by Charles Poliquin
In today’s fast-paced world it’s easy to fall into the trap of overscheduling. The first compromise we make is often our workout – we promise ourselves we’ll “get back into it when things settle down.” Instead of simply giving up, try making a commitment to train 20 minutes a day. In a memorable article in Iron Man magazine, Arthur Jones, inventor of Nautilus equipment, discussed the importance of duration of training, or time. In that article, “The Time Factor in Exercise,” Jones pointed out that if a workout takes too much time, it loses its productivity.
Let’s look at one of the workouts Jones recommended that produced the maximal amount of work in a minimum amount of time. This workout used the concept of pre-exhaustion, a training principle that was introduced to the bodybuilding world in 1968 by the late bodybuilding writer Robert Kennedy.
Jones believed that the limiting factor in working the legs with the squat was the strength of the lower back, so he recommended pre-exhausting the quads with a set of leg presses that were immediately followed by leg extensions and then immediately finished off with squats – the only rest was the time it took to move from one exercise to the next.
Jones’ conviction about the back being the limiting factor in leg development is somewhat flawed. If the back truly were the limiting factor, by the time you got to the squats, the amount of weight you would be able to lift would be considerably less and thus would effectively take lower back strength out of the equation. However, Jones believed that the body could develop the muscular endurance to adapt to such a system and still use impressive poundages. Proving the effectiveness of this system was Casey Viator.
Jones began working with Casey Viator in 1970. At a height of 5-feet-8 Viator weighed 198 pounds, had an upper-arm measurement of 18 1/6 inches and could not squat 500 pounds once. After 10 months of insane workouts that focused on insane pre-exhaustion supersets and tri-sets, Viator weighed 218 pounds and had upper arms that measured 19 15/16 inches!
It wasn’t just Viator’s arms that were freaky, as evidenced by his win at the 1971 AAU Mr. America, at which he became the youngest person ever to win this prestigious amateur competition. As for Viator’s levels of strength and muscular endurance, Jones says that in one workout Viator performed 20 reps in the leg press with 750 pounds, followed immediately by 20 reps with 225 pounds in the leg extension, which in turn were followed immediately by 13 full squats with 502 pounds!
To get a better grasp of how impressive this workout was, consider three-time Mr. Olympia winner Sergio Oliva’s attempts to follow Viator through one of these leg workouts. Oliva had been on the Cuban weightlifting team and reportedly had best lifts of 280 pounds in the standing press, 280 in the snatch, and 360 in the clean and jerk – he also had arms that measured 20 inches cold and, said Jones, the width of his arms was “literally larger than his head, a size ratio never before approached by anybody else.”
Getting back to the workout, on his first training session Oliva did 17 reps with 460 on the leg press and 16 reps with 200 pounds in the leg extension; but when he tried to follow that with 400 pounds in the squat, he dropped straight down and couldn’t get up. So Jones removed 100 pounds from the barbell and Oliva did 7 reps. However, to show how quickly the body can adapt, during his second workout Oliva completed 4 reps with 400 pounds in the squat after pre-exhausting his legs in the same manner. As such, especially with Oliva’s weightlifting background, it seems feasible that Oliva could have eventually matched or exceeded Viator’s weights in this training system.
Fast Track to Quick Gains
Although Jones took pre-exhaustion to the extreme, such as by performing two isolation exercises before the compound exercise, it is preferable to simply use one pre-exhaustion exercise. For example, you could pre-exhaust the long head of the triceps with the lying triceps EZ bar extension, and immediately follow it with a multijoint exercise that involves all heads of the triceps, such as triceps dips or close-grip bench presses with chains. For the brachialis you could perform a pre-exhaustion superset by combining standing EZ bar reverse curls with incline hammer dumbbell curls.
In selecting exercises for this type of training, consider that isolation exercises that recruit few motor units are not as effective as compound exercises for optimal development of muscle mass. As such, using parallel bar dips and close-grip bench presses for pre-exhaustion is more effective than using dumbbell triceps kickbacks. This is not to say you should never perform these inferior isolation exercises, but they should not be emphasized as much as the compound movements.
Because free time often comes at a premium, pre-exhaustion and post-exhaustion (which entails performing the compound exercise before an isolation exercise) is a great way to get in a good workout in minimal time. Try focusing on just one body part per workout and simply blasting it in a workout that can take about 20 minutes – perhaps the most brutal 20 minutes of your life, but still only 20 minutes. Here are some sample body part workouts, two for legs and two for arms, that will do just that:
Workout 1: Leg Emphasis (10 sets total)
A1. Front squat, 3 x 4-6, 40X0, rest only 10 seconds then decrease the weight by 10-15 percent
A2. Back squat, heels elevated, 3 x 6-8 reps per leg, 30X0, rest 180 seconds
B1. Lying leg curl, feet neutral, 2 x 6-8, 40×0, rest only 10 seconds then decrease the weight
B2. Romanian deadlift, 2 x 10-12 reps, 4020, rest 180 seconds
Workout 2: Leg Emphasis (10 sets total)
A1. Dumbbell lunge, 3 x 8-10 reps per leg, 20X0, rest 10 seconds
A2. Back squat, 3 x 6-8, 40X0, rest 180 seconds
B1. Step-up, 2 x 8-10 reps each leg, 20X0, rest 10 seconds
B2. Deadlift, snatch grip, 2 x 6-8, 40X0, rest 180 seconds
Workout 3: Arm Emphasis (12 sets total)
A1. Cable preacher curl, close grip, 60 degrees, 3 x 8-12, 3010, rest 10 seconds
A2. Pulldown, palms up, close grip, 3 x 8-12, 3010, rest 120 seconds
B1. Triceps pressdown, V-bar, 3 x 8-12, 3010, rest 10 seconds
B2. Press, EZ-bar, close grip, 3 x 8-12, 3010, rest 120 seconds
Workout 4: Arm Emphasis (12 sets total)
A1. Hammer curl, 3 x 8-12, rest 10 seconds
A2. Pulldown, parallel grip, 3 x 8-12, 3010, rest 120 seconds
B1. French press, low pulley, 3 x 8-12, 3010, rest 10 seconds
B2. Dumbbell press, seated, 3 x 8-12, 3010, rest 120 seconds
Don’t get hung up on the exact exercises – if the gym where you are training doesn’t have a squat rack, do leg presses instead. The idea is to keep training so you will not regress in your training. Plus, after a few weeks of these types of short-circuit workouts, when you go back to more conventional training, the workouts will seem a lot easier.
The most productive workouts are hard, heavy and fast – if a workout takes more than an hour, you’re making friends, not gains. You won’t have time to make friends when you do these workouts – try them and see.