little is frequently asked questions about Mentzer’s methods and approach to bodybuilding. In this installment of Heavy Duty he answers some of the more common queries about Mentzer and the science of bodybuilding known as Heavy Duty.

The One Valid Theory of Bodybuilding Exercise

Q: I’ve read many articles by Mike Mentzer in which he states that there’s only one valid theory of bodybuilding exercise’his. As so many bodybuilders have built great physiques without using his Heavy Duty training system, they must be doing something right’in which case there must be other valid theories of bodybuilding exercise besides Mike’s. How could Mike have made such a claim?

JL: Simply because it’s true. There is only one valid theory of bodybuilding exercise, and as Mike used to like to say, ‘It just so happens to be the theory of high-intensity training.’ The statement isn’t true because Mike Mentzer said it, however; rather, he said it because it is true.

The ‘theory,’ stated in the large, is that exercise (bodybuilding training), in order to be productive (to stimulate strength and size gains), must be intense (the stimulus to greater levels of muscular strength and size), brief (the other side of the coin when there is an increase in exercise intensity) and infrequent (not performed so often that one becomes overtrained). Inasmuch as bodybuilders apply those principles to their training, they make progress, and inasmuch as they apply all three principles to their training, they make continued, uninterrupted progress.

Certain bodybuilders apply one, two or three of those principles and as a result get some degree of progress, but only those who apply all three consistently achieve optimal progress. If you lift weights at all, you can be said to engage in high-intensity exercise, as even light weights represent a quantum leap on the intensity scale if you’re conditioned to doing only, say, calisthenics or no exercise at all. Since using weights represents such an increase in intensity for some, any program that includes weight training will stimulate some muscle growth. After a certain point, however, the intensity must, like a dimmer switch, be increased if additional muscle growth is desired. Some trainees will do that’making their contractions more difficult by increasing the weight, reducing momentum, adding forced reps, static holds and/or negatives to their exercises’and make additional progress as a result. Others will not, and their progress will be arrested. Some opt to add more sets to their workouts, and up to a point that will represent an increase in their muscular output. If the weights are light enough so as not to dramatically disturb the body’s limited reserve of recovery ability, those people will also progress; however, their progress will grind to a halt once their muscular output reaches a certain critical level.

That’s the point at which most bodybuilding trainees find themselves. They begin their training on a standard program, and soon their gains cease. They find they’re able to increase the weights they’re using, but they don’t make a corresponding adjustment in the duration or frequency of their training sessions to compensate for the increased energy expenditure, and they begin to spin their wheels. It cannot be denied that they did, in fact, make progress’but only so far as they employed one or more of the fundamental principles of high-intensity training.

Beginners can get away with simply increasing the intensity of their training but only up to a point. After that they must employ the second and third principles of high-intensity training. That simply underscores the validity of the theory of high-intensity training; it doesn’t refute it.

Additionally, as Mike also used to point out, it’s meaningless to compare individuals. The only person you can compare yourself to is you. The fact that a bodybuilder has’or many bodybuilders have’made progress on a traditional mode of training is not proof of the method’s effectiveness. Those people may have been on a cycle of potent anabolic drugs while training in that fashion; they may be genetic freaks who will grow on any type of resistance training and might have grown even faster had they effectively employed the principles of intensity, duration and frequency. I recall Mike once making the statement that even if another training method that required its applicants to be in the gym two hours a day, seven days a week, could produce the same results as his Heavy Duty system, which had his clients in the gym no more than twice a week for 12 to 15 minutes (per workout), the additional man hours required to produce the same results on the alternate system would be testimony to its inefficiency. In fact, you could rightly ask whether those gains could be considered progress at all, given the unnecessary time investment.

I recall that at one point during the late ’70s two champion bodybuilders stated in a magazine that ‘the training requirements for stimulating muscle growth are different in everybody.’ Mike’s response to that was most enlightening:

Contrary to what those two great bodybuilders might think, the cause-and-effect relationship involved in muscle growth is universal. Muscle growth results from the formation of a chemical called creatine. The presence of creatine stimulates the muscle to form more myosin, one of the contractile proteins within muscle tissue. The process is circular in nature: The contraction of muscle tissue produces creatine, which results in the muscle’s forming more myosin, which enables the muscle to generate stronger contractions. The greater contractions produce more creatine, and the process is started again. The amount of creatine produced is related to the intensity of muscular contraction. The higher the intensity, the more creatine produced, and, of course, the greater the muscle growth that will result.

The specific biochemical changes, then, that result in muscle growth are the same for every human being on the face of the earth, and the stimulus required to induce those specific biochemical changes’high intensity of muscular contraction’is the same for everyone. And those facts have been empirically validated by physiologists; they are not the suspect opinions of nonscientists.’

