How Arthur Jones’ Nautilus Machines Transformed the Fitness Industry

From bankrupt in Africa to hundreds of millions in revenue.

Go to the gym long enough, and you’ll undoubtedly come across the name Arthur Jones. Famed for his work with High Intensity Training and Nautilus machines, Jones helped effect a change in gym cultures across the United States and the wider world.Thanks to Jones’ ideas, training with machines became acceptable for gym goers, the standard of machines rose exponentially, and bodybuilding was introduced to greats like Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates. Every now and then, you’ll even come across Jones’ infamous “Colorado Experiment” for muscle gain, which I’ll describe later on. 

In today’s post we’re going to examine Arthur Jones’ life and his legacy in the Iron Game. As we’ll find out, Jones’ machines and training theories not only changed the face of bodybuilding, but revolutionised the way the general public trains. It is little exaggeration to say that Jones is one of the reasons why we train the way we do today.  

Jones is on the left, with Dick Butkus on the right.

Arthur Jones: The Man 

Jones was born in Arkansas in late 1926 just prior to the Great Depression, which tragically transformed the American landscape. Early in his life, his family was moved to Seminole, Oklahoma, where Jones’ father operated a medical practice. There, his mother graduated from medical school, furthering his family’s medical credentials. In total, the Jones family claimed fourteen members in the medical profession, so it may have seemed inevitable for Jones to become a doctor in his own right. 

But he didn’t. Speaking to Brian D. Johnston in later life, Jones expressed no interest in studying medicine, or studying of any kind.(1) He left his home in his early teens and began traveling around North and Central America, eventually enlisting in the US Military during the Second World War. 

After the war ended he operated an unscheduled airline, hauling cargo from several countries in Latin America, later moving into importing monkeys and exotic animals from Africa.(2) This would prove a lifelong interest of Jones. In time, he began producing television shows and movies, oftentimes centering on his African travels, some of which appeared on ABC during the 1950s.(3)

This, as one may have guessed, was not an obvious pathway into the health and fitness industry.

But Jones’ interest in weight training dated to the 1930s when he was still a teenager. As he would later comment, back then the only real sources of information available to him came from Bob Hoffman’s Strength and Health Magazine, or Peary Rader’s Iron Man. Frustrated with the lack of innovation found within these journals, Jones took to designing his own equipment.

In 1939 he welded hooks to his barbells that allowed him to add chains to either end.(4) This meant that he could vary the resistance throughout the exercise, a theory which would later underpin Jones’ entire machine enterprise. During the 1940s , he and an individual named Percy Cunningham even built their own exercise machines at a YMCA based in Tulsa before Jones’ nomadic lifestyle brought him to Africa.(5)

From the 1930s to the late 1960s, Jones continued to train on and off, often in a sporadic fashion. It would take a move back to the United States for him to fully commit himself to health and fitness. From Jones’ autobiography, titled … And God Laughs, we know that he returned to the United States during the 1960s on a point of destitution.(6) His business interests and wealth had been decimated by a string of conflicts raging across Africa during this time. Devoid of options and facing expulsion from his then residence in Rhodesia (modern day Zimbabwe), Jones fled the continent.(7) 

Settled once more in the United States, he began experimenting in his training and also in his training equipment. Fixated on the importance of varying resistance throughout a lift, in much the same way people use chains or resistance bands today, Jones introduced the first of his Nautilus machines to the American public in 1970. To be exact, the first Nautilus machine was officially delivered to a customer on 30 November 1970.(8) The age of Arthur Jones had begun.

