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: The squat and deadlift are generally seen as necessary lifts. Some HIT proponents such as Markus Reinhardt and Drew Baye believe that training the deadlift to failure is acceptable. And others see this strategy as very dangerous. Do you recommend these lifts for HIT, and if so, how are they best incorporated into HIT? Trained to failure, or not?
Gordon LaVelle: Any exercise worth doing is worth taking to failure. When performed correctly, deadlifts shouldn’t be that dangerous. That exercise is a staple for some, and it works very well for a lot of them. And although I no longer squat, I owe just about all the size in my quads to very hard and heavy squatting. (I no longer squat because I now get perfectly satisfactory results from leg press). I always squatted to the point of failure. In fact, one might say that I used a variation of rest-pause: Nearing the end of a set, I always knew that I could grind out a few more reps if I fought hard enough for them. I would stand in the upright position, with the bar still on my back, waiting until I could muster enough strength to get just one more rep. I would repeat this as many times as possible. This isn’t rest-pause is the strictest sense, because the quads are still working at least a little when you’re in the top position. However, most of the fibers in your quads should be at rest. I never liked assisted reps when squatting. I think mainly I didn’t want to have to burden anyone with the task of helping me to lift the weight. Regardless, this technique proved to be very effective. So yes, I’m certainly in favor of taking these exercises to failure.
Muscle and Brawn: Many critics of High Intensity Training believe that HIT workouts over-tax the CNS. What are your thoughts on this?
Gordon LaVelle: This may very well be true. I recall it’s one of the premises that led to the invention of Hypertrophy-Specific Training (or what I call progressive mechanical load training). The crux of the argument is that when training with high levels of intensity, it’s actually your nervous system that needs a good deal of time to recover, not the muscles themselves. If it is in fact true that the only important exercise factor for muscular growth is intensity, then of course this creates a bit of a quandary: Intense lifting causes muscular growth, but it also taxes the CNS to the point that additional rest is required – rest that the muscles don’t need. I would actually be interested in the seeing the results of an experiment whereby subjects train hard, but with sub-maximal intensity, but also with fewer days of rest in between, using only a single set per exercise. (I see countless people training with sub-maximal intensity and high frequency, using high sets, and I’m not impressed with their results). Maybe this would settle the issue.
I take a purely scientific approach to things, in the following way: The nature of science is that it is self-correcting. As I mention in Training for Mass, HIT is based on a logical, viable theory. The theory is verifiable and possesses the ability to predict. It works. It has worked well for me. I’m not one of those guys that writes books about weightlifting that looks like he himself doesn’t exercise. I’m a former champion bodybuilder. On top of this, I train quite a bit differently than the vast majority of bodybuilders. The combination of all these factors compelled me to write a book on the topic. At the same time, as I mention in the book, if another theory comes along that makes more sense and gives better real-world results (and is safer), I’ll be the first one to dump HIT.
Fred Hoyle never gave up his theory of a steady-state universe, despite overwhelming evidence that surfaced debunking it. He went out looking like someone who became blinded by love for his own ideas rather than someone on a quest for truth. I’m just interested in truth. At any rate, if in fact it is somehow proven that HIT is flawed, at the very least, it can be said that it approximates the best training method (whatever that is shown to be). The reason for this is that HIT works, and it works very well.
Muscle and Brawn: You mentioned HST. I want to get your thoughts on another popular training system…DC Training. What do you think of Doggcrapp Training, and do you believe it is in the HIT family?
Gordon LaVelle: It seems to be, at least in practice. Any routine that features “brief, intense, and infrequent” workouts falls into that category. Granted, these are all relative terms. My understanding is that in DCT, the workouts for each muscle group should take place as frequently as possible – as long as strength has increased between training sessions. This period can still be labeled infrequent – because within this context, frequent workouts are those which take place before there has been adequate recovery. So they are infrequent enough. And as with HIT and really all other strategies of weight training, frequency is the biggest question mark. The rest-pause tactic which is integral to the system appears to be a variation of that employed by a good number of HIT devotees. So the workouts themselves are both intense and brief.
It’s on theoretical grounds that DCT and HIT appear to be at odds. the Wikipedia article states that DC is based on the principle that “volume and frequency are inversely related.” In HIT, volume is never dependent on frequency; it’s a constant, sort of like the speed of light (to use another physics example). At the same time, let’s not get carried away. This is just weightlifting. Who cares what the theory is as long as the system works? If a system works, then do it. The one exception is volume training. Regardless of any results, I just can’t put my seal of approval on that form of training – not when I’ve seen so many veterans limp away with complete muscle tears.
As a side note, it may seem inconsistent that on one hand I say “who cares” about theory, meanwhile praising the theoretical foundation of HIT. The reason is that without understanding the theory of HIT, no one would use it. It’s too counter-intuitive.
Muscle and Brawn: What is the worst, and/or the most dangerous training principle or routine that you’ve come across?
Gordon LaVelle: Oh man. There appear to be so many. Like I just mentioned, high-volume lifting often results in a complete muscle tear. For a bodybuilder, there are few worse things. Quads, pecs, and lats are all at risk. But biceps appear to be a little more fragile than the others. If I had to pick a dangerous routine, it could be the practice of performing a large number of sets for biceps. These workouts are common, because I don’t think there’s a single living bodybuilder that’s satisfied with his biceps development. I further think Arnold Schwarzeneggar is indirectly responsible for more torn biceps than any other single cause. His routines featured 20 working set for biceps. A lot of people made the erroneous assumption that this must be the best way to get huge biceps. Granted, there have been many great bodybuilders that got huge biceps training this way. Countless others failed using this or similar routines, and more than a few tore their biceps after enough years of such lifting. Regardless, even with this knowledge, bodybuilders until the end of time will keep doing this. Some people just cannot be swayed. For them, my only piece of advise is to get good medical insurance – since it costs many thousands of dollars to reattach torn muscles.
