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What Is High Intensity Training?
I first came across the concept of high intensity training from an article by Mike Mentzer back when I was pumping iron in the mid 70’s. In fact, he called it hard training back then.
As a drop back, until then; I have already purchased courses from Larry Scott, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Frank Zane and Frank Columbu to name a few. As an original skinny geek, I earned every last dime (well, almost every last dime) washing dishes and pumping gas to buy all the “how to get massive arms…” classes, muscle magazines, and protein powder (nasty stuff back then). I could get my hands on it.
Seriously, I was about 5’6″ and weighed less than 130 pounds.
And I did as many as five exercises per body part in four to five sets per! My trainings lasted a minimum of two hours. I was 15 – I was doing what Arnold was doing. Hell, at one point; I wrote to Larry Scott about a “personalized” exercise regimen. My idols did splits twice a day 6 days a week. I had to do the same because I couldn’t be a skinny bastard anymore.
Enter Mike Mentzer and Heavy Duty Training.
Long story short, Mike was telling me (yes, he was talking directly to me – no) that all I really needed to do was 1 set per body part – specifically, I needed to do 1 pre-exhaust superset per body part. Hallelujah!!!!
I immediately bought all his Heavy Duty Instructional booklets. And as the newest assistant, my practice time dropped from 2 hours to 20 minutes.
So what is high intensity training or hard training?
In short, it means completely tiring the muscles in the shortest period of time. Or at least that’s my definition.
So the shortest range would be 1 set…
For the late Mike Mentzer, it was 1 superset pre-exhaust…
His pre-exhaust superset principle was based on the idea that smaller body parts will fail before larger muscles during a compound movement. In the case of the bench press, he felt that the triceps and shoulders would fail first, so he stopped the set while the chest (the target muscle) still had some gas in the tank. Therefore, exhaust the large muscles beforehand; so larger muscles are temporarily weaker during a complex movement.
Examples would be:
- Chest – Flyes followed by a bench press: Flyes exhaust the chest, making it weaker than the tris and shoulders throughout the bench. Stronger tris and shoulders would bring the chest to complete exhaustion.
- Shoulders – Side lunges followed by a shoulder pull.
- Lats – Nautilus pullovers followed by pull-ups
- Quadriceps – Leg extensions followed by squats
- Hamstrings – Leg curls followed by deadlifts
- Triceps – Lying triceps extensions followed by a close grip bench
- Biceps – Barbell curls followed by a close grip, lowering wider under the hand
To further push the targeted body part to complete (uh, over complete?) exhaustion, Mentzer suggested forced reps on the second exercise, followed by the negative.
Over the years, there have already been many proponents of hard teaching. Among the bodybuilding universe, the most famous and successful guru has to be Dorian Yates. I remember an article where Mike Francios quoted Yates telling him, “shoot 1 bullet through the heart” as a metaphor for performing 1 set versus the traditional multi-set approach.
But I find those kinds of simplistic analogies misleading…
But to be clear, I would never question the validity of anything uttered by a warrior like Dorian Yates. He has been a gladiator in the arena for many years putting his money where his mouth is day in and day out. But by distilling training principles down to a simple, single layer, you can’t do that.
Still, I never definitely thought there was that much daylight between a 1-set crowd and a multi-set crowd. The crowd in 1 set tells us to warm up with a few sets and go completely crazy on the One set! Or you can pyramid like this:
- Set 1 – 12 repetitions with moderate weight
- Set 2 – 10 reps with 10% much more
- Set 3 – 8 reps with 20% much more
- Set 4 – six repetitions at 90% of max
- Set 5 – 6 reps to failure – all you got.
Is there really a difference?
Again, let’s consider another example:
With Mentzer’s Heavy Duty program, the chest program can be:
- The flat bench flies – 2 sets of 12 repetitions, light weights for warming up
- Barbell push-ups – 2 sets of 12 repetitions, light weights for warming up
- Pre-exhaust superset – 1 set of 6 to 8 reps in fly (maximal work) followed by 1 set of 6 reps in incline (positive reps followed by 2 to 3 forced reps followed by 2 to 3 negative reps)
Compare that to Rusty Moore’s chest routine:
- Bench press – five sets of 12, 10, 8, 6, 15
- Flies – 4 sets of 12 (very same weight – no more than 1 minute rest)
- Dumbbell push-ups – 4 sets of 12 (exactly the same weight – no more than 1 minute rest)
Mentzer believes in total destruction in one maximum effort. Rusty believes in cumulative fatigue for stress and muscle destruction. Each of them has their own “scientific” research to support their thinking.
I feel that neither is incorrect. I think it’s really a mistake to reject 1 in favor of the other. I believe Mike Mentzer’s only flaw was in assuming that what works for him and his followers must be the only way.
I believe that the term 1 time too often obscures individuality. Most of us aren’t going to be Dorian Yates by any means, so why copy his routines so precisely (go back to the kid doing Arnold’s workout for 2 hours hoping to look like the Korean Arnold – nope).
For many of us regular guys, I believe that hard training has more potential for harm than good. Bench pressing is much more than just chest, shoulders and triceps; these are all the basic ligaments, tendons, attachments and so on that support movement. A few warm-ups and a bang; jumping into a death set can’t be good.
But I’m not a scientist, nor do I play one on TV. It’s all about my common sense – which may not be so common.
Which leads me to conclude – with more than a few years behind me – that for many of us; I feel that a practice strategy like Rusty’s would be a better choice. Pyramiding truly prepares and positions the muscles for maximum effort within the last set. The following exercises pump more and more blood into the muscles.
In addition, many of us exercise at home or alone. Hard work requires a good training partner who can effectively spot forced repetitions and negatives.
This does not mean that there is no place for heavy training. You can certainly turn it on for a month or 2 to shock your muscles. But I wouldn’t do that
unless, of course, you’ve been hitting irons for at least a year and have a good partner.
Finally, high intensity training is less of a training technique for me; rather, it is a way of thinking and effort during the entire training.
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