Sucker Punch: Dan John

Categorized under Training

If you stick it out in the fitness industry for a while, you’re sure to meet a few of those innovative, dynamic gurus whose sole intent is to revolutionize the art and science of fitness and weight-training.

In the media, these self-professed experts always seem to talk a good game, especially when the subject turns to the brilliantly packaged gadget or book with the serious-sounding title they’re pitching that day.

Online, the social networking sites and fitness forums are on fire with their self-promoting posts and viral videos, each promising to get you on the magic path to the body of your dreams…for a fee, of course.

On the other hand, survive long enough and you might also get to meet the polar opposite of that guru. If you’re lucky, you might meet Dan John.

Dan John is not fancy. In fact, if he wasn’t such an interesting, knowledgeable, likable guy, he’d be downright boring. Hell, he’s practically Amish.

The things the new skool gurus consider to be vanilla and outdated, like basic heavy exercises, proper form, and sound nutrition, are the things he cherishes the most. The boring stuff that he didn’t invent or trademark or try to parlay into a million dollars. The stuff that works.

Dan John has been coaching and teaching for roughly 30 years and is an accomplished thrower and Highland Games competitor who’s racked up dozens of weight-lifting titles over the years. He’s also a sought-after lecturer and teacher, due in no small part to his reputation as one of the “good guys” in an industry often known for pseudo-experts and self-promoting hucksterism.

We asked Dan John for thirty minutes of his time and he gave us an hour. But if you know Dan, that shouldn’t surprise you.

T-Nation: Dan, some people aren’t athletes and don’t compete. They just want to get bigger, stronger, and get more wayward glances from the gals at the local watering hole. What can they learn from the athletic performance field to help them reach their goals?

Dan John: There’s a lot that they can learn, but I’d have to say that the biggest thing would be timeliness.

T-Nation: Timeliness? I was expecting an answer like squats and power cleans.

Dan: Exercise programming is obviously important as well, but those things all stem first and foremost from this concept of timeliness.

T-Nation: Explain.

Dan: The problem with many folks only concerned with general fitness is that they don’t face consequences for failing to hit their goals. If the average guy or gal outlines a few six-week goals with their trainer and they don’t get there, oh well, too bad. Nothing happens.

But in the athletic performance field we’re constantly being judged, and if we fail to rise to the challenge, it can be devastating. If I’m coaching a shot-putter for a meet in six weeks, if he’s not ready and he’s a high school senior, it’s over. He’ll never be a senior again. Even if he repeats due to academics, he’s ineligible, so it’s still over.

So one of the things you can learn from us in athletics is this concept of timeliness. We have cut off dates that we’re forced to adhere to, and those are crucial to success. You know those people who say they need to look great for a cruise or anniversary or wedding date? Well, you can’t keep pushing back a wedding day because you love chocolate. Really, that’s a huge gift!

A big problem that a lot of general fitness trainees have is that they’re like grass. Now, grass is wonderful; it bends and sways and never breaks. It can survive a tornado very well.

The oak tree on the other hand, doesn’t do so well, because it looks at a tornado and says, ‘Bring it!’ Sometimes the oak tree survives and sometimes the tornado breaks it in half. Athletes are like oak tress. They don’t bend. They either rise to the occasion or they break.

I think the personal trainers out there can learn a lot from athletes in this regard. Having a deadline that can’t be pushed back is such a powerful motivator.

I personally love those program like “14 Days to Titanic Triceps” and “21 Days to Jaw Dropping Pecs.” What I like about them is that there’s a line in the sand. Whether the program works or not is a different story, but at least the deadline is there so you’re becoming timely. That, first and foremost, is what the average trainee can learn from the athletes.

T-Nation: So having a rigid, inflexible deadline and forcing you to step up and be accountable?

Dan: Exactly. If you have open-ended goals with no timeline, you’ll never reach them. You need that deadline. Like I said, the deadline is really a gift.

