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Rise of the Machines

The Age of Nautilus: What Could Have Been; What Should Have Been

Unquestionably, 1970 was the most significant year in the development of the ‘primitive’ fitness industry, and the early ’70s were the most exciting years in the ascent of bodybuilding from the ‘shadows’ to (almost) mainstream recognition. Behind today’s phenomenally successful billion-dollar fitness industry and the now recognizable, if perhaps not fully understood, bodybuilding scene were the invention of the Nautilus machines and the philosophy of the man behind them, Arthur Jones. Now, 30-plus years later, every fitness center in the world houses at least a dozen Nautilus machines or their knockoffs.

Although fitness and bodybuilding share the same goal of functional ability’strength, flexibility and cardiovascular conditioning’they’ve gradually drifted apart. Incorporating Jones’ equipment and a training philosophy of training harder and more briefly would have been a huge step toward the realization of individual physical potential for trainees on every level’and away from the rush to the ‘magic bullet’ of insane drug use, which has consumed virtually the whole of bodybuilding.

Even though the excitement of Nautilus and machine training triggered so much promise and anticipation early on, hardcore bodybuilders obsessed with free-weight work now relegate it to stepping-stone status. Anyone who’s ever correctly trained on the original Nautilus machines knows better, but club managers, certified trainers and even Ph.D.s have treated machine use as a precursor to free weights.

How did such a tool, which can stimulate results for every trainee at every level, not only garner lukewarm acceptance at best but also become the whipping boy of bodybuilding? The dismissal of the tool, concept and philosophy of a genius whom the late Vince Gironda once heralded as ‘the wise man who comes from the East’ opens bodybuilding to the charge of either inexplicable ignorance or unbelievable stupidity.

The basics of full-range exercise’balanced variable resistance, resistance in the position of full muscular contraction, the value of negative work, training to failure, low-force/high-intensity exercise’are merely common sense but were in nobody’s vocabulary before Arthur Jones came along. Sadly, Jones was operating in a field where good sense has proved to be anything but common.

Back in 1970 an article without photos titled ‘The Upper Body Squat’ first appeared in Iron Man magazine. The excitement it generated sent shock waves deep into the core of bodybuilding. Jones intended to enlighten the trainees who had the most potential to achieve the results that the machine could stimulate: the genetically gifted. His equipment wasn’t simply an improved barbell but a whole new approach to isolating and strengthening all of the body’s major muscular structures via a full range of motion. The price to pay, Jones strongly emphasized, was an intensity of effort that had to be experienced to be understood. Most of the original machines allowed you to preexhaust every major muscular structure.

Jones didn’t invent the concept, but his machines were the first to employ preexhaustion in a meaningful way. For example, the Nautilus Pullover/Torso Arm machine enabled you to directly work the largest muscular structure in the upper body, the latissimus, to momentary muscular failure without the assistance of the weaker upper-arm muscles. You’d then immediately perform a torso-arm exercise, or lat pulldown, which brought in the fresh arm muscles to assist the fatigued latissimus and worked the torso muscles literally past failure. The machine helped stimulate those muscles in a way not possible through conventional multiset pulldowns or rows, in which the upper arms would inevitably fatigue well before the larger torso muscles were worked to their limit.

The potential benefits of that machine alone should have stood the test of time for a century. Why that didn’t happen isn’t easy to pin down, but what I observed may contain part of the answer. In the ’70s I was judging professional bodybuilding, and, being in the inner sanctum, I was in close contact with many professional bodybuilders. In the many hours I spent watching them train, firsthand, I rarely saw a bodybuilder use any Nautilus machine correctly. Most of them ‘threw’ the resistance rapidly. Others didn’t seem to understand the concept of lining up a machine’s axis of rotation with the axis of rotation of the involved bodypart. My guess is that Jones initially believed that bodybuilders would read his words about intensity and apply them to the equipment, but he later came to believe that in the hard-training environment the written word was undervalued and not readily understood.

