Nautilus, Crossfit, and “HiHi”

Categorized under Training

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
Books
by 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?, 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.

Nautilus Lessons

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.

Crossfit Conundrum

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.”

“Huh?”

“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:

Back Squats:

315 for 30
Rest
275 for 30
Rest
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

Front Squat
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.

The Journey

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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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