Certainly, to get bigger muscles naturally, you must get stronger, and to get stronger, you must train with greater levels of intensity. In addition, the higher the intensity level, the shorter your workout (consider the sprinter and the marathoner: The increased intensity of the sprinter’s muscular output reduces the distance and time he can engage in his activity but is also responsible for building his bigger and stronger leg muscles), and if you want to avoid overtraining, you simply cannot engage in high-intensity work so frequently that your body hasn’t sufficient time to recover and grow. I don’t know of any exercise physiologist who would refute that last statement.

So, when Mike said that there can only be one correct theory of anaerobic exercise, the only people who attacked the statement’and Mike, by extension’were people who had no understanding of the methods and applications of science and perhaps no understanding of reality. The question is, To whom should you listen? A person like Mentzer, who diligently used the scientific method to test the theory of high-intensity training on thousands of bodybuilders, or a magazine article pitching a supplement or a person who says he already has the answers because some drunken Bulgarian Olympic coach revealed them to him? I doubt that gym lore, clever marketing tactics or drunken Bulgarians, for that matter, are the path to objective truth. In fact, the further removed a person’s beliefs are from objectively verifiable truth, the more likely he is to feel threatened by and have irrational objections to a person who is comfortable with the reality of absolutes.

What About Aerobics and Stretching?

Q: I’m presently following Mentzer’s Heavy Duty routine as outlined in High-Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way,’ and I’ve been very happy with the results. I was wondering, however, if Mike ever suggested that people do some stretching before and after their workouts and also some form of aerobics a few days a week?

JL: That question is answered on page 135 of the book you cited: ‘Make sure that you spend some time warming the muscles to be worked; however, it’s not necessary to stretch the muscles, perform aerobic work or engage in any more exercise than is minimally required to limber up and increase the blood flow to the specific muscles you’re working that day. Using the deadlift as an example, if you’re able to handle 165 pounds for seven reps on your working set, start your warmup with 115 pounds for seven to 10 easy reps to get the blood flowing into the area and then one more set with 145 for two to three reps to mentally prepare yourself for the heavier set to follow. Where preexhaust cycles are listed, start the warmup with the second exercise. For example, in the case of the leg extension-leg press preexhaust cycle, warm up with leg presses. That will ensure that you’ve warmed up all the necessary muscles, including the quadriceps, for the leg extensions and enable you to preset the leg press weight. If you don’t warm up with leg presses’which work multiple muscles simultaneously’and instead start with the leg extensions, your auxiliary muscles will be cold and the weight won’t be preset, making it difficult to move with no rest directly to the leg press station.

Warmup needs do vary among individuals, however, according to age, existing condition and, of course, the temperature of the gym. Keep in mind, too, that the first few reps of this high-intensity, low-force program serve as a further warmup. The guiding principle here is to perform the minimal amount of exercise required to achieve an actual warmup.’

Mike also told me that ‘stretching and aerobic activity should never be an integral part of a serious bodybuilding program. While neither stretching nor aerobics is an intense activity, both are still exercise and thus use some percentage of the body’s resources’resources that would serve better in the recovery and growth processes. Assuming your primary goal is to gain maximum muscle size in the shortest time possible, the performance of any more exercise than the least amount required to stimulate growth is counterproductive in that it uses up physical resources that would have otherwise been used in the recovery and growth processes.’

In other words, the high-intensity type of training required to stimulate an optimal increase in muscle size is extremely demanding, which is why it should be engaged in for only very brief periods and not augmented with additional work.

Training in a Power Rack

Q: I note that in your books Power Factor Training and Static Contraction Training you advocate that your clients train in a power rack or cage. Do you recall if Mike ever trained in a power rack or whether he thought they held any value for, say, intermediate-level bodybuilders?

JL: Whenever you use heavy weights, I strongly advocate using a power rack for safety considerations. It’s also an absolute necessity when you’re using a heavy overload on some exercises, as you can adjust the selector bar settings ahead of time. Indeed, Mike was performing some pretty serious rack work even before his competition days. When I interviewed him during my research for Power Factor Training, he related that he had used power-rack training to build mass. To that end, he once wrote the following:

I do believe power-rack training can be useful to the bodybuilder. I’ve used it intermittently through my training career and will continue to do so. When I started training seriously during my teens, I trained with an Olympic weightlifter and a powerlifter, both of whom used the power rack extensively. Their influence on me was strong, and I adopted such training in my bodybuilding program with noticeable success.

At 15 I was doing quarter squats in the power rack with 700 pounds for reps along with very heavy deadlifts, curls and presses. I learned early to enjoy the pleasures of heavy lifting, and I believe that type of extreme overload so early in my career laid the foundation for my subsequent gains in mass and power. It also made me comfortable in attempting all-out efforts as well as predisposing me to high-intensity training.

