Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty Training

I have always sticked closely to the principles of Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty training. Just to keep fresh I have tried other techniques and routines, but even in new full blown routines I have always adapted the less is more approach.

This is, and isn’t what high intensity heavy duty training is all about.

Less volume in reps and sets and more effort. Less time spent in the gym, and more time spent recovering and building muscle.

Mike Mentzer's Granite like Heavy Duty Figure

Mentzer did of course fill his bodybuilding routine in his early days with high volume training, incorporating as much as 40 sets per bodypart.

This style of training stagnated his growth, but today you will see many guys and gals all over the gym taking this approach. The doses of steroids have dramatically increased, but even none of today’s professional bodybuilders have never reached the physique of Dorian Yates from the 90’s, with his hard granite like stature and mountains of mass.

He adopted Mentzer’s heavy duty program and tweaked it to suit himself. He stuck with the low volume, and max effort principles.

Well this year I’ve decided to go back to the basics and concentrate solely on heavy duty training. I am not adopting the 4 day split, but rather a 3 day split as it suits my work/life balance, and approaching 45 and drug free it plain makes sense.

So What does the Heavy Duty Training Program Look Like?

It involves 2 workouts over a 4 day split. Pre-exhaust isolation exercises are performed prior to a compound exercise. The workout is also performed with superset cycles and progressive resistance at the foundation (in the form of adding weight or reps each workout).

The compound exercise is immediately followed after the pre-exhaust set, Mike advises so more than 3 seconds rest, or the muscle has time to recuperate. You want to bring it to complete failure before it gets a chance to rest.

You need the weight plates loaded and the machines, or apparatus right next to each other.

The cadence should be 4-2-4 to enable you to go slow and controlled. This means 4 seconds on the eccentric (positive), a 2 second hold or squeeze at the top and then slow and controlled on the concentric (negative) portion over 4 seconds.

Don’t add sets or extra weight to make the weight harder. Use strict form and negatives and forced reps once a week on each major body part.

Keeping the eccentric and negative at the same speed on compound sets, immediately after pre-exhaust sets will ensure the weight feels very heavy.

Once the rep range is too easy add weight to the bar. The pre-exhaust sets will ensure you won’t lift near your max weight, especially as you begin the routine.

The idea of this is to delimit momentum and the goal of the pre-exhaust sets is to limit the help of adjoining muscles.

For example on the bench press the triceps do a lot of the work, which is not ideal if you want to build the pecs, as opposed to just lifting big. Performing reps on the pec deck to exhaustion, fries the chest, so it fails on the compound movement before the triceps give out, or do most of the work.

Here is one of the basic routines that Mike used.

Workout 1 – Legs (Monday)

Superset Cycle

Leg Extensions 1 x 6-8 (failure) then forced reps and negatives.

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


Superset 2 cycles

Dumbbell Flyes or pec deck 1-2 sets 6-8

Incline bench press or pec deck 1-2 x 6-8

Chest Dips


Superset 2 Cycles

Tricep Pushdowns 1 x 6-8

Tricep Dips 1 x 6-8

Lying tricep extensions 2 x 6-8

Workout 2 (Wednesday)


Superset 2 Cycles

Nautilus Pullovers (can use dumbbell pullover if no lat machine) 2 x 6-8

Close grip underhand (supinated) pulldowns 2 x 6-8

Bent over Barbell or Dumbbell Rows 2 x 6-8


Superset 2 Cycles

Shrugs 2 x 6-8

Upright Rows 2 x 6-8


Superset 2 Cycles

Dumbbell Laterals 2 x 6-8

Press Behind Neck 2 x 6-8

Bent Over Dumbbell Laterals 2 x6-8


Superset 2 Cycles

Standing Barbell Curls 1 x 6-8

Supinated Chin ups or concentration curls 2 x 6-8

Workout 1 repeat (Friday)

Workout 2 repeat (Sunday)

[In later routines Mentzer advocated drop sets as you will see in the video below.]

You should only do 1 compound exercise to failure once a week. So if you took the leg press to failure on Monday, you wouldn’t take it to failure on Sunday.

The above workout means you need to then start the next week’s training on a Tuesday. As this is not ideal for all, as is training on a Sunday Mentzer also proposed Workout 1 on Mondays, Workout 2 on Wednesdays, and combining workout 1 & 2 on Friday or a Saturday.

I think 2 supersert cycles should be trimmed to 1 if doing the 2 workouts in a single day.

Mentzer also advocated changing the exercise selection so long as there was a pre-exhaust isolation exercise, followed by a compound exercise. As the video below shows Mentzer swapped out incline bench presses for the machine press.

Heavy Duty Adaptations

He later went on to modify it, even cutting down to 3 days a week, and with even 4 or more days between workouts.

You can see Mike working multiple sets here in a slightly modified version of his training philosophy. What is still true is pre-exhaust sets and max effort.

Where I will Differ from Mentzer

I am a drug free athlete and I will take what I have learned from Dorian Yates as he reflected years later after he finished training. Dorian trained full bore all the time and put that down to the nagging injuries he still has today in his 50’s.

I will cycle the intensity, meaning once I hit my plateau point, where i am barely making progress I won’t stay there forever. I won’t come back each week to try and increase the reps or add 10% onto the bar forever.

I will take a week or 2 off and come back and deload the bar. I will drop the weight back and then slowly increase it until it starts to get intense again, and then get back to roughly where i was.

Cycling the intensity this way, will save my joints and my mind. It’s how I’ve always trained, and is one of the reasons I still feel fresh in my mid 40’s. It also helps keep injuries at bay, especially my nagging ones.

Who knows, in the deload phase I might even just mess around in the gym with wildly different exercises at a light weight for 2 weeks. Just to get the psychological and physical boost.

Mentzer especially in his latter years recommended even more rest. I am on song with him here, and i will be running this routines Mondays, Wednesday’s and Fridays. So I will effectively do workout one twice a week one week, and the next week i will do workout 2 twice per week.

How Do You Know You Are Working With The Same Intensity?

Your pre-exhaust sets should be taken to failure. You need a weight that will get you there in 6-8 reps. So it has to be moderately heavy. You can do warm up sets in the cycle.

Just to get the muscles and body heat raised. But on you wrotking cycle you should use the max weight on the isolation pre-exhaust sets and compound sets.

Take absolutely 0 rest between the exercise, it should just involve dropping the weight and moving to the next machine or bar.

If you are doing this right in your working sets as you raise and lower the bar in a controlled strict fashion, your entire body will be shaking.

You can train with a partner to make sure you get the bar raised up on your last few reps. The negative is very important, especially as the positive eccentric phase fails.

You have 3 lifting phases of strength. The positive or concentric phase, the hold, and the negative or eccentric phase. You are a lot stronger in the negative phase, which is why once you have reached positive failure, get a partner to help lift the bar, and then squeeze at the top for a second or 2 then resist the bar as you lower in a controlled fashion.

In all honesty once you fail this way on the positive, you should only get 2 or 3 true reps in the negative. Just watch Dorian Yates Blood and Glory for inspiration.

He also added stiff-legged and bent legged deadlifts and hack squats into his routine, as did Mentzer on other variations of this routine. You decide for yourself if you will need that or some weighted good mornings to thicken the lower back. But remember, recuperation is everything and rest equals growth. So~ no more than 2 sets!

Further Reading

Did you know the Dorian Yates (Mentzer Mark 2) built and maintained most of his muscle mass from 1992-97 using machines? It was easier and safer for him to perform negative reps under tension. Check out my post on the Bowflex Blaze, a really capable home gym machine that doesn’t cost a fortune.