The Age of Intensity: Legendary Bodybuilder Dorian Yates

Dorian Yates dominated body building in the 1990s. These are the training philosophies and particulars that set him apart and propelled his rule.


Dorian Yates bench press
Per Bernal

Before Dorian, bodybuilding was a prisoner of its physical brickwork: you performed a prescribed number of sets, reps, and exercises, or you were sent home from the gym. Yates turned that concept on its head: he liberated workouts from their finite arithmetic and placed them in the infinite dimension of man’s imagination and will.

So revolutionary was Yates’s training that it is still regarded with skepticism by virtually all of today’s bodybuilders. He was, and still is, a mythogenic creature that keeps us all in awe—the singular icon of the eponymous ’90s, known as the “Yates decade,” whose six Mr. Olympia titles pale in the shadow of his candescent intensity.

In his effort to articulate his eerie faculties, all he could say was, “Don’t try what I do until you’ve had several years of training experience. Even then, don’t copy what I do: You have to find what works best for you.”

What Yates was trying to tell us was that he trained more to develop intensity than to develop muscle. The former is preeminent— both necessary and sufficient for the latter. But, more important, intensity is a function of mental strength in the form of concentration, willpower, and comprehension of the manifold factors that effect muscle growth.

To describe Yates’s brand of intensity as “mind-muscle connection” is like trying to describe Anton Bruckner’s Eighth Symphony as “notes.” Yates was able to push himself further than any bodybuilder in history to explore the nature and limits of his intensity, and in so doing, he alone fully grasped one of the most basic laws of the natural order: how to produce the maximum of effects from the minimum of causes. Through every rep, his analytical mind was at work, comparing stresses and discarding those that fell short of optimum muscle production, the entire quest leading him to the ontology of training.

Distinguishing Yates’s approach was an attitude not of the chest-beating troglodyte, but of a bookish nerd, whose theoretical knowledge is so thorough that his practical application yields immediate success. “I never adopted a hit-and-miss policy,” he’s fond of saying. Before he took his first workout, he sourced every available piece of literature he could find on bodybuilding and physiology. Then, by testing in his gym lab the theories of strength and muscle growth, he decocted two principles that revolutionized bodybuilding and gave us what is known as Yates’s Heavy-Duty System: (1) maximum muscular response is obtained from the shock of brief, high-intensity training; and (2) muscular growth occurs only after recuperation.

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