Nautilus, Crossfit, and "HiHi"
by Dan John
Author's Note: I began lifting in 1967 when my brother, Gary, bought a 110 pound weight set. As I sat back and realized I've been obsessed with a hobby for 40 years, I thought, "Hmmm, maybe I should share a lesson or two..."
Think Double & DGSI
One of my favorite books has a title that caught my eye immediately when I saw it in the bookstore. It's Great Booksby David Denby. Seriously, when you're looking around the bookstore for a new book to read and you see one called Great Books, how can you pass on it?
Denby spent a year doing something that I wish I could do. He went back to his freshman year in college and retook the Humanities curriculum. As a guy in his mid-forties, he returned to Columbia College and sat in a room with a bunch of freshmen wearing backward baseball caps and reread the great books.
Great books change as you age. A hung-over college freshman can't really understand the issues that parents go through in great literature. Kissing the killer of your child, like Priam in TheIlliad, or being asked to sacrifice your first born, like Abraham in Genesis, might not be such a big deal on a Wednesday morning in a comfortable classroom after a nice cafeteria breakfast. Now that I have teenagers, I can barely read these same passages.
The greatest gift from Denby's book is the insights of his professors. Professor Edward Taylor constantly prods the class to "think double." Another professor begs that the students "DGSI," or "Don't Get Sucked In."
Sucked in? Yes, sucked into the bullshit. Let me pull out my bee pollen, my B-15 tablets, my sublingual L-Arginine drops... It's all BS, folks. But "think double" resonates with me.
In a world of "either-or" and an occasional "neither-nor," Professor Taylor is reminding us of "both-and." In the strength community, we like to take sides on an issue. It doesn't matter, but just put up a forum post about a high-protein diet and the high-carbers will attack you. Machines are great/machines suck. Kettlebells are great/kettlebells suck.
Professor Taylor's insight is worth studying. Let's "think double" a little bit. I'd like to share three different times in my career when I spent at least two years trying a program and discuss the insights from each.
I Bought Into All of It!
It's funny to look at the advice I took (and didn't take) over my career. In 1991, a former world-class lifter told me three things I needed to do:
1. Keep my bodyweight on my heels when I lifted. (Advice I ignored until I discovered this was absolutely correct and it changed my lifting in a second or less.)
2. I should use complexes in training. (Advice I ignored until Alwyn Cosgrove made me start using them and the body fat just fell off me like grease from bacon.)
3. I should do nothing less than tens in the squat. (Advice I ignored. Instead, I did lots and lots and lots of heavy singles, got a big gut, and lost all my snap. Now, I do tens.)
Why didn't I at least listen to him? Well, I'd been training hard with a group of guys at a local gym and I'd bought into heavy isometrics, lots of plyometrics, and a serious amount of heavy back squatting to improve my Olympic lifts. And I was improving. My gym lifts were going up and up. Now, at the meets I was struggling with a lack of energy, some injuries, some burnout, but, hey, I was looking good in the gym!
My point is that good advice has been cast at me throughout my career. I tend to ignore it when it comes in a simple package. Now, if you slap some color on it and fill it with bright images and make it seem exotic, rare, and remote, now I'm listening!
You see, I get sucked in. But, let me "think double" with my experiences. As I look on my forty years in the strength game, I'm embarrassed and proud to say I've done just about everything. My earnestness in pursuing the secrets has led me down a lot of wrong roads, but the lessons are worth sharing. By the end of 1992, I could barely climb a flight of stairs. I was a wreck. I ignored probably the exact advice that would've kept me less injured, less fat, and a lot happier to be around.
My first article at T-Nation, Does H.I.T. Training Get You Into Heaven?, [link to http://www.t-nation.com/findArticle.do?article=311hit2] caused quite a stir on the HIT forums. So much so, after dozens and dozens of posts, flames, and personal attacks upon each other in the forum, that they proved my point. My point? HIT has become a religion. And although the followers used to dominate the Internet (am I the only one that remembers "HIT Jedis?"), the bulk of the flock has vanished with their 14-inch-arms and continue to bemoan their parents for everything (the genetics argument).
