Diet and Nutrition

An interview with Bodybuilding Icon, Dr Ellington Darden

I have been a fan of Ellington Darden, Ph.D., since very early in my iron-game experience. In fact, I have to credit a lot of my love for the iron game to Dr. Darden. It is no overstatement to say that his written words saved me from the over-training juggernaut that I had subjected myself to after reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s The Education of a Bodybuilder. While Arnold’s book was a great read and very inspirational, the suggested training routines placed me in a state of being chronically over-trained.

Upon first reading the writings of Dr. Darden I was struck by the logic which was present in his training philosophy. I quickly decided to cut my routine in half and soon thereafter became a High Intensity Training (H.I.T.) devotee. I can vividly remember going to the bookstores in the malls as often as possible to purchase, find, and or peruse a new book by Dr. Darden. I spent many an afternoon and evening devouring his myriad of books. 

This interview will focus on Dr. Darden’s most recent book, The New Bodybuilding for Old-School Results. It will provide you some valuable insight into Dr. Darden’s training philosophies, his amazing stories and experiences, and whatever else I can extract from his fertile mind . . . 

Chris Mason: Dr. Darden, I want to take a moment to thank you for agreeing to this interview, and also for supplying the photos and captions used to bring some of its words to life. With that said, let’s get this interview started. Can you please introduce yourself to any of our readers who may not know much about you?

Ellington Darden: I was born in 1943 in Conroe, Texas, which is 40 miles north of Houston. As a youngster, I was active in the traditional sports: football, baseball, and basketball. When I was in the 8th grade, in 1958, I lifted my first barbell. I was on the skinny side, at 5’10” tall and a body weight of 130 pounds – so naturally I wanted to be bigger and stronger. I also remember, a couple of years earlier, reading the comic book ads for Charles Atlas’s dynamic-tension muscle-building courses.

None of the coaches at the schools in Conroe knew much about weight training, so I had to do it on my own. I saved my money and eventually bought a 110-pound barbell set from the local sporting-goods store. It was made by Healthway and I still have the orange-colored booklet and printed courses that were packaged with the set.

That was the summer of 1959 and I began training seriously with the Healthway courses as my guide. The courses taught me the basic exercises: squat, pullover, dead-lift, overhead press, curl, bench press, shoulder shrug, neck bridge, side bend, and sit-up. I did most of those exercises three times a week for one set of 8 to 12 repetitions.

 

I was 15-years old and was pleased that I had already built five pounds of muscle on my body. My sister took this photo in 1959. I weighed 140 pounds. 

At the end of that summer, I had added 15 pounds of muscle – and all the coaches in high school began to take notice. Interestingly, that was sort of the pattern that I followed throughout high school. Each summer I added about 15 pounds of muscle. In other words, in the 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th grades, my body weight progressively grew from 150 to 165 to 180 to 195 pounds. 

By my senior year in high school, I was the biggest, strongest athlete on our football team. Wait a minute… We had a huge, fat guy who was our center – and I played quarterback. I suppose I should qualify that statement by saying I was the most muscular and strongest player. 

The above noted results, and the results many of my teammates experienced, started a trend in Conroe – that trend being the use of weight training for football players. Over the next 12-15 years, Conroe had the third or fourth best winning record in high-school football throughout Texas – which is outstanding when you consider that more than a thousand high schools in Texas field football teams each year.

Chris Mason: I know that football is HUGE in Texas and to have one of the best teams in Texas is tantamount to having one of the best teams in the country. Training with weights was so frowned upon back then, how did you get your coach to embrace the idea?

Ellington Darden: In Conroe, during the 1960s and 1970s we had a great head football coach, Chuck York. He didn’t know a lot about weight training, but most importantly, he did NOT discourage it. Most coaches in the 1960s still believed that weight training slowed you down and led to inflexible muscles – so they did not recommend it, at least not like they do today. Coach York understood the basics of getting stronger and the basics of playing sound, hard-nosed football. He pushed me to play middle linebacker on defense my senior year. He told me that my future was on defense, and he was right. 

Chris Mason: Sounds like you played some college ball?

