I have a box in my storage room that contains all my training journals. Besides sets and reps, I toss in what's going on in my life. Often, I find long essays about the future, lists about "what works," and funny little tidbits about my life that I would've quickly forgotten had I not wrote them down.
It hit me when I picked up this box the other day that I've been recording workouts since 1971, five years after first picking up a weight. That's forty years! I started to think about the lessons I've learned and, before I knew it, I had a list of forty lessons that I had to learn the hard way.
Editor's Note: The first 20 of Dan's lessons can be found here.
One thing that Laree Draper, wife of former Mr. Universe Dave Draper, finds interesting about me is that I sit in the front row at conferences. Each year I go to camps, clinic, workshops, conferences, and gatherings. I buy nearly every new book and DVD on the market. I read and comment on a lot, although as a rule I only comment after I read something and only universally after I've tried it.
Now, this might seem counter to Lesson 20 ("When reading something over the top, that has the markings of "secret" or "exotic" or even "expensive," don't leap in with both feet and break your ankles), but as the saying goes, an intelligent person can hold conflicting opinions in his head.
Here's the thing: I appreciate Mike Boyle's insights about single-leg training. Why? Because I've listened to him talk about it three times. I like his logic, I like his decision making process. Moreover, I also like the hour-long conversation we had discussing this topic.
I strongly believe in spending money to get exposed to the cutting edge of what's going on in the field of strength and conditioning. I read and reread books, magazines, eBooks, and blog posts, trying to cut away the extraneous and hone the message.
It costs me money to do this. And I'm okay with that.
This is so obvious I'm embarrassed to write it. I've had the opportunity to sit with some fairly high level bodybuilders and train with some of the best of all time. I can promise you that the training tools of the elite bodybuilders are basically the same weapons you use in the gym.
When it comes to diet, though, you need to listen up. There's this thing called "protein" and that seems like the only thing you need to think about when cutting fat. Carbs and even fat becomes a misty island far off in the distance that one may or may not see again for a while.
These guys are serious. My friend Lance once described his sodium loading cycle for an upcoming contest and it was like sitting in the front row of a chemistry class, except I'd missed the first few months. He lost me at "hello." Lance was eating chicken breasts, which isn't surprising, but also a hefty amount of fish. Now, to call this "fish" is a reach as there was no salt, no seasoning, and really no nothing.
One of my coaching principles is "success leaves tracks." If you really want good advice about fat loss, talk to a competitive bodybuilder. Avoid the weekly magazine advice you see at the supermarket check-stand and get some real information.
This one is near and dear to my heart. I've an unbending training principle that's as old as medicine. "First, do no harm." I think any coach, program, or training system that injures people is wrong. If you're an athlete in a sport that has an age or year ceiling (high school or college eligibility) and you lose a year to an injury, you don't get that back.
My doctor said something interesting. If you're 75 and have a major joint repair, its purpose is to literally to help you go to the toilet on your own. At 55, the same surgery might ensure a quality of life that will keep you young. At 15, this surgery is a tragedy for an athlete and one may never be able to compete again at the higher levels of sport.
Recovery from injury and surgery may take tremendous resources to attain. Besides the financial toll – which can be overwhelming – there's a physical and emotional toll from injuries. I've been on crutches several times in my life and there's not a single aspect of life that's easy on crutches. From bowel movements to escalators, every action and move has to be thought through before attempting it.
Again, sure, you can get injured, but you may not have another recovery. In high school, my mom and sister could help out if I was hurt. When my daughters were little and I had wrist surgeries, I had to buy shoes without laces because when my wife wasn't around, no one was there to tie them!
Plan your training with intelligence and foresight. Train hard, but try to avoid things that can't be fixed without a surgical team.
There's no question that running hills or doing Tabata front squats is the "best way" to heat up your system, burn fat, and make the world a safer place. However, I think we've lost sight of the importance of "easy," especially in the fat loss race.
