Mike Mentzer Workout Routine: Heavy Duty Bodybuilding

Mike Mentzer’s “Heavy Duty” workout routine is a high-intensity, low-volume approach to weight training.

The philosophy behind the training method is to stimulate muscle growth with maximum efficiency while minimizing the risk of overtraining. It emphasizes lifting heavy weights and pushing your muscles to failure in a brief, intense workout, followed by complete rest and recovery to allow maximum growth.

While Mentzer’s approach was unconventional at the time, it has had a lasting impact on the industry, influencing how many bodybuilders approach strength training and muscle development.

This article details Mike Mentzer’s training principles and techniques, with a complete workout routine to try his method for yourself. It is available in our workout tracker as Heavy Duty Bodybuilding, and you can download it for free for your device with the buttons below:

Who Was Mike Mentzer?

This is a short biography of Mike Mentzer, the man, the fitness icon, and the story behind the legend.

>> Click here to jump directly to the workout routine!

Early Life

Born in 1951 in Germantown, PA, and raised in Ephrata, PA, Mike Mentzer took up bodybuilding at the age of 12, inspired by images of golden-age bodybuilders on the cover of muscle magazines.

He trained using a set of weights his father got him, following the instructions that came with them. After a year of working out alone at home, Mike’s father contacted an old friend of his, John Myers. He was a powerlifter with a fully equipped gym in his garage.

Mike started working out in the garage gym with Myers and his training partner, who was an Olympic lifter. Their training styles heavily influenced the young Mentzer, who incorporated both powerlifting- and Olympic-style lifting in his routine.

At age 15, Mentzer could bench press 370 lb at a bodyweight of 165 pounds. His ultimate goal at this time was to achieve the physique of his hero, then 2-time Mr Universe contest winner Bill Pearl.

After finishing high school, Mentzer spent the next four years in the United States Air Force. At this point, he started training like the bodybuilders he read about in the muscle magazine articles. He was in the gym six days per week for at least two hours a day—a far cry from the training philosophy he later adopted and developed.

Early Bodybuilding Career

In 1971, at 19, Mentzer entered the prestigious Mr. America contest. He has already competed in and won a couple of bodybuilding shows, including the Mr. Pennsylvania contest. However, this was his first major competition.

It did not go well. Mike finished tenth, outclassed by another 19-year-old bodybuilder, Casey Viator. Viator was a disciple of the High-Intensity Training (HIT) system developed by inventor Arthur Jones two years earlier.

Viator, impressed by Mentzer’s potential, told his mentor about him. Soon after, Mentzer received a phone call in the middle of the night. It was Arthur Jones, who wanted to talk about HIT. That phone call laid the foundation for the evolution of the Heavy Duty training philosophy.

After a forced layoff between 1971 and 1974 due to a severe shoulder injury, Mentzer returned to training in 1975. This time, he followed the principles laid out by Jones. His workouts were highly intense but brief, using heavy weights to failure.

He responded extremely well to the new training style and competed in Mr. America the same year, placing third. During this time, he also attended the University of Maryland as a pre-med student, reading everything he came across about genetics, physical chemistry, and organic chemistry.

Peak Bodybuilding Career

In 1976, Mike Mentzer claimed the coveted Mr America title. He went on to dominate several high-level bodybuilding contests over the next few years, including the 1978 Mr Universe title, which he won with a perfect score of 300, the first bodybuilder to ever do so.

In 1979, Mike Mentzer placed 1st at the Mr. Olympia. However, at that time, Mr Olympia had two divisions, and while Mentzer won the heavyweight division, Frank Zane took the overall title.

Mike Mentzer’s final bodybuilding competition was the 1980 Mr. Olympia, one of the most controversial in the sport’s history.

The 1980 Mr. Olympia marked Arnold Schwarzenegger’s return to competitive bodybuilding after a five-year retirement. His comeback was highly anticipated, and he received much attention and publicity leading up to the event.

In a highly controversial decision, Schwarzenegger won the contest, ahead of Chris Dickerson and reigning champion Frank Zane. Mentzer placed 5th. 

Critics of the decision to place Schwarzenegger first claimed that his victory was influenced by his fame and the fact that he was making a comeback rather than his actual physique.

Convinced that the contest was fixed, Mike Mentzer retired after the 1980 Mr. Olympia and never competed again. Note that Mentzer never claimed that he himself should have won, only that Schwarzenegger should not have won.

This event played a role in Mike Mentzer’s disillusionment with competitive bodybuilding and contributed to his early retirement from the sport. He believed that bodybuilding competitions were subjective and that the judging criteria were inconsistent.


Following the 1980 Mr Olympia, Mentzer’s career started to crumble. He believed himself unofficially boycotted by Joe Weider and Weider publications and could not find bookings for seminars. By 1982, Mentzer’s income had plummeted to close to zero.

