December 1, 2020
Meet my friend, Dr. John Jaquish—pictured above in all his ripped, muscular glory (that you're going to discover how he attained, at a surprisingly fast pace with a very low amount of training volume, in today's article) and for some reason standing half-naked in the snow. That's just John, I guess.
John first joined me on the podcast episode “The Best 10 Minute A Day Workout – How To Massively Increase Bone Density And Muscle In Just 10 Minutes (& Biohack Extreme Fitness Levels).” Furthermore, I just published a brand new podcast interview with John this past Saturday entitled “Weight Lifting Is a Waste of Time (So Is Cardio & There’s a Better Way to Have the Body You Want).” John has also just published the extremely compelling, and somewhat controversial, book entitled—you guessed it—Weight Lifting Is a Waste of Time (So Is Cardio & There’s a Better Way to Have the Body You Want).
In both his podcasts with me and in his new book, John tackles a common conundrum…
…namely, that perhaps you've been lifting weights for a few years, but you don't even look like you work out. You're spending disproportionate amounts of hours exercising, but seeing barely any gains and have a gnawing feeling at the back of your mind that you might be wasting your time, or at least using a completely wrong or misinformed approach. You've heard many fitness “experts” defend weights and cardio like they are infallible, but you don't see any results from following their advice. You're wondering why, despite all your training, you're looking and feeling only marginally athletic.
John claims to have a developed a superior strength training approach that solves the problem above and has been shown to put 20 pounds of muscle on drug-free, experienced lifters (i.e., not beginners) in as little as six months. His methods are used in training the world's most elite athletes and associations such as the entire Miami Heat organization, various NFL and NBA players, as well as Olympians.
In today's article, you're going to discover where John believes weights went wrong—and a better, faster, more simple approach you can use in your own training routine. If you like what you read here, I highly encourage you to listen to both my previous podcast episodes with John here and here and also to read his new book.
Where Weights Went Wrong
While inventing the osteogenic loading impact emulation medical devices called OsteoStrong, which John and I discussed in this podcast, John developed a deep understanding of the impact-ready ranges of motion. (“Impact-ready” refers to the ranges your reflexes would choose in order to absorb high forces experienced in hard contact with the ground.) Approaching the subject with the ultimate goal of stimulating bone growth required taking a different perspective than prior researchers. By determining where peak forces occur in relation to body placement on the OsteoStrong device, John was able to plot the strength curve throughout the range of motion in a way no scientist had before.
In our most recent podcast, John and I introduced the concept of the different ranges of motion, using a standard bench press as an example. The same can be done for any movement, whether single-joint or multi-joint.
Take a pushup, for example. The weakest range of motion is when your arms are bent and your nose is almost to the ground. Right before your arms come to full extension marks the strongest range of motion. Anyone who has ever attempted a pushup knows there is a vast difference in strength between these two positions.
For this reason, people often end up using only the top range of motion where the movement is easiest when doing pushups. Everyone subconsciously does this to maximize reps, even children. If you watch a high school physical education class, you’ll notice a percentage of kids won’t go all the way down to where their nose touches the ground. They only do what they see as the easy part at the top because that’s where more muscle is usable.
Let’s also look at a deadlift. The weakest position is when you’re bent over, the bar is near the ground, and your spinal erectors, hamstrings, and trapezius are elongated. The medium-range is in the middle of the movement, and the strongest is just before you’re standing up. I'm making the qualification of “just before” because if you lock out your joint, your muscles essentially turn off. Have you ever watched a professional mover move furniture and notice how they use moving straps? They change the length of the strap so they can engage with movements in just the optimized range.
The squat is another example. The weakest range is when your knees are the most bent and your body is closest to the ground. Just before full knee extension, as you approach the top of the lift, is the strongest range of motion. Sprinters subconsciously know this one. Does a sprinter use a full range of motion when contacting the ground to push off for the next stride? Absolutely not. A sprinter uses seven degrees of flexion behind the knee when contracting, yet has 180 degrees available. This is the range of efficiency where force delivery through the muscle is optimized.
Weights Are for the Weak
John was the first to discover there is a seven-fold difference between the weakest and strongest range, effectively demonstrating that muscular capacity is far greater than anyone ever realized. His findings also exposed the Achilles’ heel of weight lifting: Because the weight used is determined by the weakest range, there is a vast mismatch between the amount of weight lifted and actual muscular potential. What’s more, the stronger a lifter gets, the more cumulative damage to joints, since they are at their maximum possible capacities in the weakest range of motion. This causes pain and stops the muscle from contracting effectively through the process of neural inhibition (a concept covered in greater depth in John's new book).
