How many sets should a bodybuilder perform when the goal is to build maximum muscle mass? A quick look at the history of our sport shows that people have developed massive muscles from all sorts of training protocols. The legendary John Grimek made great gains when performing three to six sets per bodypart, Steve Reeves made his best gains performing nine sets per bodypart, Bill Pearl did up to 30 sets per bodypart, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Frank Zane were 20-sets-per-bodypart men, while Lee Haney made his best gains on roughly 12 sets per bodypart. In reviewing those figures, one might conclude that performing multiple sets is the key to massive muscles, which is precisely what most bodybuilders and bodybuilding writers have concluded. That paradigm was challenged in 1992, however, when Mike Mentzer successfully tested a one-set-per-exercise protocol that led to Dorian Yates' winning the Mr. Olympia title.
For many months Mentzer had theorized that one set to failure was sufficient to stimulate maximum gains in muscle mass. The bodybuilding community looked down its collective nose at Mentzer and his proposition. After all, Ellington Darden, Ph.D., had advanced that same notion (which he had learned from Nautilus pioneer Arthur Jones) in several bodybuilding books throughout the '80s, but Darden's publications, while enjoying solid sales among Nautilus aficionados, caused nary a ripple in the waters of professional bodybuilding.
Mentzer's proposition was somewhat different from the good doctor's, however, for whereas Darden recommended workouts that were upward of 20 sets in length, Mentzer had refined the application to the point where his clients were performing no more than five to seven sets total in a split routine, with each workout covering two to three bodyparts'and never more than one set of each exercise. Rumor had it that Yates was performing that type of workout under Mentzer's watchful eye.
That was incredible'if true'for never before in the history of bodybuilding had a superadvanced bodybuilder, let alone a top Mr. Olympia contender, trained with a mere one-set-per-exercise protocol in an attempt to gain more muscle mass. In fact, in bodybuilding circles it was equal to the resurrection of Christ'a miracle! While the more liberal bodybuilders conceded that one set to failure could be seen as a practical approach for beginners, whose bodies were not accustomed to the rigors of bodybuilding training, they were skeptical as to how it could yield meaningful results for a seasoned bodybuilder. The conservative bodybuilders, having long since closed their minds to alternative modes of training, dismissed it outright as a yarn propagated to test their gullibility.
Although I was living in Canada at the time, I had heard about the Yates-Mentzer get-together. Enough bodybuilders in Gold's Gym, Venice, California, had actually witnessed the event, and more than a few of them had begun talking about it. Gold's Gym being, as its moniker states, 'the mecca of bodybuilding,' it wasn't long before word of the Mentzer-Yates experiment began to circulate through gyms around the world (when a barbell plate is dropped in Venice, it's heard in Cairo).
I decided to call Mentzer and inquire about the rumor. I was highly intrigued. Anytime two bodybuilding legends get together to train, it's newsworthy, and given that the sport is highly competitive, it seldom, if ever, happened that a bodybuilding luminary would publicly submit to the training methods of another luminary. After all, it might seal off a potential avenue of revenue for one champion'in the form of his training methods'in favor of the other's. Even though Yates was just a Mr. Olympia competitor at that point, the buzz already had him pegged as the man to watch. I dialed the number, and Mr. Heavy Duty picked up the phone. After some preliminary banter, I asked him about the workout he had put Dorian through and what his impressions were of the young lion. Mike related that they had met at Gold's Gym, Venice, where Mentzer conducted his personal-training business. Yates, having been a fan of Mentzer's during the latter's competitive days, had approached him to talk training.
I'd noticed that Dorian had increased his sets and reps of late,' Mentzer recollected, 'and, quite frankly, he hadn't made any progress.'
Yates evidently conceded that it was so, and the two high-intensity advocates began comparing notes on their training experiences. Mentzer relayed his opinion that Yates was training too often and then offered the following suggestion: 'I'll put you through a biceps workout that will consist of only one set, but that one set will do more for your biceps than all the rest of the exercises, sets and reps you've done for the past year.'
Yates was by no means an amateur. He had already built himself up to absolutely behemoth proportions, weighing a rock-solid 275 pounds during the off-season, and he'd just come off a second-place finish at the '91 Mr. Olympia. I mention that to correct a misperception that Mentzer's guidance was directly responsible for all of the muscle that layered Yates' physique, a rumor that Mentzer had denied repeatedly to me over the years.