However, the following year, Arthur Jones hired Mike and his brother Ray for research for the Nautilus corporation. While that venture did not work out, it got Mentzer out of the downward spiral, and in 1983, he assumed the position of editor for Workout magazine.

While Mike immensely enjoyed being a magazine editor, it forced him to stay awake during the night to meet deadlines. In the process of doing so, he was using a lot of amphetamines to remain productive.

In 1985, three things happened to Mentzer that resulted in five years of progressive mental issues. He lost his father, his romantic relationship ended, and Workout magazine folded. In combination with escalating amphetamine abuse, his life fell apart, and he spent the second half of the 80s at rock bottom, sometimes suicidal, arrested several times, and institutionalized.

Mike Mentzer’s story could have ended on that sad note, but it didn’t. Even though medications and therapy had proven ineffective, he pulled himself out of the dark in 1990, starting a business as a personal trainer out of Gold’s Gym in Venice, California. Before long, his personal training servicers were doing gangbusters, he was writing articles and books, and his mail-order business was thriving.

Mike Mentzer passed away on June 10, 2001, from heart complications at the age of 49, only days before the death of his younger brother Ray, an accomplished bodybuilder himself and Mike’s long-time training partner.

Death and Legacy

However, Mike Mentzer’s legacy lives on. While his approach was unconventional at the time, it has had a lasting impact on the fitness industry, influencing how many individuals approach strength training and muscle development.

Mike Mentzer’s impact on bodybuilding goes beyond his competitive achievements. He left a lasting legacy through his innovative training methods and philosophy and continues to inspire bodybuilders worldwide. 

Emergence of HIT: High-Intensity Training

Mike Mentzer did not invent High Intensity Training (HIT). Arthur Jones, the man behind Nautilus exercise machines, developed the original concept of HIT.

However, Mentzer refined and popularized HIT, opposing the high-volume training methods that were prevalent at the time, into what is now known as the Heavy Duty training system.

Mike “Mr Heavy Duty” Mentzer’s work brought the effectiveness of HIT into the limelight, turning it into a debated yet impactful training method that influenced many, including professional bodybuilders like Dorian Yates.

Core Principles of Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty

Mike Mentzer based his high-intensity training methods on seven fundamental principles:

  • Identity: Every human being is essentially the same and requires the same kind of stimulus to increase muscle strength and size.
  • Intensity: The stimulus required for muscle growth is high-intensity muscle contraction, not high-volume, low-intensity work.
  • Duration: You can train hard or long, but you can’t do both.
  • Frequency: When you train hard enough for optimal muscle growth, you can’t do it again until complete recovery, which takes time.
  • Specificity: To gain maximum muscle and strength, you must train for it: slow, deliberate reps, full range of motion, and heavy weights.
  • Adaptation: Your muscles adapt to the stress of training by growing bigger and stronger. For that adaptation to continue, you must keep increasing the stress you put on your body.
  • Progression: To make progress, you must increase the intensity of your training, not the duration. Strength precedes muscle growth. Get stronger, and muscle gains will follow.

Let’s take a closer look at the most essential points.

Intensity Over Volume

Mike Mentzer’s workout routine was a paradigm shift in bodybuilding. While high-volume training, popularized by bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger, dominated the fitness landscape, Mentzer argued for training with low volume but with intense workouts.

His training philosophy posited that fewer sets performed with maximum effort were the best way to stimulate muscle growth. Too much volume leads to overtraining and keeps you from making the best possible gains. This weight training method, which he called “Heavy Duty Training,” stood in stark contrast to traditional approaches that advocated multiple sets and different exercises targeting the same muscle group.

Short Duration, Maximum Effort

Heavy Duty workouts are constructed with fewer sets, each done to complete failure. Every body part is trained with utmost intensity, using fewer but highly effective exercises that target different muscle groups.

For example, a typical chest workout might include just two exercises: one set of dumbbell flyes followed by one set of incline bench presses, performed in such a manner that every muscle fiber in the chest is engaged to its absolute limit.

Optimal Recovery

Optimal recovery was another cornerstone of Mentzer’s training philosophy.

Unlike traditional weight training routines that promoted more frequent training sessions, Mentzer emphasized the importance of recovery time. He considered rest days as critical as workout days for achieving maximum muscle growth and ensuring the nervous system’s recovery.

His methodology states that when trained to complete failure, muscles require substantial recovery time to repair and grow. 

Heavy Duty High-Intensity Training Methods

In addition to his core Heavy Duty principles, Mentzer incorporated a number of traditional strength-training methods into his training. He did not invent these methods, but he often added a unique twist to them to maximize training intensity.


In Mike Mentzer’s High Intensity Training philosophy, the workout cycle remarkably differs from traditional high-volume routines. Rather than spending hours at the gym performing a plethora of exercises, the Heavy Duty system prescribes just a few training days a week.

