Heavy Duty: Mike Mentzer’s Most Productive Routine, by John Little

It was the essential basic Heavy Duty routine consisting of four to five sets per bodypart and broken into two workouts.

He stood only 5’8′ yet packed 215 pounds of rock-solid muscle on his frame. His triceps, in particular, when viewed from behind, reminded one of two large watermelons hanging out of a T-shirt. Reports varied as to the actual size of his arms. When Mike Mentzer was asked how big they were at one of his seminars, he responded with characteristic wryness, “Very big.”

I once asked Mike what his arms had taped at their largest, and his answer startled me: “About 18 1/2 inches.” I was incredulous. “But they look well over 20 inches!” I exclaimed. “Pumped, they probably are, John,” he replied, “but measured cold, which is how you should measure your arms, they never stretched the tape beyond 18 1/2.”

Upon hearing that, I quickly realized how much deceit was being practiced in the bodybuilding world, where champions whose arms were obviously far less substantial than Mike’s would loudly proclaim measurements of 21 inches or, in some instances that stretched credibility to the breaking point, 22 inches.

The Role of Genetics

Without question genetics played a huge role in providing the foundation for the muscular mass that Mike built, as he was the first to admit. In later years, however, he confided that he had reservations about making such a strong case for genetics. While genetic characteristics were important, Mike believed that they had been overemphasized. He worried that the notion that you have to have good genetics to achieve a championship physique had actually served to destroy the motivation of certain bodybuilders. “Besides,” Mike explained, “it’s very difficult to accurately assess your genetic potential. At best you might be able to get a suggestion of where you might go based on your muscle belly lengths, your bone structure and metabolism and neuromuscular efficiency, but the most important thing, I think, is motivation, everyone can improve themselves, and that’s important. Not everyone is going to become Mr. Olympia, but we can all improve ourselves.”

In 1986 I was living in Canada and searching for answers concerning the “ultimate truth” of bodybuilding, and I set out to interview those who, in my estimation, had tried to decipher this Rosetta stone themselves. I interviewed Lou Ferrigno, John Grimek, Paul Anderson, Doug Hepburn, Frank Zane, Lee Haney, Dorian Yates, Lee Labrada, Steve Reeves and both Mike and Ray Mentzer, among others. It was during a trip to California to interview Steve Reeves, in fact, that Mike invited me to stay with him as his guest at his apartment in Hollywood. I readily accepted, for I knew that it would afford me an opportunity to talk not only bodybuilding but philosophy, a passion that Mike and I shared for more than two decades.

Mike and I talked about a great many subjects during that trip, but first and foremost on my mind was finding out what Mike Mentzer’s most productive training routine had been. I knew that he’d been all over the board in terms of sets and reps throughout his early career, starting out with a whole-body workout performed three days per week, on which he gained no less than 70 pounds over three years, bringing his bodyweight up from 95 pounds at age 12 to 165 pounds at 15. From there Mike moved on to the routines advocated in the various muscle magazines that espoused 20-sets-per-bodypart training, even at one time extending that to 40 sets per bodypart. That brought his bodyweight up again, but only slightly.

When his gains eventually ground to a complete halt on high-set routines, he happened to make the acquaintance of Casey Viator, then the youngest person ever to hold the Mr. America title, and learned of the high intensity training principles advocated by Nautilus creator Arthur Jones. After speaking with Jones directly, Mike decided to switch back to a three-days-per-week whole-body routine, performing approximately five sets per bodypart in high-intensity fashion. He won the ’76 Mr. America contest at a bodyweight of 205 pounds while training on such a program, but he didn’t stay with it, switching eventually to a split routine performed four days per week. Then, prior to his Mr. Olympia appearances in 1979 and ’80’where he tipped the scales at a rock-solid 215 pounds, he spread out his routine even further, training only once every two to four days.

I wasn’t interested so much in his theories (they were not as advanced as they would become from 1993 on, when he reduced the sets to one on a split routine that saw his clients training but once every four to seven days) as I was in learning what he actually did; i.e., how he’d trained to build the incredible muscle mass that he was known for and what he’d personally found to be the most productive muscle-building routine of his entire career. Mike was seated at his desk, and I was directly across from him on a sofa in the living room when I first asked him about it. Mike smiled, knowing that it was the question all aspiring bodybuilders wanted the answer to and, indeed, the very question he himself had posed to his idols, like the great Bill Pearl, when he was starting out in bodybuilding.

