Mike Mentzer Workout Guide

By: Jeremy Fox, CNC, CPTPublished: October 23, 2023

Mike Mentzer was a legendary bodybuilder who revolutionized the fitness world with his innovative workout philosophies and the Heavy Duty training program. He believed in the power of intensity and efficiency over long hours spent in the gym.

In this blog post, we’ll explore Mentzer’s unique approach to training and the principles behind his effective and challenging workout routine.

So, if you want to take your fitness to the next level and achieve your goals with maximum efficiency, keep reading to learn more about Mike Mentzer’s workout program.

Mike Mentzer Workout Heavy Duty

Who Is Mike Mentzer?

Mike Mentzer was a renowned bodybuilder and author from Ephrata, Pennsylvania, born in 1951. He grew up in a family of athletes and began weightlifting at 11, inspired by his hero, Bill Pearl.

After high school, Mentzter served four years in the Air Force. Later, he attended the University of Maryland, where he studied pre-med. However, his true passion was bodybuilding, and he dropped out of college to pursue his dream.

Mentzer had a successful bodybuilding career, winning the Mr. Universe title in 1978. He also won the heavyweight class at the 1979 Mr. Olympia with a perfect score but lost the overall to Frank Zane.

Mentzer was known for his scientific approach to bodybuilding and his emphasis on high-intensity training. He wrote extensively on the subject of bodybuilding, and his books are considered classics in the field.

Regrettably, Mentzer passed away in 2001 at just 49 years old from heart complications. He left behind a legacy as one of the greatest bodybuilders and thinkers in the history of the sport.

Mike Mentzer Workout Routine

Mike Mentzer striking a stoic pose at the gym.

Mike Mentzer Workout Philosophy

Mike Mentzer is famous for his High-Intensity Training (HIT) philosophy, which emphasizes short, intense workouts with minimal training volume. This approach contradicted the high-volume training style used by greats like Arnold Schwarzenegger.

According to Mentzer, the key to building muscle and strength is to train to failure, meaning that you push your muscles to the point where you can no longer lift the weight. He also knew the importance of rest and recovery to support muscle growth.

Mentzer’s HIT approach was influenced by his mentor, the creator of Nautilus exercise equipment, Arthur Jones. But he took Jones’ ideas further to create his workout routine and published it in his book “High-Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way.”

I purchased Mentzer’s book in 2013 and have read it multiple times. It’s a great resource and reminder of the fundamentals of muscle growth. Next, I will share some of Mike Mentzer’s workout principles.

Related: Mike Mentzer’s Diet Philosophies

Mike Mentzer Workout Book

The receipt I was using as a bookmark shows I purchased “High-Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way” at Barnes & Noble in 2013. I highly recommend adding it to your bodybuilding bookshelf!


In bodybuilding, intensity is the amount of work your muscles perform in a given time. This can refer to an individual rep, a set, a workout, or an entire routine.

Mike Mentzer believed in going to complete muscular failure on every set and keeping workouts brief. In his mind, high-intensity training was the only way to stimulate the body into compensatory muscle growth.

Mentzer also applied the principle of progressive overload, whereby the muscle stimulus increases in intensity over time to continue to elicit the desired adaptation response of growth.

However, Mentzer also knew there was more than one way to increase intensity over time. He believed increasing intensity could include:

  1. Progressively increasing the weight you lift
  2. Progressively decreasing the time it takes to perform a workout
  3. Adding difficulty during a set to reach muscular failure

The techniques Mentzerr used to make sets and reps more challenging included pre-exhaust, slow negatives, forced reps, rest-pause, partial reps, and static contractions.

Mike Mentzer Workout Biceps

Mentzer gives an all-out effort during a set of bicep curls.


Mike Mentzer also preached that workout intensity and duration are inversely related. In other words, the more intense a workout, the shorter it must be.

