I'm thinking about great, big triceps. Triceps so thick that you'd have to rest them on a desk or chair to keep them from tiring your shoulders and elbows. Casey Viator had them. Mike Mentzer had them. And Ray Mentzer had them. More importantly, what did these guys do to get them?
Casey Viator's "Demonstration"
It was January of 1978. I was in the gym training four members of the Chicago White Sox baseball team, among them third baseman, Eric Soderholm. I'd trained Eric after he had knee surgery in 1976 and helped him get into the best shape of his life and win Comeback Player of the Year in 1977.
One of Eric's best upper-body exercises was the negative-only dip with 130 pounds strapped around his waist, but now all I wanted him to do was demonstrate 100 pounds for 8 reps — which he proceeded to do in smooth, slow, perfect form. Bear in mind that the other players had great difficulty doing 40 pounds for even 3 reps.
As we were finishing up, in walked Casey Viator for his workout. I introduced Casey but the ballplayers never even looked at his face. All they could see were those arms.
Then I asked Casey to demonstrate negative-only dips with the entire weight stack — 250 pounds. Casey took off his shirt, stepped into the weight belt with 250 pounds plugged in, climbed up the stairs, and mounted the dip bars.
He then, to the amazement of the ballplayers, performed a single, grueling rep, taking 8 seconds to lower it. Pretty good, right? But Casey was only playing with them. When he got to the bottom, he mumbled, "Oh, what the heck," and hammered out 10 regular reps. That's right, 10 reps with 250 pounds attached to his body weight.
Actually, I believe that Casey Viator could easily have pumped out six 300-pound reps that day... and probably an equal number of negative-only reps with at least 40% more weight, or 420 pounds.
Casey Inspires Another Great
Later on that year, I walked into Sean Harrington's Nautilus Fitness Center in Los Angeles to speak to some of his members. I had my slide tray ready. The room was dark and some Beatles songs were playing in the background. Sean quickly introduced me and I began projecting my pictures onto a nearby wall.
I was about halfway through and I was explaining how, in December of 1977, I'd put Casey Viator on a unique program where he'd consumed only 1,800 calories a day for ten weeks. As I told the story, I flashed the before-and-after photos where his body weight increased from 186 pounds to a mind blowing 206 pounds — an increase of 20 pounds; something that shouldn't, by conventional standards, even been possible.
Click, click, click went the slides as they dropped into place. The last slide showed Casey doing a back double-biceps pose wearing searing red shorts — and the picture appeared to burst off the wall — as if Casey were actually in the room.
Casey Viator at 206 pounds, 1978.
I swear what happened next wasn't planned, but almost by magic the Beatles' song, "Yes It Is," started playing:
For red is the color that will make me blue In spite of you. It's true. Yes it is, it's true. Yes it is.
Just then, with perfect comedic timing, someone from the audience shouts, almost sings, "Casey's the best built man I've ever seen, red shorts and all. Yes it is, it's true."
We all laughed pretty hard. The person who made that joke was Mike Mentzer.
Mike Makes a Lasting Impression
The next morning at 10:00 AM sharp, Mentzer, fired up by that slide of Casey, came into Sean's club to work out. I watched and photographed the entire thing.
Dressed in a blue tank top with white piping and matching shorts, he proceeded to use the entire weight stack on almost every Nautilus machine. From leg curls, to leg presses, to calf raises, he did a whole-body workout — 12 exercises in less than 30 minutes.
Each exercise was performed with excellent form. Sure, I was impressed, but he blew me away when he got to triceps. He did negative-only dips with 250 pounds for 8 reps, followed by triceps extensions on the Multi-Triceps machine. Afterward, his arms looked like that slide of Casey Viator's arms the night before... maybe even better.
Mike was in awesome shape. He went on to win Joe Weider's 1978 Mr. Universe contest that summer in what many people said was his all-time best condition.
