Wednesday, September 6, 2017

Isometrics, the Isotron & Dr. John Ziegler - William "Bill" March (2017)

Upon learning there was something of a concerted (and long over due) effort in the works to revisit and resurrect the public legacy of Dr. John Ziegler, which has been so callously and unjustly trashed over the past few decades, my participation was mandatory. The Dr. Ziegler I rubbed shoulders with during my competitive lifting heyday was 180 degrees opposite of the one so negatively portrayed by writers.

Moreover, due to my deep abiding respect for the doctor and his memory, which has only grown since his passing, and because my name has been so historically linked to his, I feel compelled to recount on-the-record my cherished association with Dr. Ziegler.
Thanks to performing well enough to impress Bob Hoffman as a last minute replacement for Dave Ashman at a public lifting demonstration, I was invited to train at the York Barbell gym on Ridge Avenue during the latter part of 1959. Roughly three months thereafter, when I went in for a Monday workout, I was instructed to go upstairs for a meeting with John Grimek, John Terpak and Bob Hoffman.
The trio informed me that York Barbell was working with a doctor located in Olney, MD who was looking for subjects to test out a new form of strength acquisition, and they were wondering if I would be interested. To be perfectly honest, in those days I would have eaten horseflop had I been convinced it would have made me stronger. So, of course, I told the threesome that I would be interested.
Soon a meeting was set up between Dr. Ziegler and myself at his home in Olney. During this initial visit, we mostly talked about weight training in general, but it was clear that one of Dr. Zielger's priorities was my ability to follow his instructions consistently and without deviation.
Of course, on this occasion he also dictated the actual course plan of action regarding the isometric regimen. In a nutshell, I was told to perform one press, one squat and one pull position in a power rack every day from Mondays through Thursdays, rest Fridays, and total out at Saturday training sessions. Of course, those rack positions varied from day to day—low, middle, high/lockout-- per each individual movement, and the three Olympic lifts were practiced only on Saturdays.
So, every week day morning Dick Smith, who I had asked to function as my trainer, and I drove to Dr. Zielger's in Olney where I did a 12 second static hold in one press, one pull and one squat position on the power rack in Doc's personal home gym. Yes, that was it. Essentially, we drove the 110 miles to the Ziegler home and office every day so I could receive 36 total seconds of exercise! Luckily, the Saturday sessions could be carried out at the York gym.
While I gave my best available effort daily to these static holds, I, frankly, did not like them, being very skeptical of their effectiveness or carry over to the actual Olympic lifts. So, after a few weeks of my skepticism, Dr. Ziegler came up with a version of isometric contraction which encompassed moving maximum poundages for very short distances off pins and held for time. Actually, I also referred to this revised form of isometrics as my “overload power system”.
Still, in the early stages of this isometric experiment I never thought it was going to work. Never! Then a fairly sudden 20-pound gain in my Olympic lift total prompted my attitude to turn a corner. In retrospect, other factors may have also contributed to some degree, and those “other factors” will be addressed during the course of this article.
Getting back to my overload power system, my standard training pattern was to work in 6-8 week blocs (I think today the commonly used term is “cycles”) which usually culminated in a lifting contest, although I would total out pretty close to my limit on those Saturday sessions in-between contests.
Actually, my workouts were planned a year in advance. For example, if a rack workout or a total session fell on Christmas day , I was doing that workout on Christmas day! Meticulous records of my workouts were logged daily. Unfortunately, those records fell by the wayside with the passage of time. Otherwise, I would be sharing them.
One more point I would like to make regarding the overload power system in the power rack: I never plateaued in terms of being able to get stronger from cycle to cycle. Put another way, I never hit poundages in any of the positions beyond which I could not progress.
My consistent approach was pretty simple: I would start a new 6-8 week training stretch conservatively with regard to rack poundages, ramping them up as best I could over the course of that time frame, at the end of which was typically a contest. Upon resuming training after the contest, I would drop back the rack poundages in the various positions by 40-50% and start ramping them up again over the next 6-8 weeks of training, and then enter another contest. As I said, I NEVER failed to surpass the rack poundages I had topped out at in the cycle before. 

