Mike Mentzer: Five Years Later
It's almost surreal for me to write an article about the fifth anniversary (June 10, 2001) of Mike Mentzer's passing. In many respects, it doesn't seem like he's been gone at all. I am in a sense spending time with Mike again, going over his writings, listening to audio recordings of his words and reviewing images of him. Then there are the thousands of e-mails that continue to flood into his website and that his successor, Joanne Sharkey, shares with me from time to time. Indeed, it would appear that Mike's presence is actually growing. I become more keenly aware of Mike's passing when I envision speaking with him about some nuance in high-intensity training, or sharing some life experience, or talking about Ayn Rand and philosophy.
John Little and Mike Mentzer Shake Hands
After a Seminar in Rexdale, Ontario on
Mike's Birthday -- November 15, 1981
As time passes, different people come into your life, some of whom will make a positive, life-changing impact. Most won't. When I first met Mike Mentzer back in 1980 at a seminar in downtown Toronto, Canada, I knew after spending 30-minutes speaking with him that he was one of those people who had the capacity to literally change one's life for the better.
Indeed, as our friendship deepened over the years, it became more and more apparent that if one was willing to learn, Mike could open the shutters on a sunlit world of knowledge - of art, history, philosophy, psychology, the science of bodybuilding and, from a higher vantage point, the interrelationships of all of the above, in a manner that would forever alter one's thinking.
There isn't a week that's gone by since Mike passed that Joanne Sharkey hasn't received an e-mail from someone whose life was positively influenced by Mike Mentzer (some of these testimonials you can read directly on Mike's official website: www.mikementzer.com). People from all walks of life, from all nations, from all races, have all had their lives changed for the better by either meeting Mike or studying his teachings. It is presently five years since Mike left us, and both the sciences and the general populations are starting to embrace the truths of what he first advocated over 10 years ago. MDs such as Doug McGuff have indicated that Mike was right to challenge the "96-hour rule of decompensation", and that brief workouts of two to five sets performed once every 7 to 10 days would produce optimal muscle growth. Personal training centers, whose existence depends on producing results for their clients, are seldom prescribing training sessions of more than one set per exercise and exercise sessions of once or (at most) twice per week; and they, along with university strength coaches, fitness authors, and PhDs in exercise physiology, are now concluding that more "intensity" in training is the requisite of bigger, stronger muscles. "Speak the truth," as a wise man once said, "and time will be your eloquence."
I recall that Mike had been labeled "The Thinking Man's Bodybuilder." It was a title that was first given to him by bodybuilding scribe, Jack Neary, in an article that was reprinted in Mike's first mail order course, Heavy Duty. It also happened to be a title that was true.
Mike was incredibly well-read and well-experienced; he not only studied psychology and physiology in college, but also worked in a cardiac clinic and psychiatric ward to further his studies of the mind and body. Indeed, Mike's knowledge in physiology was so valued that he was asked to assist a resident MD in developing a cardiovascular fitness program for a Maryland cardiology clinic. At about this time, Mike was in his third year of study in a Pre-Med program at the University of Washington, but his greatest passion was bodybuilding. And as his interest in bodybuilding grew, he would contrast what was being published as "scientific fact" in the muscle magazines with the facts presented in the medical science textbooks he was studying in school, and, more often than not, he found gaping disparities between the two.
Because Mike's research in the sciences was augmented by an interest in philosophy, he was better able than most to see and apply scientific means to philosophic ends – and vice versa. When Mike became famous in bodybuilding circles, appearing on the cover and in numerous muscle and fitness magazines, his integrity and his love for philosophy became apparent and appreciated by his fans. He was a breath of fresh air to many of us who had grown up reading essentially the same article repeated over and over again, and he had a major impact on the training of many of the bodybuilding champions. Mike's writings indicated that he seldom trained more than three days per week, never performed more than two to five sets per bodypart, rarely if ever took supplements of any kind, and had the candor to openly admit to using steroids – even going so far as to claim, "those that say they don't take any, take the most." Not that he was an advocate; he always stressed that such was a personal decision that each individual must make for himself.
"Who is this guy?", we wondered. The honesty was refreshing but entirely antithetical to the way bodybuilding was popularly being promoted. Mike was always an individualist and didn't see any value in compromise. It was inevitable that someone would soon have to bring the ruler down upon the poor boy's knuckles to teach him to keep his mouth closed so that the majority of bodybuilding consumers could continue to believe that the sun revolved around the world of bodybuilding. The ruler would come down, of course, on this young Galileo's knuckles at that at the 1980 Mr. Olympia contest in Sydney, Australia, Mike, who had placed a hotly debated second at this same contest the year before (and had entered the 1980 Mr. Olympia 10-pounds of muscle heavier and even more defined), was relegated to a shocking "fifth" place finish. (It was later determined by an independent investigation of CBS Sports – and this was confirmed to me independently by the producer of the telecast -- which had flown a television crew halfway round the world to film the event -- that the judging of the contest appeared to have been suspect. As a result, the event has never been broadcast.)