Lifting a weight light enough to accommodate the weak range means the mid and strong ranges aren’t being worked to anywhere near their full capacity. Choosing a weight heavier than what your weak range can handle isn’t effective either because it ensures you can’t complete a single rep. It also increases your risk of injury. As a result, weight lifting ends up fatiguing the least amount of tissue possible based on the limitations of the weakest range of motion.
Some people think low force, high repetition exercise—doing three sets of fifty curls with two-pound weights, for example—is the solution to this problem. However, research shows muscle is not built through low forces. In fact, you can actually greatly diminish muscle exercising this way. In a 2016 study, researchers concluded that when it comes to training for muscle strength and hypertrophy, “a trend was noted for superiority of heavy loading.” What does this mean? It means that when you want to grow muscle in the most effective way possible, there is no getting around HEAVY.
Other people try to focus their training on the weaker range in an attempt to activate more muscle there. This, they reason, will eventually balance out the mismatch of power among the ranges of motion. Unfortunately, that is not how the body works, and here is why:
1. As stated before, the weak range is where joints are at the greatest amount of risk and most prone to injury. For example, the bottom of a deadlift is where people tend to injure their backs, sometimes resulting in permanent damage.
2. Research demonstrates muscle does not effectively fire in the weak range. A recent electromyography study on pectoral activation during bench press showed the nervous system is actually unable to recruit as much muscle tissue at the “sticking point,” where the bar is closest to the chest. As the movement progresses through the medium and strong rages, increasingly more muscle is activated. Two studies have shown this neurological inhibition (often called neural inhibition) in the weak range is an evolutionary mechanism to protect joints when the muscle is in a compromised position.
This is common knowledge among neurologists, but many in the sports science industry have little familiarity with the concept. Unfortunately, that means athletes who follow the “power through the pain” theory only end up making their problems worse by adding to their chronic/long-term joint damage.
The increased possibility of injury coupled with the fact that the human nervous system makes complete muscle recruitment a physiological impossibility at the weakest range proves the training there is not a sound investment of your exercise time. If muscle is not firing/activating, there can be no benefit. You’re just fighting against nature.
Higher Weight, Higher Risk
Serious/elite weight lifters understand gains don’t come from working on the weakest muscle range. They, therefore, try to lift as heavy as possible during their exercise routines. Unfortunately, “high force” in the context of static weightlifting still means “high for the weak range of motion.” Chronic soreness of the joints along with more serious injuries occur as a result.
One of the most typical overloading injuries seen in weight training is tendinitis of the elbow, also known as golfer’s elbow or tennis elbow. Shoulder and knee problems are common as well. These injuries are indicative of damaged cartilage and are cumulative and permanent.
John has worked with experienced weightlifters who have been training hard for decades. They’ve certainly spent enough time and energy to see significant results when it comes to physique and strength. The problem is they also suffer a myriad of biomechanical issues—they’re almost all injured in some way. People who have been doing heavy squats for many years can barely get out of a chair without tears coming to their eyes. They were seeking health and ended up with long-term, debilitating knee pain instead.
The Solution: Variable Resistance
Sustaining injuries and underutilizing muscle tissue are symptoms of weight lifting’s biggest weaknesses: it overloads joints and underloads muscles. In no other type of functional movement would a human voluntarily attempt to deliver the same force through an entire range of motion. If someone had a piano to move, they wouldn’t bend their back as much as possible and pick it up from the lowest point available because that would maximize the opportunity for injury and reduce their lifting capacity. But that’s exactly how people exercise, and the logic just doesn’t add up. Clearly, a more effective training protocol would be one that challenges muscle where you are most capable and takes stress off joints where you are least capable.
What’s more, being limited to the weak range of motion’s capacity seriously limits results. There’s untapped potential a fixed weight cannot stimulate because the weight is constant while our muscle force output capability is variable. To create greater strength, the tissue in the medium and stronger ranges needs to be completely fatigued as well.
Matching our differing capacity with an appropriate level of resistance throughout the range of motion instead of using a constant weight chosen for our area of least strength would make far more sense. For example, what if the weights got heavier as you got to the top of a bench press? What if the weights got lighter at the bottom of a deadlift? Delivering peak force at all ranges would certainly result in a better muscular response—in far less time—than conventional weight lifting.
This type of exercise, called variable resistance, already exists. In fact, it’s been around for quite a while. So why isn't everyone doing it?
