The Dick Smith Interviews: Insights on Isometrics and Overtraining

Thanks to Mike Rinaldi, I had the wonderful opportunity of talking with Dick Smith over a series of telephone interviews. Dick’s background includes World War II experiences, a quarter squat over 1000 pounds and a lifetime of funny insights about the world of athletics. Yet, when you begin to look at the roll call of athletes who looked to him for help, his influence is staggering. Where would American lifting be without the names Lee James, Bob Bednarski, Bill March and Lou Riecke? Among hosts of others, over our discussions, we tended to keep coming back to these four, as well as Tommy Kono. As Kono trained in Hawaii and Dick lived in York (the “home” of American Lifting), it was difficult for the two of them to get together much. Whether the discussion turned to mental toughness, intelligent training or courage in the face of obstacles, the same list of names kept coming up.

Ideally, I hope to organize Dick’s pointers. For the record, I noticed that Dick and I both seem to enjoy the “story” as much as the “point of the story.” Unfortunately for me, I was then faced with pages of notes to reread and attempt to connect point “a” to point “b.”

So, forgive me, if you will if a point seems lost or a principle forgotten. However, three overriding principles dominated our conversations and Dick’s insights:

Not overtraining!
Motivation (The mind of a champion)

Dick still laments the loss of isometric work in the USA. Simply, most people, including Bob Hoffman, just didn’t get it. Why? Isometrics didn’t make you feel tired. So, people would start to add in more work…a few sets here, a few sets there. “You did plenty, but you didn’t get the blood pump…no lactic acid in the muscles, yet I could prove, with the Isotron machine, that your muscles were fatigued!”

The Isotron machine was designed by the “master,” Doctor John Ziegler. It measured, with a short electric stimulus, muscle fatigue. Bill St. John still owns one of the original ones made by Doc Ziegler. Once Dick could get a ‘base’ on a guy, he could nearly instantly tell whether or not he was overtrained. 75 milliamps was a “normal” reading. If Dick could get a contraction at this level, the athlete was within limits. Over 100, trouble started to show. Dick had an enlightening story about Russ Knipp who had trained for three hours a day. Dick finally got him to try the Isotron. Bob Bednarski got a solid contraction at 75, after only doing one lift a day for half an hour or so, five days a week. Knipp couldn’t contract until 175!!!

On a personal note, I checked this with a stimulator my chiropractor uses. He noted that, yes, people without problems or stress seem to need a lower stimulus to contract, in fact, you can watch their muscles jump when it gets too high. Injured people almost CAN’T contract in some instances. In other words, overtraining and auto injuries have some interesting parallels. I don’t know what this all means, but I found my chiropractor, Dr. Tom Malin, to intuitively understand Dick’s concept and agree with it 100%.

The problem, according to Dick, is that people train isometrically at their weak point and hold it for six seconds. “How many reps does that equal? I don’t know, but most people just float through through their weak points. With isometrics, you focus there.” This kind of workout doesn’t feel like much, but it is putting a huge load on recovery ability.

“It faded out because it wasn’t understood. With a curl at 90 degrees, if you hold for 8 or 10 seconds with a max weight, how many reps and sets is it equal to? It was so simple, people abused it!”

Lou Riecke had the “mind” for pure isometrics. He was a pure isometric lifter and didn’t go heavy very often in training. He and Bill March both worked with Doc Ziegler on various kinds of hypnosis and self-hypnosis. We will discuss this in greater detail in another article. Dick found that 3 Squat positions, 3 Pull Positions, 3 Press Positions and the Shoulder Shrug were the best combination. Hoffman discussed his “Super 8,” but going high, low and “sticking point” seemed to work well for most guys. For more insights about this idea, go to the deadstop front squat. (This little introduction into the the “Bulgarian Twist” started my relationship with Dick.) Bill March , however, liked to see the weights move. Work up to two sets of twenty and then tell me if they warm your core up!

Part of the great insights of Dick Smith revolved around one core concept: Trying to catch up leads to overtraining. In fact, big guys need less not more. When you begin to see overtraining, look towards getting more rest, (read my notes on this at my diet questions and answers for my experiment working on more sleep. It works, by the way) and see if you are assimilating your food. Increased protein helps, yes, but not if you can’t digest it. The harder you train in the rack, the more you will need protein and supplements, but, as Dick cautions, “it is the REST TIME that builds!” The message, Dick warns, is to train hard in the racks. But, nobody listened to how simple it could be and Functional Isometric Contraction was considered a worthless training method.

It is interesting to note in Mike Metzger’s first edition of his lifting book that Bill March was his hero. Dick noted that the Metzger brothers both spent a lot of time with Doc Ziegler and learned a lot about “abbreviated training” from the Doctor. It is interesting that some bodybuilders reaped the benefits of this method, while lifters ignored it.

Dick has a million stories, some are funny. Like the one time they used well water in the isotron machine. Well water was filled with minerals which then shocked the lifters rather than measure their contractions. “It got the muscles going, we noticed,” said Dick. It was during this story that Dick dropped the real isometric bomb…

“Yeah, Bill just picked it off the pins and held it a fraction off the bottom pin.” ‘Didn’t he drive it into another pin?’ “NO! I don’t know who started that idea, but we never did it. Theoretically, you can’t move maximum weights, the closest is STATIC. If the weight is moving, it is not maximum.” (I heard my brain yell: duh. That is so true!) March quarter squatted 1500 and overhead locked out 750 pounds. That is some maximum weights! These were six second isometrics and the workouts just flew by, in terms of time.

A Typical Workout
25 Hanging Frog Kicks
Stretch Out

Just go over to the rack and load up to your max and do the exercises: 3 Pulls, 3 Press, 3 Squat, and Shoulder Shrug (Ten “singles” of 6 seconds, change the bar position, adjust the weight and go again.)

Hang and slowly Twist the hips to decompress the spine. Go Home!

I asked Dick what the modern lifter should do and he felt that two days a week in the rack and two days a week with the bar (maybe a bunch of singles with 70-75 percent in the snatch one day and the clean and jerk the other) would suffice.

Dick also recommended that a fifth day of simply challenging each other to a game of Standing High Jumps would have a value. Lee James went 4’8″ while March jumped over 5’2″. With twenty pound dumbbells in each hand, March could still standing jump over four feet!!!

Does it work? Well, the conversations that I have been having the past few years all seem to point to one thing: Trying to catch up leads to overtraining. The rack training targets weak points, while really exhausting the system. Does it work? Have you looked at the pictures of March? I can vouch for deadstop front squats curing my clean recoveries, but I am no expert. As I continue developing this series, perhaps more answers will come forth.

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