Ellington Darden: I went to Baylor University and played on their football team for two years – not as a quarterback, but as a defensive lineman. At a height of 5’11” I got up to 210 pounds, which was below average for Baylor lineman at that time (although the 300+ pound monsters of today were not yet even close to being the norm). Baylor had 10 to 12 guys who weighed from 225 to 240 pounds, and all of them were well over 6-feet tall. I knew I couldn’t weigh much more than 210 pounds without adding a lot of fat to my body. Thus, I eased out of football and got more and more interested in competing in bodybuilding and power-lifting.

 

This shot was taken during a vacation at Miami Beach in the summer of 1963. I was playing football at Baylor University and weighed 210 pounds.

Chris Mason: Who influenced you at that time in bodybuilding and power-lifting? 

Ellington Darden: I saw my first physique and lifting contest in 1960 at the Downtown YMCA in Houston. I was really impressed by John Gourgott, who won the 198-pound class in weightlifting and then won the Mr. Southern USA contest. Gourgott was big, strong, and muscular. A buddy and I slipped back stage and asked him a couple of training questions. He was nice to us and, up close, even bigger than I thought. Boy, did I want muscles like he had! Meeting and talking to Gourgott motivated me to train a lot harder – and the next year I entered a teenage bodybuilding and lifting contest in Houston. I placed 2nd in the lifting and 3rd in the physique – but more importantly, I met Ronnie Ray. Ronnie was from Dallas and he had the thickest chest I’d ever seen, even as a teenager. Three years later, when I was at Baylor University, Ronnie had a lot of influence on my training. While at Baylor, I was helped by two bodybuilders who lived in Waco. The first was Ed Cook, the owner of the local gym. He had entered and won five or six bodybuilding shows throughout Texas. I traveled with Ed to many contests and learned from his experience. The second was Dan Ilse, who had won Mr. Texas in 1961. Dan was a great motivator, who always had encouraging words for me. From 1964-1967, I entered some 35 to 40 competitions throughout Texas and Oklahoma. The Dallas, Houston, and Tulsa YMCAs were hotbeds for contests, and that was mostly before power-lifting became an AAU recognized sport. Strength and bodybuilding contests were run concurrently in those days. The strength contests did not necessarily incorporate the big 3 like power-lifting meets of today. There were all sorts of lifts, such as the standing curl, upright row, as well as the bench press, squat, and dead-lift. To encourage participation, there was usually a junior and senior division. Junior was for guys who had never won first place. Once you won a contest, you had to thereafter enter the senior division. 

One of my fondest memories was when Cook and I drove to Tulsa in 1964. He won Senior Mr. Oklahoma and I won Junior Mr. Oklahoma, which was difficult to do because we were from out of state. But we did it – and that was my first win in a physique contest. The head judge in Tulsa was named John Johnson and he talked to me afterward and told me I had good potential for bodybuilding. 

Chris Mason: So winning your first contest added some fuel to your fire, right? 

Ellington Darden: Yes, I wanted to compete, I wanted to win, and I liked having trophies. The first time I visited Ed Cook’s home, I noticed that Ed had about 25 trophies displayed in his family room. I had a few small trophies from high school sports, but I didn’t have any thing close to the size and number that Ed had. My workouts usually included breathing squats and breathing pullovers, which helped me develop an expandable rib cage and chest. The below picture is a poor-quality, Polaroid picture taken by Dan Ilse in 1967. Dan had visited California in the late 1950s and watched Milliard Williamson do some amazing feats of rib-cage expansion. Dan coached me in this pose.

 

Ellington Darden, rib-cage expansion pose 

I made up my mind right then that I was going to win 25 trophies over the next several years. By 1967, when I graduated from Baylor, I had achieved that goal. Then, while in Dallas, visiting with Ronnie Ray, I saw his trophy collection. Ronnie must have had 100 trophies, some of which were more than three-feet tall. Now, I wanted 100 trophies. Five years later, I had 100 trophies.

 

At the 1969 Mr. Dixie competition in Atlanta, Georgia: Ellington Darden, Charles Estes (1st), and Alex McNeil. I won a number of contests in Georgia, but not this one. Here, I weighed 198 pounds.

When my dad died in 1994, I gave away all of my trophies (which I had lugged across the country multiple times and finally stashed back in Conroe) to a local elementary school to reward the students during a sports-fitness day. Presently, my wife and I are building a new home in Orlando, Florida – which will have a neat training area, next to a custom-designed home office for me. Ironically, my wife has noted several times that it would be nice if I’d have saved some of my old trophies for display purposes. I agree. I wish I still had all of them! 