This may seem counterintuitive if you are accustomed to more frequent training days. But the focus here is quality over quantity. The few sets performed during these training sessions are conducted with absolute intensity, targeting only a couple of different muscle groups per workout to ensure maximum muscle growth.

Mike Mentzer’s workout routine implements the following principles to increase training intensity maximally:

Training to Failure

Taking each set to the point where you cannot complete one more repetition, no matter what, is the only way to maximize muscle growth fully. Training to failure forces your muscles to adapt to the stress by growing bigger and stronger. The last rep of each set should be almost impossible to complete.


Pre-exhaustion is a bodybuilding technique that involves exhausting a specific muscle group with an isolation exercise before moving on to compound exercises targeting the same muscle.

For example, you do a set of the incline dumbbell fly immediately before a set of bench presses. This ensures your pecs are already pre-fatigued and won’t be limited by your triceps giving out.

Peak Contraction Training

You activate the maximum number of muscle fibers when you contract a muscle as hard as possible against a heavy load.

A prime example is the leg extension, where your quadriceps is fully contracted against the weight in the top position.

Forced Repetitions

Forced reps are when a training partner helps you complete one or more repetitions when you can’t do any more on your own. Not for beginners, this technique further increases training intensity and makes the set more effective.

Negative Repetitions

Negative reps are another advanced training principle where a training partner helps you lift the weight when you can’t do any more yourself, then applies added pressure as you resist it during the eccentric half of the repetition.

Negatives are so demanding that implementing them every workout might lead to overtraining.

Rest-Pause Training

Rest-pause training is when you perform a set of repetitions with a weight that only allows a few repetitions before reaching failure, rest briefly, and then continue with additional reps.

This training principle is brutal and should only be utilized frequently by advanced bodybuilders.

Partial Repetitions

By performing reps only to the midpoint of an exercise, you can use substantially more weight and overload the muscle for additional growth. 

While most of your training should focus on a full range of motion, adding a set of partial repetitions to a lagging body part can overload it and force it to grow.

Static Contraction

This training principle requires the help of a training partner, who helps you lift a heavy weight into the contracted position, from where you proceed to hold it as long as you can. Then, you resist it as much as possible during the negative phase.

Mentzer’s theory was that a maximum, high-intensity contraction using more weight than you can handle for regular training would optimize muscle growth.

Mike Mentzer Workout Routine

The core of Mike Mentzer’s workout routine is its simplicity and efficacy.

The exercises selected are both compound and isolation movements, meant to maximize the stress on the muscles.

Isolation movements like leg extensions and chest flyes, performed with zero rest before a compound movement, pre-exhaust the muscle and allow you to put maximum stress on it.

Compound movements like the bench, leg, and overhead press follow the isolation exercises to overload the muscle fully.

Repetition and Sets Scheme

Reps and sets in Mike Mentzer’s workout routine are not arbitrary numbers. He had a specific ideal rep range: between 6-10 for the upper body and 12-20 for the lower body.

The main reason for these rep ranges was to force the muscles into complete failure, stimulating maximum muscle size and strength gains.

Unlike traditional approaches that involve multiple sets of a specific exercise, Mentzer advocated for a single set to absolute failure after sufficient warm-up sets.

Rest and Recovery

Recovery in Mentzer’s system is not an afterthought; it’s a central component.

After each training session performed to absolute failure, Mentzer recommended four to seven days of rest before the next intense workout. This rest period is critical for allowing the nervous system to recover and the muscles to grow.

According to Mentzer, given the intensity of each set, the body requires this amount of time to repair itself fully and be ready for the next bout of high-intensity training.

In essence, Mike Mentzer’s workout routine offers a minimalist yet highly effective approach to bodybuilding. It defied conventional wisdom but can be very effective for those who can adapt to its rigorous demands.

Mike Mentzer Workout Routine: Workout Days

Now it’s time to hit the weights the Heavy Duty way!

In Mike Mentzer’s own words, the ideal training routine for building muscle mass:

  • Stimulates muscle growth to the maximum extent
  • Uses up as little of the body’s recovery capacity as possible

Here is the training routine Mike Mentzer considered ideal. You can follow it in our workout tracker, where you find it as the premium program Heavy Duty Bodybuilding.

  • Day one: chest and back
  • Day two: legs, calves, and abs
  • Day three: shoulders, biceps, and triceps
  • Day four: legs, calves, and abs

You train every other day, taking a rest day after each workout. After each four-day training cycle, take two days off from training to allow your body to recover fully.

These are the exercises in the two workouts:

Day One: Chest and Back

  1. Superset: dumbbell chest fly + incline bench press
  2. Superset: straight arm lat pulldown + lat pulldown with supinated grip
  3. Deadlift

Day Two: Legs, Calves, and Abs

Day Three: Shoulders and Arms

Day Four: Legs, Calves, and Abs

  • Same as Day Two

Take one or two rest days, then start the Mike Mentzer Workout Routine over from day one.

