One of the benefits of the internet is the ability to make contact with all sorts of people. Authors and celebrities who were once difficult to track down and seemed to exist in different worlds are now able to be reached quickly with a few clicks. Things have shrunk and that is good.
I first came across John Little’s name over 20 years ago. I was a teenager reading the now defunct UK magazine “Bodybuilding Monthly”. One issue – in about 1984 or '85 I think – ran an interview that John did with Mike Mentzer. What struck me then - and I remember it still - was the breadth and intellectual depth of the interview. There was stuff on training but there was also a discussion of philosophy and of the nature of friendship (I still remember the point: friendships must be based on a mutuality of values). It was through the interview that I was given my first exposure to the objectivist philosophy of Ayn Rand.
As someone with an intense adolescent interest in both bodybuilding and philosophy (which I went on to study at university) it was an inspiring combination. I saw that It was possible to have an interest in both intellectually rigorous topics – such as logic - and strength training. Over the next two decades John’s name kept popping up in the magazines and he authored a number of books, most of which I bought eventually.
Recently John co-authored a book – “Body By Science” – with Doug McGuff. (I have interviewed Doug elsewhere on this blog.) I’ve been reading widely about physical training and diet for years but BBS reminded me that there is something intellectual to all this. So much training advice is derived from the latest marketing scheme of a publisher rather than from science. BBS laid out some rational principles that challenge much of what is recommended by the mainstream and also by the internet underground. Anyway, having interviewed Doug I realised that I could also try to interview John. I put a comment on the BBS blog and here is the result – an interview with John Little, someone who has been something of an influence for over 20 years!
John, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. For those readers who are not familiar with you or your books could you tell us something about your background?
Thank you, Chris, for your interest. My background, academically, is philosophy but for decades I’ve had an abiding interest in physiology (which I consider to be the metaphysics of muscle). I received my B.A. degree from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario, which, interestingly enough, has gone on to conduct some fascinating research into intense exercise producing profound cardiovascular adaptations. I did another year at Nippissing University in North Bay with an eye toward teaching, but that went by the boards when they unexpectedly amped the entrance requirements.
I was a lazy student, did only what was required to get by and spent the bulk of my time cutting most classes to hang out in the Bertrand Russell archives at McMaster, where I devoured almost everything he wrote. En route I got to become familiar with a lot of philosophers who went against the grain (they were always the most interesting to me) such as Baron D’Holbach, Voltaire, Socrates (via Plato and Xenophon), Lucretius and popularisers with a broad philosophical perspective such as Will Durant.
I also admired certain Existentialist philosophers and writers such as Nietzsche (largely though Mike Mentzer’s influence), Albert Camus and Dostoevsky. I got side tracked by professional bodybuilding during the mid 1970s and remained detoured until the 1990s.
How did you first get interested in weight training / bodybuilding and when did you come across the “high intensity” approach?
I first became interested in developing my body at the age of 12 after seeing a Bruce Lee movie. I devoured everything I could on Lee, including his philosophical writings (which were mostly a mix of Taoist, Confucianist, Zen (via Alan Watts and Eugene Herrigel) and Krishnamurti, with some Western philosophy sprinkled throughout.
My father bought me a York barbell set the following Christmas. At that time the only information on weight training was to be found in books and the muscle magazines. Arnold was the king in those days, so I read everything I could about him and my older brother purchased a copy of “Arnold: The Education of a Bodybuilder” – which to me became holy writ. I was also a big admirer of Frank Zane, as he sort of combined the aesthetics of Bruce Lee with the mass of a competitive bodybuilder. It was only after my family moved to Muskoka (northern Ontario) in 1980 that I discovered Mike Mentzer and was very impressed. I ran some of his ideas past a friend of mine who was studying physical education at the University of Toronto and he confirmed that a lot of what Mike was advocating had a firm basis in exercise physiology.
Then, I attended a “breakfast” seminar that Mike, Arnold and Franco Columbu gave in Toronto in 1980, which further cemented my respect for Mentzer. And, after attending a seminar he gave in Rexdale, Ontario in 1981 I came away convinced that he was the only bodybuilder that had given the subject of bodybuilding any meaningful level of thought.
