Dave Bolton is the author of the marvellous book “The Lost Secret to A Great Body”, which is an in-depth analysis of the training method of Prof. Attila and Eugen Sandow. He is also an accomplished Martial Artist, having fought in national and international kickboxing competitions, where he was part of the Great Britain WKA Team. Since 2001, Dave is practising the Internal Martial Art BaguaZhang in the line of Luo De Xiu and is the head instructor of the Manchester Bagua Club . As I am very fond of his book and the training methodology presented in it, I was very keen on interviewing him. Thankfully Dave accepted and I can now present you the interview:
Q: As you stated quite clearly, one should not confuse this kind of training with conventional weight lifting, as the light dumbbell is merely a tool for facilitating stronger contractions. For example, when the dumbbell is curled upwards the agonist muscles should be voluntary contracted at the end of the movement where the muscle is maximally shortened. How much should one contract the target muscle? Should the contraction be akin to an actual maximum voluntary contraction (as in 100%) or rather “as much as one can tense comfortably without much strain (especially in the tendons) in a short amount of time?” And should the contraction be increased steadily or more explosively?
Dave Bolton: First of all thanks for having this interview on your blog and giving me the opportunity and a platform to talk about my book – and the W.A.T.C.H. protocol. Your first question is the key one – and one that needs to be settled before one can get the best results from this method of training. Problems with a lack of sufficient response in terms of muscle development, difficulty in reaching “momentary muscular failure”, or – at the other end of the scale – sore tendons or experiencing excessive strain in the forearms or elbows ALL stem from not mastering the correct level of tension – or you could say the correct “type” of contraction – on each rep of each exercise. The key to this is really the cadence I recommend in the book – repeat the exercises rhythmically sticking religiously to the prescribed “beat” and trying to hit a maximal contraction at the apex of each movement. Don’t try to tense harder and harder with each rep at the expense of slowing down the movements, losing the correct cadence and having the movements become laboured.
Don’t worry if at first the contractions you are able to generate briefly at the end of each movement don’t seem significant enough – just keep going at the same cadence and with an attempted maximal contraction at the peak of each move and at some point you will experience the required “ache” in the muscle you are targeting and be momentarily unable to continue. When you genuinely hit this point you will know- it is unmistakable and once experienced it will become easier and easier to induce that feeling in each exercise. You will also become better (neurologically) at generating these contractions the more you practice until eventually you should be able to almost induce a cramp in a muscle with a longer, concerted single contraction – and without straining the tendons, just by consciously increasing the contraction in the muscle belly. The contractions should be increased steadily in the described cadence – but with full control of your muscles later you can master explosive pulse like contractions in any individual muscle, group of muscles or the whole body.
Q: Some muscles seem to be more difficult to contract than others. For example, I personally have quite the problem with the triceps, especially in exercise one and two. I tried to move my arm a bit more back (like in an upright triceps kick back or like the “ski jumper exercise”), resulting in bit of elbow pain after repeated contractions. What would you recommend, if one has problems with the triceps/elbow extension? Is there a way to completely contract the triceps in the dumbbell exercises without overextending the elbow?
Dave Bolton: Everyone will have some muscles they can contract more easily than others and also some that they struggle to consciously contract sufficiently – or at all. I had some trouble with the triceps too and some of the back muscles – the answer is to keep striving for more control, exactly in the manner of someone trying to learn to wiggle his ears. The hardest part is at the beginning – once some initial progress is made things get better quicker. Now my triceps and rhomboid muscles are some of the more responsive (and the ones I have inadvertently induced a severe cramp in ) because I was forced to work at them more.
