Diet and Nutrition

Hardcore High Intensity Training – The Only Way to Grow

I believe that one of the main misconceptions about weight training in the pursuit of bodybuilding concerns training intensity (defined as relative intensity of effort).  I can’t tell you how many times I have been approached for advice with guys telling me that they just can’t get bigger or stronger no matter what they do. 

These same inquiries usually end up with attempts at conversations about the best drugs to use, or more often, how to eat or supplement to fix the problem.  Prior to engaging them in any further conversation I ask them how they train.  Invariably they will tell me, “Like a dog!” 

When I actually cinch up a belt and hit the gym with them I find that their definition of “dog” and mine encompass two different breeds entirely…

There are three basic components to success in the gym with respect to resistance training:

  1. Stimulus
  2. Nutrients
  3. Rest. 

The latter two enjoy some degree of variability.  The former can only be optimized when you experience the epiphany that materializes once you discover the difference between “fatigue” and “failure.”
If you don’t take each work set (post warm-up set) to a point of momentary muscular failure, where another full-range rep is impossible despite your hardest effort – including a gun to your head – where does the set end?  For instance, let’s say you can curl 50 lbs dumbbells for 10 reps to momentary muscular failure.  If you subscribe to the camp that eschews training to failure, where should you stop the set?  On the seventh rep? The eighth, or maybe you’ll go to nine?  Obviously, stopping a set at anything short of failure is arbitrary. It is only by training to failure that you can surpass what Mike Mentzer called the “break-over point.”  That is the rep in the set below which growth will not be stimulated. It is the ultimate “last rep.”  Science does not know at what exact point in a given set the break-over point occurs, but it is clear that training with 100% intensity of effort to failure is sufficient to elicit a growth stimulus, thus training to failure is the only failsafe way to assure a productive training session if muscular hypertrophy is a goal.  

Mike Mentzer built an incredible physique using Hardcore High Intensity training methods

Training volume is another highly important factor in training stimulus and one which directly correlates to intensity of effort.  The volume system in use by most (not all) of the top IFBB pros popularizes the bizarre, yet generally accepted theory of doing 50 to 60 sets per body part per training day (some sets taken to failure, some not).  Training to failure as described above literally precludes this sort of high volume training; at least in the sense that training with any relatively high degree of intensity of effort using such volume would quickly and inevitably lead to gross overtraining. 

How do the pros get away with it?  The solution is most often a reliance on genetic potential and a boatload of tissue building drugs.  While this solution obviously works to a degree (they are massive professional bodybuilders, aren’t they?), it is far from ideal.  Even the pros would benefit from reduced training volume coupled with 100% balls to the wall intensity of effort!  Remember, your goal as a bodybuilder is not to see how many sets you can force yourself to endure. It is to intelligently do the exact amount of exercise required to stimulate the growth mechanism – and no more. Any more than that is arbitrary, unscientific and counterproductive. As Lee Haney (multi-Mr. Olympia) said, “stimulate, don’t annihilate.”

The volume approach represents a reckless assemblage of random, disconnected and contradictory ideas; which, of course, is not a theory and, therefore, cannot serve as a guide for successful action. That’s not to say it doesn’t work.  It might work.  It might not.  The one sure thing is it is not optimal

I’ll be delving into specific functional application of high intensity training in future articles, but, as to not leave you hanging without an example of the high intensity approach, I’ll share with you a back workout I once watched Dorian Yates (another multi-Mr. Olympia) perform.  Dorian is a long time advocate of HIT training and no one can argue the benefit he derived from it. 

The following work set of bent over rows perfectly illustrates the low volume, high intensity approach to bodybuilding:

After two warm-up sets with 135 lbs and then 225 lbs on an Olympic bar, Dorian took about a two minute rest and then strapped into the bar, this time with 315 lbs (three plates on each side).  He proceeded to grind out about 12 perfect reps, and then got another 3-4 using rest/pause technique.  His training partner (Mike Matarazzo) then immediately stripped a plate off each side while Dorian held fast to the bar.  The second Mike finished unloading Dorian set off again.  This time he got about 20 reps with another handful of rest/pauses at the end, the last of which were literally excruciating to watch.  He collapsed to the down position and Mike immediately stripped another plate from each side.  Again, Dorian methodically began rowing. 

I think I counted 30 reps before he ground out the final handful of rest/pause reps. He did not put the bar down for good until he was utterly incapable of budging the weight!  A physically, emotionally, and any other “ally” you can think of Dorian unstrapped himself from the bar and slinkered off to some dark recess of the gym to attempt to recover enough to go home…  It was a STUNNING example of training intensity such that few have ever witnessed…  

Dorian Yates – A low volume, high intensity approach to bodybuilding

Train intensely – to failure – to ensure that optimum growth has been stimulated; and, in light of limited recovery ability, such training must be brief and infrequent, followed by rest – as much as possible.

Written by John Romano

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