The Birth of the Machine Age

Weight training machines existed prior to Arthur’s creation, a point previously discussed on BarBend. What differed with Arthur and his Nautilus equipment was the intensity of interest in these products. Reflecting later on Arthur’s successes, Golden Age bodybuilder Bill Pearl recalled that,

At the beginning of the Nautilus reign, Arthur used the editorial pages of Iron Man magazine to promote his concepts. Issue after issue was filled with his opinions on training. The magazine was so hard-core, its readers were more than willing to give Arthur’s theories a try, if they could get their hands on his equipment. Sales of his units were going out of sight. Prospective buyers were phoning my gym day and night to confirm what Arthur was preaching… (9)

Arthur’s machines were unique, that much is obvious. But what really pushed the popularity of the Nautilus machines was Arthur’s new style of training. Adamant that “total exercise cannot be provided by conventional exercise equipment,” Arthur began to devise his own exercise system.(10)

In traditional barbell or dumbbell work it was said that the resistance was usually in one direction, and very often uneven. Because muscles are stronger in some positions and not others, it meant that a movement’s resistance needed to vary at different points of the lift. The simplest way this was ever explained to me was the reminder that I can lower far heavier weights down to my chest than I can press them. Hence at different parts of the lift we are either stronger or weaker.

Well, Arthur took this a step further and began experimenting with new ways of exercising. Writing in Muscular Development in 1970, he stressed the importance of hard work in building muscle. Entitled ‘The Ideal Workout’, Jones’ article claimed that his new Nautilus machines meant that muscles could be ‘worked harder but with less fatigue.’ This meant that Nautilus workouts, although gruelling, would require much less time to complete.

In fact, Arthur’s ‘Ideal Workout’ was done over three days with only 2 sets per exercise!(11) Pause on the importance of this. Jones claimed that the majority of bodybuilding routines were overworking the trainee with pointless additional sets. His ‘High Intensity Training’ revolution was premised on this idea that you could build muscle and strength in a fraction of the time.

For the general public, Arthur promised a workout that would build muscle, shed unwanted body fat, and make them stronger. Most importantly of all, the workout could be done in a relatively short space of time. As Arthur’s influence grew, his advertising rhetoric became more verbose. Citing dumbbells and barbells as inefficient when it came to building muscle, Arthur advertised his machines as all that was needed.(12) His Nautilus pullover machine was referred to as the upper body squat while his others were deemed superior to free weights.(13)

arthur jones
Photo by Jamescisilino. Licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0

At the cornerstone of Arthur’s training system was the need for intensity. Using his Nautilus machines, trainees were encouraged to bring their exercises to the “point of momentary muscular failure.”(14) In other words, Arthur didn’t want any reps left in the tank. His workouts were short, intense and, in Arthur’s words, effective.

How did the general public respond? With great interest! His own personal income skyrocketed during this time, leaving his failed tax returns of the 1970s far behind him.(15) Within a decade of the company’s creation, Forbes magazine estimated Nautilus’ yearly gross profits totaling over $200 million.(16) While this estimation was undoubtedly too high, it pointed to the faith people had in Arhtur’s pursuits.

Reflecting on Arthur’s success, bodybuilder Randy Roach believed that Arthur came at a pivotal point in the fitness industry.(17) Weight training machines in the 1950s and 1960s were beginning to emerge, Harold Zinkin’s Universal machines being just one example, but few people enjoyed using them. Oftentimes, machines were used at the end of a workout or simply sat on the gym floor collecting dust. With Nautilus however, training with machines became all the fashion. 

Arthur soon began franchising Nautilus training centers. The implications of this were huge. Unlike a squat or a deadlift, which can take months if not years to master, people could use the Nautilus machines with ease after a short introduction. This meant that more and more people could train in Arthur’s gyms. The response then, was overwhelming. Nautilus machines and fitness centers not only spread throughout the United States and then, the wider world, but people began to train with machines in much greater numbers. It was for this reason the New York Times later claimed Jones transformed the fitness industry.(18)

exercise machine
Shift Drive/Shutterstock

Exercise Machines and Sports Training

In a recent book on the history of strength coaching in the United States, Terry Todd, Jan Todd and Jason Shurley noted the reluctance exhibited on the part of numerous athletic coaches to let their athletes lift weights in the mid-twentieth century.(19) The reason behind this was simple: they feared the “muscle bound” athlete. There were exceptions to this ideology, of course, but we must not underestimate the strength of this belief.