I kept in contact with Mike over the next couple of years as he prepared to enter the 1980 Mr. Olympia in Sydney, Australia, which turned out to be the most controversial bodybuilding contest of all time. Mike was the favorite and was considered to be a shoo-in, but Arnold Schwarzenegger swooped in at the last minute and stole the title from Mike.
Mr Olympia, 1980
Mentzer, by all reports, remained bitter about that loss for the rest of his life.
A couple of years later, Mike and his younger brother Ray visited the Nautilus headquarters in Lake Helen, Florida in 1983. It was the first time I'd had the chance to meet Ray, who was also an accomplished bodybuilder, having won a couple of National Bodybuilding Championships himself.
Soon after, Arthur Jones offered Mike and Ray jobs. They accepted and moved to Florida.
How Strong Was Ray Mentzer?
Ray Mentzer, 1983
My office at the Nautilus headquarters was up front, next to the primary training gym. Out back and down a hill was an elaborate group of television studios, which Jones soon hoped to use to flood the market with videos related to strength training and fitness. Most days, Mike and Ray kicked around the TV studios making themselves useful in whatever way they could.
But after about six weeks, Ray started coming up to my office and watching me train some of our visiting and local athletes. It was about that time I decided to do an advanced bodybuilding book and I figured Ray would make an ideal test subject for some of my new techniques.
Ray, a happy-go-lucky guy, agreed and whole-heartily shook my hand.
So I began to train him. It didn't take long for Ray's body weight to climb from 250 to a lean 260 pounds. Ray might actually have been the first bodybuilder to weigh that much and still be fairly lean.
I can also tell you that Ray Mentzer, at a body weight of 260 pounds, was the strongest man I ever trained, with a work ethic and pain tolerance to match. I repeatedly put him through the intense burn of some of the most exhaustive sets I'd ever devised and he never wavered or flinched.
I specifically remember putting him through his paces on leg extensions. He easily pumped out 10 reps with the whole 300-pound stack... with one leg. And then the other. That's right, one leg at a time with the entire weight stack. I never saw anyone come close to duplicating that achievement.
Ray also did negative-only dips with the 250-pound stack — and could have probably done a lot more. Overall, Ray could lift more weight than either Casey or Mike.
And after a workout, his triceps were so full, massive, and triple barreled, that he had to lie on his back on the floor, with his arms outstretched behind his head, to rest his swollen guns.
I decided I needed to measure those amazing arms. When I got Ray to do a biceps pose, he displayed an "under-hang formation" that I've never seen on another person's arm (see page 62 in my book, Big Arms in Six Weeks). I pulled the tape tight around his arms and it measured 20-3/8 inches.
Ray, Mike, and Casey were all big believers in negative-only dips, and as I detailed, they weren't afraid to go heavy. I also think they're a hugely effective movement and that's why I included them in the following Gold-School Routine for Big Triceps.
Gold-School Triceps Training
I have a two-week triceps program that, I assure you, will deliver gains. But, you're going to have to dig deep and push yourself to your limits, just like Casey, Mike, and Ray did when I trained them. Image yourself as one of them, with me standing over you... with a big stick. Use good form, and don't you dare hold back. I want you spent.
You'll be doing two exercises in Week One and adding one exercises in Week Two. Perform only two of these workouts per week. If you feel like doing more, that tells me all I need to know — you didn't push hard enough.
Move between exercises with no or minimal rest. If you must rest, keep it under 30 seconds.
1) Overhead Triceps Extension with One Dumbbell
Perform one set of 8 to 12 repetitions to failure.
Form is especially important on this movement. Grasp a dumbbell and hold it on one end with both hands around the edges. Stand and push the dumbbell over your head. Bring your elbows in close to your ears. Most importantly, keep your upper arms straight up throughout the entire range of motion. Don't allow your elbows to stray outwards or move forward. (Doing so removes some of the resistance from the triceps and makes the exercise easier and less productive.)