How Variable Resistance Was Underestimated
Even though John’s original research centered on stimulating bone growth, his findings also set the stage for a new and aggressive way to look at human strength capability. His conclusions had incidentally quantified the absolute maximum outputs for humans engaging their major muscle groups. These maximum force production capacities were pinpointed in a multitude of different positions throughout the range of motion for several different standard exercises.
Bone loading is induced by and dependent on the supporting musculature, and he’d already proven muscles could withstand far greater forces than weight lifting can generate. Based on this discovery, he split his focus between bones and muscle. He started by taking a deep dive into the ways in which variable resistance had been applied in the world of exercise.
After culling through the available studies, he located numerous ones identifying variable resistance’s superiority to weight lifting. This held true whether the subjects were athletes or sedentary, old or young. All of which led him to wonder: Why was everyone still lifting weights when variable resistance had been proven more effective at developing musculature?
One of the most compelling variable resistance studies was carried out at Cornell University. Participants were recruited from the men’s basketball and wrestling teams and the women’s basketball and hockey teams. The student-athletes were tested both pre- and post-experiment for lean body mass, one-repetition maximum back squat and bench press, and peak and average power.
Each was then randomly assigned to a control group or an experimental group. The control group continued an existing weight training protocol using standard barbells loaded with iron plates. The test group did an identical workout on the same equipment, only with bands added to the barbells. The average resistance was kept the same for all participants, so the experimental group lifted less actual “iron” to make up for the added resistance provided by the bands.
After seven weeks, the group using variable resistance recorded twice the amount of improvement on bench press single rep max than the control group and triple that on squats, as well as posting a three times greater average power increase. Even though the student-athletes were all performing the same exercises, protocol, and lifting the same relative amount of weight, the variable resistance group experienced significantly more strength gains than the weight lifting-only group.
Variable Resistance Studies Done With Elite Athletes
Important note: You always need to pay close attention to the studies done with elite athletes, even if you are not one.
This is because elite athletes have much more trouble building muscle than beginners to strength training. Therefore, when a study is done with them, it is a more important indication of what actually works. They are also more likely than other test groups to actually follow the protocol given because they are more serious about their progress. In addition, most elite athletes participating in research are members of college sports organizations that do performance-enhancing drug (PED) testing. Conversely, many studies using average recreational exercising populations allow for self-reporting of exercises and nutrition, and the average population is not always honest about deviating from the prescribed exercise protocol or diet.
The effects of variable resistance on the maximum strength and power were tested using Division I Football players. Here, volunteers from Robert Morris University were divided into three groups: One training with elastic bands, another with weighted chains, and the last using a traditional bench press. Each participant did a speed bench press and one-repetition maximum test pre- and post-experiment. After seven weeks, the groups training with elastic bands and weighted chains—the athletes exercising with variable resistance—showed greater improvements than the ones working out on conventional weight lifting equipment.
Another study of elite athletes sought to determine whether higher loads of variable resistance resulted in bigger strength gains. Division II basketball players were recruited during the off-season to complete this research. Power development, peak power, strength, body composition, and vertical jump height were measured pre- and post-experiment. Participants were then divided equally into two groups. One added variable resistance to their training once weekly while the other continued doing traditional weight lifting only. At the end of the study, the athletes doing variable resistance posted significant improvements in speed, strength, vertical jump, and lean mass over the control group.
Still more proof that variable resistance builds strength faster and more effectively than traditional weight lifting comes from a study of elite youth rugby players. The participants were tested for velocity and power on bench press before beginning and at the end of the study. A control group used free weights only while the other received 20 percent of their prescribed load on bench press from elastic bands. At the end of six weeks, the group using variable resistance showed bigger increases in their velocity, power, and one rep max on bench press than the free weight-only group.
Yet another study, this time involving Division 2 baseball players, showed variable resistance provided greater rates of strength gain as measured by improvements at standard bench pressing. Even more importantly, participants doing variable resistance had less shoulder stress, making them be able to train further, harder, and continue to gain muscle/strength at a faster rate than their peers due to the lack of neural inhibition and reduced risk of joint injury.
In 2018, a group of professional rugby players participated in a randomized controlled trial. This study measured explosive pushing power, something of critical importance in the sport. With only seven days of training time, the variable resistance test group had statistically significant increases in pushing power, whereas the control group did not.
Two other studies, Electromyographic Comparison of Squats Using Constant or Variable Resistance and Electromyographic comparison of the barbell deadlift using constant versus variable resistance in healthy, trained men, evaluated different levels of variance with “high level strength athletes, performing two different important multi-joint lifts, the squat and the deadlift.” Muscle engagement and rate of muscle recruitment were assessed by analyzing electrical activity through electromyography. As they began to raise the ratio of peak force in the strong, or impact-ready, range of motion, researchers noted increasing muscle engagement. In other words, the greater the variance of resistance they used, the greater the peak muscle activation.
