My initiation into the often frustrating, yet undeniably addictive world of weight training began in 1976, at the age of 17. I was just beginning my senior year of high school and, due to the popularity of Arnold at the time, I was determined to build as magnificent a physique as he. Of course, I had little knowledge of the role genetics play in the development of the top physiques, and was completely ignorant of the use of drugs as an aid to muscle building. After all, the biggest and glossiest magazines of the day proclaimed that all that was needed to achieve a championship physique was dedication, a wholesome diet, and of course, subscriptions to the aforementioned periodicals so as to keep up on the newest techniques and secrets of the champions that were, and still are, published each month.
Fortunately, I had other outside interests when I began training, so I did not have time to pursue routines like the champs recommended. I cut back on the volume considerably, yet I still performed much too much work. At the outset I did three whole-body workouts a week (as recommended in the instructional booklet that accompanied my first weight set) of about ten exercises for 3 sets of 10 each, and made some marginal progress. It wasnt long before the mags really got my attention and I had converted over to a program of four-day-a-week workouts and three to four exercises per body part, each for 2 or 3 sets. Amazingly, I still was able to progress, so doubt blessed with the resiliency of youth.
My main source of training info at this time, in addition to the number one magazine, was the book Education of a Bodybuilder by Arnold. I followed, or attempted to follow, the recommended programs for intermediates in the second half of the book. I did spend some very limited time on six-day-a-week routines, but after some experimentation, they did not last. Four-day-a-week routines were the maximum I could handle, and I trusted Arnold. After all, who could possibly know more about weight training than the King of all bodybuilders?
It is important to note that when I started training at the age of 17 I was an untrained 180 pounds, at 5’11, and involved in normal teen athletics. Though I am by no means a genetic superior, I obviously had a good degree of genetic predisposition for strength and size gains. I cant say I have ever identified with the 120-pound beanpole neophyte, though I certainly had, and still have, sympathy for this individual.
MIKE MENTZER’S INFLUENCE
I continued on my Arnold program for a year or more, developing some muscularity but not much size, when suddenly a new star burst on the horizon. Not only did this man possess a ruggedly massive physique, but claimed to reach this state by training three days a week (unheard of for a champion) and doing no more than 5 sets a body part. His name was Mike Mentzer.
This was about 1978 and Mentzer was all over the mags of the day. Of course his Heavy-Duty courses were marketed monthly, and I sent for each one of them. They proposed the almost exclusive use of the pre-fatigue system and explained it so logically that it just had to be the best way to progress. After all, Big Mike used the system, and he was a sterling example of the healthy bodybuilding lifestyle, wasnt he?
I began the Heavy-Duty routines as soon as the little booklets came in the mail. While still working out four days a week, my routines now consisted of 5 sets per body part, three body parts a workout. I gritted my teeth, and, come hell of high water, I rarely missed a workout. The initial results were an almost immediate increase in size and strength, I think up to about 200 pounds bodyweight by age 20, in 1979. The fact that I could barely drag myself out of bed in the morning was attributed to going to college full-time days and working part-time nights, and I never associated the exhaustion with my pre-exhaust workouts.
I continued using the pre-exhaust method for quite a long time. I never cycled poundages, trained to complete positive failure and beyond, and made progress. I guess I trained this way until about 1983 or 84. How I didnt wind up in hospital with systemic fatigue is a miracle, and I guess a tribute to my inherited structure. Looking back now, years later, many symptoms of overtraining and fatigue were present, though largely ignored. I suffered from insomnia, rapid heart rate, increased viral infections and colds, and chronic headaches. Still, I plodded on, sure that the pre-fatigue method was the only way to train.
Since the mags contained mostly articles by the champions, praising the value of twenty-sets-per-body-part routines, and since the only sane voice at the time was Mentzer, proposing limited routines, his was the only voice I heard. Until about 1984.
ELLINGTON DARDEN’S INFLUENCE
At this time I purchased an Ellington Darden book on advanced Nautilus training. In it, Ray Mentzer was heralded as performing routines of only 7-8 exercises, for one set each, per workout. This was deemed as truly incredible, as compared to the routines of other champs. These routines were performed only twice a week. Naturally, I began such a program myself, and almost immediately began to see gains anew. It was about this time that I began to consider the benefits of doing less.
Now, while today in 1993 I have a lot of problems with the books and principles of El Darden, I must give him due credit, along of course with Arthur Jones, for initiating me into the world of truly limited training. I made excellent progress on the two-day-a-week training routine, performing eight or nine exercises a routine, yet still heavily concentrating on pre-exhaustion.
Today, it is easy for me to see that I was regularly overtraining on the pre-exhaustion technique, but at the time, the high intensity was producing good results (measured at the time in muscularity and muscle soreness rather than actual strength increases). Even though I increased the weights used in an exercise by maybe 10 pounds every few months, I was always sore from my workouts the next day, so I must have been getting stronger, right? (In all fairness, I was fairly strong, performing dumbbell flyes with 75 pounds for 6 reps followed immediately by bench presses of 180 pounds for 6 reps. The problem was, I would remain at these weights for very long periods of time).
