Diet and Nutrition

Training History – Pros and Cons of Various Bodybuilding Training Systems

While all of us have heard George Santayana’s famous quote: “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it,” few seem to translate that teaching over to their lifting. After our rookie year in the gym, most of us are so sure that we have discovered IT (the training and nutrition “system” that is perfect for us) that we no longer really investigate other options.

If you take the opportunity to discuss training and nutrition with as many different people as possible, from different gyms, different parts of the country, different countries, even those from different sports, you greatly enrich your training knowledge.

But taking an open-minded look into the past, at how athletes trained in earlier periods, examining the benefits and drawbacks of those systems, and the real reasons why those systems either prospered or dwindled in popularity, provides you with a depth of knowledge that will set you above the chuckleheads with the Xeroxed routines from Fitness for Men or the teenagers doing curls that look like a mixture of reverse cleans and an epileptic seizure.

Here are three well-used training methodologies from the past. Once you have a deeper understand of them, you can determine how aspects of each might possibly help you create your ultimate physique.

Twenty-Rep Breathing Squat Routine

Twenty-rep Squat routines are considered old school and a bit antiquated by most modern lifters, which is unfortunate because they have proven to be effective mass builders for anyone that has worked consistently hard on them.

Although popularized by Mark Berry and Joseph C. Hise in the 1930 and 40ss, the greatest advocate of breathing squats was Peary Rader. For those not familiar with him, Rader was the founder of Ironman magazine and wrote over 1,300 articles during his fifty-year publishing career. Breathing squats were a mainstay in many of his programs.

Generally, a Twenty-Rep Breathing Squat program involved abbreviated workouts so as not to impair the lifter’s limited recovery abilities, done three times a week. The workouts focused on just a few basic, compound movements, with rigorous squats being the core.

A set of twenty-rep Breathing Squats involved loading the bar with a weight you might typically squat with for ten reps (your 10RM) and pausing once you reach failure. This means that once you feel that you can no longer do another rep, which will occur due more to oxygen debt than muscular fatigue, you stand with the bar still resting across your traps and take four to five slow, deep breaths before continuing to knock out a couple more VERY difficult reps. You then take another short pause, and continue onward until you reach the magic twenty-rep mark. That’s right. Through sheer force of will you push out ten more reps, rest-pause style.

On the subject, Rader writes [Ironman Magazine, May 1967 “High Repetition – High Intensity Squats for Metabolic Conditioning”]. “When you get to ten you will often think you can’t make another repetition, but if you just keep fighting you will be able to make the full twenty repetitions.” He goes on to say, “When you finish a set of squats, if you have worked hard enough on it, you will be panting for breath and your legs will feel like rubber.”

The basic idea in those early articles was that the deep breathing from the high-rep squatting would serve to expand the lifter’s ribcage. To this effect, many early programs supersetted Twenty-Rep Breathing Squats with Cross-bench Dumbbell Pullovers, with the deep breathing supposedly working with the stretch of the pullovers to encourage the soft tissues of the sternum to open up, giving the lifter a huge barrel chest.

While that is probably not the case, what the workouts would do is to consistently disturb the lifter’s homeostatic environment, forcing the body into a wonderful “grow or die” situation that, along with the weight gain diet that was invariably a part of the protocol, turned numerous boys into men.

With proper weight selection, the last few reps will be done one excruciating rep at a time, with you pausing and gasping for your life, breathing taking on the sound of an asthmatic locomotive and liquefied snot running from your sinuses as you will your fast-weakening lower body towards the elusive twenty-rep finish line. As author Randall Strossen says in his book Super Squats:

“If your mind falters, you are dead meat now, so you either get tough and grow, or cave in and stay small.”

The second cornerstone of this program is that you apply simple progressive resistance based on increasing the squat poundage every workout, if possible. These regular incremental increases are possible for most beginner lifters because they are developing strength, conditioning and mental courage from such a pathetically low starting point.

In modern days, powerlifting genius Louie Simmons recommends high-rep deadlifting for those trying to gain weight, which is a nice compound movement variation, as long as the lifter takes care not to let the mechanics of the lift degrade as he tires.
Upon graduating to my first real gym, I was prescribed a modernized variant on the Twenty-Rep Squat program (listed below) that split the body into a Push/Pull split with every other day workouts to enhance recovery.


