Friday, June 27, 2014

Dr. Darden's "Evitagen Elixir"*

I first heard of Ellington Darden in the late 1970s.  Through the muscle magazines, I was a big fan of Mike Mentzer (or at least his photos and bylines), and he would periodically drop Dr. Darden’s name in his articles.

One day in a sporting goods store I stumbled across this:


Which was nothing short of outstanding.  Keep in mind, the late ‘70s, no internet, no cable, no ebooks, no Amazon, no fitness wing in a warehouse-sized book store; there was not a lot in print on exercise, much less strength training.  The most accessible information was the muscle magazines, most of which were in the porn section of the newspaper stand.  Bad enough you had to buy these things in public, then you actually tried to read them.  Anything with Muscle in the title (Muscle Builder, Muscle Power, Muscle Builder/Power, Muscle Training Illustrated, Muscular Development, Muscle and Fitness, Muscle Ad Nauseum) was generally pretty cheesy reading, with the occasional Mentzer article making the cost of the whole magazine worth it.  (I didn’t discover Ironman-Peary Rader, not John Balik or Tony Stark-until years later.)

                But as far away as Mentzer’s articles were from most of the muscle media, Darden’s STP was superior to Mentzer’s stuff, for my purposes, at least.  No shaved, nearly naked photos; STP used athletes in the photos.  No “me-me-me” rambling; STP is 80 small pages, and 8 of those are title, publishing info, and bibliography.  Bullet points, numbered paragraphs, diagrams.  Concise, clear, informative.  Maybe this book didn’t grab the bodybuilders or the “fitness revolution”’s attention, but as a guide for credible, responsible exercise instruction, that you could use successfully with just about every non-bodybuilder, it was perfect.  As you can tell from the wear on the cover, I, and probably everyone else who had a copy wore the sucker out.

                The next book of his that got my attention:
With a foreword by Mike Mentzer.  What was I saying about bodybuilding, again?  Whoops.  Still, the content and presentation here far classier than the muscle magazines, with an extensive section of the Nautilus line at the time.  And that time was very different than now.  Nautilus would become mainstream a bit later in the ‘80s, where even non-exercise people knew what it meant, because every suburban racketball facility put a circuit in.  But at this time, 1982, all we knew was sand-filled plastic weights at home, Universal in the high school gym, maybe O weights and benches in the few commercial gyms. Little leaked out in the magazines about this new exercise equipment.  Here were photos of the entire line with explicit instructions on how to use the machines.  Sign me up!

                Many more books from Dr. Darden followed, and while I bought and read them all, these were the two that really connected with me, so much so that I’ve kept them both all these years, as you can tell from their less-than-mint condition.  (Ellington Darden's author page on Amazon for all his books.)

                Skip ahead a few decades.  (Ow.)  In 2003 I put together a manual called Moment Arm Exercise, which I somehow manage to get to Dr. Darden, who didn’t know me at all, but he still went out of his way to send a complimentary email.  Some time later, at Bo Railey’s first HIT conference in Indianapolis, unsolicited, Dr. Darden gave up his lunch hour to give me advice and encouragement on writing.  The same at an Association of Old-time Barbell and Strongmen dinner.  2005, Dr. Darden came out with The New Bodybuilding for Old School Results, and among all the other profiles and interviews, there I am. 

                I was tempted to retire then.  I couldn’t think of a greater professional compliment than to have someone I respected from a distance, whose own career I followed, without whom I might not have a career, who showed me you could present and write professionally and still work in the field, turn around and write “this guy is worth reading” (with apologies for the paraphrasing; pick up a copy from his website for the exact passage).

                But I didn’t retire, neither has he, and in the last few years I noticed he was getting more involved with revisiting the “negative” aspect of training.  Not as in detrimental, but as in emphasizing the release of the muscle contraction, through new tech (the X-Force equipment) and new methods which he hinted at on his website. 

                I learned that Roger Schwab had a line of X-Force in his Main Line Health & Fitness in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, about an hour and a half from me, and so I invited myself in to try them in December 2012.  And Roger graciously did not invite me out (thanks, Roger!).  Now, during this time, Dr. D. was working on his latest book and in touch with Roger, and so I was getting some small amount of unpublished, behind the scenes hints as to what he was working on.   A big part of that was the 30-30-30 technique (lowering-lifting-lowering), as a low tech counterpart to the X-Force machines.  Back in my studio, I played with the technique, and posted a few videos to You Tube, which fortunately Dr. Darden liked.  Then I backed off writing and posting about it, to not undermine the eventual book that has recently come out (The Body Fat Breakthrough).

                And now the book is out, so I put out another video.

                Now, as it happened, my own interests in exercise instruction have gone in a different direction than Dr. Darden’s.  I wouldn’t be contributing much if all I did was parrot and reword Dr. Darden’s (or Jones’, or Mentzer’s) work.  No names, but there’s enough of those guys out there already.  My particular obsession is in protecting your joints during exercise, in terms of exercise selection and instructional details.  So what I did in this video is take Dr. Darden’s 30-30-30 set structure, and use it with the exercises and ranges of motion that I consider friendliest on the joints, as I explained at length in Congruent Exercise.  The video, which is about 12 minutes, has notes popping up every 30 seconds or so explaining a particular biomechanics or joint issue relevant to the visual.  (Popping up, that is, unless you’re trying to watch on a mobile phone or tablet.  You Tube only makes the annotations available via computer.  So if you watched on your phone and thought you were watching paint dry, sorry.  I've included the notes below.) 

