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* Strength Oldschool was given permission to publish this article by an Author who wishes to be referred to as 'Magnus'.
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Hello everyone, and welcome to my account (finally!) of the day I attended Mike Mentzer’s seminar. This event took place the day after my unexpected chat with him that you read about in my first Mentzer topic. The seminar consisted of an explanation of Mike’s Heavy Duty training system, a workout that was intense (no demonstrating with light weights here!), and Mike performing his posing routine, followed by questions from the audience.
Two things to bear in mind: First, this took place in the early 1980s and was possibly the last time that Mike was in good shape, and second, if you are expecting a lot of Ayn Rand - inspired philosophical chat from Mike it did not happen, as Mike had not yet got around to being entranced by Objectivism at this point in his life.
Okay, back in time we go to pick up my thoughts as I finished work for the day and headed for Swindon and the gym where I had been lucky to have that one-on-one discussion with Mike the night before. My mind was buzzing with anticipation: Would Mike get angry or abusive if anyone questioned his training? Was the seminar going to be mostly talk with maybe demonstrations of exercises done with light weights? AND important to a young bodybuilder that had connected with Mike’s wavelength, would he treat me differently to everyone else who attended – my ego was expanded and wanting even more stroking!
I walked in the gym and there was Mike by the reception desk already surrounded by lots of young bodybuilders asking questions. Clearly enjoying the attention, it was obvious Mike loved to talk and ‘correct’ any opinions on training which did not agree with his. Looking over he caught sight of me and gave a very slight nod to acknowledge my presence, then went back to the group of around fifteen guys around him – a mental image of Jackals around a Lion came to mind – but if the intention of any of these guys was to criticise Mike I felt sure they would find him to be unbeatable in a debate.
The gym owner appeared behind the desk and I purchased a seminar ticket and slowly wandered around the gym, eagerly awaiting the official start of the seminar as staff wandered around the gym telling trainees who did not have tickets that the gym was closing. While this went on I overheard one of the young guys talking while waiting for the seminar to begin (young? I am forgetting I was in my early twenties then so I was part of the same crowd!). He was telling a small group about Mike’s training which he had witnessed a couple of days before. Mike had trained legs, chest and triceps and incredibly did only one set per exercise and no warm-ups!
Leg work started with Nautilus leg extensions followed by conventional leg presses (the gym did not have the old Nautilus leg extension/leg press machine that was as big as an army tank, instead it had the much smaller leg extension unit and an ordinary vertical leg press). No mention was made of the amount of weight Mike used on the leg extension, but his style was described as very strict, holding at the top of each rep for a couple of seconds, and on the last three reps he had a gym member press down hard on his ankles as he lowered the weight back down, to make the negative movement much harder (I read an interview with Tom Platz in which Tom said he saw Mike training this way at Gold’s gym and tried it out on himself and his training partner. Tom concluded that using this technique turned up the intensity to a whole new level).
Unlike his training booklet which recommended going immediately to the leg press to take advantage of the ‘pre-exhaustion’ principle (Mike called it ‘pre-fatigue’), Mike rested for a couple of minutes before pounding out eleven rapid leg presses with seven hundred pounds. Not very heavy compared to today’s bodybuilders? Remember this was on a vertical leg press – much heavier weights can be handled on the inclined leg presses all gyms have now (I have talked to an equipment manufacturer who told me that, depending on the angle of incline, seven hundred on a vertical leg press could equal as much as twelve hundred on an incline leg press machine).
Mike took his time between sets and about five minutes later he did one set on the Nautilus leg curl machine for seven reps, then used the whole stack on the calf raise machine, also done as you might be expecting by now, for one set. I vaguely recall the stack was marked as nine hundred pounds.
By now half the people in the gym were listening to the guy talking about Mike’s training, and he went on to tell us about Mike’s chest workout. Standing between the pulleys in the cable crossover machine Mike performed two hard sets in a style essentially the same as Arnold used in Pumping Iron. Why two sets instead of one? Mike’s weak point was chest – his pecs were almost flat and it seems even he thought that a bit more work might help with that problem. Following the crossovers Mike did a set of incline presses and a set of dips with his elbows out wide and leaning forward as he descended.
