Bill St. John
The Isotron as a Bodybuilding Tool
By Bill St. John (2017)
The 1965 Strength & Health Picnic was a seminal moment in my career as a competitive bodybuilder because on this occasion Val Vasilef pointed out Dr. John Ziegler to me. My curiosity regarding the doctor began when Val, who was also my training partner and good friend, had made previous mentions that Ziegler, " had a machine which grew muscles!" So, on the basis of that "thought seed", I had attempted to read all I could about the doctor offered in the pages of Strength & Health magazine.
Actually, good fortune struck twice at the aforementioned picnic as there was an after-party at Bob Hoffman's house, and thanks to my close ties with Val I also got invited to this shindig. There were a number of Iron Game notables present, including the Raders and Dr. Ziegler among them.
Holding "court" at one of the social circles was Dr. Ziegler, talking in his inimitably unapologetic and animated way about a variety of mind-bending topics, including time travel. While listening to him expound, my first impression was, "Wow! this guy is out there" eccentric.
Funny thing, though, the longer I listened, the more I sensed his genuineness, so that by the end of his oratory, I was ready to sign up for extended time travel. Of course, the Ziegler creation I was more interested in was his Isotron, or as Val described it, the "machine which grew muscles."
And fueling this personal curiosity all the more was a revealing conversation Bob Hoffman and I had on the way to my car when leaving for home. Sensing my growing interest, Bob spoke effusively and very descriptively while praising Dr. Ziegler, and especially his Isotron. One statement the major domo of Olympic weightlifting made to me then which I never forgot was, " Bill, Ziegler's machine is just unbelievable!"
Think about the implications of that endorsement for a minute: here was the number one advocate of barbell-dumbbell (weight) training talking up this machine so glowingly to a dyed-in-the-wool weight guy! Quite progressive of Bob, all things considered!
Before continuing on, I want to put a finer point on the doctor's personality, thought processes, and especially his genuineness, which was mentioned a couple of paragraphs ago. As my association and rapport with Dr. Ziegler reached a level of extreme mutual trust over time, he would occasionally reveal pieces of himself and his innate complexity, such as his limitations with the ordinary, while juxtaposing his familiarity with the extraordinary. For instance, he once remarked, " I can't make coffee or fix the toaster, but I am involved in electronic medicine."
Perhaps it should also be mentioned that Dr. Ziegler's unique look at the world was also shaped in part by weekly Thursday night "discussion groups" which assembled at his residence featuring exceptionally forward-thinking scientific minds and Mensa-level professionals from a wide variety of fields. Suffice it to say that these back-and-forths centered on topics far above standard newspaper editorials, radio call-in shows or even Sunday morning political talk shows.
Back to my gradual journey toward a relationship with Dr. Ziegler. In the spring-summer of 1966, I shared a car ride to a major lifting event in Newport News, VA with Bill March and Sam Bigler. It goes without saying that since I knew of March's working relationship with the doctor, I picked his brain for every shred or detail of information that encompassed that working relationship, but with special focus on the Isotron application.
Some months went by, and again thanks to being friendly with Val, who Dr. Ziegler liked personally, I got invited along for the ride to his Olney, MD residence in March of 1967. This was a Sunday, but this was not a quiet day at the Ziegler residence with W.R. Grace bigwigs visiting, Doc's L-lysine dispensing machine spitting out tablets at a loud and frantic rate, neighbors also stopping by, etc. When the uproar died down a bit and Val and I got a bit of face time with the doctor, as politely as I could I asked Ziegler if I could experience the Isotron? Whereupon,he asked his assistant Andy Turnbull if they had any conducting solution left. When the affirmative answer came back, he interrupted the show-and-tell of his gun and Civil War memorabilia collection long enough to pad and wire up my right femur. Then he turned up the current for a few seconds, cut if off and then went back to expounding on his Civil War artifacts.
Was the experience all that I had hoped it would be? While even at that point in my life I recognized that sometimes the reality of things did not live up to their hype. However, in this case that few seconds of sensation got my attention. I thought my thigh bone was going to snap! Nevertheless, and perhaps in defiance of common sense, my fascination with the Isotron peaked even more.
Perhaps this would be the appropriate point to mention that intense electrical muscle stimulation (especially via the Isotron) is not for everyone. While Bill March, Russ Knipp, Ernie Pickett, and eventually myself thrived on it, guys like Lou Riecke and Bill Starr did not like being involuntarily contracted. Pickett once offered a very plausible anecdotal defense to explain their dislike: "In war time, if the enemy had the Isotron, all a soldier taken prisoner would give them would be his name, rank, serial number...and the current position of the 7th Fleet!"
