Famed for his fracas with Arnold Schwarzenegger at the 1980 Olympia to his ‘Heavy Duty’ training style. Mike Mentzer is one of the classic bodybuilders of the early years. Mike’s story is one of tragedy, but also of redemption and dedication.
He will always be remembered for not only having one of the greatest physiques of all time, but also for having one of the greatest stories.
- 1971 Mr. Lancaster – 1st
- 1971 AAU Mr. America – 10th
- 1971 AAU Teen Mr America – 2nd
- 1975 IFBB Mr. America – 3rd (Medium)
- 1975 ABBA Mr. USA – 2nd (Medium)
- 1976 IFBB Mr. America – 1st (Overall)
- 1976 IFBB Mr. America – 1st (Medium)
- 1976 IFBB Mr. Universe – 2nd (MW)
- 1977 IFBB North American Championships – 1st (Overall)
- 1977 IFBB North American Championships – 1st (MW)
- 1977 IFBB Mr. Universe – 2nd (HW)
- 1978 IFBB USA vs the World – 1st (HW)
- 1978 IFBB World Amateur Championships – 1st (HW)
- 1979 IFBB Canada Pro Cup – 2nd
- 1979 IFBB Florida Pro Invitational – 1st
- 1979 IFBB Night of Champions – 3rd
- 1979 IFBB Mr. Olympia – 1st (HW)
- 1979 IFBB Pittsburgh Pro Invitational – 2nd
- 1979 IFBB Southern Pro Cup – 1st
- 1980 IFBB Mr. Olympia – 5th
“Many bodybuilders sell themselves short. Erroneously attributing their lack of satisfactory progress to a poverty of the requisite genetic traits, instead of to their irrational training and dietary practices, they give up training. Don’t make the same mistake.”
Mike Mentzer started bodybuilding at age 12. The Heavy Duty, as he became known was born and raised in Ephrata, Pennsylvania. Coming from a well-educated home, Mike’s father would regularly test and encourage his academic knowledge using various rewards, including cash to ensure he excelled.
Mike’s first set of weights was bought for him by his father. He began training 3 times a week and by the age of 15, Mike could bench press 370lb (170kg), with a body weight of just 165lbs (75kg).
However, Mentzer was just getting warmed up. When he began his 4 year service to the United States air force, Mike was spending 6 days a week in the gym, normally for up to 3 hours at a time.
In 1971, Mike won his first competition, the Mr. Lancaster at the age of 18. However, year also marked his worst defeat; 10th place at the AAU Mr. America. It was at that event that Mike would would be introduced to Arthur Jones. Jones was an accomplished trainer, and inventor of many of the early exercise machines – he began training Mike, firmly believing in the teen’s potential.
A 3 Year Down Time
In 1971, Mike suffered a severe shoulder injury that put a long-term pause on his training.
Being out from 1971 through to 1974. During his downtime, Mike began studying to be a psychologist in 1974 to keep his academic mind active. He did this at the University of Maryland – however in 1977 Mike dropped out, realizing the subject wasn’t for him.
Mike wouldn’t pick up a weight until 1975, but when he finally did, Mike came back with full force. To get back in the action, Mike entered 1975 IFBB Mr. America to see where he stood. It was a respectable comeback, coming in at a modest 3rd place, after Roger Callard, and ‘The Black Prince’, Robby Robinson.
Drug Abuse and the 1980 Olympia
The 1980, IFBB Mr. Olympia in Sydney was Mike’s next major competition. One year earlier, in 1979 Mike had started using amphetamines. He claimed he needed it for productivity, and didn’t use it for recreation.
While there were no reported long term side effects at the time, Mike began to suffer from fatigue, and would spend full days in bed without being able to even lift an arm. He described this feeling as being at “death’s door”.
Two days before the 1980 Olympia took place, Mike was revisited by the “death’s door” feeling. It wasn’t until the morning of the competition that he felt he had recovered.
“I looked my best, but I didn’t feel at my best. It just didn’t feel like a normal contest; no one was being their usual self. There was a strain and tension in the air all the way through.”
Head To Head With Arnold
Later that day, Arnold Schwarzenegger, who was believed to be retired, announced his intentions to compete at the event. This was met with anger from many contestants, including Mentzer. He was a judge’s favorite, and many competitors believed with his new fame he could win purely on popularity.
