Band of Meatheads

The Glories of Group Training

I have this odd relationship with the local blue jays.

Every night, before I go to bed, I put out some peanuts. In the morning, I wake up to them squawking and barking while they hop and pop on my balcony. This noise wakes me up and I start my day.

Now you can argue that I should invest in an alarm clock, and, honestly, I use one if I have to get to the airport by five. But, on most days, my feathered friends wake me up pretty much at the same time. Of course, if I don't put out peanuts, I get up earlier as they object mightily to my oversight.

You see, I believe in community. So much so, that I'm going to leap into the key point of this article here: You'll never make your long-term goals in fitness without community.

Now before I go too far, you can see where a future, seemingly contradictory article will be heading: You can't make your goals unless you have the courage to train alone. But that article is for another time.

Since all of us need to spend a little time on both sides, let's take a look at the difference a community makes.

The Three P's

There are three "P's" in training in groups, and each is important, so important that you may gloss over them and ignore the fundamental importance of the concepts of path, passion, and program.

Let's look at each.


The Path

Although I don't use it professionally, I have a master's degree in history. It really does come in handy in my social life, even though I don't make money from it.

You see, as you age, you tend to become fascinated by certain odd things. I have a friend who reads everything he can find on Custer's Last Stand, so much so that he has a list of names of his friends whose last names are somehow mentioned in the musters of the battle. I can't imagine anything sexier than meeting a woman at a party and telling her that someone with her family name died at Little Big Horn.

So, what happens is that people will begin to talk about their interest in Little Big Horn or D-Day or the Battle of Hastings or whatever, and I follow along well. But, when the Little Big Horn guy talks to the guy who's fascinated by the assassination of JFK, they have a disconnnect.

As my professors taught me, I'll teach you: They don't understand the connections; they don't see the links.

How will this concept help you? Well, we're still in a time where people think that one kind of training is "right" and another is "wrong." That's moral theology (and, sadly, I'm your guy for this, too). Even "better" or "worse" doesn't help much here. We're in a time where you can get into an Internet war simply by telling people that you tried an abdominal exercise or you did five sets of four rather than five sets of five.

That's not community; that's a pissing match.

One of the great things about going to gyms, attending workshops, or competing in a strength contest is that you'll get exposed to the path. One of the reasons I feel confident in discussing weight training is that I had a long, fun career as an Olympic lifter, I've lifted in a powerlifting meet, taken my place in a strongman comp, tossed a few cabers, and allowed my abs to be seen on computer screens all over the world.

The path is an interesting training tool. As I tell people at every workshop, "Success leaves tracks." Why not save yourself a lot of time, effort, and simple stupidity by asking someone who's been there before?

Honestly, if you want fat loss, ask a bodybuilder. I recently sat down with fat-loss expert Josh Hillis, and in five minutes, he shared with me the "secrets" of fat loss. I'll share just one: You need a food log.

According to Josh, literally every approach to fat loss works as long as you simply stick to it. So, rather than ten minutes on a treadmill to soak his clients for more money, you'll find Josh going over their weekly log. If the log isn't filled in, Josh's clients don't do anything until it is.

I became a better coach by asking Josh that simple question. If you want to bulk quickly, ask the people who've bulked up quickly. People like me. It involves high-rep squats and lots of complexes. And no, you can't do those workouts very often. How do I know this? I've walked that path. I've made a lot of mistakes, and now I can teach you how to follow the right route.

Don't try to invent a hodgepodge program of "a little this and a little that" with an emphasis on the latter. Follow the best. And how do you get all of that great information? Ask!

The Passion

The next key for understanding the role of community in fitness training is passion. As I've noted before, its roots are in a Latin word meaning "to suffer." I love training. I really do. And, because of my great love for training, I also enjoy the suffering. As I recount the scars, the surgeries, and the battles of my athletic career, I can feel the surge of the rising heartbeat and the hair standing on end. Like Patton said, "By God, I love it."

