Opinion: Mike Mentzer Was a Good Bodybuilder With (Some) Bad Advice

Mike Mentzer is more famous over two decades after his death than he was during his bodybuilding career. In the back half of 2023, Mentzer had something of a moment on social media after getting caught in the notoriously fickle current of Instagram, TikTok, and YouTube. 

Not because he said something particularly inflammatory, as is often the case these days. Also not because a new generation of physique neophytes were awed by his esteemed career on stage; Mentzer never won the overall title at the Mr. Olympia.

Credit: @mentzerhit on Instagram

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Maybe it was the mustache — those are back in a big way. In truth, Mentzer’s unexpected resurgence can be attributed to the athlete and man he was during his heyday: an idiosyncratic, hard-headed maverick with some pretty novel perspectives on bodybuilding workouts, diets, and philosophy

Which is exactly the sort of sugary content that contemporary social media algorithms adore. Mentzer was undeniably ahead of his time, for better and for worse. In some ways, Mentzer’s newfound adoration online is entirely misplaced

The Many Misguided Mentzerisms

Scour Instagram and TikTok, and you’ll see scores of Mentzer montages hoarding millions of views. Many sport thumb-stopping captions like…


This is why you must lift until failure!” 

Mike Mentzer: Only One Set” 

Why Mentzer almost ATTACKED Arnold!

…and so on. They’re tabloidy zingers that magnetize eyeballs and, more importantly, come with a fallacious appeal to authority built in. Mentzer was an uncommonly jacked and diced-as-Hell bodybuilder for his time, so his hot takes about lifting weights must be true. 

But that’s not really how it works. For one, some of Mentzer’s ideas — most notably his dedication to high-intensity training (HIT) and atypically-low volume — don’t hold up.

Credit: @mentzerhit on Instagram

Secondly, many of these videos beg and plead for your attention by contorting Mentzer’s words or obfuscating his meaning. For example, Mentzer didn’t say protein “wasn’t important,” despite that being plastered on the thumbnail and it being attributed to him as a consequence. He said some of his contemporaries had overstated its value.

(In an interview for Iron Man Magazine, Mentzer recommended a macronutrient split of 60% carbohydrates, 25% protein, and 15% fat.)

Yet an avid scroller on TikTok might see that thumbnail, scoff at its absurdity, and instantaneously dismiss Mentzer altogether even though his advice in this particular case isn’t outlandish — though the protein bit may be more of an exception than a rule.

The man did actually almost lunge at Arnold Schwarzenegger during the 1980 Mr. Olympia, though. Read up on it — it’s sort of why Mentzer retired from bodybuilding in the first place.

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Sports science has come a long way in the last half-century, and anyone with CapCut downloaded on their smartphone can capitalize on a deceased bodybuilder’s musings without fear of retaliation (unless you’re particularly superstitious, that is).

But while exercise science may have been in its relative infancy in his prime, modern academia isn’t on Mentzer’s side in all cases: 

Protein is absolutely essential for muscular development, and recommendations for weight lifters remain significantly higher than what is suggested for non-lifting folk. (1)

You do not need to train to failure to build a respectable physique. (2)(3)

Single-set training protocols can be effective (4), but you’d be hard-pressed to find a reputable bodybuilding coach nowadays who prescribes such a thing regularly.

Mentzer once claimed that he could reliably get his personal training clients to gain 10 to 20 pounds of muscle a month by reducing their workout frequency to one session every three or four days; not one muscle-group-specific workout, one workout period. Nowadays, it is almost universally recognized that muscles grow better in response to two weekly training sessions. (5)

Bodybuilding’s Thought Leader

So what’s happening here? Well, according to Renaissance Periodization mastermind and Sport Science PhD Mike Israetel in a Jan. 19, 2024 YouTube video, Mentzer’s return to the nexus of bodybuilding culture is explained by how well his philosophies carve through the Internet’s information glut:

“[Mentzer] was a precision-oriented person. He remains popular even to this day because [his training philosophy] is insanely simple and brutally difficult … We are eternally indebted [to Mentzer] for trying to make some God-damned sense out of lifting.” 

Social media is bursting at the seams with everyone’s hot take on how to build muscle, burn fat, or increase strength. The methods and mechanisms to achieve these goals are often complicated (and often deliberately). Mentzer’s approach was straightforward, which is why he’s so easily co-opted on social media.

Beyond that, sports historian and lecturer Dr. Conor Heffernan says that Mentzer’s career as a physique athlete may have contributed to his becoming bodybuilding’s black sheep. “Mentzer was strongly influenced by the teachings of Arthur Jones, [inventor of the Nautilus machines], who bucked many mainstream bodybuilding practices at the time,” says Heffernan.

