Old School Soldier

An Interview with Dan John


Sometimes it's really interesting to dig into the microscopic details of training and nutrition, to dissect the body of academia and examine every little study. That's how we learn things. That's how we refine the science that later helps us get bigger and stronger and leaner.

It's also how we catch a bad case of "analysis paralysis."

That's what I like about Dan John. This guy mows through the minutia forest like Paul Bunyan on No-Doz. That's refreshing. That's the result of twenty-five years of teaching and coaching.

And Dan is no armchair expert either. Currently, he's ranked number one in the world in the Highland Games (ages 45-49), broke the American record in the Weight Pentathlon and very nearly the world record, and has racked up dozens of weightlifting titles.

It was time T-Nation met up with this guy and picked his hyperactive brain.

T-Nation: You've written several articles for us, Dan, but I don't think our readers know you very well yet. Lay some background on us.

Dan John:

T-Nation: So the football player became a thrower?

Dan John:

T-Nation: Which are?

T-Nation: Dan, I think you're becoming a sort of modern "voice" of hard, old school training. Where do you see the new school going wrong? Try to keep your answer under 10,000 words!

Dan John:

I think you need to jump into an Olympic lifting meet, a strongman challenge, a powerlifting meet, even a chin-up contest and put it out there. Why? It's the "dues."

You can't tell me that the third place guy in the Mr. O contest would've won if he worked his anterior radial spinatus with flying overhead reverse grip Batman curls if you can't stand up in the squat with a 45 pound bar!

T-Nation: You better rant. That's why we like you! Now, I saw a presentation of yours about long term fitness planning. Are there any special challenges faced by older athletes? Any myths about guys in their 40's and 50's and weight training?

Dan John:

The biggest issue for the older athlete is twofold: first, we Americans don't understand age. So as a culture, when you hit a number, you're now "something." Old enough to drive, old enough to vote, old enough to get cheaper insurance, old enough to get social security, whatever. The key is that we don't seem to have any idea what's actually going on inside the number.

T-Nation: What do you mean?

Dan John:

So, when you finish college as a football player at 22 and don't make the pros, you're done as an athlete. True? That's what the vast majority of athletes think. I work with a fellow who's a new discus thrower. I told him that in six years he'll have as much throwing experience as the top throwers in any university in the country! This "retired" 22-year old college football player could start a whole new sport and master it by 30 easily.

Specifically, in weight training there's a myth that you have to treat older athletes like they're victims of some strange tropical disease. Make 'em squat! Give 'em free weights! Push some big iron! One day, you're going to get plenty of rest – eternal rest – so ramp it up.

T-Nation: Good advice! Now, you once wrote to "work hard... simply". What do you mean?

Dan John:

What most people need to do is squat, press, deadlift, clean, snatch, jerk, dip and chin. You know the drill. "Dan, how many chins?" someone will ask. Well, how many can you do? "I dunno. I've never done one!" Hmmm, as an expert in all things, let's try this: let's see how many you can do!

It's amazing how much harder simple workouts can be for most athletes. In fact, the workouts I hate the most usually have the least number of exercises and rep/set schemes. Here's a vomit producing phrase: Tabata Front Squats. Pretty simple, pretty short, pretty damn hard!

Toss it all out: periodization, tempo, weird variations of lifts, new machines, the whole bit until you master the simple stuff!

T-Nation: I almost hate to ask, but what else do you see in the strength training community that drives you nuts?

Dan John:

Next, I hate, hate, hate the nitpicking over things. Wrist in or wrist out, inclined or declined, toes in or toes out? I hate it. All you need to do is swing a kettlebell or mention the cadence of a properly done pec deck flye and people will have screaming matches and blood flying faster than a fart clearing out the squat rack area.

T-Nation: You're kind of a poet, you know that, Dan? Okay, aside from what most modern lifters are doing wrong, what are they missing?

Dan John:

Along with this, I notice few people do any other outside training like pull-ups in the playground or dips on a parcourse followed with a run by the river and a good game of catch with a friend. These "unmeasurable" workouts are often far better in terms of duration and intensity than the best workouts a person may have in the gym.

T-Nation: You've talked about this mysterious "fun" thing before. Is fun really that important? Isn't this all about hard work and sacrifice?