Before moving on, there is one point of history I would like to offer regarding my initial Isotron sampling: the model Dr. Ziegler used on me that day was the suitcase model he took with him to the White House when treating President Kennedy.
After that March, 1967 Sunday visit, I wrote Dr. Ziegler a personal letter, which resulted in an actual dinner invitation on April 2, 1967.Dick Smith was also a dinner companion that day.
Apparently, I was growing on the doctor as around that time, I found out later, he asked Tom Suggs for his assessment of me. So, in late May of 1967, Dr. Ziegler began administering Isotron treatments to me. Of course, I would do everything in my power to ingratiate myself with the Ziegler, including his wife Lillian, who was a very highly regarded physician in her own right. Hence, whenever I was invited to their home in Olney, I would stop at New Jersey fruit stands along the way and bring them tomatoes, berries or what have you.
By January of 1968, Ziegler's personal interest in me was blossoming. In fact, he took my family up on an invitation to stay at our home, and simultaneously assess my bodybuilding progress at the Mr. East Coast Contest which was held at the Philadelphia YMCA. Ziegler and my parents really hit it off. My mother, in particular, really liked him.
Ironically, while I won the physique contest, Dr. Ziegler only saw a fraction of it as he and Joe Mills, the famed New England Olympic lifting coach, found a local watering hole to their liking.
Not withstanding that incident, thanks to Ziegler's guidance and Isotron treatments, things were really starting to come together for me as the 1968 Mr. America approached. Earlier in the year, Dr. Ziegler prompted me to clamp down on my diet, stressing that I consume more eggs, in particular.
Subsequently, I dropped from 208 to 188 over a couple of months. It was sheer agony to me, plus I thought I lost everything else with it. However, my own mother offered this approving comment, "Well, you finally lost those love handles." Aside from this being a necessary reverse step to build toward a better physique, in retrospect, this was also probably a partial Ziegler test to see if I would continue to do what he instructed.
Clearly, all of the Ziegler-inspired assistance was working as even Val Vasilef began commenting on the physical transformation I was undergoing. My overall muscular hardness was off-the-charts. Even in casual clothes, my musculature looked like it was alive but solid as granite. I began getting admiring stares much in the way Val got them.
Perhaps the ultimate compliment I ever received was from the great Tommy Kono, who took me aside at a major national contest in 1972 to say, "Bill, you look like the strongest guy up there in the line-up."
Honestly, prior to the 1968 Mr. America Contest I had no business competing in a national level physique contest. Again, clearly, Ziegler's expert guidance made all the difference as I took sixth place overall at this contest. I have already mentioned the nutritional side of things, but my pre-contest training regimen consisted of two-a-day workouts (upper body session at one, lower body at the other) daily, along with two full-body Isotron treatments daily. This was the regimen in the final 12 day run-up to the event. Of course, I had to build up to that volume of combined workouts and Isotron treatments over the course of a few weeks, nor could one keep that schedule up endlessly either. But unquestionably, the intense Isotron sessions imparted a degree of muscular separation and hardness that no combination of diet and voluminous exercise had given me before.
My physical improvement, as well as the Isotron's reputation was pulsating through the lifting world by this time, even among non-York affiliated lifters. I think it was at the 1970 Nationals that the very fine West Coast lifter Dan Cantore came to my hotel room, noting my progress and asking questions about Ziegler's machine.
Taking the merits of the Isotron in another direction, the conventional wisdom holds that it is nearly impossible to promote strength/power gains and muscular endurance in the human body simultaneously. My experience with the Isotron says otherwise as the combination of fast paced, high volume bodybuilding workouts six days per week and fairly regular Isotron treatments imparted both in fine measure. While working out once with the late Dr. John Gourgott, himself a fine bodybuilder and Olympic lifter, a curling challenge was issued: Barbell curls for reps with 150 pounds, back against the wall. I cranked out 10 reps at which point Gourgott remarked that my last rep was performed with as much control and rate of elevation as my first rep. Oh, and by the way, 400-pound full squats for 20 or so reps was also a routine thing for me.
Still, had it not been for Dr. Ziegler's uncanny medical expertise my personal moment of glory at the '68 Mr. America would not have happened. If this story sounds familiar, Bill Starr referenced it in his classic training book “The Strongest Shall Survive”, but it bears repeating in any discussion of Dr. Ziegler's medical rehab skills.
Six weeks out from the '68 Mr. America, I badly injured my ankle (on a Wednesday) at my Philadelphia Naval Shipyards job. That same day, the Navy doctors determined via X-rays that I had chipped a bone in my instep and had ligament tearing. So, they put me on crutches (which I needed desperately) and told me to come back in 6 weeks.
