Anguishing Over the Perfect Workout
Roger Schwab

What is the best way to train to get results from exercise? Seven days a week? Four days a week? Two days? And how about the number of sets and reps? Three sets of eight? Five sets of five? Ten sets of ten? More sets for larger body parts? Less sets for smaller body parts? How about for stubborn, unresponsive body parts? Higher reps for definition and lower reps for bulk? These are merely some of the problems that have plagued trainees, both men and women, who have at one time or another "anguished over the perfect workout". And now, here I come to solve all of your problems, right? Well, most likely this is wrong because: 1. I am going to tell you not what you want to hear, but what you need to hear, and 2. if you do believe what I say, that belief may only last until the next article you read on training that offers a faster or easier way to "get there". So, quite frankly, if I reach a small percentage of those who read this article, that will be taking a long step in the right direction in a field (exercise) that at the present time is marching steadily backward.

I personally began exercising at a young age with no one to tell me what to do or not to do regarding proper training. I struck out on my own, reading any and all available (but not necessarily medically credible) information. At times, I would train six days a week, other times four days a week, doing split routines, double split routines; you name it, I tried it. I made many mistakes and repeated most of them for years. Each routine, however different, seemed to yield very similar results. I would make fast progress the first week, slower progress the second, and so on until eventually there were no results at all. It seemed interesting to me that some body parts would respond regardless of the routine, and other body parts would never respond in the slightest. (At the time, no significant studies had been done relating to good genetics, long muscle bellies vs. short muscle bellies, etc.) If I would quit training and start again utilizing a different routine, I would stimulate exactly the same results- no more, no less. Results would come rapidly at first, and then quickly cease altogether. I was on a treadmill to nowhere! At the time, I couldn't understand it. (I do now.) My intensity was there, I always trained as hard as I could; that factor never changed. Then, in the mid 1970's, a change did occur which finally set me on a path to sensible weight training. The change literally hit me like a slap across the face! Having only a limited time to train, I made only one change in my workout: I cut it in half! There were no other changes. Six weeks later, I was still gaining. Six months later, I was stronger and more muscular by far than I had ever been in my life! Not by training more, and not by training harder: I was already training as hard as possible, I had always done that. My progress was due to training less! Before, I had been stimulating my body to respond, but my workouts had been so frequent and so long that I was not allowing my overall system to recover between workouts. I was depleting my recovery ability. [Note: When I was doing split routines in the past - different muscle groups on different days - I failed to realize that while muscles themselves may recover quickly from intense work, the system as a whole (including the organs: liver, kidneys, etc.) do not recover quickly, and may take from 48-96 hours to fully recover. It may be interesting to note that a stronger subject needs more, not less recovery time between workouts than a weaker subject.] In retrospect, I recall saying something to the effect of "Why didn't I realize this before?" After all, I was already in my thirties, well past the age when most people believe peak physical potential is reached. Instead of training in some fashion nearly everyday, utilizing several sets (sometimes as many as five) of an exercise, I was now training three times a week, never doing more than two sets of an exercise, with workouts lasting less than one hour. And I was still overtraining!

About this time, I learned about the enormous value of "negative only" exercise. Exercise which, when performed properly, involved slowly lowering the resistance rather than raising it. Though "negative only" (eccentric contraction) exercise was new to me, lowering weights smoothly was something I had always done. Whenever I lifted a weight, I would lower it in the same manner, unlike what others around me seemed to be doing then. (And now, for that matter, since many trainees heave the weight up and then drop it. This type of training is not only useless to anyone other than an Olympic-style weight lifter, but is also dangerous. This danger factor is one that many trainees seem to care little if anything about.) "Negative-only" exercise represented a break-through in training techniques. 'Heavy weights that could not be lifted even once could be lowered under control. So, I tried "negative only" training for awhile with several other trainees. Results were outstanding for every subject. We performed one set of seven to ten exercises three times a week. This quickly proved to be too much! We finally settled on one workout every 72-96 hours and results were dramatic! It was then and only then that I finally woke up! When you are training correctly with any worthwhile tools, whether they be barbells, dumbbells, Nautilus machines etc, you not only do not need to do more than one set of an exercise, you literally cannot stand it! And workouts should never last longer than one half hour to forty five minutes.

If you are still skeptical of the use of one set training to momentary muscular failure/fatigue I will state this fact: I have yet to personally train anyone on a set of twenty or more barbell full squats performed to complete muscular failure with a spotter on each side to "catch" the trainee in the down position on his/her last rep, and one spotter behind him/her in case he/she passes out during the set, who is then prepared to perform a second set in the same workout! The same can be said of "negative only" chins and dips with additional resistance slung around the waist for a slow ten second count. Have you ever done a set of barbell curls to failure so that the bar literally falls out of your exhausted hands? If you have, then you know exactly what I'm talking about. And if you haven't, try it before you decide to debate me.

It took me too many years to learn that two sets of an exercise were better than four or more sets of an exercise. And it took me even more years to realize that one set was all that was necessary or desirable to stimulate results most rapidly, safely and efficiently.

And please do not be as ignorant as the talk show host who recently said that anyone who recommends only one set of an exercise is a "screwball" trying to move members through a Nautilus program quickly, and that Nautilus itself does not build muscles. If this person had any sense, (which from first impressions seems unlikely) he would realize that the best way to train is applicable not only on Nautilus machines, but with barbells, dumbbells and any other sensible training tool. As for the statement about Nautilus "not building muscle", this shows an ignorance of the function of the body's nervous system which does not distinguish between modalities when an overload presents itself. I would also like to point out that anyone who has trained at Main Line Nautilus and has seen the eighty or so Nautilus machines and tons of free weights knows that we do not train in "circuits" where someone is either behind you or in front of you at all times. This should indicate that the length of your workout is of no concern to us at all. Frankly, I don't care how a person trains, but there does seem to be a safe and sensible way to do it, and that is the method I will now try to describe.

