One of the thickest bodybuilders of yesteryear, before drug use went totally off the rails, was Mike Mentzer.
His last contest was the 1980 Mr. Olympia, the controversial comeback win for Arnold in Australia. Mentzer placed fifth, which triggered his retirement and a swim through the pool of madness for a few years. The photo on the left is from that contest.
Mentzer did a lot for bodybuilding, tapping into science to build his training philosophies—although there was very little research on muscle growth back then. Even so, his training and musings helped many competitors and non-competitors validate reducing volume and increasing intensity.
He preached low set totals for each muscle, but insisted on pushing each of those sets to the limit and beyond—failure plus forced reps and sometimes adding negative reps.
It was a muscle baking, nervous-system shaking attack that did great things for his muscle mass and made his Heavy Duty system legendary. And, yes, he was using anabolic steroids, even writing about what he used in the magazines.
But after he retired and began training people, Mentzer realized that maybe what he did wasn’t the muscle-producing magic bullet he thought it was, especially for the genetically challenged or even the genetically average.
It drained massive amounts of recovery. Here’s what he said in a 1992 interview with John Little:
You’ve got to be very careful with this high-intensity stuff. I’m beginning to understand just how demanding it is. If you were to draw a horizontal line from left to right across a piece of paper, with that line representing zero effort, and then off of that line graph your daily effort output—you get up in the morning, you take a shower, you walk to the car, you climb some steps—the blips representing those efforts would barely leave the flat line. Then you go into the gym and perform a heavy set of bench presses to failure. All of a sudden that line starts to take off in a vertical line off the paper, out the door and across the street. That’s how much more biochemical resources are used up. I will often have a trainee do a second set of an exercise, but I’m realizing that increase is wrong. It’s way too much. Rather than have someone do a second set, maybe do one extra rep. When you start making increments in volume, you have to start out very, very small. The demand from even that one set to failure is of an enormous magnitude. If you’re working too long and too frequently, you’ll short-circuit both the recovery and the growth process…. This high-intensity stuff places a demand on the body that is un-fucking real.
I remember tales of Nautilus machine inventor Arthur Jones pushing bodybuilder Casey Viator’s high-intensity workouts by holding a pistol to his head so he would go to true muscular failure. Talk about spiking stress hormones with demands that are “un-f-ing real.”
Why am I off on this tangent? In a previous newsletter I discussed being highly motivated when I got my new cable machine. My intensity climbed as did my workout times—they began approaching an hour each, all sets to failure—and I began looking stringy…
I thought the reason may be old age—suddenly the only growth I was seeing was my forehead. I went back and reviewed Old Man Young Muscle to see what I was doing during my impressive transformation last summer.
I made some adjustments mirroring those workouts and started seeing progress again. But could pulling back a bit more make my gains be even better?
I recently discussed training to failure with 2019 Drug-Free Mr. Universe Doug Brignole. He is doing four sets per muscle twice a week, as I did during my Old Man Young Muscle transformation, but he takes only the very last set to failure. And he’s even questioning that.
The first three sets he stops a couple of reps short—and that change has accelerated his muscle growth. He’s even thinking about bodybuilding competition again.
I’m experimenting with a sub-failure workout every second or third to enhance recovery while sticking with the successful training framework in Old Man Young Muscle…
Bottom line: If you’re motivated, hitting it hard, and not gaining, you may be overtraining. More on this in a future newsletter along with new theories and thoughts on training-to-failure research.
New: Get the ideal exercise for each muscle, the best add-on moves for ultimate mass, complete 35-minute workouts, exercise start/finish photos, and details on building muscle fast and efficiently in Old Man, Young Muscle.
Till next time, train hard—and smart—for BIG results.
Former Editor in Chief, Iron Man Magazine
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