Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Book Review: Max Contraction Training

Max Contraction Training : The Scientifically Proven Program for Building Muscle Mass in Minimum Time

By John Little
224 pages, published 2004

I almost didn't review this book. But I decided that maybe you'll see it, or borrow it from the library (like I did), or otherwise come across the concepts in it and want to know more. Hopefully, you'll move from it to something else...

To understand Max Contraction Training (always capitalized, and emblazoned on almost every t-shirt in every picture in the book), you need to understand HIT, or High Intensity Training. High Intensity Training is a minimal volume program conceived of, or at least popularized by, bodybuilder Mike Mentzer and Nautilus inventor Arthur Jones. The idea is that if you do one set of an exercise hard enough, using a weight that causes you to fail on the last rep, you don't need to do additional sets. This should, the idea goes, be sufficient exercise and probably superior exercise to the normal 3-5 sets recommended for weight training. It's the opposite approach of high-volume techniques popular for bodybuilding.

HIT, like Max Contraction Training claims, has some scientific proof behind it. Notably, studies were done with untrained college students that showed that ones doing one hard set got almost identical results to ones doing three sets. Other studies have shown some similar effects. Of course, the limitations of the studies are that untrained beginners will show results from almost anything, and "field evidence" (for lack of a better term) from a myriad of trainees across the world show that multiple sets have a definite value. It's also dependent on you picking a weight that really is the maximum you could do 10 times, but not 11 or 9. I'll perhaps write more about HIT later but for now, the important thing to note is that John Little was a friend of Mike Mentzer and a HIT proponent.

The book opens with a preface by Anthony Robbins, famed motivational speaker. From there, it goes into a long introduction, discussing bodybuilding history, bodybuilding benefits, and the author's progression of his idea.

Max Contraction Training is based on the simple logical progression:
- Muscle fibers contract all-or-nothing. They either work, or don't work.
- In order to get the most fibers to contract, you need a maximal weight providing resistance at exactly the point in an exercise where the muscle is worked the hardest. At any other point, or with a sub-maximal load, by definition you're activating less fibers.
- The more you can isolate a single muscle, the better you can load it.
- If you can hold a weight more than a short time, it's not a maximal load.
- Therefore, the way to train your muscles is to isolate them as much as possible, load them up to the utter maximum weight they can stand, and hold them there as long as they can. After a few seconds, you should fail, but that's just indicating a good loading level.

The workouts are aimed at bodybuilding, not athletic training or general healthy and fitness. It's all size and strength. They are organized about bodypart splits, with isolation exercises (often machine based), and holding a top contraction for 1-6 seconds in one set of an exercise. Some exercises get a second set and a longer contraction, usually legs, but they're the exception. It does start with a full-body workout, but it's just a combination of various body part-based exercises and it's meant as an introduction to the method before you move onto body part specializations. The exercises, as I mentioned, are almost all isolation, by design. The author explains (in great detail) how compound exercises allow muscles other than the targeted one to contribute and thus prevent proper use of the technique.

The weights claimed (and shown in pictures) are pretty phenomenal, but not very practical. First, the weights involved are so high you'll need assistance to do it - any weight you can only hold at your strongest point for 1-6 seconds is going to be tough to get into your strongest point. So you'll need help from at least one other person strong enough to help you. Also, while someone is maxing out the Pec Deck plus has two people standing on the weight stack arms (seen in the book), it's really just a demonstration of his ability to hold a weight (not move it) in a mechanically strong position. There are repeated claims of large size and strength gains on this system, and it's certainly possible - isometric holds are a valid technique. Scientific evidence does show that muscle contraction is all-or-nothing, and that isometric holds do add to strength. But it also shows that isometric strength doesn't translate to full range-of-motion strength, and that you can hold more than you can lift. You can see that in evidence for yourself - you might not be able to pick up a heavy weight off the floor, but if you and a friend pick it up and your friend lets go, you can stand still holding the weight. This book's main point is that this "hold the weight" part is all you need for strength training. It goes so far as to say that a 1 rep max is really a 1-rep "submax" because it's lowering your weight to meet an "artificial" range of motion. As if the range of motion of squatting down to pick up a weight and stand up (the deadlift) is artificial, but squeezing one pectoral muscle in internal rotation (the Pec Deck) against weight in the strongest position is not artificial. Huh?

I can see some benefit from using this method for a short cycle, or adding piecemeal onto a workout. Certainly maximal and supra-maximal holds of weights have been done before. Famed strongman Paul Anderson used to unrack a weight far beyond his ability to squat it, and stand with it to get used to the weight. People do barbell lockouts and high rack pulls, isometric holds can break sticking points in an exercise, and so on. There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the concept. But this book presents it as the end-all be-all of lifting, the one true method you need to get results. It's probably not even that for people who benefit from HIT and who only want muscle size, not functional strength. For those whom strength needs to be functional, it's never going to be the majority of their program, nevermind the only part.

The book is also very much over-written. The idea of contracting against a weight in the best mechanical position you can achieve for a short period of time is relatively simple. The execution is a little complex only because of the need for the machines suggested and the training partners you'll need. It's not that complex that it needs 224 pages of explanation, but it gets it. This makes the book really dense, hard to get through, and seem a little over-sold. If the technique works, surely you don't need so many pages explaining again and again how well it works?

Content: 2 out of 5. A lot of text for very little information, and what's in there is very specialized in a niche program...presented as the only program anyone needs.
Presentation: 2 out of 5. Not very helpful pictures, dense text, and lots and lots of repetition.

Overall: Even if you're interested in doing isometric training and HIT, I can't recommend this book. It's a lot of reading for little reward. Skip it.


  1. I'm starting a self experiment doing this training. Instead of having assistance, I will do my one rep max on the exercise to the "peak" contracted position, then hold to isometric failue and lower to start position.

  2. Hi, just a moment back I was searching for the information about business motivational speakers and now I am here. So much information, really well executed blog. This is really informative and I will for sure refer my friends the same. Thanks


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