In terms of hitting the triceps more in the first few arm exercises I actually wouldn’t recommend taking the arm further back into a kick back type movement – try the opposite. Let the elbow come slightly in front of the ribs in exercise one and two so that on the curl the dumbbells come closer to the face (facilitating a concentration curl type feel in the biceps) then when you take the dumbbell down and contract the triceps the bell will be slightly in front of the thigh – try to stop just before the elbow locks ( that is if your elbow locks with a dead straight arm – if you have those type of elbows that go past this point and easily hyperextend then aim to stop and hit the peak contraction just before the arm is straight). Do the same on exercises four and five where the arms are parallel to the floor held out to the sides – ie aim to stop the descent of the dumbbells and generate the maximum contraction just before the forearms hit parallel and there is still a tiny amount of bend at the elbow. Really try to contract the triceps in these positions as if you are pulling a cable rather than lowering a weight. This worked for me.
Q: Sandow used special grip dumbbells to help in facilitating the correct tension. In Lionel Strongfort´s own course he advises in gripping the dumbbells firmly but not too tightly, as the only effect is in tiring the forearm. I thought that this may have been intended as a critique of Sandow´s grip dumbbells, but you wrote that the grippers of Sandow were fairly easy to close. Is this gripping of the dumbbells necessary? And are you only supposed to amplify the grip at the end of movement or should you keep a firm grip throughout?
Dave Bolton: Another great and key question – I actually think you were right about Strongfort’s passive aggressive swipe at Sandow’s grip dumbbells. He was very bitter about Sandow’s success and criticised him in exactly this (somewhat snide) manner on several occasions regarding lifting prowess, leg strength, use of the mind etc. Actually here though he has a point – if you focus too much on the gripping itself you will overwork the muscles and tendons of the forearm and tendonitis/carpal tunnel/tennis elbow/golfers elbow type problems are very likely if you keep this up through all twenty odd exercises.
On the other hand I don’t prescribe to the idea that the grip dumbbells were nothing more than a money making gimmick – obviously Sandow wanted to market them and make money (don’t we all?) and indeed he did, becoming extremely successful for a time, rather I believe that the grip dumbbells were a sincere attempt on his behalf to come up with a tool that would help even “motor morons” to perform his system of exercises effectively. You have to remember that he himself was introduced to the light dumbbell protocol by Prof Attila using just normal dumbbells and this is what he recommended in his first book. It was only after the book had become wildly successful and he encountered the problem of many keen followers being unable to successfully follow his instructions and make the exercises work for them that he came up with the idea for the spring grip bells. They were at first intended to be a remedial device to give people the idea of how to induce the right type of contraction in their muscles during each exercise.
They are not that difficult to close – especially if you start with only the basic two springs as recommended. Try this experiment – hold your right arm up with bicep parallel to the floor and forearm vertical. Now slowly tense/ flex the bicep maximally. You almost certainly closed your fist and squeezed it shut to some degree – you may have even bent your wrist, bringing the second knuckles closer to your shoulder. Now try it again while keeping the hand open, you can splay and extend the fingers and bend the wrist so the back of the hand moves closer to the elbow. Now try it one last time but keep the hand, fingers and wrist relaxed, loose and floppy while you attempt to tense the bicep. You will find that it is much easier to tense the bicep- and you get a deeper and better contraction with the fist closed and gently squeezing, a decent contraction with the open hand with the tendons engaged and extended and a much poorer response with a fully relaxed hand (at least at first – later when you get a good level of muscle control you should be able to get a really good deep contraction with a fairly loose and relaxed hand – i.e. you no longer need to rely on the cue of closing and tensing the fist to facilitate a maximal contraction)
It is this type of gripping to facilitate greater muscle fibre recruitment – neuro-muscular facilitation – that the grip dumbbells were designed to teach and enhance. I have made a short clip to demonstrate them in use as you only ever see them in photographs:
I actually think they are a useful tool and a generally decent idea – I still train with mine sometimes – but I also think that they are ultimately unnecessary and that they can lead – just as Strongfort said – to someone over emphasising the grip aspect and straining the forearm and hand muscles especially if you get obsessed with putting all the springs in too soon or using the strongest springs too soon.