Key Points

  • Take every working set to muscular failure.
  • Rest as little as possible between supersets. Ideally, there should be no rest at all, although that might not always be possible. 
  • Minimize your rest between other sets. Only rest long enough to catch your breath and recover momentarily.
  • Aim to perform each workout faster than last time. It should not be a race against the clock at the expense of the weights you can handle. But strive to minimize rest times and increase workout productivity.
  • When choosing the weight for an exercise, select one where you can perform 6–10 reps for upper-body exercises and 12–20 reps for the lower body. Once you become strong enough to do more than the recommended reps, increase the load by 10–20%.
  • Utilize forced and negative reps to increase training intensity, but only do so occasionally. Implementing these demanding techniques every workout leads to overtraining.
  • As you become bigger and stronger, your body requires more rest to recover from your workouts. If you don’t see any progress for two weeks, take a week off from training and let your body recuperate.
  • To get bigger, you have to get stronger. Always strive to lift heavier (without sacrificing proper form) or do one rep more than last time. It doesn’t have to be every workout, but the weights must keep increasing for optimal results.
  • Track your workouts. Knowing how much weight you used in an exercise last training session makes it much easier to monitor your progression. Pen and paper work fine, as it did for Mike, but nowadays, a workout tracker app like StrengthLog makes it easier for you and allows you to concentrate on what you’re in the gym for: lift some heavy iron.

Mike Mentzer Workout Routine: The Exercises

This is a detailed walkthrough of each training day in Mike Mentzer’s training routine, with tips on maximizing the exercises’ effectiveness.

You can see the exact set and rep ranges in StrengthLog.

Day One: Chest and Back

An intense session of chest and back training is challenging, as both are major muscle groups that require a lot of effort and energy. This workout targets all major muscles of the torso as well as the smaller ones that give you the balance and details that are the hallmark of an incredible physique.

Superset: Dumbbell Chest Fly + Incline Barbell Press

After a thorough warm-up, the first exercise is a superset combination of flyes and incline presses. By pre-exhausting your pecs with flyes, you preserve the strength of your triceps and ensure your chest muscles are the ones failing first when you hit the pressing movement afterwards.

Dumbbell Chest Fly

The dumbbell chest fly is an isolation movement that focuses on your chest and, unlike the chest press, doesn’t involve your triceps. That makes it ideal for pre-exhausting your pecs.

The greatest resistance occurs when your arms are extended parallel to the ground in the lower phase and your chest muscles are fully stretched. This phase of the exercise is critical to emphasize, as studies indicate that strength training when muscles are fully stretched can lead to superior muscle growth.

That being said, it is also essential not to overstretch in the bottom position, as doing so puts undue stress on your shoulder joints. Get a good stretch in your pecs, but refrain from lowering the dumbbells too far below the plane of your torso.

How to Perform the Dumbbell Chest Fly

  1. Lie on a bench, and lift a pair of dumbbells up to the starting position.
  2. With almost completely straight arms, lower the dumbbells out to your sides.
  3. When you’ve lowered the dumbbells as deep as possible, reverse the motion and return the dumbbells to the starting position.
  4. Repeat for reps.

You can substitute the dumbbell chest fly for standing cable chest flyes or the pec deck.

Immediately after reaching muscular failure in the flyes, move to the next exercise for your chest, the barbell incline press.

Incline Bench Press

The incline bench press is the best exercise to target your upper chest, an area underdeveloped in many bodybuilders.

Because you have pre-exhausted your pecs with the flyes, you likely won’t be able to handle as much weight as usual. However, your muscles can’t count the plates on the bar, and because your chest muscles are already pre-fatigued, they will receive maximum benefit as you bring your tricep strength to aid in the lift.

How to Perform the Incline Barbell Press

  1. Sitting on an inclined bench, unrack a barbell and hold it on straight arms above your shoulders.
  2. Inhale and lower the bar down to your chest.
  3. Press the bar up to straight arms while exhaling.

Incline dumbbell presses or Smith machine incline presses are good alternative exercises.

Rest just long enough to do yourself justice in the next high-intensity effort, then move to your back superset.

Superset: Straight Arm Lat Pulldowns + Lat Pulldown with Supinated Grip

The next superset in Mike Mentzer’s workout routine follows the same principles as the one for your chest: pre-exhaust the muscle with an isolation exercise, then blast it in an all-out effort with a compound movement.

Straight Arm Lat Pulldowns

The straight arm pulldown or pullovers using a dumbbell or a dedicated machine are the only exercises that isolate your lats without involving the biceps.

Keeping your arms straight throughout the movement isolates your lats and preserves your biceps strength.

How to Perform Straight Arm Lat Pulldowns

  1. Grip the bar with a pronated grip (palms facing away from you), slightly wider than shoulder-width.
  2. With straight arms, push the bar down in front of you by contracting your lats.
  3. Slowly return the bar to the starting position.