The Tabata protocol comes out to 3:50 minutes a week, as the last ten-second rest doesn't really mean anything. And you can make progress in those four minutes. However, don't throw out the importance of long, easy cardio like walks or heavy hands. A long walk won't hit your fat stores like a furnace or whatever the ad copy says, but it will give your body a chance to recover and perhaps find some gentle, easy ways to lose the muffin top.
The principle here is to move away from "either/or" in strength and conditioning. My career has been built on the idea that "everything works, for a while" and while Tabatas might be fun to watch, there's nothing sinful about a nice long walk. Moreover, like hiking, long walks tend to be more open ended, and rarely does one look at the watch worrying about "getting it all in."
Keep those tough HIIT workouts, the hill sprints and the hard stuff, but don't forget to keep those long lazy "workouts" as part of your palette.
Train hard, but enjoy competition. Compete hard, but enjoy your training. One key point that must be kept in mind always is to never judge a workout or competition as "good" or "bad" solely on that single day.
I often tell my new throwers, "Sorry, you just aren't good enough to be disappointed." Judging one's worth as an athlete over the results of a single day is just idiocy and will lead to long-term failure. Epictetus, the Roman Stoic philosopher tells us, "We must ever bear in mind – that apart from the will there is nothing good or bad, and that we must not try to anticipate or to direct events, but merely to accept them with intelligence."
If that's too complex, I have a favorite story.
A farmer had a horse and a son. One day, the horse died. All the neighbors said, "Oh, how bad." The farmer said, "We'll see." The next day, the neighbors got together and bought the farmer a new horse. They all said, "That's a good thing." The farmer said, "We'll see." The following day, the horse threw the son while trying to break the horse. The son broke his arm. The neighbors all said, "Oh, how bad." The farmer said, "We'll see." The next day, the army came into the town, drafted all the young men, save the son with a broken arm. They all died in the first battle. The neighbors said to the farmer, "Oh, how good it was for your son to have a broken arm." The farmer said, "We'll see."
So, get in the gym and train. Finish your plan and shower off. Then, be sure to come back and do what Woody Allen says and "Show Up!"
When I was in the ninth grade, one quarter of my training was the military press, and I made progress. Then I dropped it. My progress stalled. When I met Dick Notmeyer, literally everything was over my head and I made progress again.
As I aged, I dropped the overhead stuff and everything went to my belly. I started up with one-arm kettlebell presses and my waistline shrunk back in weeks to a reasonable girth.
If Janda was right and certain muscles weaken with age (and he is, trust me), a quick study of that group should give you an idea of why you should press.
- Gluteus maximus
- Deep abs
- External obliques
There's no question that one-arm overhead presses work the obliques better than all those odd side bends and twisties I see in the gym every day. Now, you might argue that the glutes don't work, but try to press one-handed anything over 100 pounds with a sleepy butt. I've tried it many times and I think I may have done it once.
When in doubt, press overhead.
I hate workouts like 10 sets of 10. For one thing, I never remember what set I'm on. I know I'm supposed to use matches or cards or something, but I'm old and never remember them, either.
I like ladders. A ladder is a series of reps that usually go up. The first set is always easy as the reps and load are low. The last set seems hard, but it's odd because you feel like you recover in an instant. The standard ladders are:
- 1-2-3-1-2-3. You do a single, rest, a double, rest, a triple, rest, a single, ad infinitum!
- And my favorites:
I love 2-3-5-10 for hypertrophy. If you do that cluster five times, that's 100 quality reps and you'll storm through the doubles and the triples with practically no rest. You'll finish strong and pumped.
2-3-5-2-3-5-2-3 is my favorite variation of the standard 5 x 5 protocol. Again, how quickly you get through the reps and the ease of adding more plates is a pleasant surprise.
I know of no easier way to add volume than to do ladders.
These are mantras I repeat to myself and to my athletes. I've won National Championships in lifting and throwing on the very last lift or throw. I do it with so much regularity that Don Bailey, a good friend and fellow thrower, has told people I do it on purpose for "the theater." It's not true, but I do like the point.