Yates was obviously no slouch in the bodybuilding department, but he had nothing to lose by spending an hour or so with his hero. Plus, he knew that he wanted to progress more than his current training methods seemed to be allowing. He agreed that he would put his skepticism about one set to failure aside and try out Mentzer's radical training protocol. The two men made their way to the back of Gold's Gym, where the Nautilus Multi-Biceps machine was located.
Mentzer had Yates position himself in the machine and perform a brief warmup set to get the blood flowing into the biceps, preparing them for the assault that was to follow. Under Mentzer's supervision, Yates launched into his set of curls with a ferocity that is seldom witnessed in a commercial gymnasium. Anticipating Yates' immense strength, Mentzer had placed the selector pin at the bottom of the machine's weight stack to ensure that Dorian would hit failure before he got to eight reps.
ALLYates performed each repetition in true Heavy Duty high-intensity fashion, taking three seconds to complete the concentric, or lifting, phase, pausing for one to two seconds in the fully contracted position and then taking four seconds in the eccentric, or lowering, phase. That continued until he hit failure at around seven repetitions, at which point Mentzer assisted him in performing two forced reps, each with some added negative pressure coming from Mentzer' pushing down on the weight stack. Yates' biceps were screaming and swollen almost beyond recognition, but the set wasn't finished. Mentzer pinned an additional 25 pounds to the weight stack, lifted the arm of the machine up to the top and had Yates grab it and hold it in the fully contracted position for 15 seconds. As Mentzer called out the seconds, the weight stack began inching downward, the fibers in Yates' biceps growing more and more fatigued until, finally, they could no longer sustain the contraction.
As soon as the weight stack was lowered, Yates let out a growl and immediately began massaging his biceps. After a brief break Mentzer had Yates repeat the exercise for his other arm, and the workout was done.
'Dorian called me the next day,' Mentzer recalled of the historic moment, 'and said, 'You won't believe this, but my arms are bigger this morning than they were yesterday!' Then it hit him again, and he said, 'I've grown from only one workout! I've grown from only one set! I want you to put me through a series of workouts just like that for the rest of my bodyparts so I can train this way when I go back to England!'
Back to the Gym
The next day Yates and Mentzer met again at Gold's, where Mentzer explained the fundamentals of his new approach to training in greater detail. I say new approach because Mentzer had not always advocated one-set training. In fact, during his competitive days he typically performed four to five sets per bodypart'which, in an era when most of the top champions were performing more than 20, was just as shocking as the one-set-to-failure theory. Over time Mentzer recognized that even two to four sets might have been overkill. He once commented to me that 'the one major training mistake I made was that, despite having been the arch advocate of less training, I was still overtraining; i.e., training too long and too frequently.'
Mentzer had learned a lot about the science of exercise since his competitive days and had used Gold's Gym as his laboratory to test his various hypotheses. His clients were now training but once every four to seven days for about 12 minutes per workout, and none was using more than one set per exercise or more than three exercises'maximum'per bodypart. He shared that information with Yates and then outlined a similar program that would allow Dorian to stimulate maximum muscle growth while giving him ample recovery time. That, Mentzer believed, would better Yates' chances of winning the '92 Mr. Olympia contest, allowing him to come in bigger and more muscular.
I set up a program for Dorian that would have him training no more than three days per week,' Mentzer said. 'I don't mean a three-on/one-off type of program, which is both unnecessary and actually counterproductive, but a workout regimen that would have him in the gym only three days per week'Monday, Wednesday and Friday. I split the routine into chest, shoulders and triceps on Monday; back and biceps on Wednesday and legs by themselves on Friday. All other days were rest days.'
Monday: Chest, Delts and Triceps
Mentzer started Yates by training his chest, a routine that consisted of one set of dumbbell flyes to failure followed immediately by one set of incline barbell presses to failure. That was it for Yates' chest: two sets'or roughly two minutes' worth of direct chest work. Then they moved on to shoulders, with Yates performing one set to failure on the Nautilus lateral raise machine followed by one set to failure on the Nautilus rear-deltoid machine. Again, it was a total of two sets lasting about one minute each.
For triceps it was equally basic and brief. 'Dorian told me that he was having some problems with his elbows,' said Mentzer, 'so I had him forgo dips, an exercise I normally recommend for triceps. Instead, I had him do one set to failure of two different exercises: the Nautilus Multi-Triceps machine followed by cable pushdowns. That was it. He was finished for the day.' Yates returned to his hotel and prepared for his next workout 48 hours later.