If you prefer, you can do dumbbell pullovers instead.

Again, without any rest, move to the back compound movement of choice: the lat pulldown with a supinated grip.

Lat Pulldown with Supinated Grip

Performing lat pulldowns with a supinated grip (hands facing toward you) places your biceps in their most powerful position. Because the straight-arm pulldowns pre-fatigued your lats, you ensure they will reach muscular failure first.

Use a medium-width grip to maximize the stretch in your lats and the range of motion over which they work. 

How to Perform Lat Pulldowns with Supinated Grip

  1. Grip the bar with a supinated grip (palms facing you), about shoulder-width apart. A relatively close grip maximizes biceps involvement,
  2. Sit down with your thighs under the leg support, keep your chest up, and look up at the bar.
  3. Inhale and pull the bar towards you.
  4. Pull the bar down until it is below your chin or touches your upper chest.
  5. Exhale and slowly return the bar until your arms are fully extended.

As an alternate compound exercise for your back, you can substitute the lat pulldowns with a rowing exercise, like barbell rows or the dumbbell row.

Rest up, then move to the final and most challenging exercise of your first workout of training the Mike Mentzer way.


Mike Mentzer said that if he could only choose one exercise, it’d be the deadlift. It strengthens almost your whole body and is the most demanding and, therefore, most productive exercise in your Heavy Duty workout plan.

Perform the deadlift like a powerlifter: reassume proper form, take a deep breath, and reset psychologically between each rep. No touch-and-go here. Pause briefly at the top and squeeze your posterior chain muscles.

How to Perform the Deadlift

  1. Step up close to the bar so that it is about over the middle of your foot.
  2. Inhale, lean forward, and grip the bar.
  3. Hold your breath, brace your core slightly, and lift the bar.
  4. Pull the bar close to your body, with a straight back, until you are standing straight.
  5. Lower the bar back to the ground with control.
  6. Take another breath, and repeat for reps.

Alternative exercise: shrugs. As they do not work your hamstrings like the deadlift, you should also add a set of leg curls if you substitute the deadlift with shrugs.

Day Two: Legs, Calves, and Abs

Back when Mike Mentzer competed, leg development was less prioritized in the bodybuilding world than it is today. However, Mike always gave leg work top priority. As a result, he had legs and calves that perfectly harmonized with his incredible upper body.

Leg training is hard work and can take a lot out of your recovery reserves. Mentzer considered the following legs workout ideal for muscle growth with a minimal drain of those reserves—the result: maximum recovery, maximum gains, maximum results.

Many bodybuilders back in the day treated the abs differently from other muscle groups, training them with high volume and sometimes hundreds of reps. Mentzer approached abdominal training the same way he worked the rest of the body: brief, high-intensity workouts using heavy weights and relatively low reps.

These are the leg and ab exercises of choice in the Mike Mentzer workout routine.

Superset: Leg Extension + Leg Press

The formula for a great leg workout is similar to a great upper body workout: pre-exhaust supersets, muscular failure, and heavy weights.

The second workout of Mike Mentzer’s workout routine kicks off with another superset combo: leg extensions followed by the leg press.

Leg Extension

The leg extension is a highly effective exercise for all four muscles that make up your quadriceps. 

By performing leg extensions first, you use the pre-exhaust principle to its fullest, giving the adjacent muscles a strength advantage when you jump into a compound exercise, allowing your quads to reach muscular failure before the smaller and weaker muscles give out.

Pause for two seconds at the top of the movement and use the peak contraction training principle to stress every fiber in your quads fully.

How to Perform Leg Extensions

  1. Adjust the machine so that you are correctly positioned. Your knees should be in line with the machine’s joint.
  2. Extend your knees with control, until they are completely straight.
  3. Slowly lower the weight again.

There is no alternative exercise for the leg extension; it is the only movement that fully isolates the quads.

After reaching failure in the leg extensions, immediately move to the leg press.

Leg Press

The leg press offers the advantage of handling heavier weights when compared to squats. However, remember that your primary goal isn’t simply to lift the maximum weight possible for the sake of it. Rather, it’s to sculpt larger leg muscles.

Emphasize proper form and executing a complete range of motion. While this approach might restrict the amount of weight you can lift, it is the most effective strategy for muscle growth.

How to Perform the Leg Press

  1. Adjust the machine so that you only need to extend your legs slightly to be able to release the weights. Adjust the safety pins so that they catch the weight if you are unable to lift it.
  2. Place your feet on the sled, about shoulder width apart.
  3. Inhale and lower the weight towards you by bending your legs.
  4. Lower the weight as deep as possible without rounding you back, and while keeping your glutes on the seat.
  5. Press the weight back up again as you exhale.

