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Decompression of L4-L5 spinal disks (December 2007), decompression of L3-L4 spinal disks (July 2011), fusion of C4-C5-C6 neck disks (December 2011), left hip replacement (July 2014), right hip replacement (August 2014), fusion of L3-L4 spinal disks (July 2015), refusion of L3-L4 disks (February 2016). With seven hospital stays since he retired, eight-time Mr. Olympia Ronnie Coleman has almost as many surgeries as Sandows. What makes this especially noteworthy is that fact that Coleman isn’t just, arguably, the greatest bodybuilder of all time. He was also one of the strongest. His heaviest lifts include an 800-pound squat and 805-pound deadlift, both for doubles; and he toiled twice daily with only a little less weight but many more reps.
How much did all that heavy metal contribute to his too-frequent medical procedures? Moreover, just how healthy is bodybuilding at its highest level—the rarefied air of the Sandow Society? In search of answers, we examine the philosophies of four Mr. O’s, Ronnie Coleman, Lee Haney, Arnold Schwarzenegger, and Dorian Yates. Together, they won 29 Olympias, and their divergent training approaches may help you maximize your results while minimizing your risks.
Ronnie Coleman often gets asked repeatedly if it was worth it, and would he do anything different? “It was worth it without a doubt, but, yes, I would have done it differently if I could go back,” he answers. “I would have trained harder! I know for a fact that I could have done four reps on that 800-pound squat instead of two, but I had two set in my mind before I even picked it up, so that’s what I did. So yes, I would go back and train even harder and be damn sure to get four reps on that 800-pound squat.”
Why not, right? If you’re going to get seven surgeries and eight Sandows either way, why not knock out two more reps? But the big-eight squat and deadlift in 2000 were very-low-rep anomalies, strength showcases for a video camera. Coleman competed in a powerlifting meet in 1994, when he was still a mediocre pro bodybuilder. However, after that, he didn’t typically train with low reps.
Set after set, he hit 10 to 12.
In many ways, Coleman’s workouts were a throwback to an earlier era. He stressed body parts twice weekly and often trained twice daily, and he emphasized free-weight basics. For example, his typical chest exercises were all presses: flat, incline, and decline with a barbell in one workout and with dumbbells in the next. What distinguished him were the numbers he put up for 10 to 12 reps in workout after workout for more than a decade. There were 2,300-pound leg presses, 540-pound T-bar rows, 200-pound incline dumbbell presses, and 700-pound behind-the-back shrugs. The eight-timer took precautions such as wearing a belt and wrapping his joints (he suffered no tears during his long career), but his muscles may have simply grown too strong for his skeleton. The longterm toil of heavy metal eventually wore down his spine.
Coleman’s Workout Stats
Sets per body part: 12–16
Reps per set: 10–12
Body-part frequency: Twice weekly
Barbell row: 495 x 10
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The two things six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates shared with Coleman were ludicrously large weights and injuries. His best lifts include 425-pound incline presses (eight reps), 660-pound hack squats (12 reps), 200-pound dumbbell shrugs (10 reps), and 440-pound machine pullovers (10 reps). And here’s an inventory of his injuries: left-shoulder ligament tear (March 1994), left thigh tear (April 1994), right biceps tear (July 1994), right thigh tear (July 1997), left triceps tear (September 1997). He also suffered a stomach rupture in August 1997 due to anti-inflammatory use, an indirect result of injuries.
Yates’ training philosophy was dramatically different from not just Coleman’s but from every other Mr. Olympia’s. He was history’s most successful adherent of high intensity training (HIT), a system of low volume but maximum effort. After two or three warmup sets, he usually did only one working set per exercise and only three to five such sets per body part. However, he pushed those sets to absolute failure and then beyond, mostly via forced reps.
Yates’ tissue tears are not as potentially debilitating as Coleman’s skeletal trauma. Still, he reached the same conclusion as the legend whose Olympia reign followed his. “A lot of people will say that my experiences prove that I train too heavy, too hard, and that I’m maybe crazy,” Yates said in 1997 after his final O victory. “I say I train intelligently, but I also train with a passion. I’m constantly walking a fine line as I explore the limits of my capabilities…That means pushing myself to the limit. If you don’t overstep your limits, how do you know what your limits are?”
Yates’ first inclination was to skip one Olympia and come back healthy the following year, but his battered body wouldn’t cooperate. How many more O’s could he have won if not for the injuries? The better question is: Could he have ever been Mr. O if he didn’t sometimes overstep his limits? HIT training is so associated with Yates, it’s difficult to imagine him training any other way. When he tore his biceps, he was underhand barbell rowing 405. Colossal weights and all-out intensity were, ultimately, his downfall, but they’re also what made him a six-time Mr. O.
