Grinding Towards Greatness (Existentialism Part 3)
Updated: Feb 11
Dorian Yates picked up his first barbell while incarcerated at age 19. Eleven years later he won the Mr. Olympia. He did it by taking the stairs and not the elevator.
“Every successful and fulfilled person I know has taken the stairs in life and not the elevator.”
- Gavin de Becker, Author and Security Expert
When Dorian Yates stepped on the New York stage in 1991 for his first Mr. Olympia bodybuilding competition, few in the sport knew much about him. When the lights shined on his powerful physique, however, everyone took notice. In a single night, Yates went from being a relative unknown from England’s rust belt to the second-best bodybuilder on earth, barely losing to the reigning champ and greatest bodybuilder since Arnold Schwarzenegger, Lee Haney. A year later, Yates won the grand prize of bodybuilding, the Mr. Olympia, and he would never lose again.
In the jargon of his time, Dorian Yates was a “mass monster.” At 250 pounds and 3% body fat, he looked like an ogre who ate a mountain of rocks. When Dorian hit a most muscular pose, his quads and chest popped like a 3-D comic book, while his traps towered above his shoulders like an acropolis of stone.
Years later when asked by Joe Rogan about his competition physique, Yates said, “I didn’t want people to say, ‘oh that’s a nice pretty physique,’ I wanted people to say, ‘what the fuck is that?’” He added, “when I walked out onto the stage…, I wanted the judges to drop their pencils.”
While most pro bodybuilders trained in Venice Beach beneath a year-round California sun, Yates heaved iron in a dank gym beneath the low gray sky in England’s industrial midlands. From 1992 to 1997, Dorian flew to America each year, won the Mr. Olympia, and poof, was gone on the next flight back to Britain. Due to his low-profile existence, competitors began to call him, “The Shadow.” And in the words of one competitor, “he was unbeatable.”
Becoming a Champion
Dorian Yates lived much of his life in the shadows and against the wind. He grew up poor in a broken home. As a teenager, he ran amongst the street gangs of punks, skinheads, and other fringe members of society. By 1981, civil unrest had become the norm in England due to the country’s battered economy and labor unions. During one riot, Dorian and some of his mates were arrested for destruction of property and sentenced to six months in a youth detention center. Dorian was 19 and at a crossroads in his life.
Similar to a bootcamp, the detention facility had uniform and room inspections, plus daily physical training. To channel the young inmates’ aggression, guards had them complete weight training circuits. When it was Dorian’s turn, he completed three circuits before some of the other guys finished their first. “The moment his hands clasped around the weights,” Dorian’s biographer later wrote, something inside of him “clicked.”
In that moment, Dorian discovered he was drawn to iron. Lifting weights, he said, “made me feel powerful and confident.” Consequently, he felt special and different – and that made all the difference in the world.
As the weeks turned to months, Dorian became stronger, and the guards and inmates soon noticed his bulging muscular frame. Dorian took notice too. He finally had some direction in his life. “I knew if I put my energy into this,” he told Rogan, “something positive would come from it.”
Upon his discharge from the youth detention center, “a plan was beginning to form in Dorian’s mind,” according to his biographer, Kaspa Hazlewood. After moving into a decrepit flat, Dorian got an industrial cleaning job plus a membership to a local gym. Every morning he’d rise early, take the forty-minute bus ride to Temple Gym in Birmingham, train like a savage, and then ride back to his flat to work the afternoon/evening shift. He did this for years, getting bigger, stronger, and more ambitious towards becoming a bodybuilding champion.
Eventually, Dorian won his first show. Then he won a few more… and by 1988 (seven years after being incarcerated), he won the British Championships and earned his pro card. Even after becoming a pro bodybuilder, Dorian remembers, “I still had no furniture, no car, and slept on a mattress on the floor.” What he lacked in material possessions, however, he made up for in achievement. He was the British champion after all. And because of that, Dorian found a partner to put up the money to buy his favorite place to train, Temple Gym. Lacking any cash, Dorian gained sweat equity by managing the gym’s day-to-day operations, plus the menial tasks like painting, cleaning, and fixing broken equipment.
For the next decade, Dorian’s life became a regiment of diet, sleep, training, and running the gym. “I was living like a monk,” Yates recalled. So much so that his future ex-wife eventually asked, “Why do you want to live like this?” Recalling the question, Dorian told an interviewer, “I didn’t want to lead the life that was expected of us – I didn’t want to live in a council house doing a shit job for the rest of my life. I was putting everything into this thing I seemed to be good at… if I was gonna do this, then I’m going to do it to the max.”
