In the decades before bodybuilding became fashionable, when young men wanted to workout, they would say, “Hey, lets’ go to the YMCA and lift weights” In fact, during the early part of this century, weightlifting was much more popular than bodybuilding, in part because bodybuilding was regarded as too narcissistic.
Inveterate observers of weight-training history will recall how prevalent “odd lift” contests were back around the time of World War I. Competitions were held and records established for such odd lifts as the “two hands anyhow.” the “bent press” and the “one-hand deadlift.” For various reasons, these eventually fell from grace and were replaced by the three Olympic lifts: the press, snatch, and clean and jerk. These new movements required considerable athletic ability and, thus, were viewed as more respectable by the international sport community. They even were accepted as official events in the Olympics and are still quite popular today.
Eventually, some of the esteem reserved for Olympic lifting was wrested away by powerlifting, which has long had a strong following and gained even more recognition and acceptance after it became an official sport in the 1960s.
Finally, due primarily to the efforts of Joe Weider, bodybuilding assumed its rightful place in the sun in the ’60s and has progressed to its current predominance. It has thoroughly supplanted Olympic lifting and powerlifting in public appeal.
A MEANS TO AN END
If you’re reading this article, you’re most likely a bodybuilder, not a weightlifter. As the former, your primary goal is not to lift heavy weights per se but to achieve high-intensity muscular contraction as a means of inducing optimal growth stimulation. While it is true that to grow larger muscles one must increase his strength, such is not a bodybuilder’s main purpose. A bodybuilder grows stronger, and lifts progressively heavier weights, so as to progressively increase the stress / intensity for his workouts — a prerequisite for growing progressively larger muscles. For the bodybuilder, in other words, lifting weights is the means — not the end.
The science of productive bodybuilding exercise begins with a study and understanding of the nature of full, or high-intensity, muscular contractions. Basically, muscles perform work by contracting, i.e., reducing their lengths, and muscles contract in an all-or-nothing fashion, meaning only the number of muscle fibers required to move a resistance are recruited, and these contract with 100% of their contractile abilities. It’s not that all of a muscle’s fibers contract a little bit, only that percentage of the total fibers that are required, and these contract with 100% of momentary ability.
As Arthur Jones pointed out, only in the fully contracted position can 100% of a muscle’s bulk potential be activated. Here is the logic. Since muscles perform work by contacting, a muscle can only be fully contracted in the fully contracted position — but only if sufficient resistance is imposed in the fully contracted position.
In order to achieve optimal growth stimulation, then, a muscle must undergo a maximum high-intensity contraction. This can be achieved by providing a muscle with a resistance sufficient to cause its full contraction in the fully contracted position, such as at the top of a curl; the straight-leg, knee-locked position of a leg extension; the contracted position of a pull down; etc.
It is not cast in stone that a bodybuilder must limit himself to only lifting weights. Actually, the skeletal muscles are possessed of three levels of strength.
The first level is positive, which can be viewed when lifting the weight form the fully extended position of the fully contracted position It is t the weakest level of the three.
- The second level is static, represented by holding the weight at any point in the range of motion, such as the top, fully contracted position. Static strength is considerably greater than positive strength.
- The third level is negative strength, or the muscle’s ability to lower the weight. Negative strength is by far the greatest. An individual who can curl 100 pounds for a maximum of one rep might be able to “hold” 130 pounds at any point in his range of motion and lower as much as 160 pounds with strict control.
HOLD AND GROW
Several months ago, I began experimenting. I directed my in-the-gym clients to shift the focus of their efforts from lifting the weights to failure to “holding” the weights to failure in the fully contracted position, then lowering the weights under strict negative control. I reasoned that since the fully contracted position is the only one where a full contraction can be achieved (and the weight that one can handle there is limited by how much one’s weaker positive strength can lift into that position), then by eliminating the lifting of the weight entirely, the client could handle heavier weight in the fully contracted position than he could handle for positive reps. I would have him hold the heavier weight, which I had to help him lift into the fully contracted position, until his static strength was nearly exhausted. Then, as his static strength was about to go he would start a slow, controlled negative lowering of the weight.
One of my regular gym clients, Don Sanders, markedly improved his ability on the Nautilus leg extension by following these directions for a very short period, he went from doing 190 pounds for seven positive reps to 250 pounds (the entire weight stack) for 14 positive reps. Don remained stuck for three workouts at 250 pounds for 14 reps, whereupon I had him do three leg workouts in a row, holding the weight stack of 250 pounds in the straight-leg, knee-locked position until failure, then lowering slowly. During this first “hold” workout, he held the stack for about 15 seconds in the knee-locked position, the second workout for 22 seconds, and the third workout for about 30 seconds. The next leg workout, I had him do conventional positive reps to see of there was a carryover, and he performed 20 full-range positive reps! Quite an improvement.
Now I have all of my clients perform contracted “HOLDS” to failure, followed immediately by a negative lowering on those exercises that permit it. The results are stunning to say the least. Whereas one year ago I would have an occasional client gain10 pounds of muscle in a month or 30 pounds in four months, now such gains are the rule — not the exception!
I ascribe this, in part, to the “hold” lifts making greater inroads into existing strength than positives. Jones was the first, I believe, to describe the importance of making a deep inroad into existing ability as the key to growth stimulation. With conventional high-intensity training (where a set is carried to positive failure), the inroads made into existing ability are nominal compared to a set with a heavier weight carried to “holding” failure — including a negative. Why? Because as I stated earlier, the positive is your weakest strength ability. Training to positive failure leaves considerable static and negative strength intact.
This technique may be employed most successfully with isolation exercises, i.e., those involving rotary movement around one joint axis and which provide resistance in the fully contracted position. Good examples are the pec deck, machine lateral raises, close-grip, palms-up pull downs; leg extensions; leg curls; and calf raises. Nautilus machines are best for this technique since they were designed to provide full-range variable resistance with close-to-perfect resistance in the fully contracted position.
On most exercises where I have my training clients do fully contracted “holds”, I select a weight that is sufficiently heavy so that they can hold it in the fully contracted position for a maximum of approximately eight seconds, then they have to lower it. once they reached the fully extended position, I have them step off the machine, take a deep breath, reset psychologically, than do another hold and negative. The leg extension is the only exercise where I have them hold for a minimum of 15 seconds. Why? Since most of my clients are very strong, they can easily use the entire weight stack. It also allows me to test a hypothesis that suggest that legs are designed to do more work thus, they require more work. So far, it’s succeeded better than I had originally projected.
Why eight seconds for the two holds, and why two holds instead of one? You’ve got to start somewhere. Soon, I plan to drop to one hold and one negative, then check the results against what I’ve recorded on the two holds. It’s an experiment.
While I can justifiably state that I have finally achieved a comprehensive understanding of my field of endeavor — bodybuilding science — in terms of my understanding of the fundamental principles (intensity, volume, frequency), there is much I can learn about special derivative points such as whether holding reps are better than positive reps. As I learn, I shall share my knowledge with the readers of my articles.