Su Mo Tu We Th Fr Sa


I packed thirty solid pounds onto my Ichabod Crane physique based on pure hard work, continuous eating and forcing myself to add 2 1/2 to five pounds on each end of the bar almost every squat day.  Equally important, I vomited almost every leg-day for  three months, but went on to wipe my chin and complete each training session, which garnered the respect of the older gym veterans. This is similar to the program I used:


Exercise Set/Rep
1) Breathing Squats  2 x 20
2A) Leg Extensions * 2 x 8-12
2B) 45 degree Leg Press *   2 x 20
3) Incline Dumbbell Press  3 x 8-12
4) Pec Dips  1 x max
5) Lying Triceps Ext.  2 x 6-10

* Exercises are supersetted together


Exercise Set/Rep
1) Front Chin  20 reps
2) Barbell Bent Bows  2 x 6-10
3) Dumbbell Shrugs 1-2 x 6-10
4) Alternate Dumbbell Curl  2 x 8-12
5) Calf Press  2 x 10-15


Leg Extensions and 45 degree Leg Presses are done as a superset, (with no rest between sets). On Pec Dips, once you can get a dozen continuous reps with bodyweight, add weight and do 2 sets of 8-12. Likewise, on Front Chins, do twenty reps in as many sets as it takes. Once you can get a dozen continuous reps with bodyweight, add weight and do 3 sets of 8-12. Those with very low exercise tolerance may need to cut volume even more (indicative by hand tremors and non-squat related nausea mid-workout) and those people can eliminate the Lying Triceps Extensions and Dumbbell Shrugs.

If you are new to lifting but your desire to get big outstrips your genetic abilities, give the Twenty-Rep Squat Program a try. If anything will bust you out of the rookie ranks, it is this routine; but remember, it comes with a cost.

High-Volume Training

More top bodybuilders have used a high-volume training program to build their physiques than any other system. In fact, surveying a list of Mr. Olympia winners, Larry Scott, Sergio Oliva, Arnold and Franco were all very high-volume trainers. Zane, Bannout and Dickerson also used volume to build their shapely, mature muscle. The Big Nasty Ronnie Coleman uses high-volume (with ridiculously heavy weights). Recent winners Dexter Jackson and Jay Cutler use moderately high volume. All winners with the lone exception of Dorian Yates have used this as their primary training style (so that’s 39 out of 45 Olympia wins) because, quite simply, it works.

A high-volume workout typically involves focusing on just one or two major bodyparts a session and performing multiple exercises (hitting the bodypart from different angles or with a unique type of stress) for multiple sets. The longer workouts require that you split bodyparts up and train them over three to five training sessions. A proper high-volume workout also incorporates short rest periods (otherwise you are just hanging around the gym because you have nothing better to do).

A classic example might be the Chest and Back workout that Arnold Schwarzenegger used during his competitive career (according to Joe Weider’s Mr. Olympia Training Encyclopedia):

Exercise Set/Rep
1A) Bench Press * 5 x 20-6
1B) Wide-grip Chin * 5 x 15-8
2A) Incline Barbell Press * 5 x 10-15
2B) T-Bar Rows * 5 x 10-15
3A) Flat Dumbbell Flyes * 5 x 10-15
3B) Wide-grip Barbell Rows * 5 x 10-15
4A) Parallel Bar Dips * 5 x 15
4B) Close-grip Chins * 5 x 12
5) Stiff-Arm Pullovers 5 x 15-20

* Exercises are supersetted together

Arnold supersetted his chest and back exercises, which is a great technique for increasing work density (the number of sets performed in a given time period). His training consisted of splitting his body into three parts, and he training each part twice weekly, with workouts lasting around two hours. During contest prep, he sometimes trained twice daily. That is some serious volume!

Arnold Schwarzenegger pictured with Joe Weider

Other champions of the time, like Serge Nubret, Johnny Fuller and Steve Michalik were known for even longer workouts. Michalik did between forty and a hundred sets per bodypart and Nubret was known for spending up to six hours a day training. These extremes are obviously not applicable (or worthwhile) for most lifters.

From his gym in Studio City, California Vince Gironda was most likely the first celebrity trainer, resculpting the bodies of many of the action heroes of the day. His effect on the bodybuilding world was even more impressive. His own physique (while lacking in genetics) was a testament to his knowledge and showcased definition rarely seen in that era. Mr. Olympia #1 Larry Scott credits Gironda’s teachings for helping him overcome his structural deficiencies to build a champion physique.

One of Gironda’s most effective routines was his 10×10 program. Ten sets of ten is a great high-volume hypertrophy workout. It is almost universally effective for short periods of time but leads to overtraining if done for too long by those without adequate conditioning or constitution.

Charles Poliquin is an advocate of High-Volume Training for hypertrophy. In his book German Volume Training, he writes, “The program works because it targets a group of motor units, exposing them to an extensive volume of repeated efforts, specifically, 10 sets of a single exercise. The body adapts to the extraordinary stress by hypertrophying the targeted fibers. To say this program adds muscle fast is probably an understatement. Gains of ten pounds or more in six weeks are not uncommon, even in experienced lifters!”

Serge Nubret was known for spending up to six hours a day training

High-volume training has fallen out of favor in recent years, but can be used to improve muscle size for short periods. Those that use the high-volume system display a great deal of what is often referred to as muscle maturity. This is a side benefit and refers to the full development of the muscles fibers as well as the sarcoplasmic components of the muscles. The short rest periods and repeated contractions also tend to cause a hardening of the physique.

