Gordon LaVelle is the author of 2 books: Training for Mass, and How to be Thin: An Instruction Manual for Getting Rid of Fat and Keeping It Off Forever.
Muscle and Brawn: How did you catch the “iron bug”, and how did you train in your early years?
Gordon LaVelle: I was always interested in anything of an athletic nature. In particular feats of strength impressed me. As such, as a kid I was keen on being able to do a large number of pushups, pullups, things like that. Although I think I got my first barbell at age 10, I would pretty much “work out” with it on a haphazard basis. But of course, you just can’t do a whole lot with a single barbell and a few of those old plastic-filled-with-cement weights when you have no other equipment and zero knowledge. When I was 15 I signed up for the weightlifting class my high school offered – only because the class I originally tried to get into was full. Looking back, that was a rather fateful turn of events. Once that class started, I began lifting weights and haven’t stopped. That was 26 tears ago.
My early training was horrendous. Although in the high school gym I had access to lots of reasonably good equipment, I had the same level of knowledge. As such, I would do things like train arms every single day, for the whole class, and then train them again at night when I got home (on my updated lousy weight set). Nevertheless, I made enough improvement to keep me me doing it. In the next few years my lifting scheme improved dramatically (since I now trained my entire body), though I was still lifting far too much, and far too often. As such, my enthusiasm during that period was pretty variable. I considered giving the whole thing up many times due to mental burnout, unsatisfactory results, and fatigue. Ultimately though, I love lifting far too much to have ever quit.
I suppose my crowning achievement for that era was winning a teen contest with a very impressive-sounding title. I couldn’t help but feel that the victory was hollow, however, since to be honest the other guys in my class weren’t very good. I’ve subsequently seen a few bodybuilders shamelessly trumpet similar victories, something I will never understand. I would rather place third in a first-rate show that beat a field of duds. One thing I’ve repeated to quite a few competitors is that people will not remember what shows you’ve won. They will, however, remember you if have a good physique. This is something I grasped early on, and it’s been a fundamental part of my mentality and approach ever since.
Muscle and Brawn: Your book, Training for Mass, explores the theory and reasoning behind HIT (High Intensity Training). How did you cross the fence to HIT training, and what type of results came with that change?
Gordon LaVelle: The big change came in the mid-to-late 80’s when I read an interview of Mike Mentzer in one of the bodybuilding magazines. I can’t recall which magazine it was. Of course he didn’t outline the entire high-intensity training theory in the interview, but he mentioned a few reasons why a single set, performed with the highest level of intensity, will produce the same or better results than the typical volume-oriented bodybuilding workout. His rationale was too compelling for me to ignore. As a result, I began to ease into it. Because I had gotten decent results from doing lots of sets, I had a hard time letting go of that approach.
I began with an overall reduction of the number of sets I performed. After a couple of weeks, I realized that my results were the same, but that I was less physically and mentally burned out. Before long I was doing two sets, which I consider to be the threshold of low-volume training. One thing I advise to people who want to try HIT but are leery of it is to simply do two working sets per exercise instead of their usual four or five. Eventually I bit the bullet and went down to one set. I’ve never looked back. I’ve been very happy with my results, I’m never burned out – and very importantly, I’ve never had a serious injury.
It also bears mentioning that when I started to make the switch to HIT, I was generally aware of the logic of the idea, but had yet to become fully versed in the theory. Naturally, I was still a bit apprehensive. In the book, I’ve managed to condense the theory to a single paragraph, which may help reduce the trepidation of those considering switching to it.
Muscle and Brawn: Do your HIT workouts look more like Mentzer Heavy Duty workouts, or do you perform multiple sets per body part more like a Dorian Yates style routine?
Gordon LaVelle: I definitely belong more to the Yates school. His resembled more of a traditional bodybuilding workout: visiting the gym several times per week, training a few body parts each day, and performing two or more exercises per part. I seem to recall that he was training each part once a week or so. I lifted with that frequency for several years, but now I’m down to training each part about three times a month – which has proven to be remarkably effective. The main differences between between my routine and a traditional (high-volume) routine are greater rest periods, and of course I do only one working set per exercise.
If I recall correctly, Mentzer advocated taking many days off between each and every gym session. Although apparently that approach is effective for nearly everyone that tries it in earnest, I personally would go nuts if I stayed away from the gym for that much time. Psychologically I just need to exercise more frequently than that. Mentzer was also adamantly opposed to doing any cardio, as he was convinced that any energy expended apart from the actual weightlifting workout is detrimental to progress. I don’t share this view. Mentzer even went so far as to strictly oppose stretching, which is preposterous. Mentzer’s approach seems to be most ideal for anyone that absolutely cannot devote much time or energy to weightlifting. For example, certain athletes that spend a good deal of time doing other forms of training might not have the time or energy to perform a more traditional bodybuilding workout.
