Recently, a buddy of mine gave me some bad news. According to one of the gurus in the fitness industry, I have no squat. It's funny to think about that, really, as I look back on the four decades I've spent in the lifting world.
I thought back to March 30, 1974 when I ripped my knee apart and was told by the doctor, "Well, you're done for the year."
Six weeks later, I won the league title in the discus throw with a new personal record. When my coach asked me why I kept my sweat pants on when I threw, I told him that they made me feel lucky. The truth was that the second set of stitches ripped a little and my sweats had stuck to my leg.
When you sit back and look over a training career, you have to add it all up. It? Well, it's the good – the good coaching, quality supplements, restful sleep, and positive experiences – and the bad. For some, we can include the ugly, but I'm sure they're beautiful on the inside.
The bad? Oh, yes, the bad. The bad literally cripples us. From the injuries suffered, to the bad tips and lousy advice. I bet you wish you could forget the book that made you train one day every six months, or the site you visited that said "pound your head against a wall for time." And the entire block is still shaky after the supplement you tried that sent the hazardous material team to your house.
A Question for All
So, what's the single greatest issue facing each and every one of us? It's the same for the guys in kilts who throw rocks in snowstorms as those who email me because, and I quote, "I want to look good nekkid."
(For the record, I'd like to ask people, unless they're beautiful women, to stop asking me about looking good nekkid. And, for my health and the wellbeing of my marriage, stop sending pictures. Thank you.)
And now it's time to ask that all-important question:
Are you making progress?
It sounds so simple. It looks so simple. Turn to your neighbor and ask, "Are you making progress?" The man turning beet red and screaming as he behind-the-neck presses 65 pounds while dreaming of winning the Arnold Classic is waiting for you to whisper in his ear, "Are you making progress?"
Whisper away, I say!
You see, few of us are really making progress. I'd like to change that. In a recent workshop, I summed up three simple ways to measure progress for the typical trainee. Of course, no one is typical today – each of us has been told that we have a "special skill set," and you may even have a list of initials explaining why you're so damn unique – but you can at least tell the person next to you whether or not they're making progress.
Step #1: Drop a Pound
In the next 365 days, I'd like you to lose one pound of fat. That's right. In fact, I'll give you a program.
If a pound of fat is 3,500 calories and the "bathtub model" is correct (if you bring in the same amount of calories that you burn, your body will be the exact same forever), then I'm going to ask you to cut 9.5 calories a day for the next 365 days.
So, if there's actually a one-calorie drink like I see on the television, you merely need to cut back on 9.5 of them a day.
It's asking a lot, but you have to kick your Slenderella habit.
Oh, one pound of fat a year isn't good enough for you? Well, then, what'll it be? A pound a week? A month? Listen, this in itself is the number one reason why most people don't make any progress. They have no reference to anything past, present, or future, so trying to judge where to improve is just about impossible.
So, before you go hog wild on the "Dan John Lose One Pound of Fat a Year Program," do me a few favors:
1. Start keeping a training journal. Your numbers should go up. After gritting out more reps with the same weight, the weights should increase. If they don't, that's a problem.
2. I learned a really valuable lesson from the Velocity Diet: Before and after pictures are worth their weight in gold. I noted in my summary of the V-Diet that Clarence Bass takes an annual photo shoot, and the pressure of this event leads to keeping on the details.
3. I started keeping a food log after some advice from Josh Hillis. I have to admit that writing down the fact that I ate two old-fashioned doughnuts stopped me from wondering why I've been putting on weight.
With these three simple ideas, at least you'll know where you are when you begin. Then, cut those 9.5 calories and call me in a year with the amazing results!
For the truly dense, if you don't know where you're going, any road will get you there.
Step #2: Mark Your Lifting Territory
Measure your progress in the weight room one of three ways:
1. Your deadlift max increased.
2. You did more real pull-ups.
3. Your "three jump" increased.
Why the deadlift? Well, I have yet to see, besides straps (so don't use them), any aids that make deadlifts easier. In fact, I don't even know a trick that really works besides just getting stronger. Your buddies can help you bounce a bench off your chest, "help" you through the sticking point, and assist the top part "just a little," but I don't know anything that can aid a deadlift. So, when in doubt about your program, try a new max in the deadlift.
Caveat: Don't tell me that you did 405 for 20 reps with the trap bar deadlift, so that equates to a 700-pound deadlift. My good friend, Lane Cannon, followed that advice to do high-rep deadlifts (no, not from me) and discovered that a 405 trap bar deadlift equals a max of 455. It broke his heart (and nearly his back) to discover that ripped hands don't equal a big deadlift. Sorry.
The pull-up also fits this bill. A pull-up is done on a horizontal bar without your feet touching the earth. You start with absolutely straight arms and pull until your chin can rest on the top of the bar. Be as strict as possible. Why? Because no one gives a damn about how many pull-ups you can do. There's no professional league, no Olympic gold medal, nor any celebrity endorsements. It's a "measurement." So don't cheat and turn this into some kind of dance move, just use your arms and back.