It’s very important to perform full-range exercises at all times in your training program to ensure fully developed muscles. At those times when you seem to have reached a plateau in your progress, however, the sudden imposition of an extreme overload should jolt your musculature into a new growth cycle. I wouldn’t worry about performing heavy partial reps in the power rack for smaller muscles like those in the upper arm. Rather, I suggest you concentrate on stimulating the bigger muscles, such as those in the legs and back, as well as the pecs and delts. I wouldn’t attempt heavy rack work every training session for each bodypart either. Every second or third workout include some power-rack training for each of the major muscles.

Make sure you’re always warmed up before attempting such heavy-overload training and emphasize strict exercise performance. Since such training is highly demanding and could lead to overtraining, don’t stay with it longer than two months.’

Mike further revealed that ‘the last time I engaged in any serious rack work was with Casey Viator, when he first moved to California. We performed full-range exercises with barbells and on Nautilus machines, but we also performed some very heavy rack work as well. Casey and I both got up to more than 1,100 pounds for a few reps on the quarter squat, 800 on the half squat and more than 500 on the full squat for six to eight reps. We used 625 pounds for quarter reps on the incline press and more than 400 pounds for half reps. We both used similarly impressive poundages on the deadlift and behind-the-neck press. And while no one has ever accused either Casey or me of lacking size, we both noticed appreciable mass increases during that period of power rack work.’

White and Red Muscle Fibers

Q: I’ve read all of Mike Mentzer’s books and haven’t found anything about red (slow-twitch) and white (fast-twitch) muscle fibers. As Mike was well versed in exercise physiology, I’m a little surprised at that omission. What did he think about the issue of red and white muscle fibers, how a bodybuilder can determine which fiber type is dominant in his body and what, if any, changes that might suggest to his bodybuilding training?

JL: While Mike may not have addressed the issue of fiber typing in his books, he did do so in his seminars and other writings. I recall him speaking very eloquently on the subject during a seminar he conducted in Toronto in 1981. I believe that Mike didn’t touch on it in his books largely because he felt that science still hadn’t brought in a conclusive verdict on the subject and, even if it had, that did not alter the fact that high-intensity training is the only stimulus that will result in size and strength increases in human muscle tissue. In looking through my personal archive of Mentzer’s materials, I find that Mike did address this point in his published writings on at least one occasion, in 1981:

There are physiologists who believe that man has two types of skeletal muscle. One type, commonly referred to as fast twitch, is white in color and is responsible for explosive movements such as sprinting or lifting weights. The second type, referred to as slow twitch, is red in color and is thought to be involved in endurance activities. Some so-called weightlifting authorities contend that working both fiber types by performing repetitions slow and heavy in some sets and fast and light in others will result in faster muscle growth; however, I doubt that very much. The fact of the matter is that there are fast and slow red fibers and fast and slow white fibers in lower animals, and in humans it’s believed that there’s even less difference. Moreover, the exact distribution of fiber types is not known, and some believe that there are not two but eight fiber types. In reality, there’s no steadfast rule about red and white fibers and their physiological role. It cannot be stated with any certainty that just because a fiber is white, it’s fast, or that one that is red is necessarily slow.

When I was in Holland recently, I had an opportunity to visit with the eminent Dutch exercise physiologist Dr. Jan Voss. Dr. Voss was one of the early researchers into muscle fiber types, actually performing numerous muscle biopsies’which are quite painful’on himself as part of his research. Dr. Voss told me that the color of the muscle tissue in his gastrocnemius would change from week to week. Some weeks there was a predominance of red fibers, some weeks white. He went on to say that those changes may actually take place day to day or even hour to hour, depending on such things as temperature, rate of existing metabolic activity and so forth.

Because it’s impossible to classify muscle fibers into fast and slow, no application can therefore be made to one’s training. What can be stated definitely, however, is that you should never perform your exercises quickly, as when the speed of a repetition exceeds a certain rate, momentum comes into play and thereby diminishes the intensity of muscular contraction. What happens in such instances is that the weight ends up being thrown rather than lifted. Fast repetitions, therefore, are unproductive and dangerous; dangerous because throwing a weight increases the force being imposed on your joints and connective tissue.

For best results, initiate each repetition in each of your bodybuilding exercises slowly and deliberately, and proceed through the positive range of motion in a like manner. Pause momentarily at the top, or contracted, position, then lower the weight deliberately and under full control.’

Editor’s note: John Little is now available for phone consultations regarding Mike Mentzer’s revolutionary Heavy Duty Training System. For information on rates and information, contact Joanne Sharkey at (310) 316-4519 or at, or order online at IM


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