Turning to Arthur, he helped lead the way in explicitly targeting athletes in a range of sports. From the mid-1970s, Jones penned a series of articles on training for sport. In them he claimed that lifting weights was safe for athletes, and that it would make them stronger, faster and protect them from injuries. Many had argued this point but few did so with the strength and persuasiveness of Arthur. One Jones article, ‘Improving Functional Strength … in Any Sport’, claimed that 

In the real world, we have a situation where literally thousands of coaches and millions of athletes are doing little or nothing in the way of improving strength … usually because they are actually afraid to increase strength; afraid they will reduce the speed of movement … afraid they will reduce the range of movement, or flexibility… afraid they will somehow limit functional ability. All of which fears are utterly without foundation … all of these fears are based on false beliefs that are the exact opposite of the truth … (20)

Strong words, but ultimately Arthur was right, and the sporting world knew it. By 1975, Jones’s machines were being used by wrestlers, college football teams, NFL teams and star athletes like Dick Butkus. Writing for Sports Illustrated in 1975, Barry McDermott claimed that,

The sports world is always looking for its next Hula-Hoop and right now Nautilus equipment seems to be it, the hottest thing in physical training. There are 50 variations, each designed to work a specific muscle group. Sales have increased 200% each of the last four years and orders are backlogged, even though a Nautilus installation can run from several thousand dollars to about $20,000.

Nautilus machines are used by track athletes and basketball players. Businessmen, housewives and weight lifters are equally enamored with Nautilus results. Orthopedic surgeons buy them for rehabilitating their patients. Nautilus training centers are opening up across the country. One in Dallas has 50 machines, and there are people outside the doors at 6 a.m. waiting to get in.(21)

That magazines such as Sports Illustrated noticed Jones’ equipment and his influence was significant. It meant that the sporting world not only took notice of Nautilus, but embraced it. 

Aside from Arthur’s own persuasive writing, Jones also had studies to support his claims. In 1975, he conducted a study with West Point Academy, the US’s military academy called “Project Total Conditioning.” Later published as a scientific study in the Athletic Journal, troops trained using Nautilus equipment boasted better strength, speed and body composition than those trained by other methods.(22)

Many coaches and trainers now began to use Nautilus equipment with their athletes. One such individual was Dr. Michael O’Shea, who, in 1975 opened his Sports Training Institute in New York City. O’Shea’s institute offered only Nautilus equipment and, in time, welcomed athletes like Billie Jean King, Diana Nyad, John McEnroe, Martina Navratilova, and several others. According to O’Shea, 

Once the athletes found these machines to be effective and easy to use, they spread the word. With these endorsements, the demos, and the efficacy of the machine themselves, the company eventually grew and achieved new heights.(23)

This situation was replicated across the USA from top flight athletes to high school football teams. Thousands of individuals were trained using Nautilus equipment. It opened the door for strength and conditioning to become an acceptable practice and while Nautilus machines are no longer used, athletes are no longer afraid of lifting weights.

Nautilus Machines and Bodybuilding

When it came to the general fitness landscape in America, Arthur’s legacy lives on in very real and obvious ways. In bodybuilding Arthur’s training philosophies and approaches are still practiced, although only by a small group of dedicated trainers.

This does not mean, however, that his initial impact on the sport was small. Far from it in fact. A point which I’ve only touched upon thus far is Arthur’s training philosophy centered on momentary muscular failure. This, as Arthur would quickly term it in the early 1970s, was the cornerstone of his High Intensity Training philosophy (HIT). Now HIT was exactly as it sounds — intense — and it was here where Arthur’s genius, and controversial opinions, flourished.

Using HIT principles, Arthur’s clients would train for short periods of time but using a rate of intensity far beyond anything found in regular gyms.

How tough were Jones’ workouts? Well according to legend, the great Arnold Schwarzenegger couldn’t handle them. For those who could, like bodybuilder Casey Viator, Arthur would scream constantly at him, every insult in the book, for Casey to complete his workouts.(24) In tamer public videos, like the one below with Boyer Coe, Arthur came across as detached and scientific. Behind closed doors he was a different trainer.

Looking at the Coe video, a few things become immediately apparent.

  1. Arthur’s workouts are machine based for reasons we’ve discussed above.
  2. His workout was unlike anything else you’re likely to see: short, methodical reps pushed to absolute failure again and again.
  3. Unlike other bodybuilding workouts, Jones used very few sets, sometimes only one set.