Slowly lower the dumbbell down behind your neck. Reverse the motion smoothly and press the dumbbell over your head. Repeat the lowering and raising for 8 to 12 repetitions.
Move quickly to the close-grip bench press.
2) Close-Grip Bench Press, 30-10-30
Perform one set of 8 to 12 repetitions, using the 30-10-30 style.
You're going to need a clock, timer or smart phone for this next one; something that displays the seconds in plain sight. That, or you'll need a training partner to keep count for you because you're going to do a 30-second negative.
Now select a weight that's about 30% less than what you'd normally use in the bench press. For example, if you normally bench 250 pounds for 10 reps, put 180 pounds on the bar.
Lie on the bench, take the barbell off the rack with your hands shoulder-width apart. Straighten your arms over your chest and pause. Begin lowering the barbell very slowly while keeping an eye on the clock or timer. You need to be halfway down at 15 seconds and almost touching your chest at 25 seconds, but hold off a bit at that point; take the remaining 5 seconds to lower it completely, lightly touching your chest at exactly 30 seconds.
Reverse the motion and smoothly press the barbell to the top position in 1 to 2 seconds. Now you'll do 10 "normal" reps, taking 3 to 4 seconds to lower the bar and pushing the bar back up in 1 to 2 seconds.
Pause at the top of the 10th rep, though, because you need to get ready for an all-out, final 30-second negative, which, unfortunately will feel like it takes 3 minutes.
Isolate the involved muscles and fight through it. Hold it for 5 seconds and then lower it one-half inch. Holding for another 5 seconds and lower it another half inch. Keeping a relaxed face and jaw will be helpful. Listen to your spotter and don't give up until the count hits 30.
Have your spotter take the barbell off your chest and slide out of the bench.
Your triceps are going to feel very heavy because they're filled with blood.
Enjoy the feeling. If you can.
Move between exercises with no or minimal rest. Try to keep it under 20 seconds.
1) Overhead Triceps Extension With One Dumbbell
Perform these exactly like you did in Week One — one set of 8 to 12 repetitions to failure.
2) Close-Grip Bench Press, 30-10-30
Perform these exactly like you did in Week One — one set of 8 to 12 repetitions, using the 30-10-30 style.
3) Overhead Triceps Extension With One Dumbbell
Perform one set of 8 to 12 repetitions to failure.
Then do a second set of the triceps extensions. Nothing fancy, just one more set with a single dumbbell. You’ll probably have to reduce the resistance by 5 or 10 pounds. Do it and don’t worry about it. A 15-pound dumbbell will feel like 50 pounds. Keep your form perfect. Down and up, down and up, down and up. Burn those triceps. You’ll find they can take a lot of intensity.
Move immediately to a negative-only dip with no rest.
4) Negative-Only Dip
Perform 8 to 12 negative-only repetitions.
As soon as you complete your last triceps extension (the dumbbell for the second set of triceps extensions should be near the dip bars), drop the dumbbell and mount the dip bars. You won’t need any extra resistance during your first exposure to this style of pre-exhaust dip training. Your body weight will be plenty.
From the top position, with your elbows straight, begin lowering your body slowly. Take 8-seconds to go to the bottom position, which is slightly below a 90-degree angle between your upper arm and forearm.
Once at the bottom, pause, and quickly step back to the top using the step in the middle of the dip station. If it doesn't have a step, you might have to find a sturdy box to help you climb back to the top. (The idea is to avoid doing the positive portion of the dip and focus intensely on the negative or lowering phase.)
Do as many 8-second lowering reps as you can. You’re strong if you can do five. If you find yourself failing, increase your speed of lowering from 8 seconds per rep to 6 seconds. Then, if necessary, 4 seconds. It if takes you faster than 4 seconds to descend, abort the set.
Your goal, however, is 8 to 12 repetitions.
