Although his untimely death at the age of 49 from a heart attack – brought on by a congenital predisposition – would deprive the world of much further wisdom and insight into the twin process of physical and mental self-development, by the time of his death Mike Mentzer had already created and begun to spread an integrated philosophy of mind and body that goes far beyond anything we might expect a “mere” bodybuilder to produce. Then again, Mike Mentzer was no mere bodybuilder.
The greatness of Mike Mentzer is somewhat belied by the list of his professional achievements as a bodybuilder. Although he won the Mr Universe with the first ever perfect score, he never won the Mr Olympia, bodybuilding’s Superbowl. His final competition, the 1980 Olympia, is often seen as the sport’s equivalent of the WWE’s infamous Montreal Screwjob, with Arnold Schwarzenegger and Joe Weider, rather than Shawn Michaels and Vince McMahon, as the villains. While some, perhaps Vince Gironda among them, might say that Mentzer’s later physique marked a watershed in bodybuilding, a transitional form between the physiques of the Golden Age and the so-called “mass monsters” of today, Mentzer’s physique was still a world away from the bloated, graceless forms disfiguring the Olympia stage today.
What makes Mentzer great, what makes him truly stand out from his peers, is his sincere attempt to build a new kind of bodybuilding and to furnish it with its own ethic, one drawn from his own extensive reading in philosophy and literature. In place of a “bro” pseudo-philosophy relying by turns on platitudes and a bastardised notion of “might is right”, Mentzer preached an integrated philosophy of body and mind. “Man is an indivisible entity, an integrated unit of mind and body.” Bodybuilding was to be an objective science rooted in first principles, and its practitioner an heroic figure participating in an immortal struggle.
These ideas, especially the belief that bodybuilding could and should be treated in this manner in the first place, were rooted in Objectivism, the philosophical system developed by the novelist Ayn Rand. Philosophy is not just some detached activity reserved for a select few in the musty halls of academe, but an essential part of living correctly and happily, and this should apply as much to bodybuilding as to any other meaningful human activity. Rand’s most famous novels The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged were constant companions throughout Mentzer’s life, their heroic characters – Howard Roark, John Galt – inspiration for the ethical aspect of his new bodybuilding system.
Mentzer’s withdrawal from competition at the age of 29 was motivated as much by disgust at the way bodybuilders trained as by the way the sport was run. He wanted to ground bodybuilding in an evidence-based method – that is, in what he considered to be science. Despite the clear forward progress bodybuilders were making (i.e. they were getting bigger and bigger), he nonetheless believed that bodybuilding was still in its Dark Ages. In his mind, the “Dark Age” bodybuilding of the 1970s and ‘80s was rooted in just three principles (intensity, frequency and duration), whereas the true scientific bodybuilding should instead be built around seven (identity, intensity, duration, frequency, specificity, adaptation and progression). The training method he developed using these seven principles would come to be known as “high-intensity training” (not to be confused with the “high-intensity interval training” (HIIT) so popular with Crossfitters and the like).
Mike had been formulating and playing around with these principles since the early 1970s, when he had trained with Casey Viator. Unlike Mentzer and most other bodybuilders, who were training up to five hours a day, the 19-year-old Viator was able to win the 1971 Mr America contest by training just an hour a day, three times a week. Later, Mike would learn Casey’s methods directly from his mentor, Arthur Jones, the inventor of the Nautilus range of equipment, and then take them even further himself. By the time of the 1978 Mr Universe, which he won with the first ever perfect score of 300, Mike in his own words “was training roughly 45 minutes per workout and engaging in only two to three workouts per week.” After retiring from bodybuilding competition in 1980, he would continue to develop and apply these principles with private clients. Most famous among them was Dorian Yates, whose modified version of Mentzer’s training methods, often referred to as “blood and guts training”, would lead him to six consecutive Mr Olympia titles.
The most complete account of Mike’s training method is surely High-Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way, published in 2002, not long after his death. What distinguishes it from most scientific accounts – since that’s what it’s intended to be – is the attention given to personal motivation. The philosopher and sociologist of the natural sciences will deal very strictly with method; but how many will ever undertake to explain why people actually do science in the first place, or what keeps them doing it? What is it that moves scientists to pursue ever-increasing knowledge, even to the point of absurdity and existential threat to humanity? Few can bring themselves to ask these questions, let alone answer them. The small minority of accounts of the scientific endeavour that do ask and answer these questions, perhaps most notably Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals, hardly present a flattering picture of the scientific practitioner and their desires…
By contrast, Mike Mentzer’s scientific bodybuilder has a very clear set of motivations, and these are described in detail in High-Intensity Training. The first chapter dedicated to motivation is entitled “Developing a Siege Mentality in the Gym”, and begins with a passage that’s worth quoting at length.