Finally Mike hit his triceps with one set of pushdowns, using a v-handle with his thumbs touching each other and allowing the handle to rise as high as his nose on each rep before pressing it down. All along the young guy telling us this, did not mention the weights Mike used except for the leg press, but the final exercise performed must have made a big impression on him as he mentioned the weight three times. It was triceps dips, elbows held in to the sides, and even after the pushdowns Mike strapped on a 125 pound dumbbell and managed seven reps!
As if the timing had been planned, as the description of Mike’s training came to an end the gym owner came over and introduced Mike as “Mister Heavy Duty,” further adding that Mike was “a bodybuilder that uses scientific fact to guide his training, and has changed the face of bodybuilding training. Listen to what he says then try it out, you won’t regret it!” I looked around the gym and saw we were all together, about fifteen guys and a couple of girls listening intently as Mike started talking.
Mike assumed the air of a genial teacher helping novice pupils to understand their lessons, and I was relieved that the scowling, cutting foul-mouthed cynic who had amazed me the day before was not on display. Mike’s true calling was writing and teaching, his enjoyment of the seminar plain to see as he was in a relaxed and happy mood – even the occasional dumb question from his audience was met with patience and a look of amusement.
Mike pointed at barbells and dumbbells and a couple of Nautilus machines and said “can anyone tell me what the difference is between these things when it comes down to training? I’ll tell you: The barbells are the Stone Age and the Nautilus machines are the now and the future of training. Your joints initiate movement by rotating around an axis or fulcrum point, and Nautilus machines with their odd-shaped cams provide a strength curve that matches these movements, allowing you a fuller range of motion and resistance at the point of complete contraction. This peak contraction is the only point in any movement where all the muscle fibers can be contracted, providing you use enough resistance of course. Do one set to failure then walk away. Train this way and you should make gains after every workout. Those bodybuilders who say you have to train for months on end to gain anything have got it all wrong! If you provide the right training stress then you should get stronger every workout until you reach your genetic potential. Think of it this way: If you sunbathe, too short a time in the sun will be insufficient to tan you. Too long in the sun will overwhelm your system and burn you. But time it right and you will tan and this will happen every time. Training is the same, in other words you apply a specific stress to your muscles and you get a specific response, and this response happens every time if you get the stress right – like getting a tan, you would not need to hope you will tan, or hope you won’t burn. If you apply the right time you will tan….every time! And if you apply the right stress to your muscles you will grow stronger and bigger after every workout guaranteed!”
Mike answered several questions from the audience as some of the guys seemed to find this a bit confusing. I was a bit confused myself as to why they were unsure of Mike’s explanation as it seemed quite clear to me. Mike changed course now as he said “I am due for a workout today, so how would you like to see a Heavy Duty workout in action? The only difference compared to training back home is that my brother trains with me there and knows exactly how much help to give me for forced reps, without him I will only go to positive failure.” Mike repeated the fact that he trained much harder at home several times during the workout he performed – did he think some of the audience would be disappointed by what they saw him do that day?
Mike moved over to the Nautilus pullover machine, sat down on the seat and began adjusting the height of it relative to the position of the arm pads, explaining that the point of rotation needed to be in line with the shoulders to allow a full-range movement. Mike continued talking the whole time as he selected a weight about two-thirds of the way down the stack, sat back in the machine and buckled the waist belt to hold himself in, then pressed the foot pedal far enough to get his elbows and forearms on the pads. The weight stretched Mike as far back as he could reach when he released the pedal, then he began to perform rapid repetitions. Now for the first surprise: Mike tried to continue talking as he trained but came to a sudden stop after three reps and declared the weight was too heavy! Having read about Mike using the whole stack on most of these machines it was completely unexpected when he stopped, extricated himself from the machine and reduced the weight to half the stack. He started again and this time stopped talking after the fourth rep, going on to finish with nine reps.
