Garage Days

I've been lifting weights since my Aunt Florence died during the early 1960's. She left my brothers and me a little bit of money, so we invested in a Sears Ted Williams Bar and started lifting weights. I'm pretty sure our technique was poor and our programs were probably worse, but we were lifting weights.

The bar came with an instruction manual and it outlined a variety of exercises that included three bent-over row variations and about a dozen different ways to press. There was little in the way of safety instruction because when I was growing up, when you got hurt it was always your fault.

Now, forty years or so later, I think I'm starting to get the hang of some of this stuff. I still press and I still blame myself when I get hurt.

There were some "truths" when I first started training. First, you only lifted three days a week. Something mysterious would happen to you if you did more. I believe the term was "overwork." According to my father, that was impossible, of course.

Second, the key in training was simply how much you could put over your head. There was one number and one number only: "Waddya press?" That changed too, you might know.

Finally, a high protein diet was the answer to any and all problems. Carbs were bad and fats were the juicy parts of steaks. So, three days a week we'd all convene in the garage and press, press, and press, then drink a bunch of glasses of milk. Things have changed. Some of it is for the better, but not all of it.

The Power of Associations

A few years ago, I went to a workshop about something or other and I learned something that really opened my eyes concerning the strength and fitness game: associations. In other words, when I'm talking about something as basic as strength, you literally might be reading something vastly different than what I'm referring to in this article.

Okay, what does that mean? Well, if I say "sugar" and you answer "spice," we have a simple association. Go ahead, try it: black and white, night and day, rich and poor, and on and on. Which is why when I say "leg work," I think squats while some of you think "innie and outie machine."

Not "Leg Work"

In this workshop, we learned about a trick that advertisers use to come up with ideas and break those simple associations. I tried it with two willing victims – my daughter, Lindsay, and my neighbor, Vance.

I asked them to come up with as many associations as they could between "French fry" and "airplane." Now, I had my own, but I wasn't at all ready for their answers. Lindsay noted that you need oil for both the fries and the plane. Vance mentioned that you salt a runway in a snowstorm and you add salt to your fries.

So, from two words, we began the process of bringing in new associations: oil and salt. I sat back and tried to think of links between these two. My mind leaped to the Olive Garden here in Murray. When we were seated last time to celebrate our trip to the state championship, the young waiter poured olive oil in a bowl, lightly salted and peppered the oil, then added balsamic vinegar. My neighbor thought that you use salt to get the engine oil off of the driveway, so we seem stuck in the food and machine mode around my house.

I have a real world example of this: my brother-in-law, Geoff Hemingway, brought home an idea that sounds awful at first, but is a pure delight. We all like peanut butter. We all like hamburgers. Geoff's solution was to simply swipe some peanut butter on the hamburger patty. Yep, it sounds awful, but it tastes great.

That's the key to using associations: we need to take two good ideas and combine them in a way to make a great idea. For the record, T-bone steaks and peanut butter are not as good as you think.

The value in this process may or may not be evident, but if we take a look at most people's training, you may find they're literally stuck in a box. Certainly, there's a value to doing an exercise over and over again and perhaps even using the same weights, but most people do the exact same weight workout over and over and over again.

In college, when everyone was doing "Arnold's program," you could set your watch by the way some guys lifted. At 3:01, back squat 135 times 10 screaming "It's all you." At 3:09, after a vigorous leg stretching and checking out the biceps in the mirror, a back-off set with 115 pounds for 10. From 3:15 to 5:00, as many sets of EZ-bar curls as possible. That was leg day.

Associations are literally what run the fitness industry. Just flip through a women's magazine at the store. Preteen girls and/or anorexia patients are often the models for the perfect body. This association leads some to think that thin is popular, thin is sexy, thin is the only way to be in America.

Covert Baily wrote a book called Fit or Fat. It wasn't long after that book came out that articles were written called "Fit and Fat," arguing that it's possible to have a healthy cardiovascular system and a high level of adipose tissue. So, the association for many people regarding fitness is "thin first."

In strength training, it's usually just "big." I can't tell you how many times I've been told the following: "Dan, it's funny you throw far because those guys are bigger than you." Yeah, funny.

I think we can use associations to really up the level of our training intensity. I think in some ways all of my little ideas have simply been an attempt of combining two common training practices and smashing them into a new idea. I related the lessons of a wrist injury here at Testosterone that became the basis of one of my favorite training methods: one arm at a time.

