The Philosophy of Physical Capital


My wife, Tiffini, has been working in banking since before we
met in 1987. Today she's a bank examiner, and yes, she complains
every time we watch It's a Wonderful Life.

Just as I roll my eyes when I watch a football movie starring
geeky actors who couldn't play in a Powder Puff league, she
also rolls her eyes dismissively over the errors of the evil bank
examiners in the movie.

The upside of marrying an intelligent woman with financial
expertise is that you marry an intelligent woman with financial
expertise. And after we combine her career choice with the fact
that I can barely add two single-digit numbers together, I let Tiff
handle the money in our family.

For the record, whenever I ask about how much money I have, she
says, "Honey, you have one hundred dollars." That seems
about right.

Physical Capital

Anyway, it only makes sense that the key concept I hold in
training would be stolen from the financial world. I insist on a
concept I call Physical Capital. It's simply this: Physical
Capital is the sum of all your training, nutrition, and recovery

(Now, I call them recovery tools, but honestly, most of us sleep
without giving a ton of consideration to the importance that sleep
holds in muscle building and fat burning. "Good night, dear,
let's really drive out catabolic forces from our bodies for
the next eight hours!")

I don't think there's anyone who would disagree with the
concept of Physical Capital. In fact, I'm sure that I don't go
nearly far enough encompassing the concept. There are certainly
emotional, financial, social, and genetic factors that lend
themselves to success for any and all of your goals. If you want to
go to an Ivy League school and both dad and grandpa (graduates of
said school) are also the largest donors to the school, there's a
chance you might just get a break at admissions.

So, Physical Capital is an account that all of us can add to
every day in some different way. I attend workshops, buy tons of
books, experiment with supplements, and visit forums on the
Internet way too much to not be considered a geek. Which leads me
to an issue: when you write on forums about lifting, soon you
become an "expert."

It's a rare day when I don't get at least one email asking
me for a program. For what? Well, it can be for fat loss or discus
throwing or "looking good nekkid" or whatever, but nearly
every day, some nice person asks me to design them a foolproof
three to six week program to take them from "skinny fat"
to Mr. Universe. For the record, that would take nearly seven
weeks, but "for you, well, we can have this done in

The problem with these emails is twofold: First, I don't
believe in the correspondence course approach to coaching. Second,
and more important, there are literally dozens of problems with a
cookie cutter (or an email cut and paste) training program. Before
I can even begin helping my email writer, there are dozens of
questions that have to be asked. And, with apologizes to
Wittgenstein and my philosophy instructors, I also have to ask the
questions behind the questions.

It sounds so simple when I ask them:

1. What is your max front squat, deadlift, snatch, and bench

2. Do you know how to do a front squat, deadlift, snatch, and
bench press?

3. What have you eaten for breakfast the last thirty

Question number two is the killer. You see, generally, before we
can even begin ramping up a training program, my athletes have to
have a basic level of mastery in all the Olympic lifts and power
lifts. Then, after a basic mastery of the lifts, my emailing friend
needs to know his maximum effort on these lifts. And this simple
question, "What's your max?" is the first problem to
solve when I try to help an athlete. What is a

This is Physical Capital. You know how to perform the lifts, but
can you do them at a level appropriate to your goals? So then, what
is a max?

Well, recently, I was sitting with Mark Twight at dinner. If you
don't know Mark, there's a chance you never climbed a
mountain. If you do, yes, it was that Mark Twight. Mark is a
genius in training athletes, most recently the cast of 300.
If you don't know about 300, well, find out. I mean,
really, this is Testosterone Nation, isn't it?

As usual, Mark and I were talking about getting to the next
level in performance. Mark told me about a workout that he has his
athletes doing, a "three bar deadlift" workout. Let's set this
up exactly as you would need to do it.

Load three bars:

One with 95% of your best deadlift.

The next with 90% of your best deadlift.

The third with 85% of your best deadlift.

Mark's athletes would then do a single with the first bar
(95%), then step over to the second and do a double (90%), and
finally step back and do a triple with the last bar (85%). The idea
of the workout would be to do up to three of these clusters.

Before you rush off to do this workout, please sit up and pay
attention. I asked Mark an intelligent follow-up question,
"Um, whoa, how uh...?"

You see, I looked at this workout through one lens and Mark
looked at it through another. With Mark's athletes – who are
serious asskickers in the dojo, the field, and the mountains –
this workout was doable. For someone who lives in the weightroom,
this workout might put you in the hospital! Why?

It's those words, Bestand. Max. I know that
everyone "knows" exactly what that means, but I
don't think so!