For the sake of the curious, my best poundages (with a 6 second hold) were as follows: low pull/deadlift (from mid-shin to below the knees) 615; middle pull (above knees) 645; top pull (above waist, arms bent & on toes) 380; low press (shoulders to nose) 505; middle press (eye level to top of head) 470; lockout press (top of head to lockout) 750, and 1/4 squat, 1750. Eventually, my low squat position was done outside of a power rack, taking 405 or so off of a squat rack, sitting in the bottom position for 5 or 6 seconds and then standing up. 

Two other perhaps subtle points which also contributed to my overall success as a lifter were: Even on those Saturdays when I was just totalling out in the York Gym, the motivation was always high due to the presence of so many other accomplished lifters, in addition to the big influx of spectators who came to watch the Saturday workouts. You can't appreciate the quality of that York gym aura back then unless you were a part of it. 

One final ancillary observation associated with my power rack training: As I denoted, Dr. Ziegler had me start out at 12 second contractions per position. Over time, he began to suspect this duration was too long for maximum exertion, so progressively contraction times were lowered to six seconds, and this did seem to foster better results.
Dr. Ziegler's seemingly boundless inquisitiveness about muscular contraction and the operation of the human body also brought the Isotron electronic muscle stimulator into our relationship, and fairly early on. The version of the Isotron the doctor had when I first began going to him reminded me of a cross between one of those old, huge Philco radios with the big dials (you have to be of a certain age to know what I am talking about!), and some sort of sci-fi round thing! And, yes, there was regular mixing of isometric rack workouts and Isotron workouts. If an Isotron workout followed a rack session, it was most often on Mondays and Wednesdays.
However, this is not to imply that changing situations or circumstances could not have altered the timing or blending of the voluntary and involuntary contractions. If in Doc's discretion, I could benefit from an Isotron workout on a Thursday or my typical rest day, Friday, I took one. Likewise, there was the rare occasion when he advised me to cease the rack work for a brief period and rely only on Isotron treatments. At one point I had incurred a nagging injury to one of my thighs and was told to soft-pedal the rack work for the week. However, to hasten the healing, Doc administered repeated ultra sound treatments with some kind of liquid medication, in addition to treatments on the Isotron, and the injury disappeared within a few days. In fact, he told me to do my normal Saturday workout at the end of that week. And I did... with positive results and no recurrence of the injury.
Keeping in mind that considerable of the acquired trust accumulated in my relationship with Dr. Ziegler was based on my willingness to explicitly follow his recommendations. And because he liked to tinker with variables, very occasionally, his recommendations could be significant departures. For example, there was one four or five month period when he had me abstain from all isometric rack work whatsoever. During that period I received only Isotron treatments on the weekdays and would do my usual Saturday total session
Without question, the usage and development of the Isotron for athletic purposes was an offshoot of his initial interest in isometric training for strength. And its been pointed out as well, that he also found eye-opening medical uses for it.
But my personal experiences with it were quite positive. At the bottom line of getting stronger is coaxing the body's nerves and muscles to produce stronger and progressively more powerful contractions. Forcefully pursued, the type of short range and hold rack work I did encourages that scenario. Of course, the next upward step in that picture would be to eclipse the body's limitations by the use of involuntary muscle contractions, which is what the Isotron did.
But beyond that, the Isotron gave tremendous analytical feedback as to the on-going operational quality of the body's recovery mechanisms, both individual muscles and the system as a whole. The process of getting stronger goes nowhere with inefficient recovery.
In my opinion, Dr. Ziegler was the ultimate in an athletic trainer back then, and could still very probably more than hold his own against the elite athletic trainers of today...if not show them a couple of things!
Moving on to the topic most readers hoped I would address candidly, but assumed that I would that aforementioned meeting which took place in the offices at York Barbell, in addition to the mention of testing “a new form of exercise” there was also mention of “pills” being part of the picture as well. No specifics, just a reference to “pills”.