Chris Mason: Very interesting, those trophies of yours. I’m curious, what was the last trophy you won? 

Ellington Darden: My last contest was while I was finishing my Ph.D. in exercise science at Florida State University. That was the Collegiate Mr. America, which I won in 1972. Shortly after that, I began working with Arthur Jones at Nautilus Sports/Medical Industries. I met Jones in 1970 at the Mr. USA contest in New Orleans. Jones was starting to really raise eyebrows in the bodybuilding world with his unique training methods and machines. Very early in our relationship, he asked me why I was doing multiple sets. Then, he challenged me to focus on not stopping at a specific repetition number; but instead, to keep doing reps until failure, and then to try another, and another until no upward movement was possible. After I felt secure in going to failure, Jones taught me the value of keeping my workouts brief and infrequent — so my body would have plenty of time to overcompensate and recover. It took me approximately six months to integrate Jones’s concepts into my traditional volume training. Once I did, I felt the difference quickly. Jones’s concepts got me into the best shape of my life in 1972. 

Chris Mason: For the uninitiated reader, can you please briefly outline the most important components of Arthur Jones’ high-intensity training (HIT)?

Ellington Darden: Initially, Jones defined high intensity and proper form. He said that high intensity meant to keep doing an exercise until the lifting part of a repetition could not be completed, despite a person’s best effort to continue the movement in proper form. This is otherwise known as training to failure. Proper form entailed doing little things to make each exercise harder – such as pausing in the contracted position of single-joint movements, keeping the turnarounds in the stretched position smooth, and striving for a greater range of motion with a multiple-joint movement. But Jones knew those definitions wouldn’t be enough unless a trainee understood progression, duration, and frequency. 8 to 12 was his repetition goal and when the upper number was reached, a progression of 5 percent was added to the resistance. The duration amounted to one set of 8 to 12 repetitions of 8 to 12 different exercises – which could be performed in 30 minutes or less. The frequency was three nonconsecutive days, or less, per week. 

 

Arthur Jones in 1972 with his Bell helicopter. This was the way I remember Arthur looking when I met him in 1970 in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Chris Mason: In the first chapter of your new book you discuss Arthur Jones’ role in helping to create the personalized training industry. As you have stated many times Mr. Jones was a tremendous influence in your life (on many levels). His training ideas were the genesis of your own coining of the term H.I.T. It has been said that Jones’s training principles were created as a sort of “master plan” to fuel his Nautilus empire. The story goes that the low volume, short time-frame routines he advocated were created with the direct purpose of shuttling clients more quickly through his franchised Nautilus training centers thereby allowing them to process more and more individuals and thus make larger profits. How do you respond to this accusation?

Ellington Darden: First, Jones and Nautilus did not have, or sell, Nautilus franchises. If a person bought 12 or more Nautilus machines, then generally that person had the right to use “Nautilus” in naming a club or fitness center. But Jones quickly found that there was no good way to enforce such a requirement. In 1982, there were some 1,500 fitness centers that used Nautilus in their names – but again, Nautilus had very little control over what they did or how they handled their business. I don’t think Jones ever had any specific type of master plan. His best planning usually amounted to doing something “right now” to correct a problem. His long-range planning was always filled with multiple changes. “Why plan,” he frequently said. “Nothing ever goes the way you plan it.” His low-volume, short timeframe routines were designed so he (Arthur Jones) could build a bigger, stronger body. It just evolved that they worked well for many others too. Jones, undoubtedly, was interested in making a profit . . . and who isn’t? I certainly am and so are you.But after working closely with the man for more than 30 years, I’m convinced that his primary goal was to provide serious, sound, safe exercise – and exercise machines – for the masses.

 

Most Nautilus fitness centers in the 1970s contained 12 or more Nautilus machines. Many old-timers will recognize the two large Compound Leg machines on the left, the Multi-Exercise and 4-Way Neck in themiddle, and the Combination Biceps/Triceps on the right.

Chris Mason: Tell us a bit more about the Arthur Jones you know and the man he is thought to be. 

Ellington Darden: Jones has been thought of as a genius, inventor, scientist, adventurer, pioneer, bodybuilder, lecturer, teacher, mentor, joke teller, tough son-of-a-bitch, killer, writer, movie-maker, lover of young women, world traveler, and aviator. I can assure you he was all those and more. To me, however, he was mostly a teacher. He was a very smart, master teacher, who had the ability to transition, remarkably well, knowledge from one area to another. Doing so turned his teaching into a rare, rich, invaluable experience.

