The Age of Intensity: Legendary Bodybuilder Dorian Yates

Dorian Yates bench press

Before Dorian, bodybuilding was a prisoner of its physical brickwork: you performed a prescribed number of sets, reps, and exercises, or you were sent home from the gym. Yates turned that concept on its head: he liberated workouts from their finite arithmetic and placed them in the infinite dimension of man's imagination and will.

So revolutionary was Yates's training that it is still regarded with skepticism by virtually all of today's bodybuilders. He was, and still is, a mythogenic creature that keeps us all in awe—the singular icon of the eponymous '90s, known as the "Yates decade," whose six Mr. Olympia titles pale in the shadow of his candescent intensity.

In his effort to articulate his eerie faculties, all he could say was, "Don't try what I do until you've had several years of training experience. Even then, don't copy what I do: You have to find what works best for you."

What Yates was trying to tell us was that he trained more to develop intensity than to develop muscle. The former is preeminent— both necessary and sufficient for the latter. But, more important, intensity is a function of mental strength in the form of concentration, willpower, and comprehension of the manifold factors that effect muscle growth.

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To describe Yates's brand of intensity as "mind-muscle connection" is like trying to describe Anton Bruckner's Eighth Symphony as "notes." Yates was able to push himself further than any bodybuilder in history to explore the nature and limits of his intensity, and in so doing, he alone fully grasped one of the most basic laws of the natural order: how to produce the maximum of effects from the minimum of causes. Through every rep, his analytical mind was at work, comparing stresses and discarding those that fell short of optimum muscle production, the entire quest leading him to the ontology of training.

Distinguishing Yates's approach was an attitude not of the chest-beating troglodyte, but of a bookish nerd, whose theoretical knowledge is so thorough that his practical application yields immediate success. "I never adopted a hit-and-miss policy," he's fond of saying. Before he took his first workout, he sourced every available piece of literature he could find on bodybuilding and physiology. Then, by testing in his gym lab the theories of strength and muscle growth, he decocted two principles that revolutionized bodybuilding and gave us what is known as Yates's Heavy-Duty System: (1) maximum muscular response is obtained from the shock of brief, high-intensity training; and (2) muscular growth occurs only after recuperation.

Dorian Yates workout

Yates credits the late Mike Mentzer's radical interpretation of this reasoning as inspiration, but Yates is a vanguard in his own right, having proved that no training system is universally applicable but, instead, should be modified to one's personal characteristics. "Mentzer argued that as long as you execute a full range of motion," he explains, "you can reduce workouts to one set per body part, but I believe a variety of exercises are needed to stress different aspects of a particular muscle. For example, if I didn't do hack squats and relied only on leg presses, leg extensions, and Smith machine squats, I'd lose the sweep to my outer thigh; and if all I did for back was chins, I'd maintain good upper lats but lack density in my middle and lower back. I believe you can make great gains with one set per exercise, but you need to do a variety of exercises per body part to ensure total development."

Even so, Yates barely deviated from the single-set principle. The major exercise for each body part would get only one, or, at the most, two warmup sets before his single maximum set. The only exception was for chest, where he would precede his final set with three warm-up sets (prudent, considering the amount of weight he'd press and the vulnerability of the joints in that area). Many following exercises got no warmup sets ("I'm already warmed up from that first exercise," he'd say). Instead, he dove headlong into what he calls his "final, all-out set," the crux of his Heavy-Duty System.

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That set remains ineffable for the rest of us. It resides only in Yates's comprehension of "intensity." Only he has been able, by supernal force of will, to push his body far enough beyond absolute fatigue to give the terms "final" and "all-out" any meaning. His attempt to describe the experience is sincere but also typical of his understatement: "It must be stressed that the one final, all-out set I do takes me to the very limit of my capabilities. For example, for chest, one of my preferred movements is the incline barbell press. After two or three warm-up sets of six to 12 reps each, I load up the bar and grind out six reps to failure. Without stopping, my training partner then helps me keep it going with two or three forced reps, again to failure; but the set is still not finished. He'll then assist me with another three or four rest/pause or negative reps, until the bar absolutely will not move.

