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Dave Bolton Interview (Author of “Lost Secret to a Great Body”)

Posted on July 17, 2017 by Patrick

Dave Bolton is the author of the marvellous book “The Lost Secret to A Great Body”,
which is an in-depth analysis of the training method of Prof. Attila and Eugen Sandow.
He is also an accomplished Martial Artist, having fought in national and international
kickboxing competitions, where he was part of the Great Britain WKA Team. Since
2001, Dave is practising the Internal Martial Art BaguaZhang in the line of Luo De Xiu
and is the head instructor of the Manchester Bagua Club . As I am very fond of his
book and the training methodology presented in it, I was very keen on interviewing
him. Thankfully Dave accepted and I can now present you the interview:

Q: As you stated quite clearly, one should not confuse this kind of training with
conventional weight lifting, as the light dumbbell is merely a tool for facilitating
stronger contractions. For example, when the dumbbell is curled upwards the agonist
muscles should be voluntary contracted at the end of the movement where the
muscle is maximally shortened. How much should one contract the target muscle?
Should the contraction be akin to an actual maximum voluntary contraction (as in
100%) or rather “as much as one can tense comfortably without much strain
(especially in the tendons) in a short amount of time?” And should the contraction be
increased steadily or more explosively?

Dave Bolton: First of all thanks for having this interview on your blog and
giving me the opportunity and a platform to talk about my book – and the
W.A.T.C.H. protocol. Your first question is the key one – and one that needs
to be settled before one can get the best results from this method of
training. Problems with a lack of sufficient response in terms of muscle
development, difficulty in reaching “momentary muscular failure”, or – at
the other end of the scale – sore tendons or experiencing excessive strain in
the forearms or elbows ALL stem from not mastering the correct level of
tension – or you could say the correct “type” of contraction – on each rep of
each exercise. The key to this is really the cadence I recommend in the book
– repeat the exercises rhythmically sticking religiously to the prescribed
“beat” and trying to hit a maximal contraction at the apex of each
movement. Don’t try to tense harder and harder with each rep at the
expense of slowing down the movements, losing the correct cadence and
having the movements become laboured.

Don’t worry if at first the contractions you are able to generate briefly at the
end of each movement don’t seem significant enough – just keep going at
the same cadence and with an attempted maximal contraction at the peak of
each move and at some point you will experience the required “ache” in the
muscle you are targeting and be momentarily unable to continue. When you
genuinely hit this point you will know- it is unmistakable and once
experienced it will become easier and easier to induce that feeling in each
exercise. You will also become better (neurologically) at generating these
contractions the more you practice until eventually you should be able to
almost induce a cramp in a muscle with a longer, concerted single
contraction – and without straining the tendons, just by consciously
increasing the contraction in the muscle belly. The contractions should be
increased steadily in the described cadence – but with full control of your
muscles later you can master explosive pulse like contractions in any
individual muscle, group of muscles or the whole body.

Q: Some muscles seem to be more difficult to contract than others. For example, I
personally have quite the problem with the triceps, especially in exercise one and
two. I tried to move my arm a bit more back (like in an upright triceps kick back or
like the “ski jumper exercise”), resulting in bit of elbow pain after repeated
contractions. What would you recommend, if one has problems with the
triceps/elbow extension? Is there a way to completely contract the triceps in the
dumbbell exercises without overextending the elbow?

Dave Bolton: Everyone will have some muscles they can contract
more easily than others and also some that they struggle to consciously
contract sufficiently – or at all. I had some trouble with the triceps too and
some of the back muscles – the answer is to keep striving for more control,
exactly in the manner of someone trying to learn to wiggle his ears. The
hardest part is at the beginning – once some initial progress is made things
get better quicker. Now my triceps and rhomboid muscles are some of the
more responsive (and the ones I have inadvertently induced a severe cramp
in ) because I was forced to work at them more.

