HIT, Spit, and Bullshit

An Interview with Ellington Darden

Low-budget S&M flick, or just an entertaining look into the world of HIT? Guest appearances from Mike Mentzer, Arthur Jones, Joe Weider, and the Governator.

When Ellington Darden, Ph.D., learned I was from Montana, he convinced me, in his laconic Southern drawl, that Clint Eastwood was a friend of his. But before I had a chance to be impressed, he corrected himself. Turns out, it wasn’t Clint Eastwood, but some guy named Clint Walker who starred in some hundred-year-old TV show called Cheyenne.

Was Dr. Darden having a senior moment? Was he just playing loose with the facts? Or maybe it’s just that the man has forgotten more stuff than most of us will ever know, so he might be forgiven for screwing up an actor’s last name.

I’m sure virtually all HIT disciples will claim the former.

HIT, of course, is the system of high-intensity training developed by Arthur Jones and codified and popularized by Darden, who was director of research for Nautilus Sports/Medical Industries, the company Jones founded, for more than 20 years. He’s also the author of some four dozen fitness books and an accomplished bodybuilder.

More important, for the purposes of this interview, Darden is a man who’s seen and heard it all over the past four decades. He’s just betting you haven’t.

The Good Doctor

The Good Doctor

Q: You hitched your wagon to Jones and HIT back in the early 1970s. Since then, HIT has been more and less popular, but it’s never been overwhelmingly popular. So I’ll throw this out there for starters: Is HIT really the shit? I mean, what can it do for the average Testosterone reader? Why should he care enough to read about it?

High-intensity training is just a very efficient and effective way to build muscular size and strength. That’s never been out of focus and it never will. Why should you care? Well, a guy that is big and strong can still command respect anywhere he goes. HIT’s not for everybody. But for those who don’t want to spend a lot of time training, boy, it’s the only way to go.

Q: So if it’s not for everybody, who is it for?

I’d say it’s more for people in their thirties and forties, as opposed to teenagers or young adults. A teenager can do lots of things wrong and still get pretty good results. You can suffer injuries and get over them quickly. But when you’re in your thirties or forties, it doesn’t usually happen. I’m 65. If I sprain my ankle today, it may take me two and a half months to get over it. If you sprain yours, it might take just 10 days to heal.

Q: So what you’re telling me is, “No jack-ass kids”?

It works for young people, too, but let me just say that the training is very hard. Nowadays, all the young guys who are into strength training and bodybuilding seem to be influenced by the “more is better” philosophy. They don’t want to work as hard. They want the glitz. I understand. I was young once, and did stupid stuff. But it’s like me telling you that if you’re new to the world of sex with women, doing it right one time is enough.

Q: You had me going on the Clint Eastwood thing, but I’m not buying that.

One time the right way might last you several weeks. But that’s not going to go over well with an 18-year-old who would go once an hour if he could.

Q: Um …

What I’m saying is, there’s just a huge amount of propaganda that says more is better. More is better in exercise, more is better in food intake, etc. More could be better when it comes to money or education or traveling, but it’s not necessarily the case when it comes to exercise.

Q: But you didn’t start out with HIT. You won bodybuilding trophies before you ever heard of Arthur Jones. Back then, you trained like everyone else, and it worked.

Yeah, but the truth is, you’re not very smart when you’re young. Don’t you think, 20 years from now, you’re going to be smarter than you are now? By then, you’ll have made hundreds of mistakes. Let me put it this way: Training the traditional way, you might add a quarter-inch to your arms in a year. Why do in a year what you could do in a week?

Darden in '72

Q: I’d love to do it in a week. But some of your articles seem kind of gimmicky, like your “Big Arms Challenge”. Can people really gain three-eighths of an inch of muscle in 10 days? Won’t it just be swollen tissue?

I believe it’s muscle, especially in the forearm extensors and flexors and the elbow extensors and flexors. Your arm is made up of more than just the biceps and the triceps. But outside of a fairly expensive MRI, there’s no way to tell for sure. That said, accurate circumference measurements of the relaxed and the contracted upper arm, along with taking before and after photos, should be enough to prove there’s a difference.

Q: If it truly is muscle, can people maintain it?

It’s not going to go away if you continue to do some type of high-intensity exercise for those muscles once a week. A number of guys who did the Challenge put an average of three-eighths of an inch on each arm in two weeks or less. You can go back and read the thread. A month later, many of them were reporting they had kept most of the size they’d gained.

Q: I know you practice what you preach. But when was the last time you went to true, vomit-inducing failure?

I go to failure on just about every workout I do, but not on every exercise. I don’t do HIT like I did in the 1970s. My goals have changed. I can keep the muscle that I have without busting my ass on eight exercises two or three times a week. All I have to do is give an all out effort on one or two of the seven or eight exercises that I do. Like I was saying earlier, I’m 65. My goal in life now is just to keep the muscle I got through HIT training.

Q: What about the people who don’t get good results from HIT?

They’re probably not doing it correctly. They need someone to help them out and show them the way.

Q: That’s quite a caveat, isn’t it? I mean, can a typical lifter in a typical gym succeed with HIT if he doesn’t have someone like you coaching him?