It always works well in training. Charlie Francis, the late, great sprint coach, would end workouts when his athletes got a personal record in anything. His idea was "there you go – you peaked – now rest." That is an extreme, but I wish I would've known this when I was younger. Injuries tend to show up when you want to add just a little more to your lifetime best. Learn to celebrate success and keep improving over the long haul.
This skill has to be practiced. You have to draw a line in the sand and say, "This is it. This is the last thing I do today and it's going to be my best effort." Now, I know most lifters don't do this, but I also know that most don't make any gains!
Always strive to leave practice and workouts "on top."
This is a new idea for me. After a hard workout, come back the next day and, at a low level, move through the basic patterns of the human body in a kind of movement massage. The loads are light, the reps are unimportant, but the movement is key. With an adult, I often recommend up to three of these easy recharge workouts a week. It can be as simple as doing the basic patterning movements.
- Loaded carry
Follow with an easy walk. It doesn't have to be much, but you'll thank me as your mobility, flexibility, and patterning improve without much residual soreness.
Dick Notmeyer smiled and nodded as I told him about my weightlifting career. I thought I'd done it all. I had a big bench and could do pull-ups with the best of them.
Dick stopped me. "Here, you're going to do snatches and clean and jerks." That was basically it. For two years, I did the Olympic lifts in the summer sun and foggy blindness. It was rep after rep after rep. And I made tremendous progress.
When Pavel came out with "Power to the People" and suggested five days a week of deadlifts and side presses, a few brave souls took on the challenge and expanded their work capacity. His "Program Minimum," of nothing but swings and get-ups, is still my "go to" recommendation for someone exploring the goals of general conditioning.
In the book, "Beyond Bodybuilding," he sets up a hypertrophy program consisting of five days a week of deadlifts and bench presses under the direction of deLorme and Watkins, the founders of what we now call progressive resistance exercise.
I'm a fan of minimal workouts. The biggest reason is there is no wiggle room for "coulda, woulda, shoulda." The very essence of this training idea is "do this!" It's not the kind of training for someone who needs music, TV, Internet, and conversation during sets. Folks, it's dull work – actually, it's work.
Every so often, try two weeks of just two movements. Make the combination cover the bulk of the body and strive for mastery of the movements. It can change your career.
My friend, Josh Hillis, notes that when a woman can do three pull-ups and deadlift or squat 135 for five, almost universally they're around 19% bodyfat, which is what he calls "Rockstar Hot." Since he told me this, I've been carefully watching the physiques of women, although to be honest I've been doing that since early puberty.
There's another issue. Women who can do three pull-ups and show some numbers on the barbell can also go out after a clinic and have a good time. Recently, a top female physique contestant told me at a bar that, "Oh, I can go out and party and not watch every single bite when I'm not peaking." Unlike the "skinny fat" women who you normaly see in the weekly magazines, this woman was strong enough that when she trained her body had to gather up a lot of resources to adapt and recover.
What does this mean for you? I've seen it many times at workshops and clinics. The skinny, weak guys bring their own weighed chicken breasts and magic protein bars for the whole day. When we do something physical, they fade into the corn rows. The big, strong guys who've never seen a strongman event will jump in and flail around dangerously close to death and dismemberment, but fight the good fight with the anvil, axle, or stone. Then, they eat passionately and without apology.
In other words, as Brett Jones taught me, absolute strength is the glass. Everything else is the liquid that goes into the glass. The bigger the glass, the bigger everything else can be for you.
So get stronger and eat more without freaking out about it.
Twice at the Olympic training center, we were asked to take some time to do an "autobiography." Really, we simply listed the best and worst of our athletic career. We were allowed to add life events, too.
I still have my lists. They're odd to look at from a decade-plus distance, but I still smile when I see "Turkey Day Football" and "Picked to Start for Brentwood," and "Winning hit in 1967" mixed in with performances that are worthy of national ranking. I don't want to address the "Worst" list, but that was the point.
