Let me take you back to an Autumn day in 1993. I had just competed at my first Nationals and had been training frequently in Temple Gym, in Birmingham, where I had been asked by Dorian Yates to join him and Kenny Brown to begin training together when Dorian wanted an extra person around or when Kenny was unable to make it.
If you know anything about Heavy Duty training, you’ll know that Mike Mentzer was one of the originators of the style; not only was Mike a phenomenal bodybuilder but he was also a great thinker and philosopher. Dorian had trained with Mike the year before and had taken elements of his own Heavy Duty training and refined them further to create one of the world’s most awe-inspiring changes in physiques between his 1992 and 1993 Olympia victories(as documented in the series of legendary black and white photos in Flex magazine).
It’s certainly no co-incidence that after training for over 40 years and then attaining Hons degrees in both History and Literature that I began to find within the greatest tales ever written certain elements of stories in mythology that appeared perfect analogies to actual situations in my bodybuilding career and that would also be perfect advice for anyone in any situation in life where they found themselves up against a task that appeared, at first, too great to take on.
On this first week’s post, I will give you one example of where a morning in Temple Gym, Birmingham, would later provide the exact same metaphor as a legend in Greek mythology…….Sound strange? Let me take you back to that clear Autumn morning around 10.20am just outside Temple Gym waiting for Dorian and Kenny to arrive.
This tale, in its entirety was a quest, a journey to seek the bodybuilding equivalent of the golden fleece or of facing the Minotaur; my quest was to build the freakiest, biggest, best-shaped, muscle laden physique of all-time. In reality, the quest was no different than those of antiquity it’s just the prize was a different one. To achieve this, I had already undergone my ‘apprenticeship’, years of training under my belt with the biggest guys at my gym until I was the biggest guy, so then I met with and began training with Johnny Fuller, an ex-Olympia contender who had trained with the best, including Arnold. Johnny’s high-rep, high volume approach gave me results but the style of training didn’t suit me or my body, I just wasn’t recovering enough. So, I searched out the best and travelled to Temple to be around Dorian, hoping that one day he would invite me for a session and that’s exactly what happened in the Autumn of ’93.
Those of you who have ever had the privilege of ever training at or visiting the original Temple Gym will know that it is underground, underneath a shop. As I look back, I can’t help but see the symbolism associated with the journey to Hades or the underworld of Greek mythology where the ‘hero’ would have to battle with immense danger (whether it was the minotaur, a dragon, Medusa or some type of dangerous beast), and that danger was very real. As I walked down the thirty or so steps down into the dark, dingy, blackness it was a literal representation of a trip to the underworld, one where I was very much going to meet danger and battle something that could literally kill me if I messed up. The weights were very heavy and very real!
Descent into the Underworld
We descended in darkness because we were the first ones to go into the gym; Temple opened to the public at 12.00 to ensure that when Dorian and I trained he had no distractions, every piece of equipment was free and ready for our use and no one was there to see how he was training, he, himself, was known as the ‘Shadow’, a very mysterious character in the world of bodybuilding appearing once each year to dominate the Olympia and then return to his lair to get bigger and freakier the next year. It was around 10.25 when he arrived and we acknowledged each other with a simple nod of the head; no words were spoken and only the bare minimum of words were ever spoken during the workout, simply what weight we were using and encouragement during the set. The time for talking would be afterwards when we had finished, survived and then we could relax and chat, but until then it was all work. End of.
Dorian would get the cassette tape ready for the workout, and then we would all begin stretching and warming up with 4/5 minutes on an old fold-up stationary bike, the only piece of cardio in the entire gym! Only when we were warmed up and ready would Dorian press ‘play’ and the workout began to the first chords of ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ by Guns n Roses. Leg day was always the album ‘Appetite for Destruction’ by Guns n Roses and that music would seer a neurological connection into my brain so strong that even today when I hear those fist chords to ‘Welcome to the Jungle’ my stomach tightens and my brain clears and my body without a doubt undergoes some type of endocrine adjustment, probably a rise in testosterone levels as my brain equates the song still to preparing the body to go through a workout from Hell.