It should be remembered that Sandow sold these uninterrupted from the turn of the century all the way up to his death in 1925 when the patent was renewed and the design tweaked slightly. Even after his death when the patent expired they were sold by Spalding in America and Terry’s in England right up until the late sixties/ early 70’s. So we have an exercise tool that was expensive to manufacture, expensive to buy and that sold all over the world from England to Europe, America, India, Australia…uninterrupted for sixty or seventy years yet we are expected to believe that these dumbbells were just a marketing gimmick that didn’t and indeed couldn’t work to develop muscle (because they only weighed three pounds)
There have been many fitness gimmicks through the years from thigh masters to sit up contraptions and shake weights etc…most of them end up in a cupboard under the stairs within a month and can only hope to be “flavour of the month” or a “flash in the pan” – not many sell consistently for seventy years for the asking price of around a month’s wages (in the case of the Gentlemen’s nickel plated variety) without anyone noticing that they didn’t in fact work.
You can do it either way – squeeze the dumbbell shut at the end when contracting maximally – or keep them closed the whole time and try to squeeze them shut harder at the point of peak contraction. Of course you can do this with an ordinary dumbbell too – especially one with a soft squeezable covering on the handle and a weight of around five pounds seems to be ideal for most people. If Sandow had made a five pound grip dumbbell and I had a set I would probably use them to train with. I currently use a set of cheap plastic globe style dumbbells with neoprene grips round the handles that are designed for use on luggage handles.
Q: The leg exercises, especially for the quadriceps and the hamstring muscles, seem in principle different than the dumbbell exercises for the upper body. The tension seems to be more akin to a “co-contraction” (simultaneous contraction of the agonist and antagonistic muscles) at the end of the movement. This seems logical, as in squat movements co-contractions occur naturally. I personally wanted to use the same principle as in the upper body, thus, I attached some very light weight plate to some old shoes and practice various leg lifts. This way I can tense the agonist muscle at the highest point of the leg lift. What is your opinion on this? Do you think Attila had a specific reason for not using exactly the same principle with the legs as in the upper body? Or was it mere for practical reasons, i.e. it’s quite hard to hold a dumbbell with your feet.
Dave Bolton: There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t do this – and I do think it was probably only for practical reasons that Attila didn’t apply exactly the same approach to the legs – i.e. doing leg curls, hamstring curls etc. with weights attached to the feet – I had exactly the same idea as you and planned to get hold of some old” iron boots” – a weight training tool that has gone out of fashion just like the spring grip dumbbells and light dumbbell work in general, but that come from an era after Sandow- and doing exactly as you describe: using them as light dumbbells for the legs. I just never got around to it.
These iron boots were usually around 7 – 10 pounds in weight and although bars and further weights could be added I think that these were originally developed as a natural extension of the light dumbbell protocol as it was explored in the years after Attila and Sandow – and fell from favour for the same reasons as the spring grip dumbbells and light dumbbell work with added tension did…the very method of training that they facilitated was forgotten and fell by the way side in favour of progressive heavy resistance training.
The other practical reason for using various types of squats and plie’ style calf raises is that these movements are extremely basic human movement basics that map onto many athletic and every day activities – also you can save time with these compound exercises – more sets of curls, adduction and abduction moves etc for the legs would only add time to the daily exercise session.
Also as your skill in muscle control advances it becomes much more feasible to add the same principle used in the dumbbell moves to the leg exercises – one can consciously add tension with a maximal squeeze to the glutes and hamstrings at the bottom of the squat and strongly contract the quads at the top as the legs lock out – while as you point out there is necessarily some degree of co-contraction in these it is very possible to rhythmically alternate the muscles that are tensing as you squat just as you would with the biceps and triceps in the curls.