From "Sorta Max" to "Max Max Max"

First, let's look at four highly scientific terms that I
use on a daily basis:

Sorta Max


Max Max

Max Max Max

The Sorta Max

Not long ago, I heard Dave Tate speak and he basically said that
most programs he reads are, and I quote, "full of shit."
It takes an elite powerlifter maybe fifty weeks to build up to
something like a 95% lift. Yet all of us read programs where
athletes are asked to do 90% of this or that for 8 sets of 10.

Folks, that 90% isn't 90%.

I agree with Dave completely. Most people have a "Sorta
Max." A Sorta Max is a concept that I came up with a while ago
when people were telling me about what their "max's"
were in various lifts. Sorta Max is that heavy lift you do in the
gym and call it a day. And, I must say this, hats off to you, you
deserve it, here you go: good for you. That's great, nothing
wrong with it. It's the heavy "today" max, if you

For many of us, we occasionally have a good day and nail a big
lift, or in some cases, just have a great performance. That's where
most people hail their "max" numbers.

One time, I was asked to show a dip to a roomful of young women.
The other instructor said, "Just do as many as you can."
Now, usually, more than five dips for me is considered a marathon
effort worthy of a good Gatorade dousing and tears of
accomplishment. But, before a roomful of women, I knocked off a
nice 35 reps. That's my max... and I ain't going to be
doing that every day, thank you very much.

The Max Max

Max Max is the next step. That's that top end lift that
maybe you spent the better part of a few months building up to with
some kind of organized program. For the record, that's exactly what my best bench press reflects.

John Price and I decided at least three times that both of us
needed to bench press 405 – four big plates per side – and
focused on the bench for two workouts a week. John's program,
which I followed to its exacting principles, was

Monday: Bench Press

135 for 10

225 for 10

315 for 10 (if you can)

More weight – 335 or so for 10 or as many

Thursday: Bench Press

135 for 10

225 for 10

315 for 10

365 for as many

With this highly scientific approach, I usually benched 405 by
the fourth week. The last time I did this, I bench pressed 405 in a
polo shirt and a pair of khakis.

If I would have ever spent more than a month working on the
bench, I'm sure I could have done more. But, for me, 405
is/was my Max Max. A few weeks of training focused on one lift and
I made a good number.

In my opinion, the Max Max is the most underappreciated measure
in sports and training. It's simply what you can do with some
effort. If all your Max Max numbers are at a good level for your
goals and interests, I can practically promise you that you have
achieved a solid level in your chosen field. Maybe not the best,
but you're good.

The Max Max Max

Now, it should be obvious where Max Max Max is heading. This is
a number that takes a lot of commitment and a lot of time to
achieve. You'll probably need to do it in competition. All my top
lifts are done in competition. Why? Well, there's usually a story.

Why a 628 deadlift? Because after I pulled 606, a bunch of other
guys missed, and then one or two went up and made a big show of
missing something a bit heavier. So, I wanted to make sure there
was no question: I took the next poundage (628) and made it. For
days later, I felt lousy throughout my body and decided, "Hmm,
that's enough for me."

Really, my best deadlift could have been more... and, honestly,
less. But the circumstances led to the choice of weight as much as
any intelligent training program on my part.

So, Max Max Max might be a lifetime achievement that you planned
for decades or, like me, you simply stumbled around long enough to
do something "max-worthy." And that's the issue.

Back to the Three Bar Deadlift

Now, let's get back to Mark and me at dinner. You see, I
"heard" Max Max Max, and Mark was talking about Sorta
Max. Mark's athletes deadlift around 300. So, the three bars
would look like this:

One bar with 285 (I'm rounding the numbers to reflect easy
plate selections)

One bar with 265

One bar with 245

Total equipment:

Three bars

Twelve 45 pound plates

Two 25 pound plates

Six 10 pound plates

Two 5 pound plates

Maybe more than a home gym would have, but most gyms would have
this many plates.

My workout idea, based on my Max Max Max:

One bar with 605

One bar with 575

One bar with 545

Total Equipment:

Three bars

Thirty-two 45 pound plates

Two 35 pound plates

Two 25 pound plates

Two 10 pound plates

Two 5 pound plates

Hmmm, that's interesting. I don't need that many 5's
or 10's, but thirty-two 45's? That would clear out many
collegiate athletic team gyms!

Now, let's simply look at load. If Mark's athlete did
his workout three times through (18 total reps), the tonnage would
be 3650 pounds. If I did the workout through once (six total
reps), the tonnage would be 3390 pounds... nearly the same load at
one-third the volume!