Over three decades, I’ve heard Jones describe more than 100 hair-raising, life-or-death adventures that he personally lived through. Now Chris, if either one of us had experienced ANY one of his 100 adventurers that single experience would instantly become #1 on our list of the most exciting things we’ve ever done. 

Sure, there are some people in the world who have done one or two similar things in their lives – and lived to tell about them, but how many men have experienced 100 true, Indiana-Jones type adventures? Well, that’s the background Arthur Jones came from. That’s what Jones brought to bodybuilding and strength training in 1970.

You better believe I grilled him on all his concepts and principles – repeatedly, for the first five years that I worked with him. Many of his answers were surprising and stunning, since they were from perspectives in areas other than bodybuilding. At times he was raw and to the point, but usually unwearied with his answers.

Thank goodness, Jones wrote about most of these experiences in his autobiography, which he initially called “Man Plans . . . and God Laughs.” This 480,000-word book is available free at www.arthurjonesexercise.com.

Chris Mason: You know, I have been meaning to get that book since its first online publication, but never got around to doing so. From his writings that I have read, and your books, I can tell he was an absolutely fascinating individual on all fronts (as a business-man, adventurer, and a thinker). This interview, and your new book, has re-inspired me to read it. Thanks for the heads-up on where to get it. 

I have to confess that one of my favorite parts of each book you have written are your iron-game tales of days past. Your regaling of the early days with Arthur Jones and his various protégés (men like Casey Viator, Sergio Oliva and others), and other iron-game history always gives me a thrill! It was you who first gave me an appreciation for the men of strength from yesteryear. With this new book you take this wonderful approach to a whole new level with the various interviews you published. What prompted you to take that approach this time, and how did you select those you interviewed?

Ellington Darden: All of the guys who I interviewed know the authentic Arthur Jones. They were Jim Flanagan, Casey Viator, Ben Sorenson, Kim Wood, Larry Gilmore, Roger Schwab, Joe Mullen, Boyer Coe, Dan Riley, Werner Kieser, Wes Brown, Drew Baye, and Joe Cirulli. My objective was to present Jones in a way that reignites CONFIDENCE in high-intensity training – the confidence that was so prevalent during the workouts he supervised and the bull sessions he held during the 1970s.

Professional bodybuilder Franco Columbu visited and trained with Arthur Jones in the early 1970s. Here’s how he looked, compared to Casey Viator. Jones measured Viator’s arm at 19 inches and his forearm at 15 inches. Columbu’s measurements were significantly smaller.

Plus, during an interview you can skip around and cover a lot of ground, without resorting to transition – so you can present more facts in fewer pages.

Chris Mason: Good point, on that note let’s jump to a new topic. Chapter 3 covers your “unvarnished arm routine.” This program utilizes pre-exhaustion as an integral component. Pre-exhaustion being the performance of a single joint exercise for a given “target” body part followed immediately (3 seconds or less rest) by a compound movement which focuses on the same body part (ex: pec flyes followed by bench presses). The theory being the isolation movement fatigues the targeted muscle, and then the compound movement uses other muscles (such as the triceps and delts with the bench press in the above example) to further blitz the targeted body part.

I have read that magnetic resonance imaging studies have shown pre-exhaustion to actually provide less work for the target muscles than standard straight-set exercising. Have you ever heard this and how do you address it?

Ellington Darden: Chris, I’ve not seen the study you are referring to. But I’ll tell us this: It only takes one, properly performed pre-exhaustion session for a trainee to “feel” more blood flow and a deeper inroad being made in the targeted muscle. 

Chris Mason: I agree. I have always found pre-exhaustion training to be excellent for both a fantastic pump and deep feeling of fatigue in the targeted muscles. One conundrum I have always experienced when incorporating it in my own training was judging progress from session to session. In other words, when taking both of the exercises in the pre-exhaustion sets to failure I would normally judge my progress by any improvement experienced in the single joint, initial pre-exhaustion exercise. I found that progress in the compound movement was very slow in coming. The targeted muscles would be so fatigued by the isolation movement that using progressively heavier loads from session to session in the compound (2nd) exercise often proved to be impossible. I could only progress with regularity in the isolation movement, and this became a bit of a source of frustration for me. Do you have any thoughts on this problem?