A meeting was called, with many reports claiming insults were exchanged between Mentzer and Schwarzenegger and that a fight nearly broke out.
Mike Mentzer placed 5th. Arnold, despite breaking formation on several occasions and receiving a warning from the judges placed 1st. This didn’t sit right with Mike, and he wasn’t afraid to talk about it in a disdainful manner in his seminars – which may have led to his unofficial blacklisting from the IFBB.
This may have been a bad move, as 2 years after the blacklisting, Mike had virtually no income.
In around mid-1983, Mike had managed to find a role as editor of ‘Workout Magazine’. He enjoyed the work, but he relied upon amphetamines to meet deadlines, on occasion staying awake for two or three days straight. In the year 1985 he claimed;
“The magazine was doing fairly well, when, just as it started to turn a profit, the financial people – for whatever reason – pulled the plug on the whole thing and we ceased operation. It was a crushing blow. I’d put 110% into the enterprise and it hadn’t worked out.”
As Workout Magazine ceased, Mike soon after lost his beloved father, and, as if there wasn’t enough for the bodybuilder to handle, his 10-year relationship with fiancee Cathy Gelfo came to an end.
The 5 Year Battle
It was these three unfortunate events, combined with the continued use of amphetamines that would lead to Mike Mentzer’s decline.
Mike battled his demons for 5 years and was admitted to hospital on several occasions. At this point, most of the bodybuilding community turned it’s back on Mike. However, two people remained and supported him; a senior writer for Flex magazine called John Little, and Mike’s ex-girlfriend Julie McNew.
“Julie, even though our relationship had ended, was very supportive, emotionally and financially, over that whole five-year period,” Mike states. “Only now can I appreciate her friendship.”
“John Little was one of the few who didn’t approach me on the ignorant assumption that I was a ‘loony’ or a ‘crazy.’ John understands quite a bit about the power of ideas and the way they work in the mind. He would talk with me at length, and I remember those conversations with fondness, which causes me to think fondly of John Little. He never wrote me off.”
As 1990 came, Mike found himself once again in a hospitalized state. Except this time, things were different. Rather than blaming others, he realized it was he was the one out of control, not everybody and everything else.
With this realization, Mike swore to himself to back on track. Within a few days of leaving the hospital, he approached Gold’s Gym, Venice, and convinced them to let him start up as a personal trainer.
From there, it was onward and upwards. Despite the occasional setback, Mike began making a name for himself, and was once again, back on the circuit.
Ray Mentzer and Mike’s Heart Problems
Mike’s younger brother Ray, who was the winner of the 1979’s Mr. America began receiving kidney dialysis in 1999. Ray was on the waiting list for a transplant, and the obvious choice was his 21-month older brother Mike.
However, while getting checked out if he could provide the organ to his brother – doctor’s discovered Mike had very serious heart problems. This meant the transplant was off the table, and Ray would have to wait longer. To care for him, Mike moved in with Ray, and the two grew closer over the following years.
Mike Mentzer died on Sunday, June 10th, 2001. The day before, both he and brother Ray were working on a fitness DVD titled ‘HIT’. After a day of shooting, Ray turned into bed. Mike being Mike, stayed up late to work on the scripts.
Despite his younger brother insisting he took a break. It was that morning that Mike was to be found dead by his sibling.
He had suffered a heart attack in his sleep. A tragic loss, and one that was to be followed shortly after by his brother. After failing to turn up to a dialysis session, Ray too, was found dead in the same apartment, not 48 hours later.
“I wrote in my book ‘Heavy Duty II: Mind and Body’ that the idea is not ‘more is better’ or ‘less is better’ but ‘precise is best’; and as I learned from training close to 2,000 people plus myself that the precise amount of exercise required to induce optimal growth stimulation isn’t nearly as much as you’ve been led to believe or would like to believe.”
Mike Mentzer’s training style developed from HIT, High-Intensity Training that was founded by Arthur Jones in the 70’s. Mentzer though, built on this model, opted for a ‘Heavy Duty’ variation. This would require a weight that would take you to failure in between 6 and 9 reps. Then, once you hit failure, keep going. Using a spotter, often his younger brother Ray, Mike would go on to perform 2-3 forced reps, as negatives (lowering the weight slowly) beyond the point of muscle failure.
