HIT & Static Contraction

Heavy Duty Training, High Intensity Training, Superslow Training, and Static Contraction are all versions of a training methodology that continues to emerge at times as revolutionary, at other times as controversial. I'll first share my response to a couple of questions related to these approaches, and then I'll share an article I wrote several years ago for Muscle & Fitness. I hope this provides a bit of clarity in the area of Heavy Duty Training for those who may have been exposed to conflicting information - Phil Kaplan


QUESTION: Phil, on a video tape that is provided by Anthony Robbins with his Get the Edge program he brings up a really interesting exercise discovery. Basically for strength increase he advocates using extremely heavy weights and holding them at 90% extension for 20-30 seconds. There are 6 movements (Press, Squat and other classic weight training movements) . After you do these movements (1 rep each) you basically take a week or more off. This basically works out to a 3 minute work out once a week and as you progress you take longer off. They claim that the strength increases that are accomplished are superior to classic many repetition weight training. I am not criticizing, I am just looking for your opinion.  I would imagine that the metabolic gains are not as great as the strength gains but aren’t these kind of related?  By extremely heavy weights he means for example if you can do one rep @ 100lbs you should do a 95% rep @ 150 and hold it for 20-30seconds @ 95% extension.  What do you think of this?

ANSWER: While I have great admiration for Tony Robbins’ marketing ability, presentations skills, and dynamic motivation techniques, he is not an accomplished fitness expert and I've seen his focus change over the years. There was a time he connected with Bill Phillips’ programs, then he found an attachment to Jorge Cruise (Cruz?) and now he's found the idea of Static Contraction to serve him as it's unique and can be presented as revolutionary.

This really isn't a new concept.  In the 1960's and 1970's, Ikei, Muller and Steinhaus conducted research testing the idea of maximal efforts and isometric contractions and opened the doors for additional study. (Ikei, M., and A.H. Steinhaus. Some factors modifying the expression of human strength. Journal of Applied Physiology. 16: 157-163, 1961). It was clear that maximal efforts, even static efforts, had the potential to increase strength measurably.  Pete Sisco, an author and writer for Ironman magazine publicized the concept among bodybuilders, but it had not been introduced to the general public who at the time was still afraid for the most part of "heavy weight training."

Now, as resistance exercise has found its way into the media as an important contributor to strength, function, and metabolism, Tony Robbins found it to be a valuable platform.  Is it legit?  I believe it is, but not because there's any magic.  It's just another way of challenging muscle beyond that intensity at which it's used to being challenged.  Just as you'd plateau with conventional sets and reps training without modification, I believe the strength curve increases will gradually level off requiring a shift in training to keep gains ongoing.

Years ago isometric exercise was of interest to those involved in exercise study.  Then Charles Atlas took the principle of "irresistible force meets immovable object" and termed in "Dynamic Resistance."  Static Contraction is the evolution of that process by integrating progressive resistance into the equation.  This type of training is intense, requires a physical and mental discipline, and is not a long term solution, but it can have its place with the right guidelines, a full understanding of the process, and the right supervision.

QUESTION: I saw someone named Adam Zickerman on the Early Show talking about "The Power of 10," a workout you only do once a week. One trainer at my gym uses "Superslow Training." This idea of slow movement is obviously catching on, but do you think it's for real? The thing that concerns me is that the proponents of this type of training say aerobic exercise isn't necessary, and that goes against everything I've learned.

ANSWER: The "Superslow" training concepts which Zickerman relays in his book suggest you perform repetitions slowly taking 20 seconds to perform each repetition (10 seconds concentric, 10 seconds eccentric). These concepts were introduced officially by Ken Hutchins in 1992 with his release, Superslow, the Ultimate Exercise Protocol.