Of those that are unfamiliar with your approach to physical training could you sum up your attitude? What is the “Body By Science idea” in a nutshell?
The seminal idea of Body By Science is that we are an evolving species that has come from a background of conservation of energy. As a result, our bodies are very loath to make expensive metabolic changes (such as building muscle mass beyond normal levels) unless such change is perceived as being in the organism’s long-term best interests.
It was during sporadic bursts of fight-or-flight experiences that most if not all of the health benefits of what we would term “exercise” came to be and our genome encoded for these.
With this in mind, Dr. Doug McGuff and I decided that we would look through the scientific and medical literature to see what approach allowed us to capture as much of the health and strength building benefits while mitigating extraneous and potentially dangerous factors such as high impact forces, wear and tear issues, and allowing the body’s exposure to catabolic (breaking down) activity to be correctly balanced with the necessary anabolic (building up) time that the organism requires to produce the adaptive change that the stimulus of exercise triggers.
Of course there’s much more that the book is about but this – given the headroom of the “nutshell” – should suffice!
So much of the training advice on the internet seems to be an exercise in marketing rather than in the provision of valid advice. There is a plethora of training gurus out there – especially on the internet - offering advice and often (usually) selling training programmes which, in the light of the principles you present in your books, are inefficient and are never going to be that effective. Do you think these guys are being dishonest or are merely misguided?
Doug is far more diplomatic on these points than I am, but since you’re asking me I would answer that they are both.
Dishonesty is rampant in the health and fitness industry at all levels and people who have no moral compunction about being dishonest will typically have no problem misguiding those who are willing to be duped. I see this in the form of gym owners selling supplements that are useless in the name of enhancing one’s health and in personal trainers who, seeking more billable hours, train their clients more frequently than is necessary.
In addition, much like in the martial arts, a lot of people in the fitness industry are enamored with the idea of being “important” - a sensei or sifu - or an “authority.” [Even] in the high intensity world there is a veritable army of little Arthur Jones and Mike Mentzers running around, without having any idea of the work both of these gentlemen did to earn their respective legacies.
The fascinating introductory section of BBS discusses logical fallacies as applied to training. The idea that we shouldn’t assume a causal relationship between activity and appearance is probably the section that is least understood but which – if grasped – would radically alter people’s attitudes to training.
Can this truth ever get out? Is it too difficult for people to understand, too counterintuitive for people who like to construct simple narratives with which to explain the world? Are there too many vested interests out there who do not want truth to damage their businesses? Does it just demonstrate that schools need to teach logic?
To answer your questions in order:
- Yes, it can – we drew attention to it in Body By Science and other authors with broader audiences such as Nicholas Taleb have done so in his books (The Black Swan and Fooled By Randomness), so the word is out but people will have to take their health and fitness goals seriously enough to go down those roads where the information is located;
- No, it’s not too difficult to understand;
- Yes, it is counterintuitive for many people – but this doesn’t mean that one can’t come to see reality more clearly (after all, the moon looks no bigger than a basketball at night but we don’t seem to have any difficulty grasping the fact that this appearance does not match the reality);
- Yes, there are at the moment far too many vested interests out there who do not want truth to damage their businesses – that’s a big one and it’s not going to go away anytime soon; and
- I have long thought that we are doing our children a grave disservice by not teaching them logic and specifically logical fallacies during their school years. I think logic (learning to recognize a valid argument and/or criticism from an invalid one) and a sense of self-esteem are the two greatest gifts, besides love, that we can bestow on our children.
A major fashion at the moment on the internet at least seems to be “Boot Camp Style” training. Everyone is training like they are in the SAS or the Navy SEALS. Even the uniform seems to be military with the short hair and combat trousers. Is this just another artifact of the same issue – guys want to be as fit as soldiers so they train like them? They assume there is a causal link…
It’s simply calisthenics – nothing more and nothing less- but with huge wear and tear forces at play. It’s simply the faddish workout du jour.
Interestingly, you might recall the throngs of people who did martial art “cardio” and actually thought they were learning martial art. In some respects, some of the people doing the boot camps probably believe that doing calisthenics like soldiers do will make them as mentally or physically tough as a real soldier, but it won’t any more than taking a Tae Bo class will make you a MMA champion. There is a better, safer, and far more efficient way to achieve your fitness goals than calisthenics – no matter what they’re calling it these days.