The most recent study with elite athletes is perhaps the most shocking in terms of how far behind the rest of the world is in terms of using variable resistance to build muscle. In a survey of Norwegian powerlifters, 76.9% reported using variable resistance as a part of their regular training program. Those who follow international powerlifting will know that Norway may be one of the strongest nations in the world per capita.
At this point, John knew some researchers were working on closing the gap between random levels of variance and the absolute maximums seen in his 2015 research.
Variable Resistance Studies Done With Semi-Athletic Individuals
The studies using elite athlete populations add strength to the library of variable resistance literature in general. Almost identical results have been seen using a more “average gym-goer” type individuals.
One such study had two groups exercise, one using variance and the other standard weights. Cronin and researchers discovered greater EMG activity during the later stages (70-100%) of the eccentric phase (meaning the lowering of resistance) of the banded squat when compared to a standard weight squat. Their 10-week analysis showed banded resistance training lead to significant improvements in lunge performance (21.5%) compared with control groups. In this study, the variance group outperformed the control by 21.5% in 10 weeks.
A 2019 study by Smith et al. looked at sensory reflex performance after a multi-week exercise program that compared a variable resistance group to one using standard weights. The variance group exhibited greater reflex improvements, and the study concluded: “Variable resistance training elicited greater reflex adaptations compared to dynamic constant external resistance.” This can indicate that speed improvements could result with variable resistance, perhaps because more muscle tissue is activated. Further, if more muscle tissue is able to balance an individual as they move, this is a direct driver of one’s ability to sprint with greater proficiency. Consistent with this hypothesis, another 2019 study showed variable resistance was able to activate more muscle and positively influence jump performance after just one intervention, but the standard weight training control group did not demonstrate any influence for the same kind of test.
As mentioned earlier, to gain strength and muscle size there is no getting around heavy. Although what is considered heavy is different for every individual, most studies have seen 60 seconds as an optimal time under tension before fatigue. Obviously with variable resistance, you benefit from more force than you can achieve with ordinary fixed weightlifting for any given exercise time. But don’t just take John's word for it. Instead, consider this quote from yet another relevant study on variable resistance: “Squatting with elastic bands facilitates more weight used and time under muscle tension.”
Variable Resistance and Untrained Individuals
John has often encountered the objection that the research just cited only proves variable resistance works for athletes. To answer that, consider the obvious: The benefits of exercise enjoyed by athletes are available to non-athletes as well. In fact, deconditioned individuals may respond even more quickly to a new exercise protocol because there is greater room for improvement.
You can also look at existing variable resistance research on non-athletes demonstrating similar efficacy to studies done on athletes. For example, forty-five middle-aged, sedentary women were tested on knee pushups, sixty-second squats, and body composition. They were then divided into two groups, one using elastic bands to exercise and the other weight machines. All performed the same exercises and number of repetitions, as well as used the same perceived effort, twice a week for ten weeks.
At the end of the study, both groups recorded less body fat, more lean mass, and increased reps for pushups and squats. Because very low resistance bands were used, results were fairly similar between the variable resistance and weight training groups. But even at very low levels that reached nowhere near muscular capability, variable resistance training proved quite effective.
Another recent study of 38 post-menopausal women showed training with bands not only significantly lowered weight and waist circumference, but also improved cardiovascular profiles and cholesterol indicators. The control group that didn’t do any exercise over the same one-year period showed significant increases in their weight and waist circumference. It’s safe to say that most of us want to be leaner and healthier, not fatter and more prone to heart problems. Variable resistance is a proven method of achieving these goals.
Other research shows variable resistance offers a low joint stress method for facilitating greater muscular engagement. A study involving people with an injured anterior cruciate ligament found that “anterior cruciate ligament strain values obtained during squatting were unaffected by the application of elastic resistance intended to increase muscle activity.” This is consistent with our hypothesis that variable resistance permits exercisers to load their muscles with greater forces while reducing stress on joints.
If you don’t belong to any of the demographics discussed so far, take heart. John, in both our podcasts, mentions that he hasn't encountered any test population that doesn’t seem to benefit from variable resistance training. Even elderly adults (60+) have been tested and show similar results to both the elite populations and more average exercisers. Variable resistance works no matter your current conditioning, age, or sex. The principles it follows and muscle tissue it stimulates remains the same.