I don't see Super Slow training as the "end-all-be-all" mechanism of generating results that those who are committed to it present it as. It's really just an outgrowth of the old Arthur Jones Nautilus principles. Is it valid? Sure. You can of course stimulate "muscle overload," bringing muscles to momentary muscle failure by extending the time period of each muscle contraction. It can be, in my opinion, an integral part of any overall training regimen, but I am not comfortable with it being "the whole."

Any time you stay with a specific stimulus for an extended period of time, you will reach a point of adaptation where progress slows and ultimately ceases. If Super Slow training is used to break through a plateau, to throw a new stimulus at a body unaccustomed to this type of intensity, it can be of benefit.

As you mentioned, those who are "sold" on Super Slow often buy into the belief that it replaces the need for any other type of exercise, aerobic included. I believe all exercise, plyometric, isometric, isokinetic, functional, muscle isolation, etc. etc. etc. can all be integrated, but no single exercise is going to be the entire solution. Aerobic capacity is measured by oxygen capacity (VO2 max). The VO2 max increase reports held up by advocates of Super Slow training as a replacement for aerobic exercise are flawed as evidence to support the "all you need" theory. First of all, they are exceptions and the results have not been sufficiently replicated. Secondly, since VO2 Max measurement purports to measures the heart's ability to meet maximal oxygen demand, there are many variables that can affect future readings. The measurement is delivered in ml/kg/min, thus changes in body composition and body weight will affect VO2 max readings. If you increase muscle, and thus improve body composition, while strengthening the cardiac muscle via anaerobic training, it is possible to facilitate enhanced VO2 max readings, but that doesn't mean all of the benefits of aerobic exercise have been achieved. It is also possible to lose weight, and with that lose muscle, and still show better VO2 max results. Without a measure of stroke volume, respiration, BP, and fat usage, a report can not claim to replace the benefits of aerobic exercise, simply by comparing VO2 max results.

People such as Mike Mentzer have taken the principles developed by Arthur Jones and extended them into "Heavy Duty," "HIT," or "Super Slow" training. I don't know anybody, Mike Mentzer and Casey Viator (the original "test" subject" for Nautilus) included, who actually developed world-class physiques using only those principles. It takes years of training and advanced muscle development to handle the intensity of regularly exhausting your muscles through Super Slow principles.

The Push to Failure

By Phil Kaplan

We’ve all seen it.  That fierce assault on the muscles that summons up crazed expressions, a few grunts and growls, and maybe even a scream as a well-earned final repetition reaches completion.  We can feel the sense of relief as the body begins to relax and the weight returns to the rack.  We have a word for that assault.  Intensity.

Intensity may very well be the single most important factor behind impressive results, the greatest determinant of muscularity.  When Nautilus, the brainstorm of Arthur Jones, was introduced in the 1970’s, it was devised under the premise that short, intense workouts could replace the long-adhered-to “multiple sets per body part” approach to building serious muscle.  At the time Jones’ approach was considered radical and the conventional weight training gurus balked at the idea that one set per bodypart was sufficient.

In validating the virtue of his theories, Arthur Jones introduced Casey Viator who achieved his winning physique with workouts that can only be considered legendary in their intensity, and a little at a time the High Intensity Training (HIT) approach became a recognized force on the fitness and bodybuilding scene.

Mike Mentzer was one of the most outspoken advocates of what he termed his “Heavy Duty” training principles and his disciples cherish their short, intense, training sessions with their foundation in Arthur Jones’ teachings.  While not everyone who employs the HIT principles will find Mentzer-type physique development, it’s certainly stood the test of time and has been an integral part of developing some of the most respected physiques in bodybuilding today.

A question that begs to be answered is, what separates Mike Mentzer and Casey Viator from those who might not have achieved the same results following HIT principles?  Well sure, genetics come into play, but beyond the gifts of nature, the level of intensity they committed to in their training offered them the power to develop astounding physiques, and the level of intensity we’re discussing here requires more than physical strength.  The power to get through another rep of leg presses when your quads are trembling, burning, and swollen with blood requires a High Intensity Mindset.