“The routine I followed was the essential basic Heavy Duty routine consisting of four to five sets per bodypart and broken into two workouts,” he began. “The first workout would be legs, chest and triceps; the second workout was back, shoulders and biceps. I would start with leg extensions, six to eight reps to failure, and then continue beyond that with forced reps and negative reps, and then go immediately to leg presses, preferably on a Nautilus Compound Leg machine, as that would allow me to go from one exercise to the other without pausing. After that I would do one set of squats to positive failure, usually in the neighborhood of 400 to 500 pounds, and then proceed on to leg curls for two sets.

“Then I’d work calves, typically two sets of standing calf raises on a machine, followed by one set of toe presses on a leg press machine to failure. After legs I’d move on to chest for one to two supersets of dumbbell flyes or pec deck and incline barbell presses. I’d follow that up with one or two sets of dips. I always selected weights for my exercises that allowed me to get at least six good positive repetitions and then continue with forced and negative reps. With any preexhaust set, such as leg extensions to leg presses or pec deck to incline presses, I would take no rest at all between exercises, but I would rest long enough to catch my breath, and I’d only do the negatives once a week on each exercise. Moving on to triceps, I’d limit myself to fewer than four sets for triceps, doing one preexhaust cycle of triceps pressdowns followed immediately by a set of dips. Then I might finish off with two sets of lying triceps extensions. That would be it.”

“What about your second workout of the week?” I inquired. Mike’s forearms rippled as he carefully placed a pen on his desk and answered, “That would be back, shoulders and biceps. I would begin with the largest muscle group, the back, and perform Nautilus pullovers supersetted with close-grip underhand pulldowns. I’d complete two cycles of those two exercises and then move on to two sets of bent-over barbell rows to finish up my lat work.

“From there I would move on to traps and perform two preexhaust cycles of Universal machine shrugs supersetted with upright rows. Then it would be on to shoulders, for which I would do two superset cycles of Nautilus lateral raises followed by Nautilus behind-the-neck presses and two sets of either rear-delt rows, performed by sitting backward in a pec deck machine and squeezing your elbows as far back as they can go, or two sets of bent-over dumbbell laterals. And finally, I’d finish up with biceps, where I’d do one set of standing barbell curls to failure followed by one or two sets of either seated concentration curls or preacher curls.”

Workout 1 (Monday)

Leg extensions 1 x 6-8
Leg presses 1 x 6-8
Squats 1 x 6-8
Leg curls 2 x 6-8
Calf raises 2 x 6-8
Toe presses 1 x 6-8

Dumbbell flyes or pec deck 1-2 x 6-8
Incline presses 1-2 x 6-8
Dips 2 x 6-8

Pushdowns 1 x 6-8
Dips 1 x 6-8
Lying triceps extensions 2 x 6-8

Workout 2 (Wednesday)

Nautilus pullovers 2 x 6-8
Close-grip pulldowns 2 x 6-8
Bent-over barbell rows 2 x 6-8

Universal machine shrugs 2 x 6-8
Upright rows 2 x 6-8

Nautilus laterals 2 x 6-8
Nautilus presses 2 x 6-8
Rear-delt rows 2 x 6-8

Standing barbell curls 1 x 6-8
Concentration curls 2 x 6-8

“Was there anything else you did differently with this routine?” I asked eagerly.

“Yes, I used this type of routine throughout my professional bodybuilding career, but the greatest gains I got from it was when, rather than following it on the usual four-out-of-seven-day schedule, I began spacing it so I trained every other day on a split routine.

“For instance, rather than train Monday and Tuesday on a split routine, working half the body on Monday and the other half on Tuesday, I would do the first half of the body on Monday, skip Tuesday to recuperate and then train on Wednesday, rest on Thursday and repeat the cycle again, starting on Friday. That was the most result-producing routine that I ever used.” I asked Mike why he thought that such a split routine was more productive than the three-days-per-week whole-body program that had carried him through to victory in the Mr. America contest.

“Well,” Mike replied, “it was back in 1979. I remember meeting my brother in the gym for one of our usual workouts. I think it was the second day of a split-routine schedule, and we were both quite fatigued, apparently still not having recovered from the previous day’s workout. All of a sudden it occurred to me that it would be useless to train with anything less than all-out intensity, since that was required to induce maximum growth stimulation. And if, in fact, I had not recovered, and it was obvious to myself and my brother that we had not recovered, as we were both extremely tired, why train at all?

“Recovery always precedes growth, and growth was our ultimate goal. If we had not recovered, then, in fact, there was no way we could have grown from the first workout. In that kind of a case the best thing that can happen would be that you merely wouldn’t make any progress; you’d just spin your wheels. But carried on for too long, that kind of effort actually causes you to lose muscular mass and strength, you’ll always be making inroads into your recovery ability and never allowing yourself to recover, let alone grow, which is secondary.