Since writing that article, I've used this as an in-season training method for a number of athletes, including baseball pitchers. Simply train one arm one day, train the other arm two days later, and finish the week with a whole body workout. So, I mixed the lessons of an injury into a worthwhile in-season training program.

When I first heard about the Tabata protocol from Clarence Bass, my first thought was, "I'm not jumping on an exercycle." (The original program was based on cycling. I mean, exercycles are like lunges: it's okay if your girlfriend or mom does them, but you know... )

So, I attempted to do military presses with them. The first three minutes were awful and the last minute I discovered that I could barely finish a single in each twenty-second cluster. A week later, I tried the Tabata front squat workout and discovered the single best quick workout I've ever tried.

These are just two examples of taking a common idea – one armed training or the Tabata protocol – and just tweaking it enough to discover something that radically changes my athletes. The two single-limb sessions allow the athletes to maintain strength and continue to provide the protection that weight lifting brings a thrower without beating up his nervous system or further depleting recovery. The Tabata front squat workout hits the cardiovascular system harder than any traditional workout (jogging or whatever) and is probably the second hardest thing I know behind the 400 meter sprint.

Speaking of sprinting, here at T-Nation we had a nice article from TC about the benefits of sprinting for hamstring development. Charles Poliquin notes the same thing in his new editions of his books. So, why are we still seeing people do leg curls when some forty meter sprints would not only develop better hammies, but burn some damn fat, too?

Call it a rut. Like Earl Nightingale said, "A rut is a grave with the ends kicked out." If you have this kind of association: hamstring work equals leg curls, read up on it a little!

With my busy schedule, I found myself in the past year floundering around with enough time to train. What I'm about to say is odd, but some of our readers will agree: I spend all day in a weightroom then follow it with several hours at track practice, then help a few people at my home gym. In other words, I'm around weights and fitness and training tools literally all day long, but don't have time to train.

Some of you know what I mean. Of course, some of you poor bastards are sitting at a computer screen at work hoping your boss won't look over your shoulder while you scroll through the T-Vixen threads. I spend my day in shorts and T-shirts worrying about whether we should do front squats with one set of chains or two. Although not nearly as fun as using an Excel spreadsheet to determine whether or not the Henderson account will have enough widgets for the big project in Salinas, I make myself enjoy it.

As I noted recently to Alwyn Cosgrove, one thing I can't do is coach myself. The problem is this: first, I don't need to do my athletes' workouts. They need more repetitions and more volume to learn the movements. Second, at fifty, I simply have needs that are slightly different than a teenage football player.

So, I need to train and train hard, but I need to mix things up to keep my enthusiasm high. To do this, I need to listen to others, then adapt these great ideas into something I can do and keep fired up about doing it again in a day or so. This is the key to changing one's associations.

Let's make it simple. There are basically ten different movements that you should do as a human:

  1. Vertical Push
  2. Vertical Pull
  3. Horizontal Push
  4. Horizontal Pull
  5. The Squatting Motion
  6. The Posterior Chain Movement (I call it "deadlifts")
  7. The "Anterior Chain" (sit-ups, crunches et al.)
  8. The Twist or Torque Moves
  9. The Total Body Explosion Exercises (If you're limited by time, these are the ones to do.)
  10. I lump all the single limb movements into one group. Certainly, these are important, but don't equate a lunge to a 600 pound squat, thank you very much.

Next, we have a variety of tools that you can do any of these ten movements with in a workout. From bodyweight to machines to kettlebells, dumbbells, and barbells, the options available to you are basically unlimited. This is the problem for most people. Push-ups are relegated to high school PE or boot camp, Olympic lifting is for that thing every four years, and dumbbells are for biceps.

What I've discovered recently is that I'm the biggest offender of this method of thinking. So, I've consciously decided to radically attack my associations. Let's go through a couple of ideas first, then look at a program I'm working on now.

The One Armed Bench Press

One Armed Bench Press

I first tried this exercise when I broke my wrist. Later, I discovered that Ethan Reeve over at Wake Forest had come up with a "standard." Simply, he asks his athletes to bench press 125 pounds with one arm for five, then match it with the other arm. I laughed and said, "Hey, I bench over this or that" so that'll be cake.