In terms of hitting the triceps more in the first few arm exercises I actually
wouldn’t recommend taking the arm further back into a kick back type
movement – try the opposite. Let the elbow come slightly in front of the ribs
in exercise one and two so that on the curl the dumbbells come closer to the
face (facilitating a concentration curl type feel in the biceps) then when you
take the dumbbell down and contract the triceps the bell will be slightly in
front of the thigh – try to stop just before the elbow locks ( that is if your
elbow locks with a dead straight arm – if you have those type of elbows that
go past this point and easily hyperextend then aim to stop and hit the peak
contraction just before the arm is straight). Do the same on exercises four
and five where the arms are parallel to the floor held out to the sides – ie
aim to stop the descent of the dumbbells and generate the maximum
contraction just before the forearms hit parallel and there is still a tiny
amount of bend at the elbow. Really try to contract the triceps in these
positions as if you are pulling a cable rather than lowering a weight. This
worked for me.

Q: Sandow used special grip dumbbells to help in facilitating the correct tension. In
Lionel Strongfort´s own course he advises in gripping the dumbbells firmly but not
too tightly, as the only effect is in tiring the forearm. I thought that this may have
been intended as a critique of Sandow´s grip dumbbells, but you wrote that the
grippers of Sandow were fairly easy to close. Is this gripping of the dumbbells
necessary? And are you only supposed to amplify the grip at the end of movement or
should you keep a firm grip throughout?

Dave Bolton: Another great and key question – I actually think you were
right about Strongfort’s passive aggressive swipe at Sandow’s grip
dumbbells. He was very bitter about Sandow’s success and criticised him in
exactly this (somewhat snide) manner on several occasions regarding lifting
prowess, leg strength, use of the mind etc. Actually here though he has a
point – if you focus too much on the gripping itself you will overwork the
muscles and tendons of the forearm and tendonitis/carpal tunnel/tennis
elbow/golfers elbow type problems are very likely if you keep this up
through all twenty odd exercises.

On the other hand I don’t prescribe to the idea that the grip dumbbells were
nothing more than a money making gimmick – obviously Sandow wanted to
market them and make money (don’t we all?) and indeed he did, becoming
extremely successful for a time, rather I believe that the grip dumbbells
were a sincere attempt on his behalf to come up with a tool that would help
even “motor morons” to perform his system of exercises effectively. You
have to remember that he himself was introduced to the light dumbbell
protocol by Prof Attila using just normal dumbbells and this is what he
recommended in his first book. It was only after the book had become wildly
successful and he encountered the problem of many keen followers being
unable to successfully follow his instructions and make the exercises work
for them that he came up with the idea for the spring grip bells. They were at
first intended to be a remedial device to give people the idea of how to
induce the right type of contraction in their muscles during each exercise.

They are not that difficult to close – especially if you start with only the basic
two springs as recommended. Try this experiment – hold your right arm up
with bicep parallel to the floor and forearm vertical. Now slowly tense/ flex
the bicep maximally. You almost certainly closed your fist and squeezed it
shut to some degree – you may have even bent your wrist, bringing the
second knuckles closer to your shoulder. Now try it again while keeping the
hand open, you can splay and extend the fingers and bend the wrist so the
back of the hand moves closer to the elbow. Now try it one last time but
keep the hand, fingers and wrist relaxed, loose and floppy while you attempt
to tense the bicep. You will find that it is much easier to tense the bicep- and
you get a deeper and better contraction with the fist closed and gently
squeezing, a decent contraction with the open hand with the tendons
engaged and extended and a much poorer response with a fully relaxed hand
(at least at first – later when you get a good level of muscle control you
should be able to get a really good deep contraction with a fairly loose and
relaxed hand – i.e. you no longer need to rely on the cue of closing and
tensing the fist to facilitate a maximal contraction)
It is this type of gripping to facilitate greater muscle fibre recruitment –
neuro-muscular facilitation – that the grip dumbbells were designed to teach
and enhance. I have made a short clip to demonstrate them in use as you
only ever see them in photographs:

I actually think they are a useful tool and a generally decent idea – I still
train with mine sometimes – but I also think that they are ultimately
unnecessary and that they can lead – just as Strongfort said – to someone
over emphasising the grip aspect and straining the forearm and hand
muscles especially if you get obsessed with putting all the springs in too
soon or using the strongest springs too soon.

