October 09, 2021 10 min read

One of the most intense training regimes out there for bodybuilding is known as the “Heavy Duty” method. As the name would suggest, this routine isn’t for the light of heart.

Created by Mike Mentzer (1951 – 2001)—as much philosopher as he was bodybuilder—the Heavy Duty method is one that incorporates high-intensity training along with lower rep ranges and heavier weights. Even during the time, Mentzer’s thinking went against the grain, both in terms of his lifting and his diet.

We’ve taken a closer look at the mind behind this training philosophy, and the things that led up to it. It’s definitely going to gas out your muscles and get you results, but it’s not for those looking to coast their way to a great physique.

The Mike Mentzer Story

Mentzer began lifting when he was only 12 years old, and by the age of 15, he could bench over 350 pounds. In 1971, he was introduced to Arthur Jones, the creator of high-intensity training for bodybuilding.

Old dumbbells, black and white photo

Five years later in 1976, Mentzer would go on to win Mr. America with his revamped high-intensity training program. Throughout the years, he studied physiology and kept up to date with the most recent publications. Once writing that “Man is an indivisible entity, an integrated unit of mind and body,” Mentzer was to many as much philosopher as he was bodybuilder.

This led to the Heavy Duty training, which took Mentzer’s musings on fitness and health, and how to get muscle growth as quickly as possible. This training system was the basis of Dorian Yates’ training, making him a six-time Mr. Olympia.

High Intensity, Heavy Duty

Taking Arthur Jones’ form of high-intensity training, Mentzer ramped things up a notch. The 20-rep sets turned to sets with 6 to 9 reps instead, and the weights were made much heavier. How heavy? You’re supposed to reach absolute failure in that number of reps.

This concept of absolute failure played a lot into his training, as he advocated for completely destroying a muscle group before letting it recover for a few days. This was exemplified in his massive biceps, which he would work on till failure for one hour each week, keeping constant tension on them.

One of the ways he trained till failure was by using forced reps. This is when a spotter helps you out—when you can’t lift the weight anymore on your own, the spotter is supposed to assist you until you can get 3 to 4 more reps out of your muscles. This goes on until you can’t even hold the weight for any longer.

Rest-pauses were also used. Once you’ve reached a point where you can’t bring the weight back up with a full contraction of your muscles, pause at the bottom of the lift until you’ve caught your breath. Then, push out another rep, resting afterward if necessary. Once again, you want to go to complete failure, so repeat this 3 or 4 times when you think you’ve finished a set.

Lastly, Mentzer used a lot of negative reps. This is when you’ve reached muscle failure on the “positive” part of the lift—where your muscles are contracting and you’re going to the “top” of the movement. Once you’ve reached the top of the lift, hold the weight for as long as you can. As it lowers, you want to fight it every step of the way, slowing its descent as much as possible.

Slow and Steady Training Method

Although the exercises themselves were intense, each movement was meant to be performed with perfect form. For many people, this goes without saying. However, Mentzer made sure to emphasize every single movement in an exercise with a full range of motion.

This meant taking 2 to 4 seconds on the way up, and the same amount of time in the downward motion. This may not seem like a lot, but for those of us who have gotten used to using our momentum in a lot of lifts, this seriously changes the difficulty of workouts. And if you consider the heavy weights and low reps that Mentzer was using, this becomes even more impressive.

For example, he considered his back to be his favorite body part to train since it added a lot of definition. So, when Mentzer tackled his back, he would make sure to go extra slow during the lifts to challenge every one of the several muscles that make up the back.

“Going to failure” was also seen differently: it didn’t mean that he couldn’t continue the lift, but that he couldn’t continue it with perfect form. This “slow and steady” philosophy clashed with the call to keep rest times as brief as possible. When moving from set to set, it was necessary to accumulate fatigue between workouts to constantly be challenging muscles to the absolute max, as we saw with his high-intensity outlook on working out.

Pre-Exhaust the Big Muscles

Another important component of the Heavy Duty system was to pre-fatigue the biggest muscles that you’d be training that day. For example, if you go to the bench press right off the bat, you’re likely going to be limited by the smaller muscles that are used—the shoulders and triceps. Once these smaller muscles fail, the star of the show (the pecs) isn’t going to get their full activation because you won’t be able to keep bench pressing.

To fix this, Mentzer advocated for doing isolation movements before the big, compound exercises. This would fatigue the larger muscle, allowing you to get more out of the compound exercise in synchrony with the smaller muscles used. For example, some dumbbell flies would work great for pre-fatiguing the chest muscles.