                Now, the internet being what it is, I feel obligated to point out:  me using different exercises and ranges than Dr. Darden is not contentious, nor criticism, nor correction.  I also warm up on a bike and an arm bike for what Dr. Darden would probably consider an excessive time, and I stretch afterwards. It’s what I do to keep me out of joint aches, based on my own experience and research, and what I do with my clients, who tend to have similar joint aches.   And if you experience your own joint aches that you think may come from your exercise, you might find something useful in my work.  I’d consider my contribution to be refinements to the overall process.

                To my eye, as a general model for weight training, Dr. Darden’s work is unquestionably the best place to start.

*Now, the “Evitagen Elixir” in the title.  There is no “Evitagen Elixir” drink, anyway.   Just having some fun with a throwback to the hype from the early muscle magazines.  You’ll have to buy the book to figure out “evitagen”.  I honestly do think Dr. Darden’s technique for making the negative more fatiguing is a significant, substantial improvement over conventional training.  Consider this.  If releasing a contraction requires less energy than creating one (and it does, true fact), then a conventional set to failure, 10 reps and stall attempting 11, provides a built in rest between reps.  When you first start training, getting to this point is challenging enough.  But one of the frustrations advanced trainees have with “one set to failure”, is that they intuitively feel that even though they “fail” they could have pushed themselves further.  And, especially if a mismatched cam effect leads to failing because of a mechanical disadvantage, they’re right.   And so it leads them to additional sets, forced reps, pyramid sets, breakdown sets, etc. getting away from “OSTF”, and to what ends up being a volume-based approach.  The issue was never one set vs. volume; it has always been about losing that sense of effort/fatigue from the one set.  30-30-30 and X-Force fix this by making the negative more fatiguing each rep than conventional reps; X-Force mechanically, 30-30-30 by spending dramatically more time on the negative.  Now, that one set to failure is a challenge again, and a significant bump up in intensity, effort, and fatigue.  Will it make a difference?  Will it give you a 20 inch arm instead of 16? A 30 inch waist instead of 36? Obviously, hard to say.  Will at some point in the future, you adapt to this as well, and start looking for that next step?  Probably. 

But from my joint-friendly perspective, it gives you a chance to control your posture, not just your limb speed, which makes it easier on the joints.  And since it is so efficient, I find I’m less likely to do extra sets and advanced techniques, to make up for the perceived lack of intensity, and that's also easier on the joints.  And less pain in the joints means more regular training, and a happier existence in general.

                Now, as it happens, Dr. Darden and I will each be presenting this fall at Anthony Johnson's 21 Convention this fall (October 24-26, 2014) in Tampa, Florida.  Here's a link to a trailer, ticket information, and the full list of 22 speakers:   Please feel free to check it out.  The last time I presented for Anthony, about 4 years ago in Atlanta, I essentially presented the first five chapters of Congruent Exercise.  This time will be a new presentation, similar to what I did at HIT Resurgence in Minnesota in March (Part 1 of my HIT Resurgence presentation; Part 2).  See you there!
Notes from the video for mobile viewers.  These notes pop up in my video mentioned above (The Congruent 30-30-30 Workout).
A demonstration of how I incorporate Dr. Darden’s 30-30-30 technique (from his book The Body Fat Breakthrough) with my own Congruent Exercise material.  Both books on Amazon.
Timer set for 15 seconds.
(wide chin) scapulae down and back.  Slight lean away from machine.  Trying to emphasize action of the lats, not biceps.  Greg Anderson chin machine.  Old Darden book.  Night of Champions 5/79 poster.
(incline db press)  trying to keep scapulae retracted.  Moment arms around shoulder not elbow.  I consider lowering below this point too extreme and a strain on the front of the shoulder.  Snap. Crackle. Pop.  In spite of my best efforts.  One less bicep and triceps attachment= slight instability.  Trying to avoid zero moment arm at top.
(incline side raise)  slight external rotation at top.  Again, scap/traps down and back.  The drastic change in moment arm seems to affect the sensation of effort much less with 30-30-30.  Again trying to avoid zero moment arm.
(leg press)  as low as possible to mimic hip angle during the squat.  Back curves match seat curves.  Try not to linger near lockout.  Push through whole foot, not just heels.
(hamstring deadlift) absolute priority is to maintain the lumbar curve.  To help with the posture: chest up.  Lats & traps tight.  Try not to let hips drift back, to minimize the moment arm around the hips and in turn the glutes’ contribution.  Bend knees at bottom; otherwise the taut hamstrings lock the pelvis, leading to reversing the curve of the lumbar spine under load (risky move).  Hamstrings shorter at knee, stretched at pelvis.  Be especially careful at the end of the negative rep, not to round the spine.
(hanging knee up/negative leg raise) not 30-30-30.  More load on the negative:  straightening the legs creates a greater moment arm.
(incline curls) 
(db triceps extensions)  Move out of zero moment arm to start.  Watch your face.  Path of the forearms slightly away from the center as the elbows extend, to relieve binding at the shoulders.
(pro stretch) to relieve various foot/ankle issues.  30 seconds each side, usually 3x each.  Trying not to allow the ankle to cave in, i.e. maintain the foot/ankle posture, then stretch and hold the gastroc stretch.
Full disclosure:  I warm up with at least 20 minutes of movement, (e.g. yoga, bike/upper body ergometer) prior to the weights, and finish with stretches.  The warm up and stretching are not part of Dr. Darden’s book, but I find that at my age and joint condition, if I go into an intense weight workout cold, I don’t perform as well during the workout, and end up aching. 
Specifically with regard to joint concerns, I especially like several aspects of 30-30-30.  1. Finishing on the negative, on the yielding, rather than stalling and straining on the lift.  2.  Using time as a way of progression, rather constantly trying to increase weight.  3.  Moving limbs deliberately, allowing you to consciously stabilize your joints.