Heffernan notes that Mentzer may have walked away from bodybuilding due to the debacles of the 1980 Mr. “O”, but “[Mentzer’s] own philosophy had solidified long before then.”

Case in point: So devoted to the doctrine of HIT was Mentzer that he once claimed a single year of dedicated HIT was enough for anyone to realize their lifelong muscular potential. 

That kind of claim reeks of salesmanship. While it is true that the majority of most people’s total hypertrophy occurs in the first year-ish of proper training, (6) no clinician or credible coach today would back Mentzer on such a brazen assertion. 

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Mentzer Had It Right…Sometimes

To his credit, Mentzer was ahead of the curve in some ways. 

Israetel praises Mentzer’s meticulous approach to exercise form and full range-of-motion training for optimizing muscle hypertrophy. 

Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates used single-set programming to great effect in the ’90s, proving that Mentzer’s approach wasn’t a one-off success.

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Even nutritional science is cooling on exactly how much protein you need to build muscle, and Mentzer was all-in on flexible dieting long before the “IIFYM” moniker took hold on bodybuilding message boards in the late 2000s.

(Mentzer might’ve been Patient Zero for IIFYM in the pro bodybuilding scene. He claimed to have eaten ice cream daily and pancakes thrice weekly right before the 1979 Olympia, stating that it worked because he kept his total intake under 2,000 calories.)

But generally, the further he strayed from practical training advice, the less credible Mentzer’s ideas became. In 1981, Mentzer reportedly made dietary claims like “You’re not going to gain fat from eating carbs like white rice” and “It’s ridiculous to go on low-carbohydrate diets to get cut up, because you will, inevitably, lose some muscle.”

You can absolutely gain fat by eating too much of anything, including and especially a palatable, easy-to-shovel-down carb source like rice.

Contemporary academia largely supports protein intake as the mediating factor in muscle loss during a calorie deficit, more than carbohydrates. (7)

Dig deep enough, and you will find some real headscratchers attributed to Mentzer. It’s easy to criticize bodybuilding advice from decades before Y2K scared the daylights out of most TikTok’ers parents. Mentzer has become a convenient social media mouthpiece, but his ideas are still a mixed bag.

“Potential Is the Expression of Possibility”

By all accounts, Mike Mentzer was not a dispassionate man. In a rather touching obituary penned a few weeks after his passing in June of 2001, writer and personal friend of Mentzer’s John Little said:

“Prior to Mike’s coming, bodybuilding had cried out for a watchdog or protector of young bodybuilders who might otherwise fall prey to the blandishments of the corporate interests that had infiltrated the sport.”

Little’s tribute was more poignant than he realized. His assessment clearly illustrates, at least in part, why Mentzer is one of Gen Z’s favorite bodybuilders. The guy just plain loved lifting, which made his words all the more infectious and influential

Have all of his views held up against the relentless marches of time and science? Heck no. Mentzer was a great bodybuilder who was ahead of his time in some ways and pretty off-base in others — but he was undeniably well-intentioned. Mentzer deserves his 15 minutes of Internet fame, as long as you don’t get too caught up in his charm and lose the plot in the process. 

Credit: @mentzerhit on Instagram

Bodybuilding culture cried out for Mike Mentzer.

John Little

You probably shouldn’t heed “his” one-set-only, eat-all-the-rice-you-want advice, even though it often comes with the implicit authority of thousands of likes and comments. Mentzer is, however, more than worth hearing out when it comes to his philosophy on training and how it can guide your life: 

“Don’t worry about your individual potential. Potential is only the expression of possibility — something that can be assessed accurately only in retrospect.” 

In essence, don’t lose the forest for the trees. Just go to the gym and work your ass off

Editor’s Note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed are the author’s own and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of BarBend or Pillar4 Media. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

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Nóbrega SR, Libardi CA. Is Resistance Training to Muscular Failure Necessary? Front Physiol. 2016 Jan 29;7:10. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2016.00010. PMID: 26858654; PMCID: PMC4731492.

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Kataoka, R., Hammert, W. B., Yamada, Y., Song, J. S., Seffrin, A., Kang, A., Spitz, R. W., Wong, V., & Loenneke, J. P. (2024). The Plateau in Muscle Growth with Resistance Training: An Exploration of Possible Mechanisms. Sports medicine (Auckland, N.Z.), 54(1), 31–48.

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Imagery: @mentzerhit on Instagram

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