Isolating Variable Resistance as the Key Factor
Many of the studies just discussed compare standard weightlifting protocols to those including some level of variance, provided by either rubber/latex banding or other methods. For example, a given control group may have exercised with weights only, and their corresponding test group may have used a lighter weight with elastic banding connected to the weight bar to offer a small level of variable resistance to the entire exercise movement. In every test of this kind cited, the variance group outperformed the static resistance one. So what is the critical variable that changed—the variance or something about static resistance? The obvious answer is variance.
Other studies had test groups using bands only, with no fixed weights at all. In those cases, John also observed the test group using variable resistance outperforming the control group using fixed weights. In these cases, the situation is even simpler. You don’t have to ask what factor is more important, you just have to look at what methodology yielded superior results—and that is consistently, you guessed it, variable resistance.
In all cases, the group that included variance performed better, became stronger, and grew muscle mass faster. So what’s more important? Weights or variance?
In his new book, John describes a gym in Ohio that trains competitive lifters applied variable resistance to its lifting protocols and ended up breaking over 140 world records. When asked how they were doing it, the answers were a bit convoluted. Perhaps they were protecting their method for business reasons, to keep an advantage. But aside from this outlier, why didn’t the world immediately jump on variable resistance after most of these studies were published?
Research and Innovation Are Not the Same Thing
John actually had a researcher approach him at the National Congress of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM) to share his excitement over the technology/products John had been working on. Then he asked, “How did you figure it out?” John was confused because the real question in his mind was, “How did the rest of you guys NOT figure this out?” Of course, he never said this and ended up buying a round of drinks for the other researchers instead.
There is a tremendous difference between research and innovation. The job of a researcher is to test a concept that might be slightly (or greatly) different from the standard approach to a given objective. In the context of exercise science, they are often testing a concept that someone else invented, which has already been used to some extent in practice. Then they test the two concepts and control for outside variables that might skew the data one way or the other. The conclusion to the test involves calculating if there was a statistically significant difference between the two data sets and commenting on other observations that may have been made during the study, which can enhance everyone’s understanding of that particular subject matter.
Notice that nowhere in this process is the researcher mandated to create anything or consider how their research findings might be used in the process of product development. In the variable resistance field, for example, a 2016 study concluded that variable resistance (or as the authors described it, “accommodating resistance”) would be useful for improving the training efficacy of powerlifters, bodybuilders, and athletes. The conclusion never segued into product design planning, because that’s just not what researchers typically set out to do.
An obvious exception to the above assessment of researchers would be R&D engineers employed by large companies for the express purpose of performing research with the goal of product development. But even when you include this group, successful research-driven product innovation is surprisingly rare. How long before the advent of high-quality digital cameras was the CCD image sensor developed? The answer is about 30 years. In fact, Eastman Kodak created the first CCD image sensor in 1975 (yes, that Kodak). Because there aren’t that many people out there looking to challenge convention and take the risks inherent to innovation, they went decades without turning that research into an actual product.
As you likely know, eventually other businesses developed this technology on their own, and competition from digital cameras drove Kodak to file for bankruptcy in 2012. This is just one example of the gap between research and actual product development. It strongly suggests there are other areas of academic understanding right now that do not coincide with, and are more advanced than, the products or methods people generally use.
These are innovations waiting to happen.
Why the Untapped Potential?
An absolutely critical limitation to developing the ultimate variable resistance system was that the studies were lacking data describing the optimal amount of variance to use. Meaning, some studies used X amount of weight in the weak range, then 1.2 X amount of weight in the impact-ready/stronger range. Other studies used slightly different ratios; and even still, some other studies didn’t even bother to fully quantify the degree of variance they were using. Lacking hard numbers/ratios of the maximum desirable amount of variability in a variable resistance protocol likely contributed to the fact that other innovators did not develop a real variable resistance product. I use the word “real“ because I do acknowledge there are a number of junk/fake fitness products that use elastic banding, but these can deliver only 5-30 pounds of force, which is not relevant for any type of strength application.
For John, developing the ultimate variable resistance system was straightforward given the circumstances: He had already invented the world’s most powerful bone density treatment device, so he wasn’t afraid of taking the risks in creating a new concept. Most importantly though, the bone density data allowed him to start with the answer to a question no one had yet asked. When the data was collected in the 2015 London hospital study, he knew he was the only one who could see just how far variable resistance could be taken.
No one else in the fitness world had this data and an understanding of strength adaptation. Only John did. With this knowledge, he forged ahead.