The idea is that every set performed digs a deeper hole that must be filled before recovering from the workout entirely. And even one set represents a negative inroad to recovery.

“Any exercise carried on beyond the least amount required to stimulate an optimal increase is not merely a waste of effort, it is actually highly counterproductive.” – Mike Mentzter

Therefore, the minimum number of sets required to elicit a response is ideal. However, each set must be carried out to maximum intensity to stimulate growth.


Traditional high-volume workout splits compartmentalize muscle groups to shorten recovery times and train more frequently. However, Mentzer believed this approach leads to progressively more stress over time and will likely result in overtraining. 

From a recovery and growth standpoint, Mentzer treated the body as a whole and allowed adequate time for the entire physical system to recover. He believed training volume and frequency should decrease as one progresses due to the increased stress on the body.

Moreover, Mentzer added that the body produces growth only if left undisturbed during a sufficient rest period between workouts. He trained no more than once every 48 hours and sometimes as little as once every 5 to 6 days!

Mike Mentzer Heavy Duty

By the end of his career, Mentzer had taken his training to the extreme minimum workout volume.

Mike Mentzer Heavy Duty Workout Routine

Now, let’s get into Mike Mentzer’s actual workout recommendations. In his final book, he called this “The Ideal (Principled) Workout,” meaning it encompasses all his training principles.

He considered the following workout routine the ideal training program for anyone trying to achieve maximum muscle growth with minimal stress on the body’s resources.

Mentzer’s training program is divided into three segments: chest/back, legs/abs, and shoulders/arms. For each muscle group, 1-2 exercises are performed, with only 1 set per exercise, totaling 4-5 sets per workout. 

It’s essential to understand that each set is performed until absolute failure with slow and controlled repetitions throughout the full range of motion. The duration of the workouts for beginners is about 30 minutes but could decrease to as little as 10-12 minutes as intensity increases.

Finally, Mentzer recommended beginners take 4 rest days between workouts, while more advanced athletes should take up to 7 days off between workouts.

Mike Mentzer Workout Split

  • Workout 1: Chest and Back
  • Workout 2: Legs and Abs
  • Workout 3: Shoulders and Arms
  • Workout 4: Legs and Abs

Chest & Back

Mike designed the first workout specifically to target the larger muscle groups of the upper body, namely the chest and back.

He implements the pre-exhaust technique for the pectorals, where an isolation exercise (chest flyes) precedes a compound exercise (incline press). This method helps ensure the chest muscles fail before the triceps or shoulders.

For the back, Mentzer again begins with an isolation exercise with the cable pullover, immediately followed by an underhand grip lat pulldown. Again, the intention is to make the target muscle fibers fail.

Lastly, a heavy set of deadlifts completes the back portion of the workout.

Mike Mentzer Chest & Back Workout

Rest 4-7 days before next workout.

Legs & Abs

As a high school football player and track athlete, Mike learned the importance of training legs early. He emphasized building legs to maximize the development of the rest of the body.

Moreover, Mentzer believed that stubborn calves require very brief, high-intensity training instead of more low-intensity volume. The same philosophy holds for abs: performing one challenging set instead of countless crunches.

Mike Mentzer Legs & Abs Workout

Rest 4-7 days before next workout.

Shoulders & Arms

Mentzer knew the shoulders and arms were some of the most important muscles for developing a masculine-looking physique that wins bodybuilding championships. He especially emphasized shoulder training in his routine to create width and an aesthetic V-taper.

In addition, Mentzer understood the anatomical function of the bicep and triceps muscles to a degree where he could train them as efficiently as possible using the fewest number of exercises.

Mike Mentzer Shoulders & Arms Workout

Rest 4-7 days before next workout. After this workout, Mentzer recommends performing the Legs and Abs workout again before repeating the entire workout cycle over again.

Mike Mentzer Workout Triceps

Mentzer performing a set of tricep pushdowns.