The other thing that I found surprising and at odds with his training articles at the time was his rep speed. In most of Mike’s writings which appeared in Weider’s Muscle Builder magazine he strongly emphasised holding the peak contraction in exercises that allowed it (and the Nautilus pullover did), and he recommended momentum be kept out of exercise by performing reps slowly, and even slower on the eccentric phase (lowering the weight) – yet here was Mike doing his reps very fast and not holding the peak contraction at all. Who knows, maybe Mike was having an off day for training and just wanted to get through it. Whatever the truth may have been, I thought to myself "that guy describing Mike’s workout before the seminar started: Did he exaggerate what Mike did, or could he even have read about it in a magazine and pretended he had watched Mike train when he told us about it?” There did not seem to be any reason why he would have made it up, so I concluded that either Mike was distracted by talking to us and could not really get into his exercises, or maybe it was simply the fact that he was relatively stronger in his legs and triceps than his upper back (his triceps certainly were incredibly impressive-looking).
As Mike caught his breath he explained the virtues of the pullover done Nautilus-style: "You could do pullovers with a barbell or a dumbbell if necessary but they don’t come close to the Nautilus version because the effective range of motion, thanks to the offset-cam, is more than doubled on the machine, and pushing the pads with your elbows, not your forearms or hands, removes the weak link between the weight and you, enabling much more direct effort on your lats. The inventor of Nautilus, Arthur Jones, called this pullover ‘the upper-body squat,’ and he believed it would lead to bigger lats than had ever been seen before. I think Jones had a point there, but personally I think parallel-bar dips for pecs, delts and triceps are more worthy of the name ‘upper –body squat.”
Mike wiped the sweat from his face, put his glasses back on and said “have you ever tried working out with a bunch of people watching you? You should try it sometime!” This confirmed in my mind my opinion that maybe Mike found training in front of everyone a bit off-putting, leading to a reduction in his performance.
“The purpose of the pullover is to pre-fatigue the lats, then we move onto another exercise which uses our biceps as well. Because our biceps don’t get hit by the pullover they are still fresh and can help drive our lats to total exhaustion when we perform a compound exercise such as lat pull-downs after the pullovers. Of course, to get the maximum effect we should go from the pullover to the pull-down with no rest, but, as I am explaining all of this to you all, I am taking time out between sets to talk, and I cannot do that if I train as fast and intensely as usual.”
As Mike explained the above he put on a pair of wrist straps then put the pin in three different spots in the weight stack of the pull-down unit and tested the resistance. The pull-down unit was not a Nautilus pull-down (it seemed odd that the gym had some of the Nautilus range but not all of them, but back when this seminar took place it was the only gym within sixty miles of my home that had any Nautilus machines, so we were thankful for what we did have). Satisfied with the weight selected, Mike strapped on to the bar using a curl-grip, his hands closer than shoulder-width, then asked two guys from the audience to help him pull it down. Mike locked his legs under the roller pad and carried on alone, once again using rapid reps, although he did briefly hold the bar at his chest on each rep.
Mike squeezed out seven reps then straightened up and unstrapped himself from the pull-down bar. As he turned toward us a couple of guys indicated they wanted to ask a question. Mike nodded and the first guy said “why don’t you use a wide grip? Arnold says you have to do wide-grip chins for wide lats.” The second guy chimed in with “yeah, and he says you need to do enough sets to get at least fifty reps in per workout, or it wouldn’t be enough to build your lats!” I found this a bit amusing, as Mike had huge lats despite not following Arnold’s approach.
For a second I thought Mike was going to get angry with these guys, but instead he chuckled and looked at them for a few seconds with a look on his face that I could only describe as his ‘forgive them for they know not what they say’ expression, then he replied:
“Let’s look at this logically – see where the origins and insertions of your lats are? They attach to your upper arm and around your hip area. Now put your grip out wide and the distance between these two points is less but with a narrow grip see how the distance is greater? And a longer range of motion trains the lats more completely, so using a wide grip to get wider is just nonsense! Oh, before I forget to mention it, you should use a palms-up grip the same as you would use for barbell curls, because this puts your biceps in their strongest position to help your lats in the pull-down. Chins and pull-downs with your palms facing away from you don’t make sense because your biceps are in a weaker position. You can prove this by trying reverse curls – you will find that with that grip you cannot curl as much as with your palms up.”