A Few Other Exercises
I'm a strong proponent of whole-body workouts, done the old-school way, like Mike, Ray, and Casey used to do. So, to complete the triceps cycle, add the following exercises for a whole-body workout:
- Leg extension or leg curl machine
- Leg press machine or barbell squat
- Rowing with barbell
- Shoulder shrug with barbell
- Lateral raise with dumbbells
- Curl with barbell
- Wrist curl with barbell
Perform one set of 8 to 12 reps to failure for each exercise. As a general rule, do two or three whole-body workouts per week. Go to failure. Be progressive. Get plenty of rest.
Big triceps can be yours. But you’ll have to plan, focus, and dig deep for them.
Keep going and never give up.
Important Answers "From the Future"
Back in the 70s, Mike, Ray, Casey, and I used to wonder — obsess, more accurately — about what the future of training would bring.
It's now 50 years later and I know what the future brought. So, what have Casey, Mike, Ray, and I learned about training that we can share with T Nation readers who are in their 20s and 30s? Unfortunately, out of Mike, Ray, Casey, and me, I'm the only one still alive, but from what I know of how their training philosophies evolved, we all ended up going the same direction.
This leaves me with being the spokesperson of the group. Listen up.
My obsession with muscle has focused me to study and experiment on two things:
How to quickly build more muscle, and...
How to lose fat efficiently to show off the muscle I've built.
I've trained many genetically gifted bodybuilders and I've trained literally thousands of regular folks. It's safe to say I've worked with all types of physiques and potentials. In other words, I've put people just like you through many workouts.
After five decades of these practices, I can't tell you the ultimate best way to train — no one can — but I do know what works better. And I can also tell you that I'm still discovering better ways to train.
Here are some of my most important findings:
1) Negative Loading Is the King of Growth
The most productive part of a repetition is the eccentric, negative, or lowering phase. Negatives, including loaded stretches, are super important if you want to build more muscle faster.
I'm currently working on a new technique, called backloading that will definitely exploit negative loading and deliver an even faster rate of growth. More about this in future articles.
2) Train Less to Gain More
I've found the following to be an immutable law: The harder you work out — the more days you need between sessions to recover.
You have to decide whether you're addicted to training or you're addicted to building muscle. Those two addictions are at odds with each other. I've found the more you train, the less you gain.
I know that, while still in their prime, both Mike and Ray ended up training once or twice per week. And they both kept getting stronger and bigger. Ray, for example, at his strongest, would perform 900-pound parallel squats.
Believe me, training intensity, frequency, and volume need to be carefully managed to produce optimal gains. Here are my guidelines:
- Depending on your level of development and conditioning, train three times, two times, or one time a week.
- As you get stronger, first reduce your total number of exercises. Then reduce your frequency. Continue that stair-step approach until you're down to one session per week of six or eight exercises.
- I've found that whole-body workouts are superior to split routines and I strongly believe in training and resting the body as a whole unit.
3) Genetics Dictate Reality... Deal With It, and Enjoy Your Life
Understand that if you had the genetic potential to look like Casey Viator, Mike Mentzer, or Ray Mentzer, you'd already be big and strong and look similar to them, even if you did little training.
I've won several bodybuilding contests. I've been on the covers of multiple magazines. Early on in my career, however, I came to terms with the fact that I wasn't destined to stand on the stage next to the elites. But that didn't dampen my passion for building my body.
In fact, I believe my "limitations" actually made experiences even sweeter. Had I had an easy road to the top, or even gotten to the top, I don't believe I would've gained all the knowledge and wisdom I've attained over the years searching for answers.
Besides, what choice did I have? My genetics dictated my reality and I had to adapt. Happily, I did.
The good news is, we can all build a better body. And many of us can even build an impressive physique. Whatever blueprint you've been given, make the most of it, and build your best, healthiest, strongest, and most-muscular body.
I'll show you how and help you on your way.
For more stories and routines related to harder, but briefer training, get Dr. Darden’s eBook, The New Bodybuilding for Old-School Results.