One of the misconceptions many bodybuilders have is that the more they train, the more they will grow—that the more sets they do and the harder they work a muscle with forced reps, negatives and other high-intensity principles, the better and faster it will grow. Many novice, intermediate and what I call “wanna-be” bodybuilders believe that, but it’s just not true. In reality, that very philosophy is the reason they’re not growing as fast or as much as they could.
Let’s look at the issues separately. I do believe that high-intensity techniques such as compound supersets, antagonistic supersets, tri-sets, drop sets, rest/pause, 1 1/2s, 21s, preexhaust, slow-mo reps and super-slow-mo sets can work a muscle harder and lead to greater growth—as long as you do them in moderation. The more you employ these high-intensity principles in your training, the shorter your workouts should—and must—be.
Doing too much high-intensity work can lead to overtraining and is very taxing on the body’s nervous and recovery systems. The techniques may not be too hard for the muscles in themselves, but using too many too often will be counterproductive. I believe that drop sets and forced reps should be done only on the last set of an exercise, at most.
It’s worth noting that Bill Pearl and Lou Ferrigno—with two Mr. America and six Mr. Universe titles between them—never trained to beyond failure. Neither did three-time Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva. They didn’t even train to absolute failure. Those great champions believed that bodybuilders should end a set one rep away from absolute failure, sometimes even two reps. They didn’t think that training beyond failure was too hard on the muscle, just too taxing on the nervous and recovery systems. All were against the Heavy Duty concept that all sets should be taken to absolute failure and beyond.
Pearl, Ferrigno and Oliva believed that it was the volume of sets they did and training at 98 to 99 percent intensity that made their muscles grow—because they didn’t overtrain and overtax their nervous and recovery systems too much. Guys who do forced reps and negatives on every set all the time often do not grow maximally, and they frequently do not grow at all because they are constantly in an overtrained state.
Don’t think guys like Pearl, Ferrigno and Oliva trained easy. Bill could squat 600 pounds, bench-press 480 and do seated curls with 100-pound dumbbells for five sets of six reps. Oliva did seated behind-the-neck presses with 315 pounds for 20 reps. He could bench-press 225 pounds for 50 reps and squat with 500 pounds for 10 reps. Still, they didn’t do forced reps till they went blue in the face and puked. They knew what made their bodies grow and what didn’t, and they did the right things. When I went to Chicago for four days in 1984 to watch Oliva train, I observed that although he never went to failure, it somehow looked like he was training harder than anyone in the gym.
It is worth noting that Bill Pearl and Lou Ferrigno never trained to beyond failure. Neither did three-time Mr. Olympia Sergio Oliva. They didn’t even train to absolute failure.
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