Does H.I.T. Training Get You Into Heaven?


I'd only been in college a few days when I met "her." She was a young lady who had "entertained" the bulk of our university's football team. Six months later, we bumped into each other after she had gone to the Middle East...on her parent's a "retreat" that involved long hours of work, little sleep, and lots of childhood songs. We call that "brainwashing," but regardless, she informed me that I was going to hell because I drank beer.

A year or so later, at a party, she had a semester's worth of tuition stuffed up her nose in the form of cocaine. After I graduated from college, we bumped into each other at a "friend of a friend of a friend's" wedding. She again told me, because of her new religion, that I was going to hell because I drank beer.

Does it sound familiar? Do you know anybody like that? For those of us in the iron game, if you last long enough, you're going to meet people like "her" at every gym, spa, and fitness center you train at for more than a few days. Maybe that's why I train in my garage. You know the kind: people who leap from one "religion" of lifting to another, back and forth, to and fro, that never really seem to make any true progress. They quote research, studies, facts, graphs, and testimony from the new church of lifting and fill internet forums with reams (bytes?) of inflamed monologues on the ills of all other training paradigms and the need for one set of squats every three weeks to achieve full muscular development. A few months later, in the same gym, they can be found doing sets of thirty quarter squats because of a book they found at Barnes and Noble.

The world of lifting, strength training, and sports conditioning has come a long way since the early years when lifting was considered one step from pedophilia...or, at least, an example of rampant narcissism and a sure road to bestiality. When I first started lifting weights during the Nixon Administration, most of the girls in my school asked if it would make me "musclely."

I certainly had hoped it would, but, back in the day, you had little guidance beyond monthly magazines that featured pictures of Mr. Someplace. Few athletes ventured into the weight room save the throwers from Track and Field and a few football players like Green Bay Packer Jim Taylor and Billy Cannon, the Louisiana State University Heisman Trophy winner. Basketball players always worried that it would "ruin my shot." It's hard to believe the change in just a few decades.

Most people who train with weights will never have to deal with questions like "won't that make you muscle bound?" With grannies wearing spandex waiting their turn to use the adductor machine, gyms now cater to nearly everyone. Yet, a couple of things you can usually bet on are that the area near the squat rack will be dusty and the Olympic bars are used for curls. We can only be thankful for a roomful of aerobicizied kickboxing nymphettes in clear view, so it's easier to keep our eyes off of granny doing "innies" and "outties."

And, like all institutions, we're now experiencing the schisms. A few minutes of studying the internet forums dedicated to lifting will let you in on a level of hatred and name calling not seen since the middle of the Reformation. To really experience the battle lines, write something negative...anywhere...about H.I.T. Your intelligence, your courage and your real relationship to your father will all be put into question if you make one or two comments on High Intensity Training.

Now, we have to be specific here: we are talking not about "training with intensity at a high level," like sprinting, the O lifts, the power lifts, full contact football, or gymnastics; we're talking about the "religion" called "High Intensity Training." It can appear under many guises and forms, but like many cults its definition is impossible to pin down.

Many in the H.I.T. world are not unlike those who have recently experienced a "life-changing" relationship with their Creator. With my full-time careers as both an administrator and professor in Religious Studies and Religious Education, I consistently engage people who are "converts." It's a rare person who's recently converted to another faith tradition or who's recently re-embraced the "faith of our fathers" that can avoid acting in one or two predictable patterns:

– "I'm right. I used to think I was right, but I was wrong then. Now, I am right...and you are wrong to think I am not right now. Even if I argued earlier about being right, now you must understand that I was wrong then, but now I am right."

– "No, I can't define it. But, you must understand that I understand it perfectly."

In religious studies, I understand the issue perfectly. To move from one way of life to another; to learn the dietary habits, the manners, the movements, the dress, and acquiesce to demands that the believer abandon much of the past and travel along a very different path is similar to the story that H.I.T. converts follow.

Let's summarize the usual story: "For years now, I have been pushing the squats, learning the cleans, hitting the iron and generally blaming my parents (genetics), my supplier (the local nutrition center versus a guy named "Tony" with a supply line to some third world steroid dealership), and my gym (not enough equipment, the wrong line of machines, not allowed to use chalk). Then, I came across this article/forum/book that talked to me: it's not your fault...everything you know is wrong."

Why do I know this? I've been there. I'd finished my first decade as a lifter and thrower competing at the national level as an Olympic lifter and a Division One discus thrower. My joints hurt, my body ached, and my tummy hung over my belly. I'd recently started coaching high school football and I'd been invited to my first coach's clinic. The Saturday morning speaker, a noted name in what was then known as "Nautilus Training," took one of the attending coaches through a quick weight workout of leg curls, leg extensions, and squats. The coach was unable to stand up with the bar (45 pounds) to finish his sets. His heart rate was off the charts and he was still limping the next morning.

Obviously, I did everything wrong. Here was the answer: rather than expending my time and energy adding more and more plates to the bar, I needed to train "briefer, but harder." I became a convert instantly.

For two years, I paid an extra fee at a local fitness center to use the Nautilus Center. I followed the advice of every book I could find on the topic. I ended up with two people standing on the stack of plates on the leg press machine, I mastered one arm down and two arms up lifting, and spent the exact same amount of time on calf flexion as I did hip extension.

At the same time, I continued my career as a discus thrower. As the weeks turned into months and into years, I noticed that I'd become a good "golfer" rather than a better thrower: my scores were coming I called the experts on a regular basis and received two basic answers: I was training too hard and/or my discus throwing was not biomechanically correct.

