Gordon LaVelle's Short and Intense Bodybuilding Training System, Part 1: You're Only as Good as Your Best Set
Gordon LaVelle is the author of Training for Mass, Second Edition, as well as Bodybuilding: Tracing the Evolution of the Ultimate Physique and other titles.
This article is about a highly effective and efficient system for building muscle. It’s a method that has been used by people who won national bodybuilding championships, world bodybuilding championships, and even Mr. Olympia titles. I personally used it to win NPC national-qualifying contests, and I continue to use it to this day.
Dozens of books have been written about this system of training. Countless articles have described it. Yet despite all this, the odds are good that you’ve never even heard of it. The odds are overwhelming that you’ve never used it, or even tried it. And unfortunately, even after reading this article, some of you never will.
Some of you will try this system however, and you may thank me later. I certainly thanked the person who told me about it.
There’s nothing terribly unusual about the method. It calls for no exotic equipment or unusual exercises; nor does it require a special setting. To make effective use of the system, all you need is access to basic weight-training equipment, a strong desire to build muscle, and an open mind. Almost everyone reading this article will satisfy the first two requirements, no problem. The third one is the big stumbling block.
If you’re a close-minded person, read no further. If you’re certain you already know the absolute best way to build muscle, stop reading now. This article is not for you. So go. Now. Yes, you.
If you’re still reading, this means that you’re interested in building muscle, and you have an open mind. You’re willing to look objectively at your existing notions about bodybuilding training, and you’re willing to consider new ideas. So let’s begin.
This style of training mainly resembles a normal bodybuilding workout. It makes use of the same types of exercises, and it’s broken down into sets and reps. But here’s what makes it different from your current routine: this system is based on the age-old adage that quality is more important than quantity. More specifically, it’s based on the notion that for muscle growth, the quality of your best set is far more important than the quantity of all your sets combined. Scientific research has shown that your body will, in fact, determine how much muscle it will add based only on whichever set you perform best.
Your body doesn’t grow when you’re working out. Your body grows afterward. It’s during the workout that your muscles send the message that your body needs to add muscle. In order to send this message however, your muscles had to be put to hard work.
But this message was not sent because you did a lot of sets. That’s not the type of hard work I’m talking about. The message was sent because one of your sets was very intense—more specifically, because the muscles you were training experienced very intense contractions. This is all that is needed to stimulate growth. All the other sets you did amount to little more than calorie-burning exercise. They will not factor into your growth.
You can do 20 sets for each bodypart without adding an ounce of muscle. Your muscles can also grow significantly larger if you perform a bare minimum of sets, as long as those sets are done properly. Unfortunately, a huge number of bodybuilders do the former. They make the mistake of performing lots and lots of mediocre sets. They think that merely banging out x number of sets is the key to muscle growth. They should instead be concentrating their efforts on performing a small number of productive ones.
The people who have used this system most effectively based their training entirely on performing a very small number of highly productive, all-out sets. In fact, to the get the best possible results, after warming-up, they perform only a single set per exercise. Yes, you read that right. Only one set.
This is a sample training routine, using this method:
- Day 1 - Chest and Triceps
- Day 2 - Back, Biceps and Abs
- Day 3 - Quads and Calves
- Day 4 - Shoulders and Hamstrings
- Day 5 - OFF
|Chest and Triceps|
|Incline Bench Press||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Decline or Flat Barbell Bench Press||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Close Grip Bench Press||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Lying Tricep Extension||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Back, Biceps and Abs|
|Wide Grip Lat Pull Down||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Barbell Row||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Seated Cable Row||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Barbell Curl||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Hanging Leg Raise||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Quads and Calves|
|Squat or Leg Press||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Leg Extension||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Thigh Adductor||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Donkey Calf Raise||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Shoulders and Hamstrings|
|Military Press||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Side Lateral||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Rear Delt Lateral Raise||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Barbell or Dumbbell Shrug||1||5-8 or 8-15|
|Leg Curl||1||5-8 or 8-15|
Repetition Ranges - Heavy And Light Days
The repetition ranges are about the same as with traditional training:
- 5-8 reps on heavy days
- 8-15 reps on light days.
However, since you’re only doing one set, you’ve got make sure every single rep makes the muscle really work. This is especially true with your last rep. Control the weight. Put as much effort into lowering it as you did raising it.
If you’re like most people, by now you’re thinking that this is all bullsh*t. How the hell can only doing one set make your muscles grow as much as doing five sets? Well, those are your preconceived notions talking. If you really do have an open mind, you won’t base your opinions on pre-existing ideas. If you have an open mind, then you have to accept that the following statement is, at the very least, a logical possibility: the degree of your muscular growth is dependent upon the intensity level of your one best set, not the total number of sets you do. You’ll also consider that two important pieces of evidence support the idea:
- The scientific research mentioned above showed that intensity is the only important exercise factor for muscular growth.
- A number of people became extremely muscular and won top bodybuilding titles by doing only a single, all-out, highly intense set for each exercise. If the system was BS, then this would not have been possible.