1. It now seems certain that whatever tool you use in your workouts, you would be smart to do the movement slowly and smoothly with no jerking of the resistance. In normal lifting and lowering movements, this means lifting the weight slowly and lowering the weight slowly. This insures that the forces involved are kept to a minimum. Remember, when applied force exceeds the integrity of a muscle or connective tissue, injury must occur. High intensity exercise is met by taking the exercise to momentary muscular failure/fatigue, by keeping repetitions in a safe range (never less than six and as many as thirty or more, depending on the neurological efficiency/anaerobic endurance of the trainee. This point needs much further clarification and will be dealt with in a future article.) and by never moving the weight ballistically. If weights are moved very slowly, exaggerating the first several reps, no warm-up or stretching is generally needed (there may be exceptions to this) especially if Nautilus machines are your chosen equipment. If every repetition in the set is a quality, meaningful one, then each consecutive repetition is a specific warm-up leading to the final all out repetition. Thus, forces throughout the set are kept to a minimum and the intensity is maintained over the entire set. Stretching, by my definition, is exceeding the normal range of motion around a joint. Stretching is accomplished safely when movements on many Nautilus machines are performed smoothly from the extension to the position of full muscular contraction. If someone chooses to "stretch out" before performing an exercise, that is their choice. It is my opinion that muscular weakness coming out of the stretch is to blame for many of the injuries we see in sports today. Hopefully, the above is understood, for I have not the time or space to cover that subject in this article. However, an entire article will be devoted to the facts and fallacies of stretching in due time.

2. Please be kind enough not to advise me that champion body builders favor free weights over machines and perform endless sets of each exercise. First of all, how do you know that the above statement is in fact true? By reading the muscle magazines? Let me tell you from first hand knowledge that nearly everything pertaining to workout routines of the "champs" that is published in muscle magazines is, putting it nicely, nonsense. If you believe what you read in those "journals", then this article or any other sensible publication is not for you. How do I know all of this? Well, for starters, I was head judge of the I.F.B.B. (International Federation of Body Builders) professional judges committee for several years through the late 1970's and early 1980's. I have judged seven Mr. and Ms. Olympia competitions as well as several national and world title contests. During that time, I knew and trained with many Mr. and Ms. Olympia competitors. I can tell you that their routines never even remotely resembled the rubbish attributed to them in magazines. The truth is that nearly all of the articles bi-lined by top body builders are actually "ghost written" by magazine editors who re-hash the same routines year after year and affix them to the name of the current champ. Unfortunately, as in many arenas, some "champs" will lend their names and more for the right price. If I am bursting some bubbles here then you, dear reader, are more naive than you should be! And if all of this upsets you, you had better stop reading now, because there is more- so much more in fact that it would take volumes to describe to you all of the fantasy passed along as fact about the training routines of the champions!

3. Hopefully, if you have been engaged in serious training for a period of time, you will have realized that proper genetics is about 90% of the whole ballgame. It is the major factor in creating champion body builders, both male and female! This factor, however, does not detract from the importance of high intensity exercise. High intensity training will allow a champion to realize his or her potential quickly, without years of less productive time spent. An example? Casey Viator, Mr. America 1971, at age 19, was in his finest muscular condition at the time of his victory. Though he continued to compete at various levels of muscular condition into his early thirties, he never regained the mass he displayed at that young age. In my opinion, the same can be said for Boyer Coe, another physique great who was years ahead of anyone while in his late teens and early twenties. These two men were literally genetic supermen who trained intensely at a very young age and who realized very nearly their potential in a very short time. It is my opinion, again, that the literally thousands of man hours of training time turned in by top body builders (who are all gifted genetically in the first place) are mostly unproductive at best, and in many cases counter-productive. It is also my belief that most competitors would have realized more of their physical potential if training time had been greatly reduced, replaced by quality work followed by sufficient recovery time. Opinion on my part? Yes, but remember that I was involved in the inner sanctum of the sport which enabled me to see and judge the progress - or lack thereof - of the champs.

One final example of the part genetics plays in developing muscular size may be something all of us can relate to in one way or the other. I had the opportunity to watch Bill Grant, one of the world's most muscular men, train several times during his career, both in New Jersey and in California. Bill used a variety of types of equipment during his training sessions: barbells, dumbbells and Nautilus machines, though when I saw him train he used mostly machines. He grew rapidly at least in certain body parts. Bill's arms in particular were phenomenal! His biceps were large and full, with muscle extending from the shoulder clear into the elbow joint - no tendon visible. He had very long muscle bellies and very short tendons - at least in his arms, and they grew fast! I never saw Grant's calves grow, no matter how hard he trained them or how much he trained them. The great genes he had in his upper body deserted him below the knee. Most of us have normal (short) muscle bellies throughout our bodies. The very great physique champions have long muscle bellies throughout their bodies. Many champions, like Bill Grant, have a combination of both with longer muscle bellies predominating.

I have been interested in exercise as a hobby for more than twenty years and have owned Main Line Nautilus for 10 years. (as of March 1987) It took me many, many years to understand all of the mistakes I had made in my overuse of a barbell. A barbell, used properly, is a great tool, capable of stimulating tremendous results in all people who will use it properly. Nautilus machines are the superior tool simply because they have the potential to work you harder than a barbell does. It took me years to understand this; it would be foolish of me to expect you to understand it merely from reading this article. But if you understand only part of what you have read, you have learned a valuable lesson regarding a more efficient, sensible and safe way to train.



Medx Rehabilitative Exercise and Fitness