Now, I'm proud to say that I'm one of the few people who've been studied in the discus on two separate occasions by a 3-Dimensional video study where you become a series of dots on a computer screen in X, Y and Z coordinates. (I must admit that one researcher told me to start on "a cycle of steroids to see if that would help." Not great advice considering the organization he worked for...) I took the first expert's advice: I trained less. I threw less but with the best technical style I could accomplish, yet the distance still suffered.

Like many converts who feel that they've been lied to, I left the church of machine training. I gave away a stack of glossy books all promising "Titanic Trapeziuses (Trapezii?) in Ten Days!" I went back to my roots. I started Olympic Lifting again...oh, the soreness...and relatively soon, my discus was flying back over 55meters.

I've shared this story with many High Intensity Trainees and the most common response is simply this:

"That wasn't H.I.T."


"No, that isn't H.I.T."

"One set to momentary muscular failure isn't H.I.T.?"

"Right. It is one set to momentary muscular failure, but it can be several sets, too, or not."

What? Exactly. One of the things that leads most High Intensity Training forums to "constantly eat their young" is that no one can define (H)it. I've followed the long distinguished career of Doctor Ken Leistner (including his late 1960's writings in "Strength and Health") and fully agree with his approach to H.I.T., with his deadly heavy high repetition squats, straight leg deadlifts, dips, and farmers walks. But, when he posted his famous 23 reps with 407, he was attacked by the High Intensity world. "That isn't right, you go too go too"

There's a wonderful scene in the Burt Reynold's movie, "Semi-Tough," where the characters argue about the latest psycho-babble. It goes something like this:

"If you understand it, then you don't understand it, but if you don't understand it, you understand it."

"Understand what?"


Welcome to the world of High Intensity Training. When I got a nasty email from a HITter complaining that I didn't understand "it," I wrote him back that one of the world's most famous HITters guided me through it, he wrote back...and I'm not kidding... "well, he doesn't understand it, either!"

Listen carefully here: HIT works...for about six weeks. In fact, everything works for about six weeks, but that's not the point. My good friend, Charles Staley was recently dared by a writing challenged individual to put the "Staley Method" up against the "SYSTEM"...for six weeks. If you only have a career that's going to last the next six weeks, go ahead and do anything you like.

Again, the subtle secret truth that few in the world of strength training want to admit is this: for six weeks, or so, everything works. All the strength training books and articles on the dusty shelves of Portland State University, Arizona State University, Utah State University, Dennison College, and several other schools that I wasted so much of my life flipping through; all the prime movers of the Isometric craze of the early 1960's as well as the key figures in the Nautilus movement that I talked to, they're ALL right! They're all right for about six weeks.

Again, if your career is only going to last the next six weeks, do anything you like!

The bottom line is this: I'm going to receive death threats over writing this, but it all comes down to competition. One of the H.I.T. mantras is "we build strength, we don't demonstrate it." Unfortunately, "demonstrating" strength and skill may be the only true measure for training programs! I've competed in countless Highland Games where young men in the crowd wearing "muscle shirts" have asked me "What muscles does the caber build?"

They just don't get it. Serratus muscles don't live in isolation when you pick a 130-pound piece of wood off the ground at the vertical. To toss a caber, tackle a runner, or jam the ball, you have to demonstrate some serious levels of strength. All the glossy "before and after" shots in the world aren't going to get the shot past sixty feet.

Athletic competition also has standards. A sixty foot throw in the shot, at any level, is an excellent mark. Snatching bodyweight is a standard that the lifter is no longer a novice. The H.I.T. reliance on machines misses the whole point: save for the small confines of your gym, nobody in the world gives a damn that you moved from "P" to "Q" on the leg press stack. Honestly, nobody cares.  A 400 bench press is a quality lift for anyone, anywhere, at anytime.

Competitive athletes, in my estimation, understand strength training better than anyone else who lifts in the gym. It's a simple formula: did X or Y help me compete? If the answer is "yes," we keep on doing it. If it doesn't, it's dropped and discarded. Now, this process is not exact and many of the things tossed aside may have value, but competition rarely allows the athlete to experiment too long in a blind search down the wrong training program.

To summarize:

– Everything works, no matter how crazy, for about three to six weeks. Even those miracle strength devices on television that guarantee the loss of several dress sizes work, but your results might not be the same as a Los Angeles model's results.

– Even though everything works, research is sometimes valuable.  However, because everything works, research findings will always come to certain basic conclusions: less food and more exercise is good for people who want to lose with resistance tends to make people stronger. As such, beware of the studies with "untrained" people getting stronger...anything helps "untrained."

– Measure your training with something outside of the gym. I know several women on the Internet who use old clothes as a gauge. Hey, if you can fit in your wedding dress after six months of training, you're doing something right!!! If you can finally dunk, maybe you're on the right track, too.

– Finally, and the most important: look at your goals and lifting career outside a quick fix. It's fun, I agree, to buy into the concepts of "Tighter Tushies in Two Days," "Terrible Pythons of Power in Three Weeks," and "Totally Tremendous Thunder Thighs in Four Weeks." There's no question that short term fixes work and provide a nice shot of enthusiasm into a training year. But, keep your eye on the long term.

There are no "Great Mysteries" to strength training and body recomposition...that's the realm of religion and theology.

Dan John is an elite-level strength and weightlifting coach. He is also an All-American discus thrower, holds the American record in the Weight Pentathlon, and has competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting and Highland Games. Follow Dan John on Facebook