“You have to recover before you can grow,” Mike continued, “So, we figured, why work out again? We had to recover first. And there were times when we skipped even two days in between workouts, 72 hours. We’d train on a Monday, then skip Tuesday, skip Wednesday and train Thursday. We’d do that because we’d meet on Wednesday morning or discuss it Tuesday night, and it was obvious that we were still tired, that the forced reps and the negatives we’d done on Monday with our leg and the chest work, for instance, were so exhausting that we hadn’t overcome the effects of the workout. How the hell were we going to grow unless we at least let that happen? We knew that recovery was important in terms of overall, or systemic, recovery. We weren’t worried about localized recovery of a particular muscle. We knew that happened relatively quickly after a workout. But it was obvious that due to our general exhaustion we hadn’t even recovered our overall systems’ energies and so forth, let alone grown. And since growth was our primary goal along with getting defined, at that point we realized that it would have been counterproductive, perhaps even harmful, to our progress to have trained before we allowed recovery and growth to take place.”

It struck me that Mike had been the only high-intensity advocate who actually broke with Arthur Jones on the point of employing a split routine. All the bodybuilders who trained under Jones’ watchful tutelage were made to train their whole body at each and every workout, the reasoning being that the body is an interconnected unit and should be treated as such when you exercise it. (And there is much merit in that approach.) Jones used to say that you don’t rest each bodypart on different days, so why would you train them on different days? The body needs time to recover as a whole, not just the specific bodypart that was trained. Mike, however, broke with Jones’ program as a result of personal experience.

“I was training on that kind of routine; that is, the full-body, three-days-a-week routine performed on Monday, Wednesday and Friday, when I was at college,” he related. “And while keeping up that kind of training in addition to a full college schedule, a part-time job with a physician and the demands of an ongoing relationship with a nice young lady, I found that I just didn’t have the energy. That three-days-a-week program left me so exhausted that when I did another full-body program on Monday, I was so shot afterward that all I could do was go home and sleep for a while.”

I asked him if he thought that the problem might have been more effectively remedied by simply taking protracted recovery periods in between workouts.

“No,” he said, “it was the immediate response, the immediate fatigue. It wasn’t the long-term recovery that was required. It was just too much all at once. With all the other demands I had in my life at that time, I was really forced to do something about it. I knew that high-intensity training was the best, there was no question about that, but I couldn’t put up with that kind of exhaustive effect immediately after the workout; I had to either go to a job or back to school, and all I could do was to collapse in a heap and sleep. Really, the buildup of lactic acid was so quick, so dramatic and so severe that until my body metabolized it, usually about two hours later, I was almost incapacitated.

“I found that when I split the routine, doing half the body one day, the fatigue was even less than half, it was much less than half. You would think it would only be half, but apparently, after a certain point, in terms of volume of training, the exhaustive effects grow geometrically as opposed to arithmetically. I found that I could get the same benefits from the high-intensity training while avoiding the overwhelming exhaustive effects of the three-days-a-week routine.”

I asked him if perhaps exhaustion, such as that experienced on the whole-body routine, was, then, truly a requisite for growth stimulation, bearing in mind Jones’ adage that unless you were made nauseous from a set of barbell curls, you didn’t know what hard training was. Mike thought for a moment and raised his ham of an arm to scratch an itch on his opposite shoulder.

“No, perhaps not,” he said. “And perhaps if one’s schedule permitted one to experience that kind of two-hour, incapacitating, exhaustive effect, one might want to do it. I suggest that anybody who is not familiar with high intensity but wants to try it might start out with that three-days-a-week routine. If they find it’s too exhausting, try the four-day.” Finally, I asked Mike to summarize his experience for the benefit of all those bodybuilders looking to build mass.

“The formula is: brief training, intense training, infrequent training,” he said. “Young bodybuilders reading this should be cautioned against doing too many sets on too many days for all bodyparts. Their enthusiasm is often a hindrance; they’re so willing and able to train marathon-style to acquire a muscular physique that they often overtrain. I train in Gold’s, when I do train, and I see this as probably the most pervasive mistake among bodybuilders, including advanced bodybuilders. I would just suggest that no matter what methods you use, you don’t do more than four to six sets per bodypart, use strict form, train to failure, use forced reps occasionally and don’t overtrain. That is, don’t train so frequently so that you exceed your body’s ability to overcome the exhaustive effects of exercise and don’t have enough recovery ability left over for growth.”

As always, Mike’s words made perfect sense. And, as I stared in disbelief at the massive shoulders and arms he was sporting that day, I had empirical proof of the efficiency of his “most productive routine.”