How did I know so much? Well, I bought into all of it.
It would be hard to find someone who trained during the 1970's who wouldn't have been swayed by the marketing of Nautilus. It only occurred to me recently that the bulk of the information from Arthur Jones came in advertisements. Yes, huge ads, but ads nonetheless. The magazine, Athletics Journal, became the "must see" publication during the height of the Nautilus hoopla.
Later, after buying everything Ellington Darden (the voice of Nautilus and later HIT for a generation) ever wrote, I met with him at a clinic in Las Vegas and began training on a full set of Nautilus machines in a local gym. Later, at a great discount, I owned and stored seven of the biggest and most famous of the machines. Every few weeks, I'd call him. Ell always answered my calls with intelligence and insight.
In fact, once I asked him what to do with all my spare time and he answered, "Learn to play chess."
"I already know how."
"Then teach people to play chess," he responded.
The next week, the chess coach job opened at my school (a moment of synchronicity) and I took the position. As a football coach, teaching chess was probably the single best decision I ever made for tactics and strategy.
Jones and Darden did something brilliant that was beyond marketing. They changed the definition of "intensity." Rather than the classic formulas based on maximums, the HIT mantra became "Train until temporary muscular failure." By changing the definition of intensity, one could also change the perception of progress. By simply adding an additional rep or two, adding a negative, or adding another plate on the plate-loaded stack, this was "progress." Soon, you'd see the results whether in body size increase or fat loss or better sports performance.
In "measured sports," track and field and strength sports such as Olympic lifting, the HIT promised failed quickly. Yes, it still remains in some small corners of intercollegiate sports where recruiting is the key. And we'll see a host of images of bodybuilders from the era of Watergate to prove the system works as soon as this article posts, but most of us have moved on. Recently, Art deVany told Charles Staley to "focus on performance, not failure." I think that's a mantra worthy of a T-shirt.
So, I wasted two-plus years of my life doing Nautilus? No, not at all. For one thing, I learned to discern advertisements from articles. Not always an easy thing! Next, I came away very impressed with Ellington Darden, who answered all my stupid questions. For those of you who remark about how patient I am with your idiotic questions, thank Ellington!
One area of training on the machines that I found interesting was my discovery that I did "miss muscles" in training whole body my whole career. I also discovered that it didn't take much to overcome this gap. The best lesson was simply this: I learned that in a performance sport you measure improvement by improving performance!
Finally, I came away with a truth from this experience: everything works. Well, everything works for about six weeks. The ultimate problem with the early Nautilus training is that after about six weeks, improvement stopped. But, that's true with just about everything! If you went to some secret training facility and sat at the feet of the masters, you'd make great progress. Then, around six weeks later, you'd start moving to Plan B.
Plan B? Yep, you could blame your parents for giving you bad genetics, you could decide to "periodize" your training, you could cut back (something most people would never consider), or you could plow ahead. I've done them all.
My time training on the Nautilus system certainly didn't help me with my primary goals. I should've listened to Aristotle, of course: "Both excessive and deficient exercise ruins physical strength." I let myself get "sucked in" to the promise of improvement by vomiting over the side of a machine that only worked my quads, triceps, or abs.
Yet the lessons from these two years have certainly guided my coaching. So, yes, I got sucked in, but the insights, experiences, and lessons have been well worth my time.