High-Intensity Training

High-Intensity Training (HIT) is a training system popularized by Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones. He wrote numerous articles between 1968 and 1975 that mixed pseudoscience with marketing and was very convincing in his rhetoric. HIT workouts stressed training that was “harder but briefer” taking each set at least to concentric muscle failure. As Ellington Darden writes (High-Intensity Bodybuilding, 1984) “Maximum intensity is produced only if an exercise is carried to a point where another repetition is impossible.”

Traditional HIT workouts are done full-body, two or three times weekly, with just eight to twelve exercises (usually for just one set of each). Here is an example:

Traditional HIT Program

Exercise Set/Rep
1) Barbell Squat   2 x 15-20
2) Machine Pullover   1 x 8-12
3) Leg Curl     1 x 8-12
4A) Lateral Raise * 1 x 8-12
4B) Press-Behind-Neck * 1 x 8-12
5) Undergrip Pulldown 1 x 8-12
6) Incline Press 1 x 8-12
7) Bent Barbell Row 1 x 8-12
8 ) Seated Triceps Ext. 1 x 8-12
9) Barbell Curl 1 x 8-12
10) Calf Press 2 x 8-12
11) Ab Crunch 1 x 8-12


* Exercises are supersetted together

You should do one to two warm-up sets, making sure not to push them far enough for them to become work sets (which would thereby increase volume). Any of these exercises can be done either with free weights or machines. Machines often are a better choice for safety reasons, especially for those training alone. For example, a heavy Incline Press can be pushed to failure with a single spotter on a Smith Machine or alone on a bench press machine.

For more advanced lifters, some HIT sets are taken past concentric failure, incorporating forced reps (your training partner minimally assisting you to finish a couple added reps by applying a couple pounds worth of help through the sticking point), rest pause (short rests, as in the twenty-rep squat program, to allow the set to continue), negative-emphasis (having your training partner manually put added resistance on the bar for the lowering stage), negative reps (having one or more training partners lift the bar or lever arm to the contracted position so that you can lower a heavier that normally possible weight) and static contractions (squeezing hard against a weight you are not actually moving).

The early writings of Jones were vitriolic indictments of the then-practiced field of strength and conditioning (as primitive as it was at that time). He was successful in creating quite a buzz and became extremely wealthy with gym owners buying his complete line so that they could call themselves a “Nautilus Fitness Center.” While Jones contributed some great advances, HIT suffered for three reasons:

1) The advocates of HIT were fanatical in their approach and polarizing in their affect on people’s view on training. Jones ignored any research and anecdotal evidence that did not support established Nautilus dogma. His two most famous followers, Ellington Darden and Mike Mentzer, followed his close-minded approach. 

2) Nautilus’ most famous triumph “The Colorado Experiment” in which Casey Viator gained an amazing amount of muscle (63 pounds, while losing nearly 18 pounds of bodyfat) was attributed to the Nautilus machines and Jones’ training protocol. It was later learned that Viator began the study in an artificially “deflated” state. According to IronMan Magazine (Sept. 1973), “In early January of 1973, he was involved in a serious accident at work and lost most of one finger as a result . . . and almost died from an allergic reaction to an antitetanus injection.” Most of Viator’s progress then, can be attributed to a mixture of regaining of dormant muscle, hydration of water and glycogen in the muscles, and the influence of anabolics. The results may have been impressive under normal circumstances, but the study presented carries no validity.

3) Not everyone responds well to HIT, some find they either cannot generate adequate intensity, mentally burn out from the high-intensity or just do not progress in strength and size on limited volume.

Mentzer replies to this in his booklet Heavy Duty: “I get the question, ‘If 12-20 sets is not the best way to train, how do you account for the success of guys like Arnold and Lee Haney?’ The answer is that, while their physiques are, in part, the result of such training, so are the physiques of all the failures, whose numbers are legion.”

This, of course ignores the multitude of trainees that try High-Intensity Training and quit the system because it does not work well for them. A minority of trainees responds well to HIT and many adopt it as their long-term training protocol. The thing the HIT advocates miss is that one is as likely to overtrain using a system that incorporates an excess of set-extending, nervous system shocking techniques (negatives, forced reps, burns) as they are training with a higher level of volume. Some lifters, such as Bill Pearl, even feel that you should not even take a set to failure, as stopping with two to three reps still “in the tank” allows for a greater growth response.

