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: Well, I'm the youngest of six kids, all of us athletes. I grew up in South San Francisco basically playing sports eight hours a day. I've made catches and run into parked cars many times. Once, I ran into a car that hadn't completely stopped, but that's another story.
My one goal was to play football for South City High, which I thought would be the crowning achievement of my life. I read a book about an undersized linebacker who threw the discus and shot in the off-season to help him play better, so at a burly 118 pounds of meanness, I took up the discus.
My first toss went two feet behind the ring. Despite the ominous beginning, I taught myself to spin and won my second track meet.
T-Nation: So the football player became a thrower?
Dan John: It was the discus that hooked me. From high school, I went to junior college where I met Dick Notmeyer who taught me the Olympic lifts. I put on forty pounds in four months from a steady diet of front squats. My thighs, which I didn't know I had until then, blew up. I did very well in track and received a full ride to Utah State. There I led the team in points as disc, shot and hammer thrower.
I graduated from college at 21 with two degrees and went to work in a cheese factory. I learned a key life lesson in the 54 weeks I worked there: I don't like cleaning up burnt cheese. So, my academic life began.
Today I coordinate and direct the parish religious education programs in Utah. I'm also a religious studies instructor both on-line and here in Salt Lake City. I figure I ruin the lives of about 600 adult students a year.
I'm married to Tiffini, a Federal agent, and I have two daughters, Kelly and Lindsay. I have a whole bunch of degrees and I write a lot of articles and I was a Fulbright Scholar, but I honestly think the thing in my life that challenges my brain the most is explaining what muscles the clean and jerk works.
T-Nation: Which are?
Dan John: All of them!
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: Dues! Now, that gives me 9,999 words to explain it. Okay, go to any gym in America and there'll be a collection of guys wearing tank tops, weight belts, wraps, straps and those head things, cranking out a set of curls, then checking out their guns. These guys are experts on all things related to strength training, strongman, big lifts, bodybuilding, body composition and physique. Yet they don't squat because "it hurts my knees." They don't deadlift because "it hurts my back." They don't put weights overhead because "it isn't safe." Bah!
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!
You have to pay your dues. Then, you might understand. So, compete in a recognizable forum, put it on the line, let others measure you against others, then you can post on Internet forums. Pay your dues.
See, now I'm ranting. People always say that I rant. I'm not going to rant anymore.
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: My brother had a birthday about ten years ago and said that he was now the age that dad was when he came home from Vietnam. He added a funny line: "Dad was a very old man at my age."
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: I'm 47. Well, what should 47 be doing? It's like women who think that getting to a certain bodyweight will make them look better. Honestly, have you ever been on the beach and said, "Hmmm, she looks like she weighs 134."
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.
But we don't do that in the United States. We have this cultural norm of retiring from sports just as the most fruitful years of our lives begin. We then wait until obesity and illness sneak into our lives or have some kind of experience that hands us our rear ends, and then we decide to become athletes again. I argue there might be an easier way.
The biggest myth is to take "off" either out of high school or college. "You're done" is the myth. I'd advise people to look for something new and challenging in athletics and keep their passion for life at the same time.
The biggest challenge for the older athlete is realizing that most of the stuff he hears is B.S. I spend a lot of time each year with some of the world's best athletes who've now retired. The number one regret is that they stopped. The moment you turn off the athletic machine, the passion for living seems to die with it.
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: I feel bad for some of your readers. They get a program that lasts 74 weeks, and this week calls for a protocol of four sets of seven partial quarter arm extensions with an L-bar twist doing a 12-0-9 tempo with 32.9% of their projected monthly three rep max. I'm joking, but I 'm not far from the truth!
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: The lack of respect we give to experiential evidence would have to be first. Nothing worse than somebody asking if this or that has been double blind studied. No, it hasn't, but it sure works. "Can you prove it?" Then we all go round and round and round.
Some stuff works and no one is going to have to have untrained freshman volunteers prove it to me. Less food means less weight. More weight on bar means get stronger. Guy farts while squatting means great laughter.
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: Let's just talk about one for now: most modern weight trainers don't go outside. Seriously, I think this is an error.
I often encourage people to drag their weights outside on nice days and work out. Arnold has an excellent overview of this in his autobiography, The Education of a Bodybuilder. What ever happened to him, anyway?
I think lifting outside is one of those great "pattern breakers" that just changes the relationship we have with lifting. I actually think that my Olympic lifting in the summer outside in those 120 degree days is the perfect fat burning workout. Break down to just shorts and train and tan and laugh and, to quote you, "be old school."
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.
I think good old "calisthenics" have a value, especially in the spring for weekend warriors prepping for softball leagues or whatever. You need to transition that strength training from the gym to the "real" world. So, try going outside for at least some part of your training and have some fun.
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: Oh, it can be... for a couple workouts. When I talk about "play," I'm trying to tie into one of the things that we humans seem hot wired for: community.
I can give you a simple example: when I coach discus throwers, we have two sessions a week of hill sprints. Hills are great because a thrower, even with terrible sprinting technique, won't snap a hamstring sprinting up hill. Four hills will leave my high school athletes gasping for breath and me keeping my finger on the "1" because I've already dialed "9-1."
