5 Things Natural Lifters Can Learn From Pros

Lessons from the Greatest Bodybuilders of All Time

Arnold, Dorian Yates, Lee Haney, Sergio Oliva, and Larry Scott were among the greatest bodybuilders of all time. Here’s what you can learn from them.

Should You Train Like a Pro Bodybuilder?

Yes… and no. Blindly following the training of top bodybuilders might not work well for an average person training naturally. The physiology of both types of athletes just isn’t the same:

  • Bodybuilders that use performance enhancing drugs have an elevated level of protein synthesis. Not so with natural lifters. The natural guy has to trigger protein synthesis with his workout, while the enhanced bodybuilder uses his workout mostly to drive nutrients to the muscles to take advantage of the elevated protein synthesis.
  • The high level of anabolic hormones used by the pros can counterbalance an excessive increase in cortisol. In the natural bodybuilder, excessive cortisol release will not only kill protein synthesis, but will also trigger the expression of the myostatin gene, either of which will halt any possible muscle growth.
  • Anabolic steroids increase glycogen storage and thus negate or prevent glycogen depletion. Glycogen depletion in itself is very catabolic and natural trainees are more at risk.

Because of these differences, enhanced bodybuilders (especially if they have good genetics on top of all that) can tolerate more volume and can respond better to lighter “pump” work. They can also train a body part less frequently.

But despite these differences, the top bodybuilders often come up with important parts of the muscle growth puzzle, and these elements can and should be used by natural lifters. Here’s what you can take away from some of the top Mr. Olympia champions:

1. Larry Scott, Training Density

Scott was the pupil of the great Vince Gironda, a man who was decades ahead of his time. Both Gironda and Scott were true thinkers and tinkerers, inventing several variations of exercises to make them more effective at isolating the desired muscle. However, their most important contribution was the emphasis on training density – doing hard work with very short rest periods.

Having a high density of training (short rest periods) while still lifting heavy is one of the most powerful growth triggers. That’s one of the reasons why I like clusters, multi-rep clusters (2-2-2-2-2-2 or 3-3-3-3-3-3) and rest/pause sets. At first your performance will drop, but you can train yourself to be more resilient and stay strong even with short rests.

The benefits of high density training (while staying with reasonably heavy weights) are mostly in the body composition department – it will help you get leaner while adding on muscle.

The benefits to the cardiovascular system are also important, since good health is actually the cornerstone of muscle growth and fat loss. If you want to make crops grow, you can have the best fertilizers and use the best farming methods, but if the soil is poor you’ll have lousy growth. It’s the same with muscle. A healthier body will progress faster.

As an example, adding muscle (naturally) without a healthy cardiovascular system to support it is virtually impossible because the added muscle poses a threat to survival!

2. Sergio Oliva, Explosive Lifting

Before being the first truly freaky bodybuilder, Oliva was an international level Olympic lifter for Cuba. His upper back and forearms can certainly attest to that.

Much of his physical foundation was built on the Olympic lifts and heavy pulls. While you might not have to learn the Olympic lifts to benefit from them, explosive pulls like snatch-grip high pulls, push presses, and heavy Olympic deadlifts will really help a natural lifter build a thick back and shoulders.

Other great bodybuilders enjoyed doing the Olympic lifts from time to time, Robbie Robinson and Mike Mentzer being two of them.

The benefit of explosive pulls is an improved neural efficiency that will translate into better/earlier fast twitch muscle fiber recruitment. If you develop the capacity to recruit the fast twitch fibers earlier in the set, it means that you’ll fatigue/stimulate them sooner and with fewer reps. Additionally, you’ll burn less glycogen to get the job done. That means more glycogen for more growth.

On a side note, the more efficient you are at recruiting the fast twitch fibers, the fewer reps you can do at a given percentage of your max. But that isn’t a bad thing. Quite the contrary! It simply means that by being better at hitting the money fibers, you provide the same stimulation without causing as much fatigue (glycogen and neurotransmitter depletion).

These big explosive lifts also have the benefit of increasing muscle hardness and density.