So there’s difference in opinion with how to best apply the HIT theory. The root of this difference lies with the principle of frequency. The theory states that for a muscle to grow, there must be adequate rest – that training sessions must be “infrequent”. This of course begs the question of how long you should rest, and whether “rest” means abstaining from exercise entirely. This has not been resolved to universal satisfaction. Ultimately it becomes a trial-and-error thing.
Muscle and Brawn: I know what you mean about “needing” to go to the gym. I love to lift weights, and infrequent workouts are hard for me.
What type of workout and frequency would you recommend for the average volume trainee who wants to try HIT? Say this trainee has 1-2 years of volume training under his belt, and has experienced very small gains…
Gordon LaVelle: Like I said, going down to two working sets is a good first step. In fact, some people have made the switch to two, became satisfied, and have remained with that program. I always recommend performing different rep ranges for the two. For example, one set might be in the 6-8 rep range, the other being 12-15, or even higher. The hypothesis here is that the different ranges will stimulate both fast and slow-twitch fibers – both of which are present in all muscles – to an equal degree. Increased growth from this second set is only hypothetical, so I only recommend performing two as a stepping-stone. Making the switch from volume training straight to one set is ideal, but many people are initially leery of the approach, in spite of its logic. I was.
The other thing these people need to keep in mind is that every working set absolutely has to be an all-out effort. Rarely do I see volume trainers going all-out every set. Those that do very often end up with a complete muscle tear. Rich Gaspari is a good example of this (he tore a lat muscle). Volume plus intensity results in overtraining and injury. However, people like Gaspari also set a more obvious example: He trained long and hard, and the result was an amazing physique. It therefore was accepted by most as law that in order to have the physique of a champion, that you have to train like this. This isn’t an irrational deduction. However, once you factor in that the only important exercise factor for muscular growth is intensity, it reveals the fact that volume-oriented workouts are inefficient, suboptimal, and eventually dangerous – even if some people are able to get excellent results from it. In Gaspari’s case, his results were excellent up until the point that they were disastrous.
The big problem is that the idea of less-is-more in weightlifting is counter-intuitive. I could just tell someone who is disappointed with his gains “cut the number of sets you’re doing in half,” without explanation, and I guarantee he won’t do it. One thing I discovered is that once people become fully aware of HIT theory, then they are willing to give it a shot. I had been telling people in my gym for many years that I only do one set. They could see me doing this, and they could see that I got good results. These were widely attributed to superman genetics and nothing more. However, once my book came out, quite a few people made the switch. The point of all of this is that learning the theory is an instrument part of the switch. It very much allows you to believe in what you’re doing, which is a fundamental ingredient of success for anything.
Regarding frequency: That would depend on a few things. For example, the older you are, the more rest you need in between the same body parts. However, training the whole body over the course of a week is something that seems to work well for almost everyone I’ve encountered. The important thing is that there are measurable gains, and that mental and/or physical burnout doesn’t set in. Once a week might seem like a very long time between body parts for some people, but I really can’t think of any instances where people using this program, or any program, were being held back by “under-training”. It’s almost universally the opposite.
To sum this up: A good switch would consist of performing one or maybe two high-intensity sets per exercise, with each body part being trained once a week. The number of exercises per body part can be roughly the same as the previous workout, maybe a little less. The important part is to avoid redundancy. For example, don’t do both barbell and dumbbell incline presses. Don’t do wide-grip chins and wide-grip pulldowns. You’re only wasting time, energy, and recovery potential by doing this. And finally, do your “homework”. Take a few minutes to find out exactly how HIT works.
Muscle and Brawn: What do you make of the forum/Internet battles that rage over HIT vs. Volume training? Why do you feel the debate is such a “hot button” issue, and why do you think many HIT followers are labeled (such as HIT Jedi) and ridiculed? I come from the school that you debate a topic, and not put down the man. Do you think that the personal attacks are because of the inability to properly debate a subject?
Gordon LaVelle: Name-calling is usually a tactic of those on the losing side of an argument. Calling high-intensity advocates “Jedi” implies that HIT the system is founded on superstition rather than logic. In reality, the opposite is true. High-intensity training is based on a viable science scientific theory. It was deduced after taking into account two things: First, Hans Seyle’s general adaptation syndrome, which states that the body’s response to stress is proportional to the intensity of stress that it encounters; second, research conducted over the years that consistently showed that intensity is the only important exercise factor for muscular growth. And finally, a theory must have the ability to predict future events. In this case, high-intensity theory predicted that brief, intense, and infrequent weightlifting will result in muscular growth. HIT succeeds in this regard. I am proof of this as are many others.
One thing that is interesting is that in truth, whether they know it or not, all bodybuilders use HIT. Everyone does a single set to or beyond failure for each exercise. However, most bodybuilders then make the mistake of doing a lot of other sets too. They accomplish six things by doing this: They burn more calories, burn more glycogen, wear down that particular muscle and its connective tissue further, create greater demands on their overall recovery, subtract from the effectiveness of subsequent exercises, and increase their potential for injury. The last point doesn’t mean a whole lot to young guys, but as you get older – and if you intend to keep lifting weights for the rest of your days – this becomes a huge issue. Witness the parade of bodybuilders past 30 with complete muscle tears and you can see what I mean. High volume weight training can be very hard on the human body, which was never meant to absorb the punishment of long weightlifting workouts, year after year. On the other hand the body is fine with, and very responsive to, brief and infrequent bouts of extremely intense exercise.
