Mike Mentzer In The Modern World

The original high-intensity training system gets an update for today’s gym warrior.

In spending nearly all of his adulthood refining his Heavy Duty training system, Mike Mentzer (1951–2001) had only one goal. Bodybuilding’s original critical thinker, Mr. Universe and creator of HD didn’t care about lifting weights; he didn’t care about strength for strength’s sake. All of Mentzer’s training explorations were designed to help you put on as much muscle as your genetic potential would allow in the fastest time while doing the least amount of exercise possible.

Mentzer was unorthodox and unrepentant about his iconoclastic training views. He railed against researchers who, in his eyes, essentially were false prophets of speculation, not true scientific work. He ranted against bodybuilding officials whom he felt failed to honor his physique accomplishments, cheating him of the 1980 Mr. Olympia title. And he dismissed bodybuilders who adhered to the more-is-better school of training without question.

To say his low-volume theories worked or didn’t can become an exhausting effort. Countless trainees swore by his approach, while others scoffed. Whatever one thought about Mentzer’s training philosophy, one had to applaud his near-perfect marriage of symmetry and mass. Clearly, Heavy Duty worked for him. But how well would his approach work for today’s fitness culture in which people still want to put on muscle, but increasingly want to be able to do something functional with that muscle?

This gave us a radical idea. What if we melded modern needs, ideas and research with adaptations of some of Mentzer’s time-tested strategies to create a post-modern post-Mentzer training protocol for the man who wants muscle? We looked around and found just the guy to deliver the goods: Andrew Speer, co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City. With a quarter century of fitness and athletic experience (former gymnast, track-and-field athlete, competitive pole-vaulter at the University of Miami), Speer collects certifications after his name like others collect stamps: CSCS, RKC-1 kettlebell instructor, Level 1 trainer in the Training Warriors system.

Speer came up with a system that combines a number of modern theories while adapting some of Mentzer’s. The result is a wholly original approach. Not only will it build muscle, but that muscle will be strong and functional. And each highly intense workout lasts 30 minutes or less — another modern prerequisite.

Why Post-Modern Works

Each of the workouts consists of a series of compound sets (multiple sets for the same muscle without rest between sets). “I break down the program into workouts A, B, C and D,” Speer says. “Other than some minor variations, the compound sets are essentially identical for workouts A and C and B and D, respectively. The major difference is that identical sets are each treated to different aspects of High-Intensity Training (HIT) depending on which workout they appear.”

The primary focus of workouts A and C is concentric in nature. Concentric training pumps glucose and volumizing fluids into muscle cells, producing a twofold effect: energy and increase in muscle size. Concentric work helps you produce force, allowing you to move powerfully. Evidence suggests that concentric work actually results in insulin sensitivity, which aids fat metabolism.

Workouts B and D focus on eccentric work. Mentzer always preached that each rep consists of three phases: the concentric or positive portion, the static and the negative or eccentric. The eccentric was the strongest phase and was thus last to fail, and science bears this out. Adds Speer, “Eccentric work allows you to absorb and stabilize a load. If a body or muscle cannot absorb or support a load eccentrically, it cannot move effectively concentrically.”

Eccentric work also provides for additional muscle growth: “The fascia, the soft tissue casing that surrounds muscle, is the limiting factor of how much your muscle can grow. An eccentric focus, especially on the last rep of a set, actually stretches the fascia, allowing for more room for muscles to grow,” Speer says. To enhance this effect, the current workout recommends at certain points that you take more time during the lowering phase than the four seconds espoused by Mentzer.

Another point of departure from Mentzer’s HIT-style workout is much greater use of dumbbells and cables. “In addition to providing training options, these improve a muscle’s functionality,” says Speer. “Generally, the first exercise of a compound set has you doing heavy maximum reps with free weights or cables — the idea is to pre-fatigue or pre-exhaust primary movers and stabilizing muscles. Most often, the stabilizers will exhaust first. This way the primary movers, the larger muscles of the group, will do most of the work on the second exercise and reach maximal contraction/failure.”

Speer says you should assess how much weight you’ll need for each exercise so that you fail between six to eight reps. If you are able to do more than eight reps during the first couple of times you try the workout, increase the load at the next workout so that you fail on the appropriate rep. Thereafter, whenever you can complete a rep range and still have more steam, adjust the load at the next workout. And congratulate yourself for getting stronger.

Training Frequency

Speer suggests you rest one to three days between workouts A and B, and two to four days between C and D. Take a bit more time off if you sense you need it, something Mentzer himself advocated. The reason for some of this variability, observes Speer, has to do with the concept of “auto regulation,” espoused by Mel C. Siff, PhD and author of the sixth edition of Supertraining, an iconic work about all things strength-related. The bottom line is that recovery has to be somewhat subjective. You end up monitoring your body, from a sense of muscle soreness to systemic fatigue, knowing when it’s time to take an additional day off or to hit it hard. Keep in mind that this workout provides additional time off between eccentric workouts because negative training generates much more tissue breakdown and soreness. If you feel you need more time off, take it.

These workouts are highly intense, digging deep into your body’s ability to recover fully. The eccentric-based workouts, for example, not only fatigue the deepest layers of muscle tissue, they can also significantly impact your nervous system, which can require more recovery than muscle tissue. Over time, without adequate recovery you run the risk of overtraining. With these factors in mind, Speer recommends that you take seven to 10 days off completely from training each time you’ve completed 24 workouts, the equivalent of six cycles of this four-workout system.

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The Modern Mentzer Workout

Each of the four workouts consists of a series of compound sets. After the designated number of warm-up sets for the first exercise of each couplet, complete a single all-out set of six to eight reps to failure. Then move right to the next exercise for another maximum effort. You may rest between compound sets, but do not rest between exercises of the same set.

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