Post-COVID Bodybuilding: The Return Of Alternative ‘Heavy Duty’ Training.

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The world of bodybuilding, to many, is an ominous and confusing one. From the outside, it is one of vanity and self-obsession. There is an element of truth to this; when you are trying to transform your body in a way that few are mentally or physically capable of doing, a certain degree of obsessiveness is necessary. Bodybuilding is a sport that requires unrelinquishable dedication and attention to detail. Professional bodybuilders can spend up to four hours a day in the gym when in competition mode, honing their body so that it is ready for when they step on stage.

However, COVID-19 has altered Bodybuilding in such a way that now spending four hours in the gym is no longer possible, as many gyms are imposing time limits on how long a person can train for. Cleaning and hygiene are at the forefront of every company’s mind; reducing the time a person spends in the gym simultaneously reduces the risk of infection and levels of germs, thus helping the gym to remain open. However, what does this mean for athletes who still need to spend four hours in the gym per day? How can an athlete reduce their training time, in order to comply with regulations, but still remain consistent in their training regime and apply the same levels of training intensity?

Past solutions to today’s problems.

The answer lies in bodybuilders and strength athletes disregarding the dominant doctrine of weight training and muscular development, made famous by Arnold Schwarzenegger – the seven-time Mr. Olympia champion and perhaps the most famous bodybuilder in history. Instead, adopting the high intensity, ‘Heavy Duty’ training regime, made famous by Mike Mentzer.

The training doctrine that many bodybuilders fall mindlessly into today is based on Arnold’s ‘Golden Era’ training methods, that of conducting up to six sets of twelve repetitions per exercise. Naturally, this is where all bodybuilders start. There are many training variations in bodybuilding, each taking a unique approach to achieving muscular hypertrophy. However, for the most part, Arnold’s methods are the most popular, due to their simplicity and overall lower levels of intensity, which many novice bodybuilders are attracted to.

However, starkly contrasted to Arnold’s mainstream methods, Heavy-Duty style training presents a completely unique package. Its creator, Mike Mentzer, who was considered somewhat of a black sheep among the bodybuilding community, argued that Heavy-Duty training was best for optimal muscular growth. Built on a strict one-set per exercise basis (excluding warm-ups), Mentzer’s methods promoted infrequent bursts of extremely high intensity training, followed by prolonged periods of recovery. 

Mentzer proposed that in order for a particular muscle to grow, it needed to be exposed to an ever-increasing level of stress each time the athlete exercised. For a muscle to grow, the athlete had to increase the intensity of the exercise, not necessarily prolong its duration. One set per exercise, with the correct amount of intensity and subsequent recovery, was adequate to grow the target muscle. Any additional sets were believed to be pointless; decreasing an athlete’s energy supplies with no additional benefit in return.

The man behind the bodybuilding method.

Whilst his training methods continue today, Mentzer’s own career was short lived. After winning the 1979 heavyweight Mr. Olympia, but then placing joint-fourth in the controversial 1980 Mr. Olympia (which Arnold returned to win after a five-year hiatus), Mentzer retired from bodybuilding in a blaze of anger. Accusing the Mr. Olympia competition and the International Federation of BodyBuilding & Fitness (IFBB) of corruption, Mentzer was blacklisted from major competition and never competed again. He remained bitter about the 1980 Mr. Olympia, which he considered to be his rightful title, until just before his death in 2001, when he and Arnold finally made peace.

Mentzer’s methods lay dormant for a decade after his retirement, before re-surfacing in the 1990s with Dorian Yates, AKA ‘The Shadow’, the six-time Mr Olympia champion who dominated the bodybuilding world between 1992 and 1997. If not for Yates, Mentzer and his methods would have faded into obscurity long ago. But because of ‘The Shadow’, who still advocates Heavy-Duty training to this day, Mentzer’s methods have remained relevant to this day, with modern-day athletes such as Branch Warren and Johnnie O. Jackson replicating Heavy-Duty style training techniques.

Method or madness?

Mentzer’s methods have been subject to widespread speculation among the bodybuilding world. Firstly due to Mentzer’s own reputation, and secondly due to the extreme nature of his methods. There is no definitive answer as to whether the techniques of Arnold or Mentzer produced the most muscular growth. Both have their merits, and both have athletes who subscribe to their methods. Not every athlete should adopt Mentzer’s methods, neither should Arnold’s popular training doctrine be disregarded.

What is certain however is that the bodybuilding world as many know it is changing. Athletes now, conscious of the new regulations, have to make the time they spend in the gym worth every ounce of sweat. Their methods, therefore, must adapt as their surroundings are altered. Alternative training methods are gaining popularity, with Mentzer’s being among them.

If athletes are forced to use Mentzer’s methods, out of necessity rather than choice, then they may come to appreciate it in the long run. Perhaps in a post-COVID world, Mentzer’s methods will become the mainstream, replacing Arnold’s, as was Mentzer’s vision. Perhaps not.

Nonetheless, every athlete should take COVID-19 not as an infringement on their training, but as a new opportunity, to re-evaluate their methods and contemplate fresh alternatives. After all, what is there to lose…

Words by William Cooper.


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