Mike Mentzer Workout Pros & Cons

I followed Mike Mentzer’s high-intensity workout for almost a year, so I believe I am qualified to talk about its benefits and limitations. This training protocol did help me build muscle size and gain strength, but it wasn’t without drawbacks.

For ectomorph hardgainer types like myself, the added rest time is especially beneficial for overall body recovery and minimizing energy expenditure. However, infrequent training might be less advantageous for overweight or endomorphic individuals.

One of the biggest benefits of high-intensity training is that it frees up so much time that you can do other important things outside the gym. But I enjoy working out and found taking so much time off challenging.


  • Get results in as little as 1-2 training days per week.
  • Training sessions are shorter than traditional workouts.
  • More time to enjoy things outside of the gym.
  • Minimize the risk of overtraining.


  • Requires exceptional effort and focus.
  • Doesn’t burn as many calories.
  • It’s not ideal if you like going to the gym.

Who Should Use High-Intensity Training

I believe there is no “one size fits all” approach to bodybuilding workouts, just as there isn’t one diet that works for everyone. The best workout routine for you is one that produces results and that you also enjoy!

If you enjoy giving an all-out effort in the gym, HIT could be a good fit. It is also well-suited to individuals with busy schedules or high stress levels outside the gym.

However, the extreme exertion and focus required in advanced high-intensity training may not be enjoyable to many people. And if you don’t enjoy your workout routine, your chances of sustaining it are meager.

Another case where low-volume training may not be ideal is for weight loss and overall health. The minimum frequency and duration of training don’t provide the necessary energy expenditure or cardiovascular output for optimizing fat burning and longevity.

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Mike Mentzer Workout Books

After Mentzer’s bodybuilding success in the 70s, he began selling training courses through bodybuilding magazines. His programs were in the form of videotapes and pamphlets that were very popular.

In the early 90s, Mentzer shared his high-intensity program with elite bodybuilders like Dorian Yates, who won the Mr. Olympia six consecutive times and was considered the first mass monster.

Throughout the 80s and 90s Mentzer also published several books about weight training, philosophy, and nutrition. He signed the contract for his last book “High Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way”, just 36 hours before he died.

Here are some of Mike Mentzer’s most popular books.

Final Thoughts On Mike Mentzer’s Workout

It’s worth mentioning that Mike Mentzer is one of my all-time favorite bodybuilders for his physique and his rational approach to training. Nevertheless, I think he could be a bit fixated on his ideology.

Mentzer seems to glorify high-intensity training as the only method anyone should use. Yet the vast majority of elite-level bodybuilders use high-volume training, which means it works equally well, even if not as efficiently.

In addition, Mentzer often references how all humans are the same physiologically, and what works for one person must inherently work for all people. However, he may have neglected genetic variation in muscle potential and recovery ability between individuals.

Finally, recent studies suggest that training a muscle twice weekly results in the optimal adaptation response. While Mentzer referenced studies in his book, the workout program is not entirely based on current knowledge of physiology.

Overall, I love the ideas of Mentzer’s high-intensity training, and I implement many of the principles in workouts for myself and my clients. But you should also adapt your training to your fitness goals and what works best for you.

More Bodybuilder Workout Routines

Now you know Mike Mentzer’s workout routine and bodybuilding philosophies. But remember, this is just one example of bodybuilding training, and it isn’t optimal for everyone.

The biggest obstacle of HIT for many is the sheer effort it requires. So here are some additional workout articles providing alternative training styles.

Tom Platz’s Legendary Leg Workouts

Chris Bumstead 6-day Push Pull Legs Workout

Bro Split Workout Routine: Increase Volume Without Hurting Recovery

Bill Pearl’s High Volume Workout Routine

Or feel free to browse the content below for articles from a wide range of bodybuilding and fitness-related topics.

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By |October 23, 2023|Bodybuilding, Workouts|Comments Off on Complete Mike Mentzer Workout Routine: High Intensity Plan
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