Being desperate, I hobbled to the car, barely able to drive, got home and called Dr. Ziegler; advised him of the siutation and was instructed to “get down here!” At that point, driving a car was no small feat as the edema, discoloration from ankle to knee and overall pain had reached an excruciating apex, which was aggravated all the more when depressing the clutch to shift gears.
Immediately, Dr. Ziegler got diuretics and blood thinners in me and performed some ultra sound treatments, which then gave way to Isotron treatments. In a nutshell, he worked on my ankle intensely, primarily with the Isotron—10 individual treatments total-- from that Thursday evening when I arrived through the following Monday when I went home in no pain, with no swelling or discoloration, no need for crutches, and with full mobility restored.
In fact, I felt so back-to-normal that I naively visited the Navy doctors bright and early Tuesday morning to report my progress, as well as my desire to return to work, figuring they would be keenly interested as to how my speedy recovery came about. As I said, I naively thought that. Their immediate reaction was to disavow any responsibility for me since I had received treatment from another physician. Not only did I go back to work, but that Tuesday night I full squatted 400 pounds for reps at the Philadelphia Athletic Club.
Most likely, a lot of lifters would have thanked Dr. Ziegler for the astounding ankle recovery, as well as the startling physical transformation and kept in touch. Learning more about the range of capabilities that the Isotron possessed became a unflagging quest for me. Perhaps the “ aha “ moment was when Dr. Ziegler informed me that he was using the negative-pulse feature of the Isotron—which was a different modality than he employed for pure muscle stimulation-- to heal my ankle. Suddenly, it dawned on me that the machine had a range of functions and uses, so my inquisitiveness was maximally stirred.
Massively helpful, too, was the fact that the doctor did not interact with me as though I were just a dumb bodybuilder, but more like something of an understudy in the Isotron curriculum. It goes without saying that the quality and quantity of information about not only the Isotron, but many other medical-topics he imparted over time was head-spinning.
Of course, this close rapport also provided me the opportunity to serve as his primary test subject when he gave Isotron demonstrations to movers-and-shakers. Typically, it was educational to see the reactions of these power types when watching me take some serious stimulation. Very frequently, the doctors and administrators, such as those from the Food and Drug Administration (FDA), just could not wrap their heads around the whole process.
Moreover, it could be equally educational to take in Dr. Ziegler's reactions to these educated eggheads. For example, when the folks from the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) did not appear to be warming up to the Isotron demonstration as Doc thought they should, midway through he started berating them with this sarcastic bromide: “Aren't you the same guys who spent $6,000 on a mattress last year!”
These examples notwithstanding, the brilliance of the Isotron could not be kept “under a rock.” Due to the fact that Dr. Ziegler was located near the country's seat of federal power, and he had friends in high places, word of mouth about his creation reached the local professional sporting world rather quickly. During one of my numerous visits to Doc's, someone from the Washington Redskins brought over their quarterback Sonny Jurgenson, who was suffered from elbow and shoulder miseries enough to adversely affect his on-field play.
Jurgenson, who because of his lengthy football career, had been through the athletic training mill and was,hence, skeptical in general, took one look at the Isotron and sort of disparagingly remarked, “One of those muscle jumpers, huh?” Nevertheless, he took a treatment on the machine. The following day his attitude had changed toward the unit as he called Dr. Ziegler to thank him and report that his shoulder and elbow were feeling much better.
Even big names from professional non-contact sports came to Ziegler because of the WOM about the Isotron. Golfer Deane Beman was not as physically powerful as his main rivals Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino. In brief, his “short game” was on par with theirs, but his driving was where he came up short. A period of time on the Isotron, and the sporting press was commenting on how he was suddenly breathing down the necks of Nicklaus and Trevino. In fact, there was an article in our local “Philadelphia Evening Bulletin” at the time showcasing Beman and his improvement. However, at the request of Dr. Ziegler there was no mention of him or the Isotron in the article.
Admittedly, in an effort to express the versatility and effectiveness of the Isotron, I have hopscotched somewhat from the theme of this article: basically, the Isotron as a pure muscle building tool. All I can tell you is that I was a veteran bodybuilder who would have NEVER risen above regional caliber had it not been for Dr. Ziegler's remarkable counsel and assess to his Isotron. Granted, I never won an overall Mr. America or Mr. USA title, but if you check the record, beginning in 1968, I never placed out of the top five or six at these events, and on a couple of occasions was second overall at the Mr. USA.
The bottom line is that my metamorphosis as a bodybuilder began at that 1965 Strength Health Picnic, which I mentioned at the outset. I really miss those S&H Picnics. And I'll finish waxing nostalgic with another obvious admission: I also really miss my friend Dr. John Ziegler.
Note: This is the third in a series of related articles on Doctor John Ziegler.
Note: This is the third in a series of related articles on Doctor John Ziegler.