After a fairly long wait for everyone to finish, we were asked to look at the lifetime lows.
"Put your finger on it," we were told. Now, look at the high side and see if there's a match.
Just do it.
Incredibly, for the bulk of us, every low, every "worst moment," lead directly over to a best moment. We have to keep Lesson 25 in mind (don't judge everything), but the lesson was clear. Our lows are often the steppingstone to the greatest moments of our lives.
I've used this little exercise for my athletes and in my classrooms. Sadly, there are some who argue that they have very few "best" moments. It should come as no surprise that these timid souls often have no "worst" moments either.
I have an extremely damaged tiny spiral notebook. It's red and falling apart. Since 1973, I've been keeping quotes in here that inspire me.
- "The guy with the biggest butt lifts the biggest weights." — Paul Anderson
Positive mental outlook
Honest hard work — "Arnold's Three-Part Secret"
- "Greatness comes to those that dare to sweat, dare to strain, and dare the pain." — Dick Notmeyer
- "Quality is the key, not quantity" — Bill Koch
- "Never, never give up. Never give up." — Winston Churchill
- "Yield to all and you soon have nothing left to yield." — Aesop
I also include training programs from people that I admire and odd snips of ideas that still are forming in my head.
Here's one final one.
"Do something different, something unique; make yourself stand apart."
I wrote that as a senior in high school in my English class to answer something along the lines of, "What do you want to be when you grow up?"
I was lucky to have the magazine "Strength and Health" growing up. It wasn't just bodybuilding information; this magazine really respected all areas of strength. So several times a year I could read about throwers or football players. An article on a discus thrower named Gary Ordway came at a great time in my life as I'd embarked on an attempt to be a thrower and they listed his workouts. I'll only list his top lifts in his preseason workout:
- Squats: 505 x 3
- Deadlift: 455 x 3
- Power clean: 285 x 2
- Incline press: 325 x 3
- Sit ups: 4 sets of 25
As a kid inclining under 100 pounds, the direction was clear. I needed to get stronger. I knew the path – lift weights.
To be a strength athlete, you have to engage in a progressive program to lead you to your goals. The nice thing about lifting is the numbers are crystal clear. I'm benching 95 and you're benching 405. I have to get stronger!
This is why I still like the Olympic lifts and the deadlift for comparing generations. The O lifts and the DL have essentially stagnated for the past twenty years. Certainly there are amazing lifts, but there's been less than stellar improvement across the board.
My good friend, Marty Gallagher loves to point out that outside of gear (in this case, squat suits, squat briefs, bench shirts, wraps and the like), there's been almost no progress in powerlifting. Yes, there are exceptions, but like O lifting the sport has slowed to a crawl.
Find out what the best are doing. Look at what you're doing. Now shrink the gap.
This is a criticism that gets tossed in my face sometimes. I'm a snob, a prude if you will, when it comes to track and field. I love reading how this magic program, device, or herb is the "do all and be all." Fine. Take your profits, invest in some athletes, and prove it at a track meet.
The response is always something along the lines of, "Well, this isn't sports specific," or, "Track depends on perfection of biomechanics." Okay, fine.
It's easy to convince someone that a weight "feels lighter." It's not so easy to add three feet to the shot put or drop time off the 200-meter sprint.
If your idea does work for sprinters, throwers, and the rest of track and field, I'm going to sit in the front row and take notes. Even if I disagree with everything you say, if you get it right in Track and Field, and probably swimming, too, you're right and I'll listen to this grand scheme.
This looks like a rant, but it drives me crazy. Moms show up to practice and ask, "Are the boys hydrating?" No, first perspiration, then hydration.
The area from your hips to your shoulders is now the "core." Today, Grandma asks me if discus throwing "builds your core." Is shot putting "functional?" To play a one-hour game of soccer – or 20 minutes of standing and 40 minutes of picking daisies – my daughter used to get a sports drink, an orange, cookies, and a treat. This was to counteract the incredible efforts of a group of seven-year-old girls who usually forgot which goal to kick the ball towards.