Succeed by Failing

The first necessary shift in thinking for anyone who is well connected to multiple sets, multiple reps, is the idea of every set leading to an all out effort tapping the boundaries of capacity.  An essential element of High Intensity Training is the concept of “training to failure,” or more accurately, momentary muscle failure (MMF).  The goal is to stimulate a muscle or muscle group without interruption until the muscles are no longer momentarily capable of another repetition.  When a muscle reaches a point of MMF, there are some creative ways to take it past the point of initial failure, continuing to work the muscle until it again reaches its capacity.

Proponents of the HIT concepts believe the intensity and muscle stimulation present in this type of training may yield equal or better results than the old standard of 4 sets per exercise, 3 exercises per bodypart, 8-12 reps per set.  Although HIT or Heavy Duty Training has both its advocates and detractors, it is no longer viewed radical.  In fact, with an understanding of foundational strength development, it makes perfect sense.

Muscle strength and size increases are not exclusively a result of intensity.  There are three primary factors that come into play.  The first, a concern for putting optimal fuel into the body, both from an energy standpoint and from a raw material for cell development perspective.  With nutrition aside, the other two factors are intensity of effort and recovery.  If a muscle group can be brought to MMF using an all out effort, and one set per bodypart is the structure around which the routines are developed, workouts are obviously far more time efficient leaving far greater resources for recovery.

Dr. Richard Winett, the founder of The Center for Research in Health Behavior, at Virginia Tech, described the theory behind HIT as follows, “High intensity training theory posits that the mechanism causing an adaptation in the musculoskeletal system is a marginal overload provided within a high intensity stimulus.  It appears that as long as there is some marginal overload and intensity is high (not specifically defined) and that the duration of a set is somewhere between 30 to 90 seconds or even 120 seconds, then the initial requirements for producing adaptation have been met.”

Stimulate muscle with an all out effort, fuel the body optimally, and recuperate effectively and muscle increases are a given.


To further the intensity, some HIT training programs incorporate supersets or giant sets where isolation movements are immediately followed with compound movements.  I’ll use the leg extension and leg press as an example.

In an HIT workout, you’re going to challenge muscle slowly, not using momentum, but focusing solely on the target muscles’ involvement in the movement.  One set of Leg Extensions taken to MMF, using a 10 – 12 RM Max, takes the quadriceps to a peak of momentary exhaustion.  Rather than immediately allowing the quads to recover, you move to a 2-joint movement.  Where the Leg Extension has you moving exclusively from the knee joint, the Leg Press allows you to recruit the glutes in order to move from both the knee and the hip.  Because the glutes haven’t yet been worked, they are fresh and willing to provide additional stimulus to actually move you pass the point of initial failure, to yet a greater height of exhaustion.

Static Contractions

If you believe pre-exhausting a muscle is the pinnacle of intensity, you may be surprised to learn of yet another technique of continuing to push the muscle, even after it has reached MMF in both an isolation and a compound movement.  Static contractions can be employed in any exercise where the muscle is challenged by resistance in the contracted position, such as leg extensions or lat pulldowns.  Rather than continuing to attempt positive reps, the muscle is brought to contraction with the assistance of a spotter, and the idea is to maintain that contraction for as long as possible, slowly returning to the relaxed position.  Intense?  Beyond intense.  Effective?  It appears to be.

Mike Mentzer, in studying Arthur Jones’ principles and mastering their application, has brought about not only impressive, but astounding results in some individuals who were taught to train only once in four days with only one set per bodypart.  Of course, this type of training is not for everyone.  It takes a strong will, determination, and some finely honed Mental Conditioning skills to optimize every workout, and with a heavy duty mindset in place, strength and muscle development goals become far more achievable.

