Mike Mentzer Was a Bodybuilding Maverick Who Changed the Game

Mentzer was a deeply thoughtful and intense man who did things his way, and many people have since followed suit.

“Man’s proper stature is not one of mediocrity, failure, frustration, or defeat, but one of achievement, strength, and nobility. In short, man can and ought to be a hero.” 

– Mike Mentzer, 2002 (1)

Mike Mentzer was a bodybuilding genius. He was also a bodybuilding mystery. These two truths exist simultaneously and surround one of the most fascinating characters to grace an Olympia stage


Mentzer was the first man ever to achieve a perfect score in an elite contest, the 1978 Mr. Universe. He helped popularize Arthur Jones’ high-intensity principles, and his training books were littered with philosophy. Mentzer was also an advocate of calorie-counting long before the IIFYM diet emerged. Competitively, some consider him to be among the best to never win an Olympia, and he retired from the sport well before his prime in protest of questionable judging.

Life was not easy for Mentzer, nor his brother Ray. Both died early, in their mid-to-late forties. Mike was a victim of drug addiction for many years while Ray suffered from a rare and debilitating kidney disorder. Mike’s life and career were derailed by his defeat in the 1980 Mr. Olympia, an event he struggled to reckon with.

Despite all of this, Menzter’s name is still held respectfully within the bodybuilding community. He is a legend despite never winning an Olympia title.

Becoming Mike Mentzer

Born in Ephrata, Pennsylvania in 1951, Mike Mentzer was an early devotee to the iron game. A straight-A student in high school, Mentzer first began bodybuilding when he was just 12 years old. Inspired by the physiques he encountered in fitness magazines, from a young age Mentzer resolved to mold his own body into one of muscle and might. (2)

In 1965, Mentzer traveled to the first Mr. Olympia contest with his dad’s old workout partner. (3) At the Olympia, two things happened. First, Mentzer encountered Larry Scott (the man who won the first two Olympia titles). Second, Mentzer decided that he, too, would one day become a Mr. Olympia.

Only 13 years old at the time, Mentzer went so far as to set out a future schedule for his bodybuilding career. It read:

  • Mike Mentzer โ€” Mr. America 1972
  • Mike Mentzer โ€” Mr. Universe 1974
  • Mike Mentzer โ€” Mr. Olympia 1976. (4)

While his dates and predictions were slightly off, the list highlights Mentzer’s early ambition. Mentzer was, by all accounts, a remarkable but deeply intense man. He was fascinated by both the body and the mind and trained both in tandem.

 

 
 
 
 
 
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In school and later in university, Mentzer distinguished himself by virtue of his remarkable grades. He was a top student, one whose ultimate goal was to become a psychiatrist. Before embarking on that pathway, however, Mentzer threw himself into amateur bodybuilding. (5)

First competing in 1969, at the age of 18, Mentzer quickly made a contact that changed the course of his life. In 1971 โ€” the same year he enrolled in the Air Force โ€” Mentzer finished 10th at an AAU Mr. America contest. The winner that year was Casey Viator, a then-promising bodybuilder trained by Arthur Jones. 

At that time, Jones was first beginning to promote his high-intensity training protocols. Viator was one of Jones’ most famous “guinea pigs” and won that year’s Mr. America by a handsome margin. Impressed, Mentzer approached him and asked for help. Viator put him in touch with Arthur Jones, who transformed Mentzer’s thinking.

“Jones wrought a fundamental change in how I thought about training, but an even greater influence was the one he had on my thinking,” Mentzer told the late bodybuilding journalist Peter McGough. “While my parents and teachers had paid what amounted to, in retrospect, only superficial lip service to the values of thought, logic, and reason, Arthur Jones was absolutely passionate about those values.” (6)

Mentzer cut the number of sets he used and upped his intensity. The results were transformative, but life prevented Mentzer from truly showing them off. Due to both a shoulder injury and increasingly more responsibility in the Air Force, Mentzer was virtually inactive from bodybuilding until late 1974. (7)

First, he neutered the Junior Mr. America and earned first place at 190 pounds. Then, he took third at the 1975 Mr. America, stepping on stage cut at 195. He placed behind Roger Callard and Robby Robinson.

Until his retirement in 1980, Mentzer was one of the sport’s most controversial and fascinating stars. In a five-year period, he won Mr. America and Mr. Universe titles, won the heavyweight division at the Olympia, and, perhaps most importantly, stood out against the typical bodybuilding approaches of his age.

Heavy Duty Training 

When Mentzer first began training, he had a simple goal in mind โ€” to look like five-time Mr. Universe Bill Pearl. (8) Doing what anyone else did in a time before the internet, he turned to fitness magazines for advice.

This was a problem. During the 1950s and 1960s, workouts in fitness magazines were often high volume, high-frequency training programs that neglected to consider the genetic (and later chemical) advantages elite bodybuilders had. 

