In the late 1970s Mike Mentzer revolutionized the sport of bodybuilding, not by being one of the top bodybuilders in the world’although he did win the ’76 IFBB Mr. America and the ’78 IFBB Mr. Universe (with a perfect score!) as well as placing a very close second to Frank Zane at his first Mr. Olympia in 1979’but by introducing the concept of high-intensity training. I began training about one year before Mentzer revealed his truly unique training methods to an incredulous bodybuilding world, and I remember that every bodybuilder I read about at the time trained the same way. They all did 20 to 30 sets for each bodypart, and they all trained six days a week.
Mike Mentzer admitted that he only trained three to four days per week and that his workouts rarely lasted more than 45 minutes. Further, he claimed he only did about five sets per bodypart. He wasn’t doing five sets per exercise, as all the other top bodybuilders were doing, he was doing five sets for the whole bodypart!
Mentzer explained that he was able to get away with so few sets because he performed each with all-out intensity. He made the excellent analogy of a marathon runner compared to a sprinter: You can train hard or you can train long, but it’s physically impossible to train hard and long. It would be equivalent to sprinting for 26 miles. Impossible!
It wasn’t long before bodybuilders all over the world began changing their training routines. They cut back on their training volume by eliminating sets and workout sessions. Most were only training four days per week, and no one was doing 20 to 30 sets per bodypart anymore. Today every bodybuilder is aware of the value of high-intensity training and the recovery period that must follow. Most bodybuilders train each bodypart only once a week (as opposed to three times per week, as they did in the ’70s), and, although many don’t do as few as five sets a bodypart, hardly anyone does more than 12 to 15. Things have definitely changed!
I, for one, have been influenced by Mentzer’s advice. I only train each bodypart once a week, and I always try to increase the intensity of each workout by using more weight or doing more reps with a heavy poundage. I also train only four days per week, and I make sure I take recuperation into consideration when planning a routine.
However (you knew there had to be a ‘however’ in an article titled ‘Pump up the Volume’), I’m here to offer an alternative to high-intensity training. Although I agree with Mentzer that greater training intensity is responsible for further gains in size and strength, I disagree that high-intensity training can only take the guise of heavy poundages and low sets.
A couple years ago I was training heavy and hard for the Natural Mr. Universe contest. I began preparing for the contest in January, and my training intensity steadily increased as the year progressed. By March my high-intensity training was beginning to take its toll. My knees, in particular, were killing me at every leg workout.
It got so bad that I had to grit my teeth through the pain every time I trained my legs. After a workout my knees would hurt for about five days. They’d just start to feel normal again when I’d bomb my legs again. The problem was that the quadricep tendons were getting inflamed from each heavy, high-intensity leg workout.
My training sessions for my legs at the time consisted of heavy squats, heavy leg presses, heavy hack squats (on occasion), heavy leg curls and heavy stiff-legged deadlifts. I did two to three heavy sets for each exercise after my warmup sets. I was following the rules of high-intensity training by pushing heavy poundages to failure while keeping the sets moderate to avoid overtraining.
I was starting to doubt that I was even going to make it to the contest, since the pain was getting worse each week. My competition was not scheduled until December, and I was already suffering in March. Something had to change and quick.
Then I read an article in a bodybuilding magazine by strength coach Charles Poliquin. He was writing about a training method he used with some athletes where he had them perform 10 sets of a basic exercise with a moderately heavy weight for a limited number of reps. The sheer volume of work involved will build great size and strength, he wrote.
Poliquin eliminated overtraining by limiting the workout to just that one basic exercise. Instead of using a variety of exercises for three to four sets, the athletes did only one basic exercise for a total of 10 sets.
I decided to incorporate this new training method into my leg workouts. I knew I couldn’t keep going the way I had been or I’d never make it to the contest in one piece.
For my basic exercises I picked squats’what else?’for quadriceps. For hamstrings I chose leg curls performed with a dumbbell between my feet. I decided not to do stiff-legged deadlifts because I thought 10 sets would be too much strain on my lower back after 10 sets of squats. Leg curls was the obvious second choice. By using a dumbbell instead of a machine, I figured the exercise would be more basic.
To begin the workout, I started with a short warmup. I supersetted incline situps with incline knee raises to train my abdominal area and bring some blood into my legs and lower back. I did two sets of each exercise for 30 to 40 reps per set.
After training abs, I rode the exercise bike for 10 minutes at a fast pace to warm up my thighs and knees and give me a good pump before I began the leg workout.
