Read on as this multi – Mr. Universe 1953, 1961, 1967, 1971 shares his 50+ years of training wisdom.
Q: “Would you briefly tell us what a good basic routine would be for gaining size when you’re not trying to totally cut up?”
B.P. “If a person wants to gain massive muscular bulk, if I want to get my arms as big as I can possibly get them, I would probably do around 20 sets a day of say 4 exercises and 5 sets each for the triceps and 20 sets for the biceps per workout 3 times per week. That would be around 60 sets of triceps and 60 sets of biceps work per week. I would keep the repetitions between 6 and 8 and I would do all basic movements where I can handle as heavy weights as I can and then I’d take my diet and I’d consume any nutritious food that had calories in it and just flat eat!”
Q: “I was wondering when you talk about volume training like 20 sets for the biceps three times per week, what you think about lower volume, high intensity type of training that (the late) Mike and Ray Mentzer use. They said you can theoretically become a champion even if you’re not a genetic freak in just 5 years if you apply their method of high intensity type of training.”
B.P. “Mike and Ray Mentzer used to write to me when they were young kids back in Pennsylvania, when Ray was 9 years old and Mike was 11 years old. They’d send me little pictures of themselves and all types of stuff. I’d answer them back. I’d never dreamed they’d end up like they were, but Mike and Ray are genetic freaks. Ray is one of the strongest bodybuilders I have ever seen in my life and Mike is equally as strong.
They have trained heavy all these years. They must have tendons like the size of my thumb. Their bodies can stand that Heavy Duty type of training where they limit the number of sets to no more than five for either the triceps or biceps, while carrying each set to total failure in both the positive and negative rep levels for maximum growth stimulation. I can say with all sincerity that Mike and Ray do not train like this year in and year out.”
Q: “About the use of dumbbells. Do you use a lot of dumbbells in your training as opposed to barbells or does it make any difference to you?”
B.P. “Well, it does make a difference because you want as much variety in your training as you can possibly get and if I had to pick dumbbells over barbells I would go with the dumbbells. I think if anybody gets on a training program where the same exercises, sets and reps are done day in and day out, month after month, your body becomes so accustomed to what you’re doing that muscle growth will stop altogether. I will change my entire training program every 6 to 8 weeks. Different sets, different reps, and a different goal for yourself can generally shock you into a new growth range.”
Q: “Can you give me a typical workout that you might use from time to time?”
B.P. “I train 6 days per week. On Monday, Wednesday, and Friday I will train all the muscle groups for just one exercise each for 6 sets of each. I group the body parts in such a way so that I can do super sets and in doing so I won’t rest too long between sets. I change the exercises every workout day. As an example I might do Incline Dumbbell Flys for the chest on Monday, while on Wednesday I might go with the Bench Press and on Friday it might be Decline Bench Presses. Each of the 6 sets I do is increased from the previous one and each week I try to add 5 pounds to all my previous 6 set poundages.
On Tuesday I will do 18 to 20 sets for the chest and the back and on Thursday I will work the legs and shoulders for 18 to 20 sets each. I break up the back and leg training in the manner I have just described because they’re the two largest muscle groups and it’s not as tiring this way. I work my calves every day for a half hour. Saturday is arm day and just a laid-back fun day.
There are four muscle groups which I work six days per week for 6 sets of one different exercise each day. They are the Forearms, Abs, Leg Biceps and the Neck. I will train at about 85-90% of maximum and I try to do 30 sets per hour which is 1 set every two minutes. My rep scheme is varied in that I will do 6 to 10 reps per body part, but as I grow stronger I will up my reps to 15 for the upper body and 25 reps for the legs.”
Q: “I was just wondering how long I should be working out before I make the transition from say a 4 day a week workout schedule to something like 6 days per week and doing 18 to 20 sets per muscle group like you just mentioned, or 6 out of every 8 days like three time former Mr. Olympia, Frank Zane, does or something like that? I mean, how long should a bodybuilder be working out basically before switching to something a lot more intense like your workouts?”
B.P. “If a bodybuilder is not responding on a hard and heavy 20 sets per muscle group three times a week and he is not growing, believe me, doing five times that much is not going to do it for you. There has to be a limit to this. There is no set answer to this question. I know guys who can train 3 or 4 days a week, 45 minutes a day and make very good progress and others just don’t grow at all. I would never do more than 20 sets per muscle group three times per week. I don’t care what I did, to me it just isn’t worth the effort. You’re going to spend your whole life in the gym.
No one says that more time in the gym is better. Personally, I can tell you that I can get all that I need in a lot less than 6 days a week, 3 hours a day in the gym. I don’t have to train that much, it just means I like it. I like the surroundings, and I like the people. I use this as my time of the day to do what I so desire, but I’m sure I could be as healthy and fit as I could possibly be in one-half of that length of training time. But I enjoy the sport and I don’t mind being in the gym. The minute it becomes a drudgery and I don’t like it the smart thing to do is back off. Making the transition over from say a 4-day to a 6-day workout schedule and going from multiple sets to mega sets of say 20 will depend on how much time you have had in the sport of bodybuilding. I have trained for so many years I am sure I could do 25 sets per muscle. It’s like trying to get 6 gallons of water into a 5-gallon bucket. You can’t do it because there is going to be a gallon which will be wasted.
