Six-time Mr. Olympia champion Dorian Yates wants you to train harder. Harder than whatever image of yourself in the gym you just conjured up in your head.
Yates, who reigned over professional bodybuilding for the majority of the 1990s, ushered the proverbial “mass monster” era into the sport. In stark contrast to many of his contemporaries (and predecessors), Yates believed in the merits of High Intensity Training (HIT) and how you can grow a lot of muscle from a shockingly low amount of volume in the gym.
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His chest workouts were designed to do just that. If you’re tired of bumbling through a bunch of different exercises and want to take things back to their nitty, gritty basics, Yates’ approach to bodybuilding might be right for you.
Here is one of his signature chest sessions, pulled from a report by Muscle & Fitness, as well as what the scientific literature has to say about Britain’s most muscular export.
To grow the most muscle, you have to work harder than your hardest. Yates means it, too — in contrast to many other popular workouts and training philosophies, Yates prefers to go all-out on one single set for each exercise.
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If you can do another round, you didn’t work hard enough the first time.
This pec workout may look easy at a glance, but know that it will test your willpower as much as, if not more than, anything else you do in the gym.
If you’re used to coasting through three to five moderate-effort sets on the bench press before moving on to more of the same, strap in because you’re in for a wild ride.
- Incline Smith Machine Bench Press: 2 to 3 warm-up sets, then 1 set of 8 – 10 reps.
- Hammer Strength Chest Press: 1 to 2 warm-up sets, then 1 set of 8 – 10 reps.
- Incline Dumbbell Flye: 1 warm-up set, then 1 set of 8 – 10 reps.
- Cable Crossover: 1 set of 10 – 12 reps.
That’s it. In a way, Yates’ lean-and-mean approach to pec development is meant to force your hand. If you want a productive workout that actually encourages growth, you have to make the most of your time.
After all, you only have four daily working sets to take your pecs to their limit. Those sets have to count.
How It Works
Despite the minimalist set-rep notation, Yates actually employs a calculated approach to program design throughout his chest workout.
- Each exercise uses a different type of equipment, allowing for a novel stimulus from start to finish.
- Warm-up sets allow you to mentally prepare for the max-effort top set while helping to pre-exhaust the pec fibers.
- Proper exercise sequencing creates efficiency — big, compound pressing to begin with, followed by smaller targeted isolation work to ensure you torch every strand of your pecs.
The single most integral element to Yates’ workout is that your single working set on each exercise must be taken to, if not beyond, muscular failure.
As Yates himself once noted during his “Blood & Guts” online training series, the weights you use on your top sets are sort of irrelevant. The most important thing is hitting failure within the repetition range he outlines.
While Yates’ preferred environment was the weight room and not the science lab, there’s actually a shocking amount of literature analyzing his approach to resistance training.
Yates didn’t invent HIT — in fact, low-volume, max-intensity protocols were used far before his time by physique legends like Mike Mentzer — but Yates made one heck of a case for it with his own body. Here’s what modern science has to say about his approach to muscle growth.
For Gaining Strength
Bodybuilders aren’t overly concerned with their strength (since there’s no barbell to demonstrate it with on the Olympia stage), but getting stronger can certainly contribute to better muscle growth, particularly for beginners and non-enhanced trainees.
That said, single-set training does seem to lag behind performing multiple high-effort sets when it comes to increasing your strength, (1), though this does vary strongly depending on factors like training experience.
For Max Hypertrophy
When it comes to the merits of HIT for muscle growth, the available evidence is somewhat murky.
Training to Failure
A landmark systematic review on hypertrophy training has confirmed that most people, most of the time, will need to train somewhere in the realm of muscular failure to make progress. (6)
However, that doesn’t necessarily mean you must go to complete failure over the course of your entire workout, and other papers have demonstrated it is possible to elicit growth even if you don’t. (7)
Practically speaking, the evidence suggests that Yates’ approach to bodybuilding is certainly effective for gaining muscle, but it isn’t the only way to get big.
One hard set per exercise seems to be an effective modality for beginners or those who have a low tolerance to volume, but is ineffectual for developing both strength and size in tandem.
Practically speaking, a HIT-based approach could serve as an effective kick in the rear if you’re worried about not putting enough effort in at the gym. Training like Yates did could help remind you how it feels to really work hard for the growth you’re after.
If you want to train like Yates, it helps to have a working understanding of your own anatomy. The chest is a large but straightforward slab of tissue that you can develop in a lot of different ways. Here’s how its design impacts how you work out.