I started the leg workout with hamstrings because I didn’t think I’d have much energy left after 10 sets of squats. For my first workout I used a 60-pound dumbbell on leg curls and performed six reps for 10 sets. I could have easily done more reps in the beginning, but after almost a dozen sets, the weight felt pretty damn heavy.
This was the workout schedule I set up for my hamstrings using dumbbell leg curls:
Week 1: 60 x 6 x 10
Week 2: 65 x 5 x 10
Week 3: 70 x 5 x 10
Week 4: 65 x 6 x 10
Week 5: 70 x 6 x 10
Week 6: 70 x 7 x 10
Week 7: 75 x 6 x 10
Next up was the real challenge, squats for 10 sets. For my first workout I picked a poundage that I could normally use for 10 reps and cut the reps in half. I used 365 pounds and did 10 sets of five reps. The first few sets felt ridiculously easy, and I was wondering if I should increase the weight, but I decided to stick to my plan. I had to keep reminding myself that I was not pushing each set to the limit but instead pacing myself for 10 sets. It was in direct opposition to what I’d been reading in the bodybuilding magazines for the past two decades, but I had to give it an honest try.
I set up a schedule for my seven-week workout of 10 sets of squats. This is what it looked like:
Week 1: 365 x 5 x 10
Week 2: 385 x 4 x 10
Week 3: 405 x 3 x 10
Week 4: 385 x 5 x 10
Week 5: 405 x 4 x 10
Week 6: 425 x 3 x 10
Week 7: 405 x 5 x 10
I soon found out how mentally challenging it was to do 10 sets of heavy squats each week. Even if the reps were limited, it was increasingly difficult to get psyched up for those grueling training sessions. I would normally hit the wall around set 6 or 7. To get through it, I just kept visualizing a pyramid, with set 5 being the apex and every set after that all downhill.
I’m thankful I had a training partner during that time because it would have been extremely difficult to get through it alone. Mel and I constantly complained during the workout about how crazy we must be to be putting ourselves through self-imposed torture. Mel would complain more than I did because, after all, it had been my idea to try the new routine. He kept telling me I read too many magazines and that we were never going to grow by doing that many sets.
After each session I’d be completely wiped out. The skin on my traps would be raw from getting under the Olympic bar for 10 sets. The accumulation of sets and reps added up to a heavy workload. My legs wouldn’t be so much pumped as in a state of shock.
When my training partner and I got to the last workout of our 10-sets marathon, we were feeling pretty good (probably because we were well aware that it was the last scheduled 10-sets leg workout) and decided to go for six reps on each set instead of stopping at the prescribed number of five. By the time we got to the fifth set, we both started to think that going over the limit wasn’t such a good idea. We were able to get through it, however. I have to be honest, squatting 405 pounds for 10 sets of six reps was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done in the gym.
At one point Mel was ready to throw in the towel. I think we were at our eighth set when he sat on the exercise bench exhausted and blurted, ‘That’s it, man, I’m done.’ I couldn’t believe what I was hearing! He couldn’t quit on me now, not this close to the end. I told him that to stop now would be like running a marathon and quitting with only one mile to go! Lucky for me, Mel saw things my way and gutted it out until we finished our torture session.
What was the result? Although I had undoubtedly worked my tail off the previous seven weeks, I was shocked at the unbelievable results. At the beginning of the routine my thighs measured 27 7/8 inches. At the end of the seven weeks I was amazed when they stretched the tape measure to a remarkable 29 1/2 inches! I’d added more than an inch and a half to my legs in less than two months. Even more amazing was the fact that my knees didn’t bother me at all during the seven-week period. Not pushing each set to the absolute limit made the difference.
This routine is nothing new. Arnold detailed a similar type of workout in his book The Education of a Bodybuilder. He and his workout buddies would go into the woods near Munich, Germany, and train a certain bodypart or a particular exercise for hours on end! Sometimes they’d perform 40 to 50 sets before they were finished. The shock workout would force growth into stubborn bodyparts almost immediately.
At the conclusion of our seven-week squatting marathon, Mel and I went back to our regular leg routine. This type of workout was so intense, it would have been impossible (mentally as well as physically) to continue using it indefinitely. It accomplished its job by shocking our muscles into growth while also giving our overworked knees the rest they needed. Although it defies common sense and exercise science, this type of routine (no offense, Mr. Mentzer) really does work!
Editor’s note: John Hansen is the ’98 Natural Mr. Olympia and a two-time Natural Mr. Universe winner. Visit his Web site at www.natural olympia.com. You can send correspondence to P.O. Box 3003, Darien, IL 60561, or call toll-free 1-800-900-UNIV (8648). IM