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 wanted to be a hammer thrower. The problem with that was simple: no meets. Everyone kept telling me that I was born to throw the hammer, but, no meets. So, one day I was walking in a mall and saw a poster for a Highland Games. Now, I knew nothing. There's a place in Utah called Highland and figured they were having a track meet because they promised the "hammer."
Called the guy, paid the entry fee, showed up. When I showed up people were dancing, men were in skirts, guys were drinking booze and competing in throwing big stuff. I said to myself: "This is heaven."
The hammer was a stick instead of a wire, the shot was a rock, and a quick nip was single malt. I fit right in. My first Highland Games was also my first "Athlete of the Day" award. I won just about every event, even though I'd never seen any of them before that day. (Hint: Olympic lifting plus throwing equals prep for most things.)
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: Okay, I have to cover up the story a little, but the person is involved in an organization that schedules its big competitions about every four years in a major international city. But, I'm not spilling the beans here.
Anyway, we'd done this "thing" and I asked him how I can throw farther. He said simply: "Well, go on a cycle of anabolics for eight weeks." Hmmm, I thought. Does hypocrisy have one "y" or two?
T-Nation: Not a big steroid fan, huh?
Dan John: In general, I don't care. No matter what I think, say or feel people are going to curl, do triceps kickbacks, take drugs and blame their parents for their failures. I don't like the subject. I wrote an article about it once and I still get emails saying, "Well, boo hoo, your friend died. I'm 22 and taking drugs and I never died." I have two words for those guys, and they ain't "let's dance."
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."
The point is, if you're successful, they say you recruit and give out drugs. If you lose, they fire you. Go ahead and choose!
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: Rarely does anyone succeed because of the perceived pleasure of the goal. It's the hell of pain that gets most of us off the couch and into the gym. Ten victories in a row won't cause a moment of reflection, yet losing the homecoming game with grandpa listening on his deathbed will focus your mind like a laser beam.
Sometimes what keeps me simply going is looking at what 47 is supposed to look like. It ain't pretty. I want to dance at my grandchildren's weddings and win the caber toss at the reception. (I fully expect, by that time, that athletic contests will be a basic part of all celebrations.)
Point two: Habits. There's some very interesting research about the amount of real "free will" people have in life. It's very small. If you don't believe me, go to an AA meeting. There's more cigarette smoke and coffee drinking there than anyplace I've ever been in my life. I'm not a member, but I have a buddy who's very faithful with his meetings. I once asked him about cutting back on the two packs a day. "No way," he said. It's funny, but from the research I've seen he's right: he can stop one bad habit, not two.
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: Easy one. The bench press is a pec exercise, right? Sure, that's what the magazines say. So, next time your best friend is benching, stick a fork in his ankle. Since the bench is "upper body" he should finish the set before attacking you, right? Well, no.
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: Well, let me say this and I'll stand by it: I'm against overtraining! Thank you, thank you, please donate to my election fund if you like what you hear.
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: You were there? Good. You "showed up." It's that simple. You know, love or hate the Body for Life thing, but they had a good idea. Twelve weeks: take a photo before and a photo after. You do anything, anything for twelve weeks with the pressure of a photo shoot and you'll improve.
I always tell people that a 37 cent stamp is the best training aid there is in the gym. Fill out the form, write the check, put it in an envelope, slap the stamp on it and show up to compete. It's so simple, but few do it.
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: Use one Swiss ball, one time, now I'm branded for life! Hi, I'm Dan John and I use a Swiss Ball.
You know, the reason I hate all this stuff is (and I'm trying not to rant), first, it gives us all an excuse. When Nautilus first showed up, I believed all those twenty page ads and I thought, "If only I had those machines!"
So, my first concern is that some of this stuff drives people to have a built-in excuse for not achieving success. You know what I'm talking about, too. Most people have something that they'd buy if they had just a few more bucks, and whatever that is would make them a "success."
I remember these protein strips that you urinated on that told you whether or not you were in positive nitrogen balance. I was sure that this, finally, would be my ticket to the top. Peeing on your hands, I discovered, has limited value in understanding your potential.
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: Let's answer this clearly: I don't know. Generally, the science people go into the gym, find out what's working, then do a study to find out if it's working. Hard knocks is an excellent teacher, but survival rates are low.
T-Nation: Okay, when we met up in Vegas you briefly mentioned your "Leaves, Meat and Berries Diet." What is that?
Dan John: It's a very simple idea. My wife and I had gone on the Atkins Diet and really saw some fantastic results. What I started to notice almost immediately, was a real improvement in "general" health, especially in my skin, basic nasal congestion issues, that kind of thing.
This is right after I invented the Internet, so I started surfing the web and discovered others who were "Paleo-dieting." Well, to simplify it, we start calling it "meat and leaves." Basically, meat is fish, beef, poultry and eggs. Leaves are uncooked vegetables, salad and salad bar items, basically. After a while, we tossed in berries for all the antioxidant help. Then we started considering "in season" fruit, apples in the fall, citrus in the winter, and the whole thing fell into place.
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: Well, I'll have a book to publish in a few weeks. I want to offer a deal to T-Nation readers. They can also drop by my site: www.danjohn.org/coach.
T-Nation: Cool. We look forward to more articles from you, Dan!