An odd thing: In the past few years, I've noted (as have many others) that the kids who do the highest number of strict pull-ups tend to also have the best 40-yard sprint times. I'm thinking that improving pull-up numbers will improve speed. Why? I don't know, but those of you who test on the 40 should join this mad experiment and let me know what happens.
The final test I use is the "three jump." It's three continuous standing long jumps without a pause after the first and second jumps, so it looks like "boing, boing, boing." I used to use vertical jumps, but I found something interesting. A 118-pound freshman might jump 26 inches. As a senior weighing 188, the same kid will again jump 26 inches. So, did we fail the athlete over these four years? No. Simply, the vertical jump has two faults: There aren't enough "increments" and it takes little into account besides one pop.
The "three jump" has over 30 feet of increments. Going from 22 to 26 feet is rather obvious to both me and the athlete that something good has happened. Whereas going from 26 inches to 26 and a quarter is really hard to see. Moreover, if the athlete does the first long jump over eight feet and then rebounds with two straight four-foot jumps, I can make some guesses about what we need to work on next in the weight room. If you don't know, try upping the raw deadlift and back squat numbers for a couple of weeks and retest. If that doesn't bring up jumps two and three, suggest chess.
The bottom-line on these three tests is this: These are the least "fuzzy" tests I know. It's hard to cheat on any of them and any progress tells you that your program is at least somewhat on the right track.
It's like the football coach who went from a 0-13 "winning" record to 13-0 in one year. He suggested to me that it was the new strength program. He honestly thought it was the addition of more sets of something. I thought it had to do with the five excellent athletes he pulled in from out of state who were simply better than anybody else on the field. Call me crazy.
The impact of strength training on football and other team sports is as fuzzy as one can find in this game of strength and conditioning. However, show me a program that increases my deadlift, pull-ups, or "three jump" in a month and I'm listening.
Step #3: Give Your CNS a Call
Have you checked in with your central nervous system (CNS) lately? Years ago, the late Stefan Fernholm showed me this interesting test where you'd take a pencil every morning and put as many dots on a page as you can in ten seconds. Let's say you knock out 40 to 45 every day for two weeks. Then, one morning, you struggle to hit 30. Now, making dots on a paper is pretty simple, but you're down 25%. Stefan noted to me, "This is bad."
Later, my friend Mike Rosenberg made a little computer program for me where he used the space bar as the pencil and added a built-in timer. For two years, I started my day with a ten-second test. And, after charting all of this, it was true: When my numbers dropped, I ended up getting sick and hurt.
Clearly, the reduced performance on my little finger tap test was indicative of CNS fatigue.
After that, when I saw my numbers drop, I eased my training, increased my protein, and took care of the little things like sleep, hot tubs, and resting. It was a miracle.
Not long ago, I bought the Younger Next Year journal (I take my own advice, at times) and began noting my morning heart rate. It isn't as fun as the "tap test," but I noted some interesting things. First, my typical morning heart rate is 54. When I give blood, it "shoots up" to 68. I'm 50 and change and haven't done cardio since Jimmy Carter was president, so I have to be careful when I read those charts on the machines in most gyms. I might be okay to ramp this ancient heart up over 120.
Second, I'm not sure what my small, daily fluctuations in heart rate tell me. While at the Olympic training center, I was told that a 10% rise in morning heart rate indicates overtraining. Usually, 10% higher than normal means I have gas. It's a good thing to do, but please let me be clear about that, I'm not sure yet what that heart rate bump might mean.
Most of us miss the importance of the entire body's relationship to fatigue. I call all of this "CNS fatigue," but that's about as correct as listening to my morning gas. Yet, when I discuss it in groups, many people seem to know what I mean.
"Out of nowhere, my typing (or texting) skills just fall apart."
Not surprising because our fingers are filled with nervous connections. Some of our most complex movements are the simple ones we take for granted, like typing or picking our nose.
"I get edgy, bitchy, fill-in-the-blank when I start to overtrain."
Yep. We all do. You can only ask the body to do so much before it starts banging its way into your emotional and social life. Trust me, don't be the jerk at the party.
"I just can't go heavy."
You can always get medium sets of medium reps with medium weights. It's like what Socrates tells Dan Millman; basically, this is like lukewarm tea, "the Devil's brew!" Medium is the death song for training. You can train medium (also known as "crappy") for years and years while making no progress. Let's be honest, go find average in everything. Buy the damn pale green, four-door Ford Escort of your dreams and go wave at hot babes. Get all C's and then ask your counselor, "What's my skill set?"
In other words, training a lot at lousy is still lousy. If you "can't go heavy," back off until you can!
I'm out of my league on this CNS stuff, but most people who've been in the game long enough understand the point. Don't keep training when taking a workout off might be better in the long run. If you've been through disastrous training weeks because you insisted on going and going 'til you're gone, you'll see the wisdom in this approach.
We're Talkin' Progress
Sometimes an illness, or a blown knee, leads to breakthroughs that few people expect because it drives them from their "more is better" training zone. Misplacing a pound of fat a year is far better than what 99% of most trainers are currently doing.
Remember, it's about progress.