Yet, it's hard to get that fired up about three sets of eight with a medium weight on a military press machine. So, to fire one's passion, meet with a group of buddies and train.

I've had the rare opportunity of having Mark Twight bring over the elite of the elite to train with me in my backyard. True, they have a skill set in some things that simply stagger me, but lifting weights and pulling sleds simply staggers them. So, while the meat is on the grill, we sweat, strain, and vomit.

Each week, I meet a group of mostly middle aged (I'm being polite) people with a love of conditioning. My friend, Dan Martin, calls this concept "virtual stone soup." I realize now that most people don't know this fine story, so here's a bland example:

"Some travelers come to a village, carrying nothing more than an empty pot. Upon their arrival, the villagers are unwilling to share any of their food with the hungry travelers. The travelers fill the pot with water, drop a large stone in it, and place it over a fire in the village square. One of the villagers becomes curious and asks what they're doing. The travelers answer that they're making 'stone soup,' which tastes 'wonderful,' although it still needs a little bit of garnish, which they're missing, to improve the flavor.

The villager doesn't mind parting with just a little bit of carrot to help them out, so it gets added to the soup. Another villager walks by, inquiring about the pot, and the travelers again mention their stone soup hasn't reached its full potential yet. The villager hands them a little bit of seasoning to help them out. More and more villagers walk by, each adding another ingredient. Finally, a delicious and nourishing pot of soup is enjoyed by all."

Our communal training sessions are of this variety. We all bring tools from equipment to life experiences to sandwiches. We gather and train, work on issues, and improve a little. We fall in love again with movement and muscle. We reignite our passion for all of this.

I've been training groups for so long that sometimes I ignore basic principles that I learned the hard way years ago. One of the keys to working in a group, especially in something physical, is to understand that you – and perhaps this is even literally true – become part of an organism.

A group becomes a living being.

You may have found yourself running "gassers," or "finishers" in a sport and realized that there's no way you'd ever put yourself through this lung-bursting crap again. But, with a team of like-minded lunatics, off you go again at the sound of the whistle. It's underappreciated, and one of the "secrets" of really moving up to the next level.

Something as simple as having a training partner waiting for you at the gym will pull you up and out the door. If you know that a dozen people are eager to work with you, you'll probably get there early.

That's why group training has such a big impact on your long-term success – you do things you might not normally do, even with the best intentions. And, we humans have this odd ability to handle more suffering if we do it in a group. Moreover, it also seems more fun. I've had people vomit on my shoes and tell me "thank you" for the opportunity to do the work.


The Programming

Everyone seems to be an expert at programming now. I've decide that I'm clueless about it, as I get emails almost daily asking me for a program to do this or that or this. I can't seem to help anyone in this area for a number of good reasons. First, I don't know the first thing about you or your situation. Second, when I say do X and you do Y, thinking that Y is X, I'm so lost in the algebra that I can't catch up to you.

Which is why I love programming with a group.

First, no one asks what I think is the most idiotic and impossible to answer question, "How much rest time between sets?" The answer is somewhere between seconds and years.

There's an excellent training tactic from Steve Ilg where he has the athlete keep contact with the barbell or dumbbell during rest periods. Yes, simply keep touching the bell. It's a dynamic change of mindset to simply not lose contact with the tool. If you're going to have twenty-minute rest periods, this might not be your technique. In group work, rest periods tend to last as long as it takes someone else to finish.

Second, and this might seem odd, but the program changes because of the suggestions of the group membership.

If someone needs work on a movement or a body issue, a simple, "Hey, can we do some deadlifts, too?" becomes a game changer. If you keep the number of people around five to twelve, you'll find that most of the plans coming into the workout change completely as people simply ask to work on specific issues. Not surprisingly, most of us need the same work, too.

Most of us know the great group programs, or at least you should know them:

I Go/You Go: If there was nearly a perfect program, I'd put "I go/you go" in the conversation. Not only does it restrict and focus rest periods, it keeps everyone engaged by assisting the partner at some level. Need more rest? Then try "I go/you go/they go" by adding a third partner.

