In the early 1960s Dr. John Ziegler introduced the ultimate strength exercise, and Bob Hoffman, owner of York Barbell and Strength and Health magazine, promoted it. It was called functional isometric contraction:
While very few sports coaches or athletic directors in high schools and colleges approved of lifting weights, they embraced the isometric system wholeheartedly. What the school administrators and coaches liked about isometric training was it was neat, no plates to store or pick up after, safe, and quick. An entire football team of forty players could go through a workout in a half and hour. Sometimes even less than that.
Power racks sprung up everywhere.
York Barbell sold metal and wood power racks — but Hoffman discontinued the wood version, once he realized people were using them to make copies.
In Strength and Health, Hoffman touted the progress made by 23-year-old Bill March:
Bill weighed 176 and had won the 1960 Middle Atlantic Title with a three-lift [press, snatch, clean & jerk] total of 745.
Bill was the poster boy for isometric training. His lifts climbed steadily at a pace that few could believe. He blew past an 800 total and kept right on going. He moved up to the 198-lb. class and started winning everything in sight. No one had ever seen anyone make such startling improvement in so short a period of time. At the ’63 Philly Open, Bill pressed 354 to set a world record in the middleheavyweight class. Hoffman couldn’t manufacture power racks fast enough to keep up with the demand.
Fast forward six years. Isometrics and also the combination of isotonics and isometrics had all but disappeared from strength training in sports.
How did isometrics become known as a fraud and a farce? Well, young Bill March’s regimen included some other potent elements that didn’t get as much coverage as his power-rack routine.
It all started back in 1954, when Dr. John Ziegler followed the United States Olympic Weightlifting team to the World Championships in Vienna as their team physician and learned a few secrets from the Russians:
During one of the drinking bouts, well past midnight, the Russians’ tongues began to loosen up and Doc knew the right questions to ask. Ziegler learned that the lifters were experimenting with strength-enhancing drugs and also using a form of exercise that helped make them stronger by exerting maximum pressure against a bar in a fixed position.
Back home in Olney, Ziegler began scanning the research, something he enjoyed. He came across enough pure research to convince him that the concept of isometric training could produce results and put together a program which he used on himself in his well-equipped home gym next to his house and office. He also built the first power rack that would be the prototype for the Super Power Rack that Hoffman would sell later on. He pitched his idea to Hoffman, but Bob wasn’t interested. What Ziegler was proposing was too close to the dynamic tension system that Charles Atlas and George Jowett had made a living on for a good many years. Bob had been speaking out against dynamic tension ever since he had taken over Strength and Health magazine. He saw no way to make money on isometrics at that time.
Meanwhile, Ziegler dug around in yet more research and came up with a formula to make a drug that would help build muscle and attachment tissue. This was to be used to help rehabilitate burn patients or those who had been bed-ridden for a long time. His specialty was physical rehabilitation, and he believed he had a miracle drug in the making. He took his idea to CIBA Pharmaceuticals. They quickly saw the value of such a drug, and in 1960 produced a little pink pill called Dianabol (the color was later changed to blue for some reason I can’t determine).
Again, Ziegler tested the drug on himself and used isometrics at the same time. Within a few months, he knew he was onto something big and once again approached Hoffman. Ziegler wanted to try his new drug and new form of training on a young Olympic lifter
For several years, Hoffman had resisted Ziegler’s overtures about marketing isometrics through S&H. Then, in 1959 a renowned authority in the field of kinesiology and applied anatomy, Dr. C. H. McCloy of Iowa State University, submitted a study for publication. The study showed that non-apparatus exercise done in an isometric fashion led to marked increases in strength. This was the exact same thing that Ziegler had been telling him for several years.
There were two things that motivated Hoffman: greed, and an almost obsessive hatred of Joe Weider. This isometric idea was going to take off, and if he lollygagged any longer Joe was going to jump in and make it his own. And since both Ziegler and McCloy had noted that isometrics were not only useful to athletes in a wide variety of sports, and for competitive weightlifters, they were equally as beneficial to bodybuilders. He let Ziegler know he was ready to sponsor the testing of the isometric program and also the strength-enhancing drug. In the meantime, he set about ordering a shit-load of power racks to be made at his foundry.
Doc would put March through his workout and give him his daily dose of Dianabol, one tablet for two weeks, two for two weeks, and four for two more weeks. He never gave Bill a prescription for the drug. In fact, I never knew anyone who got a script for any drug from Ziegler. He was extremely conservative about handing out medication and knew that an athlete would always cheat to some degree. Their highly competitive personalities would prompt them to take more and more to achieve the success they were seeking. So Bill went through an isometric workout five times a week and did the three lifts plus squats on Saturday at the York Gym. His progress came fast and often until he was one of the best in the world in a matter of only a few years.
Doc Ziegler improved his isometric routine into a new and improved isotonic-isometric system, but once everyone found out about Dianabol, it didn’t really matter. By the mid-1960s, average lifters were making superhuman gains, regardless of what routine they chose.