Dorian would grab a bottle of water from the fridge and we would walk over to the leg extension to go through our first two warm up sets before doing our one set to failure. Experience is time’s true master as when you chose your warm up weight you had to ensure it was enough to gradually prepare the quads for the huge weight that was expected in the working set but not enough that you took any energy or strength away from that working set. Those two sets were breezed through but my legs were already full and pumped as we ensured we squeezed the muscle to the maximum at the top of each rep. We each rotated turns until it was time for our one working set each…..this was an all-out maximum effort with as much weight as we could possibly left with perfect technique for between 8 and 12, even going up to 15 reps if it was possible. The set was brutal, full-on effort giving everything our bodies had in them and squeezing hard at the top of each rep encouraging each other to keep going, giving assistance when needed to etch out another 1, 2 even 3 more reps until our quads gave up fully exhausted.
That was our first exercise and maybe 6 or 7 minutes in and I was already walking unsteadily with a fierce pump in the quads as we walked over to the Smiths machine for one warm up followed again by one all-out set to failure. The warm up set was hard and heavy; heavy enough to prepare the quads for the intensity of the weight of the working set but not enough to take away from the set to come also. Metaphorically, I was now in the battle with the dragon, we had traded blows in that first exercise but now things were getting very serious, deadly serious as the weights involved were enough to break tendons, muscle fibres and leave someone crippled so with full focus and determination we set to prepare ourselves for that final working set.
On the wall next to the Smiths machine at Temple was a list of all the names of the people who had successfully completed 10 reps with perfect form with 5 plates (20kg) per side. The stance had to be close, heels almost touching and feet at ten to and ten past the hour then rock bottom down ass to the grass and back up again for ten reps. There were some huge guys training at Temple then and many top Pros from around the world had come to visit and some to train there. I, myself, was a 310lb top national competitor who Dorian must have thought maybe had the mental and physical attributes to train with him and yet there was only one name on that list….Dorian Yates. I could only ever manage 4 plates a side for 8-10 reps and Kenny also went with 4 plates a side but Dorian was superhuman strong, as strong a bodybuilder as anyone I have ever met and I have met them all pretty much. Maybe not as strong as Ronnie but their form was entirely different, Dorian’s form was precise and perfectly, but insanely intensely executed whereas Ronnie’s form was always a little looser but he lifted much heavier weights for sure.
So, into the set we went….when you un-racked the Smiths machine the huge weight hit you; you were going to squat this weight under control until your hams touched your calves and then explode upwards until you were just short of locking out so the tension was still on your quads. Each rep felt like it as your last possible but on you went, your quads on fire, shaking, feeling like they will give way any second but then you feel Yates behind you and you know you’re never going to let yourself down in front of Mr Olympia, not a chance on earth. He never gave much verbal encouragement, neither did he need much himself. Entirely self-motivated, he needed you there to help load the weights and to give him that minute touch to give him the extra one or two forced reps he needed to grow. All I ever said to him was a harsh, ‘Let’s go Doz’, or ‘Olympia time even the odd, ‘let’s do this Lionheart’ was all it took; with Guns n Roses blaring ion the background the air was tense and filled with aggression, determination and pure intensity and desire to win.
Slaying the Dragon
Dorian had something he always did when he was spotting you, he always said, at some point near the ned of the set, ‘3 More Reps!!’; you never knew when he would say those words and you often prayed for those words coming as your body started giving up and the quads were breaking down; but he always knew exactly when he knew you had 3 reps left! After 8 reps my quads were finished, that last eighth rep was all I had and the last few inches felt like forever to come up, but then it came….”3 More Reps, lad!” Holy shit. I thought I was done, how on earth was I ever going to get another 3 reps? But 3 reps I got; from somewhere deep inside you there is a place, almost a spiritual place where your body goes to in the event of a life and death situation to make sure you live it always keeps something in reserve. This was what Yates brought out in you and what I eventually learned to bring out in others, it a place where your mind, body and soul come together, perhaps if you are religious you may have an explanation for such a place, I am just beginning to understand about such things now after all these years, but there is great power and truth in learning such things and experiencing them is the only way in which you can truly learn them. I’ll always remember ‘3 More Reps’ for as long as I live, those words remind me of what I always have life to give no matter how tired I am or how long I have been working or training or writing…there’s always ‘3 more reps’.