Accessing the Inner Voice

When attempting to develop Mental drive and the psychological power to push forward when we face increasing challenges, understanding self talk becomes essential.  We are all subject to constant chatter taking place in our brains.  We’re driven to question and to make decisions by an inner voice that plays on both intellect and emotion.  If you fail to recognize that inner voice, you are operating without full control of the driving system for your body.  High-level athletes have learned to not only identify, but to alter their self-talk so it drives rather than discourages them.

A simple and effective exercise that can help to create supportive and consistent self-talk is to keep a notebook and pen beside your bed.  Before going to bed at night, listen, and jot down your thoughts.  Upon waking do the same.  Over a matter of days you’ll have a clear recognition of your self-talk, and you’ll be able to take steps to strengthen its value to your strength training goals.  With a written list of the usual thoughts and phrases that pervade your brain, you can write phrases that would prove more supportive and read them aloud each evening before retiring, each morning upon waking.  “Oh no, I have to wake up at 6 to train tomorrow,” can be replaced by “I’m thrilled by my ability to grow and look forward to tomorrow’s empowering training session.”  “I can’t” thoughts can be replaced by “I can,” or to further strengthen the driving force, “I must.”  This sounds simplistic, but don’t mistake simple for frivolous.  Adjusting self-talk is a goal of all mental conditioning experts in their quests to optimize athlete’s performance standards.

The Power of Visualization

Each set during a HIT workout might last all of 90 seconds, however, that 90-second challenge requires the utmost in focus and concentration to reap the greatest reward.  Visualization is a powerful tool in developing the mindset to make every rep of every set pay off.  There are two primary approaches to visualization.  Firstly, by developing a clear mental picture of precisely where you ultimately want to be, you align your thoughts to make that goal a mental reality.  Your brain cannot clearly distinguish between an intense or emotional experience and an imagined experience with the same level of emotion attached.  By continually refining and crystallizing the picture of your ultimate goal, you become a rocket with a cutting edge driving system focused on a specific target.

The other approach involves accessing the visual images in the midst of a HIT set.  We are all driven by the opposing forces of pain and pleasure, yet we are willing to endure pain if we know the payoff justifies the effort.  By focusing, not exclusively on the requirements of the set, but simultaneously summoning an image of the payoff, the challenge is lessened, the potential for results kicked up a notch or two.

Omar Deckard is not one to shy away from intensity, especially during his back training.  In training for his competitions in 2000, he knew he needed to bring up his back to achieve the balance that would put him out in front of the other competitors.  He mentally prepared for giving each back workout his all.  After a brief warmup using calisthenic movements such as chins and pull-ups, he hits the weights hard and heavy, moving into intense and heavy sets of T-Bar rows followed by heavy Front Pulldowns.  Deckard explains, “Without the mental focus, I could never get through these workouts.  I believe in training the basic movements heavy.  My body grows in response to heavy sets brought to failure, but I knew if I was going to be at my best, I needed an edge.  That edge came from mental focus and visualization.

In order to get into the High Intensity mindset, Deckard thinks primarily about his previous contest.  “I look at old pictures and I determine based on how I looked in a prior show, the improvements that I need to make.  I’m constantly visualizing what I’d look like if I had all the areas covered.  In order to get in shape for the LA in 2000, I looked at a lot of pictures of Flex Wheeler, Shawn Ray, and of Arnold, and I drew mental images of their complete physiques.  I began to see my physique from my previous competition transform into one with balance.  My lower back was a lagging weakness.  I added in heavy sets of seated rows and trained with the mindset that I was absolutely going to improve.  When I train, I picture myself up on the stage.  People haven’t seen me at my best.  Only I’ve seen it, in my own mind, and it’s that vision that gives me the power to train to my full capacity. I believe I’ll achieve more than ever in terms of muscle gain between now and next year.  No, I don’t only believe it, I absolutely know it to be true.”

