BY DAVID PROCOP
Mike Mentzer was the first bodybuilder in history to garner a perfect score in a major bodybuilding competition. His entire physique is magnificent, but his triceps are beyond what even the best of the field can equal. Here he talks about how he built them.
Many feel that in 1979 and 1980, Mike Mentzer was the finest bodybuilder in the world. The Pennsylvania native finished a close second to Frank Zane in the '79 Mr. Olympia, although he outweighed Zane by 30 pounds and was more defined. Then, in 1980, when Arnold S. came out of retirement to recapture the Olympia crown in a highly controversial decision (which we’ve all seen photos and films of and the topic has been discussed to its limit already), Mentzer was inexplicably (Oh, really? Is it that hard to figure out?) placed fifth, even though he looked better than he had the previous year and was considered by most to be at least equally favored to win.
Mike – who, as a protest against what he considered corrupt judging, never competed in another bodybuilding contest after that '80 Olympia – was perhaps just as well known for his training concepts as he was for his titles. Given the quality of his physique, that’s definitely saying something!
Mike’s high intensity training program, aptly named Heavy Duty, was essentially based on the exercise philosophy of Arthur Jones, the developer of Nautilus machines. According to Jones, the key to maximum muscle gains is to train very intensely – doing only the sets that are minimally required to stimulate muscle growth and spacing workouts sufficiently so that the body has time to recuperate. In other words, train harder, train shorter, train less frequently.
It was a message that left an indelible impression on Mentzer, who was only 24 when he met Jones at the '71 Mr. America contest. Mike would subsequently bring the concept to tremendous popularity in the sport – through his own bodybuilding accomplishments, which also included the '78 Mr. Universe title earned with the first and only perfect score in history; through the accomplishments of his brother Ray, who won the '79 Mr. America using the Heavy Duty system; and through his popular Heavy Duty magazine column, his mail order business, and his seminars.
Due to the impact that the Heavy Duty concept had on the sport during that period, it’s probably safe to say that if Mike Mentzer wasn’t the best bodybuilder in the world in '79 and '80, he certainly was the most popular. The fact that he and Ray were the only brothers ever to become Mr. America simply added to Mentzer mystique.
Mike started working out at the age of 12. His early inspiration was the great Bill Pearl, a four-time Mr. Universe winner.
“The guy who kept me going, the image that kept me going, the goal that I wanted to attain was that of looking like Bill Pearl,” Mentzer said. “I even got my hair cut like him at one point, getting a flattop. I was especially inspired by his huge triceps particularly when his arms were hanging down at his sides. I spent more hours than I care to admit at this point just mindlessly gazing at Bill Pearl’s arms in muscle magazines.”
Indeed, the day would come when Mentzer’s triceps development actually rivaled that of his boyhood idol, even without a tennis ball wedged between his triceps and lat. Mike was renowned for both his triceps and calf development, but even so, he feels that there’s no doubt as to which was better.
“Yeah, I had good calves,” he said, “but when I was in my best condition, my triceps were my best bodypart.”
Mike trained for a couple of years on his own with a barbell set his father had bought him, but his formal introduction to weight training came when he was 14 or 15 and his father introduced him to John Myers, a local powerlifter who had been working out for 10 to 15 years. As he said, “John Myers took me under his wing and taught me how to powerlift and train heavy.”
They worked out three days a week with another weightlifter, Russell Hertzog, who was a regional champion in Olympic lifting and had a well-equipped home gym in his garage.
“Russell Hertzog taught me the essentials of Olympic lifting,” Mentzer recalled. “And that, combined with John Meyer’s thrust in the area of powerlifting, gave me a good all-around base in strength training. I learned how to squat, bench press, and deadlift, and also how to do the military press, snatch, and clean and jerk. All of those things at a relatively early age helped to develop the basis of my physique.”
Mike was a kid working out with two adult weightlifters, and he naturally relied on them for training guidance.
“I didn’t have a clear-cut, explicit philosophy of my own at the time,” he said. “I followed what was printed in the magazines, primarily the York magazine, which is what these guys were doing. I was influenced largely by them.”
Here’s the triceps routine Mike followed during the time he trained with Myers and Hertzog:
French Press (lying or standing) - 2 x 6-8.
“When I first started working out with John Myers, I was training primarily as a powerlifter, doing 3, 4, sometimes 5 sets per bodypart with basic exercises – squats, bench presses, behind the neck presses, curls, and French presses,” Mentzer recalled. "Most of the training information was obtained from the York magazine, which was advocating much fewer sets than Weider at the time, and I made great progress. By the time I was 15, I was squatting 500 for 2 reps, bench pressing around 360, and had developed a very muscular physique.