“Since every title winner was training six days a week for at least two hours a day, who was I to question such practices? These guys were my heroes, so I followed suit,” Mentzer wrote in his book Intensity, Insights and Insults: How Mike Mentzer Changed Bodybuilding. “For a young man of 15 with no real responsibilities and a superabundance of energy, such training didn’t seem all that demanding.” (9)

Modifying Jones’ principles somewhat (Mentzer used fewer reps), Mentzer became a high-intensity disciple. One of his earliest intensity routines โ€” later dubbed his Heavy Duty routine โ€” was as follows: (10)

Day 1 (Chest, Shoulders, Triceps)

Day 2 (Lats, Traps, Lower Back, Biceps)

Day 3 (Legs, Abs)

Note: Mentzer worked up to one all-out set of failure, typically lasting for six to nine reps for each movement listed above. 

What isn’t communicated in the workout above is the intensity Mentzer brought to his training. Typically he did only one or two sets per exercise. Using pre-fatigue and forced reps, Mentzer’s philosophy was simple โ€” obliterate the muscles and then move on. His workouts were often 45 minutes in duration.

It was completely antithetical to the mainstream approach. Arnold Schwarzenegger, for example, wrote in his Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding that he trained twice a day, six days a week. (11)

The above video, featuring Mentzer training Boyer Coe, is rather clinical and stunted. Focus, however, on the content โ€” he pushes one set to all-out failure. This, he believed, made the muscle grow.

Why did people listen to Mentzer? He wrote clearly and coherently. More importantly, he was phenomenal during his bodybuilding career. In 1978 he achieved a perfect score at the Mr. Universe contest. He turned professional the next year and won the heavyweight division of the Mr. Olympia contest. He only lost the overall to Frank Zane.

Mentzer, along with Jones and Viator, helped push a generation of bodybuilders to try high-intensity training. The best-known example of this was undoubtedly six-time Olympia winner Dorian Yates who entirely changed his approach after reading HIT works. Yates’ later ‘blood and guts’ routine was, in effect, a modified Mentzer approach. 

Nutritional Protocols

Mentzer helped revolutionize bodybuilding training when, along with Jones and later Dorian Yates, he promoted an all-out intensity approach in training. Mentzer was a man unconcerned with what others expected of him. His books on bodybuilding, like Heavy Duty, were littered with philosophical passages and encouraged readers to think deeply.

Inspired by Ayn Rand, Mentzer was a proponent of objectivism โ€” a philosophical doctrine defined by the idea that men must be guided by what makes them happy. Individuals should not take behaviors or advice as fact, but scrutinize them for themselves. (12)

Oversimplification aside, the passages in Mentzer’s works were emblematic of his drive to verify everything for himself. This also affected his training style โ€” he initially trained like everyone else before discovering that a high-intensity approach yielded better results. 

Mentzer’s heyday in the 1970s and early 1980s also came at a time when bodybuilding diets were still largely amateurish. Competitors often cut carbohydrates before a contest or, more commonly, went on grueling meat and eggs or meat and water diets. (13) One of the more scientific approaches, undertaken by Arnold Schwarzenegger, was a ketogenic-style diet

Calorie counting, which is still the most common form of dieting for competition, was still a rarity among competitors, but Mentzer was one of the exceptions. Before the 1979 Mr. Olympia โ€” where Mentzer would win the heavyweight division โ€” Mentzer employed a very straightforward approach to his diet.

He counted his calories and did not feel the need to deprive himself of food he enjoyed. A full three decades before “If It Fits Your Macros” became a common mantra in the fitness industry, Mentzer wrote the following:

“If you’re on a well-balanced diet and have a caloric deficit in your daily budget, it will not hurt your weight loss efforts to eat refined carbohydrates such as ice cream or a candy bar.” (14)

Now for those who doubted Mentzer’s seriousness in making these claims, he reminded them of his 1979 Olympia diet:

“The last two weeks before the 1979 Mr. Olympia, I was consuming more than 200 grams of carbs a day โ€” I had pancakes three times a week and ice cream almost every day. I didn’t do this sort of thing recklessly, however; I kept my daily caloric intake below 2,000 and was very active.” 

The result? Even though he placed second, Mentzer was generally considered to be the most defined competitor in the contest. (15)

That Mentzer sported a lean and dense physique suggests that this was a good approach for him. Oddly, given the apparent appeal that this kind of dieting style should have, Mentzer’s dietary protocols were not as popular as his training advice.

Mentzer’s diet approach was only really taken seriously when the above quote was touted by the IIFYM community in the 2010s as evidence of its efficacy. His training advice had an almost immediate impact, but it took much longer for bodybuilders to loosen the reins on their nutritional edicts.

The Forgotten Man of Bodybuilding?