Now that he'd assembled a substantial portfolio of compelling scientific evidence proving variable resistance and hormonal stimulation were the keys to optimal muscle growth and fat loss, he was ready to see how his findings could be applied “in the field” when doing exercise. He already knew exactly how much variance was needed to elicit optimal muscular change based on John’s newly plotted strength curve. Now, he needed to determine the most effective way to deliver it. When looking at the strength curves, he knew there must be a simple and elegant solution, but it needed to apply to multiple movements, creating some design challenges:
Because the resistance provided by elastic bands matches up fairly well against the desired force curve, John’s first thought was to develop an exercise program using band training alone. But he soon found working out with just heavy bands was not practical. At the time strong bands were used primarily for pull-up assists by connecting the band to a pull-up bar and then hooking a foot through the band to help partially support body weight throughout the exercise. Unfortunately, when held directly in your hands or placed under your feet—for biceps curls or squats, for example—these can cause significant joint injury. While lighter bands didn’t pose the same kind of risk, they also couldn’t provide nearly adequate force to trigger real strength development. And if variable resistance doesn’t deliver high peak forces in the strong range of motion, then its key advantage over ordinary weightlifting is eliminated, and possibly worse risk of injury is introduced.
Of course, this hasn’t stopped a few elastic (some petroleum-based rubber, some higher quality latex) band sellers from attempting to market bands alone as the ideal training method. But people have been making that claim for decades and band-only training hasn’t superseded weight training at all. No doubt many who tried band only training at high force levels learned firsthand this is a practical impossibility for the reasons mentioned above. People who think you can safely perform exercises with multi-hundred-pound bands in isolation have never tried it, or are really just hucksters trying to create market confusion. To make a weightlifting analogy, nobody is discarding the barbell and just hanging a bunch of iron plates on their fingers to do a bench press.
For clarification, here are two examples of how heavy bands twist small joints in a way that induces neural inhibition and prevents them from being a useful training tool, and could potentially cause permanent injury:
At least now John knew why everyone hadn’t already moved from weights to training with heavy bands. It wasn’t a problem with variable resistance. It was simply the case that a practical way for exercises to handle high forces while using bands didn’t exist yet. It was time to develop something amazing.
Conceiving and Designing X3
John once again took an approach taught to him by his inventor father and set to work on developing a safer and more effective way to train with bands. He was looking for a solution capitalizing on the strength levels he’d quantified in his OsteoStrong research, something far more powerful than conventional exercise bands or weight lifting. This time, he envisioned incorporating an Olympic-style barbell, a second ground to stand on, and interchangeable bands providing varying levels of resistance with peak forces FAR beyond what could be achieved with standard weight training. John made a cocktail napkin drawing of his idea and emailed it to Henry.
Still a Cal Poly college student at the time, John's friend and co-author, Henry Alkire, interpreted John’s sketch to be a bar with self-tightening clamps at the end so users wouldn’t have to worry about the band slipping out as the workout progressed. He ran with the idea, creating a 3-D CAD model. Admittedly, the result was pretty odd-looking.
It also wasn’t at all what John had envisioned. Henry recalls John asking him, “What the hell is this?” They cleared up the misinterpretation and kept working.
The next iteration looked a lot more like the finished product John has produced today. Henry designed the bar with hooks for the bands to attach to safely. Internal bearings moved the bar with the user’s hand throughout the range of motion, maximizing force production and protecting the wrists from injury. The ground plate created both a stable surface to stand on and a place the bands could move freely under, preventing the ankles from turning inward.
Why an Olympic-Style Barbell?
People often ask John why he chose to incorporate a bar rather than two unconnected handles when designing X3. The answer is peak force. Using a barbell maximizes the amount of force you can produce and withstand. As John details in his new book, this is key to stimulating the right hormones for fat loss and muscle growth.
John recently discussed competitive weight lifting with sports performance documentary-maker Chris Bell, writer and director of Bigger, Stronger, Faster. Chris and his brother Mark have been competitive lifters most of their lives, and Chris covers strength industry news on his podcast and social media outlets. So when John asked Chris, “What do the strongest people in the world train with—barbells or dumbbells?” Chris replied, “Barbells!”
When John asked why, Chris explained that it’s a matter of practicality and what’s most effective. As humans, we pick up heavy objects symmetrically using both hands and legs. If you had a heavy object to move, you’d grab it with both arms, right? That is functional. Nobody would put one hand in their pocket and attempt the task with the other.
This is the same way the central nervous system sees exercise. Two-armed exercises activate more muscle because your arms are designed to work together. In 2011, researchers observed subjects could lift close to 20% more weight with the barbell bench press as opposed to the dumbbell press. In 2012, further research demonstrated a 10% greater force production capacity for barbells in standing overhead pressing. This was echoed in 2012 with another group of researchers. Chris intuitively knew what the research had also proven, based on his experience watching some of the strongest people in the world train for years.
