The Yin and Yang of Intensity and Rest


High Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way

Mike Mentzer is a former Mr. Universe who had unique theories about strength training and bodybuilding.  He was an extreme proponent of “High Intensity Training,” meaning he recommended short, very intense bouts of exercise followed by lots and lots of rest.  Many years ago, reading his books and articles completely transformed the way I looked at weight training (see “High-Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way”).   To this day, my workouts are typically very short and very intense based on Mentzer’s philosophy.

Perhaps one of the most important aspects of his training method is the belief in the value of rest.  I remember in one of his books, he told the story of inviting several of the world’s top bodybuilders to his home for a “training camp.”  Although these were all elite athletes who had “maxed out” in size, he promised them that if they spent a few days with him, their muscles would grow even more.  Most accepted the invitation but were skeptical that they would see any results since they had already been training as hard as they possibly could and had all reached plateaus that they simply could not pass.

When the day arrived, they all showed up at Mentzer’s house wondering what kind of intense program he had in store that would get all of these bodybuilders, already in peak condition, to get even bigger.  To their surprise, Mentzer did not lead them to the gym, and did not push them to do any exercises whatsoever.  He told them to rest.  For three days, he told them to relax, lie by the pool, eat some good, healthy food, and just enjoy a break from training.  Mentzer’s theory was that every bodybuilder there was overtrained.  And after three days of rest, every single one of them had an increase in their muscle measurements.

The principles of Mike Mentzer’s High Intensity Training, don’t apply only to bodybuilding.  There is a balance of challenge and rest that is required for growth and development in just about every area.  The problem is, like those overtrained bodybuilders, we typically understand the need for challenge, and forget about the need for rest.  I am no different.  I believe so much that hard work leads to success, persistence will pay off, effort is the key to reward, that I often forget the need for rest, recovery and rebuilding.  I love to challenge myself, but it is hard for me to truly rest without feeling like I’m wasting my time. 

In yoga, the period of rest at the end of a workout is called “Shavasana”.  Usually a few minutes at the end of every class is reserved for this rest period, lying in “corpse pose” to allow the body to recover and rejuvenate from the workout.  It is not my natural tendency to enjoy this part of the class.  When the teacher calls for Shavasana, my first reaction is to gauge my distance from the door and wonder if I could grab my shoes and sneak out before anyone notices.  But once I do reluctantly settle into the floor and relax into corpse, I’m usually glad I did.  The peace and clarity that I feel when my workout ends like this, is far greater than it is when I jump up from my last downward dog and scurry out the back of the room like a shoe burglar in the night.

The importance of rest applies to every domain.  One Swedish study on well-being found that psychological stress and musculoskeletal injuries were both more likely to be caused by a lack of rest than by the amount of workload.  So how does “resting” fit into your workout plan, your career path, and your personal development?  Think about the areas where you really challenge yourself and ask yourself if you have been pushing too hard.  What would happen if you gave yourself a break?  Try it.  Take a few days off.  You might be surprised at how much you grow.

 References and Recommended Reading:

Honore, C. (2005). In Praise of Slow: How a Worldwide Movement is Challenging the Cult of Speed. Orion.

Loehr, J. & Schwartz, T. (2004).  The Power of Full Engagement: Managing Energy, Not Time, Is the Key to High Performance and Personal Renewal.  New York: Free Press.

Lundberg, U. (2003). Psychological stress and musculoskeletal disorders: psychobiological mechanisms.  Lack of rest and recovery greater problem than workload, in Lakartidningen, 100(21): 1892-5. [abstract]

Mentzer, M. & Little, J. (2002). High-Intensity Training the Mike Mentzer Way. New York: McGraw-Hill.

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14 Responses to The Yin and Yang of Intensity and Rest

  1. Dan Bowling July 6, 2010 at 1:54 pm #

    Nice. Back during my marathoning days (which might get revived) I was quite religious about rest days. And it worked out well for my legs and joints. Obviously, you are writing this not only for athletes but for all of us racing through life. And frankly, I have mixed feelings about your point (I assume you want some friendly argument, Jeremy, otherwise the comments page gets pretty boring) as it applies to life. Like Shelley, I am very cognizant of “Time’s winged chariot.”And I wonder if, like a lot of things in the psychological world, it depends upon your character traits. Do people with high zest benefit and grow from down time? Or go crazy and depressed? How about people who are not particularly reflective? Just thoughts, and looking forward to those of others.

  2. Jeremy McCarthy July 6, 2010 at 2:09 pm #

    Thanks Dan. I think your point is “you can have too much of a good thing.” Which is why I like the “yin and yang” analogy. It’s all about the balance. I usually make the error of presuming in my blog that most people are like me (focused on the challenge and learning but not wanting to rest.) But of course some people are the yang to my yin and spend a little too much time resting and not enough time pushing themselves. It’s all about finding that sweet spot.