Not all athletes visualize in the same manner.  Jim Romagna, bodybuilding champion and Certified Strength & Conditioning Specialist, knew he needed to gain an edge in order to develop his weakest bodyparts.  “When I train chest, I typically start with an incline movement because my upper chest for awhile was lagging.  With the use of visualization and a focused intensity I was able to bring it up and develop more fullness.”  Romagna uses his extensive background in physiology to view his body as an anatomy chart, actually watching the muscles work.  “The visualization comes into play during a set that requires a push to complete exhaustion.  After completing the basic compound chest movements, I’ll move to an exercise such as a cable fly, or pushups with my hands resting on medicine balls, where I can get an extensive stretch and bring the target muscle to a peak contraction.  So many athletes miss out on becoming educated as to how muscles work.  They fail to recognize muscle origin, point of insertion, and specific principles that dictate the intensity of the challenge.  I thrive on that knowledge actually seeing my muscles going through a full range of motion and that vision keeps me moving forward until there just isn’t another rep in me.”

Planning Your Course

Results are measured both in visual development and in strength and performance increases.  Without a definitive goal, it’s difficult to create an effective plan, as without an awareness of the destination, you’ll never know if you’ve arrived.  Goal setting is one of the most commonly employed mental conditioning exercises.  It allows you to clearly decide where you’re headed, and also provides a measure by which to chart your progress along the way.  With the goal firmly identified, the next step is to create a series of short-term goals that when stacked together will lead you to your desired destination.

Fitness Olympia competitor, Timea Majorova, knows how important goal setting is.  As she explains, “I always set goals that keep me motivated.  10 years ago, when fitness was not very popular in my home country, Slovakia, I saw a fitness competition on television and in my mind I decided I was going to be a Slovakian champion.  Developing a physique to the highest levels of competition is extreme. The workouts can be grueling and in order to apply the necessary intensity, you must be motivated and have inspiration. For me that inspiration comes from setting goals and creating a certainty that those goals will become real.  As long as I have an image of a compelling goal in front of me, I can do whatever it takes to get there.”

Timea’s leg workouts are intense to say the least.  She incorporates movements that involve the balance and stabilization muscles making her leg workout impact her entire body.  “When I was preparing for the Fitness Olympia, my leg day was the hardest training day.  I’d do lunges to exhaustion and then immediately follow them with squats.  Next I’d superset leg extensions with more lunges taking maybe 5 seconds between sets.  I would drip puddles of sweat, my legs were shaking, but I didn’t stop.  It was the vision of the goal that kept me going forward. During my training I knew exactly how my legs were going to look, and it completely reframed my thinking from feeling tired to visualizing how wonderful my legs will look in heels.  It’s the certainty that the goal is just a matter of time that gets me through.”

Charting Your Progress

Your training journal acts to illuminate the guideposts on the way to your fulfilling your ultimate goal.  There are very few journeys that begin without a map and a plan.

Rarely do we seek out a goal, commit that goal to paper, and then pummel ahead in a linear fashion to make the goal reality.  We often have to re-set our sails.  Your goals and plans make up your map, your journal is your compass.

Recognition that goal achievement is the result of continuous and measured actions feeds mental determination along the road to physique improvement.  A willingness to take chances opens the door for someone who may be inclined to approach the HIT ideals with skepticism, and a recognition that each action is simply a step along the way allows for a mental commitment to give each repetition of each set your all. 


Remember, the more intense the muscle stimulation, the greater you need to balance those all out efforts with downtime.

Timea Majorova treasures her downtime and recognizes it as a necessity.  “It’s very important to your body and your mind to relax.  One of my earlier problems was overtraining.  Mentally, I was so fired up, it was difficult to me to take even a day off of training.  Looking back I realize that before I began to fit in relaxation time, I looked tired, both in my expression and my physique.  Now, after a contest I sometimes don’t lift weights for a month.  People are shocked when they hear that, but there are many elements to achieving a respected physique and planned relaxation is one of them.”

With clear goals, a firm commitment to succeed, a willingness to periodically re-chart your course, and with control over your self-talk, the potential for success with HIT ideologies is indisputably heightened.


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