It’s just like in bodybuilding, you can only put so much into a particular effort and get so much out of it. Now for the length of time you have trained it may be 8 or 10 or 12 sets or even 6 sets per muscle group would be just as good for you as 20 sets would be for me. So you’ve got to realize the length of time you’ve been in bodybuilding and how much of a background you have understanding what you are doing with regard to your training and how mature your muscles are. All this has a big bearing on this.
Now I’m sure that if I do less than 20 sets per muscle group I’m not even going to maintain what I’ve got alone make any growth factor. The longer you have in the sport of bodybuilding, if you want to continue to improve, you’ve got to spend more time at it. If you want to get big, thick, coarse, bulky muscles, handle heavy weights, keep your reps low at about 6 to 8, and do numerous sets and you will grow!
I’ll say one thing. Any time a guy is training and the minute something negative about whatever you are doing comes into play, you had better get off it. Say you’re doing a really heavy bench press like 300-400 pounds. You walk into the gym on Monday and do it, no sweat. Now on Wednesday, lo and behold you don’t get the 300 or 400 pounds that you easily got on Monday, because you’re still tired from your last bench routine. You come back in the gym again on Friday and you blow your benches again. Pretty soon you are gearing your whole workout to that 300-400 pound bench press. So you walk out of the gym and say ‘I had a lousy workout because I missed my bench presses.’ Psychologically, you can’t succeed in your workouts if you have a bad attitude toward it.
Another example. Guys will come up to me and say, ‘Bill, my arms won’t grow. Everything I do my arms won’t grow. What will I do?’ If every time you pick up a barbell and curl it they aren’t going to grow, because you are programming your arms not to grow, isn’t this true? Your muscle doesn’t have a brain. Your head controls the muscle. The muscle doesn’t control the brain. So you’ve got to say, ‘O.K., I’m going to work my arms and my arms are going to grow.’ I say, change your mental attitude about your training, because if you don’t you can’t take anything negative that you are doing in the sport of bodybuilding and turn it into positive results, it won’t work. Everything you do in the gym has to be done on a positive note. You must condition your subconscious mind to think that you are getting bigger and training with more intensity, and your body will have to respond accordingly.”
Q. You say that you train 6 days a week. What exercise do you use to keep your abdominals in shape?
B.P. “There is no one specific exercise that I do for my abdominal development. I do 5 to 6 different abdominal exercises for 100 repetitions each or maybe 7 exercises and 100 reps each. There are plenty of exercises to choose from in the abdominal section of my book Keys to the Inner Universe, and the combinations are virtually endless. I don’t care how much you work your abs, if you’re carrying fat there you can’t do situps and burn that fat off your midsection. You cannot spot reduce a bodypart through exercise. All those situps are going to do is burn calories and tone the abs a certain amount, then Mother Nature is going to pull fat off your body where it wants to, not where you want it to. If you have got heavy, thick obliques, which is normal on most guys, and you think side bends are going to reduce them and you don’t change your diet, you’re crazy. You’re never going to get it off of there.”
Q. How much excess bodyweight do you think a bodybuilder should carry before he begins physique contest training?
B.P. “I would think that you should try to stay within 2 or 3 months of being in peak condition at all times if you’re constantly competing in physique contests. Never let yourself get out of position where you can’t in a period of 2 or 3 months get back in the best shape you’ve ever been in your life. If you gain more bodyweight than that, you’re asking for trouble.”
Q. Would you suggest taking a couple of days off from training just prior to a physique contest?
B.P. “I would think you should take a couple of days off. For instance, if the physique contest is on a Saturday, you should probably get your last workout on Wednesday, but if you’ve been on a very strict diet like most people are today and you’ve been on this diet for the past 6-7 months, what happens if you take the two days off before this contest which is so important to you and you totally blow the diet? What would this do to your mental attitude? It would ruin it. So you will have to make this call yourself based upon your knowledge of contest training.”
Q. Who do you think is the strongest bodybuilder that you’ve ever trained with?
B.P. “The strongest bodybuilder that I’ve ever trained with was probably Franco Columbu on specific lifts, but the guy I’ve seen handle the most weight on all sets and repetitions on all the exercises was Ray Mentzer.
I saw Ray training at a gym over in Germany a few years ago, and he was using about 240 pounds on a Nautilus bicep machine. Ray took that thing and sat down and with one arm curled that weight (240 pounds) up. When Ray went in to take a shower, I went over to that machine, and with two arms I could not curl it, and I consider myself strong. All of a sudden my attitude towards Ray changed tremendously.”
Q. What’s the best bench press you’ve ever done?
B.P. “Four hundred and fifty pounds. At my age I don’t squat 600 pounds any more. I’ve squatted 605, I’ve done the seated press behind the neck with 310 pounds for 2 reps. I was probably one of the strongest bodybuilders around for a long time until recently.”
Q. Do you include running in your workout schedules?
B.P. “I run at times, but I don’t run on a steady basis. I think it would be a good idea if a person wanted to burn calories and consume more food, then running is good, but I think if you’re in hardcore bodybuilding, I don’t think you’re going to run too far because if you have got that much energy left over, then you’re doing something wrong in your workouts.”
Q. There was a big change in your physique in the late 1960s and early 1970s where your torso took on a more muscular look. How did you do that?
B.P. “By becoming more aware of my diet, which meant just taking all the nutrition I knew and started putting it into use.”
* Thank you for reading this classic Iron Game Interview with bodybuilding legend, Bill Pearl. Check out some great videos below on Pearl and Franco Columbu.
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