This was not to everyone’s liking, including Coe who later spoke out against Arthur’s methods.(25) The answer to why anyone would train this way lies in Arthur’s controversial‘”Colorado Experiment,” conducted in 1973 with Casey Viator. Viator was briefly the talk of the bodybuilding world when, aged 19, he won the Mr. America competition.

Under Jones’ guidance, Viator entered bodybuilding lore. The premise of the ‘Colorado Experiment’ was simple. Under laboratory inspired conditions Jones and Viator set out to achieve the following:

  1. To prove that very brief workouts are capable of producing rapid and large scale increases in muscular mass and strength.
  2. That nothing apart from a reasonably balanced diet is required.
  3. That the so-called “growth drugs” (aka steroids) are not required.(26)

Needless to say, the training was difficult. A typical workout for Casey was

  1. Leg Press 750lbs for 20 reps
  2. Leg Extension 225lbs for 20 reps
  3. Squat 502lbs for 13 reps
  4. Leg Curl 175lbs for 12 reps
  5. One-legged Calf Raise with 40lbs in one hand for 15 reps (Two-minute rest)
  6. Pullover 290lbs for 11 reps
  7. Behind-the-neck Lat Isolation 200lbs for 10 reps
  8. Row Machine 200lbs for 10 reps
  9. Behind-the-neck Lat Pull-downs 210lbs for 10 reps (Two-minute rest)
  10. Straight-armed Lateral Raise with Dumbbells 40lbs for 9 reps
  11. Behind-the-neck Shoulder Press 185lbs for 10 reps
  12. Bicep Curl Plate Loaded 110lbs for 8 reps
  13.  Chin-ups bodyweight for 12 reps
  14.  Tricep Extension 125lbs for 9 reps
  15.  Parallel Dip Bodyweight for 22 reps

The exercises were performed one after the other on Jone’s Nautilus Machines or MedX machines.(27) Each set was done to failure and unless specified above, there was no rest between exercises. Jones once wrote of his training philosophy,

High-intensity training is not easy… the training sessions are brief, indeed must be brief, but there is an apparently natural inclination on the part of most subjects to hold back.(28)

The results of such training shocked the world of bodybuilding. After 28 days, Jones claimed to have gained 15 pounds of muscle. Viator? 63 pounds!

Now while there were mitigating factors to these increases, most notably the fact that Viator was substantially underweight prior to the experiment owing to a series of injuries, the results were verified by university professors. For those skeptical of Jones’ claims, Ellington Darden runs through many of the criticisms levelled against the experiment.(29)

Regardless of its accuracy, and we do have reasons to be suspicious, Jones’ results, publicised in a variety of bodybuilding magazines, marked a sea change in peoples’ training. Thousands became advocates of HIT, including Mike Mentzer. Mike never won a Mr. Olympia title (although many thought 1980 was his year) but he was one of the most popular bodybuilders of the 1970s and 1980s.(30) Even when he retired from the sport in the 1980s, he ran a personal training business using a modified version of Jones’ High Intensity Training with his own clients.

Mentzer’s ideas would, in turn, influence the great Dorian Yates, whose interpretation of Jones and Mentzers’ workouts led him to become one of the most dominant Mr. Olympias of all time.

Speaking much later in his own documentary, Yates explained the level of intensity needed to complete his workouts: “someone has a gun to your baby’s head and they’ll pull the trigger unless you give 100%.”(31) Y

ates continued Jones’ legacy of short workouts, based on intensity. Today HIT is no longer in the popular realm but Jones and his disciples helped revise and challenge traditional approaches. Many of these ideas still exist: training to failure, training with intensity, using fewer sets but working harder. In that sense, Jones lives on.