Yes, on those early trips to Dr. Ziegler's I was given a Dianabol pill along with the 36 seconds of exercise. Candidly, I never took more than 10 milligrams a day...EVER...and there were periods during which I took nothing. Yet, I continued to follow my rack training, and/or augmentation with the Isotron, but still registered progress in terms of getting stronger.
Sure, some of my comparatively meteoric surge in the lifting world can rightly be attributed to Dianabol, but to totally disregard and deride the clear role that rack work and even the Isotron played in my ultimate success is categorically wrong and myopic. I can assert that with confidence because there were up-and-coming young lifters at the time who sought out and received my continuing guidance on rack training...and who were not on any steroid...who made progress strength-wise. Sam Bigler would be a case-in-point.
Looking back, it is ironic that my name has become attached to a lingering image problem involving athletics. From the moment I became involved with weightlifting, it was obvious to me that the sport needed all of the positive PR that it could get. Hence, I made it my business to give free time and knowledge about lifting or general weight training to literally anyone who seemed interested in resistance exercise. Similarly, on Saturdays I would often attend lifting contests in which I was not competing in order to be fan-friendly and a good representative of the York Barbell Club.
My involvement in all of this lifting-related activity was what it was, and I harbor no regrets. Further, I would like to point out regarding the Dianabol issue that its usage at the time was neither illegal or even frowned upon by authorities. And I was engaged in its usage under the auspices of a licensed practicing physician of considerable credentials, who took the necessary medical precautions to monitor my on-going health. To reiterate, it was what it was!
One aspect of Dr. Ziegler's motivation for working with lifters like myself,Bob Bednarski, Bill St. John and others that seems to have been lost in the shuffle was the accumulation of physical data which yielded insights that he could employ to better understand and treat seriously impaired or injured medical patients. The refinement of the Isotron over time would be a fine example. Early on Ziegler searched for improved conducting solutions to lessen or prevent skin irritation or shock. He figured it out, but along the way determined that rain-induced mineral buildup in his well water was the cause, and that substituting distilled water in the conducting solution solved the problem and improved the quality of the contractions!Discoveries of that nature.
I also wish it be known that my athletic activities back in the 1960s were not confined to just competitive weightlifting. In terms of a time commitment, I played considerably more basketball at the local YMCA than I spent working out. While it was not publicized in S&H, my usual post workout tendency was to go to the Y for an hour or two of pick-up basketball.
In the same vein, for several years I also played on a local semi-pro football team in the fall. As much as I was into lifting, I did not turn my sporting life over completely to lifting. At my peak, this pursued combination of strength training and athletics allowed me the ability to perform a standing high jump of 5 feet, as well as be able to dunk a basketball at a bodyweight of 205.
A final word about my relationship with Dr. John Ziegler: My contemporary Bill Starr looked upon him as an exemplary scientific researcher, and that the doctor was. Like Starr, I also viewed Dr. Ziegler as an exemplary human being,eccentricities and all.
The bottom line is that decades ago I put my lifting and athletic careers, not to mention my health and welfare, in Doc's extraordinarily capable hands, and I was lastingly the better for it. I had supreme trust in any recommendation he forwarded, and was very secure in the knowledge that he would never do anything to harm me. And because of my good fortune to be a recipient of his superlative guidance and knowledge, it is a fact that I went places and met people I never would have otherwise.


Danny John said...

One of the greatest of all time. I have been a fan since I saw the pic in the white uniform and blue background.

I really enjoyed his insights on basketball and football. Amazing...thank you.

Swarthy Indian fella said...

I take it that this article has been written by Bill March. If so, it would be extremely helpful to know (in the form of another article perhaps?) for us bodybuilding enthusiasts where his training and fitness stand today and how his body fares today in terms of joint wear and tear.

giveitaname said...

Hi! Writing another article would be up to Mr. March. Outstanding, no question, that he took the time to do this one and share it with us.

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