So what are the mechanisms involved in this process? Why can’t we lift more with our hands independently or during activities like dumbbell presses? As we’ve already noted, you wouldn’t pick up something heavy with one hand. You also wouldn’t pick up two heavy things and balance one in each hand in the course of daily living, and neither would your ancestors. It’s just not going to happen, and thus it’s not something the human body evolved to do. For this reason, the central nervous system doesn’t process these movements as something the human body does, and therefore cannot respond in an effective manner. Other physiological mechanisms aside, it’s clear the weight we can handle using our limbs independently is much lower than when using them together, and lower exercise forces eliminate many opportunities for growth.
The strongest people in the world use barbells, not dumbbells. Yes, we know the World’s Strongest Man contest features an event to see how high contestants can throw a fifty-pound dumbbell in the air. But that’s a contest…it’s not how the participants actually built their strength and muscularity.
Most Olympic bars are made out of regular steel—not the stainless kind—and then plated with nickel, zinc, or chrome. If you look at older barbells in a gym, they’re generally rusted because the steel underneath has been exposed as plating wore off through repeated use. John wanted X3 to be resistant to that kind of corrosion. He also wanted the Olympic barbell to be relatively light, so he decided to make the outer tube of the X3 bar out of aluminum. John anodized it to create a hard, attractive coating that does not rust or discolor. There’s a reason Apple makes so many products with this same material and surface treatment—it offers an attractive, consistent finish. Given the profound effect this device has on its user, John wanted to make sure it had as impressive a visual effect as its physiological effect—even if that meant using more expensive materials than most fitness companies use in their products.
While stainless steel would have been too heavy for the actual bar, he used it to make hooks that hold the bands on to the X3. There’s no concern about extra weight here because it’s a smaller component requiring less volume of material. As an external part, being rust-resistant is an important benefit.
The interior of the bar is a cold-rolled steel shaft. As the major load-bearing component of X3 interfacing directly with the hooks and bearings and any torque applied to them, John wanted to ensure it was strong enough to handle peak forces. Inside the shaft are bearings that enable the bar to move in the user’s hands throughout the range of motion. This allows for maximum force production. If the hooks were fixed, the bar would twist your wrists-creating an unnatural angle, potentially causing injury, and limiting loading. Anything that limits loading also limits workout efficacy.
The bearings themselves are made of self-lubricating nylon. They move at slow speeds designed to match the controlled manner in which X3 exercises are done. Nylon bearings are superior to needle bearings or bronze bushings. Needle bearings are made out of steel, require external lubrication to function properly, and have the potential to rust, corrode, or become gummy and stiff if they are infiltrated by dirt or dust. Bronze bushings also require external lubrication to minimize friction, and oil-impregnated bronze bushings rely on high rotational speeds to draw lubricant out of the bearing itself. (The X3 would never be subject to this type of continuous high-speed rotation). In contrast, nylon requires no maintenance or external lubricants, will not corrode, does not involve a complex mechanism that could be jammed with dust or dirt, and does not benefit from high-speed rotation.
He chose all the materials for the X3 bar with strength, superiority, durability, and safety in mind. There are always people who will say, “I can just get a wooden stick and do this.” Then they attach bands to a broomstick, it breaks, and they get hurt. In the same vein, John wanted to avoid injury by making sure the bar couldn’t be changed or retrofitted, so he designed it to be both durable and difficult to disassemble.
The X3 bar is 19 inches wide. Biomechanical and human size data shows more than 95 percent of the population fits within this range in terms of shoulder width. Some people fear nineteen inches won’t provide enough length to get the workout they want. These are usually bodybuilders who like doing wide-grip chest presses because they can handle more weight that way. However, from a workout perspective, the added pounds only reflect adopting a position of superior mechanical leverage on the bar that actually promotes an inferior pectoral contraction.
Clearly, if you are looking for optimal muscle growth, a wide-grip chest press is not the way to achieve your goals. Think about it: Where are your pectorals more contracted—when your arms are wide, or when you are pushing them directly away from your body and the backs of your hands are in line with the shoulder joints? The positioning of the hands on a 19-inch Olympic bar produces more pectoral stimulation and muscle contraction. Since the objective of X3 is to make people as strong as possible, he designed the bar’s proportions to ensure users are doing the most effective workout possible.