Training outside gets the thumbs up from some very strong individuals.

T-Nation: Picture this: Here’s a guy who’s been lifting for 7 or 8 years. He’s made pretty good progress. He works hard. He’s not a newb. But what is the average “intermediate” dude still missing? In other words, what do you see a lot of seemingly experienced people overlooking?

Dan: That’s easy. It’s three very important things.

The first thing is what we just talked about, the timelines. Set a deadline and stick to it. Or pick a task or a goal and stick to it. People seem so scared to push the envelope now, everything they do is the safe, easy medium. Let me tell you, I loathe medium. As Arnold used to say, you got to “stay hungry.”

The second thing is to get outside. Now, that can mean a couple of different things: For some, it can mean outside their comfy, clean fitness center. Those of you who train at one of these suburban joints, if you’re serious about training it’s really worth your time to get out of that box. It doesn’t have to be a formal thing; just try to find a more serious gym and expand yourself.

Ask around and find a hardcore powerlifting gym, or bodybuilding gym, or strongman training facility. Expand yourself. Push outside of your boundaries.

Outside can also mean, literally outside, as in outdoors. I tell people all the time to do farmer’s walks and they always say that they can’t do them in their fitness center. Well, of course you can’t, you’re supposed to do them outside, in the park, on the beach, on back trails.

I have a damn fine facility but I don’t train in it, I train outside. This will do most trainees a world of good, and besides, all that Vitamin D is good for you anyway.

The third thing is to learn something. I really think this helps. I’m surprised so many people say that they’re serious but don’t go to workshops or continuing education courses. I’ve found that what’s pushed me beyond my limitations as an athlete and coach was to be constantly learning.

For example, as a lifter I got exposed in Russian Kettle Certification 1, and I really got exposed in RKC 2. I’ve a tendency not to hold onto quality reps and these courses made me step back and realize that.

It doesn’t have to be a fancy $10,000 seminar held in Abu Dhabi, either. Offer that big guy at the gym $50 to write a program for you. Guaranteed, you’ll learn something.

Those three have been the biggest for me in my development. They can work for anyone.

T-Nation: You have a KISS (Keep It Simple Stupid) approach to training that many readers find refreshing. Do you have a similar approach to nutrition?

Dan: I give this advice to every single person I know. First, do what grandma told you to do and eat breakfast. I tell all my athletes that before you come see me you should have eaten two meals and a snack.

Sounds simple I know, but you’d be shocked by how little some trainees eat. I had a girl pass out on me during a lifting session and I asked her what she’d eaten that day. She said, :Five French fries.” I asked, “Five orders of French fries?” and she said, “No, five sticks of French fries.” Anyway, if you don’t at least eat breakfast then don’t ask me about anything else.

Second is what I call the “more, more, more” philosophy: more protein, more fiber, and more fish oil. How much more? That’s the thing, they’re all self-regulating. Sit down in front of three pounds of salmon and tell me how fast you can eat it.

Actually, that should be the next big challenge; instead of hot dog eating contests, there should be salmon eating contests. Protein is self-regulating, fiber is VERY self regulating, as you’ll discover rather quickly, and fish oil is self regulating. I still don’t think people take enough of it. I think the minimums on the bottle are just that, minimums.

The third step is get off processed foods. That means none of what I like to call “cardboard carbs.” If it comes in a box, don’t eat it. If you don’t know where it comes from, don’t eat it. Meat, fish, poultry, fruits, and vegetables can be easily traced back to a farm or a pasture.

But Doritos and Ho-Hos? It’s a lot harder to connect the dots.

People in the industry call that “eating clean” and it’s funny when you start eating that way a lot of side issues start to fall away, especially for people who take antibiotics.

My friend Dr. Jeff McCombs talks about how Candida has become just a normal part of North American life due in part to the amount of antibiotics we ingest. The idea is once you start continually taking them, it throws off the intestinal flora of the digestive system.