Finally – Sandow and Attila both stated you can train your legs as a secondary result of exercises 1-4 for the arms by “bending the knees slightly so that the muscles of the thighs can share the work” – at first this sounds absolutely ridiculous – the idea that somehow your legs can “benefit” from the effect of curling tiny dumbbells simple by bending your knees a little – most observers would assume there would be next to no benefit for the arms themselves from curling 3-5 pounds and the idea that by bending at the knee slightly you could share this training effect with the legs on the face of it makes no sense whatsoever. Once you realise that the benefit of this training method comes not from the weight alone but from rhythmically tensing against the small weights at a certain cadence for a certain period of time (and as your physical mastery of your muscular system increases) you realise that while curling you can bend the knees and load your thighs with your body weight then maximally tense your right thigh as you tense the right bicep then the left thigh with left bicep – or alternating left thigh with right bicep – and in this way apply EXACTLY the same principle to the legs as you apply to the upper body with the dumbbells.
Q: In exercise science it’s common to categorize the type of strength training into intramuscular strength training, hypertrophy training or strength endurance training. We discussed in the past where this type of training would fit into. As far as I can remember, you do not believe that this protocol is strength endurance work. I am not sure if this believe may be influenced by the opinion that strength endurance work has no or not much hypertrophy effect. The research from Brad Schoenfeld [http://www.lookgreatnaked.com/blog/does-light-load-training-build-muscle-in-experienced-lifters/] suggests that the hypertrophy of Type I muscle fibres was underestimated in the past, and that strength endurance training with light weight has a profound hypertrophy effect in regard to Type I fibres as long as one goes to failure. What is your opinion on this? Would you agree with Schoenfeld or if you disagree, in what category would you put the protocol into?
Dave Bolton: Your right my reluctance to categorise the W.A.T.C.H protocol as primarily muscle endurance training was because that sounds like the effect would mainly be increased capacity for work over time as opposed to hypertrophy – when in fact in my own experience I know that the primary effect has been muscular development and SOME concomitant increase in both endurance and strength. Schonfeld`s research is very interesting and the hitherto ignored hypertrophy of type one fibres may very well explain the effects I observed and that Prof. Attila knew flowed from the light dumbbells method.
Rather than categorising ANY training approach as necessarily being either hypertrophy training, muscle endurance training or Strength training and then struggling to fit the light dumbbell approach into one of these categories(and struggling to do so satisfactorily) I would prefer to look at it like this:
If you have specific needs you need specific training – if you want to develop raw strength and that’s all you care about you should lift heavy for singles, triples or maybe 5’s – if you desire to develop great muscular capacity over an extended time , increased muscular endurance, you should lift sub maximal weights for longer periods and if you are concerned with size above all other considerations you should probably lift heavy-ish say 60 -70 percent of your one rep max for multiple sets of 8-12 reps
Or… if you are concerned with improving your strength parameters generally and developing an aesthetically pleasing physique while increasing your general health in a short training time you could adopt the W.A.T.C.H. Protocol with light dumbbells – you will get a decent hypertrophic response, some level of increased muscle endurance and undoubtedly some degree of improvement in strength parameters generally.
Q: In conventional weight training – especially if you train for hypertrophy – you work out to failure and then rest for a day. The rationale behind this is that in training micro traumata and damages to Z-lines occur and while you rest satellite cells will repair these tears, thus in time the myofibrils will thicken, i.e. you muscles will grow. But this is not the only theory for muscle growth; there are others like the Mechanical tension and metabolic stress theory. With the W.A.T.C.H. protocol you also advice to go to failure, but yet it should be trained almost every day. Do you think that in this mode of training not much muscle damage occurs, and the growth could rather be attributed to regular metabolic stress and the applied tension? You also hinted at the fact that back in Prof. Attila´s and Sandow`s time “working out” was understood much differently, i.e. that training should be invigorating and energizing, how does the idea of “failure” fit into this concept?
Good question and another key point about this training approach. The idea that exercise was something that should build you up rather than tear you down is something that has definitely been forgotten.
I do think the effect of the W.A.T.C.H protocol type training is attributable to regular metabolic stress and tension – specifically keeping muscle protein synthesis high all the time. Volume and frequency are also important factors in muscle growth and this method allows multiple sets of related exercises per body part with a high frequency.
