Hardcore Philosophy: Mike Mentzer

First off a special shout out to @54SDRoss from twitter…I posted this at your request my friend!

On my never ending quest to find the fast, most gut wrenching and sweat inducing ways to muscle utopia, I often bump into guys who make you rip up your workout plan and start from scratch. Now in the fitness world, opinions are like glute-holes, everyones got ’em! But it’s not that often you bump into a guy like Mike Mentzer. His philosophy on life & muscle building was so profound, I had to copy and paste for you guys to see.

Quantity vs. Quality of Effort

Where does one launch an investigation aimed at discovering the type of effort responsible for stimulating growth? The most likely place to start is by looking at one of the more readily observed qualities of the things that exists in reality; namely, quantity. The growth stimulus cannot be directly related to quantity of exercise effort or bodybuilders would see better and better results for every additional hour they spent training.

Since it obviously is not the quantity of effort that’s important, there is but one place left to look – the quality, or intensity, of the effort. If a person could curl a 100 pound barbell for 10 reps to failure which rep would be more productive in terms of stimulating an increase in strength and size, the first, the least intense, or the last, the most intense? Obviously it is the last. Do you see where it stands to reason that if the last rep is better than the first, it will be better than the second, third, fourth and so on? That is irrefutable proof that it is the quality of the effort, not the quantity, which is responsible for growth stimulation. Quantity of effort is important only for building endurance, not strength and muscle mass. Don’t confuse training long with training hard. Training hard, intensely, is what is required to build muscle mass.

Reserve Ability

Executing that last, almost impossible, rep causes the body to dip into its reserve ability. Since it only has a small amount of this reserve to draw upon before depletion occurs, the body protects itself from future assaults upon its reserves by enlarging upon its existing ability through the compensatory build-up of more muscle mass.

Only high-intensity effort can force the body to resort to its reserve ability sufficiently to stimulate an adaptive response in the form of a muscle mass increase. Repeating tasks that are within your existing capacity do nothing to stimulate growth, there’s no need. Ending a set before failure, just because an arbitrary number of reps have been completed simply will not induce growth.

A Second Set?

On occasion, I will have a phone client ask, “Mike, you make such a big deal about doing only one set per exercise. Would it really matter if I did a second set?” Having stimulated the growth mechanism by going to failure on the first set it is neither necessary nor desirable to do a second set; not just a waste of time, but counterproductive. Going from one set to two is not just a mistake: it is the biggest mistake possible because going from one set to two represents the biggest increase possible. It is not merely a linear increase of one unit; it represents a 100 percent increase in the volume of exercise; which is a negative factor.

Look Deeper

I find it curious that the great majority of bodybuilders, knowing that over-training means something decidedly negative, never look into the issue more seriously. The term is always used in a negative context. In fact, try using the concept in a positive light, and you’ll quickly realize it’s impossible. By definition, over-training means performing any more exercise than is required in terms of both volume and frequency than is minimally required to stimulate growth.

Survival: The First Requisite

Nature does not allow living creatures to be inactive. In all levels of biology, inactivity means death. Life is growing. When not moving forward, it falls backward. We survive, then, only so long as we advance. Humankind evolved through continuous struggle and effort. Since man is distinguished from all other creatures because he has a mind – a conceptual faculty – he will only get the best out of himself when employing his rational/critical faculty to focus on the future, that is, to achieve goals. The individual who wants to evolve mentally and physically, therefore, must be willing to exert continuous effort.

Effort and Pride

An individual’s self-esteem stems from a sense of control over reality. Whenever we carry out a conscious effort, such as, completing a record Bench Press, an A+ in school or writing a book, we feel a specific power rising, a sense of will. The abundant self-esteem associated with successful people flows from their having achieved goals by exerting the proper effort – long range. People are not successful due to an accident of birth; they took the time and expended the necessary effort to develop their self-respect. They sufficiently value life and happiness to exert complete effort. As a result, they experience what Aristotle referred to as the “crown of all virtues”: Pride.

A Personal Note

The will needs a rallying point around which it can gather its force. Bodybuilding always served as a powerful stimulant that heightened the sense of meaning in my own life. The following excerpt from my training journal before my Mr. Universe victory chronicles this enhanced sense of life associated with my contest preparation efforts: “The fact that all this tortuous preparation, privation and relentless pursuit has lifted me to a higher level of existence is inescapable. Life has assumed greater meaning in the process. While there is, at times, a certain element of tension and discomfort attending this elevated existence, I can say that while in the throes of it, I feel generally stimulated in all areas – intellectually, emotionally and spiritually.”