Skeptics will scoff at this theory, but when you hear this repeatedly at some point you have to admit that there must be something to it. So step three is to focus on meat, leaves, and berries and to get away from processed, gassy carbs.

For example, a lot of people who try to eat this way complain about not having enough quick and easy breakfast options. Well, today I had steak and eggs. I cooked a few steaks last night for dinner, I kept two of them over, chopped them up, and there was breakfast. It wasn’t that hard to do. Just top it off with some fish oil and you’re done. Really, it’s not exactly punishment to start your day with steak and eggs.

Getting out of the fitness center

T-Nation: Hardly. You’ve written previously about ‘bus bench’ time and ‘park bench’ time, and how it relates to training and preparing for competition. What can the recreational lifter who doesn’t compete take away from this analogy?

Dan: You know my work well, I’m impressed.

Time works in two ways for an athlete. The first way is park bench time. That’s like when you go to a park, find a bench and just sit back and see what happens.

Let’s say on a Tuesday morning a squirrel comes by. How nice, you think. If you go back on Thursday and the squirrel doesn’t come by, you don’t stand up and get pissed and say, “Where the hell’s that stupid squirrel!” It’s a park bench! If things happen, they happen.

Bus bench is different. If you take the 8:11 bus every morning, at 8:10 you’re standing up looking down the street for the bus. At 8:11 you’re looking at your watch, at 8:12 your day’s ruined, and at 8:13 you’re shaking your fist and cursing the heavens. That’s bus bench time.

Now personally, I put my training on park bench time, meaning I go in, I enjoy it, and let things happen. I call it “punch the clock” workouts. You go in, do the movements according to plan, have a solid workout, and see where it takes you. It’s going in and not expecting much-you’re just going in to do a workout that you think over time is going to make a significant difference.

A bus bencher is different and most people need to start doing more workouts like these. Most T NATION readers want bus bench workouts, and I, Bodybuilder is a great example. Calculated, planned, and with very definitive goals every workout.

Neither bus bench or park bench is necessarily better than the other, but the key is this: the higher and higher you go, the more park bench workouts you should have. Ideally, you’re going to start totally on the bus bench. “I’m going to lift five days a week and gain 10 pounds of muscle in 12 weeks.” Everybody should start out with focused, measurable goals like that.

Yet as you train more, you should begin to expect less and less from your workouts–because you’re getting to the gym and doing things that you know are going to benefit you in the long term.

Park bench workouts allow for what I call those A-HA workouts. That’s when you see something or somebody shows you something and you say, “A-HA.” That’s the beauty of approaching training from the Park Bench: because you expect less and less, when an A-HA happens, you realize it and can take advantage of it.

I’ve just recently radically changed how I train my athletes, especially in the hip-based movements based solely from my A-HA experiences. I’ve literally learned life changing things, and I’ve been at this for decades now. That’s the beauty of progressing from the bus bench to the park bench.

T-Nation: So a rookie to intermediate should be more bus bench, but once you get a good idea how your body responds, move over onto the park bench?

Dan: As you get more established and learn things, you open yourself up to recognize those moments when that squirrel stops by. But you have to be in the right frame of mind for that to happen.

T-Nation: Okay, you work with athletes; guys who play football or guys who throw stuff, but what the fudge do you know about bodybuilding? Say a kid came up to you and said, “Pops, I want to add an inch to my biceps or I want to add two inches to my thighs.” What would you tell them to do?

Dan: Actually, what I’d say is you need to add 4 inches to your biceps and 12 inches to your thighs. With those one or two inch goals, you’re going to go from a scrawny 140-pounder to a less than scrawny 148-pounder.

The biggest thing for most guys is to learn how to tense up and move some heavy iron. Now I didn’t say slap another 45 on the leg press. I meant put more 45’s on the deadlift or the bench press. And please, don’t brag to me about your 225-pound bench press. I won’t even listen to you until it’s over 400.