When athletes training hard and heavy use “training to failure” as part of their approach to inducing greater and greater levels of micro trauma with the hope of inducing a greater recovery response in terms of muscle fiber size/thickness they will employ teeth gritting shuddering effort, use drop sets and forced reps and will often need spotters to catch weights that they can no longer support before they fall and crush them. They might use negative reps with their helpers lifting the weight and then them lowering it over and over until they can no longer do so or descend all the way through the dumbbell rack pumping off reps with progressively smaller weights until they can’t even lift a five pound plate. They may very well vomit or actually collapse.
This type of effort is tremendously taxing on the central nervous system and obviously warrants rest and recuperation.
This is absolutely not the type of failure we are talking about with the W.A.T.C.H. protocol. Rather we want to simply repeat a maximal contraction at a specific cadence until the target muscle aches and we can no longer carry on WITHOUT CHANGING PACE OR HAVING TO CONTRACT LESS STRONGLY.
We want to induce the kind of momentary muscular failure one would experience if we were to pump off pushups with good form until we simply couldn’t do another one – this type of momentary muscular failure is genuine – there is actual and significant muscular fatigue – but is not as taxing on the cns and can be repeated frequently as with a programme of high volume high frequency pushups (or indeed in military basic training)
Q: Modern bodybuilding seems to have adopted the capitalistic idea of continuous growth; your muscle development never stops…bigger, bigger and bigger. What I really like about the W.A.T.C.H. protocol is the idea that your muscle development is brought out to its ideal. The goal is not massive size, but better control of your muscles and thus improved strength for other endeavours like heavy lifts, boxing, other sports or simply everyday tasks. You compare the achieved physique with those of antique Greek statues. In Bodybuilding some point to the Golden Era (ca. 1960-1980) with Bodybuilders like Steve Reeves, who supposedly looked like the Greek Ideal. Funny enough, they have not much in common with Greek Statues of the classic phase. Generally speaking, Greek statues have not overdeveloped Latissimus Dorsi and pectoral muscles. Prominent features are for example defined, broad shoulder and back muscles, and thick oblique’s (which bodybuilder rather avoid for having a more prominent V-form), but not such massive legs. You also mentioned this in your book. Now one could argue this is just purely aesthetical, but do you think the difference in look also mirrors the difference in athletic function? And furthermore, do you think that such a look is closer to our natural human potential, i.e. a physique that can be achieved without supplements, drugs and without an obsessive training and diet phase?
Dave Bolton: One thing I keep hearing from people who write to me about the book is how would I keep progressing? Or that these gains I was talking about were just “noob gains” and would soon plateau with any muscular growth unable to be continued without increasing the weight or training time/ sets reps etc. It amazes me that people think this is logical – that a training protocol should offer continued muscular growth for ever despite the fact that this would be actually undesirable metabolically, aesthetically, functionally and that at some point you would no longer be able to fit in a plane seat or buy clothing.
I too much prefer the idea of achieving ones ideal development (what Attila called the “muscular standard”) quickly and then maintaining it indefinitely with as little training stimulus as possible.
Sandow talked about Greek statues a lot – and unlike the later body builders of the so called golden era he was actually built like one – as you say with a muscular back and arms, round deltoids but a flat defined chest solid core with developed obliques and relatively lithe but strong legs.
I do think this type of body more reflects the optimal functional build for a human but also form follows function – training a certain way results in a certain type of bodily development. The WATCH protocol will give exactly that type of development and the fact that the classical Greek statuary depicts this type of physique over and over says to me that the athletes who modelled for the sculptors (and there is ample evidence to suggest Greek sculptors actually cast from life) trained in a similar fashion – In the book I mention Mercurialis’s writings and suggest that in fact exercise from the ancient world may have directly influenced Attila’s teacher via an earlier strongman and physical culturist called Hipolyte Triat.
