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Rational Strength Training: Principles & Casebook (Bodyworx, 1999) is a high intensity training (HIT) manifesto by three very smart people who have seen the light and want to spread the word. The authors, Kevin R. Fontaine, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, Brian D. Johnston, founder and president of the International Association of Resistance Trainers (IART), and Greg Bradley-Popovich, M.S., a doctor of physical therapy student at Creighton University, have written perhaps the most complete and definitive book on brief, hard and infrequent weight training since Arthur Jones' Nautilus Training Principles Bulletins set the iron game on its ear in the early '70s. They have attempted to bring science and rationality to bear on a field rife with anecdotal evidence and commercialism, and they have succeeded to a laudable degree. That's not to say that I agree with everything they say - I don't - but every serious weight trainer should consider what they have written. Dr. Fontaine ends chapter one with a challenge to readers: "Think for yourself and determine whether or not we have supported our statements...with logical...arguments that do not rely on arbitrary hunches, ill-defined terminology, or leaps of faith." I encourage you to accept the challenge.
If you haven't read the works of Arthur Jones, Mike Mentzer, Ellington Darden and other HIT proponents - most people probably haven't - you'll enjoy and benefit from Kevin Fontaine's clear presentation of the fundamentals of HIT, or "rational strength training" as the authors call it. Even if you've read it all, you'll find it worthwhile to review the basic principles: intensity, overload, volume, frequency and specificity.
Greg Bradley-Popovich, who has a master's degree in exercise physiology from the School of Medicine at West Virginia University, contributed the chapter on muscle growth. It's technical and heavy reading, but well done. Greg presents a comprehensive picture of what we know about how muscles grow and get stronger in response to weight training. Unless you're an exercise physiologist, you'll probably learn a thing or two here. I did.
Chapter four, a joint effort by Greg Bradley-Popovich, Richard Winett, Ph.D., Ralph Carpinelli, Ed.D., Gus Karageorgos, B.Sc., and Ken Mannie, M.S., is a blistering critique of periodization. It's important to note that these experts do not question all versions of periodization. (My definition of periodization is simply "planned variation.") "We are not opposed to the notion of reasonably changing the load and repetition scheme of a given exercise for the sake of variety, so long as the resistance is challenging," they write. Their basic quarrel is with periodization plans which stress volume and de-emphasize or completely ignore intensity of effort. The authors' basic advice is "to train hard with a challenging resistance, but then allow complete recovery before training that particular body part again."
Rational Strength Training says training to failure every workout is not always the best way, especially for the advanced person. That may be the breakthrough - what's really new - and the main advancement this book makes in HIT theory. Arthur Jones provided the basic theory almost two decades ago. Mike Mentzer, in Heavy Duty II (reviewed in the FAQ section of this web site), disputed the widely held belief that decompensation begins after only 96 hours. Mentzer argues that there is no decompensation even after two weeks and that most people will get best results by resting five days or more between workouts. (The authors present numerous case histories, including their own, demonstrating that such infrequent training works.)
Now, Brian Johnston, in a very wise chapter titled "Rational Restraint For Long-Term Progress," challenges HIT orthodoxy that every set should be carried to the point of momentary muscular failure. Johnston acknowledges that most high intensity trainees believe they are breaking the faith, "that they are not true HITers," if they don't train to failure every workout. Nevertheless, he writes: "During the advanced stage 'all-out-training-all-the-time' is unnecessary and irrational."
In Bulletin No. 2, Arthur Jones wrote: "Exactly contrary to the generally-practiced rule, advanced trainees should actually train less than they did earlier - but much harder." Brian Johnston agrees, but adds a corollary: "Training to muscular failure should only be performed intermittently." The reason is both physical and mental.
After you've been training for a number of years, decades in some cases, and begin to bump up against your limitations, it becomes extremely difficult to challenge your best efforts every workout. What's more, attempting to top yourself every time - and failing - is a real motivation killer. Brian writes: "The continual physical struggle against the "Great White Whale" can wreak havoc on your psychological/motivational status..., to the point of utter dread for the next training session." In short, if you want to still be training hard and productively after years of training, even decades, going for broke every workout is not a sound approach. Says Johnston, "A plan of intensity regulation is necessary for training longevity."
Brian Johnston illustrates the problem beautifully with a short story depicting "A Day in the Life" of Max, a fictional HIT trainee confronting yet another assault on his previous best. With Brian's permission, the following is an abridged version. Enjoy.
"Max laid on his bed, feeling tired, yet anxious about tomorrow's workout --pulldowns and deadlifts. He wasn't concerned about the pulldowns, [because he was] almost always capable of improvement [there]...it was the deadlifts. The weight was becoming so great that improvement was correspondingly becoming more difficult. And it was more than even the lack of improvement; it was the extreme effort that accompanied deadlifting. The mere thought of having to heave and strain with 400 pounds for multiple repetitions made him cringe.
"He often wondered why he continued to 'torture' his mind and body through unnatural acts of high-intensity training, and tonight was no exception....He contemplated long and hard, denoting many benefits, including the admiration of others (that he is dedicated, persistent, and looks athletic), how the discipline of high intensity trianing positively seeped into other aspects of his life, and that without exercise -- he would feel incomplete. `There is no bifurcation between mind and body,' he thought.