Dan John:

Now, each Friday, it's time for the "Friday Football League." We play, usually, about five on five, with just one change: you must rotate through all five as quarterback. This insures a bit more of a level playing field and lots of ugly passes. We play for one hour. In that hour, these same athletes will sprint, jog, leap, crossover, backpedal and accelerate about 120 times. And I don't hear a word about "air" or "ambulance" or "hearse." Literally, the workload is maybe fifty times as high, yet, because it's play, we hear no complaints.

We need and we crave community. We humans like to laugh. Why ignore what makes us, well, us?

T-Nation: Cool. You're one of the top Highland Games athletes in the country. What's the attraction to that sport? How'd you get into it?

Dan John:

I never trained one time ever for a Highland Games until about a year ago. Write this down, kids: training helps you compete. I'm not making this up.

T-Nation: Good story! You told another story once where someone advised you to use steroids as a discus thrower. What's up with that?

Dan John:

T-Nation: Not a big steroid fan, huh?

Dan John:

It's a no-win for me to talk about drugs. Once a parent at the high school I coached at told a vanload of boys that the success of my athletes was due to the fact that I gave them drugs. Following policy, I immediately went to the principal and told him that a parent had been telling students that I'm guilty of a serious felony. The principal called the parent and the parent said, "Oh, I was just joking."

T-Nation: Good points. Now, you've written some interesting things about motivation. What's the secret there? What makes some people stick with training until they're 80 while others can't last two weeks?

Dan John:

Coach Ralph Maughan started every year with a simple phrase: "Make yourself a slave to good habits." You know why I eat eggs for breakfast? Because, really, that's what I do. I have the eggs on a plate before I make a single conscious thought. Don't eat breakfast for a year and it'll take a long time to have the habit of eating breakfast.

Watch January. The gyms fill up and then they empty. Why? Habits. I literally can't not workout. It's simply part of what I do, who I am. I guess we're back to the first question: Hi, I'm Dan John and I lift weights.

T-Nation: That's a support group I'd join! Next topic: you've often said that the body is one piece. What do you mean?

Dan John:

Colds, flu, fights with mom, car accidents, work, job, cold, heat and everything else you can think of will hurt or help performance. Everything you do is done in one nice little package: your body. Welcome to your body. When you train without rest, you'll soon stop training. If you eat only carrots for six months, you'll turn orange with a horrible max in the squat, too.

Pavel calls the idea of training yourself in isolated pieces "Frankenstein training" and I don't think I can come up with a better term. The body is one piece.

T-Nation: What are your thoughts on overtraining?

Dan John:

The search for training "right" is the Holy Grail of sports. Overtraining is so much easier to do than under-training for many of us. I'm guilty of this, but in my defense I've only been overtraining for perhaps the last four decades, so I can fix this easy.

Mike Burgener uses the term "under recovery" and I think he's on to something. Lonnie Lowery talks about "quantifying recovery." Maybe it's that simple: we just miss the recovery part of the equation.

That might be it, but I think we're driven to overtrain by the concepts we bring into the gym or field. If a little is good, a lot is better. I can tell you that it's really hard to overtrain something like clean & jerks with 225 for 15 reps. You do it once, once a year or so, maybe. I think many of us just pour our small resources on the floor in the gym doing fairly worthless and redundant exercises.

T-Nation: You told us at the seminar I attended that the secret to success is to just "show up." Let's talk about that some more.

Dan John:

T-Nation: What's your take on all the gadgetry invading the fitness and lifting communities? I know you've used a Swiss ball to teach an Olympic lifting technique, but I also had the impression it was almost painful for you to find a use for that thing!

Dan John:

Second, I hate the cults that pop up immediately with each new toy. I watched a girl on television jump up and land on a ball and balance herself. Impressive. Then they showed about five outtakes of her crashing off to either side. I thought to myself, how's this helping her do her sport? Isn't crashing in training an inferior modality protocol, or whatever we're calling training today?

Bah! Bah, I say! Get strong in the gym; master your sport on your playing field. Mix and match a little for fun, but don't ever try to equate tackling me to doing bent arm pec deck flyes!

T-Nation: When it comes to weight training, what's better: reams of scientific studies or the school of hard knocks?

Dan John:

T-Nation: Okay, when we met up in Vegas you briefly mentioned your "Leaves, Meat and Berries Diet." What is that?

Dan John:

I know that I thrive on eating like this, but I fall off the wagon sometimes and get fat, bloated and red faced. It's an attractive look on me.

T-Nation: Thanks for the chat today, Dan. Go ahead and plug something if you want.

Dan John:

T-Nation: Cool. We look forward to more articles from you, Dan!