Building muscle is a science. It requires an in-depth understanding of both nutrition and physiology. Yes, some people are genetically gifted to build more than others, but generally the laws of muscular hypertrophy – an increase in the size of skeletal muscle – apply to everyone, regardless of genetic advantages.
No man understands this better than Dorian Yates. One of the greatest bodybuilders ever to grace the stage, the Englishman was crowned Mr Olympia six consecutive times from 1992-1997. For a six-year period, there was not a man on Earth who’d built more muscle and lost more body fat than Yates. (In fact only three men – including Arnold Schwarzenegger – have won the title more times.)
In his prime, the 1.78m-tall Yates weighed around 130kg off-season. Closer to a competition, though, he would step onto the scales at 118kg with a body fat level that was so low he looked as if he was carved out of granite.
How low, exactly? ‘I was never quite sure,’ Yates says modestly. ‘Skinfold callipers are only accurate up until a certain point. So at a guess I’d say less than 3%, but I’m not sure.’
This is – I soon learn – a typical answer from Yates. His achievements are immense, but he wraps them in humility. This is partly why he was known in the bodybuilding world as ‘The Shadow’. In a sport of extroverts who relished the opportunity to show off the results of their hard work, Yates would simply turn up, unzip his tracksuit, walk on stage and unassumingly leave the competition with the trophy in his gym bag.
‘I didn’t mind posing on stage, but it wasn’t my favourite part,’ he says. ‘I enjoyed working out the best way to train, studying nutrition and doing my own diet and learning all about every aspect of this. To me that was the best part of the challenge.’
As a scholar of bodybuilding, Yates pioneered a new method of exercise called ‘high-intensity training’. Expanding on the work of former Mr Olympia Mike Mentzer and Mentzer’s coach Arthur Jones, he created his own system that focused on reaching maximum muscle stimulation through short, high-intensity workout sessions rather than long workouts.
Here we attempt to explain what’s special about Yates’s high-intensity training method and what it can do for you. Although it would take a whole book to do his teachings and philosophies justice, we’ve condensed the key points to provide an introduction to his timeless training methodologies.
Muscular Hypertrophy 101
Strength is very different to muscular hypertrophy. Strength on its most basic level can be defined as a muscle’s (or group of muscles’) ability to produce force. Therefore strength depends on a number of neuromuscular processes, not just the size of the muscle. This is why Chinese Olympic lifter Liao Hui can put a 166kg snatch and 198kg clean and jerk above his head despite only weighing 69kg.
Muscular hypertrophy is something slightly different. This is a long-term, adaptive response to neuromuscular stimulation of a given minimum intensity. Put more simply, it’s the result of certain training regime designed to increase in the size of skeletal muscle, with less emphasis on the strength component. This is the type of training that produced 118kg of title-winning Dorian Yates.
In very simple terms, Yates’s high-intensity method would typically involve one or two warm-up sets and one working set for each exercise. Just one working set might seem surprising, but Yates says, ‘I’d 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%, however long that takes. 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, you couldn’t have been pulling out all the stops during the first set.’
Because the focus is on working the muscles to complete failure, another set becomes impossible to do with the same intensity.
Yates believed there was a more effective way to build muscle than just lifting the most weight. This was an idea supported by researchers from the Lundberg Laboratory for Human Muscle Function and Movement Analysis at Göteborg University. Their aim was ‘to identify dose-response relationships for the development of muscle hypertrophy by calculating the magnitudes and rates of increases in muscle cross-sectional area induced by varying levels of frequency, intensity and volume, as well as by different modes of strength training’.
Put more simply: what type of repetition range, volume and intensity builds the most muscle?
What the scientists concluded was that using a moderately heavy weight – approximately 60% to 75% of your one-rep maximum – and performing this lift until failure elicited the best results for muscle hypertrophy. This is not to say lifting maximal loads is not without its merits, but generally speaking lifting with sub-maximal weight to failure builds most muscle.
It’s true that in Yates’s famous training DVD Blood And Guts, he’s seen throwing around inhumane amounts of metal. But when asked if he’s among the strongest bodybuilders in the world, he replies, ‘I don’t think so. I've seen some of the poundages that [eight-time Mr Olympia] Ronnie Coleman uses and I don’t think I could ever duplicate that. Ronnie's probably stronger than me. He comes from a powerlifting background.’
He also adds, ‘But this wasn’t my goal. My goal was to put the optimal amount of weight and stress on the muscle to elicit the most muscle hypertrophy.’
Time to Grow
This idea was supported by 2012 research published in the Journal Of Physiology that wanted to ‘determine if the time that muscle is under loaded tension during low-intensity resistance exercise affects the synthesis of specific muscle protein fractions’. In plain English: will more time lifting the weight produce more, better-quality muscle?
To find out, the researchers got eight men to perform three sets of unilateral knee extension exercise at 30% of one-rep max. Some participants completed the exercise slowly, lifting for a total of six seconds. Others performed the same exercise, with the same weight, but completed the action in one second.
The results? After ingesting 20 grams of protein and monitoring how the body absorbed and used it, they found that ‘myofibrillar protein synthetic rate was higher in the slow condition group compared to the fast one’. In simple terms, the muscles in the group that experienced more time under tension experienced a greater degree of protein synthesis – the repair and regrowth of the muscles.
In summary, that is how one man rewrote the blueprint for building muscle – and Yates’s expanding global empire indicates that it’s still relevant today. With millions following his teachings on social media, a new Temple Gym being built in Marbella and an impending book and HIT Academy for personal trainers, it seems his contribution to the world of bodybuilding and fitness has not finished being written.
Get the Coach Newsletter
Sign up for workout ideas, training advice, reviews of the latest gear and more.
Ross Edgley wrote for Men’s Fitness UK (which predated and then shared a website with Coach) when he was a sports scientist, working for brands such as Myprotein. Edgley went on to perform a series of physical feats, including swimming all the way around Great Britain in 157 days. He has written the books Blueprint: Build a Bulletproof Body for Extreme Adventure in 365 Days, The World's Fittest Book and The Art of Resilience, as well as contributing to publications such as GQ.