"The one direct triceps movement that John Myers had me do was one of his favorites – French presses, both lying and standing varieties, no more than a couple of sets with fairly heavy weight done in strict form. Also, I was doing heavy bench presses for my chest, and, of course, bench presses also work the triceps. Guys who are great benchers and overhead pressers usually have well-developed triceps.
“And this is an important point, too, in understanding why today I limit my students to only 1 or 2 sets for triceps. I have them do bench presses and dips for their pecs before they train triceps, and those are both very direct triceps exercises.”
As he said, Mike made great progress while training on the power-oriented program with Myers and Hertzog. In time, however, he went off on his own and started training at the Lancaster, Pennsylvania YMCA, which was about 12 miles from his hometown. He was exposed to many more people and a lot of diverse training ideas, and those ideas took him off track.
"When I started training on my own, I took a turn in the wrong direction. I started doing many more sets. That was a mistake. My progress slowed down, and at times halted. Now I understand that progress should never halt.
"If a bodybuilder is training with sufficient intensity and is not overtraining, there should be an adaptive response . . . every time!
When a person goes out in the hot August sun to get a suntan and doesn’t overexpose himself, he doesn’t have to go home at night and pray to God that he wakes up with a suntan. There’s an adaptive response every time. It’s automatic.
“The same principle applies to exercise – and this doesn’t just apply to Mike Mentzer. These are universal, objective principles of productive exercise. When the intensity of the training stimulus is sufficiently high and you don’t overtrain or train too frequently, there will always be an adaptive response; specifically, you’ll get bigger and stronger.”
What Mike started doing for triceps at the Lancaster YMCA was what he called the “magic four.”
“I did 4 sets of 3, 4, 5, sometimes even 6 exercises,” he said. “Why 4 sets? I don’t know. Probably because Arnold and Franco did it.”
Here’s a typical triceps workout from that period:
All done for 4 x 8-12
Lying French Press
Standing French Press
Total sets: 12 to 24
“I tried everything,” Mike said. “I didn’t understand the nature of full-range exercise at the time. I uncritically and blindly accepted all of the doctrines and ideas printed in the magazines because I didn’t know how to critically analyze anything. I assumed that if it was printed, it had to be valid. I didn’t know how to discriminate, but now I do. I’ve learned how to critically analyze not just philosophical and political ideas, but training ideas. And I have no doubt – I say it unequivocally, and I can prove to anybody open to a rational argument – that Heavy Duty high-intensity training is the only proper way to train for maximum muscle gains.”
It was while Mike was still using the high volume approach that he entered the '71 Mr. America contest – which was held, coincidentally, in York, Pennsylvania.
Mike finished 10th behind Casey Viator, who was the first teenage to become Mr. America. Mike was quick to add that prior to this contest, his bodybuilding improvements had come to a virtual halt.
“I was making no further progress,” he revealed. “I was doing up to 40 sets for my pecs, for instance, and I was making no progress, becoming very disenchanted and discouraged.”
It was at that show that Viator introduced Mike to Jones, a meeting that completely revolutionized Mentzer’s philosophy toward training. What Jones explained to Mike is how muscle growth occurs; one could call it the science of muscle growth.
“The volume or the duration of your training is not the most important aspect,” Mentzer explained. "As a matter of fact, the duration of your training is always a negative – whether you train for a long period or a short period. Whenever you train at all, you’re making inroads into your recovery ability. That’s always a negative.
"The most important aspect of the workout is the intensity, which, properly defined, refers to the percentage of momentary effort you’re generating. If you understand the nature of high intensity physical training, you also know that the higher the intensity of effort, the less the duration has to be – not just that it should be, it has to be. When you’re training as hard as you can, it’s not that you shouldn’t train long, although you shouldn’t – again, because of the factor of limited recovery ability – but you can’t train hard and long for the same reason that nobody sprints a mile! When you’re running as hard as you can, no holds barred, you cannot run more than 400 meters, which is why there is no 800 meter spring. After 400 meters, it becomes a middle distance run.
"If, in fact, it was the volume of training that builds muscle, the logic would have to proceed like this: if it were the amount of training that was responsible for an individual getting bigger and stronger, then as he got bigger and stronger, he would have to keep training longer and longer to keep getting bigger and stronger. That’s impossible because the human body possesses a limited recovery ability.
“Arthur Jones explained it to me very clearly, very logically, what the science of exercise is really about. I embraced it immediately and started using high intensity training principles. And my physique really started taking off.”