Along the same line, pullovers could be used to pre-fatigue the lats before doing pulldowns, which work the lats, biceps, and rear delts. Methodically approaching workouts in this way allowed Mentzer to give the big muscles the attention they deserved, while also allowing them to work together with weaker muscles in the big lifts. All in all, this led to an amazingly aesthetic physique and power.

The Mike Mentzer Heavy-Duty Workout

Down below we’ve got two different workouts that Mentzer used. The first is split into a two-day routine, and the second is split into different muscle groups. It’s difficult to say anything against them since they obviously worked for Mentzer, but a modern take on these can be a great idea as well—especially if you’re not necessarily going for full bodybuilder mode. The important thing is to see how Mentzer trained and the way his philosophy sept into his workouts.

All of these would be completed with very heavy weights, and they’d be taken to failure—whether that be forced reps, negative reps, or rest-pauses. But as always, remember to stretch and to get yourself warmed up for the big lifts. Get a good pump on for these warm-up sets, but don’t go over 75% of your working weight so as not to gas yourself out completely.

Day One

Legs:

  • Leg Extension Superset W/ Leg Press: 1 set of 6 – 8 reps
  • Squats: 1 set of 6 – 8
  • Leg Curls: 2 sets of 6 – 8
  • Calf Raises: 2 sets of 6 – 8
  • Toe Presses: 1 set of 6 – 8
  • Incline barbell bench press: 3 sets of 6 to 10 reps

Professional athlete sits with a barbell on his shoulders

Chest:

  • DB Flys or Pec Deck Superset W/ Incline Bench Press: 1 – 2 sets of 6 – 8
  • Dips: 2 6 – 8

Triceps:

  • Pushdowns Superset W/ Dips: 1 set of 6 – 8
  • Lying Triceps Extensions: 2 sets of 6 – 8

Day Two

Back:

  • Nautilus pullovers Superset W/ Close-Grip Underhand Pulldowns: 2 sets of 6 – 8 reps
  • Bent-Over Barbell Rowing: 2 sets of 6 – 8 reps

Traps:

  • Universal Machine Shrugs Superset W/ Upright Rowing: 2 sets of 6 – 8 reps

Shoulders:

  • Nautilus Side Laterals Superset W/ Nautilus Presses: 2 sets of 6 – 8 reps
  • DB or Machine (Reverse Pec Deck) Rear Delt Rowing: 2 sets of 6 – 8 reps

Biceps:

  • Standing Barbell Curls: 1 set of 6 – 8 reps
  • Concentration Curls: 2 sets of 6 – 8 reps

Another Mike Mentzer Workout

Chest:

  • DB Flys – Incline: 5 sets of 8 reps
  • BB Bench Press – Flat: 5 sets of 6 – 8 reps
  • Chest Dips – Bodyweight: 5 sets of 10 reps
  • DB Flys – Flat: 5 sets of 8 reps
  • BB Bench Press – Incline: 5 sets of 6 – 8 reps

Back:

  • Straight Arm Lat Pulldown: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • Reverse Close Grip Lat Pulldown: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • Bent Over BB Rowing: 5 sets of 5 reps
  • DB Shrugs: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • Upright Rowing – Barbell: 5 sets of 6 – 8 reps

Shoulders:

  • DB Side Lateral Raises: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • Overhead Press – Behind the Neck: 5 sets of 6 – 8 reps
  • DB Raises – Bent Over: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • Front BB Raises: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • Seated Machine Press: 5 sets of 6 – 8 reps

Legs:

  • Leg Extensions – Single Leg: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • BB Squats: 5 sets of 6 – 8 reps
  • Lying Leg Curls – Single Leg: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • Leg Press: 5 sets of 6 – 8 reps
  • DB Lunges – Walking: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • Calf Raises – Standing: 5 sets of 10 – 15 reps

Arms:

  • Triceps Pushdowns – Cable: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • Dips – Bodyweight: 5 sets of 10 reps
  • Overhead Triceps Extensions – Cable: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • DB Curls – Standing: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • Reverse Grip Chin–Ups: 5 sets of 6 – 8 reps
  • Preacher Curls – Barbell: 5 sets of 8 – 10 reps
  • Forearm Curls – Barbell: 5 sets of 10 reps

Mentzer’s Diet Planning

Although his training regime may have been strict and to the point, Mentzer’s dietary routine was nothing of the sort. While in the gym he stuck a strict philosophy of high-intensity workouts, he wouldn’t pay too much attention while in the kitchen.