It should be remembered that Sandow sold these uninterrupted from the

turn of the century all the way up to his death in 1925 when the patent was
renewed and the design tweaked slightly. Even after his death when the
patent expired they were sold by Spalding in America and Terry’s in England
right up until the late sixties/ early 70’s. So we have an exercise tool that
was expensive to manufacture, expensive to buy and that sold all over the
world from England to Europe, America, India, Australia…uninterrupted for
sixty or seventy years yet we are expected to believe that these dumbbells
were just a marketing gimmick that didn’t and indeed couldn’t work to
develop muscle (because they only weighed three pounds)

There have been many fitness gimmicks through the years from thigh
masters to sit up contraptions and shake weights etc…most of them end up
in a cupboard under the stairs within a month and can only hope to be
“flavour of the month” or a “flash in the pan” – not many sell consistently for
seventy years for the asking price of around a month’s wages (in the case of
the Gentlemen’s nickel plated variety) without anyone noticing that they
didn’t in fact work.

You can do it either way – squeeze the dumbbell shut at the end when
contracting maximally – or keep them closed the whole time and try to
squeeze them shut harder at the point of peak contraction. Of course you can
do this with an ordinary dumbbell too – especially one with a soft squeezable
covering on the handle and a weight of around five pounds seems to be ideal
for most people. If Sandow had made a five pound grip dumbbell and I had a
set I would probably use them to train with. I currently use a set of cheap
plastic globe style dumbbells with neoprene grips round the handles that are
designed for use on luggage handles.

Q: The leg exercises, especially for the quadriceps and the hamstring muscles, seem
in principle different than the dumbbell exercises for the upper body. The tension
seems to be more akin to a “co-contraction” (simultaneous contraction of the agonist
and antagonistic muscles) at the end of the movement. This seems logical, as in
squat movements co-contractions occur naturally. I personally wanted to use the
same principle as in the upper body, thus, I attached some very light weight plate to
some old shoes and practice various leg lifts. This way I can tense the agonist muscle
at the highest point of the leg lift. What is your opinion on this? Do you think Attila
had a specific reason for not using exactly the same principle with the legs as in the
upper body? Or was it mere for practical reasons, i.e. it’s quite hard to hold a
dumbbell with your feet.

Dave Bolton: There’s absolutely no reason why you can’t do this – and I do
think it was probably only for practical reasons that Attila didn’t apply
exactly the same approach to the legs – i.e. doing leg curls, hamstring curls
etc. with weights attached to the feet – I had exactly the same idea as you
and planned to get hold of some old” iron boots” – a weight training tool that
has gone out of fashion just like the spring grip dumbbells and light
dumbbell work in general, but that come from an era after Sandow- and
doing exactly as you describe: using them as light dumbbells for the legs. I
just never got around to it.

Iron Boots

These iron boots were usually around 7 – 10 pounds in weight and although
bars and further weights could be added I think that these were originally
developed as a natural extension of the light dumbbell protocol as it was
explored in the years after Attila and Sandow – and fell from favour for the
same reasons as the spring grip dumbbells and light dumbbell work with
added tension did…the very method of training that they facilitated was
forgotten and fell by the way side in favour of progressive heavy resistance

The other practical reason for using various types of squats and plie’ style
calf raises is that these movements are extremely basic human movement
basics that map onto many athletic and every day activities – also you can
save time with these compound exercises – more sets of curls, adduction
and abduction moves etc for the legs would only add time to the daily
exercise session.

Also as your skill in muscle control advances it becomes much more feasible
to add the same principle used in the dumbbell moves to the leg exercises –
one can consciously add tension with a maximal squeeze to the glutes and
hamstrings at the bottom of the squat and strongly contract the quads at the
top as the legs lock out – while as you point out there is necessarily some
degree of co-contraction in these it is very possible to rhythmically alternate
the muscles that are tensing as you squat just as you would with the biceps
and triceps in the curls.