At one time I would’ve said, “Yeah, you will if you just do the best you can.” Now I think you need a good coach to assist you, especially the first few times. But that’s no different from golf or tennis or lots of other activities.

Q: So what if you don’t have a coach?

If you don’t know how to do HIT correctly, if you don’t go to failure or even know how to go to true failure, then maybe you’re better off doing another set or two.

Q: Blasphemy! But is it still considered HIT training if you’re doing multiple sets and not going to true failure?


Q: Let’s get back to something I touched on earlier:
You’ve done both high-frequency training and high-intensity training. You’ve built muscle with both. How can you say one works better than the other?

A lot of things are good, as long as you’re consistent and overload your muscles. HIT is made for people who want to work hard and get results in a shorter period of time. If you could get very good results from only 15 minutes twice per week, why wouldn’t you use HIT?

What I try to do is give people an approach that will get results if they’re willing to work hard for brief periods of time, pay attention to good form, eat well, get a good night’s sleep, and quit thinking about it too much.

Q: How has HIT evolved from the days of Arthur Jones and Mike Mentzer?

It’s evolved like newspapers have evolved. If you look at USA Today and compare it to what was published 30 years ago, you’ll see a vast difference. There’s a lot of variety on the front page and a lot of color.

The new HIT is the same way. In my books, I’ve given some new variety and things that have not been talked about before now. Today’s trainee is on the Internet all the time and wants more variety and more color. If you don’t supply that, you’ll lose him.

Arthur Jones

Arthur Jones

But then again, some people just need a refresher course in the basics. You can’t go wrong with eight or 10 basic exercises to become as strong as possible. That’s still the major cornerstone in bodybuilding and strength training.

The overhead press, the bench press, the deadlift, the squat, the curl … there’s nothing that’s going to take the place of those exercises. If a guy masters those, he’ll end up pretty close to his genetic potential. You could write it all down on one page, but it won’t be very attractive and it won’t hold your attention very long.

Q: So what do you say to people who think that Arthur Jones’s intention was to make exercise more marketable to the masses – fast workouts in assembly-line fashion? Do you think the Nautilus philosophy was, at least in part, a sales gimmick to sell more machines?

Sure. The machines were good things to hang your hat on, but they also worked. It only turned into a gimmick after the fact. Arthur was looking for harder, briefer forms of exercise and he could get it with the machines that he designed. He had no idea that fitness centers would be influenced and would want to get involved. But when they did, he was the first one to take advantage of it. And he did it very well.

He was always able to recognize opportunity. He used to sell wild animals to roadside amusement parks and zoos in the South.

Q: Wait. You mean he’d catch wild animals and sell them?

Oh yeah. He’d capture rattlesnakes, alligators, and crocodiles from Mexico, and monkeys and things like that, and haul them back to the U.S. and sell them to these little roadside places.

That was back before we had Interstate highways. If you were driving on these two-lane roads, you’d stop to see the biggest rattlesnake in the world or a 12-foot alligator. Then when you got back to your car, there’d always be a game of chance, like Bingo or something. A few guys would come up and start playing with you, but they understood the game, and before you knew it, you’d lost all the money in your billfold.

Jones and some of his friends


Q: So what you’re saying is that Arthur always found a way to “get” people?

Yeah, Arthur knew how to market and put up the right signs and get people to stop. He was a master at coming up with a lot of the early Nautilus ads that were centered around words he’d thought up, like “duo-symmetric” or “poly-contractile.” They were new and exciting and somewhat gimmicky.

But in the early 1970s bodybuilding really needed a spark. It had just kind of died and was not very exciting anymore. And people were doing so much exercise that the volume thing had everyone overtrained.

Q: Speaking of Arthur, I heard he actually called the sheriff on Mike Mentzer once. What’s up with that?

Yeah, that’s what Arthur told me, at least. I think Mike was going through a depressed period in his life, or maybe he was bipolar or on antidepressant drugs at that time. Anyway, he flew all the way from L.A. to Orlando and showed up at Arthur’s house unannounced. He claimed to be Arthur’s son and was at the gate in front of his ranch calling for someone to let him in. Arthur sent word that he had called the police to come out and arrest him.

Q: Was that typical behavior for Mike?

I think he had multiple sides to him. I had been around Mike 10 or 12 times including the seven months he worked in Lake Helen, Florida, for Nautilus. He always seemed like an intelligent and decent guy, but when he worked for us in 1983 he didn’t make many contributions. I had an office that was about a hundred yards from the main video area where Mike and his brother Ray stayed most of the time.

Although I used to go down and talk to them, he never walked up to my office and asked me a single intelligent question or talked to me in an intelligent way about bodybuilding. He wasn’t the Mike Mentzer that I had looked forward to working with.

Q: So why was he even there?

Arthur had a tendency to hire big people. He liked to fly around the country and have access to big, strong guys to demonstrate this and that, to roll up their sleeves. Arthur was originally a bodybuilder. He wanted a bigger, stronger body to allow him to do things better and make better impressions. His initial writings and machines were created not only for himself but for a few guys who could demonstrate his methods properly. So he hired Mike and Ray Mentzer in early 1983 with the notion that they’d come in and make a big splash.