Ellington Darden: I believe the key, in this situation, is to focus on progressing only one of the exercises. For example, let’s say during workout 1 you did 8 reps on the single-joint movement and 8 reps on the multiple-joint exercise. During workout 2, keep the reps on the single-joint movement at 8 and concentrate on getting 9 or 10 reps on the multiple-joint exercise. Or, you could focus on the single-joint movement and get 9 or 10 reps on it, and stick with 8 reps on the multiple-joint exercise.

Chris Mason: Sound advice, I will give it a go. In chapter 4 you touch on some of the scientific support for both yours and Arthur’s training methods. You note that recent studies support Mr. Jones’ protocol of 1 set to failure for optimal size and strength results. This is a topic where I would definitely like to pick your brain. Through my involvement with the power-lifting community I am fortunate enough to be able to speak with Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell with some frequency. As you probably know, Louie is one of the most respected strength coaches in the world. The training methods he espouses for building maximum demonstrable strength differ rather dramatically from those of Arthur Jones and yourself. He certainly does not consider 1 set to failure to be the optimal method of building strength. If one were training specifically for maximal strength, as a power-lifter for example, do you still feel that 1 set to failure is the optimal way to train and what sort of a routine would you recommend for a competitive power-lifter? 

Ellington Darden: Power-lifting, as you know, is a sport that requires both general and specific strength training. In my opinion, you should train all the involved muscles generally, in the best-possible way to make them stronger – stronger according to the biomechanics of the human body. I would prefer to do that with machines, but you could use barbells or barbells and machines. Then, you must develop your skill at power-lifting specifically – using barbells and low repetitions – with the coaching of someone who understands strategic teaching and learning.

The duration and frequency would be up to the lifter and coach, but I’d always lean toward less duration and less frequency. One set to failure would apply to general strength training, but it would not apply well to skill training. 

Chris Mason: Ok, so if I understand, you recommend H.I.T. to increase one’s general strength, and then a multiple-set approach for the power-lifter to enhance his or her skill in performing the big 3 power-lifts (squat, bench press, and dead-lift). In other words, repetition of the movement to enhance one’s neural acclimation to the specific exercises (building coordination for the movement in a sense). Could you provide a bit more detailed of a sample routine to outline this approach?

Ellington Darden: Yes, Chris, you’re pretty much on-target with my overall approach. It’s been quite some time since I worked with a power-lifter, but I’d head in the following direction. 

First, I’d organize two general strength-training routines. I’d select 8 exercises for Routine A and another 8 exercises for Routine B. Here are examples:

Routine A

  • Leg curl machine
  • Leg press machine or hip-adduction machine
  • Calf raise with machine or barbell
  • Overhead press with a barbell
  • Bent-over row with a barbell
  • Back raise on machine
  • Biceps curl with barbell
  • Side bend with one dumbbell

Routine B

  • Leg extension machine
  • Stiff-legged dead-lift
  • Bent-arm pullover with a barbell
  • Negative-only chin or negative-only dip
  • Triceps extension with a barbell
  • Wrist curl with barbell
  • Neck flexion and extension on machine
  • Bent-knee sit-up

On Routines A and B, the lifter would perform one set of 8 to 12 repetitions, in good form, to momentary muscular failure. 

Second, I’d put together two specific power-lifting routines, which I’d call Routine C and Routine D. Routine C would focus on the squat and the bench press. Routine D would feature the dead-lift. 

In Routine C, I’d zero-in on the skill of the bench press and the squat, with both medium and heavy repetitions. The focus would be on performing 2 or 3 reps, much more frequently than 1-rep maximums. And depending on the strength and experience level of the lifter, I’d regularly add not-to-failure sets to avoid stagnation.

In Routine D, with the dead-lift I’d do some things similar to the bench press and squat, but I’d also include some cage work. In a power cage, I’d divide the dead-lift in equal halves and spend time focusing on both halves. Plus, I’d do heavy shoulder shrugs in the cage.

Over a two-week time period, I’d schedule two workouts a week, in the following sequence: 

  • Monday, Routine A 
  • Thursday, Routine C
  • Monday, Routine B
  • Thursday, Routine

I’m sure, as the trainee progressed, I’d have to modify some of the routines. But you should be able to get the hang of where I’m coming from and where I’m headed from the above examples.