I have no problem with someone saying that they only want to get bigger. That’s fine. The mistake is doing what competitive bodybuilders do before a show to get bigger, rather than what these guys did for years and years to get to the size that they are. Big movements, big weights, low reps.

There's nothing wrong with some direct arm work

T-Nation: So are you against direct arm work?

Dan: No, I just wish these lifters made better choices. If you’re going to do curls, at least do thick bar curls. I think pull-ups are superior to many curls, anyway. Remember, the biceps get so much work just stabilizing the load, so if you can deadlift 600, you’re going to have big, strong biceps.

As for triceps, I’ve never seen a triceps exercise that has more value than military press or bench press. If you can military press 300 pounds, you’re going to have big triceps. Plus, I always worry about the elbow. Once you injure your elbow, it’s like the wrist; they heal, but they don’t get better.

T-Nation: The word “spirituality” has been overused to the point of absurdity. How do you define spirituality and what place does it have in athletics?

Dan: Most people tend to compartmentalize everything. Here’s my body, here’s my mind, here’s my soul. Yet it’s really much more integrated than that.

Some of the most eye opening experiences of my life have come in sport. There are moments that I’ve had in my athletic career where the forces of the universe seemed to have combined to bring me a perfect day, and you just kind of sit there and take it in.

I remember when I played high school football, there was a game where I made 18 tackles. Now that’s a lot of tackles, about 1/3 of the tackles for an entire game. The thing was, when opposing players lined up, it was like I knew where they were going.

The question is, how does that happen? It’s that whole other side of our being where things just come together. When you’re doing things right, everything just seems to line up.

People often ask me why I trust my intuition so much, something that I do much more than people know. For example, one of the best decisions I ever made was marrying my wife Tiffini.

People said I was crazy–she’s too young, everyone said–but I knew from days into our relationship that I wanted to spend the rest of my life with her. I just knew.

So the lesson here is, stop separating things out. Stop drawing these artificial lines from the person you are in the gym to the person you are in church. It comes down to one thing: integrity.

Integrity has a meaning in theology and in morality: it means being the person that you say you are. The key to integrity is to keep you one person. Don’t be this person in one environment, that person in the next.

I’ve known many people who would rip you off in a heartbeat, but then tell you that they have to rush off to church. Be one person, one consistent person, so at your funeral they’re all talking about the same guy. I think once you do that, the universe seems to conspire to help you out.

T-Nation: You’ve been on this planet for over half a century. I’m sure you’ve seen many a lifting fad come and go, but you’ve likely seen some really effective things that have tragically fallen out of favor. What are some things you wish lifters would start doing again?

Dan: Functional isometric contractions. Short-range overload lifts. That saved my Olympic lifting career. Go in and find your weak range in an exercise and work it. That does NOT mean to just go in and train your lock out. Everyone can lock out 500 pounds, that’s great, no one cares. Get an honest assessment of your weak range and overload it here.

My sticking point in front squats was exactly 34 inches off the ground, so I made a couple saw horses at that exact height and started my lifts from there. The first time, I struggled to budge 135, so obviously I was using momentum to push my lifts through that weak range.

Six weeks later, I was putting up 315 from the same height. So for me, functional isometric contractions were a career-saver. Find your weakness, load the power rack at that point and try to blast through.

T-Nation: What’s currently hot in the training world that drives you nuts?

Dan: I’d have to say, “I’m right and you’re wrong.” This idea that there’s a correct way to train and that everything else is wrong. The funny thing is, in a lifter or bodybuilder’s career, you need to wash through multiple ways of training to find what best suits you.

The HIT zealots are right about a lot of things. There’s a body type that absolutely thrives on that type of low-volume training, ectomorphs in particular. But that’s no way to train a football player or a thrower.

You can see a similar black & white negativity surrounding diet and supplements. When I come on the record and say that I like Alpha Male, something that I’ve said 1000 times before, immediately someone will write in that I’m a supplement whore. No, I’m Dan John; I’ve been experimenting with it, and it works.