I tried it. I failed. The next morning my abs felt like I'd been in an auto accident. What was going on here? Well, by shifting all the balance to one arm, my body had to literally take up the slack... and I wasn't ready for it.

Kettlebell Snatch

Kettlebell Snatch

The same problem hit me when I took on the kettlebell challenge. As a guy who's snatched close to 150% bodyweight, how could a little 70 pound bell hurt me? At rep 74, my hand ripped and a piece of my skin landed ten feet in front of me. My hands were purple and my heart, lungs, and back were trashed.

Barbell Rollouts

I love those damn five dollar ab wheels.

ab wheel

I loved them when they came out in the sixties, I loved them when they returned with the advent of the Internet, and I love them as my favorite "anterior chain" exercise.

So, someone told me I should try them with a barbell. I figured, it's a damn wheel, right? The weight shouldn't matter. Well, I was wrong. Rolling 135 back is nothing like rolling back the cute little ab wheel I bought for five bucks. It feels like exercise, for God's sake!

Barbell Rollout

New Associations

Now, with thanks to Alwyn and Pavel, let's look at a recent workout of mine that honestly attempts to add new associations:

Warm-up (an Alywn Cosgrove complex)

With 95 pounds on the bar:

  • Power Snatch for five
  • Overhead Squat for five
  • Back Squat for five
  • Good Morning for five
  • Behind the Neck Push Jerk for five
  • Bentover Row for five
  • Rest 60 seconds and repeat for a total of four total sets

Although I work the squat motion, horizontal pulling, the total body explosion motion, the posterior chain, and the vertical press, you'll note that I still need more of the pulling or pushing. However, my heart rate goes through the roof doing this and I feel like I've lubed the joints pretty well.

The workout itself is a variation of Pavel's "Enter the Kettlebell" workout. To build up my lousy shoulders from years of throwing, I recently decided to take his advice and work the one arm clean and press along with the pull-up. It's the "rungs and ladders" workout and it looks easy on paper.

With the 70 pound kettlebell, I do the following:

  • With the left arm:
  • One clean and press
  • With the right arm:
  • One clean and press
  • One pull-up
  • With the left arm:
  • A clean and press followed by another clean and press
  • With the right arm:
  • A clean and press followed by another clean and press
  • Two pull-ups
  • With the left arm:
  • A clean and press followed by another clean and press followed by another clean and press
  • With the right arm:
  • A clean and press followed by another clean and press followed by another clean and press
  • Three pull-ups
  • After a short rest, I repeat this for a total of five "sets" – although correctly these are called "ladders."

After years of competing in strength sports, the "tonic" effect of this workout seems to allow me to keep on keeping on. But again, although I took care of vertical pulls, I still needed a little more.

I've been experimenting with a very interesting little double lately. I'm mixing the barbell ab rollout with the one arm bench press. As a thrower, I need abs and I need some rotational work, and this little combo might be just the thing I need to keep in the game:

  • A) 135 pound barbell rollout for eight (and no, I don't think that going heavier is the key here)
  • B) Left arm kettlebell bench press for eight
  • C) Right arm kettlebell bench press for eight

I do this circuit for a total of three sets. Okay, three sets of eight... that isn't exactly a new paradigm for associations, but it's just fine for my needs.

Finally, I finish off with a timed set of kettlebell snatches. How long? Good question. I can either roll a pair of dice and use that roll as the number of minutes that I go, or simply try to go max left followed by max right and call it a day.

What's the point to all of this?

  1. There are literally hundreds of lifts and variations, but most of us usually use just a handful. By simply experimenting with any new idea and program, you can break out of a training rut. You start each day with 100 sit-ups? Great, now start each day with 100 pull-ups.
  2. We all know that we need to change our grips in pushes and presses and maybe even our methods of squatting, but I'd like to ask you to consider changing your equipment choices, too. Try switching out barbells for dumbbells, machines for kettlebells, exercise balls for some damn weights, etc.
  3. As a coach, I have to ask you to make sure you cover the basic moves in most of your workouts. If today is a push day, play around with some variations of squats or pushes and just see what happens. Do everything one handed or one legged. Just see what happens. It's okay to experiment!
  4. Over the long run, the more you experiment and try new things and master movements the better off your physique will be. Moreover, this will lead to better joint health and more enthusiasm for coming back to play for more of this game.

Sure, this stuff is serious, but it's fun serious stuff!

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