Chris, I know you’ve had some experience with bands and chains being applied to augment the power-lifts. In the 1960s, Arthur Jones applied chains to certain barbell exercises, as well as pulldown movements. They were an early form of variable resistance, which he later incorporated more effectively with his Nautilus cam. In fact, Jones’s duo-squat machine had an increasing strength curve and so did several of his bench-press machines. With my motor learning background, I’d have to place any type of band and chain attachments in the general strength-training area – so that would go into Routines A and B.

As for as specific sets and reps on my Routines C and D, I’d have to get in the trenches with you and some of your lifting buddies – for three months of trial-and-error training – and hammer out some numbers. 

Chris Mason: Dr. Darden, I would love to put something like that together with some top-notch power-lifters. Power-lifting and strength sports are a HUGE market and one upon which you could very possibly make your mark. Perhaps it could be the basis of a future book? Heck, who knows, your involvement might change the power-lifting world, and the power-lifting world might change your thoughts a bit as well. I know speaking with Louie Simmons and incorporating some of his training methods has certainly been a boon for my strength training. You mentioned your expertise in motor learning above. Motor learning and its implications for strength training are discussed in chapter 10. I find your thoughts on the matter highly intriguing and spot-on. Can you briefly discuss the common misperceptions about explosive training with weights and its transference to the athletic playing field? 

Ellington Darden: Moving explosively with a barbell or machine can certainly build strength. But it does so at the cost of potential damage to the involved joints and muscles. Why risk injury? The idea is to build strength, so you can perform better in the chosen skill or activity. I have noted how effective negative training (working solely, or emphasizing the lowering or eccentric portion of an exercise) can be in many of my books. One reason has to do with the required slowness of the lowering. Slow, smooth movements are more thorough on the involved muscles – and they are much, much safer. Yet, coaches and athletes almost universally believe that you must “lift fast to be fast.” Just the opposite, “lift slow to be fast,” is much closer to the truth.

What should be done FAST is the skill training – at least, in the vast majority of sports.Coaches and athletes need to divide strength training and skill training. Do not try to combine the two, which is what’s happening all over the country. I conclude in my motor-learning chapter that it’s to your advantage to . . . make strength training differ from skill training as much as possible in content, form, method of execution, environment, and meaning. 

Chris Mason: That chapter is truly worth its weight in gold! On the note of training for maximal strength I would like to clear up a long-standing doubt of mine. I have read online, and elsewhere, that Ray Mentzer was capable of a raw (no special power-lifting equipment) barbell back squat of 925 lbs for 2 reps. I know some of the absolute strongest men in the world, and I know this would be an absolutely incredible feat for a bodybuilder, especially one under 300 lbs. In fact, Don Reinhoudt, one of the strongest raw squatters of all-time, may not even have been capable of such a feat (1 rep yes, 2, perhaps). Did you ever see Ray squat with anything close to 900 lbs and if not, do you feel he was capable of such a feat?

Ellington Darden: Ray Mentzer worked at the Nautilus headquarters in Florida for about eight months in 1983. And yes, I trained him many times – but I never used barbells. At that time he weighed between 250 and 260 pounds. On the Nautilus leg machines, he was the strongest athlete I’ve ever worked with. Casey Viator was a close second. Casey could out-perform Ray on most of the upper-body machines.

In 1983, Jones had just introduced the Nautilus Duo-Squat machine. This huge machine had a weight stack of 500 pounds. I saw Ray get into the machine, and loaded with the entire stack, he did 10 repetitions with each leg. They were not easy reps, in fact he was really huffing and puffing, but he did them. After that, I never saw or heard of anyone handling the entire stack for even 1 rep.

About that same time, Ken Leistner visited the Nautilus headquarters and brought a world-champion powerlifter with him. I can’t remember the guy’s name, but he was about 5’7” tall, weighed 180 pounds, and his best lift was the squat. He couldn’t get a rep with 450 pounds, much less 500 pounds (on the Duo-Squat machine). 

But back to your original question, did I ever see Ray squat with anything close to 900 pounds? No, I never saw him do a barbell squat. Do I believe he could have performed such a feat?