Alternative exercises: barbell squats or Smith machine squats. Mentzer advises stopping at the point of technical failure rather than complete failure to avoid injuring your lower back.

Legs done! With as little rest as possible, it’s time to hit calves.

Calf Raises

Your calf training comes down to one exercise: the standing calf raise. It targets the entire calf and adds size to your lower legs.

Because the calves can be a stubborn muscle group, training them with maximum intensity is extra vital. After all, you train them with low-intensity movements when you walk around all day, so why do even more low-intensity work on calf day?

Use a complete range of motion (no bouncing in the bottom position) and stop at the top for two to three seconds to contract your calf muscles as much as possible.

How to Perform the Standing Calf Raise

  1. Place your toes and the ball of your feet on the foot support. Place the shoulder pads against your shoulders and stand upright in the starting position.
  2. Lower yourself down by bending your ankles in a controlled movement.
  3. Push yourself up by extending your ankles.

Instead of regular calf raises, you can do leg press toe raises or the classic donkey calf raise exercise.

Once you’re done with calves, jump straight into your abdominal training.


Your exercise of choice for training abs is the good old sit-up. However, feel free to do your sit-ups the way you prefer, whether on the floor or in a dedicated machine for abdominal training.

Your abs respond to strength training like all other muscles do, by mechanical overload with heavy weights. Don’t be afraid to add resistance when you can do your target number of reps.

How to Perform Sit-Ups

  1. Lie on your back, with your hands in front of your chest and your knees bent to about 90 degrees. Use a weight or something to stick your feet under, so they don’t lift from the ground.
  2. Lift your upper body by contracting your abs and bending forward.
  3. Bend as far forward as possible, and then return to the starting position.

The hanging leg raise is an excellent alternative exercise for the sit-up. If doing the exercise with straight legs is too challenging, you can do hanging knee raises instead.

Day Three: Shoulders and Arms

When Mike Mentzer started training, he wanted nothing more than massive arms. He measured his bodybuilding success by how much his biceps and triceps grew. Before long, though, he realized that, even though a pair of great guns is essential for bodybuilding greatness, a balanced physique is paramount.

Mike Mentzer was blessed with greater than average shoulder width and a relatively narrow hip structure, resulting in a naturally broad and rugged upper torso. Despite his genetic advantage, he emphasized shoulder training at times during his career, knowing the importance of well-developed delts in bodybuilding.

These are the shoulder and arms exercises in the Mike Mentzer workout routine.

Superset: Dumbbell Lateral Raise + Reverse Dumbbell Flyes

Rather than supersetting two exercises for the same muscle, you’re working your side delts with your rear delts.

Dumbbell Lateral Raises

Current research shows what Mentzer already knew when sculpting his shoulders in the gym half a century ago: the dumbbell lateral raise is the best exercise for adding mass to the side delts.

However, he disagreed somewhat with the textbook performance of the exercise. Instead of using a super-strict form, Mentzer advocated a slight thrust at the beginning of the movement to get the weight started. He felt that you wouldn’t be able to use heavy enough weights to overload the muscles properly unless you got it started with a bit of momentum.

Using a little momentum does not mean cheating by using overly heavy dumbbells you can’t handle. You should still be able to hold them at the top of the movement for two seconds and apply the Peak Contraction principle by squeezing your delts as hard as you can.

How to Perform Lateral Raises

  1. Stand with your feet hip-width apart and hold the dumbbells in your hands with your palms facing your thighs.
  2. Begin the movement by lifting both arms to the sides, keeping a slight bend in your elbows, and raising the dumbbells until they reach shoulder height.
  3. Lower the dumbbells back down to the starting position while maintaining control.
  4. Repeat the movement for your desired number of repetitions.

You can substitute dumbbell lateral raises for machine lateral raises. Mike Mentzer preferred the Nautilus lateral raise machine and used it for most of his Mr. Olympia shoulder training, but you can use the equipment available at your gym.

Immediately after the lateral raises, it’s time to hit your rear delts. You don’t even have to rig any new equipment, just bend over and keep going with the reverse dumbbell fly.

Reverse Dumbbell Flyes

Many aspiring bodybuilders neglect their posterior deltoids. Out of sight, out of mind. However, that won’t do if you want complete delt development and that stand-out rounded look to your shoulder muscles.

Remember to pause at the top and contract your rear delts as hard as you can.

How to Perform Reverse Dumbbell Flyes

  1. Grab a dumbbell in each hand and stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent, and your arms by your sides, palms facing each other.
  2. Bend forward at the waist, keeping your back straight until your torso is nearly parallel to the floor. Let your arms hang down towards the ground.
  3. Lift both arms out to the sides, with a slight bend in the elbows, until they reach shoulder level. Keep your shoulder blades retracted and focus on squeezing your rear deltoid at the top of the movement.
  4. Reverse the movement and lower the dumbbells back towards the ground, maintaining control throughout.
  5. Repeat the movement for your desired number of repetitions.