Finally – Sandow and Attila both stated you can train your legs as a
secondary result of exercises 1-4 for the arms by “bending the knees slightly
so that the muscles of the thighs can share the work” – at first this sounds
absolutely ridiculous – the idea that somehow your legs can “benefit” from
the effect of curling tiny dumbbells simple by bending your knees a little –
most observers would assume there would be next to no benefit for the arms
themselves from curling 3-5 pounds and the idea that by bending at the knee
slightly you could share this training effect with the legs on the face of it
makes no sense whatsoever. Once you realise that the benefit of this
training method comes not from the weight alone but from rhythmically
tensing against the small weights at a certain cadence for a certain period of
time (and as your physical mastery of your muscular system increases) you
realise that while curling you can bend the knees and load your thighs with
your body weight then maximally tense your right thigh as you tense the
right bicep then the left thigh with left bicep – or alternating left thigh with
right bicep – and in this way apply EXACTLY the same principle to the legs
as you apply to the upper body with the dumbbells.

Q: In exercise science it’s common to categorize the type of strength training into
intramuscular strength training, hypertrophy training or strength endurance training.
We discussed in the past where this type of training would fit into. As far as I can
remember, you do not believe that this protocol is strength endurance work. I am not
sure if this believe may be influenced by the opinion that strength endurance work
has no or not much hypertrophy effect. The research from Brad Schoenfeld
experienced-lifters/] suggests that the hypertrophy of Type I muscle fibres was
underestimated in the past, and that strength endurance training with light weight
has a profound hypertrophy effect in regard to Type I fibres as long as one goes to
failure. What is your opinion on this? Would you agree with Schoenfeld or if you
disagree, in what category would you put the protocol into?

Dave Bolton: Your right my reluctance to categorise the W.A.T.C.H protocol

as primarily muscle endurance training was because that sounds like the
effect would mainly be increased capacity for work over time as opposed to
hypertrophy – when in fact in my own experience I know that the primary
effect has been muscular development and SOME concomitant increase in
both endurance and strength. Schonfeld`s research is very interesting and
the hitherto ignored hypertrophy of type one fibres may very well explain
the effects I observed and that Prof. Attila knew flowed from the light
dumbbells method.
Rather than categorising ANY training approach as necessarily being either
hypertrophy training, muscle endurance training or Strength training and
then struggling to fit the light dumbbell approach into one of these
categories(and struggling to do so satisfactorily) I would prefer to look at it
like this:

If you have specific needs you need specific training – if you want to develop
raw strength and that’s all you care about you should lift heavy for singles,
triples or maybe 5’s – if you desire to develop great muscular capacity over
an extended time , increased muscular endurance, you should lift sub
maximal weights for longer periods and if you are concerned with size above
all other considerations you should probably lift heavy-ish say 60 -70
percent of your one rep max for multiple sets of 8-12 reps

Or… if you are concerned with improving your strength parameters generally
and developing an aesthetically pleasing physique while increasing your
general health in a short training time you could adopt the W.A.T.C.H.
Protocol with light dumbbells – you will get a decent hypertrophic response,
some level of increased muscle endurance and undoubtedly some degree of
improvement in strength parameters generally.

Q: In conventional weight training – especially if you train for hypertrophy – you

work out to failure and then rest for a day. The rationale behind this is that in training
micro traumata and damages to Z-lines occur and while you rest satellite cells will
repair these tears, thus in time the myofibrils will thicken, i.e. you muscles will grow.
But this is not the only theory for muscle growth; there are others like the Mechanical
tension and metabolic stress theory. With the W.A.T.C.H. protocol you also advice to
go to failure, but yet it should be trained almost every day. Do you think that in this
mode of training not much muscle damage occurs, and the growth could rather be
attributed to regular metabolic stress and the applied tension? You also hinted at the
fact that back in Prof. Attila´s and Sandow`s time “working out” was understood
much differently, i.e. that training should be invigorating and energizing, how does
the idea of “failure” fit into this concept?

Good question and another key point about this training approach. The idea
that exercise was something that should build you up rather than tear you
down is something that has definitely been forgotten.

I do think the effect of the W.A.T.C.H protocol type training is attributable to

regular metabolic stress and tension – specifically keeping muscle protein
synthesis high all the time. Volume and frequency are also important factors
in muscle growth and this method allows multiple sets of related exercises
per body part with a high frequency.