Mike had moved to the pulley row as he was explaining the above and he strapped on to the V-bar after putting the pin in the hole on the stack that was marked as 300 pounds. He pulled back and sat down, did two reps then released the weight and asked for the pin to be put in the 260 pound hole, then got back in position and rapidly performed nine reps of close-grip rows, the bar hitting Mike’s abs with a loud thunk on each rep – it sounded like someone banging on a door! Mike got back on his feet and said “that’s a great exercise, I love doing it! Okay, that’s back finished, let’s do deltoids next!”
We followed Mike across the gym to the Nautilus lateral raise machine – this was not the original double-shoulder machine that also had an overhead press on it, instead this machine was for side raises only.
Going off at a tangent for a minute, I had not mentioned it in my first Mentzer article but after seeing Mike for the first time the day before the seminar I had trained in the gym and tried Nautilus laterals for the first time. Wow! Dumbbell lateral raises don’t come close to the isolation you feel on the medial heads of your deltoids. As I reached failure I was surprised to see Mike appear and assist me with two forced reps, after which he said “that was a good strict set! Don’t forget one like that is enough. What else are you planning to do?” I replied “I was going to do presses but I don’t think I could do much after this set – what would you suggest?” Mike nodded and said “you don’t need presses at all. The front delts get plenty of work when you train chest so forget presses and just do side and rear laterals instead.” I took his advice and did not do any pressing, but Mike had obviously changed his opinion of presses at some point because I had seen photos of Mike in the magazines doing Universal machine presses and smith machine presses.
Back to the seminar! Mike explained to the audience that presses were unnecessary and threw me a compliment, saying “this guy talked about that yesterday with me, and he understands Heavy Duty well because I watched him train and he did things correctly. When I have gone you could always ask him if you are not sure of anything.” I thanked Mike while feeling a bit embarrassed by such a resounding endorsement, but my ego was certainly nourished that day!
Mike put the pin in the 100 pound hole on the stack then did a set consisting of ten reps, each lateral raise going up fast as Mike pushed up and out with his forearms, his hands staying relaxed, and holding at the top for a second on each rep. Then, for a change of pace, Mike asked for volunteers to try the machine and took two guys through a set each, then he turned to rear deltoid training for which he was forced to use dumbbells. Bent over parallel with the floor Mike performed lateral raises with a pair of thirty pounders, his arms slightly bent and his thumbs pointing down for nine fast reps. Mike dropped the dumbbells and said “that’s it for deltoids! I know it seems very brief to most of you, but remember that when you train chest, back or arms your deltoids are also working, so doing a lot of direct work would overtrain them. Okay, to finish today I am gonna do a set of biceps!”
Visions of Mike barbell curling 200 pounds and preacher curling 150 pounds in the magazines came to mind, and I was eager to see what he could curl that day so was a little disappointed when he sat on a bench and did dumbbell concentration curls instead.
Starting with his left arm he put his elbow against his leg and held the sixty pound dumbbell with his little finger against the inside weight plate, the other end of the dumbbell slanting downwards. Mike explained this put his palm in the preferred supine position allowing fuller contraction of his biceps, and then he proceeded to grind out eight very hard reps. Switching to his right hand, Mike struggled even harder with his reps and spotted himself in a most unusual way. Instead of holding his wrist with his other hand to help the weight up Mike made a fist with his left hand and punched upwards against his right hand a couple of times on each rep, driving the weight up in a way that I had never seen before (or since) until he had completed seven reps. Mike got his breath back and explained that punching his hand up made each rep possible but ensured all the weight stayed on his working arm, whereas holding his wrist to spot himself could lead to the assisting hand doing too much of the work and reducing the intensity – a very definite no-no in Mike’s book!