Muscle and Brawn: I want to ask you about one of Mike Mentzer’s most controversial theories…rest. Mike often recommended exaggerated rest periods between workouts, sometimes resting 21 days between workouts? What do you believe?
Gordon LaVelle: This seems like too infrequent an interval, even to me. However, I know better than to pass judgment before learning what Mentzer’s rationale was. If he conducted scientific studies on this, I’m not aware of them. Maybe this came about from trial-and-error. But regardless, there is limitless evidence showing that muscle can be built with less rest than this. Sometimes a very large amount of muscle can be built with a good deal less rest.
This is the old frequency variable rearing its head again. Since we’ve already discussed the nervous system vs. muscular recovery debate, maybe we should just approach the problem from the standpoint of results. Apparently there are some top professional bodybuilders that get outstanding results from training each body part as often as twice a week. Of course, it should be kept in mind that for the most part these guys have a genetic predisposition for building muscle that vastly exceeds the average human’s, and that their recovery abilities have been quite chemically enhanced. (What’s interesting is that some others train only half as often, or less, and get about the same results.)
The pro training twice a week will have a lot of guys copying his routine, because his results are so good – not because he’s proven that his approach is optimal, which he hasn’t. It’s the classic error of confusing correlation with causal relationship; many of these pros also believe in things like that training with higher reps will increase the “hardness” of a muscle. The point here is that although a lot of pros are obviously able to build large amounts of muscle, some of their routines are based more on superstition that science. Nevertheless, genetics and the right chemicals can bountifully forgive suboptimal training.
Mentzer was able to build a very large amount of muscle, considering his era, but he always placed rationale above his personal results. But most bodybuilders want instructions, an example to follow, not rationale or theory. As such, there are frightfully few, if any, serious bodybuilders who rest 21 days between workouts. In fact, I don’t think I’ve ever met one. So without hard research or even anecdotes (other than maybe Mentzer’s clients) it’s impossible to say if that level of frequency is superior.
Trial-and-error dictated my own rest interval, which is now nine or ten days between body parts. For a long time I trained everything once a week, but I just seem to require more time these days. After 26 years of weightlifting, I’m very much in-tune with when I’m overdoing it – and once a week would be too frequent now. I’ve never tried the 21-day approach. I guess I never saw a need for it, and like I mentioned earlier, I would go a little loco if I stayed away from the gym for that long.
Muscle and Brawn: Besides your book Training for Mass, you’ve also written a book called How to Be Thin: An Instruction Manual for Getting Rid of Fat and Keeping It Off Forever. Can you tell me a bit about what to expect from this book? And is it stickily for bodybuilders?
Gordon LaVelle: First of all, I do realize that the two titles together appear a little paradoxical. The full title of the second book is How to be Thin: An Instruction Manual for Getting Rid of Fat and Keeping It Off Forever. It would actually be more accurate if I called the second book How to be Lean. I went with the word “thin” because the book’s geared toward a general audience. It only deals with the topic of losing fat and keeping it off. It most definitely could be of use to bodybuilders, although it does not deal with any of the particulars of dieting for bodybuilding contests. There are other resources for people interested in that.
I wrote the book because of personal experience. By my mid-thirties, I was in a perpetual state of what bodybuilders refer to as “off-season” shape, and the situation was not improving. I’ve always preferred a lean appearance, so I decided to get that. I took a reasonable approach, with which I was able get lean and stay that way. Like the idea of high-intensity training, there is some degree of counter-intuition with permanent fat loss. And as with HIT, this is often unknown to or lost on the general public. An example is the fact that Nutrisystem meal plans are so popular. Apparently many people want rapid weight loss, and they want to be free from making decisions about their diets. They don’t know that rapid weight loss can rarely, if ever, be maintained, and that being able to make good decisions about what you eat is the single most important factor for permanent weight reduction. The book is centered on themes like these.
Muscle and Brawn: Any new books or projects on the horizon for you in the near future?
Gordon LaVelle: Training for Mass II is in the works, though I don’t expect it to be completed until next year. My aim is to make it a true follow-up, not a re-hashing of the first book. I’m also once more leaning away from the use of pictures. I recall that before the first book came out, I let a couple of photographers know that there would be no pictures. Both of them told me “no one’s going to buy it.” Indeed the concept was unheard of. Every training book I had ever seen was loaded with pictures of oiled-up bodybuilders – Mentzer being guilty as any of the others. Yet I knew that there were many people with an interest in building muscle who first and foremost want useful information, presented in a serious fashion. The success of the book thus far is testimony to this – and it confirms the notion that a simple repetition of the first book’s information won’t cut it. Second-rate content won’t cut it either.
The opinion of those photographers is pretty insulting to the intelligence of everyone with an interest in building muscle – that without pretty pictures to look at, a training book will fail. I’ve gotten mail from people that have read the book, some of whom are extraordinarily bright. It’s flattering that they like what I’ve written, and it’s inspired me to put forth my best effort.
Muscle and Brawn: Personally, I found the lack of pictures refreshing. After seeing a half million bodybuilder images, I didn’t need more. Any hints as to what the next book will cover?
Gordon LaVelle: I’m still batting around a few ideas. My primary goal is to keep things fresh. I would like to discuss what I consider to be some of the flaws with Mentzer’s approach – lest anyone think that I’m doing little more than rehashing his ideas. Some of these are simple and obvious, like his opposition to stretching. I’m also open to feedback. Recently when people have contacted me through the Training for Mass website I ask if there are any specific areas that they would like to see covered.