It’s simply a case of “Old wine in new skins” and not a very potent wine at that.
Do you think that there is an under-emphasis on the physical damage that training can do? In the book it is clear that you believe that overuse injuries are a very real danger - repetitive movements leading to wear and tear damage to joints and bones.
Absolutely. Everything you do, from lifting a coffee cup to clapping push-ups, has wear and tear costs involved.
The less you bring wear and tear forces to the body, the more long-term joint health you will enjoy. And what we’re seeing is that the wear and tear of conventional exercise is not a desirable thing. Wear and tear should be minimized as much as necessary to still have a meaningful workout but it does not – and should not – be brought to bear on the body nearly as often as people have done in the past.
Postmodernism – to be simplistic, the idea that truth is relative – has become pervasive in society. Thus we get statements – “well that is true for you but I believe something else”. If we tell someone that they are wrong it is seen as being intolerant. Has this crept into the physical training/conditioning world?
It’s a sentiment that is flourishing throughout the world and in as much as people who go into fitness are also going into that same world on a daily basis to work, take their kids to school, or even pursue their own educations, it is present in the fitness world as well.
Truth is a rather unwelcome houseguest, generally speaking, in the fitness world because it is unsettling to established traditions and shines light into corners that many would prefer to leave dark. If something is left grey or confusing then no one really is in a position to evaluate its merits or lack thereof.
And if you are a publisher of a bodybuilding magazine, this means that you will have no shortage of potential advertisers or printable material. Since nothing is “wrong” then the purveyors of these approaches can make any claim they wish about their methods – irrespective of truth. However, if you hold, as I do, that you only need between 2-5 exercises performed but once a week or less, each performed for a single set, then what the hell is the publisher going to print next month? You need articles to provide pages for advertisements in a magazine, so a magazine of truth would immediately reduce your both your content and your potential advertisers by 99 percent and you would soon be out of business.
That’s why you’ll always see the “true for you but not for me” nonsense in the magazines, but as others have pointed out before, if that’s true then it’s self defeating – as my truth is that all the other approaches are nonsense and harmful – and even the proponents of such a philosophy will have to admit that my opinion – solely on the strength of it being my opinion – is necessarily valid!
However, I prefer to acknowledge that something is either true or it isn’t – for instance, you can claim that your vertical jumping ability is such that you could clear a small townhouse with it, but unless you can back up your claim with compelling evidence then no one has any reason to believe it to be true. A claim is a weak validation at the best of times.
And this point was of course a strong motivating premise in Body By Science; i.e., we provided in excess of 230 footnotes referencing independent medical/scientific literature to support our conclusions about proper exercise and how and when to perform it. We don’t ask anyone to take our conclusions on such matters on faith.
There seems to be a never-ending flow of new trends / fads in the training / conditioning world - often personality driven and usually with a price tag. Is it just an aspect of inquisitive humanity that we are always looking for something new or is it a sign that what is there in the mainstream doesn’t work?
Probably a combination of both. Most human beings like new things for the psychological stimulation such things represent. We are a species that gets bored quite easily and sometimes attractive lies are more compelling than obvious truths!
And we don’t seem to care if something new doesn’t work, so long as there is another new thing to replace it and keep our psyches pacified.
Your approach to training seems to have remained consistent over the years – different flavours of “high intensity” type weight training.
This is a contrast to those new fads and training fashions that manifest every few months, each offering some new secret to strength and size. How have you maintained that consistency? Have you ever been tempted by other approaches?
The validity of the fundamental principles of high-intensity training seem to me – and have for over three decades now – to be self-evident. You can run hard or you can run long, but the harder you run the less distance you can run – that speaks to the universality of intensity and volume existing in an inverse ratio to one another.
And given our species’ disinclination to expend energy, doing very little or favouring low intensity work makes sense given a species living in an environment of food scarcity for most of its existence. However, the body is not going to be prompted to produce change that costs it a lot of energy such as building muscle beyond normal levels by low intensity work such as washing dishes. It takes a more intense – not a less intense – stimulus to prompt the body into producing tissue that, once created, will be competing for valuable energy resources. We’ve done enough body composition testing over the years to conclude that low intensity work simply doesn’t cut it. It has be high intensity work, and the higher the intensity of the work your muscles are made to perform, the less of that work your body can perform and then, on the other side of the equation, if you don’t allow your body the time it requires to produce the change you’ve asked it to make, it simply won’t make it.