Day after day, and year after year, he lived his monastic life to the max. He trained with demonic intensity and documented every workout from 1983 to 1997 in his training journal. He ate six times a day and would wake in the middle of each night to eat again and then return to bed. He planned every workout like it was D-Day, reviewing each detail and mentally rehearsing every set before he arrived at the gym. Throughout these fourteen years, Dorian never lost his edge; and unless he was injured, he never missed a workout.
One morning early in his pro career, a snowstorm hit the midlands. With no car and all bus routes canceled, Dorian threw on his coat and waded through knee-high snow for an hour and a half until he arrived at the gym. No one was there but him. “I thought about those fuckers in California… out in the sun, at the beach, and here I am trudging through the snow -- they’re going to pay for that.” When asked why he didn’t just take the day off and rest, he said, “if I’d taken the day off, it would have made no difference physically, but it would’ve made a difference to my mindset… [and] I wanted to keep my eye of the tiger.”
Dorian knew his competitors would have blamed the weather and rested. Knowing this (or at least believing it), gave him the mental edge. So by the time he got on stage, he said, “I felt indestructible because I had done the work.”
‘Doing the work’ inside the medieval confines of Temple Gym beneath Birmingham’s filthy streets was not for the faint of heart. Striding down a narrow back alley lined by old kegs, stale air, and cigarette butts, a visitor would notice a red door marking the gym’s entrance. If brave enough, you’d open the steel door, walk down the steep steps into a 700 square foot subterranean battle zone. On your way down, you’d hear iron plates crashing, men screaming, and the walls shaking with aggressive music. Once inside, you'd breath the stale air and notice there were no windows nor natural light. Former Mr. Olympia Jay Cutler summed up Temple Gym in one word, calling it a “shithole.” On an old video, Dorian invited barbarians everywhere, saying, “You’re welcome to come here to train hard, shout, drop weights, and spit on the floor. This is a real bodybuilding gym.” And beneath its low stone ceiling, Dorian went nuclear with his intensity.
When asked about the intensity it takes to become a bodybuilding champion, he said, “pretend like someone has a gun to your little baby’s head and he’s going to pull the trigger unless you give 100%.”
“Training in that dungeon," he said, "is what got me to that place” – first place. In just over ten years, Dorian went from incarnated youth to the apex of his sport and arguably the greatest bodybuilder who has ever lived. And he's certainly my favorite athlete of all time, inspiring me more than anyone else I don't know.
Be the Shadow
Though Dorian’s example is extreme -- and I mean really extreme! -- he reminds us that there is glory in grinding through something we are drawn to do. I don't know about you, but there is something so refreshingly barbaric and beautiful about Dorian's intensity; it's raw and primitive -- like an archeologist just discovered it and shared his rare find with the world. Watching Dorian work out is like watching performance art because it is! And maybe it’s just because I’m 4% Neanderthal, but I’m telling you, it’s a wonder to watch.
Dorian reminds anyone interested in self-improvement or anyone with a big dream to be “the shadow.” This means grinding alone, far from the limelight and inside austere environments. Whether it’s training in your garage, writing at your desk, or painting on your porch, disappearing into the shadows helps us eliminate distraction, feel solitude, and gain mastery in our chosen craft. Escaping into the shadows helps us grind towards greatness. Plus, the act of grinding can be an art all onto itself.
Through his extreme and inspiring example, Dorian Yates reminds us that there is no point (or fun) in living life half-ass. We have one go on this planet and we might as well turn it up to eleven and kick ass. “It was not possible to be training harder than me,” he said. “Why? Because I could not give a single ounce more… I gave it everything I had and have no regrets.”
The Barbarian in You wants you to live hard, feel powerful, and gain confidence. And the only way to get there is to take the stairs, ditch the elevator, and grind.
I’ve watched every online interview featuring Dorian Yates I can find, plus all his training videos. In the late 90s, I bought his VHS training tape, Blood and Guts and wore it out -- always watching parts of it before hitting the gym. Dorian is one of my heroes and continues to inspire me to this day. I still watch his training before a workout. If you’re interested in learning more about this remarkable human being, I recommend watching his documentary here. I also recommend listening to his interview with Joe Rogan here.