“Although we are loath to admit it, the human race is by nature bellicose. History books are chronicles of our conflicts since Day One. And as much as our society decries the horrors of war, few would have our nation’s past military glory erased from the history books. In ancient times, of course, men were hunters, and the most profitable and exciting way to live was to attack a neighbouring tribe, kill its men, take its women, and loot its villages. Because the most aggressive people endured, humankind’s bellicose instincts have survived. The human race has evolved through struggle and combat. A life devoid of effort or struggle is enervating. Indeed, so much of civilized life today, while bestowing a certain amount of security, at the same time has withheld adventure.
“Lacking a sufficient outlet for our biological drives and aggressive instincts, we are afflicted with depression and other nervous suffering – and no wonder! To flourish, the will needs a rallying point. At one time warfare gave individuals and societies that rallying point. But modern war is untenable. For myself and countless others, athletic training and sports competition provide a functional alternative to warfare.”
“The struggle against owned space” is one of the principal themes of Bronze Age Mindset, and there’s nothing in the quotation above that would be out of place in that book. In both cases, we see modern man enervated, wilting for lack of meaningful outlets for what the Greeks called thymos – the desiring, aggressive emotional force that pushes all men to seek distinction. For Mentzer as much as for BAP, warfare and its proxies are a purifying force, a crucible. Where Mentzer and BAP might appear to differ, at first glance at least, is in their attitude to modern warfare; for Mentzer, it is the failure of modern warfare to offer a satisfying outlet for thymos on a personal level that makes it ‘untenable’, as he says. After all, what good is heroism if your life can be ended by a lactating drone operator with Cheeto dust on her fingers, 5,000 miles away? Bodybuilding, then, must be a kind of surrogate activity; the next-best-thing, if you will.
But only a surface-level reading of Bronze Age Mindset could make you think that BAP feels any differently about modern warfare. Despite his exhortations that those who are capable should seek to gain military experience, BAP is clearly looking to a time in the not-too-distant future when, as the great American empire collapses under the weight of its own contradictions, the domain of owned space contracts significantly across the globe and personal adventurism once more becomes a viable option. The new men of Bronze Age Mindset are not faceless operators of the military-industrial complex, but small brotherhoods of well-trained, disciplined soldiers of fortune – men like the great Mike Hoare and Bob Denard, whose personal brand of buccaneering flourished in the interstices of the Cold War.
The language of war, of war against oneself and one’s weaknesses, continues throughout the motivational sections of High-Intensity Training.
“I always considered preparing for a contest to be my moral equivalent to war. Once contest preparation commenced, the gym ceased to be a mundane menagerie of grunting humans and was transformed into a mythical battlefield where the militaristic virtues of sweat, discipline and physical courage were applauded. The gym became the arena where I had the opportunity to become a hero.”
As for BAP, Nietzsche’s collected late notebooks, The Will to Power, were a text of great importance to Mentzer. He even describes Nietzsche as his “training partner” for his triumph at the 1978 Mr Universe, and claims to have read The Will to Power for up to five hours a day to “put me in a certain state of mind and being.” Nietzsche’s focus on developing a strong will, on the triumph over suffering and personal limitations, were precisely what Mentzer needed to drive him towards victory and distinguish himself from his less motivated competitors.
“There will be others,” Mentzer writes, “who can dig deep and find the drive to train harder than they had ever dreamed possible, ‘to exceed themselves’, as Nietzsche exhorted us to do with his image of Ubermensch, or Overman.”
In 1980, as he prepared for his final Mr Olympia, it was G. Gordon Liddy, and his autobiography Will, that would be Mentzer’s new philosophical training partner. Liddy was variously an FBI agent, lawyer and one of the central figures in the Watergate scandal, for which he spent over four years in federal prisons. No doubt Mentzer chose this book not just because of its title but its central drama, the author’s decision to face prison rather than betray his principles.
Clearly, Mentzer’s talk of combat, will and self-overcoming was not just empty posturing, but perhaps the best attempt to give bodybuilding a true ethic, one that goes beyond simply having a beautiful physique and at the same time restores to modern life, by way of the bodybuilder’s virtues and suffering, the heroic dimension that is so sorely lacking – the “archetypal human drama”, as he puts it.
And as a part of that archetypal drama, the bodybuilder-philosopher’s story of course has its tragic element, and not just in his untimely death. After his retirement from bodybuilding, Mentzer faced a protracted nervous breakdown which may or may not, depending on who you ask, have involved running naked in the streets and directing traffic; prophesying the end of the world, Jeremiah-like; being arrested by the police; and awaiting the arrival of aliens. Confronted with these stories and asked if their publication would be an embarrassment to him, Mentzer laughed and replied, “I’ve been through so much that if you tried to embarrass me, you couldn’t do it!”
It’s difficult to resist the conclusion that bodybuilding alone, however much he elevated it, was not enough to sustain a man like Mike Mentzer. By his own admission, it was a surrogate for war, the activity in which man finds the purest expression of his nature and desire for growth and self-assertion. Perhaps if he had been born 20 or 30 years later, a young Mentzer might now be assembling a crack team of bodybuilders in some tropical island stronghold, waiting for the right time to descend upon impoverished but resource-rich African nations…
Stranger things have happened.