One of the most financially-successful series of books about resistance training were those published by Health for Life. Health for Life (HFL) was founded in 1981 by Jerry Robinson. Robinson is a graduate of Stanford University, where he taught for two years. Robinson’s company published 21 books, including SynerStretch, Power Forearms! and The 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution. Their most popular book was Legendary Abs, which sold over one million copies.
Legendary Abs was considered a revolutionary approach to abdominal training because it avoided popular exercises such as straight-leg sit-ups, Roman chain sit-ups, and incline board sit-ups. In addition to explaining how to perform many unique exercises, the program showed how to sequence each exercise for optimal results. The workouts were also different in that they often addressed the optimal speed of movement for each exercise.
HFL books are extremely readable, and made a good effort to “dumb down” complex research from the field of exercise science – but it should be mentioned that many of the books did not provide scientific references for those who wanted to double check their sources. The books also focused on practical applications of the training theory, providing detailed workouts and descriptions of how to perform each exercise – and even how to spot some exercises. For example, in explaining how to perform forced reps for the bench press, they discussed the position of the spotter, how much assistance to apply to the bar, and common mistakes in spotting the lift (such as not ensuring the bar is balanced or only using only one hand to assist with the lift).
Whereas Nautilus Founder Arthur Jones should be credited with popularizing the idea of designing exercise machines based on the strength curves, HFL expanded on this idea. Let’s take the example of training the biceps.
In the book, Secrets of Advanced Bodybuilders, Supplement #1, the authors noted that during the performance of a standing barbell biceps curl, the effect of gravity is such that it is only when the forearms are parallel to the floor that the direction of force is aligned with the direction of resistance. Whereas Jones used his shell-shaped cams to vary the resistance during an exercise to match a muscle’s strength curve, HFL showed how to select specific exercises to overload the start, mid-point, and finish of the muscular contraction. Although the HFL writers said machines have value, they pointed out that individual anatomical differences make it difficult to design a machine to precisely match the strength curves of everyone.
Another common theme in HFL books is the concept of synergy, which they say refers to the idea of arranging the exercises in a workout such that they reinforce each other. For example, to work the lower abs, HFL says you also have to work the upper abs; but to work the upper abs, you only need to work the upper abs. Further, you want to train the obliques before the upper abs because the upper abs are involved in the performance of rotational exercises. Thus, HFL recommends you should work the lower abs before the upper abs, and perform rotational upper ab exercises before straight upper ab exercises. For example: Hanging leg raise (lower abs), followed by cross-knee abdominal crunch (obliques), followed by pulldown ab crunch (upper abs).
The concept of synergy also applies to training frequency in HFL workouts. For example, a conventional five-day training split might be designed like this:
Day 1, Legs
Day 2, Rest
Day 3, Back (including Elbow Flexors and Posterior Delts)
Day 4, Rest
Day 5, Chest (including Elbow Extensors, Medial and Anterior Delts)
In contrast, HFL would vary the rest days. This was to avoid overtraining and allow each workout day to be preceded by a rest day in longer cycles to balance out the overall intensity of the workouts. Here is such a training split:
Day 1, Legs
Day 2, Back
Day 3, Chest
Day 4, Rest
Day 5, Legs
Day 6, Back
Day 7, Rest
Day 8, Chest
Day 9, Legs
Day 10, Back
Day 11, Rest
Day 12, Chest
Day 13, Legs
Day 14, Rest
Day 15, Back
Day 16, Chest
Day 17, Legs
Day 18, Rest
Day 19, Back
Day 20, Chest
Day 21, Rest
Supersets, performed with no rest between exercises, are a commonly-used training method in HFL programs. Their writers said they liked supersets because they reduce workout time, increase workout intensity, and provide structural balance between opposing muscle groups. Many other training methods are used, including giant sets, pyramiding, and the Jettison technique. The Jettison technique uses several training modalities during a set. For example, start by performing bicep curls with bands attached to a barbell to overload the top of the movement, using a weight that allows you to complete about eight reps. Immediately remove the bands and continue the set for as many reps and possible, then immediately reduce the weight by one-third and complete as many reps as possible to finish the set.
In addition to training theory, the HFL books often contained detailed workouts that last several weeks. The programs progress from beginner to advanced, and include detailed exercise descriptions. For example, the original Legendary Abs program contains 10 workouts, each with progressively harder workouts.
The Internet is filled with countless articles and videos by fitness celebrities introducing revolutionary exercises and training techniques. Many of these techniques can be traced back to the work of Jerry Robinson and his HFL staff. These books are still available through various mail-order houses, and many have been revised. If you want to upgrade your fitness library with some classic material based on sound training ideas, invest in Health for Life books.