"One set at that extreme intensity does the muscle-building job. For anyone trying this system, if you feel you can attempt a second set, then you couldn't have been pulling out all the stops during the first set. It might be thought that a reduction to a workload of one set per exercise is a radical change, but it wasn't for me, because I've never been a believer in volume work.

"The insurmountable question mark I've always had against doing even as few as three sets per exercise is: How can you avoid pacing yourself? You're bound to hold back on sets one and two to make sure there's enough left in the tank for set three. Once I learned how to do one final, all-out set, I wondered how I managed to avoid the pacing dilemma when I was doing two sets per movement."

Dorian Yates workout

Yates illustrates the pacing problem by comparing a sprinter and a marathon runner. How long can you maintain an all-out sprint before you are forced to jog? The answer: not very long. If you do three sets, it is physiologically impossible to sprint all-out each set. Even if you were able to maintain 100% effort throughout three sets, the effect would be detrimental—your body would be so depleted that you would be spending more time recovering from your workouts than growing.

Intensity, alas, is only one half of Yates's Heavy-Duty whole. The other half is recuperation. And the two are true moieties: insufficient recuperation impedes intensity, and insufficient intensity impedes growth. "Rest periods between sets are as long as I feel is required," he unabashedly admits. "Many bodybuilders think training is 50% aerobic and 50% anaerobic. That is a mistake. They don't rest enough between sets; their body is not able to regenerate enough energy to exhaust that muscle to absolute fatigue, which is the point at which optimal muscle growth begins.

"I perform a set with 100% energy to 100% failure—then beyond, to 100% fatigue—and I won't do another set until I feel that the muscles have recuperated 100%. When I take leg presses to total fatigue, I know from experience that it's likely to be at least five or six minutes before I'll be able to even think about what my address or name is, let alone do another set."

Yates's Ockham's razor approach to training did not result in an overnight conversion. For an entire decade, he experimented at gradually shaving away inefficiencies and honing a sharper edge to his intensity. Beginning in 1983 and until 1986, he used a split routine. At first, he trained four times a week, averaging three heavy sets of eight reps per exercise, but he fell into bed at night tired and stressed, confessing, "I was obviously doing too much." Revising his schedule to every other day also proved too ambitious, so he changed it again, settling on three days a week, so that over a 14-day period, he worked each half of his body three times. Again, he fell short of peak recovery, so he trained every other day, using three exercises of two max sets each per body part.

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Time and again, he experimented with various volume reductions and discovered that, with each reduction, he improved in both strength and muscularity. The intensity/volume equation was clarifying itself as a constant: The more intensely he trained, the stronger he grew, and the less volume was required. Not until 1992 did Yates feel that his process had reached the sweet spot of simplicity, where he could apply the "one all-out set" principle in its quintessence to a consistent, seven-day regimen.

Shoulders and triceps came first, on Day 1, affording him full power the next day for back. While he wasn't overtrained from that two-day series, he needed a day's rest, before returning for an all-out attack on chest and biceps. To call Yates's leg session (his fourth training day) a body-part workout fails to accord it the awe it deserves. More properly, it was a life-sucking, flesh-frying torture that required him to insert a rest day both before and after. That, however, was as complicated as it got. This final iteration of his program had a body-part workout comprising only two to four exercises and one all-out set per exercise. No workout lasted more than an hour, and most were only 45 minutes. 

From then on, Yates was off into a future that was his alone, leaving a margin beyond also-rans that expanded like Hubble's constant. Though in his later years he took the stage with a body that brandished battle ribbons of freshly severed muscles and sundered tendons—the price of his never say die gym attack—no one could ever hope to close the gap on Yates Yates' armor-layered muscularity.

Get Dorian Yates' Age of Intensity Workout.

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