Blood on the Barbell: Dan John


Blood on the Barbell is our new series describing workouts to do
when your woman left you, your momma' don't love you, and
even your dog doesn't care much for you.

Work Out, Let Go

The whole incident must've taken close to an hour, but it seemed
like just five minutes.

I'd taken our track and field team through Sardine Canyon on
Highway 6 down to Emery High School for a qualifying track meet.
The timing system had been based on the starting gun's flash
but problems with that system in the afternoon lighting had caused
the meet to drag on and on.

We got back on the bus late and I fell asleep. Descending into
just one more of those massive curving canyons, I woke up when I
heard my athletes yelling.

Off to the side of the road was a still smoking car that had
passed us not long before on another twisting turn. It had gone out
of control into oncoming traffic and spun back across our lane and
off into a canyon. A semi had jackknifed over the edge too, just
above the car.

As we slowed, our bus driver called 911 and I grabbed my first
aid kit. The car was empty, all the airbags deployed. I looked over
and there was the driver lying on the hill.

I'd brought a knife to a gunfight. Popping open my first aid
kit, I realized there was just enough medical supplies to pull out
a splinter, cover a blister, and clean a paper cut. This guy needed
a helluva lot more than aspirin.

So I pulled out some gauze, pushed back the flap of skin coming
off his skull, and just held on. As more people arrived, one guy
noted a big gash on his leg. "Do you want to look at
that?" he asked me. I did the kind of triage that Hawkeye
Pierce would envy. "No, I think I'll try to stop the bleeding
from his head."

Someone noted that behind me there was a small fire starting
under the car. I looked up and saw the semi leaning down the canyon
toward us, but not moving. Fortunately, a trucker dealt with the
fire and the real help showed up to relieve me.

As I climbed back up, I saw two buses filled with teenagers
looking down at all of this madness. Laid out flat next to the
buses was a dead elk the size of most cars, most likely the cause
of the accident. And then it occurred to me that both of my
daughters were in those buses as well as the children of my best

That's when I realized the awesome responsibility we put on
teachers and coaches on a typical day. On a school night in a dark
canyon, miles from the nearest restroom, I organized calls to home,
food issues, homework situations, and a bathroom break.

It occurred to me not long ago that nobody prepares you for this
stuff. Marriage, kids, bills, life. I can quote Gilgamesh at length
but I don't know crap about life. So, a couple of times a
week, I hide in my gym and let it go.

Planned Spontaneity

I used to work with a woman named Maxine. Maxine lives to follow
rules. She doesn't put up Christmas stuff until Christmas day
because it's still Advent until the day of Christmas. Then, she
puts up her stuff.

We all work with Maxines. If break starts at 10:15, they're the
ones that tell everyone you left early at 10:14 and, "Well,
I'm not going to say anything to anyone, but Dan John leaves
at 10:14 and still returns to his desk with the rest of

There are times in our lives where we live like Maxine. For many
of the T-Nation audience, we live there. If you're in school, your
life is like Maxine's. The bell rings, the clock ticks, and
you move into one desk and back into another.

You eat breakfast in the morning (hell, someone might even make it for you), lunch at noon, and dinner in the early
evening. You watch "must see TV" and you know the
characters on Heroes and Lost. Why? Because you watch
those damn shows....

For people living in the world of regular hours, regular meals,
and regular bowel movements, I have only one bit of advice: planned

The last thing you need in your training is more
"Maxine." How can you tell if you need a bit more
"randomness" in your training? Well, look around the gym.
If everybody there is the same group you see Monday, Wednesday, and
Friday from 4:00 to 5:30 and you're all doing the same workout,
then you need some spark.

You need some fun, some play. I know that M/W/F is
"International Bench Press, Curl, and Lat Pulldown Day"
but let's juggle things up a bit, shall we?

Learn some new skills. Learn the snatch and clean & jerk.
Sign up and compete in a highland games or strongman contest. Learn
some new lifts. Read the articles here at T-Nation and actually
apply the concepts. Hey, there's an idea!