Of course, he had to pay some attention, and he definitely wasn’t pigging out on junk food all the time, but he did take a different approach. One of the biggest differences with his diet was that it didn’t try to limit carbs when all other bodybuilders were doing it.

In fact, he argued that lifters should eat 4 servings each of fruit and high-quality grains, along with 2 servings each of protein and dairy. Going even further against the grain, Mentzer wasn’t a big believer in high protein diets, saying that 1.2 grams per pound of body weight was overkill.

A lot of this stuff goes against popular thinking, but apparently, it worked. And while he did follow a mostly balanced diet, more emphasis was placed on hitting his calorie goals rather than tracking macros. He was a proponent of keeping a food diary to help with perfecting your own diet plan.

This advice was double for beginners. He believed that a high-carb diet was necessary for beginners to put on enough muscle and that some fat gain was necessary to build muscles quickly and efficiently—a far cry from today’s focus on getting jacked without fat gain.

What Foods to Eat

As you can probably guess, Mentzer believed that diets shouldn’t be too restrictive. A diet that restricts too much is a recipe for an unsustainable diet, and after all, we’re looking for long-term development and growth. He was known for eating ice cream pretty shamelessly when other bodybuilders followed strict diets. Nothing was really off the table for him, as long as it hit his caloric intake and he kept a well-balanced nutrition plan overall.

For staying lean, he stuck to eating less than 2,000 calories a day when he wasn’t bulking. However, we should also consider that he would spend a lot of time training, and training really hard at that. These calories were probably a drop in the bucket when it came to his expenditure, even considering his lax perspective on strict diets.

As we saw, he also didn’t shy away from carbs, preferring a good balance between fats, carbs, and proteins. For this diet, pretty much anything goes other than processed foods, fried foods, and junk food—although even these can be properly incorporated into a diet, especially if you’re looking to bulk.

High protein food for body builders

Some foods to include in your diet would be:

  • Red meat
  • Fish
  • Eggs
  • Poultry
  • Peanut butter
  • Milk
  • Yogurt
  • Fruits, berries
  • Vegetables
  • Bread
  • Pasta
  • Butter

Although you don’t have to prescribe to the chicken breast and rice diet, keeping a rough eye on your intake will yield better results in the long run.

Mentzer and Supplements

Mentzer hailed from a different era of bodybuilding where steroid use was seen as normal, and he’s openly admitted to taking them. While steroids can be used safely and to great effect, we’ll focus on some other, healthy supplements that everyone can take.

Whey protein is by far the most popular workout supplement and for good reason. Protein is the building block of muscles; if you’re not seeing the growth you expect, there’s a good chance you’re not eating enough protein. Whey protein isn’t only high quality, giving you all of the necessary components of a complete protein, but it’s also easy to take throughout the day.

Eating can get tiring, but sipping on a protein shake between meals is a great way to get your caloric intake up. Another great supplement is creatine. Although it’s gotten a bad rap in the past, creatine is completely safe to use, being one of the world’s most tested supplements.

Being already naturally found in your cells, creatine helps your body produce energy during activities that require a high level of exertion—the Heavy Duty workout, for example. Different factors will play a part in how much creatine your body stores, including diet and meat intake.

When you supplement with creatine, your body’s stores increase which improves your workload and cell hydration. In the end, this leads to better muscle mass, strength, and exercise performance gains.

Good Rest and the Mike Mentzer Way

As we mentioned above, Mentzer was a big believer in allowing your muscles enough recovery time between workouts. Especially considering his brand of high-intensity workouts with large weights, a lot of recovery time was necessary to ensure consistent muscular development.

Later on in life, he would even sometimes only train certain muscle groups once every two weeks. Although this is kind of a stretch for most people—especially if you’re just starting out—it does go to show how far you can push workouts and recovery times.

It’s easy to get trapped in the mindset of more is better, especially when beginner gains come fast and relatively easy. However, this isn’t the road to consistent growth and avoiding plateaus. For that, you’re going to need to balance out the right workouts, the right foods, and the right lifestyle (in terms of rest).

Mentzer was all about emphasizing short and intense workouts that would leave nothing in the tank. His methods went against the grain, but they undoubtedly worked—the fact that people are still talking about his training philosophy to this today says enough about the effectiveness of the strategy.

While there have been a lot of improvements over the decades, and new ways of thinking, Mentzer paved the way for a unique type of training that has seen a lot of success. Whether you opt to go down this path is up to you and your goals, but it’s worth appreciating regardless.


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