First Things First

Before you get distracted by all the great options you're about to find here, please sign up for Dave's free weekly newsletter so he can continue to encourage and motivate you toward your fitness goals.
Chris M writes:
"You blend plain-spoken wisdom, motivational fire and wry humor into a weekly email jolt that leaves me itching to hit the gym. Whether I'm looking for workout routines, diet tips or a friendly kick in the butt, the Bomber comes through every time." ... Read more...

Casey Viator and Arthur Jones

Progress, the Final Arbiter

Copyright 2001 by Stephen D. Wedan

This article first appeared in Hardgainer magazine #76. Steve has contributed many articles and illustrations for HG magazine since 1990. Since 1986, his articles have also appeared in IronMan, Flex, British Flex, MuscleMag International and Muscular Development.

Steve Wedan is an artist and writer. He also is a contributor to the IOL Forum.
You can see and order his new print of Dave by clicking on this link.

If you did not see part 1, click here

The first time Casey Viator put me through a workout, I did not vomit, but oh, how I wanted to.

Say what you want against training on equipment other than free weights. When you are pushed to maximum effort on a series of Nautilus machines, with which you are pushing against resistance without the benefit of leverage (i.e., there's no respite from the sticking point; it's all sticking point, top to bottom), through a full range of motion, your muscles work hard. That sustained intensity of effort will make you feel sick, if you're not conditioned to it. So, for me, the question was not whether Nautilus training sufficiently challenged the muscles. About that I had no doubt. Rather, the question was whether such intensity was necessary.

That day in April, 1976, I made it through a set on the Hip and Back, the Leg Curl, the Leg Extension, and even the Leg Press (all Nautilus). I was getting a little green around the gills and was breathing as hard as I had ever breathed in my life, when Viator told me to climb on the Double Chest machine. He set the resistance at a level, which should have been manageable, but it was as though something inside me just shut down. I felt weak as a kitten. After taking a look at my face, Viator told me to get off the chest machine and lie down on my back on the floor. The workout was over.

It took a while for the nausea to subside, but even as I lay there, immobile and soaked in my own sweat, I could not waste the chance of talking with Viator. So, we discussed everything from Nautilus theory to his competition experience. In the course of the conversation, he told me that he hadn't "touched a weight in two years." He also declared that he was fat. These two statements were startling, given the condition he was in. I asked him to flex his arm, and when he did, it looked as big and even more defined than the photos in my old, coveted MD. He pinched the skin on the flexed arm's triceps and pulled it out a full three-fourths of an inch, saying it should be much thinner for any sort of competition. Possibly he meant to dazzle me. If so, it worked. That skin was as thin as the skin on the back of my hand.

What is Possible

That afternoon, we talked about "The Colorado Experiment," which took place in May, 1973. In the course of four weeks and 14 workouts, Viator gained 63 pounds of muscle and lost 18 pounds of body fat. He began at a bodyweight of 167 pounds at 14 percent body fat. Twenty-seven days later, he weighed 212 at two and a half percent body fat! His muscle gain averaged four and a half pounds per workout. At the end of May, he was at or very near the best condition of his life. Even considering the fact that his bodyweight was artificially low before beginning, it is a startling gain. (By referring to his bodyweight as artificially low, I mean his calories had been restricted, since he wasn't working out: he lost a finger in an industrial accident and then had a severe allergic reaction to the antitetanus injection -- training was the last thing on his mind for four months.)

Casey Viator

Viator's gain that month was so immense, it almost defeats any marketing purposes it had, because who can fathom that kind and speed of growth? Most of us would be deliriously happy with a solid muscle gain of 63 pounds over a lifetime!

I asked Viator what he ate during the Experiment, expecting something as futuristic to standard eating as Nautilus training was to calisthenics. "We ate at a 'greasy spoon' every day" is what he told me. And Jones made sure he ingested a huge daily caloric intake, including a sort of milkshake. But, according to Viator, there was no special effort to divide up his meals into specific macronutrient portions. His diet was high everything: protein, carbohydrate, fat.

Getting Down to It

Finally, I broached the real question on my mind: Why, after years of proper training on Nautilus equipment, had my training early come to -- and since remained at -- an utter standstill? I had trained with Nautilus machines first at DeLand High School in the fall of 1973, then at Stetson University's weight room since 1974. I was a solid 168 pounds in 1976, having gained about five pounds in a little over two years, most of it undoubtedly due to maturity: In '76, I would turn 21 and by then had gained an inch in height, up to 5'8".