To a large degree, I had neglected the foremost rule of effective weight training – this that of progression. It remained this way until about 1986 (27 years old). I did manage to increase my weight and muscular size to about 220 pounds or so, so apparently it is possible to increase size without the same increase in strength gains.
At about this time, I fortunately became aware of articles by people like Ken Leistner, Bradley Steiner and Stuart McRobert. These authors were not concerning themselves with catchy technique names, or the system of the week, but were pushing forth the concept of short, abbreviated training with the main focus on progression, progression, progression. All else in a routine was secondary as long as weight progression and true strength gains were the main focus of the routine.
I had always understood the importance of the big basic exercises, and had incorporated them into my routines. The problem was, I was killing myself on the isolation movement of the pre-exhaust cycle, and was therefore limiting my progress on the big basic exercises like benches, rows and squats. One of the hardest things I ever did was remove myself from the pre-exhaust principles and begin concentrating on just performing the big exercises. My routine at this time consisted of 2 sets each of the bench, row, hack squat, curl and press behind neck, performed two times a week, and I made the best strength gains of my life. I increased each lift considerably, and worked my bodyweight up to about 235 pounds by the end of 1986.
Of course – through age, experience and maturation – I began to get a better grasp on the concepts of anabolic steroids and hype. I must admit to a good deal of naivet when it comes to drug use, yet I grew to appreciate that 99% of what was written at the time, even so-called abbreviated training, was geared for the drug-enhanced, genetically gifted trainee. My distaste for bodybuilding grew and I became more interested in acquiring true size and strength, not just showy yet non-functional muscles. I also gained enough confidence to trust in my own judgement, and perform experiments in training upon myself. I intended to become an expert on my own body.
LESS IS MORE
One concept always remained in my mind, and filtered through all the hokum I read early on. That was the concept, created by Arthur Jones, of the bigger and stronger you get, the less you must train. I remember reading in a Nautilus book the recommendation that beginners perform 12 sets, three times a week, intermediates should perform 10 sets, two times a week, and advanced trainees should perform 8 sets two times a week. While this set-up is of course too simplistic an approach, the basic philosophy is sound. Bigger and stronger trainees exert more intensity with every rep of every set performed, and make greater inroads into their recovery system. Therefore, advanced trainees must perform harder work less often.
So, beginning in about 1987 (28 years old) I began to experiment with a wide range of days-of-the-week training, number of sets, and number of reps per set. Between 80 and 90% of the time I spent on single set training. Since I now believed set-enhancing techniques to be more harmful than good. I only went to positive failure. I performed 8 sets a workout, twice a week, and made good progress. I cut the sets back to 7, 6 and 5 and made even better progress.
Periodically, I would vary my set and rep ranges, performing 3×3 or 5×5 per exercise. Instead of performing single sets of six or seven exercises a workout, I would perform only one or two exercises, 3 to 6 sets each, and each exercise only once a week instead of the required twice. I discovered that the total number of sets in a workout was more restrictive on my recovery system than the total number of sets per body part. I experimented constantly and all results led to one conclusion – the less I trained, the bigger and stronger I got. From 1987-1991 I progressed to 250 pounds, with a corresponding increase in functional strength. While I periodically performed 3, 5 or 10 sets per exercise, and one-exercise workouts, I invariably returned to single-set routines of three to six movements.
I have spent time performing one exercise only, three days a week; one exercise every two weeks; and several weeks at a time of only training one target area, say back for example. And all these methods have delivered results. The bottom line, regardless of which approach I have taken, is to undertrain, rather than overtrain, and keep total volume to a bare minimum.
LESS IS BEST
The greater parts of 1991 and 1992 were spent further attempting to cut back in the training volume and frequency. Each successive decrease has led to a corresponding increase in size and strength. For a long time, two workouts a week were the norm, consisting of one set each of three different movements, for about 5 reps each. This is as close to a perfect system as I had found, up to that point. The next year, 1993, involved further reductions in training, and has led to a present bodyweight of 270 (38 waist, 54 chest), and new maximums in single attempts lifted on a variety of exercises.
I believe my present routine to be near the ultimate in abbreviated, effective training. Yet, is it suitable for all trainees of all inherited potentials? Should we cut to the quick right from the beginners level, and perform the ultimate limited schedules available? Or, do beginners need more work due to their limited strength in the beginning and then begin to decrease their volume and frequency as their ability to generate intensity increases? I dont know. A study would have to be conducted of a statistically significant population at the beginners level in a controlled environment. And this is not very practical.
All I can say is, every decrease in volume has, for me, yielded the next level of strength increase. And it is very important that we are talking size and strength increases here, not muscularity and bodybuilding type gains. While I am large and muscular, I do not possess the bodybuilders type of physique of outrageous vascularity and cuts. And no one who doesnt use steroids will ever have that type of development. I much prefer looking like a power lifter or football player than I do a bodybuilder. Nowadays, I would consider it an insult to be lumped into that group of categorical liars and drug abusers (pre-steroid era bodybuilders excepted).
Abbreviated training is the only way to train, though there are various forms and concepts of keeping routines brief. Individual interpretation is always needed and accepted. I can only speak from my own experience and, as far as I am concerned, less is always best. I am currently down to training with only single-rep sets, and the results are marvellous. And I am currently considering experimenting with even less exercises as I get nearer and nearer to my inherited potential.