"I'm more interested in truth than in being proved right or wrong," Mike once told me. "We all benefit by learning the truth. The truth is our best friend, as it allows us to advance our knowledge. I'd be more than happy – ecstatic even – if someone could prove to me that my approach to training was in error, because I could learn something from that. Not simply an opinion, on the matter, mind you, but to provide rational, demonstrable proof."
Mike Mentzer's ideals were not predicated on fallacious premises, but squarely upon reality, and so the strength of his conviction grew and his ideals matured; if the ruling bodies of bodybuilding conspired to deny him a platform and credentials via their "sanction" of titles, he would not be affected; he would fashion his own platform in the gymnasiums and the publications that were not under their tyrannical sway. He began to devote more thought to the science of training until it truly became a science; and with a growing body of clients and students willing to put his theories into practice, it wasn't long before his theories became validated as facts. I wish that Mike had had the privilege of knowing that his rational approach to training has never been successfully refuted and has, in fact, been in large measure validated by the scientific community. The gymnasium had long been his laboratory, training was his science, and communication of the truths he discovered was his art. He had first communicated his message on the posing dais and through photographs, whereupon he could reveal the efficacy of his training science in the body it produced; later his vehicle of communication became his pen, which turned out to be a far more powerful force in delivering his message. After all, a posing exhibition communicates to only to those in attendance on the day of the contest, while the written word communicates to audiences all over the world for many years after first being expressed.
Mike Mentzer's writings called out for us to use our minds; to reason, to think independently and to refuse to do otherwise. As his physique showed us what is possible for a human being to achieve physically, his writings and insights revealed what was possible for us to achieve mentally. Mike knew that these two aspects were part of one interconnected process, the ideal being a fully integrated being. The ancient Greeks created sculpture of heavily muscled athletes assuming intellectual poses – Mike brought their idealistic sculptures to life.
This was Mike's ethos; mens sana in corpore sano ("a healthy mind in a healthy body"); a very lofty goal indeed; so far above the heads of the "four sets of ten" mentality that predominates in bodybuilding that they not only failed to grasp what his point was, but – out of fear engendered by their very ignorance – thought it best to condemn and vilify, rather than expend the mental effort necessary to understand. The physique that he created revealed the power of the human will guided by a valid philosophy. He revealed to a bodybuilding public that had mistaken marketing for science and magazine publishers for "trainers of champions" that the answers they sought were not to be found in external authority sources with commercial agendas, but within the individual human mind that creates, reasons, dreams – and then acts to realize those dreams. If the principles the mind embraces are true, Mentzer explained, and the reasoning sound, the results – from business to bodybuilding – will be assured. And you needed no one other than yourself to make it so.
He credited various literary influences for his style of writing – Miller, Lange, Nietzsche, Jones, Rand -- but he was being unduly modest; like Mentzer's physique, his writing style and ability to articulate the nature of art, intellect and science was incomparably his own – which is why his writings bear his unique stamp of authenticity. Many of Mike's followers have gone to the source of his various influences in the hopes of finding that same magic that they found in Mentzer, only to come away disappointed. Even Arthur Jones, a man whom Mentzer claimed to have had a profound influence on the way he looked at the discipline of exercise science, never wrote with the clarity or prose of Mentzer and was not known to have as strong an interest in writing or philosophy. Mike saw man at his highest, as an integrated being of mind and body and, therefore, his writings speak to this essential goal in achieving happiness and fulfillment. He cautioned us to use our will to forge our bodies -- to remember that bodybuilding is an adjunct to a well-tempered life, not the reason for it -- to use reason to solve our problems, including our training and any dietary or other physiologic concerns that may arise. Doing so does not have a limiting or one-dimensional effect; quite the contrary - we find ourselves using this same approach to our life issues, from dealing with family members and business associates to creating new enterprises and envisioning new horizons, believing in ourselves for the confidence to actually create them.
That is the gift of Mike Mentzer to those who are willing to receive it: Life lived rationally on one's own terms with a limitless potential for growth, tempered, as always, by respect for individual rights. Moreover, his example has provided the inspiration of what's possible for man to achieve in the realm of physical beauty and personal power, his gift being the path to new horizons thereby advancing the human cause a little further. And that is a legacy worth celebrating that few in this industry will ever equal.
[Ed. For those of you who do not receive the Iron Man Magazine, you won't want to miss the monthly HEAVY DUTY column that John writes every month. In the June 2006 issue, there is a wonderful tribute article in memory of Mike and Ray that you won't want to miss. Thank you, John, for your excellent articles, and especially for making it possible that Mike still has a presence in the magazine.]
Article copyright © 2006 John Little. All rights reserved.
Mike Mentzer quotations provided courtesy of Joanne Sharkey and are used with permission.
This article is written exclusively for www.Mikementzer.com and Joanne Sharkey. It cannot be used as a download for another website or used in any form of publication in part or in whole, unless written permission is granted. © 2002-2006.