We frequently hear that you do only one set per exercise. How did that come about, and how does it work in practice?
I started doing one main set per exercise only after I won my first Olympia in 1992. Prior to that, I had done two sets per exercise. Here’s how my training workload and intensity evolved.
I started training in 1983 when the vogue was volume training — 20 sets per bodypart was not uncommon. My instincts told me that was not the way to go, and as I researched bodybuilding, I became attracted to Mike Mentzer’s Heavy Duty system, which advocated intensity instead of volume. I started training four days a week, but very quickly felt I was overtraining and cut back to three times a week, working half the body at each session. After warm-ups, I did three sets of three exercises for large bodyparts and three sets of two exercises for smaller ones. With some slight modifications, this was my approach until 1986.
Feeling I’d gotten the most out of that format, I devised a three-way split in which I trained two major bodyparts per session. In conjunction with that, I reduced my workload and increased the intensity by cutting my main sets to two per exercise. With each workout lasting about 45 minutes, I was able to hit a four-times-aweek training schedule in which each bodypart was worked three times over a 14-day period. I was incorporating forced reps and sometimes rest-pause and negatives. I applied these principles only to the last set of certain compound exercises. I stuck to this modus operandi right up to winning the 1992 Olympia, after which I was looking to increase the intensity even more.
My theory was that I had advanced to a stage where, with my strength and abilities to mentally focus, I could put 100% into one main set, go to failure and get the optimum muscular response. Even when I had been doing two sets per bodypart, I felt that maybe during set one I was holding something back in reserve for set two. Now, by doing one set, I knew everything could go — had to go — into that one effort.
In preparation for that one all-out effort, I would warm up thoroughly. For heavy compound movements, I would do three warm-up sets. The accompanying chart shows a typical schedule for incline barbell presses.
So that’s how I developed my one-set strategy. It had taken nine years of hard training and application to build up to that level. It’s tough, physically and mentally, to consistently put everything you have into one main set, but I believed in it. And with six Sandows, I have to believe it worked. - FLEX