Wednesday: Back and Biceps
The Wednesday workout saw Mentzer and Yates getting together at noon. After a brief warmup Mentzer had Yates sit in the Nautilus pullover machine, where Dorian strapped himself in and, again under Mentzer's strict supervision, performed 15 repetitions with the entire weight stack. With no rest whatsoever Yates was rushed over to the lat pulldown machine, which had been loaded with 300 pounds in anticipation of his arrival. Yates, who was perhaps the strongest competitive bodybuilder of all time, then proceeded to startle the assembled crowd at Gold's Gym'who, prior to witnessing this Heavy Duty workout, thought they'd seen everything in the way of training'by performing seven reps with the poundage. After a very brief rest, during which Yates barely had time to catch his breath, he was hustled off to the Hammer Strength row machine, where he unilaterally performed seven reps with 165 pounds.
I remember the crowd was all around at that point,' Mentzer recalled, 'and what they were seeing was the real thing! This was not a fellow who would disappoint his fans by curling 25-pound dumbbells while covered in baby oil and spandex. This was a Heavy Duty bodybuilder in the purest sense of the term! Dorian put forth so much effort that the 275-pound monster was shaking from his head to his toes and grunting like a bear trying to make those last reps.'
It's rumored that the whole gym stopped to watch Yates perform his next exercise: Hammer Strength machine shrugs with 800 pounds, all the weight the machine could accommodate. He would shrug that mammoth weight not once, not twice, but 14 times, with Mentzer encouraging him on each repetition.
I was telling him with each rep, 'This is for the Olympia, Dorian! This next rep is worth a million dollars to you!' Mentzer related with a laugh. 'This guy was highly motivated to succeed. He would have to be in order to have trained that intensely.'
That one set of shrugs ended Yates' back training for the day. The workout had consisted of three exercises for his lats performed for one set each'or roughly three minutes of direct training stimulation'followed by one set of shrugs. It was now time to revisit the Nautilus Multi-Biceps machine, the same exercise that had started the whole one-set series of workouts. Again, Mentzer had Yates perform one set to failure.
Dorian's biceps were so pumped, they were cramping up, so I had him shake it off and then lift the weight up again and hold it in the fully contracted position for an additional 15 seconds before lowering slowly back to the fully extended position,' Mentzer recalled. 'Normally, that would be all I'd have a client do for biceps, but I also put Dorian on a 90 degree preacher bench to do one set of preachers superstrict. He went to failure on that one, too, with a weight of 150 pounds. When he hit failure, I had him do three or four half reps and, to let you know how whipped his biceps were at that point, each half rep took him four seconds to complete. Needless to say, his biceps had had it for the day!
The next day was a rest day, but Mentzer and Yates were back in the gym again that Friday to work Yates' legs with another Heavy Duty workout. Mentzer started him off on the Nautilus leg extension machine doing one set to failure, which came at rep number 15. With no rest and the seat cranked as far forward as it would go to ensure a greater range of motion, Yates then proceeded to blast the hell out of his thighs with another 15 reps on the Nautilus Compound Leg Press. 'He was using the stack on this exercise,' Mentzer related, 'and his quads were swollen up like balloons after he finished it.'
After a very brief rest Yates walked over to the squat rack, where he shouldered a barbell and performed seven ultrastrict reps with a whopping 540 pounds. 'And that was after he had hit failure on both the leg extensions and the leg presses,' Mentzer recollected enthusiastically, 'Dorian is phenomenally strong!'
The routine continued with one set to failure on two exercises'leg curls and stiff-legged deadlifts'for the glutes and hamstrings and then concluded with two sets of calf raises.
Dorian was always keen to get back into the gym for his next workout,' Mentzer said, 'and when he returned home to England, he was positive that less is better in terms of training for muscle mass. He realized that he had gotten so big with high-intensity training before, and that to get even bigger, he had to increase the intensity of his training, which, as we all know by now, can only be done by decreasing the number of sets you do in any given workout.'
Mentzer then condensed his training system into two propositions:
Over the past two years I've trained more than 200 people, and I've discovered some very important things about building muscle mass. Success on this front boils down to two things: overtraining and knowing when to change routines. On the issue of overtraining, one set more than the least amount required to stimulate growth is overtraining'that is, it's counterproductive'and the least amount required is, obviously, one set. There should never be an impasse to progress. My clients don't progress slowly, and they don't have stale periods. They progress from workout to workout'just as Dorian Yates is doing.'
Ironically, while Mentzer quite liked Dorian and obviously thought he had tremendous potential, he confided to me many years after the fact that at the time he was training him, he honestly didn't think Yates would win the '92 Mr. Olympia contest.