Feel free to replace the dumbbell version of the exercise with reverse cable flyes if you prefer.

Take a brief rest, then move on to the biceps for another all-out Heavy Duty superset effort to force your arms to grow.

Superset: Barbell Curl + Lat Pulldown With Supinated Grip

This one will give you the biceps burn of your life: the barbell curl immediately followed by reverse-grip pulldowns. Your biceps will scream for mercy and have no choice but to grow.

Barbell Curl

Even though it’s not a compound exercise, the barbell curl is a fantastic mass-builder that allows you to use a significantly heavy weight to overload your biceps.

At the same time, you effectively isolate the muscle and pre-fatigue it for the upcoming compound work: the ideal start to your intense sessions of Heavy Duty biceps training.

How to Perform Barbell Curls

  1. Stand upright with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold a barbell with an underhand grip (the palms of your hands facing forward) at around shoulder width. Your arms should be fully extended with the barbell resting against your thighs.
  2. Keeping your elbows close to your sides, curl the barbell upward by flexing your elbows. Focus on contracting your biceps as you lift the weight.
  3. Continue curling the barbell until your forearms touch your upper arms, and squeeze your biceps at the top of the movement.
  4. Lower the barbell back down to the starting position using the same path. Maintain control of the movement and avoid allowing the weight to drop.
  5. Repeat the movement for your desired number of repetitions.

For variety, you can replace the barbell curl with one of the following exercises from time to time:

When you reach muscular failure in the barbell curl, head to the pulldown machine with as close to zero rest as possible.

Lat Pulldown With Supinated Grip

Mentzer considered the supinated lat pulldown the best muscle builder for the biceps, better than any curl. When you do a palms-up pulldown, you work the biceps from both the shoulder and elbow axis, developing the muscle more uniformly.

After a warmup set or two, select your working weight and use a palms-up grip to hold the bar around shoulder-width, no wider. You want to pull the bar down to your nipple area and hold it there for a two-second pause to maximize the stress on your biceps.

How to Perform Lat Pulldowns With Supinated Grip

  1. Grip the bar with a supinated grip (palms facing you), about shoulder-width apart. A relatively close grip maximizes biceps involvement.
  2. Sit down with your thighs under the leg support, keep your chest up, and look up at the bar.
  3. Inhale and pull the bar towards you.
  4. Pull the bar down until it is below your chin or touches your upper chest.
  5. Exhale and slowly return the bar until your arms are fully extended.

You can do chins as a pulldown alternative.

After blasting the biceps, it’s time for some serious triceps training.

The triceps comprise two-thirds of your upper arm muscle volume, making it vital for complete upper arm development.

Superset: Triceps Pushdown + Bar Dip

Mike Mentzer considered the two most valuable triceps exercises to be the triceps pushdown and the bar dip. He stated that they should form the foundation of all good arm routines. So that’s what we’re doing for triceps in Heavy Duty superset style.

Tricep Pushdown

The pushdown is the most popular triceps exercise for several reasons: it’s easy to do and isolates the triceps very effectively. That makes it the ideal exercise to pre-fatigue the triceps.

Remember to maintain good form, keeping your upper arms tucked to your sides at all times. Only your forearms should be moving, or your pecs and lats will come into play.

Pause momentarily in the contracted position and put the squeeze on your triceps.

How to Perform Triceps Pushdowns

  1. Stand facing a cable machine with your feet comfortably apart. Grip the bar with an overhand grip, keeping your hands about shoulder-width apart. Your elbows should be slightly bent, and your upper arms close to your sides and perpendicular to the floor.
  2. Engage your core and maintain an upright posture throughout the exercise to help stabilize your body and isolate the triceps.
  3. Start by extending your arms downward, focusing on pushing the bar down towards your thighs. Keep your upper arms close to your sides and stationary during the movement.
  4. As you lower the cable, squeeze your triceps and focus on contracting the muscle. Feel the tension in your triceps as you fully extend your arms.
  5. Return to the starting position by allowing the cable to rise back up using the same path. Maintain control throughout the ascent.
  6. Repeat the movement for the desired number of repetitions.

For variety, you can do one of these triceps instead of the pushdowns:

After you’ve performed the triceps isolation movement of your choice to failure, immediately move to the next exercise.

Bar Dip

Mike Mentzer considered dips the “squat for the upper body”; if he had to choose only one exercise for the upper body, it would be dips.

Often performed as a chest exercise, the bar dip can also be an excellent triceps exercise with a few tweaks. Most importantly, keep your elbows close to your body to emphasize the triceps instead of the chest. Go all the way down and all the way up for a full contraction at the top.

How to Perform the Bar Dip

  1. Grip a dip station about shoulder-width apart, and climb or jump to get into the starting position.
  2. Lower yourself with control until your shoulder is below your elbow, or as deep as you comfortably can.
  3. Reverse the motion and return to the starting position.