You are the agent of your own destiny, whether you realize it or not, whether you act 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 the work for you. Developing a personal philosophy of effort based on objective principles requires time and dedication; but the rewards are commensurate. As that philosophy takes shape you will grow increasingly directed and purposeful. But you can’t just think about it, you must act on it! So, take pride in your power to achieve your values and goals. Be a champion of choice and make the high-intensity effort necessary to achieve the kind of physique you desire.

Blessed and Accursed–Some Have It, Some Don’t

Not often – (but enough to be remarkable) – while I am explaining the role of genetics in bodybuilding at a seminar or to a phone consultation client, someone complains, refusing to accept the fact that the extent to which muscles can be developed is strictly, inherently limited. And, while most bodybuilders today are at least aware of the issue of genetics, very few know precisely how crucial a role it plays, or much about specific, phenotypic (i.e. genetic materials’ physical) expressions.
As a youth, walking the main streets of my small hometown of Ephrata, Pennsylvania, I would regularly see non-trained women who exhibited ordinary muscular development otherwise, yet had calves on par with those of an advanced bodybuilder. Not much later, while in Air Force boot camp, I encountered two different individuals on separate occasions with muscular physiques. Upon asking each how he trained, both responded in essentially the same fashion, “Everyone thinks (I) am a bodybuilder; but I’ve never worked out in my life.”

Something To Think About

How central a role does genetics figure in bodybuilding? The answer is, perhaps, best illustrated in the following anecdote. Invariably, during the question and answer portion of every seminar that I’ve ever conducted, a skeptic will ask, “But, Mr. Mentzer, if Heavy Duty training is truly the one valid, scientific approach to training, how do you account for the success of men like Arnold and Lee Haney?” To which, my stock reply is, “If you wanted to learn the most effective method for developing an optimum suntan, would you ask someone of negroid heritage?” The point being, of course, that while there are those born with the best tan possible (negroid), others swelter on beaches in the summer to obtain a moderate skin burnishing, and yet others will never tan, i.e., albinos.

In bodybuilding, there are the genetically blessed. i.e., those with a strong inherited predisposition for having/developing large muscles; the genetically accursed, i.e., those who will never achieve more than a minuscule of muscular development no matter how they train or eat; and everything in between those extremes. Willy-nilly, nothing – no amount of teeth-gnashing, hand-wringing, hair-pulling or howling in the void – will alter the fundamental fact that any given individual’s genetic programming in this regard is absolutely fixed; and, within the context of existing scientific knowledge, cannot be changed. While everyone has the capacity to improve upon his existing muscular development, such can be done only within a “fixed” range. Or, in other words: no one with inherited physical traits similar to Woody Allen can do anything to alter his genetic programming so as to extend the range of his potential such that he could develop a Mr. Olympia physique.

Last Point On Genetics

(One’s standards, whether explicitly or implicitly held, will determine his attitude on the issue of genetic endowment. In one sense, from one perspective, all healthy enough to engage in bodybuilding activity at all, to any degree, are “blessed.” When one of my training clients made a habit of complaining about her calves being too high, her biceps being too short, her genetics being “rotten,” I finally put a stop to it. I told her that if she persisted I would personally walk her to the strand on Venice Beach and introduce her to an acquaintance of mine, named Jerome, who makes his living dancing on the stubs that should have been his legs, collecting money from the passers-by in a tin cup set by his side because he was born without arms as well.)

A Full, Relevant Context

The biochemical-hormonal factors involved in muscle growth are numerous and complex, the entirety of which is not known. (Such knowledge is not a practical necessity for the bodybuilder. What is crucial is that he understands the proper application of the fundamental principles of exercise; which represent the ultimate physiologic expression of all of the biochemical-hormonal factors.)

What is known is that the biochemicals involved must be present in a certain ratio to influence optimal results from exercise. An abundance of one will not cause the others to work more effectively. For instance, a massive increase in either GH or testosterone will not result in significant potentiation of the other; but, in all cases, increased cortisol will have a negative affect.

Bewildered Bodybuilders

“Literally awash in the oceanic proliferation of new ‘theories’ on exercise, the average bodybuilder cannot even begin to judge, or evaluate, the flood of contradictory information. His thinking is severely hampered, limited to interminable quibbling over relatively unimportant details, such as whether to turn his little pinky up or down when doing Dumbbell Laterals; is a wide grip better than a close grip; is four sets of five exercises better than five sets of four exercises; is three days on and one day off better than one day on and one day off; or, are partial reps better than full range reps?” (From Chapter One of my book, Heavy Duty II: Mind and Body.)