I was tempted by the bodybuilding champions’ methods when I was younger, when I had no context to be able to evaluate the validity or plausibility of a certain authority’s assertions with regard to training. However, once I learned the principles of correct exercise and then trained for years using them and training others using them, other approaches that yielded similar or lesser results for more time investment simply held no appeal whatsoever.
You have proposed a few novel protocols of your own over the years with approaches such as Max Contraction training And Static Contractions. BBS seems to revert to a more orthodox approach. Have you abandoned the more “extreme” protocols or are they still weapons in the armoury?
They are most definitely still weapons in the armoury. I think Body By Science simply places such weapons in the proper context and then offers an example of how and when to employ such weapons over the course of a year of training.
I would challenge your point that I’m advocating a “more orthodox” approach in BBS, as I don’t know that performing 3-5 exercises once every 7 to 10 days (or more) would be considered orthodox by any means. [I meant more orthodox in an HIT context]
One of the big issues that I’ve had my eyes opened to is the toll that such ultra high intensity techniques have on one’s body if performed for too many months. Overtraining is more a process than an event, thus you can erode your recovery ability over time, particularly as your effort/energy output increases on a weekly or monthly basis.
In the high-intensity training community we have been quite vocal about the problems attending too much volume and too much frequency, but have turned a rather blind eye toward the issue of intensity. I believe now that too much intensity can be just as detrimental to one’s continued progress as too much volume; once you cross the threshold necessary to impart stimulation to your muscles to grow, going beyond this point may (for a good many people) simply prolong one’s recovery period without necessarily stimulating more in the way of size or strength gains.
I think we’ve addressed this issue quite thoroughly in Body By Science. This is not to suggest that more intense techniques aren’t useful and even necessary, I just don’t think a steady diet of them is conducive to long-term progress and can serve to tap out our limited reserves of recovery ability. These techniques need to be viewed within the bigger context of stimulus-response.
In your previous books you tended to propose a fairly standard “balanced” diet relying on calorie restriction to lose weight. BBS takes the “paleo diet” position. (I must admit that I am pretty convinced by the logic of a paleo diet) Have you personally changed your position on diet or is this an aspect of the book that is derived from Doug rather than yourself?
This was entirely Doug’s contribution to BBS, and I am hard pressed to assail the logic and the science underlying his conclusions in this regard. I don’t think a paleo type of diet is outside the realm of a well-balanced diet, however, and if one occasionally has pasta, cake, or refined sugars, I don’t think all gains necessarily grind to a halt and body fat is going to be stored at greater quantities.
If one has a steady diet of refined sugars – a non-paleo approach, if you will – then such problems as Syndrome X and other metabolic derangements are far more likely to ensue. I think the paleo diet automatically reduces calories for most people, thus killing two birds with one stone (i.e., reducing the amount of refined sugars that enter the body and reducing calories consumed), so it would be a preferred way to eat.
It does make sense to not only base our training requirements on the conservation of energy issues that have been programmed into our genome, but also our dietary requirements, as these, quite simply, are the requirements that our bodies and metabolic subsystems have evolved for the production and maintenance of health, fitness and, thus, enhancing our chances for survival as a species.
I think I had a sort of “Damascus Road” moment when I came to realise the role that steroids could have. The “scales” fell from my eyes and I saw things differently and with more cynicism. I’ve known quite a few people who took “gear” and seen the impact that it had on their physiques. They grew like weeds whatever they did. That made me very cynical about much training advice. I think there was also some sort of grieving there too for me where I realised that without drugs I’d never achieve the sort of physique that I wanted. What is your attitude to steroids?
The same as your’s.
When I was younger and read the muscle magazines I believed that the look the champions displayed was the result of their training methods and their choice of protein (or in the case of Vince Gironda, dessicated liver tablets!).