If dips don’t agree with you, feel free to do the close-grip bench press instead.

Day Four: Legs, Calves, and Abs

The fourth training day of Mike Mentzer’s workout routine is identical to the second: legs, calves, and abs. That means you have two upper-body and two lower-body days per training cycle.

If you want variety in your legs and abs training, selecting the alternative exercises for each muscle can spice things up on day four.

The Mentzer Approach to Nutrition

A high-intensity training program like Mike Mentzer’s workout routine requires a good diet to support it.

Mike Mentzer’s diet plan was surprisingly flexible for a man of his caliber in the bodybuilding world.

While Mentzer was committed to eating enough protein to support muscle growth, he wasn’t against indulging in treats and even so-called junk food on occasion. In his book Heavy Duty Nutrition, he recollects eating pancakes three times per week and ice cream daily leading up to the 1979 Mr. Olympia competition.

Mentzer argued that rigid diet plans often lead to burnout, whereas a balanced approach, with a primary focus on protein, can sustain a long-term commitment to bodybuilding.

The Four Basic Food Groups

According to Mike Mentzer, a bodybuilder should base their diet on the following Four Basic Food Groups:

Cereal and Grain Foods

In this category, you find bread, cereals, and flour products: inexpensive foods that provide carbs to fuel your intense sessions in the gym, along with some protein, vitamins, and minerals.

Mentzer recommended four servings per day from the Cereal and Grain Foods group. He himself started the day with a meal almost entirely from foods from this group, usually a couple of bran muffins and whole grain toast.

Fruits and Vegetables

Almost all fruits and vegetables, along with potatoes, provide you with micronutrients along with energy for your muscles.

According to Mike Mentzer, you should include four or more servings of fruits and vegetables each day in your bodybuilding diet.

The High-Protein Group

Here, you find all your high-protein foods like eggs, meat, chicken, fish, etc. Protein provides the building blocks for your muscles along with B vitamins, iron, and other essential nutrients.

mike mentzer workout routine protein

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Mentzer did not believe bodybuilders need all that much protein. He thought body weight was the only thing determining your protein needs, not your training. Therefore, even a high-intensity training regimen would not increase protein requirements significantly.

This philosophy goes against current research, and you should probably aim for at least 1.2–1.7 grams of protein per kilogram, or 0.5 to 0.8 grams per pound, of body weight per day to optimize your muscle gains.

Mike Mentzer recommended two or more daily servings of foods from the high-protein group.

Milk and Milk-Products Group

Milk and other dairy products are rich in high-quality protein and other nutrients vital to the bodybuilder.

Two daily servings from the milk food group is enough for most bodybuilders. Mentzer recommended you use low-fat or skim milk to limit your intake of saturated fats if you drink more than two glasses of milk per day, 

Losing and Gaining Weight

Mike Mentzer kept it simple for bulking and cutting.

  • To gain weight, he recommended you up your calorie intake by 500 kcals above your daily maintenance needs. Calorie-dense foods such as nuts, seeds, beef, and milk help you add calories without having to eat overly large amounts of food.
  • To lose fat, simply reduce your calories. You can drop your calorie intake by 500 to 1,000 kcals depending on how much body fat you carry but never go below 1,200 calories per day. If you’re not losing weight on 1,200 daily calories, up your cardio instead. As an example, Mentzer cycled 40 miles every morning and ran five miles at night when preparing for the 1979 Mr. Olympia.

Mike Mentzer recommended a balanced, high-carb diet for all bodybuilders, with a macronutrient composition of around 60 % carbohydrates, 25 % protein, and 15 % fats.


Mentzer was not one to heavily advocate for the use of supplements. In his view, real food should be the cornerstone of any diet.

However, he wasn’t entirely against supplementation, especially when it served as a complement to a well-balanced, protein-rich diet.

For instance, he saw value in taking a multivitamin- and mineral supplement but advised against relying solely on supplements for nutritional needs.

Follow the Mike Mentzer Workout Routine

Want to train according to Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty system?

The Heavy Duty Bodybuilding routine is available exclusively in our workout app StrengthLog.

While this program requires a premium subscription, StrengthLog itself is entirely free. You can download it and use it as a workout tracker and general strength training app – and all basic functionality is free forever.

It even has a bunch of free programs and workouts. However, our more advanced programs (such as this one) are for premium users only.

Want to give premium a shot? We offer all new users a free 14-day trial of premium, which you can activate in the app.

Download StrengthLog for free with the buttons below:

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Good luck with your training!

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Andreas Abelsson

Andreas is a certified nutrition coach and bodybuilding specialist with over three decades of training experience. He has followed and reported on the research fields of exercise, nutrition, and health for almost as long and is a specialist in metabolic health and nutrition coaching for athletes. Read more about Andreas and StrengthLog by clicking here.