Dorian Yates is universally recognized as one of the best bodybuilders to ever put on a pair of posing trunks. The six-time Mr. Olympia was known for his training intensity in the gym – specifically, his ability to take his sets to total failure and beyond. To do that, he employed several techniques to stress the target muscle to its maximum capacity. While you might not want to pack on the superhuman amount of muscle Yates carried in his heyday, you can bet his knowledge can help you build the muscle you want.
Here, in Yate’s words, are his seven favorite intensity-boosting techniques.
INTENSITY TECHINQUES: USE THEM SPARINGLY
The techniques I outline here can be tremendously productive at boosting intensity and stimulating greater muscle growth, when used judiciously – that is to say, occasionally. But too much of a good thing can be counterproductive. Techniques like forced reps, negatives and so on place a higher demand on a muscle’s recovery. Overusing them can quickly lead to overtraining, and one may eventually expect to see a regression in results, rather than progression. Be careful to use them on an as-needed basis, such as only for a weak body part, and even then only for limited periods of time. Don’t employ something like forced reps for every set— reserve it for perhaps the final set of each exercise, and rotate the body parts you use them for.
You get the idea. Taking sets beyond failure can be extremely effective in building your physique, so long as you don’t do it too often and you truly take the muscle to positive failure first.
1. TRAINING TO FAILURE
Before mentioning any techniques to go beyond failure, it’s important to define how to properly tax a muscle to get to what is termed “momentary muscular failure.” If you don’t reach that point, there is no sense in bringing in any additional techniques. A distinction needs to be made between how a weight trainer in the gym (someone who wants to develop and build his physique) should perform a rep, as opposed to a weightlifter. A weightlifter’s primary concern is moving the maximum amount of resistance from point A to point B, by any means necessary. If that means shortening the range of motion and employing momentum, then so be it. Applying stress to the muscle is not a concern.
A weight trainer should approach each rep from a totally opposite point of view. The main goal must be to force the target muscle to work as hard as possible, with as little contribution from surrounding muscle groups or momentum as possible. That’s why I am such a staunch advocate of strict, controlled form. It’s the best way to ensure maximum stress on the muscle. I will perform the positive portion of a rep in an explosive fashion, but in no case would I ever neglect the contraction or drop the weight, and miss out on the benefits of the negative stroke. There is some scientific evidence to support that the negative aspect of the rep actually incurs the most damage to a muscle. Repairing this damage is how muscles become bigger and stronger. Always keep in mind that there are three types of strength, and each can be expressed in terms of a portion of a repetition:
1) Positive— lifting the weight
2) Static— holding the weight in the fully contracted position of the muscle
3) Negative— lowering the weight
This doesn’t apply universally to all exercises, as there are some movements in which there is very little resistance in the fully-contracted position. Two notable examples would be the end point of a rep for either squats or deadlifts. At the lockout, most of the stress is actually borne by the joints. However, in most other exercises you can gauge your static strength by whether you are able to pause at least briefly in the fully-contracted position. If you are unable to do so, it’s a clear indication that you employed momentum to move the weight rather than pure muscle power.
There was a scene in professional bodybuilder Mark Dugdale’s training DVD “A Week in the Dungeon” that vividly illustrated the above situation. He completed a set of heavy seated cable rows and looked to me immediately afterward. Mark was somewhat shocked when I commented, “Fucking piss-poor job.” I explained to him that he had not paused one single rep in the fully-contracted position where the grip handles made contact with his body. He hadn’t pulled that weight with pure lat power, but had instead yanked it toward his torso using momentum. In order to do the reps properly, he had to reduce the weight. This is an extremely easy way to check your form and be sure that you are indeed taxing the muscle, so that a set only ends when the muscle itself has truly failed.
One tip I often tell people to facilitate this is to do your best to relax the rest of your body, and attempt to perfectly isolate only the muscles that you are trying to work. Anything else is usually wasted or misdirected energy. As much as I am in favor of training as heavy as one can, you must keep in mind that weight training is not about lifting weights— it’s all about working the muscles as hard as humanly possible. Now that you hopefully understand how to properly take a set to failure, we can discuss techniques to go beyond failure.
2. FORCED REPS
It should be said straight off that forced reps are an art form, and only a good training partner will have the ability to assist in administering them properly. The intent of forced reps is to apply just enough help to get past the sticking point of a rep, and complete one or two more past the point of positive failure.