When athletes training hard and heavy use “training to failure” as part of
their approach to inducing greater and greater levels of micro trauma with
the hope of inducing a greater recovery response in terms of muscle fiber
size/thickness they will employ teeth gritting shuddering effort, use drop
sets and forced reps and will often need spotters to catch weights that they
can no longer support before they fall and crush them. They might use
negative reps with their helpers lifting the weight and then them lowering it
over and over until they can no longer do so or descend all the way through
the dumbbell rack pumping off reps with progressively smaller weights until
they can’t even lift a five pound plate. They may very well vomit or actually

This type of effort is tremendously taxing on the central nervous system and
obviously warrants rest and recuperation.

This is absolutely not the type of failure we are talking about with the
W.A.T.C.H. protocol. Rather we want to simply repeat a maximal contraction
at a specific cadence until the target muscle aches and we can no longer

We want to induce the kind of momentary muscular failure one would

experience if we were to pump off pushups with good form until we simply
couldn’t do another one – this type of momentary muscular failure is genuine
– there is actual and significant muscular fatigue – but is not as taxing on
the cns and can be repeated frequently as with a programme of high volume
high frequency pushups (or indeed in military basic training)

Q: Modern bodybuilding seems to have adopted the capitalistic idea of continuous

growth; your muscle development never stops…bigger, bigger and bigger. What I
really like about the W.A.T.C.H. protocol is the idea that your muscle development is
brought out to its ideal. The goal is not massive size, but better control of your
muscles and thus improved strength for other endeavours like heavy lifts, boxing,
other sports or simply everyday tasks. You compare the achieved physique with those
of antique Greek statues. In Bodybuilding some point to the Golden Era (ca. 1960-
1980) with Bodybuilders like Steve Reeves, who supposedly looked like the Greek
Ideal. Funny enough, they have not much in common with Greek Statues of the
classic phase. Generally speaking, Greek statues have not overdeveloped Latissimus
Dorsi and pectoral muscles. Prominent features are for example defined, broad
shoulder and back muscles, and thick oblique’s (which bodybuilder rather avoid for
having a more prominent V-form), but not such massive legs. You also mentioned
this in your book. Now one could argue this is just purely aesthetical, but do you
think the difference in look also mirrors the difference in athletic function? And
furthermore, do you think that such a look is closer to our natural human potential,
i.e. a physique that can be achieved without supplements, drugs and without an
obsessive training and diet phase?

Dave Bolton: One thing I keep hearing from people who write to me about
the book is how would I keep progressing? Or that these gains I was talking
about were just “noob gains” and would soon plateau with any muscular
growth unable to be continued without increasing the weight or training
time/ sets reps etc. It amazes me that people think this is logical – that a
training protocol should offer continued muscular growth for ever despite
the fact that this would be actually undesirable metabolically, aesthetically,
functionally and that at some point you would no longer be able to fit in a
plane seat or buy clothing.

I too much prefer the idea of achieving ones ideal development (what Attila
called the “muscular standard”) quickly and then maintaining it indefinitely
with as little training stimulus as possible.

Riace Warrior in Comparison with Dave Bolton

Sandow talked about Greek statues a lot – and unlike the later body builders
of the so called golden era he was actually built like one – as you say with a
muscular back and arms, round deltoids but a flat defined chest solid core
with developed obliques and relatively lithe but strong legs.

I do think this type of body more reflects the optimal functional build for a
human but also form follows function – training a certain way results in a
certain type of bodily development. The WATCH protocol will give exactly
that type of development and the fact that the classical Greek statuary
depicts this type of physique over and over says to me that the athletes who
modelled for the sculptors (and there is ample evidence to suggest Greek
sculptors actually cast from life) trained in a similar fashion – In the book I
mention Mercurialis’s writings and suggest that in fact exercise from the
ancient world may have directly influenced Attila’s teacher via an earlier
strongman and physical culturist called Hipolyte Triat.