I once described the place in my mind to a friend when I was trying to describe what it was like training with Dorian back then: I said it was truly like a mythological experience from the annals of Greek myth and legend. I know that may sound crazy but hear me out…..it is like you are walking over to a precipice, the precipice over the edge into Hell. You lean over and feel the heat from the fames and see the fires of Hell beneath you and then there he is, the devil himself and you laugh. Yes, you laugh at him because he never will be able to defeat you; you laugh and then you pull back, back into the land of the living and you have survived. You have survived the battle with the dragon of your life and that same mentality you learn there is the same lesson that the Greek myths teach us; that you can overcome anything if you give everything you have to a cause. But it has to be everything, and by commitment I man giving your all to the last ounce of life you have, with that level of desire there is no battle that you won’t win.
As we all completed out sets, Dorian would take a mouthful of water and swill it around his mouth and then sit it out on the floor of the gym. I don’t think I ever saw him drink any water, I don’t think he or we could have swallowed anything and kept it down. Seriously, if you are drinking any type of shake or drinking litres of water through your workout and you’re not being sick….you’re not training hard enough my friend. I was too respectful to his gym to ever try such a thing but I just sipped a little water to keep my mouth from getting too dry. I once asked a fellow Pro bodybuilder who often joined us for workouts at Temple, the great British Pro, Gary Sheldermine about Doz’s spitting his water out and he laughed and he said that he never did it either as he, too, was too respectful of Dorian even though we both felt we wanted to swill our mouths out likewise! We had a good laugh about that one.
Two exercises in and I was just about finished, my quads were shaking and walking was a little haphazard and wobbly but we still had one more exercise for quads and hamstrings and calves to train! Last up for quads were hack-squats. Dorian was immensely strong on these and they were brutal; only one warm up set needed which maybe wasn’t necessary for the muscle but was more for setting up the mind-muscle connection for the body to know what was going to be required of it. After you do an exercise a thousand times, that movement becomes embedded in your brain, each time you do it, a new neurological fibre is created so that when you do your warm-up set you are really telling the body and brain, ‘o.k. this is what we’re about to do, get ready buddy!’
That last set of hack-squats were insane; every inch of energy, every fibre of your quads were straining and firing to get the weight moving down to the bottom, again arse to the grass, and back up again just short of lock-out. The last few reps on here were like torture, by now we were all screaming with pain and effort and with the music blaring out it was a surreal environment. Anyone looking on in from the world outside would have thought there was a war going on, I guess in reality there was. It was war. I have never seen anything like it and I have never seen anything similar to it ever again; I can say, hand on heart, I have never witnessed anyone train as intensely as those sessions back then. I’m sure there are, I’m sure people do train like it….it’s just I’ve never witnessed it myself ever again and until I do I’ll keep looking forward to the day.
Then we took a short breather before we did hamstrings. Not long, only ¾ minutes but long enough for the stars to clear from your eyes and your breathing to remain to something like normal heavy breathing and not gasping for air as we had been doing minutes earlier.
Hamstrings were a fresh body-part, even though we had used them as a secondary muscle during quads we gave the first exercise two warm up sets before we went all-out in our working set. Hamstring curls were the first movement, a steady controlled negative followed by an explosive concentric part of the rep with a big squeeze at the peak part of the movement as your hamstrings reached the top. The two warm up sets were followed by a heavy working set, all out for maximum poundage for 10-12 reps with one or two forced reps at the end when your hamstrings were cramping and failing.
An important point to remember whether you are training with Mr Olympia or with your regular training partner is to get rid of your ego; leave it at the door, or even better, take total control over it such as the Stoics teach. If you do this one thing you are likely to stop from making the simple basic mistakes most people make when they train, even some top Pros can’t learn this one until they either suffer an injury or stop growing.