There were, however, exceptions. Casey Viator, the youngest Mr. America ever, trained on Nautilus machines in the early ’70s. I trained him several times. He performed every exercise properly, and he trained every exercise hard. And make no mistake about this: Casey was at his heaviest and best in muscular size, strength and fullness in that period, doing hard whole-body workouts two or three days a week on Nautilus machines’not six or seven days a week using free weights, as was the custom of bodybuilders in the early ’80s. I know because I was in York, Pennsylvania, the night that Casey won the ’71 AAU Mr. America, and I was one of the judges in London in ’82 when he placed third, his highest, at the Mr. Olympia.

I personally trained Mike Mentzer in 1980 before the Mr. Olympia, and he was in the finest shape of his life’far more muscular than he’d been the previous year, when he placed second. Mike’s exact arm workout under my supervision was one set of curls on the Nautilus plate-loading Biceps/Triceps machine (correctly used, still the best biceps/triceps machine ever built), followed immediately by one set of palms-up chinups. A set of triceps extensions on the same machine was followed by a set of parallel-bar dips. All four exercises worked to positive failure, with huge weights and perfect form, and no forced reps, drop sets, partials and so on. And his arms were larger and more muscular then than at any stage of his career.

At their inception Nautilus machines and the concepts of Arthur Jones stirred the imagination of the entire bodybuilding field. The machines were large, ‘built like a bridge’ and certainly more complex than a barbell. In many gyms and fitness centers, however, no one knew how to teach trainees how to use them properly. Invariably, therefore, they were misused and subsequently discarded. Magazine publishers had a field day attacking Nautilus and extolling the virtues of barbells, but if the barbell was then and is today the ideal tool, why did Nautilus attract so many bodybuilders? The reason, in my view, was a widely shared sense that something was inherently wrong with the barbell, which although certainly capable of stimulating outstanding results (eventually), just as certainly has its limitations.

That the marriage of top bodybuilders to Nautilus didn’t endure is perhaps not surprising, in retrospect. Top bodybuilders, when steroid-engorged, are probably going to grow’however they train, whatever tool they use. It should also be very clear that in our beloved bodybuilding, superiority is almost entirely dictated by genetics’a case of ‘some can, and some (most) can’t.’ It would behoove anyone with unrealistic expectations to appreciate the advantage of having long muscle bellies and short tendons before initiating a quest for the Holy Grail.

Ultimately, if you fall into the ‘other’ category, where 99.9 percent of us find ourselves, or if you’re one of the elite who want to get to the top efficiently, sensibly and safely and later live without the chronic pain exacerbated by current training dicta, you may want to revisit the man, Arthur Jones, and his contributions. They brook no comparison.

The following is a blueprint for realizing your full potential.

1) Use MedX or vintage Nautilus machines. Train your muscles on equipment that safely and thoroughly strengthens all of your major muscular structures. You need equipment that offers full-range, direct and variable resistance, all necessary because the strength of a muscle changes, sometimes dramatically, throughout its range of motion. The function of a muscle dictates the design of meaningful equipment. Understand such function, and you’ll know how to choose an exercise that works the muscle most efficiently and safely.

2) Judge your progress by your strength. That applies to any tool you use.

3) Train wisely on whatever equipment you choose. Explosive exercise will immediately or eventually result in injury. When force exceeds structure, injury will undoubtedly occur. Move resistance slowly, smoothly, under control. Let the muscles, not momentum, perform the work. A bodybuilder’s goal should be to build strength, not demonstrate it.

4) If you’re using machines, be sure to learn how to use them correctly. People who don’t appreciate MedX or vintage Nautilus machines didn’t learn to use them correctly, period.

5) Do preexhaustion training. It’s the most efficient way to train’certainly the safest.

6) Train your whole body, working all of your major muscular structures at each workout, twice a week. If you’re training hard, that’s all the work you’ll want or need. Work the largest muscle groups, and then proceed to the smallest.

Epilogue: Arthur Jones sold Nautilus in 1986 and moved on to develop the first and only tools capable of providing accurate measurements of human muscular functions. As he astutely reasoned, ‘You cannot evaluate anything until you can measure it accurately.’ The MedX medical machines, the result of more than a decade of research and an expenditure of some $40 million, are the only equipment available today offering safe, specific testing and rehabilitative exercise for the vulnerable muscles of the cervical spine, lumbar spine and knee. IM

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