"That morning, Max leaped off his bed, like a child on Christmas morning. His reason for training was concrete, and his motivation had returned....
"Several hours passed, allowing Max to consume breakfast and lunch, and complete some necessary chores. `Damn,' he said. `I was so much more psyched this morning.' Max was never a 'morning' person, usually opting to train in the early afternoon. Knowing that he was stronger at this time of day, Max realized that it was the negativity -- the stress -- of having to deadlift within the next hour that controlled his emotions and his motivation, and which possibly drained him physically when the time came to train. Although he tried to remain calm, the image of extreme effort, of muscle strain, burn and nausea began to make him nervous, causing him to relieve himself with two bowel movements over the course of an hour....
"`This can't be normal,' he thought. He knew that after 15 years of training, progress is slow... very slow. After all, how much strength and muscle can anyone obtain. Even heavy drug users don't look much different from one year to the next. Moreover, it's not a 'do-or-die' situation here... I'm exercising for health reasons, and a sound mental faculty is part of good health. This notion helped to calm his mind and bring him back to reality. Max began to put his training into proper context, that although high intensity training is serious business, it should also be enjoyable...
"Max then decided that he was going to take a 'care-free' attitude with training, that he wants to improve, but if he doesn't then so be it... he will simply try next time, with no expectations. This was important for Max to establish since training became progressively more demanding for him as he aged. Only in his early thirties, he knew, but he did not want to face the truth, that the dread of exercise could be self-defeating as he approached his 40s, 50s, and beyond -- how much anguish can one person stand if they detested their training, regardless of the possible physical benefits. It would be impossible to sustain motivation to improve...
"Max casually walked down the steps into his basement....He thought fondly of the 'old days', when he first began training...when his enthusiasm and desire were at a pinnacle. He remembered ordering an exercise bench from a mail-order catalogue, and how excited he was when it finally arrived. `Now,' he had said fifteen years previous, `I can look like Arnold.' He had to laugh as he looked at his 180 pound body in the mirror....
"He was still happy at the progress he'd made, having started at a weight of less than 140 pounds. Again he laughed unexpectedly, but this time at the irony of what knowledge has done to his motivation. `Now that I know how to exercise,' he thought, `training has become more of a job than a hobby. It appeared to be more enjoyable when I didn't know what I was doing -- more frustrating, but more enjoyable.' He then realized that it was not knowledge of training, but knowledge of genetic limitations and what was required to produce results that affected his motivation.
"'No', he said. 'I will not allow negative images to creep into my mind. I'm simply going to try, have fun in taking the challenge in improving, and let the cards fall where they may.'
"[After a brief warm-up] Max sat on the pulldown machine, and braced himself under the leg restraints. He could feel his heart pounding, but kept his breathing calm and under control. He slowly reached up and grabbed the handle with an underhand grip, and began to pull the resistance toward his chest. He focused on his lats contracting, his elbows driving back. Slowly he finished one repetition after another. As he felt his muscles gradually fatigue, Max progressively increased his focus -- a focus to become angry, to increase adrenaline to augment his strength and mental willingness to continue through the agony. During the final two repetitions he wanted to explode the weight down. `Oh, god,' he thought, `this is getting hard.' But he maintained his form, experiencing every 'miserable' inch of the movement. On his last repetition, which he barely completed, Max held the bar across his chest, fighting the resistance for one all-out static contraction. After fifteen seconds, he slowly returned the bar to its original resting position. The resistance was 5 pounds heavier than last workout, for the same number of repetitions and time under tension -- plus he included a static contraction. He felt pleased with his accomplishment, that he improved, and proceeded to write his experience and data in his workout journal.
"Max was halfway through logging his time under tension that he remembered the deadlifts. 'Oh, yes, the deadlifts,' he murmured. The effort and exhaustion of the pulldowns caused him to momentarily forget the heavy barbell awaiting him in the corner. He paused momentarily then blurted out, 'Screw it, just do it.' He snickered at his choice of words, and thought 'how profound.'...
"He eased the 410 pounds slowly off the bottom pins of the power rack, pushing his hips forward, his shoulders back, while focusing on his feet driving straight down through the floor. Each repetition become more difficult that the last. As he approached the fifth repetition he invoked his anger response to the pain and to increase the adrenaline rush. Consecutively he made certain his form did not suffer, that his low back remained in a neutral position as he strained under the enormous weight.
"Max completed his seventh repetition, with one more to go... one more to better himself from the last workout. He then thought as he stood erect, 'I could stop now and call it a day. I could without any reservation... without feeling defeated... because I put in a damn good effort.' Max then knew he had won over the ponderous inanimate object he held in his hands. He also knew that he could complete that elusive eighth repetition because he was not mentally conquered, was not psyched out by his own psyche. He slowly lowered the weight to the bottom position, paused momentarily, then lifted the metal one last time. The sense of accomplishment was profound.... He reached over to his journal and pen, then wrote:
Hurrah for Max (and Brian)!
I empathize and identify with Max. I'm sure many of you do as well. The challenges -- and the rewards -- of advanced training are indeed great.
Rational Strength Training is available from IART. Click on books.
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