I'm tired of it. Let's bring an end to this pseudo-quasi-scientific language that's permeating youth sports, recreation, and fitness. American children are getting fatter at a rate that no one predicted twenty years ago and yet parents flock around their kids like paparazzi around this week's latest Lindsay Lohan scandal.
It's called "water." Deal with it.
I have an axiom when asked for advice. "Well, in four years, you're going to be four years older no matter what, but if you go to college, you'll have your degree." Or, "In thirty years, you're going to be thirty years older no matter what, but if you save ten percent of your income, you'll have a comfortable retirement."
The longer you put off something like "squat mastery" or eating clean, the more you'll regret it later. Now, I don't know when and what's going to happen, but life seems so much easier when you master the basics, make yourself a slave to good habits, save ten percent of your income, and nurture quality relationships "now" versus "later."
Get the degree, finish the thesis, buy good insurance, see your dentist twice a year, and do all the boring things of life as often as you can. Trust me, your health – financial, physical, spiritual, and emotional – will benefit from taking care of business early on.
Some of the athletes I first worked with are now sneaking up on age fifty and two are already over the half-century mark. Whenever we talk, the most common "gift" that I bestowed on them was this understanding to get 'er done.
Aerobic dance continues to flourish in community centers. There's a lot of "woos" as you walk past. What you don't see is progress. For the record, if I took the introductory class, I would get the workout of a lifetime. Why? Because I would suck at it! Fat loss exercise, however, and it breaks my heart to say this, is about being completely inefficient.
Aerobic dance and most of the TV offers work for a few weeks. Then, you get good at it and progress stops. This is why I like the kettlelbell swing for fat loss. It's a massive body move that eats up a ton of energy and you move nowhere. In fact, as you improve, you probably attack the movement harder, causing you to still move nowhere.
Len Schwartz's HeavyHands was the same principle. You load up a couple of dumbbells in each hand and go for a walk. With these big pumping arm movements, you waste a ton of energy up and down and turn an easy walk in the park to an extremely wasteful use of energy. And you burn fat.
I love the combination of swings and push-ups, or goblet squats and push-ups for fat loss. The secret to fat loss is that wonderful pause after finishing the push-up when you have to get back up. It would be "better" to press as that would save you energy, but in this case, that's "bad."
For fat loss exercise, discover things you're terrible at and do them. If you've never skated before, pad up and see how a quarter mile can ruin you for hours. As you get better technically, find something else! It's the polar opposite of getting good at a sport or skill, but this is why consistent fat loss is so elusive for most people.
I said this at the Test-Fest in Washington, DC, and it still holds true. I've argued for years that taking a weekend to listen and learn is far better than doing the "same old, same old" thing in the workout.
And as I said that at Test-Fest, a guy walked in with his wife beater, his belt, and his little bag filled with gym gear. I couldn't have planned it better. There's a need for all of us to humble ourselves and open up to some new ideas. You probably should hang on to 80% of what you know, but be willing to throw out that other 20% and fill it with something that will get you to the next level.
This sounds similar to "put your money where your mouth is," but there's more to this. I think the hotel bar after the talk or the lunch between sessions or the hallway outside the conference is an opportunity to grow in ways you can only imagine.
You might get a chance to fill out a napkin (don't lose that napkin) with a training program from one of the great names in the iron game. You might get invited to something like a dinner or a party and meet people that will change your life. You must go to these events to understand the idea behind the ideas you see presented here at T Nation.
It's a rare day I don't think of my mom and dad, Coach Ralph Maughan, some of my heroes, and some of my friends who are no longer alive. I carry on, as best I can, but it's becoming woefully obvious to me that my torch is burning dim and I'll be passing it along sooner than later.
That's why I write. That's why I keep lists. That's why I answer the same questions over and over and over again.
Our time on this precious earth is short. Good health and a measure of strength can help you live a better quality of life. And that's the greatest lesson of my life.