The people mentioned in the second point include former Mr. Olympia winners Dorian Yates and Sergio Oliva; and former amateur world champions Mike Mentzer and Aaron Baker. I promote this type of training because it has also worked extremely well for me. I used it to win NPC national-qualifying contests at a height of 6 feet even and an average bodyweight of 237 pounds. I’m therefore not a smoke-blowing professional writer, or a guy with an average build who says that this training should work, in theory. It does work, in practice. Although I never became professional, I did beat a few future professionals. I started doing single-set training because normal workouts were leaving me worn down, burned out, flat and tired.
You might also now be thinking: if this type of training really does work, then why does almost everyone use a lot of sets? The primary reason is tradition. As the thinking goes, everyone else is doing it; so I should too. No logical foundation is asked for, none is given, and apparently that’s good enough. The second reason is that so few people know about the one-set system, or know enough about it to consider giving it a shot.
The third reason is association. Magazine articles about champions often describe very long workouts that employ a large number of sets. But if you’ve been getting your training advice from magazines, keep this in mind: the articles in muscle magazines are often written by professional writers—people who have never seriously trained with weights, much less competed at a high level in bodybuilding. They don’t care whether the routines they write about have a logical foundation, whether they’ll burn you out, or if they’re even real. Some of the routines are flat-out made up by the magazines. I’ve seen this happen with my own eyes. On top of that, if you think the article written by the reigning Mr. Whoever was actually written by him, think again. A lot of top bodybuilders can barely put a coherent sentence together. A good deal of the time, the articles are written for them by somebody else.
So maybe by now you’ve at least considered trying the method. But you also might be thinking: if you need to perform very intense sets for each exercise, and one works well, why not just do a few more similar sets? Wouldn’t you grow even more? Unfortunately the answer is no. When you train with intensity, you stimulate growth. This stimulation is not cumulative. Two sets are not twice as effective as one. Your body will simply respond to whichever set was more intense.
But what about all the gigantic bodybuilders that perform three, four, five, and sometimes many more sets for each and every exercise they do? It’s true that most massive bodybuilders train like this. However, doing a lot of sets is not why they are so big. They are so big for following reasons—and pay attention, because this is the truest thing you’ll ever read about bodybuilding training: these guys have a combination of great genetics, powerful drugs, hard work, determination, consistency and adequate nutrition. If you have all these things, eventually you’ll get huge too. If you have all these things, the specifics of your workout routine won’t even really matter. Just about any type of training will work—as long as you fulfill all the above criteria.
This is why 1988 USA overall champion John Defendis got huge doing up to 100 sets per body part (no kidding), and why Dorian Yates got huge doing between two and five. It’s why Albert Beckles could do 45 sets for his back—and why Mike Mentzer could get nearly identical results from four or five. It’s also why a lot of huge bodybuilders get away with using sloppy form. If you have the combination of attributes listed above, go ahead and toss the weight around. You’ll get huge anyway. If you don’t believe it, watch some videos of Bertil Fox training.
So if almost anything will work for the right people, why shouldn’t I just stick with what I’ve been doing? The biggest reason is wear-and-tear. Talk to old bodybuilders. Notice how many of them have trashed shoulders and knees, sore elbows, bad backs, and even torn muscles. I recently talked to Ed Corney. He loved frequent, high-volume training, just like Arnold Schwarzenegger taught him back when Arnold competed. Ed told me that back in the 1970s he did two things: he trained, and he trained. He now has two artificial shoulder joints, because he so thoroughly destroyed his originals. He also has visible partial muscle tears. That’s a steep price to pay for having the pleasure of spending long, taxing hours in the gym.
The second reason to consider switching is mental and physical burnout. Overdoing it—also known as overtraining—is the biggest pitfall in bodybuilding. If you overtrain, all your progress will stop and your motivation will slip away. Maybe you’ve experienced this before. The easiest way to overtrain is by doing lots and lots of sets, every workout.
The third reason is time. Typical bodybuilding workouts last two hours, and the most dedicated bodybuilders will train anywhere from five to twelve times each and every week. Obviously this can be a huge investment of time. It can also be tremendously wasteful when you consider that at least equal results can be gotten from a much shorter program.
Huge bodybuilders might tell you that it’s “essential” to use a lot of sets, but since very few of them have a used a low-set approach, many simply don’t know if this is true. They just know that using a lot of sets worked for them. At the same time, if a Mr. Olympia claimed that taking mud baths every night was essential for getting huge, I guarantee that a lot of people would copy him. Mr. Olympia might actually be convinced that the baths are responsible for his growth. He might write articles describing how essential they are. However, this doesn’t make it so.
A lot of people who are against the low-set approach have never even tried it. They simply declare it to be impossible and refuse to consider otherwise. The only way to really know is to try it for yourself. However, if you’re too afraid to stray from the workout you’re current using, do this instead: cut your sets in half. That’s all. If you’re doing four sets per exercise, try doing two good ones instead. I’ve been recommending this initial approach for years, and I’ve never known anyone whose results got worse from doing it. Cut your sets in half and you’ll get results that are at least equal to those of your current routine. The biggest difference might be that you’ll have more energy and greater enthusiasm the next time you step foot in the gym.
Reduce your sets further and you’ll be closer to a level that’s ideal for muscular growth. Cut your sets down to one—one hard, concentrated, highly-intense, all-out set for each exercise—and you’ll be surprised by the results.