The Workout Randomizer

Now, someone always asks, "Dan, how do you train during
track season?"

You see, I don't "train." Not during track
season. Instead, I storm into my home gym and "work out."

Please don't read this as "workout." It's
"work out." I work out my anger. I work out my rage. I work out my fears.

One of the things I do involves my "workout
randomizer" trick. Simply, I take a single die (singular of
dice) and I roll it three times. The die instantly changes my
workout approach.

This is how I do it:

The Three Rolls

• Roll One: Lift of the Day

• Roll Two: The Program

• Roll Three: The Finisher

The First Roll: The Day's Lift

Roll a one: Press

Roll a two: Squat

Roll a three: Snatch

Roll a four: Clean (or power curl)

Roll a five: Deadlift (any variation)

Roll a six: Clean and Jerk

The Second Roll: The Program

Roll a one: Litvinov Workout. Do
eight reps with the lift, then sprint.

Roll a two: 5-3-2

Roll a three: 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest. Do two exercises
with this workout. Front squat and overhead squat; bench press and
incline...that kind of thing.)

Roll a four: 3-3-2-1-1-1-1-1

Roll a five: Tabatas. Go
light, light, light here! Twenty seconds of lifting is followed by
ten seconds of rest for a total of eight circuits.

Roll a six: The Big 55. That's 55 reps of the lift you rolled.
Fifty-five singles or three sets of ten plus five sets of five,
whatever. Just make sure it adds up to 55.

The Third Roll: The Finisher

Roll a one: Sled sprints

Roll a two: Sleds carrying a rock

Roll a three: Rock runs

Roll a four: Sleds with a heavy pack

Roll a five: Sleds with a heavy pack carrying a rock

Roll a six: Farmers bars to death!

Note: Feel free to do anything you like here. A lot of this
depends on your equipment.

So, if my math skills are right, you have 216 workouts here. If
you want to do this three days a week, you might not repeat a
workout for years! It's just the thing for people who live in a
situation where there's a lot of structure.

But, there are others who can benefit from this too, like me
during track season. Recently, my teams competed in six track meets
in twelve days. That's six long bus rides, to the venue and back
home, and six long track meets. That's enough chaos for anybody.
The last thing I need in my life is more insanity!

So, during track season, I train three days a week. I do two
exercises each workout. I rest one minute per set. I do three sets
of eight. Yes, it's the most boring program the world has ever
seen. Here's exactly what I do:

Day One: Monday

Power Clean & Press: 1 power clean and 8

Three sets of eight with one minute rest between sets. If
there's a single key to the program, it's the one minute rest
period. By strictly monitoring the rest period, and obviously
keeping track of the weight, one can track progress.

Power Curls: 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest between

Using a curl grip, slide the weight to just above the knees and
curl-clean the bar. Let it come down under control. Again, get all
eight reps in, don't change the weights, and monitor the rest

Finish with some kind of ab work.

Day Two: Wednesday

Power Clean and Front Squats: 1 power clean and 8 front

Once again, 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest. Stay tall in the
front squats and keep your elbows high.

Overhead Squats: 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest

Using the wide snatch grip, lock the elbows with the weight
overhead, and squat down. Athletes who do this exercise will not
only develop flexibility, balance, and leg strength, but an
incredibly strong lower back.

Again, finish with some kind of ab work.

Day Three: Friday

Whip Snatches: 3 sets of 8 with one minute rest

With a wide snatch grip, stand up and hold the bar at crotch
level. Dip and snatch the bar overhead. Continue for 8 reps. You'll
be surprised how quickly this exercise can get into your blood. If
you want big traps, this is the king.

Clean Grip Snatches: 3 sets of 8 with one minute

With a clean grip, stand up and dip the bar to your knees. Then
explode up, driving the bar in one basic movement overhead. It's
like a clean and press, well, without the clean.

Ab work if you wish.

I get bored looking at it. But, it's exactly what I need during
my crazy times. If life is crazy, you can't have a crazy
workout, too. That's my knock against most perfect training
programs: rarely do they consider the life circumstances (social,
nutritional support, just plain reality) of the trainee.

