High Intensity Training Heresy?
I’ve recently received a few emails from readers concerned I am straying from Arthur Jones’ original Nautilus high intensity training principles because some of my recommendations are at odds with things he said or wrote. While Arthur Jones was a genius and much of what he said and wrote about exercise almost four decades ago has proven to be correct, he was not omniscient or infallible. To his credit, unlike many people in the field of exercise he was willing to admit it when he learned he was wrong about something or made a mistake and quick to correct it, but there were a few things he got wrong that many of the Nautilus and HIT people out there still believe that have been disproven and a few occasions where he contradicts himself:
The difference between concentric (positive) and eccentric (negative) muscular strength is not due to intramuscular friction, as Arthur claimed, but due to differences in cross-bridge mechanics. Friction in the muscles and joints is way too low to have any significant effect on this.
Maximum motor unit recruitment is dependent on the amount of force a muscle is called upon to produce and not the degree of shortening, as Arthur claimed. It is not necessary to “fully contract” a muscle to recruit all of its motor units, nor is it practical or even possible in the majority of exercises to do so.
Some of Arthur’s equipment designs, most notably the compound biceps and compound triceps machines, violate muscular sufficiency principles (active insufficiency of the target muscles occurs) as a result of this mistaken belief. Ironically, design features of other machines indicate awareness of the need to satisfy active and passive muscular sufficiency, such as the seat back angle on the leg extension machines.
One of Arthur’s original Ten Requirements for Full Range Exercise was the ability to “pre-stretch” which involved quickly lowering then yanking or heaving at the weight to elicit a myotatic reflex to increase the force of muscular contraction. Not only is this not a requirement for any sane kind of exercise, it is a very bad idea because it increases your chances of pulling or straining something.
Despite having said and written that when in doubt of the proper speed of movement during exercise it is better to move too slowly than too quickly and that it is probably impossible to move too slowly during exercise, Arthur criticized SuperSlow founder Ken Hutchins as “taking the slow thing too far”.
I could go on and on, but I think you get the point; Arthur Jones got some things wrong, contradicted himself, etc. More importantly, he got the majority of things right, and those principles still form the basis of my training recommendations. Not just because Arthur said or wrote them, but because they’re supported by a large amount of research and empirical evidence.
Speed of Movement
In Testing And Rehabilitation For The Lumbar Spine, The Cervical Spine, And The Knee, Arthur wrote, “Perhaps the most important consideration: a proper style of performance requires a relatively slow speed of movement. Too slow provides all of the benefits and produces none of the potential problems, while too fast avoids some benefits and does produce problems, generally problems resulting from high levels of impact force.” (Page 44) I spoke with Arthur about this and the contradiction with his criticism of SuperSlow on a few occasions and his response was always something to the effect of, “Yes, you should move slowly during exercise but Hutchins has taken it too fucking far.”
Speed of movement during exercise needs to be at least slow enough for you to be able to reverse direction smoothly and with very low acceleration, maintain proper positioning and alignment, and focus on intensely contracting the target muscles. Exactly how slow this is varies depending on a lot of factors, including your limb length and the range of motion, how skilled you are at performing the exercise, and your overall level of motor control just to name a few. Most people’s form is very poor by my standards at any speed, but gets much worse as speed of movement increases. Even people who are relatively skilled at an exercise and have good motor control have a hard time performing adequately smooth turnarounds and doing other things as well as I’d like them to using cadences faster than 4/4 on most exercises.
Is it really necessary to move as slowly as a 10/10 cadence, though? Did Ken Hutchins really take slowing down “too fucking far” as Arthur liked to say? While it might not be absolutely necessary for everybody and for all exercises to move quite so slowly, there is no downside and several advantages.