Next up was stiff-legged deadlifts, and as the name suggests, these are done with stiff legs not straight legs (those are two very different movements and I would always recommend stiff-legged over straight legged as they are safer especially when you are lifting 140-150kg). Only one warm up set and then in with our maximum weight, which was around 140kg, or three plates a side plus a ‘biscuit’ if possible. ‘Biscuits’ were what we called the tiny 5kg plates which we added when we were trying to improve strength as putting a 10kg on each side extra is too large an increase so we would always go with a small 2.5kg or a 5kg increase over our last weight that we could get 12-15 reps with.
Last up for hamstrings was single legged curls; standing at the time until Dorian bought a great Hammer-strength machine where you knelt with one leg and curled with the other and then reversed the movement to isolate the other hamstring; but back then we had a standing single legged machine where we could isolate each hamstring individually.
Last up was calves. By then our bodies were almost finished; our central nervous systems must have been hammered as if we’d been in a war zone and we could hardly walk to the standing calf machine. Sometimes Dorian would only do standing as his calves were so strong anyway but mine were weak so I was always glad to do one working on each exercise. The standing calf raise at Temple was legendary, I believe there were only 2 ever made and someone told me a while ago that one of them was still in use at a gym in Northern England…..I must find out who and where and re-visit that awesome bit of kit. The weight stack was enormous, the heaviest weight stack I’ve ever seen on a calf raise and it had two arms at the top where you could add extra plates if needed. Dorians calves were crazy sick doing these, it looked like someone had stuffed a football down his socks as his calf’s raised up to the top of the movement and then down to the stretch at the bottom. My calves had always been my weakest body-part, I had tried everything to make them grow and genetically I have weak muscle insertions allowing little potential for growth but with that machine and Dorian and Kenny’s assistance I managed to get my calves up to a point they were in symmetry with the rest of my legs, which b were always a strong point. It is almost ironic that now, being disabled, my legs are now withered away whereas they had been the first body-part most people noticed on my physique and luckily I was always pretty symmetrical and noted for my shape, sadly not for my size when I was competing in an era of behemoths!!
To Die only to Become Resurrected
At the end of the workout was when we finally dropped to the chairs or often straight to the floor where Doz would walk over you, I think taking great pleasure but in a very friendly way, telling you to stop making the place look untidy.
The battle with the dragon had been won and now we could relax and chat. Again, these are moments where true camaraderie can be built and friendships and respect is earned and remains true for a lifetime. I haven’t messaged Dorian for some time but every now and then I send him a message asking how he is and how his life is in Spain and he usually makes a remark about me living in ‘sunny’ Scotland. I did invite him and Gal over one time but he said sadly Gal can’t stand Birmingham’s weather so there was no way he was going to persuade her to come and holiday in Scotland; sad really as I think she’ love the mountains, glens and lochs here, there’ no better country on earth when the sun is shining.
And so I returned, after a drink and a good chat I would slowly and very carefully climb those same steps back up to the land of the living, back to the world where I had vanished from some hours earlier to undertake my own quest into Hades to defeat one of the dragons in my life. The dragons never go away, challenges will always accompany you in life no matter what you do or how hard you try to avoid them. You can certainly live with standards, morals and ethics to minimize your dragons but life is rarely fair and often brutal itself but having experienced so many dragons in my life with each raining session that I put myself through I have done my best to prepare myself for whatever challenges come my way. ‘Work nourishes noble minds’ said Seneca a long time ago and so should you work and nourish your mind, make your mind noble and allow yourself to aim towards the person that philosophy, or God, or whatever you believe in, wished to make you.
Until next week, remember…..’Three More Reps’ are always there to be given.
“Remain firm, you who suffer, don’t be kidnapped by your impressions! The struggle is great, the task divine – to gain mastery, freedom, happiness, and tranquillity.” – Epictetus, Discourses, 2.18.27-28.