That's the genius of one-set-to-failure machine training.
It's a perfect "do this" answer to a crazy life. Nautilus
and Curves really seem to resonate with people who want to work out
but can't afford one more drop of free will.

Sadly, I can't use machines. Um, let me say this nicely: I
have testicles... so I can't use machines. Sorry.

"Work Out" Ideas

None of that really answers the question of how I use weights to
"work out" life's issues. It involves a bar, a
kettlebell, or a sled. I have three "work out" ideas that
can serve you well when you need to vent with

1) The 100 Rep Challenge

I once entered a friendly "100 reps" competition. The rules were
simple: 100 singles with an exercise. Not 10 sets of 10, mind you,
100 singles.

The first time I tried it, I did squat snatches with 165 pounds.
That was insane. I lost about six pounds the next few days after
the attempt. I think most of it was skin off my hands.

Another time, I power cleaned 205 for 100. Another, I clean and
jerked 185 pounds. I also front squatted 255 for 100 singles.
Unrack, squat, rack, rinse and repeat.

It will take you a few hours. You will be

2) Ten Minutes of...

The next workout is based on the sport of kettlebell lifting. As
I type this, I'm reminded of last Saturday. The North American
Kettlebell Federation held its national championships here in Utah.
Without knowing what I was getting into physically, I entered the

It's a model of simplicity. Grab a bell. Snatch it as many times
as you can with one hand and, without putting the bell on the
shoulder, ground, or any other support, switch hands and continue.
For ten minutes.

The agony of time is apparent very quickly. I'd catch an
occasional peek at the timer and wonder how right Einstein was
about relativity. Every so often, my chest would heave out a sigh
that came right from my soul. Yet, upon finishing, my mind was
clear; the clutter had fled.

You can model this by taking a dumbbell or barbell, picking a
big move, and simply trying to do it for as long as you can. How
about ten minutes of jumping jacks? Oh, the next day... those
are your calves. Enjoy walking.

I'm thinking that an empty Olympic bar and ten minutes of clean
and press might just be the answer to all questions.

3) Fat Loss in Four Minutes, Revisited

My most misunderstood article of all time is my "Tabata
front squat" workout. It involved time. It involved hard work.
After 4000 emails that stated, "Dan, if this is so good, why
not do it every day?" I began headbutting my computer screen.
I did it until I saw pixels flying around my head.

The answer, of course, is this: Did you ever front squat for
four minutes with 95 pounds with twenty seconds "on" and
ten seconds of "rest?" No? Right, because then you'd know
why you don't do this everyday! You might be able to do it if
the fate of the world was in your hands, but short of that, once
every two weeks is plenty.

Yet I decided to simplify it a bit. Now I recommend

Front squat for 8 reps (quality, deep reps only
Rest exactly ten seconds

Front squat for 8 reps
Rest exactly ten seconds

Front squat for 8 reps
Rest exactly ten seconds

Front squat for 8 reps
Rest exactly ten seconds

Front squat for 8 reps
Rest exactly ten seconds

Front squat for 8 reps
Rest exactly ten seconds

Front squat for 8 reps
Rest exactly ten seconds

Front squat for 8 reps

Now, keel over.

The floor will feel cool. The ground is your friend. Love the
ground. Recover long enough to send me an email saying, "I
think I should do this everyday."

Goals? How about 135 on the bar and deep reps? I'd like to see
the video evidence of doing 225 with this variation. I've seen
65 pounds nearly kill a man.


That's the sad thing about these workouts. They don't
take long. You don't see tempo mentioned. You don't worry
about whether or not the rhomboids are working through the full
range of motion. You just try to survive.

And that's the lesson here, I guess: you try to survive.
The Big Book of Life doesn't cover dead elk next to
school buses. Sometimes, you have to wing it. As I held that
man's skull flap, I didn't worry about my torn calluses

Oh, I had to deal with all of this. I had to work out some
issues with a barbell and a quiet gym. For the record, I did front

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