Well, I saw Casey Viator do 13 reps with slightly more than 500 pounds on the barbell squat (totally raw) – and this was after pre-exhausting his thighs for two minutes. Viator could, no doubt, have done 600 pounds for a single – and maybe as much as 650.  Ray, in my opinion, was stronger in his hips and thighs than was Casey. My guess would be that Ray could have done a 750-pound squat in an official power-lifting contest. Of course, in a gym setting and under less strict conditions, he could have probably done more. But not 900 pounds! 

Chris Mason: Thanks for clearing that up. I knew Ray was a strong man, but I always thought that claim (made by others) was an exaggeration. 

I really enjoyed reading the thoughts of Andrew Adams with respect to the H.I.T. vs. H.V.T. (High Volume Training) debate. What gave you the idea to include the input of one of your website members (www.drdarden.com) in this book? 

Ellington Darden: I’m always on the look out for “outside the box” ideas related to HIT. Adams opened my eyes to some new concepts, so I asked him if I could reprint some of them in my new book. Bill De Simone and Ryan Hall also made some salient contributions to this section and I appreciate their input. 

Chris Mason: Chapter 9 goes into detail about negative training of all forms. To what do you ascribe the incredible results you have seen from negative-only training? How often should one incorporate it in their training?

Ellington Darden: I believe negative training – because of the abnormal overload and the effects of full-range slowness of movement – provides more potential for slight tearing of the involved myosin and actin muscle tissues. This slight tearing is a necessary part of the muscular-growth process.  Of course, you’ve got to walk a thin line: Too much tearing and you’ll suffer an injury; too little and nothing happens. It has to be the just-right amount of tearing. That, of course, can vary from trainee to trainee.

Generally, I apply negative-only training on a few exercises once a week. With my stronger trainees, I reduce that to once every two weeks. 

Chris Mason: Chapter 20 provides “the plain truth”. Tell our readers that truth and how you feel they should apply it in their own training.

Ellington Darden: Yeah, the plain truth. That involves Wilbur Miller – a tall muscular, 69-year-old farmer from Kansas – who I was sitting next to at Ronnie Ray’s strength-training reunion in 2004. Wilbur was also holder of the world’s dead-lift record, when he lifted 715 pounds in 1964.

Anyway, we’d just finished watching a video collection of champion bodybuilders and lifters from the 1940s and 1950s. There was footage of bodybuilders such as John Grimek, Steve Reeves, Steve Stanko, George Eiferman, and Clancy Ross, as well as lifers such as Ike Berger, John Davis, Marvin Eder, Ronnie Ray, and Wilbur Miller. I pointed out how big and muscular all these guys were – even when we compared them to the steroid giants of today. 

Wilbur, who is about as humble and sincere as anyone can be, noted that during the majority of his competition training, he never worked out in a commercial gym and never had a training partner. Furthermore, he never used an Olympic barbell, except in contests. He trained alone, in his barn, after he finished his day job: wheat farming. 

“I can’t understand,” Miller said, “why anyone interested in lifting and bodybuilding would want to get involved with drugs. All it takes to get bigger and stronger is an understanding of weight-training basics and hard work.” 

And I might add PATIENCE . . . the patience of a Kansas wheat farmer. 

I learned something very important that day from Wilbur Miller. Wilbur is the embodiment of “the plain truth” that I want to get across in my new book. 

The plain truth is that thousands and thousands of men throughout the middle of the last century strengthened and built their bodies – without drugs – in the old-fashioned way: with plenty of hard work and patience. 

There’s not a better ambassador for drug-free power-lifting than Wilbur Miller. At a body weight of 245 pounds, Miller dead-lifted 715 pounds, which was a world record in 1964.

Chris Mason: You provide a myriad of routines throughout the book. Can you tell us your personal favorites?

Ellington Darden: I’m a big fan of the pre-exhaustion technique, so my favorite would be something along these lines:

  1. Leg curl machine
  2. Leg extension machine, immediately followed by
  3. Squat with a barbell or leg press machine
  4. Calf raise on machine or with a barbell
  5. Lateral raise with dumbbells, immediately followed by
  6. Overhead press with a barbell
  7. Bent-over row with a barbell
  8. Bent-arm fly with dumbbells, immediately followed by 
  9. Bench press with a barbell
  10. Biceps curl with a barbell
  11. Wrist curl with a barbell

Pre-exhaustion would be applied on exercises 2 and 3, 5 and 6, and 8 and 9. In other words, you’d organize your equipment where you could move quickly between these paired exercises. Other than that, all the exercises would be performed for one set of 8 to 12 repetitions, in proper form, to momentary muscular failure. 