But neither Mike nor Ray could take criticism. And they couldn’t lead. We had to tell them what to do and how to do it. So they withered away as a result of boredom more than anything.

Ray and Mike Mentzer

Ray and Mike Mentzer

Q: They sound kind of like children, just needing to be told what to do all of the time.

If you spend any time around advanced bodybuilders, you’ll see that most of them are that way.

Q: What about Arnold Schwarzenegger?

I met Arnold a couple of times and he did have the charisma and personality that is conducive to developing a following.

Q: It’s no secret that Arnold was known for his big ego. Tell me a story that didn’t make it into Pumping Iron.

All right. In 1970 Arthur invited Arnold and Franco Colombu to visit him in Lake Helen, Florida, right after the 1970 Mr. Olympia. Arthur picked them up at the airport in his Cadillac, with Arnold in the passenger seat and Franco in the back. There are probably 12 stoplights in between the airport and the Interstate, so it was a lot of stop-and-go driving.

Now, you have to know that Arthur was a man who talked loud and dominated every conversation. But he couldn’t get Arnold to shut up. He was just blabbing in his German or whatever and Arthur was having a hard time understanding what he was saying. So Arthur was getting annoyed and told him to quiet down, but Arnold just kept talking and talking.

By the time they got onto the Interstate, Arthur had had enough. So he pulled over to the side of the road, got out, walked around, opened Arnold’s door, grabbed him by the shirt collar, yanked him out, and said something to the effect of, “Listen here, you son of a bitch. If you don’t shut the hell up, a man twice your age is going to whip your ass right out here in front of I-4 traffic. Just dare me.”

Q: Whoa.

Arthur had a tremendous temper. Within five seconds Arnold had apologized, got back in the car, and was a perfect gentlemen for the next three or four days. He listened to Arthur and tried to learn but he couldn’t – for whatever reason – grasp the concept and push himself to train to failure. He just wouldn’t do the last one or two repetitions.

According to Arnold, HIT didn’t work and the interview that appeared in Joe Weider’s magazine several months later said that Arnold got no results and even lost 10 pounds of muscle. They were trying to run down Arthur and the whole Nautilus system.

Q: So Weider was being Weider?

Oh yeah. You know Arnold didn’t write any of those articles. I mean, who knows if he was even interviewed. Franco, on the other hand, got very good results. Man, he just took to high-intensity training and seemed to grow with every workout. Supposedly they both were going to stay there for two weeks. Franco did but Arnold mysteriously left one night after the first week and never showed up again.

Franco Columbu and some people who don’t lift weights

Franco Columbu

Q: So HIT worked well for Franco, but I heard you got some horrible results with Eddie Robinson. Didn’t he actually lose muscle and gain fat when you were training him for the Mr. America?

When we met him he had about 25 pounds of fat on his body. He weighed in at 230 pounds, at 5-7. He had extremely long muscle bellies and all the makings of a bodybuilding champion, except he was too damn fat. So my plan was to get rid of the fat, build muscle, and enter him in the Mr. America contest. Halfway through the project he went from 225 all the way down to 190. He lost the fat at a very fast rate, but he lost a lot of muscle, too.

So we wanted to see what was going on in his system and had some blood tests done. The doctor said that when the results came back, Eddie’s Testosterone levels were as low as he had ever seen, even in a prepubescent girl. Apparently, Eddie had been on Deca-Durabolin for years and never told us about the massive amounts he was taking before he started working with us.

Q: Wait. Shouldn’t a professional bodybuilder know when and how to cycle his drugs?

I don’t think most of them were nearly as knowledgeable then. I mean, the Internet wasn’t around, so they didn’t have the information guys have today. The Deca that Eddie used was a strong injectable, which hung around his system for a long time. The doctor who did the examination said that Eddie’s system had completely shut down production of Testosterone and was at such a level that he couldn’t do anything but lose muscle on the lower-calorie diet that we had him on.

So after that, we knew we were going to have problems, but there wasn’t anything we could do to correct them. I sure as hell didn’t want to put him back on the Deca. He recovered a little and made a showing at the Mr. America, but didn’t make the final cut.

After that, he left Nautilus and won the same contest the following year.

Q: How’d he do that?

I’m sure he went back on the drugs. He had the genetic potential – I could see that when I first met him. If he’d have been normal, HIT would have worked very well and more efficiently than whatever he did.

Q: There was a quote I read on your site a while back that said, “Have the look of a lion in the presence of a herd of sheep.” What does that mean?

Most people are sheep, and sheep need direction. There are very few lions out there – even the ones who claim to be are rarely lions. And they need to be exposed.

I guess the real challenge is to take the things that are basic, meaningful, and effective and present them in a way that has some pizzazz. That’s what needs to be done. Like I’ve said before, though, if you have a quest to get a good physique, a good mind will follow. So maybe it’ll all work itself out.

Q: Sounds like good advice to me. Thanks Dr. Darden!

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