I honestly think that we’re on he cusp of some amazing things nutritionally speaking, but in certain places if I so much as mention nutrition people say, “Nutrition? Ha, that’s for fags.” Well, it’s not. There are some things that work, plain and simple. Yet people are so quick to tear you down or question your integrity. That whole line of thinking is my biggest peeve.

Farmer's walks are incredibly challenging...and incredibly effective.

T-Nation: You talk a lot about how training should be fun. How can a regular dude who trains by himself four days a week at 24 Hour Fitness make their workout fun?

Dan: First, get the heck out of 24 Hour Fitness. Buy your own equipment. Work out in the back yard. Once a week, get your friends together, get a grill, bring some equipment and just do some stupid stuff. Don’t get fancy. Do goblet squats, farmer’s walks, see who can do the most squats at 135, do ten minutes of military presses. Do stuff you’ve never tried before and make it fun.

While you lift, have one guy keep an eye on the grill cause you got 20lbs of meat cooking. After you lift, laugh, enjoy each others company, and have a meat-fest; that by itself will do more for most people to make training fun. First, look at what you’re not doing: there’s no iPod, no ESPN on TV, not a treadmill in sight. Instead, you’re doing and interacting.

Any time you can inject a little camaraderie into your training you’ll have fun. Watch Pumping Iron again, see how much fun all those guys are having? They take it serious, but the camaraderie was huge. We need to get back to that.

T-Nation: Any closing advice for lifters on the wrong side of 40?

Dan: Once you get past 40, only two things matter: joint mobility and hypertrophy.

It’s not flexibility. Flexibility is like a party trick for the muscles. I can instantly be more flexible. It’s joint mobility, keeping the body able to move correctly in a given plane that’s vital to long term training.

The other thing is, once you get past 32 or 33 you start losing lean body mass at a stunning rate. So you need to do some bodybuilding or hypertrophy work to slow this down. I focus on variations of the military press because I believe that the deltoids, triceps, traps, rhomboids, and probably the butt are the keys to youth. So the more time squatting, doing farmer’s walks, and military presses, the younger you stay.

I also believe that it’s a real mistake as you get older to keep bench pressing. Between the damage it does to the shoulder joint and the tighter it makes the pecs and delts, I say forget it. Those problems just get harder and harder to deal with as you get older.

I like to say that everyone can have one more injury, but do you have it in you for one more recovery? If you go rollerblading and break your wrist at 50, and it takes you 18 months to get back to lifting, where are you going to be in 18 months? Does the calendar say that you can afford an injury of that magnitude? That question gets tougher to answer as you get older.

So joint mobility, hypertrophy, and don’t mess yourself up. Don’t get that stupid injury you can’t get back from.

T-Nation: And finally, the last question, the franchise question if you will. Tell us something we don’t know?

Dan: No one cares.

T-Nation: Huh?

Dan: Seriously, no one cares. Where you place, the medals you get, the contests you win- no one cares. Enjoy life, have a good time. No one cares.

You know those commercials, where the guy says, “Look at me, I’m down to 8% bodyfat because of Product XYZ?” Well, a) you’re not 8%, so get a new set of calipers, and b) no one cares. When you walk down the beach and see a great looking girl, do you think, “My God, she must be 115-pounds and 10% bodyfat!” Of course not. No one cares.

Having said all that, it’s still important to have goals, and it’s especially important to realize that it takes time to reach them. But you will never, ever reach them, no matter how much time you have, if you don’t first set your goals with a deadline. Tonight, sit down with a pad and paper and start thinking where you want to wind up and connect the dots accordingly.

T-Nation: So back to set a goal, set a deadline, and work backwards?

Dan: That’s the key. It all begins with that single step.

T-Nation: Thanks for doing this today Dan!

Dan: It was a pleasure.