High-Intensity Training advocate and Bodybuilding Legend, Mike Mentzer

While a number of research studies have shown that there are greater muscle growth and strength improvements from multi-set workouts over one-set HIT protocols, a small pocket of HIT-enthusiasts endure. Most successful are those like Lee Labrada that tweaked the program. Labrada says (Flex Magazine, October 2008), “I found that it didn’t quite work for me, at least not in the exact way that Mentzer espoused. I couldn’t quite train using only two or three sets per bodypart. But what I did was modify it, and I eventually found a happy medium where I was doing six to eight sets for smaller bodyparts and 10-12 sets for larger ones, and it worked fantastically. So I did train to failure on a few of those sets, going as heavy as possible, but I didn’t overtrain.”

Although Mentzer became more extreme in his later years (a shift that, in my opinion, damaged public acceptance of HIT), the workouts he recommended during his competitive period were more applicable to most trainers. Here is his routine listed in his original Heavy Duty course (no publication date listed, but this is the small-format black cover booklet he released around 1978).

Monday and Thursday:

Exercise Set/Rep
1A) Leg Extension * 1 cycle
1B) Leg Press *  1 cycle
2) Squats 1 set 1 set
3) Leg Curls 1 set 1 set
4) Calf Raises 2-3 sets
5A) Dumbbell Flyes * 2 cycles
5B) Incline Barbell or Dumbbell Presses * 2 cycles
6A) Triceps Pressdown * 2 cycles
6B) Dips 2 cycles * 2 cycles

* Exercises are supersetted together

Tuesday and Friday:

Exercise Set/Rep
1A) Stiff-arm Lat Pulldown * 2 cycles
1B) Close-grip Palms-up Pulldown * 2 cycles
2) One-arm Dumbbell Row 2 sets
3A) Shrugs * 2 cycles
3B) Upright Rows * 2 cycles
4A) Dumbbell Lateral * 2 cycles
5A) Press-Behind-Neck * 2 cycles
6) Bent Laterals  2 sets
7A) Barbell curls * 2  cycles
7B) Palms-up Chins * 2  cycles

* Exercises are supersetted together

Many people that have seen Mentzer train, claim he often did more sets, but that might be attributed to the witnessing of multiple warm-up sets. In more recent days, other men like Dorian Yates, Trevor Smith (Beyond Failure Training) and Dante Trudel (DC Training) have made adaptations to traditional HIT, adjusting the volume, training frequency and application of its principles and therefore making it dramatically more effective.

What the writing of Arthur Jones, Mike Mentzer, Ellington Darden and other HIT proponents did do, was stimulate thought about the mechanisms of the training effect and the importance of recuperation while also familiarizing trainees with eccentric contractions, negative emphasis, static contractions and forced reps.

Two Giants Collide – A Dispute Between Mike Mentzer and Arnold Schwarzenegger

Great, Steve. You Gave Me A Lot of Info. What Do I Do With It?

The Buddha describes the path to enlightenment as “the middle route between all extremes.” In training, a moderation of volume, a judicious application of intensification techniques, and a balanced use of specific aspects of a few different training ideologies is probably the formula for success.

The body adapts to nearly whatever stress is placed on it. It is because of this that we have such varied training systems. When trying to determine what type of training brings about the best adaptation, be open-minded to each technique and analyze if there is something worth trying and adding to your bodybuilding arsenal.

Tom Platz is an excellent example of this. Spending his early training years at Armento’s Gym in Detroit he trained alongside powerlifters. This early influence extended into his training throughout his competitive career. While people were debating the Arnold Method versus Mentzer’s Heavy Duty, Platz took the middle ground, feeling that a moderate number of sets allowed him to achieve optimal growth. His rep range was famously broad, ranging from low-rep triples to sets of squats for over fifty reps. He also made liberal use of set-extending techniques, particularly forced reps and burns, working a muscle until he could no longer make it contract. This system matched his energy level and the intensity of his personality and helped him build one of the most incredibly physiques of our era.

Tom Platz spent his early training years training alongside powerlifters.

A more laidback trainer, Lee Haney was known for his quote “Stimulate. Don’t annihilate.” He performed 12-15 sets per bodypart (7-10 for smaller parts) and, like Bill Pearl, believed in limiting the number of sets that are pushed to failure. It was his belief that coaxing progress was more effective than forcing it. This obviously worked for Haney because he set a new level of mass and was unbeatable until he retired. With contrasting personalities, both men needed to find a protocol that matched them. 

So be open to new techniques and styles of training. Strive to get a solid grasp of the reasoning behind any training style. Some are effective but only for a limited time period. This is where intelligent programming comes into play. Learn as much as you can about any new training system, try it in the gym and, if it appeals to you and fits your goals, make it part of your personal training system.

Written by Steve Colescott, Guerrilla Journalist

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – Training History – Pros and Cons of Various Training Systems discussion thread.

About Steve Colescott

Known as the Guerrilla Journalist , Steve Colescott works alongside Dave Palumbo and John Romano as a Staff Writer.

He has had nearly a hundred published articles covering the science behind various training and nutrition protocols. He can be reached at