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 workout

Yates credits the late Mike Mentzer’s radical interpretation of this reasoning as inspiration, but Yates is a vanguard in his own right, having proved that no training system is universally applicable but, instead, should be modified to one’s personal characteristics. “Mentzer argued that as long as you execute a full range of motion,” he explains, “you can reduce workouts to one set per body part, but I believe a variety of exercises are needed to stress different aspects of a particular muscle. For example, if I didn’t do hack squats and relied only on leg presses, leg extensions, and Smith machine squats, I’d lose the sweep to my outer thigh; and if all I did for back was chins, I’d maintain good upper lats but lack density in my middle and lower back. I believe you can make great gains with one set per exercise, but you need to do a variety of exercises per body part to ensure total development.”

Even so, Yates barely deviated from the single-set principle. The major exercise for each body part would get only one, or, at the most, two warmup sets before his single maximum set. The only exception was for chest, where he would precede his final set with three warm-up sets (prudent, considering the amount of weight he’d press and the vulnerability of the joints in that area). Many following exercises got no warmup sets (“I’m already warmed up from that first exercise,” he’d say). Instead, he dove headlong into what he calls his “final, all-out set,” the crux of his Heavy-Duty System.

That set remains ineffable for the rest of us. It resides only in Yates’s comprehension of “intensity.” Only he has been able, by supernal force of will, to push his body far enough beyond absolute fatigue to give the terms “final” and “all-out” any meaning. His attempt to describe the experience is sincere but also typical of his understatement: “It must be stressed that the one final, all-out set I do takes me to the very limit of my capabilities. For example, for chest, one of my preferred movements is the incline barbell press. After two or three warm-up sets of six to 12 reps each, I load up the bar and grind out six reps to failure. Without stopping, my training partner then helps me keep it going with two or three forced reps, again to failure; but the set is still not finished. He’ll then assist me with another three or four rest/pause or negative reps, until the bar absolutely will not move.

“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, then you couldn’t have been pulling out all the stops during the first set. It might be thought that a reduction to a workload of one set per exercise is a radical change, but it wasn’t for me, because I’ve never been a believer in volume work.

“The insurmountable question mark I’ve always had against doing even as few as three sets per exercise is: How can you avoid pacing yourself? You’re bound to hold back on sets one and two to make sure there’s enough left in the tank for set three. Once I learned how to do one final, all-out set, I wondered how I managed to avoid the pacing dilemma when I was doing two sets per movement.”