I spent a few years (approx 2006 to 2011) experimenting with and comparing the results of a variety of repetition cadences and traditional high intensity training repetition methods and saw no significant difference in subjects’ muscular strength or size gains between different controlled repetition speeds as long as the intensity of effort was high. There was, however, a difference in how some people’s joints felt after performing certain protocols like negative-only and heavy rest-pause. Since one of the goals of exercise is not to wreck yourself in the process or undermine your long term health and functional ability it makes good sense to use a slower cadence. Doing so makes it easier to perform controlled turnarounds, maintain proper positioning and alignment, and detect and correct form problems.
There is nothing about very slow reps that is inconsistent with high intensity training principles.
Isometric Versus Full Range Exercise
One person accusing me of heresy was upset I have been writing about isometrics recently. He felt the emphasis on timed static contractions contradicted Arthur’s writing about full range exercise.
I believe Arthur was wrong about the need for full range of motion. While some studies show isometric exercise results in position-specific strength increases, many don’t and show a moderate to strong correlation between isometric and dynamic performance. MedX research showed this response varied between individuals, with most people having a position-specific response (strength increased within about 15 degrees of the position trained isometrically) while others had a general response (strength increased over the full range of motion of the exercise regardless of the position trained isometrically). Based on my previous experience with Mike Mentzer‘s static hold protocol, Max Contraction training, timed static contractions and the RenEx iMachines I believe position-specific strength increases on tests reported in some studies have more to do with neural adaptations than general improvements in muscular strength.
For the past three months the only direct biceps and triceps exercises I have done have been isometric. During one of two weekly workouts I perform one set of arm curls and one set of triceps extensions on the UXS bodyweight exercise station using timed static contraction protocol with the elbows at approximately 90 degrees. Today I tested myself on the SuperSlow Systems biceps and triceps machines after not having used them for three months and was able to use twenty more pounds on each machine. I had no trouble getting past the mid range position as would be the case if my strength had only increased around that position.
When properly performed isometric protocols like timed static contractions are effective, efficient, and safe and there is a place for them in high intensity training programs.
Nautilus Versus Bodyweight Exercise
A couple people accusing me of heresy were upset I have been writing about bodyweight exercise and think I should recommend everybody only train on machines. While a properly designed machine provides several advantages over training with free weights or body weight there are a lot of people out there who don’t have access to properly designed machines. While a rare few gyms have decent machines most are full of poorly designed crap because most gym owners generally don’t know the difference, or if they do they figure their members won’t know the difference. Some people prefer to work out at home and can’t afford to spend thousands of dollars on a line of Nautilus or MedX machines. Some people travel frequently and don’t always have convenient access to equipment. A lot of readers are soldiers deployed in places where equipment is very limited or non-existent.
I’ve either said or written it hundreds of times; how you train is far more important than what you train on. Proper training with just bodyweight or a bunch of heavy rocks will produce much better results than improper training on the most technologically advanced equipment in the world. Having both would be ideal, but that’s not always an option.
Although I have access to some of the best equipment in the world, to be better able to understand and provide solutions for the kind of training problems the majority of readers face it is necessary to spend time training with more conventional equipment and doing bodyweight training. Just because I’m doing bodyweight training right now does not mean I’m recommending that everyone else do so or saying it is the best way to train. However, it is turning out to be highly effective, efficient, and safe and it is one of the most practical ways for some people to work out under some circumstances. With the economy going the way it is and more people working out at home with very basic or limited equipment there is a need for this kind of information, and most of what’s out there on bodyweight training is utterly idiotic. It makes sense to devote some time to experimenting with and writing about it.
Speaking of experiments, I also tested myself on the SuperSlow Systems leg press and overhead press machines after not having used them for three months and was able to use ten more pounds on each machine for more reps. I stopped after eight reps and probably could have handled a bit more weight. This is after months of slow bodyweight squats and a few workouts doing timed static contraction squats and doing “shoulder push ups” with angled push up handles attached to the UXS. I think many people underestimate how effective bodyweight training can be when done correctly.
Don’t worry, Nautilus true believers. I still plan to write a lot about training with machines.
However, as long as it is done intensely, briefly, and infrequently there is also a place for bodyweight exercise in high intensity training programs.