Q: In Boxing there was/is this dogma that Heavy lifting will slow one down. Some
boxers seem to use even today a similar light weight dumbbell program with
exercises that are akin to the ones of Attila and Sandow. You wrote that more
muscles and strength are not the problem, but the problem lies more in the type of
muscles you built with heavy lifting. Could you elaborate on this? For example would
you argue that heavy lifting has its place for sports where more “raw” power is
needed as in certain wrestling styles?

Even though you can find videos on YouTube by unknown experts insisting
that boxers training punching moves with light weights is stupid you can
also find this:

Indeed light weight exercises with dumbbells of 2-5 pounds, wall pulleys
and medicine balls were always part of old time boxing training and any
heavy weight work was absolutely proscribed as it was said to completely
ruin your ability (much the same proscription still attached to Chinese
internal arts)

The problem these old time coaches were concerned about wasn’t becoming
physically bulky – there is nothing wrong with being muscular and strong in
boxing, indeed it is a boon – rather it is the neuro muscular adaptations that
occur with heavy lifting that they felt were poison in boxing. They needed
their fighters to be lithe and loose and to have muscular systems that would
respond extremely finely and quickly to their nervous systems instructions –
they wanted light quick movements and punches that snapped rather than

Really you only have to look at boxers of old who never lifted anything
heavier than a medicine ball and compare their abilities to fighters of today
who do lift weights – compare sugar Ray Robinson to Timothy Bradley for
example or better still watch the fight between Jeff Lacy and Joe Calzaghe
who never lifted a weight in his life.

As you point out in other sports such as Rugby or MMA or wrestling where
raw power and contractive muscular action is important, heavy weight
training makes more sense.

Q: You also practice the internal martial art Baguazhang in the line of Luo de Xiu. As I
am a practitioner of the internal martial Art Yi Quan, I am curious on how much the
dumbbell system has helped your Bagua practice. For example, I am naturally very
tense, so I feel the constant interplay of tension and relaxation has actually helped
me to relax more; to identify where I hold too much tension and what muscles
needed to be more engaged (especially the latissimus dorsi). What is/was your

The results of training in this manner have definitely helped my Bagua

massively. I wasn’t particularly tense but the level of muscle control and the
increased proprioceptive sense helped me to kinaesthetically feel the various
bits of my body working during movements and also built an ability to
engage the parts I need to engage, to the degree I need to engage them
while consciously relaxing or disengaging the parts not directly involved in
any action. The general sense of consciously occupying every inch of ones
body that results from this type of training over time is invaluable in Bagua
and in any Internal art.

Many Internal martial artists would say that relaxation is all and that any
exercise involving tension of any kind is a no no – even if it’s only tensing
using light weights.

Of course this can be shown to be nonsense by talking about traditional

training practices using weapons, bricks, stone balls etc… that exist in all
schools but more important is the simple fact that a muscle can only do one
thing – contract. It is not the case that it can do two things contract and
relax and that one is good and one bad.

A muscle can only contract or not it’s as simple as that and what we refer to
as relaxation is nothing more than a mastery over the level of tension that
exists within your body or any part of your body at any one time. What you
need is total muscle control so that you can dial down the level of muscular
tension/involvement in any action so you can keep it to the absolute
minimum required for optimum performance while keeping extraneous
muscles switched off and uninvolved.

The only way to gain this control over your muscular system (as the only
thing muscles can do is contract) is to practice contracting your muscles and
get really really good at it.

To say one should pathologically avoid tensing ones muscle sand only ever
relax them makes no sense either biologically or logically – it would be like
saying you switch off all the lights in your house but never actually switch
them on.

Q: Now for one last question. I really enjoyed the book and can recommend it whole
heartily, but what I find really missing is a place where like-minded people could
share their experiences and discuss the old routines. Do you plan anything like this?
(for example a website for your book with a discussion forum?)

I do – I’m currently writing a second edition of the book which will include
discussion of some of the more recent scientific data which is increasingly
supporting this mode of training plus some exercises from some of the later
courses like the Terrys Spring grip dumbbell course. I then intend to set up a
dedicated website to sell it which will include articles and also a members
area and forum. The plan is to have it up and running by the end of the year
– so watch this space.