Mike’s form would be kept absolutely perfect. The weights moved in a perfectly controlled and slow manner. Rest was crucial. Mike would often keep his training week down to 3 working days with 4 for rest. Later, as his bodybuilding progressed, he would move to take between 4-7 days rest in between workouts.
Mike’s typical training split would look something like this:
Monday: Legs, Chest, Triceps
- Leg extensions 1 x 6-8
- Leg presses 1 x 6-8
- Squats 1 x 6-8
- Leg curls 2 x 6-8
- Calf raises 2 x 6-8
- Toe presses 1 x 6-8
- Dumbbell flyes or pec-deck 1-2 x 6-8
- Incline presses 1-2 x 6-8
- Dips 2 x 6-8
- Pushdowns 1 x 6-8
- Dips 1 x 6-8
- Lying triceps extensions 2 x 6-8
Wednesday: Back, Traps, Shoulders, Biceps
- Nautilus pullovers 2 x 6-8
- Close-grip pulldowns 2 x 6-8
- Bent-over barbell rows 2 x 6-8
- Universal machine shrugs 2 x 6-8
- Upright rows 2 x 6-8
- Nautilus laterals 2 x 6-8
- Nautilus presses 2 x 6-8
- Rear delt rows 2 x 6-8
- Standing barbell curls 1 x 6-8
- Concentration curls 2 x 6-8
“Don’t underestimate the value of a well-balanced diet. Think about it. What could possibly be better than a well-balanced diet, which covers all of your nutritional needs.”
Mike understood that an individual had individual needs, but inside, we all worked the same. Mike believed that bodybuilders do not need the levels of protein they were sold by magazines. This is an opinion carried by many bodybuilders today. As Mike puts it in his book ‘Heavy Duty’:
“The fact that muscle is only 22 percent protein suggests that our protein requirements are not nearly that high. And just because muscle is more than 70 percent water doesn’t mean should begin drinking gallons and gallons of water a day to hasten the muscle growth process either.”
Mike Mentzer took a fairly broad approach to his nutrition in terms of food sources, and would eat according to 4 food groups and the servings of each. He’d break down a typical bodybuilders diet into the following:
- Cereal and Grain Foods – Four or more servings per day
- Fruits and Vegetables – Four or more servings per day
- The high-protein group (Fish, meat, eggs) – Two or more servings each day (Basic serving of meat = 3.5 ounces)
- Milk and Milk group products (Milk and cheese) – Two servings per day.
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“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.”
Idols and Influences
Mike bodybuilding idol from a young age was Bill Pearl. Bill spoke fondly of both Mike and his brother;
“Mike and Ray Mentzer used to write to me when they were young kids back in Pennsylvania, when Ray was 9 years old and Mike was 11 years old. They’d send me little pictures of themselves and all types of stuff. I’d answer them back. I’d never dreamed they’d end up like they were, but Mike and Ray are genetic freaks. Ray is one of the strongest bodybuilders I have ever seen in my life and Mike is equally as strong.”
While initially inspired by Bill Pearl, Mike’s whole training philosophy was based on the work of Arthur Jones and HIT. It’s fair to say that Arthur Jones was the man behind the success of Mike Mentzer, and so should be classed as one of his major influences.
Another great influencer of Mike’s was a Russian-American novelist, philosopher, and play writer named Ayn Rand. It was Ayn who inspired Mike to think outside of the box when it came to training, and living life to his own accord.
“It is only within the context of having properly developed your mind that you will be able to truly enjoy the achievement of your material values, including that of a more muscular body.”
What We Can Learn From Mike Mentzer
Mike Mentzer’s life was certainly not one without tragedy. His early use of amphetamines to make him ‘productive’, the passing of his father and the gradual rejection of the bodybuilding community were all major contributing factors to his decline.
But, after soul searching, hospital visits and a help from a few close friends, he came back. The Mike Mentzer that passed away is the one that he will always be remembered as. The passionate, dedicated and knowledgeable bodybuilder.
What can you take from this? Life isn’t without hardships, and no matter how difficult things may seem or how far from the path you have strayed, you can always turn things around.
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