In the course of writing this article, a good friend โ€” who loves bodybuilding โ€” made the mistake of asking me about Mike Mentzer. After receiving a 20-minute, largely unsolicited lecture, they asked an even better question โ€” was he a bodybuilding legend?

In this author’s mind, the answer is yes. Mentzer achieved a perfect score in competition, which is still incredible. He advanced training protocols, and his nutritional approach poked holes in dietary dogma. Mentzer never won the overall at the Olympia, but his impact on the sport is still felt today.

Why is Mentzer not an automatic legend in the eyes of some fans? His retirement and early death at the age of 49 meant that his contributions were limited. Mentzer won the heavyweight division at the 1979 Olympia and was tapped by many to become the sport’s next legend.

His retirement in 1980, following Arnold’s controversial victory, disrupted these plans. Mentzer may have placed fifth in 1980, but there is no reason to believe he would not have finished higher, or even won the entire thing, in later years. 

Franco Columbu won the Olympia in 1981, followed by Chris Dickerson in 1982 and Samir Bannout in 1983. It was not until 1984 that Lee Haney began his reign of dominance. There was a clear period of commotion at the top of the sport when Mentzer could, and most likely would have gotten an Olympia title.

This is not to say, however, that he completely disappeared. From 1980 until he died in 2001, Mentzer was a prolific bodybuilding writer, but it took many years to recover from the 1980 Olympia.

Peter McGough described Mentzer as being in ‘freefall’ during the 1980s:

In his seminars, he was openly contemptuous of the Sydney affair; a posture that he believes led to his being unofficially blacklisted by the IFBB, making promoters reluctant to book him. He left Weider publications, and by 1982, his annual income “Had gone from $200,000 a year to zero.”

In 1983, ace inventor and entrepreneur Arthur Jones recruited Mike and brother Ray (1979 Mr. America) to work with him on research projects he was undertaking at his Nautilus headquarters in Deland, Florida. However, things didn’t progress the way Mike had hoped, and after six months, he and Jones severed their business relationship. Joe Weider rehired Mike in the fall of that year, but after six months, Mentzer left to assume the editorship of workout, a newly launched magazine. (16)

In 1985 Workout ceased publishing, Mentzer’s father died, and his near-decade-long relationship with Cathy Gelfo ended. The next several years worsened his mental health. Dealing with personal traumas and a narcotics dependency (he began taking amphetamines in 1979), Mentzer spent a great deal of time in and out of the hospital. It was not until 1990, when he ended his use of amphetamines, that his life slowly improved.

From 1990 until 2001, Mentzer once more became a recognizable expert on high-intensity training. He wrote multiple articles, created several training videos, and in part helped influence Dorian Yates’ Olympia training. 

He died in 2001, at the age of 49, from a heart attack. His brother Ray died two days later from kidney failure.

“Mike Mentzer was a complex and gifted man who left an indelible mark on the bodybuilding landscape,” McGough wrote. (17)

For modern trainees, Mentzer’s life and writings should act as a call to arms to question everything, discover what is best for one’s body, and, more importantly, train with purpose and intensity. That alone makes Mentzer a worthy bodybuilding legend. 

References

  1. John Little, High-Intensity training the Mike Mentzer way (Mcgraw-hill, 2003), 212-213. 
  2. Peter McGough, ‘The Mike Mentzer Story,’ The Barbell (originally published in Flex Magazine, 1995). https://www.thebarbell.com/the-mike-mentzer-story/
  3. Ibid
  4. Ibid
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid.
  7. Mike Mentzer, Heavy Duty (originally published 1993). Available from Mike Mentzer.com. http://www.mikementzer.com/hdchap1.html
  8. The Sandwich, ‘Mike Mentzer,’ Ironman, 1 November 2001. https://www.ironmanmagazine.com/mike-mentzer/
  9. John Little, High-Intensity training, 24.
  10. ‘Workout Systems: Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty’, Poliquin Group. December 20, 2016. https://www.poliquinstore.com/articles/workout-systems-mike-mentzers-heavy-duty/ 
  11. Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Bill Dobbins. The new encyclopedia of modern bodybuilding (Simon and Schuster, 1998), 205. 
  12. Mentzer, Heavy Duty.
  13. Conor Heffernan, ‘Before the Carnivore Diet,’ Physical Culture Study, December 16, 2019. https://physicalculturestudy.com/2019/12/16/before-the-carnivore-diet-rheo-h-blairs-meat-and-water-diet-1960s-2/
  14. Mike Mentzer, Heavy Duty Nutrition (1993), 12-14. 
  15. Ibid
  16. Peter McGough, ‘Mike Mentzer: The Untold Story,’ Muscular Development, November 5, 2017. https://www.musculardevelopment.com/news/the-mcgough-report/13217-mike-mentzer-the-untold-story-muscular-development.html
  17. Ibid.

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