Prototyping Part 4
I’ve always taken the request to assist any equipment, exercise machine, barbell, and/or plate manufacturer with seriousness and appreciation. I assume that any new product represents an investment of time, effort, and money that will very much determine the individual’s livelihood. For some of the “small time” companies or singular individuals who either successfully founded a business in this very high risk industry or failed with their initial product, it is or was in fact a matter of their livelihood, and ability to support their family. No matter how harebrained the concept or completed product, if asked to help in some way, I did if I believed I could offer something of value. Some of the most radical pieces I had presented to me involved negative or eccentric contraction training. This terminology was based upon the original Finnish research of the mid-1960’s, and most are in agreement that they were the first to closely examine this alternate manner of strength training.
I can recall reading about an exercise method that stressed for example, the “return” or lowering of the barbell in an overhead pressing movement. Somewhere along the line and in direct contradiction to the training methods of the era, the realization that each repetition of an exercise movement had two parts rather than one, became if not acceptable, at least something to consider. As the standard, even if exercise form was dictated to be “strict,” one would push or pull the barbell or dumbbell to the completed, or contracted position, have it return to the start with little or no thought to how it got back to that point, and then push or pull it for a subsequent repetition. A group of Finnish scientists or researchers postulated that it would be “good” if a lifter brought the bar to the completed position, but then slowly returned the weight to the starting position of the next rep, in a controlled and deliberate manner, thus producing a repetition with two parts: “an up and a down.” Trust me, this was radical, unheard of, and if done previously, it was done with a lack of forethought or purpose by the trainee.
Eccentric training was carried to the next step primarily through the work of Nautilus and Arthur Jones in the early 1970’s, with a definite emphasis on the “return” or negative portion of the rep and the development of equipment that allowed one to elevate the weight to the completed position without having to utilize the muscles usually involved in getting the resistance to the completed position of the rep, and thus having the trainee then do only the negative, or “return to the start” position of the rep. At Nautilus, I was fortunate to be on the premises when the earliest versions of these machines were being worked on, developed, and made available for in-house training. We began by using barbells and the original batch of Nautilus machines, and having two, three, or more spotters lift the resistance to the completed or contracted position. The trainee was then called upon to lower or return the weight or resistance, to the starting point. That was one “negative” or eccentric contraction. In some cases, especially when the trainees were Kim Wood , Tom Laputka, or the famous Casey Viator who was exceptionally powerful, one or more of the spotters would also have to jump up onto the weight stack or carriage in order to provide sufficient negative resistance. We differentiated between “negative accentuated” training, where the trainee would either elevate the resistance by himself or have some assistance from spotters in doing so and then return to the starting position by himself, and “negative only” training. The latter involved an awful lot of hard labor by the spotters who would elevate the resistance to completion in order to allow the trainee to do only the return portion of the lift. With some of our trainees, one could, as we say on the street in my neighborhood, “herniated their ownself” as we found early on that one could in fact lower or return a lot more weight, sometimes up to forty or fifty percent more, than one could first lift. Training was not very efficient, even with a number of spotters, but we noted that strength gains were fast and very significant in the majority of cases where the training was pursued with enthusiasm and purpose. It was difficult to maintain enthusiasm and purpose for more than a few weeks because the resulting muscle soreness form each session was consistently crippling for days at a time.
There was a very limited production run of what were called the Omni Biceps and Omni Triceps machines, pieces that allowed for multiple approaches to completing a repetition. On the Omni Biceps, one could curl in the standard manner; one could also “give oneself assistance” and do what was referred to as a “forced rep” but without the need for a spotter or helper; one could elevate the weight without utilizing the biceps and other forearm flexors and do only the lowering or eccentric part of each rep. Two pieces that were produced as what I will term “glorified prototypes” were the Omni Press and Omni Bench Press.
I don’t know the exact number of these that were produced for sale but they were few in number, certainly no more than fifty of each, perhaps significantly fewer. The bench press piece, which duplicated a standard, supine bench press exceedingly well, was performed in the supine position, and required one to literally leg press the weight, while lying on one’s back, to the arms-extended position before doing the lowering portion of the lift. Was this movement applicable to the competition bench press? Certainly if one understands that the purpose of “strength training” is to enhance the muscular strength and power output of the muscles involved in a specific exercise, and then it becomes the responsibility of the trainee, and often his or her coach, to best learn how to apply that enhanced strength to the athletic skill movement they wish to use in competition. In this specific case, the negative “bench press type movement” for the purists reading this, would in fact increase the strength of the anterior deltoids, pecs, and triceps, allowing one to approach the actual barbell bench press with increased strength once they applied that strength to the techniques, positioning of the body and barbell, and other nuances that make the bench press, a bench press! The overhead press movement on the Omni Press machine was done in a seated position, but also required one to “leg press” the resistance to the completed overhead-with-arms-locked position, and then lower the weight under control, a weight that they would otherwise find much too heavy to elevate themselves with the use of the upper extremities.
The sheer brutality of using these machines correctly, the difficulty in motivating oneself to endure a workout that was taxing and uncomfortable on a consistent basis, and the sheer size and weight of the machines themselves ultimately prevented their acceptance within the lifting community. One could say too that powerlifting die- hards who were “squat, bench, and deadlift guys” were not open to doing anything other than the barbell and dumbbell lifts they were familiar and comfortable with. Even when Eagle, a company in Wisconsin, unveiled a power rack, made exclusively for the powerlifter and other “heavy events athletes” that literally plucked the excessively loaded barbell from one’s back after lowering oneself to the bottom position in the squat or bench press so that “negative training” on the three competitive lifts could be done, it just did not sell.
An Art Zeller photo of 198 pound powerlifter Bill Witting who represented Zuver’s Hall Of Fame Gym in Costa Mesa, California. This photo accompanied an article written by Dick Tyler that first brought widespread notice to what was the most unique lifting environment in the country at that time and perhaps of all time. Within this specific rack, Bob Zuver had a bomb hoist that would literally pluck the oversized bar from one’s shoulders with the touch of a switch making it of course, the first eccentric, or “negative training” squat device and power rack in existence. In truth, this rack was constructed as both a conversation piece and as a safety feature for those squatting ridiculously heavy weights. When Eagle presented their Negative Training Power Rack to the public, it was done at the 1980 Senior National Powerlifting Championships in Madison, Wisconsin, making a rather bold statement about their knowledge of effective training and offering a very well thought out piece for the time, and for the materials that were available then. That it worked well made some old timers think about Bob People’s tractor hoist that allowed him to perform negative deadlifts but the contemporary lifters missed the point and the innovative piece of equipment was quickly off of the market.
The actual development and prototyping of the piece was difficult and took a great deal of time yet as it was with the Nautilus/Arthur Jones produced Omni pieces, it was misunderstood and not appreciated, certainly not by the powerlifting community for whom it was developed.