Q: In Boxing there was/is this dogma that Heavy lifting will slow one down. Some boxers seem to use even today a similar light weight dumbbell program with exercises that are akin to the ones of Attila and Sandow. You wrote that more muscles and strength are not the problem, but the problem lies more in the type of muscles you built with heavy lifting. Could you elaborate on this? For example would you argue that heavy lifting has its place for sports where more “raw” power is needed as in certain wrestling styles?
Even though you can find videos on YouTube by unknown experts insisting that boxers training punching moves with light weights is stupid you can also find this:
Indeed light weight exercises with dumbbells of 2-5 pounds, wall pulleys and medicine balls were always part of old time boxing training and any heavy weight work was absolutely proscribed as it was said to completely ruin your ability (much the same proscription still attached to Chinese internal arts)
The problem these old time coaches were concerned about wasn’t becoming physically bulky – there is nothing wrong with being muscular and strong in boxing, indeed it is a boon – rather it is the neuro muscular adaptations that occur with heavy lifting that they felt were poison in boxing. They needed their fighters to be lithe and loose and to have muscular systems that would respond extremely finely and quickly to their nervous systems instructions – they wanted light quick movements and punches that snapped rather than thumped.
Really you only have to look at boxers of old who never lifted anything heavier than a medicine ball and compare their abilities to fighters of today who do lift weights – compare sugar Ray Robinson to Timothy Bradley for example or better still watch the fight between Jeff Lacy and Joe Calzaghe who never lifted a weight in his life.
As you point out in other sports such as Rugby or MMA or wrestling where raw power and contractive muscular action is important, heavy weight training makes more sense.
Q: You also practice the internal martial art Baguazhang in the line of Luo de Xiu. As I am a practitioner of the internal martial Art Yi Quan, I am curious on how much the dumbbell system has helped your Bagua practice. For example, I am naturally very tense, so I feel the constant interplay of tension and relaxation has actually helped me to relax more; to identify where I hold too much tension and what muscles needed to be more engaged (especially the latissimus dorsi). What is/was your experience?
The results of training in this manner have definitely helped my Bagua massively. I wasn’t particularly tense but the level of muscle control and the increased proprioceptive sense helped me to kinaesthetically feel the various bits of my body working during movements and also built an ability to engage the parts I need to engage, to the degree I need to engage them while consciously relaxing or disengaging the parts not directly involved in any action. The general sense of consciously occupying every inch of ones body that results from this type of training over time is invaluable in Bagua and in any Internal art.
Many Internal martial artists would say that relaxation is all and that any exercise involving tension of any kind is a no no – even if it’s only tensing using light weights.
Of course this can be shown to be nonsense by talking about traditional training practices using weapons, bricks, stone balls etc… that exist in all schools but more important is the simple fact that a muscle can only do one thing – contract. It is not the case that it can do two things contract and relax and that one is good and one bad.
A muscle can only contract or not it’s as simple as that and what we refer to as relaxation is nothing more than a mastery over the level of tension that exists within your body or any part of your body at any one time. What you need is total muscle control so that you can dial down the level of muscular tension/involvement in any action so you can keep it to the absolute minimum required for optimum performance while keeping extraneous muscles switched off and uninvolved.
The only way to gain this control over your muscular system (as the only thing muscles can do is contract) is to practice contracting your muscles and get really really good at it.
To say one should pathologically avoid tensing ones muscle sand only ever relax them makes no sense either biologically or logically – it would be like saying you switch off all the lights in your house but never actually switch them on.
Q: Now for one last question. I really enjoyed the book and can recommend it whole heartily, but what I find really missing is a place where like-minded people could share their experiences and discuss the old routines. Do you plan anything like this? (for example a website for your book with a discussion forum?)
I do – I’m currently writing a second edition of the book which will include discussion of some of the more recent scientific data which is increasingly supporting this mode of training plus some exercises from some of the later courses like the Terrys Spring grip dumbbell course. I then intend to set up a dedicated website to sell it which will include articles and also a members area and forum. The plan is to have it up and running by the end of the year – so watch this space.