Your pec major makes up the bulk of your overall chest aesthetics. It’s a large, fan-shaped piece of tissue that spans your anterior torso and does a lion’s share of the work every time you perform a pressing movement.
The pec major originates on your ribcage and clavicle, and inserts onto the humerus, or upper arm bone. As such, its primary function is to adduct your arm, or draw it into your midline and forward, like in a push-up or dumbbell flye.
While some conflate the pec minor as being the same as your “upper chest”, this isn’t strictly true on an anatomical level.
The pec minor is the smaller and deeper compartment of the chest, but it’s still considered the same tissue. It originates on your ribcage but inserts on your scapula, not your humerus.
This means that the angle and rotation of your shoulder relative to your trunk can impact how much the pec minor comes into play, and why you can usually target it with incline exercises.
To be way too obvious, your shoulder is not a part of your chest. However, the anterior or front compartment of your deltoid is like a sidecar to your pecs.
Your front delt performs almost identical functionality to your pec major — it’s why you often feel your shoulders working on supposed “chest” exercises, especially as a beginner. If you feel all shoulder and no chest, you may be focusing too hard on protracting (pushing forward) your arm and not enough on drawing your arm both up and in.
That said, there’s no harm in getting some free delt growth in during your chest days, so don’t try too hard to take your anterior shoulder out of the equation entirely.
Going strictly off of Mr. Olympia title victories, Dorian Yates — born in 1962 and hailing from Britain — is the fifth-winningest bodybuilder ever. His six-Sandow career is exceeded only by athletes considered the best to ever take the stage; Ronnie Coleman, Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lee Haney, and Phil Heath.
Throughout the 1990s, Yates earned his slot in bodybuilding lore by taking the Olympia by storm with a nigh-unbeatable and impossibly muscular physique.
He’s partly considered to be the beginning of bodybuilding’s “mass monster” era, in which competitors prioritized sheer size above other qualities.
Dorian Yates at the Mr. Olympia Competition
- 1991: 2nd place
- 1992: 1st place
- 1993: 1st place
- 1994: 1st place
- 1995: 1st place
- 1996: 1st place
- 1997: 1st place
That air of mystique, coupled with a level of physicality the sport had never before seen, helped Yates carve his name into the walls of the sport long after he retired from competition in 1997.
Blood, Guts, and a Lot of Gains
There are few better teachers than a six-time sequential Olympia winner who redefined the state of play in bodybuilding. Dorian Yates knows a thing or two about building the biggest chest in the house.
You can follow his chest workout and see for yourself — just be prepared to work way, way harder than you’re used to.
- Kemmler, W. K., Lauber, D., Engelke, K., & Weineck, J. (2004). Effects of single- vs. multiple-set resistance training on maximum strength and body composition in trained postmenopausal women. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 18(4), 689–694.
- Fisher, James & Steele, James & Smith, Dave. (2013). Evidence-Based Resistance Training Recommendations for Muscular Hypertrophy. Medicina Sportiva. 17. 217-235.
- Ostrowski, Karl J.; Wilson, Greg J.; Weatherby, Robert; Murphy, Peter W.; Lyttle, Andrew D.. The Effect of Weight Training Volume on Hormonal Output and Muscular Size and Function. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: August 1997 – Volume 11 – Issue 3 – p 148-154
- Schoenfeld, Brad & Ogborn, Daniel & Krieger, James. (2016). Dose-response relationship between weekly resistance training volume and increases in muscle mass: A systematic review and meta-analysis. Journal of Sports Sciences. 35. 1-10.
- Wolfe, B. L., LeMura, L. M., & Cole, P. J. (2004). Quantitative analysis of single- vs. multiple-set programs in resistance training. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 18(1), 35–47.
- Krzysztofik, M., Wilk, M., Wojdała, G., & Gołaś, A. (2019). Maximizing Muscle Hypertrophy: A Systematic Review of Advanced Resistance Training Techniques and Methods. International journal of environmental research and public health, 16(24), 4897.
- Santanielo, N., Nóbrega, S. R., Scarpelli, M. C., Alvarez, I. F., Otoboni, G. B., Pintanel, L., & Libardi, C. A. (2020). Effect of resistance training to muscle failure vs non-failure on strength, hypertrophy and muscle architecture in trained individuals. Biology of sport, 37(4), 333–341.
Featured Image: @thedorianyates on Instagram