What Is The Heavy Duty Training System?

“How many of you train like Arnold?”  Over 40 hands shot proudly into the air.  The speaker smiled as he surveyed that nearly everyone at the seminar had their hands raised.  “Well, since everyone is training like Arnold, how come none of you look like Arnold?”

A collective look of annoyed curiosity replaced the previously enthusiastic one on all of their faces.  Was he criticizing the great Arnold Schwarzenegger and his methods?  Was he claiming to know more about working out than the greatest ever?  Did he know something that the rest of us didn’t?  Who did he think he was?

This is how Mike Mentzer shook up the bodybuilding world.  He made people question what they had always done and had taken for granted.  He made people start to think differently.  This is how he introduced The Heavy Duty Training.

The Heavy Duty Training System is based on the belief the muscles grow from being properly stimulated and that it is the intensity of the training, not the volume or duration of the training, that is responsible for the most effective type of muscle growth stimulation.  Heavy Duty has also been referred to as High Intensity Training (which has an expanded meaning in modern times that we’ll explore at a later date).  The underlying philosophy of Heavy Duty is that you can train long or you can train hard, but you can’t do both.  This also transfers into the belief that once you train hard enough to actually stimulate the muscles to adapt, your job is done.  Not only is more training in the form of additional sets and reps not needed, it can even be detrimental to your progress by slowing your recovery and limiting your growth.

Most physique development or bodybuilding style training during the 1960’s-1980’s was particularly high volume with as many as 20-25 sets being done for a single body part or muscle area.  The great Arnold Schwarzenegger was an advocate and practitioner of this style of training.  It definitely worked for him and a number of others. But a movement began to grow, spearheaded by Arthur Jones, the inventor of Nautilus training equipment, that advocated shorter, more intense training sessions as being superior in terms of recovery and growth.  The goal was to stimulate improvement without depleting the recovery system so that maximum results could be achieved.  Jones enlisted the youngest Mr. America in history, Casey Viator as one of his biggest supporters in a case study project claiming remarkable results being achieved on only 30 minutes of daily training a few days a week.  That followed with Mike Mentzer’s involvement to push the philosophy out to an even broader audience.

In contrast to the popular high volume training, Mentzer preached that it would be more effective to just do 1-2 working sets per muscle after a couple of warm-up sets.  So a back workout for Mentzer might consist of 4-6 total sets, including warm-up, as opposed to the usual 15-20 or more.

A typical back workout for a Heavy Duty/High Intensity practitioner might look as follows:

Exercise 1:

Wide Grip Pulldowns: (note – machines were often used to allow for better use of assistance principles like forced reps and negatives) 

2 sets of 12-15 reps (warm-up)

1 set of 8-10 reps to failure (max heavy), plus 3-4 forced reps and negative reps

Exercise 2:

Machine Rows:

1 set to failure (8-12 reps max heavy, plus forced reps and negatives)

This type of approach was applied to each body part, but normally no more than two body parts were trained in one day.  Total workout time was in the 30-40 minute range.  The key was in the working set.  It was done as an all-out effort, end of the world type of set, using as much weight as possible with good form to positive failure, then with assisted forced and negative reps.  It was believed to be the key to stimulating progress due to the highly challenging physical and mental commitment required for it’s completion.  It was like running an uphill, all-out sprint until you fell flat on your face, got up, sprinted some more, fell again, got up, fell back down, but continued to crawl until you simply could not go on.  The goal was to be completely spent from this set and if done correctly, there should be little need or desire to do any more.  Advocates of this type of training system is an all-star list of champion bodybuilders including Mr. International Scott Wilson, National Champion Mark Dugdale, California Champion Gordon Lavelle Jr., Mr. America Ray Mentzer, and 5 times Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates.

In contrast, a typical “Arnold Style” workout might look as follows:

Wide Grip Chins – 5 sets of 10-12 reps

Close Grip Pulldowns –  4-5 sets of 10-12 reps

Bent Over Barbell Rows –  5 sets or 10-12 reps

T-bar Rows – 4-5 sets of 10-2 reps

One Arm DB Rows – 4-5 sets of 10-12 reps

As you can see, there is quite a volume difference.  While Arnold’s style obviously worked for him (and many others), it was way too much for most according to Mentzer’s Heavy Duty philosophy.

Detractors of Heavy Duty claim that its all-out style of training can led to injury during the sets where you’re trying to push beyond normal failure.  Some are also quick to point out that Mentzer, Viator, and others did years of conventional training before embracing the Heavy Duty/High Intensity approach, and that some or most of their development can be attributed to that.  Higher volume advocates point out that there is more involved with generating intensity and stimulating growth than needs to be done in one set.  And that the progression of weight and the increase in volume from a beginning level to more advanced numbers has time and again proven to be effective and result producing for many.

Heavy Duty Training was a movement that many found success with.  It tended to favor those with a more ideal mesomorphic body type.  It also takes a certain mentality and mental strength to bring the necessary intensity to those few working sets that are felt to be responsible for growth.  The nature of this maximum intensity is believed by some to open the door to a greater possibility of injury.  But there is no real evidence beyond anecdotal to support that claim.   Likewise, there’s no scientific proof that Heavy Duty Training, despite the logic behind it, is the best universal way to train.  Heavy Duty practitioners counter that higher volume training can easily lead to overtraining and therefore a lack of results.  For people who struggle with growth and want to limit calorie burning, minimizing volume as in the Heavy Duty approach may leave more calories available for growth.  Higher volume training can be more beneficial to those who are actually trying to burn more calories in an effort to get/stay leaner.  In Arnold’s time, those high volume workouts eliminated the need for tons of cardio.

So, is Heavy Duty Training something that you should consider?  Like with most things, the greatest truth often lies toward the middle as opposed to the extreme ends.  Exclusively following only one approach to training may not be necessary to get benefits from it.  Focusing on increasing the intensity and limiting as much unnecessary work beyond warmup as possible would probably serve many people well.  What constitutes a proper warmup however, physically and mentally, will of course vary for most people.  If you’re a hard gainer who doesn’t want to expend extra energy and calories, or if you have a muscle group or body part that’s in need of a change, AND you have the mental makeup to bring an almost emotional level of intensity into your training, then Heavy Duty Training is something you might want to give a try.  I would encourage you to learn more about it by reading one of the many books written by Mike Mentzer and others to fully understand the details of properly implementing the system.

If you feel that you’re able to bring the needed amount of intensity into your workout as desired, including in the form of higher volume, AND you’re getting the type of results you want from your current training, then there’s nothing wrong with continuing down that path.  If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.

Heavy Duty Training has been embraced by many and used very successfully.  It definitely isn’t for everyone and a great many have achieved success without it.  But if you’re looking to explore a different, non-conventional training option that is advocated by some of the most successful physique athletes ever, you owe it to yourself to at least learn about and consider this still popular training approach.

Photo: K. Myles


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