Of all the intensity techniques out there, in my estimation, this one is by far the most commonly abused. You can walk into any gym in the world and witness this on the bench press. Guys will load up the bar with significantly more weight than they are capable of lifting, and recruit a training partner or spotter to lift part of the weight for them from the very first rep onward. What’s the bloody point in that? Obviously, this ridiculous practice stems entirely from the ego, as guys like to delude themselves into thinking they actually did 10 reps with 315, or whatever the case may be.
This harkens right back to what we were speaking about in regards to weightlifting versus bodybuilding. Guys like that generally don’t have very much in the way of chest development, because they never actually work their pecs intensely enough to stimulate growth. I would much rather see a trainer do 5 or 6 reps entirely on his own before a spotter or training partner provides just enough assistance to allow for 1 or 2 more additional reps. Anything more than 2 forced reps at the end of a set is pointless, in my opinion.
We mentioned earlier that the negative portion of a repetition is at least as important as the positive, and perhaps even more so. Back in the early 1970s, Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones recognized this and advocated “negative only” training, in which spotters lifted the weight and the trainer would only lower it slowly. This proved impractical. Not only would this often require the services of two very strong spotters (picture the logistics of trying to lift a 500-pound barbell for someone doing squats, so that he only has to lower it), but it’s potentially dangerous. That’s because we are all weakest in the positive part of a rep and strongest in the negative. If you can lift 300 pounds in the bench press, chances are that you are probably capable of lowering something like 400 or 450 pounds. That’s a terrific amount of stress on the joints, tendons and ligaments, especially if you make it a routine practice.
A far more practical and safer way to incorporate negatives is to reach failure with a given weight, and then have a training partner assist you in moving it to the fully-contracted position two or three more times so that you can lower it very slowly— thus exhausting your negative strength, the last of the three (positive, static, negative) to give out on you.
Another less common way to employ negatives is something called “negative accentuated training.” In this, you lift the weight using two limbs but lower it with just one. A couple of examples where this could be done are leg extensions, machine curls, machine rows with a chest support, leg press, or a seated bench press machine. Essentially, you would only be able to perform negative-accentuated sets on machines in which both limbs move one movement arm. It would not be possible on a unilateral machine such as most of the Hammer Strength series.
Rest-pause has enjoyed renewed popularity in recent years thanks to DC Training. They borrowed it from me, I borrowed it from Mike Mentzer, and Mike had borrowed it from Arthur Jones! The basic premise is to take several brief rests during a set, so that a heavier weight can be used. For example, you may be able to use 300 pounds for a total of 8 reps in rest-pause fashion, whereas otherwise you would only manage 4 reps. You might do something like 3 or 4 reps, put the weight down for 10 seconds or so, do another 2 reps, rest, and finish with a final rep or two. In this way, you hit positive failure three separate times during one set. A very real benefit of rest-pause is that it gives your muscles a chance to adapt to much heavier loads, and that strength will carry over into your normal straight sets.
5. DROP SETS
Drop sets have been around for many decades, and the principle makes sense. When you fail at 8 reps curling 100 pounds, it doesn’t mean your biceps can’t curl any weight at all. Should you immediately reduce the resistance to 70 or 80 pounds, you could continue the set with several more reps before hitting failure again. These are ideal for those who train on their own with no spotter.
6. CHEATING REPS
Cheat reps have been called “forced reps on your own,” and that’s accurate provided you are doing then correctly. Just as it defeats the purpose of making the set tougher to employ too many forced reps and too soon in the set, cheat reps must not be abused either. You should do most of the reps strictly until reaching positive failure, and only then cheat up an additional rep or two. To make these reps truly productive, you must pause at least very briefly in the fully-contracted position, and lower the rep slowly.
A final technique is one I was personally never too keen on. The premise of pre-exhaust sets is that one reaches failure on an isolation exercise, and then immediately proceeds to a compound movement as quickly as possible. Common examples would be leg extensions and leg presses, or the peck deck and a bench press. The issue I have with this is that if you know you have to move right into a compound movement, odds are that at least subconsciously, you will hold back a bit on the isolation movement in order to have “something left in the tank.” Therefore, you won’t take the first set to complete failure.
You can try it and see if it works well for you, but I always preferred to pre-exhaust a muscle group by simply completing all my sets of an isolation movement— for example, a Nautilus pullover machine, before moving on to something like close-grip lat pulldowns or barbell rows.
Dorian Yates is a six-time Mr. Olympia winner. He set new standards for size and conditioning as a professional bodybuilder, and earned the nickname the ‘Shadow’ because other bodybuilders looked small when they stood beside him.