Viator's answer to my question seemed to be pure reflex: He said I wasn't taking each set to utter failure when I trained in Stetson's weight room. I assured him that I was. For the only time in my life, I was using a training partner, a six-foot eight-inch guy named Gary. We were well-matched in strength as well as temperament, and the two of us held each other accountable in every workout. This included taking each set to utter failure.

Viator countered by pointing out that while I lasted longer than many in my initial workout with him, I didn't actually complete it. This suggested that I wasn't as faithful to high intensity principles as I claimed, although he was too polite to put it that bluntly.

But the real answer to why my workout with Viator was so crushing is something Jones called in his earlier articles the rush factor. I clearly understood by this point in my training life the concept of rushing from an isolation exercise to a multi-joint move to pre-exhaust a muscle. The pectorals, for instance, don't normally get as high an order of work applied to them as they could, because in the best multi-joint moves, such as dips and bench presses, the triceps give out before the pectorals. We can therefore say that the triceps are the limiting factor in chest training. So, if one were to do a set of flyes to exhaustion and then immediately start doing bench presses, it's the pectorals that first give out. Jones applied this principle, which was not original to him and is one easily misused, on many muscle groups all over the body. It can work when you rush from the isolation exercise to the multi-joint one, not allowing the first muscle you worked to recover.

But Jones didn't limit the importance of rushing only to pre-exhaustion. He considered it critical to the intensity of an entire workout. Work divided by time equals intensity, and that equation applies as much to the whole workout as it does to a particular muscle.

What are the benefits of such a speedy workout? Cardiovascular endurance might be the first thing to come to mind. Safety is another, since moving so quickly will limit the poundages you can use. The theory here is that, since your muscles will be working at their limit, it doesn't matter that the poundages are lighter than you would use with more rest between sets, they still are worked to their limit. Another benefit Ellington Darden includes in some of his books is that of efficiency: Why spend more time than you really need to exercise your body?

I think that to Jones, though, the importance of overall intensity of the workout is the central argument. And I admitted back then to Viator that while Gary, my training partner, and I applied the rush factor to pre-exhaustion work, we did not apply it to the overall workout. It was simply too hard to do, even given the presumed benefits.

Viator did not jump all over me for such a statement, as Arthur would have. Nor did he suggest, though, something even more important than the rush factor: I only later came to think of it as the most important reason I wasn't gaining -- overtraining. Three high-intensity workouts per week, even without super brief rest periods between exercises, is simply too much for some people. I now realize I was among that vast throng. But the advice I received from literally everyone at Nautilus to whom I posed the question was to push my sets harder; re-examine how intensely I really was working and push it.

Interestingly, Mike Mentzer, who boldly stated that his training theory was the logical extension of Jones's, didn't seem to emphasize moving rapidly through an entire workout. Intensity was as much a linchpin to his theory as it was to everything Jones wrote, but that rush factor wasn't, in my reading of it, an all-important consideration to Mentzer, except as it is employed in pre-exhaustion. This was something to ponder, as I developed my approach, but it didn't gel until much later.

"You Can't Train Too Hard"

Part of Jones's rhetoric was that you can train too much, but you can't train too hard. If a trainee finds he cannot recover from his workouts, the answer is not to compromise the intensity but to shorten the workouts. Rarely was the suggestion made to train less frequently, because a rest period exceeding four days supposedly allowed de-training to set in. It was this assumption, it turns out, that was most responsible for my years of frustration.

There is an example of this "can't train too hard" thinking published by a former employee of Jones's who began his own company in the 1990s. A trainee reduced his training to one set of leg presses and one set of chins performed once every eight days. This fellow worked so hard that he would end his workout collapsed on the gym floor, twitching and vibrating for 15 minutes. In the written account, he was likened to a dying frog. He followed his twitching with a necessary two-hour nap on the dressing room floor. Then he woke up refreshed and ready to go. . . !

The tale is told with the purpose of showing how deeply some trainees can concentrate and also to warn that the ignorant masses can be frightened off by such a show of intensity. The man's steadily increasing strength is cited to demonstrate that he suffers no ill effects from such training. Furthermore, we are told by the person relating this story that we, too, can aspire to such concentration and physical intensity.

To any complaint that such training is unappealing at best, the proffered answer is that strength training is not supposed to be appealing. Nor should it be in any way fun or refreshing. It is supposed to be brutally hard. The payoff is not gotten while training but rather in the results you will get. But other people train more conventionally and get wonderful results, you might counter. To which super high intensity teachers will tell you that those people might have gotten better results by training properly. Or they might have gotten their results sooner. Or they might be using their recreation time better, with all the training time they would save.