As many T-Nation readers may remember, I also trained in the Crossfit style for two years. In Tyler Hass's famous interview with Crossfit's founder, Greg Glassman, I saw another interesting promise:
"If you come to us with a four-minute mile, six months into it you are going to be 30 seconds slower but a whole hell of a lot fitter. Similarly, if you come to us with a 900-pound squat, in six months it's going to be 750 pounds, but you, too, will be much fitter. A four-minute mile and a 900-pound squat are both clear and compelling evidence of a lack of balance in your program. This doesn't reflect the limitations of our program but the inherent nature of flesh and blood. But here's the fascinating part. We can take you from a 200-pound max deadlift to a 500-750 pound max deadlift in two years while only pulling max singles four or five times a year."
The same issue emerges here: a four-minute mile is a world-class time which would/should/could/probably provide this athlete with a salary, or at least a free education. A 4:30 mile isn't unusual in a high school state meet. Certainly, there are lots of examples of students running these times well before their junior year. So, here's the rub: we're recommending a program that literally takes one from world class to solid high school performer?
The point about the 750 pound max deadlift can only be demonstrated by the platform, but I've been around the game a long time and a 750 deadlifter is a rarity with any program anywhere. In my only powerlifting contest, I was the last successful deadlifter that night (3:00 AM, deadlifting 628; hard on the nerves, by the way) and any program that can get me to 750 with minimal deadlifting is worth a serious study.
In this example, we see another issue. The Crossfit community took on the definition of fitness credited to Jim Crawley and Bruce Evans of Dynamax, who market an excellent medicine ball. The Crawley/Evans definition includes ten components that all of us would recognize in a moment, including strength, speed, and power.
However, I've always used Doctor Phil Maffetone's original definition that fitness is the "ability to do a task." In his more recent works, he's changed the definition to "the ability to be physically active." I like the original.
Why do I love the original definition? Maffetone's great insight was that he separated "health" from "fitness." Health is the "harmony" of the organs to operate "optimally." Fitness is task-based. I think fitness is throwing the discus far. I could set up an entire website that has this single definition.
Now, I recognize the limitations, but most fitness professionals don't. We tend to coach from our life experiences, a lesson that's absolutely correct. The problem is that we sometimes forget that "my goals" might not be "your goals."
By doing something as simple as changing or grasping on to a single definition of fitness, one can completely miss the point of training. Sending a discus thrower to train with elite bodybuilders is as mad as sending elite bodybuilders to train with me.
Recently, in a telephone discussion with Mark Reifkind, an elite coach, bodybuilder, powerlifter, and author, he made a point so obvious that I simply have nearly stopped thinking since he mentioned it. "If you want to know about fat loss or muscle building, ask top level bodybuilders. These guys know it."
In other words, quit buying fat loss devices off of the late night TV ads from former sitcom actors, quit buying "fat loss" stuff that grandma tried when her cribbage partner mentioned it, and quit trying fad diets. Instead, listen to the best of the best.
I Enjoy Getting Sucked In!
Now, this is my advice to you. I doubt I'll follow it myself, though. The advice is this: if you follow Maffetone's definition of fitness, "the ability to do a task," and you run it past your goals, find people who are "doing your task" and follow them.
If your goal is a big deadlift or squat, read the Westside articles. If your goal is to "look good nekkid," read those articles in Testosterone Nation that explain nutrition and training for those exact goals. If your goal is to be good at pull-ups, do pull-ups. Just make sure your fitness approach matches your fitness goals.
The problem is this: yes, everything works. But, doing everything at once makes you marginal (at best) at everything. Yet there are great insights to steal from my Crossfit experience. Yep, I'm horrid at pull-ups. I gas out quickly when doing anything over thirty seconds, but those first thirty seconds are a dangerous thing, I warn you. Crossfit exposed issues for me, much like my Nautilus experience.
Somewhere during your training year, you need to unpack a few challenges and measure yourself against your goals. I've always had great respect for Clarence Bass's idea of an annual photo shoot. I believe he uses September, but it doesn't matter. As a track and strength athlete, it's relatively easy for me as I simply go to a meet and find out whether or not some training idea is working. The week after the Velocity Diet, I broke a state record in the snatch. In my narrow view of thinking, this works!