Fundamental vs. Derivatives

The details mentioned in the previous HIT are not totally without import; they are actually “derivatives” – (based on and derived from) – which only have relevance when understood in the context of the fundamentals from which they were derived. What’s the difference, for instance, whether a bodybuilder does four sets of five exercises or five sets of four, if he hasn’t grasped the cardinal fundamental of exercise science — the fact that a high-intensity training stress, i.e, training to a point of failure, is an absolute, objective requirement for stimulating growth and, therefore, none of his sets is triggering the growth mechanism into motion? Or, not cognizant of the crucial importance of properly regulating the volume and frequency of his workouts because of the body’s strictly limited capacity for tolerating the “wear and tear” of high-intensity training stresses, he becomes so grossly overtained that, even if he were “stimulating” any growth, the overtraining would prevent his body from “producing” growth.

The Fog Grows Deeper

Bodybuilders whose thinking is thusly restricted usually resort to a type of “Russian roulette,” where they move anxiously and uncertainly from one training approach to the next, hoping that someday they luckily happen upon one that works. Or, having sacrificed individual judgment and personal sovereignty entirely, fearing that he – and he alone – suffers a nameless deficiency, many opt to conform to the herd, and blindly follow the other sheep by adopting the training program that has the most adherents in their gym. Little does he suspect that the others are doing the same thing. Like him, they think the others must know what they’re doing; after all, how can the majority be wrong. In fact, the entire world can be wrong and one man right. Remember that even though for thousands of years millions of people thought the earth was flat, such didn’t make it true.

An Identity Crisis

What’s the value of possesing well developed muscles, if the individual is arrested intellectually on the level of a dependent child? Not long ago, in Flex magazine, a very young, heavily muscled, well-known bodybuilder was quoted in bold print, “If 20 sets are good enough for Arnold, it’s good enough for me!”

When someone asks, “Who am I to judge?” you really have to wonder. Your “self”, your “I,” is your mind, i.e., your concepts, ideas, beliefs – in short, your philosophy; which determines the extent of your ability to think and to judge. When a person has relinquished his judgment, deferring that responsibility to others, he has, in effect, sacrificed his self, and literally ends up selfless, suffering an identity crisis.

For those who understand the importance of developing the mind along with their muscles, I refer you to my books in the Catalog Section of this web site.

The Power of the Mind

The idea of a “healthy mind in a healthy body” comes to us from the age of classical Greece, 23 centuries ago. Theirs was a Golden Age which idealized the beauty of the human body and exalted the power of man’s mind.

The power (or health) of an individual man’s mind is directly proportional to his conceptual range, i.e., the number of concepts his mind has integrated, how well he understands their exact meaning, and the number of logical connections he has made among them.

More Confusion from the Experts

An increasing number of “experts” in the bodybuilding magazines are erroneously asserting that all training approaches invariably lead to “adaptation, ” something they deem negative, or undesirable; and use as a justification for moving arbitrarily from one system of training to another.

In reality, in logic, adaptation is precisely what is desired. The purpose of imposing a high-intensity, anaerobic training stress is to cause adaptation, i.e., an adaptive response, i.e., stronger and larger muscles. Similarly, people lay in the sun to elicit an adaptive response; namely, the development of a suntan.

Avoiding Sticking Points

What these individuals are groping to describe is this: That without a properly regulated volume and frequency training protocol, their training approach will lead to a “sticking point,” where no further progress can be achieved. Heavy Duty, high-intensity training is the only approach which recognizes that as one grows progressively stronger, i.e., lifts heavier and heavier weights, the stresses grow greater; and that if the increasing stresses aren’t continually compensated for by decreasing the volume and frequency, the stresses will reach a critical point. The first symptom will be a slow down in progress; and if the trainee continues with the same volume and frequency he’ll ultimately hit a sticking point, or, may even regress. Don’t confuse adaptation with a sticking point.

Exercise Induced GH Increase

A number of “experts” have also been suggesting that exercise induced GH increase, in and of itself, is the summum bonum, the be-all-and end-all; that with elevated GH levels increased muscular growth will inevitably occur. If such were the case, those GH anamolies suffering acromegaly would have physiques like bodybuilders; but, in fact, they are primarily skeletal giants. Obviously, elevated GH levels alone are not responsible for muscle growth beyond normal levels.

Special Tip for Lagging Body Parts

For some, even one set for certain body parts may prove more than the individual can tolerate or even need. For instance, over the years, I have had training clients, who informed me at the start that they couldn’t stimulate growth in their calves, whether they were training them with 12 sets three times a week or just one set once a week. They took my advice, acknowledging the possibility that even one set may be too much, then ceased training their calves entirely. These individuals reported to me on a regular basis, claiming calf increases of 3/4″ to 1 1/2″ in several months.