Exercises 10 and 11 are changeable. Sometimes I might drop them and add a couple of neck, abdominal, or lower-back movements. 

My other personal favorite would be to start off working the biceps and triceps in that “unvarnished arm cycle” that I describe in chapter 3. That cycle would entail the slow:

  • 1-repetition chin-up, immediately followed by
  • the biceps curl
  • and the slow, 1-repetition dip, immediately followed by
  • the triceps extension with one dumbbell held in both hands. 

After that, I’d do four or five other exercises to round out the routine. 

Chris Mason: You spend a couple of chapters describing and promoting metabolic conditioning for football. I particularly like your thoughts on the topic and would like you to briefly describe it here.

Ellington Darden: Metabolic conditioning is what happens when you combine muscular strength and cardiorespiratory endurance into a single workout. It’s like pre-exhaustion, not for 2 minutes, but for 12 minutes. The key is being able to move from one exercise to the next with little rest in between. Here’s a starter routine that we used to get football players’ attention. It involves sprinting for the lower body, alternated with chins and dips for the upper body. 

First, you need a place to sprint at least 50 yards. Second, you need a horizontal bar for chins and parallel bars for dips. We had a Nautilus Multi-Exercise machine with which you could do chins and dips, and we moved it into a large parking lot. Fifty yards away, we placed a cone on the ground.The goal was to sprint down and back (100 yards) 12 times. Each sprint took 20 seconds or less. After the first sprint, the athlete went immediately into chinups: as many as he could do, in good form, for 40 seconds. Then, he sprinted again, down and back, in 20 seconds or less. He immediately did dips, as many as possible in 40 seconds. 

Note: If an athlete couldn’t do normal chinups and dips for the required 40 seconds, he continued doing them in a negative-only manner. In other words, he used a bench or chair to climb into the top position where he then lowered himself slowly by using only his arms. So that was the cycle: 20 seconds of sprinting followed by 40 seconds of chinning; then 20 seconds of sprinting followed by 40 seconds of dipping. Two minutes of activity that would quickly raise your heat rate to 180-200 beats per minute! And the goal was to repeat that two-minute cycle six times, for a total of 12 minutes…….. Simple, right – WRONG! 

Even our best-conditioned athletes could not finish . . . the first time they tried it. Most of them would make it through five or six minutes. A few could achieve nine or ten. But after three or four sessions, most of them could continue for the entire 12 minutes. I’ll tell you, the athletes that accomplished this goal, all progressed into their football training in the best-possible condition. It was amazing. The above metabolic-conditioning cycle, with a little creativity, is something that could be adapted to an entire football team. When that happens, look out.

Chris Mason: You have written over 14 books relating to H.I.T. What is the one thing relative to H.I.T. about which you have changed your mind the most? 

Ellington Darden: Good question, Chris. I suppose it would be the concept of whole-body versus split routines. I’ve gotten very good results applying whole-body routines, even with my advanced athletes. But more and more fitness-minded people seem to be demanding split routines. I’ve trained people with various splits, and the results are often better that I’ve predicted. So, in my next book, I’m going to explore split routines a bit more. 

 

This photo of me was taken in 2006, outside of my home in Orlando, Florida.

Chris Mason: Dr. Darden, it has been a pleasure and I think I speak for all of our readers when I say that I hope you continue to remain active in the iron game and to educate the masses with your wonderful writing. In closing, can you tell us where we can purchase The New Bodybuilding for Old-School Results? 

Ellington Darden: Thanks, Chris, for your interest and your interview questions. This discussion brought back a lot of memories. 

The New Bodybuilding for Old-School Results is not available in bookstores. It can be examined and purchased on my Web site. Here’s the link: www.drdarden.com

The New Bodybuilding contains 312 pages, 34 chapters, and 248 photographs. It’s the longest and most detailed of my training books.

Written by Chris Mason

Discuss, comment or ask a question

If you have a comment, question or would like to discuss anything raised in this article, please do so in the following discussion thread on the Wannabebig Forums – An interview with Bodybuilding Icon, Dr Ellington Darden discussion thread.