Alwyn Cosgrove said an interesting thing to me at a recent seminar: "Well, now you can talk about the Velocity Diet."
"Yeah, you did it; you can critique it," he said.
You know, I've been around for a while and it's the first time such an obvious point has crossed my mind. We should begin a list of "Things I Tried" and share the information. We could call it "the internet."
Seriously though, I thrived on the Atkins Diet... stopped doing it because it worked so well for me. The Velocity Diet? Yep, I loved it. Turns out that I need more fluids than I thought and that it takes a lot of work to be that disciplined in diet. I tried using subliminal tapes years ago and discovered that my ears don't like having plugs in them that long.
Here's the key for me: I enjoy getting sucked in. I enjoy trying new training ideas and new equipment. Some things, like kettlebells and chains, work even better for me than advertised. Other things are rusting in my backyard as we speak, but I must've learned a lesson or two from the failures, as well.
Volume and Intensity
The lesson of my training career has been the ultimate "think double." There are two factors, really, in training: volume and intensity. For your own purposes, define those as you wish, but try not to kid yourself too much.
Low Volume/Low Intensity
Low Volume/High Intensity
High Volume/Low Intensity
High Volume/High Intensity
Although there are probably a billion gradations in between, let's focus on what I've learned, basically, in my career. You see, I've done them all. And they all work.
Low Volume and Low Intensity: There's a time to take off and a time to take it easy. Now, for me, I just don't do anything. There was a time where I found those light, easy workouts refreshing and fun, but now I just take the dog for a walk rather than a light "tonic" workout as we used to call them.
However, don't ignore the value of light and short workouts. They can be stimulating and even can remind you of what you're supposed to be doing.
Low Volume/High Intensity: If I may, let's just pretend that this is High Intensity Training, shall we? I know this: there's probably no better time spent than a focused six week attack on the body with this approach. Yes, it's Frankenstein training. True, it's machine-based training.
I know, I know, it isn't going to do this or that or this... but for a short experiment, I'm not sure much else can work better. The learning curve on the leg curl machine is quite low and you can have your buddies help you with negatives, rest-pauses, partials, or whatever, almost from day one. Don't try any of that with snatches!
High Volume/Low Intensity: Most of us live here. Forever. To be honest, when I go to most gyms and watch people train, I'm not sure why they just don't do push-ups and pull-ups at home. Most gymrats bench press weights that surely aren't much more effort than push-ups.
This is why 5K runs are so popular on weekends: waddle around for half an hour, pick up your T-shirt, and eat your bagels on the way home while you convince yourself you trained hard. Oh, I love it, too. I spend the bulk of my time doing garbage workouts that simply keep me in the game. But, that's good! We need to spend a lot of time here.
High Volume/High Intensity: Here's where thinking double comes in. Not long ago, I wrote about a workout I did in 1979:
315 for 30
275 for 30
225 for 30
Usually, when I write an article, I get a dozen emails that say, "Dan, I did this workout and got nothing out of it." Not one email has reported that doing this exact workout made the writer "get nothing."
High volume and high intensity, or as we used to say, "Heavy weights and high reps," is probably the lost art of weight training. Most of my workouts are designed to push the athlete to that world. Take this:
The Litvinov Workout
405 for 8 reps
Run 400 meters immediately after
Repeat three times
Having problems with your quad development? How about just front squatting 405 for three sets of eight?
I don't care how you train. The key for you is to find a way, as often as you can, to get yourself to train with high volume and high intensity. In addition, and probably more important, you need to have the skill or insight or coaching about when to stop doing "HiHi" and getting some time in the other quadrants.
Like Denby, I wish I could go back and relive my first lifting experiences and try to explain to myself the long, long road ahead. I can't. I couldn't possibly explain to that ten year old Danny John the challenges ahead. He needed, like the rest of us, the journey.
And, to be honest, I envy him a bit.
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