Casey Viator and Mike Mentzer

Conclusion  

There is little doubt of Jones’ legacy in the modern gym. Many of us rely on machines as part of our training, intensity is still a buzz word in exercise, and people are still skeptical of prescribed training volumes. A small few even use the kinds of workouts produced by Jones’ successors, Mike Mentzer and Dorian Yates. Arthur’s name is often unknown, but his innovations helped shape the way we exercise today. Speaking on Jones, Mike Mentzer once claimed,

Arthur Jones is not a relaxing person to be with. He does not lightly exchange words. He spews facts, torrents of them, gleaned from studies and perhaps more important, from practical application of theory, personal observations and incisive deduction. You don’t converse with Arthur Jones: you attend his lectures. He is opinionated, challenging, intense, and blunt …(32)

It was perhaps this very reason why Arthur proved so popular. He pulled no punches, he offended people and, most importantly of all, he did a damn good job selling his products. Love him or loathe him, Arthur left his mark. 

Featured image via @mark_strough and @cyberpump on Instagram

References

  1. Brian D. Johnston, ‘An Interview with Arthur Jones’.  http://arthurjonesexercise.com/Extras/Interview1.PDF.
  2. Ibid.
  3. Ibid.
  4. William Zucker, ‘Keeping Up with Arthur Jones.’  
  5. Johnston, ‘An Interview with Arthur Jones.’
  6. Arthur Jones, … and God Laughs: The Autobiographical Memoirs of Arthur Jones (PDA Press, 2004), Ch. 5. 
  7. Ibid.
  8. Zucker, ‘Keeping Up with Arthur Jones.’
  9. Bill Pearl, ‘Arthur Jones: An Unconventional Character,’ Iron Game History, 8, no. 4 (2005), 17-22.
  10. Arthur Jones, Nautillus Bulletein #1 (Arthur Jones, 1970), 3. 
  11. Arthur Jones, ‘The Ideal Workout’, Muscular Development, June (1970).
  12. Jones, Nautillus Bulletein #1, 2-3. 
  13. Stuart McRobert, ‘Arthur Jones and the Upper Body Squat’, Iron Man, 21 October (2011). 
  14. Arthur Jones, ‘The Relationship of Muscle Mass to Strength.’ Unpublished.  
  15. Kenneth Michael, ‘Nautilus Inventor Sells Firm – Arthur Jones to Concentrate on Lower Back Research,’ The Orlando Sentinel, 30 July (1986). 
  16. ‘Interview with Bodybuilding Great Boyer Coe Part 3’, Iced Jamb.  
  17. Randy Roach, Muscle, Smoke and Mirrors, Vol. II (Bloomington, 2011), 512-520.
  18. Andrew Martin, ‘Arthur Jones, 80, Exercise Machine Inventor, Dies,’ The New York Times, 30 August (2007). Available from
  19. Jason P. Shurley, Jan Todd, and Terry Todd, Strength Coaching in America: A History of the Innovation That Transformed Sports (University of Texas Press, 2019), 51-52.
  20. Arthur Jones, ‘‘Improving Functional Strength … in Any Sport’.   
  21. Barry McDermott, ‘Exercise You Later, Alligator’, Sports Illustrated, 21 April (1975). Available from 
  22. James A. Peterson, ‘Total conditioning: a case study,’ Athletic Journal, 56, no. September (1975): 40-55.
  23. Elaine Louie, ‘Working Out’, New York Times Magazine, 30 August (1981).  
  24. Ellington Darden, ‘Old-School Muscle,’ T-Nation, 04 April (2006).  
  25. ‘Interview with Bodybuilding Great Boyer Coe Part 3.’
  26. Arthur Jones, ‘The Colorado Experiment’, IronMan (1970).  
  27. Ibid. 
  28. Ibid.
  29. Darden, ‘Old-School Muscle.’
  30. John D. Fair, ‘The Intangible Arnold: The Controversial Mr. Olympia Contest of 1980,’ Iron Game History, 11, no. 1 (2009): 4-22.
  31. ‘Dorian Yates – Inside the Shadow.’  
  32. Pearl, ‘Arthur Jones: An Unconventional Character,’ 17. 
Conor Heffernan

Conor Heffernan

Conor Heffernan is Assistant Professor of Physical Culture and Sport Studies at the University of Texas at Austin. When not in the gym or in the library he likes to try his hand at writing, often with mixed results. He divides his time between his research and his website, which is dedicated to the history of fitness and exercise — read all about it at Physical Culture Study.

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