The Chain and the Staggered Chain: The chain has multiple meanings, but I've always been a fan of using the term to describe the kind of workout where you start with one dumbbell, move it a few times, and then move to the next dumbbell, repeating the movement up (and down, if you wish) the rack. This workout is also called "the rack" and "up and downs," as you can probably imagine.

Follow the Leader: Boy, has this gem been lost the past few decades. This was a standard way to train when I was coming up, and it's basically vanished. I do a movement for a certain number of reps, the next guy steps up and matches it, and then we move to something else. Just follow the person ahead of you and keep up.

With the old Universal gyms, this method could accommodate up to thirty people with the simple instruction of "just do what the guy ahead of you is doing." It was a full-body workout that was easy to follow and easy to keep organized.

A Group at Work

Let's look at an actual workout based on these principles. Recently, my Coyote Point group used all of these principles. Here's what we did:

First, we have two rules: Don't get hurt. (Okay, here comes an old, beat up joke, but pay attention. The overriding rule here is not to get hurt. The joke is simple: You ask what the second rule is and I say, "Don't get hurt." There's your ab workout as you laugh hysterically for several minutes. Or not.)

Second, part of the workout is driving to the park, unloading your equipment, catching up on the lives of the others, and talking about what we're going to eat in a while.

And lastly, we strive to do every human movement in our training. This is a principle I've based my career on.

To warm-up, we do a variety of walks and carries with reasonable kettlebells and a series of basic lifts, stretches, and mobility work. Nothing is too serious. One thing that I've been adding recently is a small version of Litvinovs as part of our warm-up. After either an easy set of swings or goblet squats, we take a stride – a medium speed, sprint-like run for 40 meters or so. The goal is to get four to eight of these as a platform for our later work.

I Go/You Go Training

I think that this ratio of work, literally one to one, is a valuable hypertrophy-training trick. You have just enough rest to catch your breath before you're back at it. Don't go heavy here, but for movements that'll give you a pump, this is ideal. I love these for basic bodybuilding moves (please don't make me say "curls"), but they also work for harder things like squat variations and some presses.

If you want to see how interesting this can be, get a partner and do a machine overhead press. Agree to a weight and simply go back and forth, I go/you go fashion for several minutes. Note how quickly you feel the heat in your shoulders.


Staggered Chain

In a perfect world, you could train like I train people. We randomly, without any concern for weight, toss our kettlebells into a long line on the ground (you can do this with dumbbells, too). Then, starting with the left hand, do an exercise (I prefer the clean and press), and walk down the line of kettlebells switching hands each time. Next time, start with your right hand. As long as you do an even number of times through, you'll balance out both hands.

Recently, we laid out 15 kettlebells in a row and did each three times for two loops. The number of presses in five minutes was ninety reps. This is the way to do volume work!

Follow the Leader

If you're in a gym, you have an ideal way of group training, and you don't even know it. You can also do this without a group by simply training on any piece of recently vacated equipment.

Not long ago, we did this variation with a group of twenty people at my old facility:

  • Farmer's walk
  • Sled pull
  • "Judy" carry (Judy is a 150-pound bag named after someone I don't care for very much)
  • Kettlebell swings
  • Military presses
  • Easy run (to a playground)
  • Pull-ups (on a jungle gym)
  • Easy run
  • "Judy" carry
  • Sled pull
  • Farmer's walk

By the time I finished, some of the group was just beginning. I noticed that everyone seemed to follow the person in front of them perfectly, and there was virtually zero instruction. By the time the last person finished, most of the equipment was already put away and the meat was on the grill.

What Those Little Birdies Taught Me

There's a great lesson in my odd relationship with the blue jays, the peanuts, and waking up: We all seem to get what we want with less effort than going at it alone. Use the same concept to take yourself to your goals.

Dan John is an elite-level strength and weightlifting coach. He is also an All-American discus thrower, holds the American record in the Weight Pentathlon, and has competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting and Highland Games. Follow Dan John on Facebook