Now Mike invited questions, and it struck me that he had not done any direct trapezius or lower back exercises which he always advocated in the magazines. I must admit I did not make a note of all the questions asked, but here is a brief list of the answers I do remember:
Mike was asked what it was like to work for Arthur Jones, to which he explained he no longer did work for him. He stated that Jones was a “true genius, and the only person I have ever met who really understands productive training, but he is impossible to work for. He is not only a genius; he is also a very unpleasant, arrogant know-it-all. Bodybuilding owes him a debt of gratitude for advancing training technology into the twentieth century, but even so there’s no way I could work for him again.”
Read my first Mentzer article where I mention Ellington Darden’s book which has a chapter about Mike and Ray Mentzer’s time working for Jones. Darden explains what really happened and some of the unpleasant events later on when Mike cracked up.
Mike was asked to demonstrate dips as he had said they were ‘the upper body squat’ in his opinion, and we followed him over to the dip station, which had two sets of bars for both narrow-grip and wide-grip dips. Mike turned to us and said “the wide bars are unnecessary, why are they here?” The gym owner explained that Vince Gironda recommended narrow bar dips for triceps and wide grips for pecs, and they took his advice. Mike had an expression of contempt on his face as he said “Gironda is just a crazy old hippie who does not know what he’s talking about. Elbow position is the key on dips – elbows out and forward leaning hits your pecs, and elbows back and close to your sides with an upright torso hits your triceps, so you don’t need the wide bars.”
This answer satisfied the audience but left me feeling uncomfortable because I had worked on dips done the Gironda way, and there was no doubt in my mind that Gironda was right. His wide grip dips carved a line under my pecs and made them look much wider in a way that no other exercise did, and the position of your head, feet and body shape came into it as well.
The gym owner called for us to pay attention to him then said “Mike is going to get ready and pose for you now, and I want two volunteers to work the lights and music for him.” Mike went over to the cable crossovers and proceeded to perform five sets of fifteen reps with light weights, trying to pump up his pecs. Amazingly, he did not do any other body part pumping before he went in the back and changed.
The lights were dimmed and a huge silhouette quietly padded over to the posing spot, then the music started and I recognised a part of ‘the ring’ by Wagner, a very dramatic classical piece. Dimly I could see Mike raise his arms up and out, and then the lights came on! Mike was not tanned and not contest-cut but what a sight!
With his arms straight out at shoulder-level he looked incredibly wide, massive shoulders and lats tapering into a small waist held in a vacuum pose. Mike’s posing routine lasted three minutes and was not a fast fancy-moves type of routine but slow, each pose being held for several seconds. I recalled Bill Pearl describing Mike’s physique as “looking like he could walk through a brick wall- I’m not saying whether he really could or not, but he looked like he could!” I agreed with Bill’s assessment as Mike looked like Hercules reincarnated in every pose, and I could easily understand why Arnold was frightened by Mike when they had words at the 1980 Mr. Olympia contest.
The lights went out, Mike went back to change, and I listened to some of the comments made by the audience after the lights came back on. Most of the remarks revolved around the size of Mike’s arms, everybody seemed amazed by them, including me.
Mike reappeared in a Heavy Duty sweatshirt and stood by the reception desk, taking more questions from the crowd who were now wired up after witnessing his posing routine. The subject came around to nutrition and Mike set about contradicting nearly every bodybuilding convention I knew at the time. During his talk he mentioned bagels as his favourite breakfast but none of us had heard of them at the time (food choices were much more limited thirty years ago compared to today in the UK).
I would have loved another chat with Mike but my time was up, I had forty miles to drive to get home and needed to be fresh for work the next day. Mike nodded in my direction as I indicated it was time for me to go, then went back to his audience who were hanging on his every word.
I hoped to see Mike again but when I visited the gym a week later he had gone. So there you have it – an eye-witness account of a seminar with the intellectual of the bodybuilding world – MIKE MENTZER.
ADDITIONAL SOURCES BY STRENGTH OLDSCHOOL
* Listen to this great Interview by John Hansen where Author John Little remembers Mike Mentzer...
* Radio Interviews with Mike Mentzer...