Regarding HIT’s detractors, the majority do not even know what the theory is. They just know they’re against it. This makes the whole issue rather interesting. For example, I’d be willing to bet most of these people couldn’t describe what string theory is either. But you probably don’t see them in Internet forums, railing against string theory and calling its supporters names. So obviously this touches a nerve. But why? No one is forcing them to do it. If someone goes in the gym, trains a certain way, and gets a certain result, why would you even care?
I think maybe the idea that long, grueling workouts are not better somehow upends their world view. This may come from a mentality that I call the “Rocky syndrome”; some people want to believe that they are tougher and willing to endure more pain and hardship than anyone else, and that the degree to which they put themselves through this will dictate their level of development. Maybe they don’t like the idea that someone can train 20% as long and get as good or better results. This is the only explanation I can come up with.
I seem to recall someone mentioning that HIT was put forth as a ripoff money-making scheme, and nothing more. I don’t know where this big flow of money is, and I don’t seem to recall ever spending any money on any HIT-related enterprise. I had a Mentzer book once that someone loaned me. As for my own book, I wrote it not expecting to make a red cent. What I’ve gotten out of using HIT, however, has been of immeasurable value: Better results, in less time, with no burnout and no injury.
Muscle and Brawn: I want to talk the nuts and bolts of HIT sets. There are many high intensity training techniques such as slower rep cadence, slow negatives, forced reps, drop sets, etc. At what stage of training do you believe a trainee should start experimenting with these tactics, if you recommend they use them at all? And what techniques are the most important for a HIT “toolbox”?
Gordon LaVelle: Most people can start using them at a fairly early stage. The idea is that you should progress as for as long as possible just going to failure and not further. For the beginner, if you go to failure, and put forth an all-out effort in doing so, that should be enough to stimulate the muscle. In fact, using beyond-failure techniques before they’re needed removes the potential boost you would get from them had you waited. This initial phase is pretty variable; for some people it could be as little as a few months. For others, perhaps more than a year. The determining factor is rate of progress. Once progress stalls, as long as overtraining is not the culprit, an increase in intensity through the employment of beyond-failure techniques is called for.
I’m also in favor of performing two working sets, each with different rep ranges, during this initial period, for the following reasons: Because of the hypothetical effect that different twitch-types will benefit, as I mentioned before; because of the fact that recovery demands are less when beyond-failure techniques are not used; and most importantly, because of the psychological angle. Regardless of the logic, it’s often too difficult for beginners to equate growth with a single set. Also, beginners often have unabated enthusiasm (thus to tendency to far overdo it), which stands a good chance of overwhelming logic. The switch to a single set can take place later, although as I’ve said before, two sets per exercise should still be considered low-volume training. So when is later? Perhaps when another boost is needed. I personally was happy with two sets for more than a year – although deep down I knew I could get the same or better results from a single set. After dropping the extra set, my suspicions were confirmed. One set worked just as well.
All the techniques you mentioned are effective. I happen to train alone, which limits what I can do to a certain degree. Nevertheless, you can still get a great HIT workout by yourself. For example, for most exercises you can use a variation of rest-pause, whereby you take a set to failure, rack the weight until enough strength returns to do one more rep, then do another rep, then repeat.
I use a slow rep cadence for about all of my exercises, especially towards the end of a set, something I’ve found to be indispensable. I do forced reps when possible, with exercises where I’m able to help myself. Leg press is a good example of this, as are single-arm dumbbell curls. Training with a partner of course makes things a little easier, especially in the case of forced reps. The key is to lower the weight under control after getting help lifting it. You want zero assistance during the negative portion of the rep.
One thing you want to do with HIT is make each and every set as difficult as possible. You can accomplish this without using excessively heavy weights. Going slow and making every rep count, really feeling the weight, is important. If I were to name a single most-important beyond-failure technique, I’m inclined to say a slow negative rep at the end of a set. Since negative reps are capable of producing the most intense contractions, you want to take full advantage of these. In fact, if you don’t finish a set with such a rep, you haven’t truly taken the set as far as it can go. You’ve left the set before it was finished.
I see a lot of people using some pretty senseless techniques in the gym, but one of the biggest is completing the final positive rep of a set, then letting the weight come crashing down with no attempt to lower it under control. What’s even worse is that often times the final positive rep is cheated up. Cheating a weight up after positive failure has been reached is totally legitimate, and in fact a great tactic, if the weight is then lowered under control. Cheating the weight up before letting it drop accomplishes nothing – other than drawing attention the perpetrator, which is maybe the whole point.