I didn't think he had the kind of physique they were looking for,' Mentzer admitted. 'That plus his association with me I thought would have caused some political problems. But then I hadn't taken into account that the contest was being held in Europe, and I know how the fans are over there about real muscle.'
History Is Made
The rest, as the popular saying goes, is history. Yates would use the training principles Mentzer advocated, pack on even more muscle and win the '92 Mr. Olympia contest in a cakewalk. When word trickled back to Mentzer in the United States, he was happy'and, again, surprised.
You know it's curious because Dorian is kind of a low-key guy,' Mentzer said. 'He never said that much about our workouts to me. Even when he left here many months ago, I talked to him until I was blue in the face'almost like I'm doing to you now'but he's the kind of guy who doesn't really respond much, so you don't really know if it's clicking. Then the next thing I hear, the guy wins the Mr. Olympia and he's telling all the interviewers that he did take my advice and he did cut back to one set per exercise and it really did work. I was delighted. I honestly didn't think that he would win.
Back in Gold's Gym
Mentzer was also undeniably pleased to have his unique approach to bodybuilding training espoused by Mr. Olympia. Conversely, it seemed obvious to me that Yates was just as impressed with Mentzer's methods, for when I went into Gold's Gym a year after their famous get-together, he was hard at work training chest and biceps under Mentzer's supervision. I watched the pair closely, wanting to see for myself what kind of intensity a bona fide Mr. Olympia winner was capable of generating, and, fortuitously, I happened to have my camera with me.
I noted that one set to failure was employed but with something that made me smile: partial repetitions and static holds performed at the end of Dorian's regular sets. Yates' strength had obviously skyrocketed, as it now required no less than three spotters, including Mentzer, to assist in lifting the incredibly heavy weights he was using into the fully contracted position of the exercise for him to hold statically. Yates used not only the entire weight stack on the incline-press machine but also four additional 45-pound plates.
The protocol I observed that day had Dorian performing a very heavy set to failure and then holding the resistance in a position of full contraction. Yates' gritted his teeth and summoned all the energy he could muster to keep that weight from coming down. His forearms bulged as he gripped the handles of the machine, and his pecs looked as if they were about to explode through his sweatshirt! When the weight finally came down, Mentzer quickly reduced the poundage and lifted the movement arm of the machine so that Yates could again hold the weight in the fully contracted position. Sweat was now pouring freely down Dorian's face, and his arms shook until he could no longer contract against the resistance, at which point he lowered the weight (rather quickly) and massaged his now swollen chest. 'Nice job!' Mentzer said as he slapped Yates on the back. 'Now let's hit the biceps!'
Mentzer then proceeded to put Yates through one set for the biceps, again finishing with static holds in the fully contracted position. At the conclusion of the workout Yates' biceps were quivering but pumped at least an inch and a half'and he seemed quite pleased as a result.
Mike and John,' he said, beckoning to us, 'I want to show you something.' Yates gestured for us to accompany him into the posing room at the back of Gold's. Mentzer and I followed him, me with camera in hand to shoot the effect of the workout he'd just completed. Yates stripped off his sweats and hit several poses under the watchful eye of Mentzer, who just stood there with his arms folded over his chest, smiling. The muscle that Yates put on display in that back room that day was nothing short of mind-blowing.
There's the '93 Mr. Olympia right there!' Mike said prophetically. It was obvious to all three of us that if Dorian was making that type of progress, he could go on winning the Mr. Olympia title for as long as he wanted.
Make no mistake, it was Yates who did the work and Yates who deserved all the credit for his Mr. Olympia victories. After all, when he returned to England, which is where his real contest preparations took place, he was his own trainer. It must also be pointed out, however, that it was Mentzer's approach that Yates employed to stimulate his muscles into such incredible growth. He might well have won the Mr. Olympia had he trained without Mike's Heavy Duty method. All we know is that he chose to do otherwise, and the results of his decision are now a matter of record.
I should mention that Mentzer further refined and evolved the Heavy Duty workout protocol that he prescribed for Yates, reducing the sets and spacing the workouts further apart. In '92, however, this program worked like a charm for the majority of those Mike trained on it. Even so, it should not be taken as representing his final word on Heavy Duty high-intensity training protocol.
Does one set to failure work? One look at the photographs accompanying this article should answer that question categorically. Will one set to failure work for you? That's the real question and one that can only be answered in retrospect. Who knows? You may only be one set away from the greatest muscular gains of your bodybuilding career. IM