  3. Jeremy McCarthy July 6, 2010 at 2:10 pm #

    I was just reading a book by the way about raising bilingual children (sorry I forget the reference). A woman was explaining how she was always talking to her infant child because she watned him to learn as much vocabulary as possible. Wherever she was, whenever they were together she would speak to him. Rather than accelerating his language development it ended up slowing it down, because she never gave him time to process what he was hearing. Not enough down time!

  4. Jeremy McCarthy July 6, 2010 at 2:15 pm #

    One last comment (I realize it’s cheating for me to leave a bunch of comments on my own blog–but I should have included this link because it is relevant): there is a cool newsletter and website available from “Take Back Your Time” at which is about getting more leisure time into our culture. America has less vacation time than most other developed nations and they argue that we need more. I’ll be talking about this more in a future post . . .

  5. Dan Bowling July 6, 2010 at 6:46 pm #

    Jeremy, my point was that maybe some people are refreshed by rest, but others are made miserable. Or at least bored. I tend to fall in the latter category, like you. I wonder if VIA character strengths are predictive in this regard (I bet they are). Also, I meant to attribute the quote “Time’s winged chariot” to Andrew Marvell, not PB Shelley. In case James is reading!

  6. Marie-Josee Shaar July 7, 2010 at 10:49 am #

    Very interesting, Jeremy! I too am a believe in the power of rest. We are so concerned about peak performance that we forget that by definition, a peak lies between 2 valleys. No surprise a lot of us get our most creative insights in the shower or on vacation! Still, I was surprised to read the body builders’ story. How amazing that their muscle mass did not grow after the recovery period, but during!!

    And to Dan’s questions – zest in in my top 5 strengths, yet I enjoy Shavasana. It nourishes my next spurt of energy! As much as rest can seem boring at times, being all-out all the time gets annoying.


  7. Jason M. July 9, 2010 at 9:17 pm #

    Jeremy, thanks for the great article, but I’m feeling the yang after a yin-ful 3-day weekend in Sonoma. The unfortunate part of “the way things are” is that life usually doesnt seem to slow down just because I decide to take a day off. I appreciate the concept, but cant seem to find a way to apply it to such great effects. In other words, some work doesnt get done…and the more time I take off, the more that work doesnt get done. And sometimes, the problem is that time “off” is often spent doing laundry, paying bills, and that other kind of “work” that I’ve been neglecting. Wow, did I just bum out the party, or what? Sorry for the buzz-kill.

  8. Jeremy McCarthy July 10, 2010 at 12:59 am #

    I think that’s a great point. I totally know that feeling of taking time off only to have to pay for it tenfold on the back-end when I have to go back to work and find piles of emails and projects that have backed up in my absence. But for those who believe the research that indicates the importance of rest and recovery for productivity, it will behoove both organizations and their constituents to figure out ways to disconnect without being penalized with a stressful backlog upon return.

  9. Eric Mieles July 23, 2010 at 3:57 pm #

    This hits home for me because I struggle with the balance on a daily basis. We’ve been taught that success comes for hard work, determination, persistence and we hear stories of Bill Gates not taking a vacation for eight years or so while building his empire and so we convince ourselves that down time is detrimental to our success. I myself am constantly bashing myself if I’m not moving, reading, studying, consuming content to make myself better that I often REALIZE my best work comes when I take a second to really SEE.

    I believe while caught up in our lives and the rapidness of everything we have going on there’s no way to truly SEE through a fresh lens in order to gain new perspectives and renewed energy reserves. I am an avid lifter as well and have read Mentzers books and studied the great Dorian Yates 6 time Mr. Olympia. He had a very simple philosophy


    Hard to believe that simple philosophy made him World Champion 6 times.

  10. Jeremy McCarthy July 25, 2010 at 11:43 am #

    Thanks Eric,
    I like how you said “I struggle with the balance on a daily basis.” I do to. In fact, I would say 90% of the things I write about in my blog I am writing about not because I know all the answers, but because they are the things “I struggle with the balance on a daily basis.” Thanks for your perspective on intensity, nutrition and recuperation! Good formula!

  11. Eric Mieles August 2, 2010 at 1:20 am #

    Your very welcome. I also write about my daily life and love sharing it with the world. And I have to thank you for the work you do.

  12. Sheryl August 13, 2011 at 9:47 pm #

    Dr. Rona Hart tweeted a link to your article. It was so timely for me. A year ago I was convicted for my need to rest. I tried to slow down, to take time off, but I didn’t do a very good job of resting. Just as my schedule started to pick up, I ruptured my Achilles tendon–forced rest. I slowed down a bit, but as soon as I could, I’ engaged an overly full schedule again. And now, a year after my original conviction to rest . . . I’ve just spent a week in the hospital with a major staph infection in my Achilles tendon. I’m going to learn to rest this time. Really.

  13. Jeremy McCarthy (@jeremymcc) August 14, 2011 at 10:39 pm #

    Hi Sheryl,
    Thanks for your comment. As someone with a herniated disc in my lumbar vertebrae I am very familiar with the body’s ways of forcing me to rest when I don’t heed the more subtle signals. Sounds like you are having that dialogue with your body now. Thanks for reading and engaging!


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