3. Arnold Schwarzenegger, Training Frequency

Arnold was known for burying his training partners. He’s one of the rare exceptions that possessed an extremely resilient nervous system and a fiber type that allowed him to be really strong, yet have amazing set-to-set endurance. He also had a pain threshold second to none.

Arnold was one of the rare people who could hit failure on 2 or 3 sets of an exercise and then proceed to make his fifth set the best one. He could also tolerate workouts lasting hours, hitting as many as 60 total work sets.

I don’t recommend Arnold’s high volume approach, but the high-frequency approach is golden, especially for the natural guy or gal. Arnold routinely hit every muscle group three times a week, which may well be the optimal frequency for maximum growth and muscle retention while dieting down.

Consider the benefits:

  1. A natural lifter needs to use the workout to trigger protein synthesis. The more sessions you do (that provide enough of a stimulus to trigger the process) the more you’ll grow. The trick is to trigger protein synthesis/anabolism in a muscle as often as possible, without doing too much work that leads to excessive damage (from which natural lifters can’t recover from in time), depletion of muscle glycogen (which is very anti-anabolic), and elevation of cortisol levels (which kills protein synthesis).
  2. Hitting a muscle more often also makes you better at recruiting that muscle. Muscle fiber recruitment is a motor skill, and just like any other motor skill, the most important thing is the frequency of practice and not the quantity. If you’re better at recruiting a muscle and its muscle fibers, all of your sets will become a lot more growth stimulating.

Understand, though, that for a natural bodybuilder, volume and frequency are inversely related. You shouldn’t do both high volume and high frequency. Even enhanced lifters choosing a high frequency would do best to lower volume.

Do either a whole body approach 4 days a week or an upper/lower split done 6 days a week. With that amount of frequency, you only need one exercise per muscle group and three total sets: one set of moderate intensity to get ready, one demanding but conservative effort, and then one hard set.

Use different methods or sets/reps scheme (and exercises) on the 3-4 different sessions.

4. Lee Haney, Training Stress

Lee Haney was known for coining the expression, “Stimulate, don’t annihilate.” This was a departure from the mega-high volume approach popularized by Arnold and bodybuilders of his era. Haney did a lot fewer sets per muscle and didn’t go to failure and beyond as often as Arnold. He’d train hard, but not to the point of looking like he was going to have a seizure on those last reps.

I don’t agree with how Haney trained each body part directly only once a week, but he was on the right track with how to manage training stress. Each muscle received 8 to 14 work sets. That is the proper amount of work for maximal results. I recommend spreading that total workload over more weekly sessions.

You shouldn’t hit failure too often, especially on big compound movements. A rep to failure is just as demanding (maybe even more so) than a maximal, all-out lift, regardless of the weight used. Work very hard on the last set of an exercise but not to the point where you fail or break proper form.

5. Dorian Yates, One Hard Set

Dorian took training volume reduction even further than Haney, using a modified HIT approach of one set to failure per exercise for 3-4 exercises per muscle group. There are things he did that I don’t agree with, though, like going past failure by having his partner aid him with assisted reps or negatives at the end of a set and training each muscle only once a week.

Intensification methods are important, but those methods in which you aren’t doing the actual work all by yourself can be dangerous. Doing assisted reps (when your partner helps you lift the weight) or negatives (where your partner lifts the weight and you lower it by yourself) when you’ve already hit muscle failure is responsible for more injuries than any other method.

When you hit failure your capacity to control the weight goes out the window and muscle fiber recruitment is all over the place. It’s also very easy to experience technical shifts that will lead to injuries. It only takes one tiny mistake by your spotter to get into the problem zone.

What Dorian taught us was to only do one very hard set per exercise. While I’ll use intensification methods on that last set (rest/pause, drop set, mechanical drop set, clusters, partials) and push that last set hard, I don’t attempt a rep I’m not sure of making.

Work that last set as hard as humanly possible without reaching the point where you aren’t sure about completing the next rep. You’ll get maximum stimulus without the risk of injuries.

Make any workout work better. Fuel it.