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Motivation and Effort

What I’ve learned over the past 20 years is that weight training is much, much more stressful than the average bodybuilder might fathom.

Q: I like to train hard whenever I work out; however, sometimes I seem to have trouble summoning the necessary motivation to train hard enough to have a productive workout. Did Mike recommend anything to help with motivation?

A: Working out hard requires not only a high degree of motivation but also, as Mike often pointed out, actual physical and mental courage. It’s true that a well-trained, highly conditioned body is capable of all-out effort at practically any time—so why is it that we often can’t seem to tap that dormant energy? 

Mike believed that since all-out effort places enormous demands on the body’s energy systems and adaptive mechanism, the mind was almost programmed to balk at such effort. Given that we evolved from a hunter-gatherer background in which energy was scarce, it behooved us to conserve energy whenever possible. That attitude has persisted for many generations and is one of the reasons that our species survived. Consequently, all of us at one time or other have observed that we occasionally don’t feel like engaging in all-out physical effort during our visits to the gym.

Mike used the scenario wherein one is in the gym but feeling tired and out of sorts, almost looking for an excuse not to work out. Individuals like that find it nearly impossible to focus on what they know they should be doing, as a weight that they formerly could curl for 10 reps flatly refuses to go up after five. Before the trainee can put down the weight, a scary looking fellow walks up and waves a pistol and snarls, “Pick up that weight and curl it 10 times, or I’ll blow your brains out.” What happens? The trainee picks up that barbell and curls it not 10 but 15 times.

The reason that they can tap that energy reserve is that motivation is fueled by the desire to gain and maintain a value. According to Mike:

“The more value we attach to something, the more motivation we’ll have to acquire that particular value. It’s the concept of life that gives meaning to the concept of value. When that value is threatened, you find that you possess a potential for effort you didn’t know you had. It’s amazing what you can do when your life or that of someone you love depends on it.

“The more value you place on owning a strong muscular physique, the more likely you’ll attain that goal, since motivation won’t be a problem. Establishing that value requires a person to focus awareness, clarity and intelligence to make a choice—to commit to an effort.

“You are the agent of your own destiny, whether you realize it or not or whether you act on it or not. Only you can find the motivation to exert the quality of effort to achieve your full potential as a bodybuilder. No one else can do that work for you.

“Developing a personal philosophy of effort based on objective principles requires time and dedication, but the rewards are more than commensurate. As that philosophy takes shape, you’ll grow increasingly directed and purposeful, and your personal power and charisma will affect everyone you come in contact with. You can’t just think about it, however; you’ve got to act on it. So take pride in your power to achieve your values and goals. Be a champion of choice, and make the effort to achieve the kind of physique you want.”

How Would Mike Train Today?

Q: I know that when Mike Mentzer was training for competition, he trained between three and four days per week with up to five sets per body-part. After he began training and keeping records on his Heavy Duty clients, he advised trainees to work out no more than once every four to seven days and with no more than two sets per bodypart—and often only one set per bodypart. You knew Mike well and spoke with him often, so I’m curious: Do you think if he were alive and competing today he would have trained with less volume and frequency than he did in the past?

A: I’m certain of it. In fact, he once told me that “despite being the arch advocate of lesser training [during the late 1970s], if I made one mistake during that period it was that I grossly overtrained.” Indeed, in one of his later interviews Mike commented on that very phenomenon:

“Given the knowledge I have today, I certainly wouldn’t train in the same fashion I did 20 years ago. What I’ve learned over the past 20 years is that weight training is much, much more stressful than the average bodybuilder might fathom. Lifting weights places stresses on the body that might be best illustrated by the following:

“Imagine a flat line drawn on a piece of paper from left to right; with the flat line representing zero effort. Now imagine a squiggly sine wave coming off that zero effort flat line, with the sine wave representing effort of various sorts: You get out of bed each morning, you shower, you brush your teeth, you walk to your car, you drive to work and so forth. These are small efforts that cause that sine wave to barely move above the flat line. Then you head to the gym and perform a set of heavy squats to failure—all of a sudden that little sine wave departs straight up off the paper, heads out the door and moves down the street. The distance from the flat line to the apex of that spike represents not only the greater intensity and energy you used up with the squats but also the much greater inroads into your recovery resources than your usual little daily efforts made.

“Remember, the idea behind stimulating muscle growth is not that more is better or less is better but that precise is best. And as I learned from training close to 2,000 people plus myself, the precise amount of exercise required to induce optimal growth stimulation isn’t nearly as much as most of us have been led to believe. Remember, the proper attitude toward bodybuilding training is not to go into the gym to discover how many sets you can do or how long you can mindlessly endure. Instead, the idea is to go into the gym as an informed, rational individual and do only the precise amount of exercise required to stimulate growth—and no more. Once you’ve accomplished that, your body needs time to build the muscle that your workout stimulated, so get the hell out of the gym, go home, rest and grow. Again, a proper bodybuilding workout is not supposed to be an endurance contest.”

I recall Mike telling me that during the mid-1990s (the last time he engaged in serious training), he practiced what he preached; he was in what he considered to be 80 percent of his best shape, and his leg workouts lasted only six minutes, while his upper-body workouts lasted 15 minutes. He was training on a three-way-split routine along the lines of what he wrote about in High Intensity Training: The Mike Mentzer Way, averaging one workout every four to seven days.

Get Growing Again

Q: I have a friend who’s attempting to train with higher levels of intensity but isn’t making any progress. What do you think might be the problem?

A: There are several points to consider. First, is your friend training intensely enough? Is he training to a point of momentary muscular failure? According to Mike:

“Most bodybuilders train with sufficient intensity, although I have had a number of phone clients over the years visit me in Los Angeles for hands-on supervision who I found weren’t training to failure, either because they misunderstood the concept and/or because they were afraid to train at that level of intensity.”

Typically, however, as Mike explained, the last rep of a set is actually the safest rep trainees can perform, as their force output has dropped so low at that point that they’re literally too weak to bring enough force to their muscles to hurt themselves, as long as they use proper form. If the intensity was high but the trainee wasn’t making progress, Mike would typically check out the volume and frequency of workouts. Here’s what Mike had to say about those two important principles of high-intensity training:

“More often than not, those failing to realize satisfactory progress with high-intensity training are performing too much exercise in the way of both volume and frequency. In such cases the first thing I do is recommend a two-week layoff so that their bodies have the opportunity to overcome the exercise inroad into recovery ability, then regulate their volume and frequency downward until progress is forthcoming. How much downward regulation is necessary or possible? I have one client who’s training with two sets every 10 days, and he’s gained over 30 pounds of muscle in less than one year.”


Editor’s note: For a complete presentation of Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty training system, con-sult his books Heavy Duty II, High Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way and the newest book, The Wis-dom of Mike Mentzer, all of which are available from Mentzer’s official Web site,

John Little is available for phone consultation on Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty training system. For rates and information, contact Joanne Sharkey at (310) 316-4519 or at, or see the ad on the opposite page.

Article copyright © 2008, John Little. All rights reserved. Mike Mentzer quotations are provided courtesy of Joanne Sharkey and are used with permission.  IM

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