The Real Issue

In at least one of his books, Ellington Darden states that everything has its price, and everything has its value. He asks if hours spent in the gym getting mediocre results are hours worth spending. I believe it's a fair question. A better question, though, to my thinking, is this: Is a lifetime of working out two or three hours a week NOT worth spending, if it means building tremendous strength and size and health within the boundaries of one's potential? And if it's gotten more slowly than a method that is, to the vast majority of trainees, inherently discouraging -- or downright impossible without Being driven through workouts by a take-no-prisoners trainer -- what is the big downside to that? What really is wrong with a slower, but equally steady, approach to bodybuilding or strength building?

But the design of Nautilus machines and principles come from the minds of engineers. "Failure," for instance, is a term Jones applied to the cessation of muscular contraction, but it originates from the breakdown of materials. Given enough stress, for example, a bridge can fail, meaning the structure loses its integrity; it buckles. The inability to do what it was intended to do any longer is failure.

Jones also oftentimes compared the human body with an automobile to instruct people about such things as strength-to-weight ratios and the ability to cool off during exertion.

These are indeed instructive points. But there is a consideration here which has separated Jones from the mainstream of the iron game from the beginning. Engineers want the fastest, most efficient "vehicles" possible, whether they are putting together cars, airplanes, or exercise principles. And if such "vehicles" are presented to others who don't use them, engineers cannot understand why not. Why will these fools not use the most efficient way to get where they intend to go?

In the years following my undergraduate education, I got married and went to graduate school. I had no access at all to Nautilus machines. Working out either in my apartment or in one of the weight dungeons that University of Florida had at the time precluded doing my workouts in a fast-moving circuit. When I worked out in my apartment, I would drag my York equipment out of a closet and into the living room. This meant setting up an adjustable-incline bench, a pair of squat stands, a set of adjustable dumbbells, and a York Hercules bar. Changing poundages, let alone changing exercises, was a time-consuming affair.

The two weight rooms I had access to at UF were ancient places, containing equipment that was solid, but which was set up in a traditional way. You located yourself at a station and worked an exercise until you were done. You could bench, squat, do any lift on a platform. But trying to do a circuit would mean running all over the place and risking losing possession of one station while working out at another. Forget trying to maintain focus in that environment.

I spent those years forsaking some of what I had learned at Nautilus headquarters. My environment didn't allow much of it. What elements of the Nautilus system I could hold onto, I did. I trained using whole-body workouts, and after several warmup sets (something not advocated by Jones), I usually pushed to failure.

But I also began the rudiments of cycling, something Stuart has been writing about for decades now. Before I was aware of his writings, though, I had a collection of tracts entitled The Steiner Lectures, which were published in the late 1970s, if memory serves. One of them emphasized the importance of tracking performance in one's work sets. Based on that performance, Bradley Steiner maintained, the trainee could ascertain when it was time to take a break from heavy lifting. Modern theorists would have you "periodize" based on a pre-determined schedule. What I learned more than two decades ago, though, was to cycle intensity based on performance, not some expert's schedule. When my numbers -- that is, my poundages and reps -- ceased moving in a positive direction, I learned to back off, giving myself a week of rest. I found that I could hit the weights hard for about thirteen weeks before my numbers began to suffer, so I laid off every twelve weeks. This allowed me to avoid burning up my "nervous energy," a term old-timers might recognize from decades past.

In this helter-skelter period of time, I benched 270 for a handful of reps and incline curled 45-pound dumbbells for eight. I weighed about 170, and while I probably don't have the genetic potential to get ripped, my abdomen was as flat and hard as a board. None of this is world-shaking, but I did it while maintaining a very demanding academic and performance schedule and trying my best to remind my newborn daughter that she had a daddy.

Of even greater importance is the fact that I also achieved these numbers while trying to balance my blood sugar levels, years before diabetics could get their hands on home glucose monitors. I managed this feat while suffering both high and low blood glucose reactions frequently but somehow hitting a middle range consistently enough to support progress. Progress in strength and size, if you haven't gathered by now, can be a very difficult task for a diabetic. Muscle growth simply isn't a priority when facing the emergency conditions of low blood sugar. And the body's got no way to use blood sugar when the level is too high (because there's not enough insulin to make use of it), so growth is negated then, as well.

My intention during this period was to work out three times per week using a whole-body, power-oriented routine, but I almost never had the time. Once or, more often, twice a week was the normal schedule.

I was in far better shape following this cycled regimen than I ever had been when I ground my very will into each set of exercise, three times a week, as per the Nautilus principles. I took it slow and steady and made my credo the line I often read in Muscular Development: Make haste slowly.

