Heavy Duty Changes
by Burton Richardson
The following article is written and copyrighted by Burton Richardson and appeared in the November Issue of Inside Kung Fu. It is with his permission that it is posted as a special memorial article.
Some years ago, I wrote a two-part article on the work of bodybuilding legend Mike Mentzer. While on a recent seminar tour in South Africa, it occurred to me that many martial artists had yet to be acquainted with the "Heavy Duty" methods that gleaned results so efficiently. I had trained my South African representative, Morne Swanepoel, in this method, and his great progress inspired me to again share Mike's training philosophy with readers of Inside Kung Fu. Upon returning home to Hawaii, I was pleased to see that Mike had called while I was away. I returned the call to find that Mike was very excited about an upcoming video shoot. He was going to make a video about his philosophy and application that would be sold around the world. Mike wanted to get hold of the old articles that I had written so that he could use them on his website and encourage martial artists to improve themselves with his methods. We had a very nice conversation, just like those we always had every 6 months or so. Mike always wanted to know how my progress was going, how my teaching was evolving, and he wanted to keep me abreast of the latest findings that he had made in his quest for a more efficient means of strength training and bodybuilding. This was on a Friday. The following Monday, I called Mike and left a message on his voice mail. I found it strange that he did not return my call within 24 hours as he usually did. I figured that he was so busy with the video that he couldn't make time to call. I figured wrong. Mike had suffered a massive heart attack over the weekend and passed to the next realm. He was just 49 years old. By the time you read this, Mike Mentzer will have been gone for over 2 months, but I would like to give you a glimpse of this great man, and at the Heavy Duty system that made him a legend in the world of weight training.
In the early 90's, I began to read articles by Mike about his "Heavy Duty" training methods. Everything was absolutely logical, but much of his teachings went against the grain of the bodybuilding establishment. I lived in West Los Angeles, and pushed iron at Gold's Gym in Venice where Mike trained his clients. I set up a session with Mike, and he permanently changed the way I approached weight training. I was the type that would go to the gym 4-5 days per week and spend at least one hour lifting each visit. If I had movie work coming up, I would often increase the workouts to an hour and a half, 5 days per week, along with about 20 miles of running per week. Of course, this was just a supplement to my martial arts training. I had noticed that even though I worked out very hard, I was not getting great results. I had hit a plateau and couldn't break through. I also remembered that when I was in my mid-twenties, I would just play around with weights a few days per week, but I was much stronger. I began to think that the problem was my age or my vegetarian diet, but neither of those things were going to change. I would just have to accept the fact that I would never be as strong as I was in my younger days. One session with Mike showed me that my training methods were the problem.
The first principle that Mike instilled is vital to making progress with your strength training. He explained that there are three phases to muscle growth: stimulation, recovery, and growth. When you sufficiently stress your muscles, you have stimulated them to grow. Note that stimulation must be sufficient, and there is an optimal way to do this. If you want maximum stimulus, you must lift heavy weights to the point where you can no longer lift that weight. Now that you have made your body want to get stronger, your muscles go through a recovery phase where the "damage" is cleaned out and repaired. Once this is completed, the muscle begins the growth phase, meaning that it gets bigger and stronger in preparation for the next lifting session. Perfectly logical and scientifically sound. Now, think about something. To make this as efficient as possible, you should do whatever you can to keep the recovery phase short and the growth phase long. The longer you stay in recovery, the less time you will have for growth. This is where Mike's methods shine. He would constantly emphasize that if you worked your biceps for one set to failure (where you can't perform another repetition), you have sufficiently stimulated muscle growth. The heavier the weight and the fewer the reps, the greater the stimulation to grow. (Mike usually had me do 1 set of about 6-8 repetitions to failure.) If you have stimulated the muscle to grow, there is no need to do anymore sets! The muscles got the message, and begin the recovery phase. This means that instead of doing 3-12 sets per body part, you do just one efficient set. If you keep doing sets, you are just doing more damage and making the recovery phase last longer. In other words, one high intensity set is better than many low or high intensity sets. This will keep the recovery phase short. But what should you do to lengthen the growth phase? Train less often.
If your muscle is in the growth phase and you train again, you just put yourself back into recovery. It works best for most people to train each body part only once every 7 to 10 days. That means if you train biceps on a Monday, you don't do it again until the following Monday, or later, depending upon your own ability to recover. This may seem like it is not enough, and that is what I thought. I had the "more is better" mindset, but as Mike would remind me, "If two aspirin are good for you, why not take 4, or 8, or 20?" The right thing to do is to train just enough for optimal results. Any more than that is over-training, which gives you less than optimal results. I was not getting good results with my earlier training regimen because I was grossly over-trained. My body never had a chance to recover from the previous workouts, so it never grew stronger. After I switched to Mike's program, I went from training weights for an hour and a half, five times per week to lifting for a total of 45 minutes per week! And guess what happened? I got much stronger. Needless to say, I have been a staunch supporter of Mike ever since.
Tens of thousands of people around the world have benefited from Mike Mentzer's work, and I am sure that many more will learn in the future. I just outlined a few of his major points in this article, but his books are still available, and I suggest you purchase one while they are still in print. It is a shame to lose such a good friend and mentor at such an early age. Mike wanted to help me in my quest with JKDU, just as he was able to help people with their fitness goals. I miss him, but I am very happy that he lived such a full life. He was able to change the way people look at what they do, much like we are trying to change the way people approach their martial arts training. I remember my friend fondly and smile as I think of the many great memories we shared. He lived life his own way, and made thousands of people better for his efforts.
Thanks again, Mike. I salute you each time I go to the gym.
Burton is an internationally-known Jeet Kune Do instructor and lecturer, action star, film advisor and stuntman. He writes a monthly column for Inside Kung Fu magazine.