Mike switched to the following triceps routine, based on his newfound philosophy, immediately after meeting Jones. It’s the routine he used until he retired f rom competitive bodybuilding.
Nautilus Triceps Extension,
2 x 6-8
Weighted Dip, 2 x 6-8
Total sets: 4
“I would do the Nautilus triceps extensions to failure, 6 to 8 reps, and follow that immediately – with no rest – with 1 set of heavy dips, again 6 to 8 reps. Actually, I would do two cycles, or supersets,” Mentzer said. “If I made one mistake in my training – and I did make more – it’s that despite being the arch-advocate of lesser training, I was doing too much. If I were to go back into contest training today, I wouldn’t do more than one – or at the most two – sets per bodypart.”
In making the switch to high intensity training, Mike cut back not only on the length of his workouts, but also on the frequency of training. As he put it, “I quit training six days a week for up to three hours a day. Instead, I started training 30 to 45 minutes a day three times a week. And within a short period of time after I started doing that, I won the Mr. America contest.”
As Mentzer’s career progressed and he became an Olympia contender, he found it advantageous to cut back on the frequency of his workouts even more. He eventually settled on an every-other-day split in which he covered half of his body on Monday, and, instead of covering the other half on Tuesday, he took Tuesday off and did the second installment on Wednesday.
“Why adhere so blindly to a seven day schedule just because we have, for matters of convenience, adopted the Gregorian calendar?” he asked. “The body’s physiological processes aren’t mediated by tradition. That’s crap! Let’s use our minds, perceive what our bodies are doing; so I did that. And then a short time after that, there were periods where, using the same reasoning, I was still tired on Wednesday from Monday’s workout, so I waited till Thursday to work out.”
Mike also challenges the compulsion many bodybuilders feel to train the muscle from every angle to get complete and maximum development. This is essentially another way of saying that it’s important to do a large variety of exercises, and Mentzer, as you might imagine, doesn’t agree.
“I don’t even think it’s a valid issue,” he said. "Number one, no one’s ever defined what they mean by ‘training the muscle at different angles.’ From how many angles can you train the biceps and triceps? Hanging upside down by your feet? Doing exercises on an incline board at an infinite number of angles? What the hell does that mean, training a muscle at different angles? It’s a layman’s attempt – a poor attempt – at making something sound scientific when it’s not.
"What is important – and this is the issue – is that weight training exercise is all about movement against resistance. Where’s there’s no resistance, there’s no exercise. A muscle has to move through its fullest range of motion against resistance.
“What I think bodybuilders mean when they talk about training the muscle at different angles is that they sense in certain exercises that the resistance drops off at a different point than it does in some other exercises. And what they want to accomplish by doing more than one or two exercises is to provide resistance at those points in the range of motion where the first exercise didn’t provide it. That’s really all it is, I think. With conventional free-weight exercises there really is no way to provide equal resistance through the entire range of motion. The only way to do it is with a Nautilus machine. The Nautilus cam was designed to provide resistance equally at all points in the range of motion. So that ceases to be a problem.”
In terms of triceps training, the fact that the triceps has three heads would, in itlself, seem to implay that it takes a variety fo exercises to fully develop the muscle. Or does Mike feel that you can develop all three heads just by using, say, one or two exercises?
“You can if you’re providing resistance through the full range of motion and the muscle is performing all its functions. In fact, why do an exercise if it’s not going to work all three heads?” he says. “Dips, which I call squats for the upper body, work all three heads of the triceps. So does the Nautilus triceps machine. Triceps pushdowns on a lat machine come close to working all three heads equally – because the exercise involves the multiple functions of the triceps, which are to extend the forearm and then bring the whole arm back and into the body. With pushdowns you have that, and even more so with dips.”
So despite the fact that the triceps has three heads, Mike stands firm that the best way to train it is to do one exercise-- or at most two. His preferences are the Nautilus triceps machine and dips. Mentzer suggests that if you don’t have access to Nautilus equipment or just want a little more variety, you should do triceps pushdowns and dips, but he cautioned that if you want to get the full benefits of the Heavy Duty methods he teaches, never do more than two exercises for triceps.
“I came to realize,” he said, "that the issue of overtraining is the most crucial one facing most bodybuilders. And it comes down to this: If a bodybuilder performs one set more than the least amount required to stimulate an optimal increase in size and strength, he will not gain optimally; he may even halt progress entirely.
“And don’t train too frequently. In most cases, that means not more than three times out of every seven to nine days. All of my clients are training, at the most, three days a week, and they’re making great progress.”