I went to numerous seminars hosted by champion bodybuilders and the topic of steroids was never once broached. Mike Mentzer was the first one to bring it out and to admit to using them, telling us, “We all take steroids at this level and those who say that they don’t take any take the most.” I have no moral qualms about someone putting whatever they want into their bodies (after all, it is their bodies they’re dealing with, not mine), however, the industry of lies that has been created around this “look” is really sickening and I, too, share your cynicism. That is why I am so interested in the actual science (as opposed to the pharmacology) of exercise and muscle building.
It took a long time for me to realize that I was looking two standard deviations to the right of the bell curve for my training expectations when, genetically, I was squarely within the mean of the bell. However, I’ve also come to understand that I share that space with a good many other people. I just wish I had known the realities of genetics and the large (if unspoken) impact of steroids on one’s physiology years ago.
My own training and interests have changed a fair bit over the years. I no longer have much interest in “bodybuilding” as such. It seems a bit silly and in some ways I feel betrayed by the deception of steroids and of the marketing and hype that dominates the business.
However, I am still fascinated by training, diet and conditioning. I want to be the best athlete that I can be, within reason. I love the outdoors and spend as much time as I can in the mountains. I have also recently taken up Krav Maga. This prompts a couple of questions. BBS, your other books and indeed your answers in this interview – emphasise that intense training is needed to promote muscle growth and that adequate rest is needed subsequent to the training to allow for growth. How does this fit with sports and other recreational physical activity? How do you advise people to integrate their exercise training with other recreational physical activities?
My rule of thumb is to simply keep a watchful eye on your progress chart. If you’re getting weaker then you’re heading in the wrong direction and need to re-evaluate what you’re doing.
If you love martial arts, for instance, but find that performing the martial arts – which we do NOT know to produce any health or fitness benefits that can’t be obtained from proper strength training – is undermining your health, then maybe you ought to be looking for another activity to fall in love with.
I know of too many martial artists that have had hip and knee replacements and are riddled with osteoarthritis to not think that, long-term, it’s probably not the healthiest of activities to engage in. However, I do know that people love the arts (and I do as well), so we will all keep at it – we just may need to dial it down a few notches.
Speaking of which you have authored several books on martial arts, especially on Bruce Lee. What draws you to the subject? Do you practice Martial Arts yourself?
The “kung fu” explosion in the 70s first drew me into the martial arts. I had never seen the martial arts – aside from, say, judo or ju jitsu - up until then. Bruce Lee was obviously a huge influence as he was a bright guy, possessed of a tremendous physique and I liked his philosophy a lot, which is in fact what informed his approach to martial art.
I’ve edited several books on martial arts, which has allowed me to converse with many of the world’s top practitioners, edited and published a couple of martial art magazines when I was living in California, made a couple of films for Warner Bros on Bruce Lee and his approach to martial art and was even a referee at the UFC for its “Ultimate-Ultimate” event that was held in Colorado.
I’ve practiced different arts at different times throughout my life – I wrestled in high school, studied Chito Ryu karate for a few years, boxed a little, took some T’ai Chi, and then studied Jeet Kune Do for a time under Ted Wong, who probably spent more time with Bruce Lee than any other student -- living or dead. I was also fortunate to know individuals like Taky Kimura, Daniel Lee, Kris Kent, Richard Bustillo, the late Herb Jackson (who was a great human being), and a host of other martial artists in the Jeet Kune Do world who were very helpful and patient with me as I expanded my knowledge of Bruce’s art.
How far can you go purely with bodyweight moves, calisthenics? What I mean is that sometimes there is no access to a gym. I’ve played around with superslow pushups, dips and chins and been sore for a week. I’ve also tried your “Done in One” approach with pushups and squats. Can such moves done with an appropriately intense protocol be sufficient?
I think you can go pretty far with bodyweight exercises – until your strength exceeds the imposed resistance of your body weight. Your body, after all, doesn’t know if you’re lifting a barbell, a bucket of rocks or your own bodyweight; it’s solely concerned with how much energy is required to meet the imposed demand on the muscles involved – and that demand could be almost anything. Your body has “weight” so in that sense a bodyweight exercise is a “weight training” activity. The only problem, perhaps, might be if you were attempting to isolate a particular muscle group as, depending upon the muscle group, your body weight may prove to be too heavy for certain muscle groups to contract against. However, I think if you pay proper attention to your technique you could have a very effective workout using just bodyweight exercises.