Experimenting with the Bands
Next, John went in search of the strongest, most durable bands in the world. The goal was to find the bands that produced the greatest amount of force and got as close as possible to the strength curves he’d plotted through his research with OsteoStrong.
He started by testing physical therapy bands. Physical therapists already understand the principles of variable resistance and its ability to enhance exercise safety, typically using bands to help rehabilitate small joint dysfunctions for this reason. However, it quickly became clear PT bands could not provide enough resistance. They’re intentionally light to provide therapeutic injury treatment. As discussed earlier in this article, you need heavier loads to build muscle.
He then bought and tested a wide variety of bands from virtually every manufacturer he could find. Some were terrible, stretching out and getting longer every time John used them. Some bands barely stretched at all and therefore couldn’t be used to perform any exercises. Yet other products had even lower resistance than the bands sold into the therapy market. These low performers were typically the $10 bands you can buy from the big box stores. It was laughable, and John wondered to what extent they were to blame for variable resistance training’s lack of popularity in the fitness world.
The bands he tested also had a wide price disparity. Some were more than $100 for a single band, while other entire sets cost only $20. It became clear there was a big difference in the quality of these products.
Speaking with a material science engineer who’d worked with technology-forward companies like Tesla and Apple helped John hone down his choices. In particular, the engineer suggested focusing his band trials on those made of latex rather than petroleum. While petroleum stretches out, latex keeps its length and can provide more power per unit volume of material.
Eventually, John winnowed down the remaining contenders to a small group that offered the greatest power available. Among those, he conducted further testing to see which band provided the absolute best variance and resistance. He was looking for one that could stretch through the entire range of motion, significantly increase force production throughout as it was stretched, and still not become so taut it was impossible to use.
The winner was a band type of his own design, consisting of thirty layers of latex. When compared to typical latex banding of the same width, his offers more than 33 percent the depth and delivers more power than any bands John could find on the market. Layered bands are strong, provide the appropriate amount of resistance, and do not stretch out. The layering also provides a built-in safety feature, making the bands highly resistant to dangerous breakage. Bands made without this process are potentially composed of only one layer, and if it were to potentially snap there would be no additional layers to fall back on. The resultant failure would present an additional risk of injuring users.
John's banding is made with latex sourced from trees in Sri Lanka, and the manufacturer is the only one he's identified that can produce bands of this quality and endurance.
John was aware that one percent of the population has a latex allergy—in fact, John is part of that one percent. If you are too, rest assured you can still work out with X3. In this case, his advice is to avoid skin-to-skin contact with the band by wearing a shirt while working out and then showering afterward. In other words, do what you’d normally do during and after exercise.
Stabilization Through The Ground Plate
The small joints in your body (specifically wrists and ankles) interface well with flat surfaces, but they don’t do well with round surfaces. When joints get twisted, they get injured. In addition, stabilization is a key factor in stimulating hormonal release.
With that in mind, John knew he needed to create a plate component for the X3 so the user wouldn’t have to stand on the band during whole-body exercises. This plate functions as a second ground. The band travels underneath the plate inside a channel while the user stands on the plate, thereby protects the ankles from being rotated inward by the extremely high forces encountered during some exercises. In this way, the plate allows you to enjoy the full benefit of high force variable resistance training.
To put this in context, John was recently measured producing more than 640 pounds of peak force during deadlift testing. The ground plate obviously served an important role in protecting his ankles from being twisted inwards by this movement—otherwise, that 640 pounds could have easily triggered enough neural inhibition to prevent him from completing the lift, or worse, potentially broken some small bones in his ankle joint.
The X3 Prototype is Born
Now that he had a prototype in hand, John was excited to begin using and seeing the results of all his research and development. Combining the best parts of weight lifting—using an Olympic-style barbell while standing on a flat ground surface—and variable resistance, by adding highly variable, heavy-duty elastic bands, he knew in theory X3 should offer the most efficient, effective delivery of force throughout the entire range of motion.
Had John finally invented a variable resistance device that could deliver force closest to the curve of human force production, stimulate optimal hormonal release, fat loss, and muscle growth for a faster, better workout than anything else available in the fitness world?
It was time to find out.
Ready to find out what happens next? Then I highly encourage you to listen to both my previous podcast episodes with John here and here, and to also read his new book: Weight Lifting Is a Waste of Time. If you want to use a technology that is proven, based on the concepts you've just discovered, to develop muscle much faster than conventional weight lifting (all with a very low risk of joint injury) then you can try the X3 Bar for yourself by clicking here (and you can use code BEN to save $50). Finally, leave your comments, questions, and feedback below, and either I or Dr. Jaquish can jump in and answer. Happy training!