The question arises, when I talk of not gaining on a thrice-weekly, high intensity routine, whether I would thrive following such a routine less frequently. This, of course, violates Jones's admonition not to allow 96 hours to elapse before training again. But Mike Mentzer advocated that those who stopped gaining on the more extensive routine he espouses in Heavy Duty II: Mind and Body (1996) should move to a more abbreviated one, such as the second routine outlined in the same book. This second routine has the trainee training once every five to seven days, using a total of three sets in each of two alternating workouts. The example he gives it this:

A: Squats, Pulldowns, Dips
B: Deadlifts, Presses Behind Neck, Calf Raises

While Arthur Jones and Ellington Darden never to my knowledge recommended anything so limited in volume, they have published material in recent years advocating a lower volume than they first advised. Darden, for example, uses a routine in his book, Big (Perigee Books, NY: 1990) that centers around two sets of squats, breathing pullovers, dips, and chins (done in Super Slow style). He goes on to suggest letting a three times weekly schedule become a twice weekly one as the trainee progresses. And Jones, lo and behold, has said a few times in the past decade that the biggest change he would make, from what he used to advise, would be to work out twice a week, instead of three times.

This, then, might be a better HIT approach: low-volume, high-intensity work, performed infrequently; one-week layoffs when the numbers cease increasing for longer than two cycles of workouts; the occasional use of substitute exercises (e.g., leg presses for squats); and infrequent use of intensification techniques (e.g., forced reps, negatives, rest-pause training).

The best physical approach, though, isn't the best overall approach if you can't or won't follow it, and that's the central point I'm making. There are many readers out there who have the ability and motivation to go "balls to the wall," to borrow the old fighter pilots' phrase, every time they train. I made gratifying and sustained progress doing so, limiting my training to once or twice a week. Other HG readers have discovered that cycling intensity -- rolling it back and slowly re-approaching and then exceeding the old maximum -- works better. Whichever you choose, keep this in mind: Progress is the final arbiter. If what you're doing works, do it. If it doesn't, reconsider what you're doing.

One Conclusion

If gently cycling to high intensity works, and not cycling it -- keeping it 100 percent as much as possible -- works, what is common to them?

The most important factor, it seems to me, is progression. Whether I'm pushing it hard all the time or ramping up the intensity, I'm probably going to reach failure sooner or later: logically, steady progression ought to lead me there, if I don't stop training. It could take weeks, if my poundage progression is too steep, or it could take years, if I whittle slowly away at it. The question remains whether or not the days or weeks of submaximal work during an intensity ramp-up is wasted time.

In the super high-intensity camp -- that is, the group which promotes working to failure as a recommended, all-the-time training goal -- Mike Mentzer's approach makes the most sense to me. I say this because he remained more flexible than the others in the question of how much rest and recovery might really be needed by an individual. And he wasn't afraid of laying off or of discouraging the misuse of intensification techniques. In the beginning, this was not true: he advocated far too much high-intensity work, more than any non-Mentzer, non-Viator mortal could grow on. By the mid-1990s, though, he had a huge client pool of normal people to work with in his personal training business, and he was able to draw conclusions more applicable to the rest of us. (With all the Mentzer-bashing I observed between 1975 and his death, I rarely noticed anyone giving him credit for his willingness to publicly announce a change in his opinions.)

The differences I've drawn between the two approaches, high intensity and intensity cycling, are not that profound. By following the prime principle of progression, both will reach a point of heavily loading the muscles with growth-promoting resistance.

A Wrinkle?

A related question presents itself, though, when we look at the training of many of the strongest men in history. Except when peaking for an event, they train on triples, give or take a rep, for several sets at a poundage representing roughly 80 percent of their one-rep maximum, several days a week. They don't come within one repetition of failure, and often stay a good two reps away. As they progress, so do their 1RMs. This training system is so common, in fact, and has been a standard protocol of strength athletes for so long, that it bears consideration, even if a trainee eventually decides to make adjustments. It would be easy to dismiss such an approach as the privilege of the drug takers or the easy gainers, but seen in the light of avoiding the "nervous energy" issue by stopping short of failure, I suspect there might be something to gain by more fully exploring it.

I'll let that one lie for now, though, since I am only beginning to use it myself, and it will take a few months to draw strong conclusions. Plus, it requires a full article. I'll keep in touch.

So . . .

Whether you believe that going to failure has a special growth-inducing quality or not, it is progression which will take you to the place in which you stimulate growth. Rest and recovery factors then must be allowed to do their magic.

See you next time.

Steve Wedan

Click here if you missed Part 1

Steve Wedan is an artist and writer. He also is a contributor to the IOL Forum.
You can see and order his new print of Dave by clicking on this link.

Click here to read Steve's HIT primer

Click here to catch up with Dr. Ken