Where do you see things going next in terms of physical training? More of the same fads and miracle new approaches or will the principles that you promote ever be widely accepted?
I think the future will, of necessity, see more people training more intensely and far less frequently. Number one, people aren’t getting less busy with their lives. Many people are presently working two jobs to make ends meet, have parental responsibilities that further erode the amount of hours available in any given week for personal health and fitness pursuits, and I don’t see this changing as we progress into the future.
It took us to almost the end of the 20th century to determine what the proper stimulus for exercise is and we’re now learning much more about the importance of recovery in between workouts. So I think the principles that I subscribe to will be more generally accepted, largely because they are true but also in part owing to the fact that people’s lifestyles will necessitate a more time-efficient approach to exercise.
I think the old model of working out two, three or four times a week is already dead. Its tail is still twitching but its dead. You must remember that only a very, very small percentage of the population works out at all; the vast majority do not – not because they don’t value health and fitness – but because they have been falsely led to believe that in order to become healthy and fit they have to be willing to part with 3 to 10 hours a week out of their lives. In the future many people will look back in bewilderment on the massive quantity of energy that was wasted in the 20th Century in the pursuit of health and fitness.
To finish, could I throw out a few words or ideas and ask you for your immediate reactions?
Effective but has inherently HUGE wear and tear issues that may return to bite the practitioner in the ass in the years to come.
A complete waste of time.
Dangerous and pointless – particularly given how motor units are recruited.
The “horse and buggy” of resistance exercise. Yes, kettlebells do provide resistance to your muscles, but so does a bucket of rocks, with the difference that you can vary the resistance with a bucket of rocks, thus making it a more practical exercise tool than a kettlebell.
The kettlebell faded from the fitness world with the invention of the plate-loading barbell, but we do have some among us who believe that “what they did in the past” is preferable to what we have learned since then. I don’t number myself in among that crowd.
Effective for enzymatic up regulation for specific sports. Doug can tell you more about this protocol as he used it, and has trained people with it, for BMX competition. Outside of athletic competition, however, I don’t see the need for it.
If a muscle is made to become stronger, irrespective of how, that strength has a general benefit to the body, thus amping its functionality.
The proponents of “functional” training are really stretching when they dump on resistance machines the way they have, but then that is probably simply an attempt to gain attention and carve out a niche market.
In my opinion it’s simply a means by which you can pay a trainer minimum wage and have him or her train a large group of (paying) clients without having to absorb the cost requirements of expensive exercise machines or floor space! Again, a muscle can’t tell if it’s contracting against 150 pounds on a pulldown or 150 pounds on a chin up – it simply deals with energy/force requirements.
I think it’s a meaningless term as most people use it. You must remember that your cardiovascular system is engaged 24/7. It’s never NOT engaged. So you are effectively “doing cardio” all day long to begin with.
However, if you want to engage your cardiovascular system to a greater degree it can only be done so through muscular activity, and the more demanding the muscular activity, the more demanding the cardiovascular stimulus. This is why proper resistance training such as we prescribe in Body By Science is such a great cardiovascular exercise (in addition to being a great stimulus for all other aspects of human metabolism).
Pyruvate can be viewed as the coal of the aerobic furnace and it gets produced through the production of lactic acid, which is produced through the anaerobic system. So to train separately for “cardio” is rather pointless. I’m talking about one’s general health here, not training for athletics – in which separate “skill training” that is often thought of as “cardio” is necessary in order to develop the motor skills necessary for a particular sport.
Evolutionary fitness – instructive paradigm or romantic nonsense?
From what little I know about this I would say that the principles seem valid (intense, brief and infrequent exercise), and thus at first blush I would say it’s an instructive paradigm -- but there are still force factors and wear and tear issues that could be mitigated to enhance the approach.
As I said at the beginning you have been an influence for years John and I’d like to finish by expressing my sincere thanks to you for the time you put into this interview. It has been a fascinating and refreshing insight into your approach and one that calls us back to simplicity and truth. I hope that this will prompt more people to read BBS and to be challenged by the science that you present. Thanks again.