Similarly, I’ve had clients who gained quite well overall with their greatest circumference increase in the neck. These examples prove the reality of “indirect effect”, i.e., when growth is stimulated in one muscle, growth is stimulated through the entire musculature – though to a lesser degree; and the larger the muscle being worked, the greater the degree of indirect effect.

The calf increases reported above were likely the result of the effect provided by Leg Presses, Squats and Deadlifts; with those experiencing tremendous increases in their neck being the indirect result of growth stimulation induced by Shrugs and Deadlifts.

Conclusion: If you have a lagging body part, stop training that part entirely for a few weeks, then resume training with a lesser number of sets, or, with calves and neck, stop training them entirely.

As the Body Changes, Training Requirements Change:
Sticking Points are NOT Inevitable!

Very often an individual’s progress ceases entirely because he failed to account for a very important consideration: that during periods of physical-muscular progress the body is not static, it is in a process of change; and that as the body changes training requirements change. (This was only touched upon briefly in Heavy Duty I; but elaborated thoroughly in Heavy Duty II.) In fact, this is the most important issue in bodybuilding science once the fundamentals of intensity, volume and frequency are grasped.

A properly conducted bodybuilding program is essentially a strength training program. Or, in other words, if one wants to grow larger he must grow stronger. When someone starts to argue with me on this point, I say, “What is one supposed to do to grow larger, get weaker? As one grows stronger, i.e., as the weights grow progressively greater, the stresses on the body become progressively greater; and must be compensated for. (This is the conceptual link that high-intensity theorists have been missing; and which explains their inability to answer the question of sticking points.)

Perhaps the easiest way to understand this phenomenon is to observe the stresses on your body when performing a warm-up set of Squats compared to those experienced during the actual workout set to failure. On the heavier workout set, you immediately recognize the much greater stress on the bones compared to that with the warm-up set; then the much greater demands on the cardio-respiratory system, and so forth. (Not available to conscious awareness are the physiologic-metabolic stresses.) Now simply extrapolate that into the situation over time, as you lift progressively greater weights workout to workout.

As the stresses grow progressively greater, they will eventually reach a critical point such that they constitute overtraining. The first symptom will be a slow down in progress; and if the individual continues with the same volume and frequency protocol, the stresses will continue to increase until there is a complete cessation of progress, typically referred to as a “sticking point.” One need not ever experience a slow down in progress, let alone a sticking point, if he bears in mind all the while that as the weights grow progressively greater so do the stresses; and he must do certain specific things to compensate for them.

Within two to three weeks upon embarking on a Heavy Duty, high-intensity training program, a bodybuilder should begin inserting an extra rest day or even two at random beyond the suggested every fourth day workout so that he’s compensating for the increasing stresses; and, then, with increasing regularity until he is training but once every five days with an extra rest day or two added beyond that.

To quell any fear about the progressive reduction of training frequency, consider this. An individual making progress training once every fourth day, i.e., whose body is overcompensating–(i.e., growing stronger and larger)–cannot lose anything by taking a further day or two of rest. If his body is overcompensating on day four, how is it that he would decompensate on day five or six? So, while there is no risk of a negative, no threat of a loss, by inserting an extra day or two of rest, there is the actuality of a positive; which is – with the extra rest day(s) you have that much greater certainty that enough time has elapsed between workouts to allow the body sufficient opportunity to complete both the recovery and the growth processes. The implication here is that if the individual trains again before the body’s growth production process is completed, it will be short-circuited; and less than 100 units of possible progress realized.

Once the individual is training once every seven days, I suggest a reduction in the volume of training as outlined in my new book Heavy Duty II: Mind and Body. Reduced volume will necessitate switching from the Suggested Workout #1 to the Consolidation Program. With a consolidation routine, there is a decided shift in emphasis to predominately compound exercises, i.e., ones that involve multiple muscle groups, such as Squats, Dips and Deadlifts, etc. A workout program consisting of compound exercises still works all of the major muscle groups, but with fewer total sets, making for a minimal inroad into recovery ability. (Ideally, growth would be stimulated with zero sets; then none of the body’s limited recovery ability would be used for recovery, it would all be used for growth production; and you’d grow so fast as to stagger the imagination. At this juncture, however, no one knows how to stimulate growth with zero sets.)

Following the above advice, you’ll never hit a sticking point; you will experience unbreached progress with your training. As I have written before: if scientists can send a man to the moon and bring him back safely each time, we should be able to succeed with every one of our missions to the gym here on earth. Building bigger muscles should be a cake walk compared to moon walk.

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