Yates’ Workout Stats
Sets per body part: 3–5
Reps per set: 8–10
Body-part frequency: Once weekly
Barbell row: 405 x 8 (underhand)
Arnold Schwarzenegger has been training with weights for over 50 years. In the beginning, he competed in Olympic lifting and powerlifting as well as bodybuilding. In 1968, the year he turned 21, he deadlifted nearly 700. During his Olympia reign in the ’70s, however, his workouts were seemingly ceaseless and of moderate intensity. He trained body parts thrice weekly, and he worked out twice daily. So, for example, he’d hit chest and back in the morning and legs, forearms, and abs in the afternoon every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.
Such high frequency prevented him from going mega-heavy or balls to the wall. The core of his workouts were the barbell and dumbbell basics, usually pyramided, and he favored reps in the 10 to 15 range but went as high as 20. Supersets were regularly employed, as when he alternated chest and back exercises. “Supersets let you work out faster and get better pumps,” he explained. The pump, not the weight, was his principal focus.
Arnold has undergone hip replacement surgery (2002) and two shoulder surgeries (2003 and 2012), but it’s difficult to blame his Olympia training when the first such operation occurred 22 years after his final contest. The Terminator has done thousands of workouts since his 1980 retirement, as well as numerous movie stunts and athletic endeavors, like skiing (broken leg, 2006). His high-frequency, high-volume ’70s training is one of the safest methodologies you can choose, but it’s not very practical. Arnold himself is way too busy now to spend four hours in a gym six days per week. That said, though he turns 69 on July 30, the most celebrated bodybuilder of all time is still healthy and still pumping iron.
Schwarzenegger’s Workout Stats
Sets per body part: 15–25
Reps per set: 10–15
Body-part frequency: Thrice weekly
Barbell row: 275 x 12
“I’ve never been injured—no tears, no pulls, no joint or ligament damage.” So said Lee Haney in 1993, two years after he retired at 31 with a record eight Mr. Olympia titles. Though he’s continued to train to maintain his slimmer physique, the legend remains injury-free. How has he managed to avoid the joint, tendon, and muscle trauma that afflicted Yates and Coleman, the two Mr. O’s who followed him? In three words: “Stimulate, don’t annihilate.” That was Haney’s celebrated maxim.
“Stimulation is a guessing game,” he stated. “Surprise your muscles with varying workouts at varying levels of resistance. Then allow for the necessary recovery time.” Haney focused on feeling his muscles contracting, not on moving maximum metal. He consistently utilized lower reps than our other three winningest Mr. O’s. Many sets topped out at only six to eight reps. Still, he never went as heavy as he could have. He called a rep with a controlled negative and smooth, full positive a “check mark,” and a perfect workout consisted of check marks for every rep of every set.
Haney often constructed his routines to limit the metal he needed to hoist. For example, instead of starting with 500- pound squats (annihilate), he squatted after leg extensions and leg presses when his legs were pre-exhausted. Then he only needed 315 (stimulate). This, and the fact that he never did deadlifts, may have saved his spine from all the compression problems Coleman has experienced. Overall, this eight-timer attributes his “good luck” to a belief that injury prevention was necessary for maintaining his status as world’s best and for living healthy and pain-free long after he unfurled his final lat spread.
Haney’s Workout Stats
Sets per body part: 12–15
Reps per set: 6–10
Body-part frequency: Once in four days
Barbell row: 245 x 10
SO IS IT WORTH IT?
When I asked the current and 7X Mr. Olympia, Phil Heath, if the kind of training that resulted in Coleman’s injuries was worth the eight Olympia titles, he said no. “I think there comes a time when 800-pound deadlifts and squats and four or five plates on bentover rows, it’s just not worth it,” Heath stated. “That kind of training was cool for Dorian too until he tore his biceps. Staying injury-free is a big thing for me. I want to be healthy during my career and after my career.”
Of course, it’s not an either-or question. Haney demonstrated a very different path to eight Sandows, just as Arnold mapped out a unique route to seven. Heath is learning lessons from them and finding his own ways to stimulate but not annihilate. Like Arnold, he focuses on the pump and he does relatively high volume, and, like Haney, he pre-exhausts so he can go lighter on his heaviest sets. He avoids riskier exercises entirely. He also places a premium on recovery and spinal health. All of this is done in a quest to not just catch Yates this year but Arnold next year and supersede Haney and Coleman three years from now. If Heath does, no one will care how much he squatted or how intense his workouts were. It’s all about the muscles and the titles. And, ultimately, what matters most to him, as for all of us, is good health.