I realize the numbers are boring, but most of us need to look at
these numbers carefully. Why? Well, when you read an article at
T-Nation and go back to Golden Spa 23/7, how do you determine how
much weight you're going to lift? Do you simply just strut over to
the Duo DynaBiceps Machine and pull the selector into
"D," or do you pull out a calculator to decide whether to
use the 18 pound dumbbell or the 20 pounder?

Do you remember how simple the question was back in the
beginning: What's your max front squat, deadlift, snatch, and bench

So, here's the question: Is your bodyweight front squat a Sorta
Max, Max, Max Max, or Max Max Max? Doing a six week front squat
program designed to add ten percent (guaranteed!) to your max
probably won't work if you're an elite lifter. Imagine the

Dear Dan,

After doing your miracle Bench Press Protocol, the BPP, I
went from a 1000 pound bench to 1100 in just six weeks. I had never
considered the importance of [fill in appropriate new miracle
training idea or supplement here] until I tried your


Let's be honest, to up your bench to 1100 might take (for
some of our readers anyway) almost twelve weeks, double my
imaginary program.

So, to understand the concept of Physical Capital, the first
twin issues are:

1. Do you know how to do the exercises listed in standard
training programs?

2. Do you at least have something beyond a "Sorta Max"
for these exercises? Yes, it may take a few months of focus on each
of the basic moves to progress to those carefully scientific terms
"Max" and "Max Max."

And before I move on, let's not forget the two other great
issues that I tend to beat to death in my lectures and
presentations. First, and really so simple most people miss it, do
you have the equipment to do the workouts that I, you, or anyone
else designs? If you decide to do Mark's deadlift workout, do
you have thirty-two 45 pound plates? Do you have three Olympic

Recently, I was given advice to begin doing horizontal rows, a
form of pull-ups for the rhomboids, and it took me nearly a week to
figure out a way to do these in my home gym. Great exercise, no

Next, the other issue that I tend to discover with many people
far too late: do you have the temperament to do certain kinds of
training? For example, I struggle with programs with percents. I
also struggle in programs that don't have a ton of variety
built in. Yet I also thrive on short, brutal programs that demand
total focus for a few weeks. Why? I have no idea, but it's
worthless for me to help you design a training program if

1. Don't have the equipment to do the

2. Don't know how to do the lifts demanded in the

3. Don't have the capacity to train at the numbers asked in
the program.

4. Don't have the mental skill-set to handle the program.

Now, be careful about number four here. There are people who
thrive on volume and no change. Another person reading this article
might think that those guys are mad. Sometimes, the problem with
the cookie cutter approach to training goes far beyond the issues
of the body and really are cultural, social, and mental challenges.

A buddy of mine recruited a fine young thrower from Germany who
always did ten standing throws, then ten reps of this drill, ten
reps of that drill, and ten reps of another. Always! Why? His coach
told him to do ten when he was a youth and, by all that is holy,
ten is what you do!

That approach worked for this young man, but it would drive me
crazy in one day. So, yes, Physical Capital certainly encompasses a
lot of other areas of life, too.

Cinderella's Stepsister Syndrome

I call this problem – the problem of trying to follow a program
that fails to fit any of your equipment needs, exercise issues,
volume or intensity issues, or your personality – the Cinderella's Stepsister Syndrome. In other words, the
shoe don't fit!

A few years ago, I spent far too much of my life trying to
explain to a father that his daughter couldn't possibly follow
a program I use for my athletes called "The Big 21." She
wasn't strong enough to do the basic program. But, since my athletes did it, his daughter should be able to do it,
too. First, let's look at the program.

The athlete does three exercises (each and every day) for three
workouts a week (Monday, Wednesday, Friday) for three weeks (week
one, week two, week three) for a total of nine workouts. The three
exercises are: clean and press (you clean the weight and press the
weight for every rep), snatch, and clean & jerk (you clean the
weight and jerk the weight for every rep.)

It's so simple that it confuses people. You do all three lifts,
in that order, every workout. I've probably lost the bulk of my
audience, but this is so important. The key to the workout is the
rep and set scheme, and the built-in weight increases.

The most confusing part is this: each workout, add five pounds
to the opening weight. After three weeks, opening weight will be 45
pounds more.

Reps and Sets

Opening weight x 5
Add five pounds x 5
Add five pounds x 5
Add five pounds x 1
Add five pounds x 1
Add five pounds x 1
Add five pounds x 1
Add five pounds x 1
Add five pounds x 1
Total Repetitions: 21 (You see: The Big 21!)

So, and this is all math related now, if you want to finish with
225 on the last workout's last rep, you start with 145 on day
one. Let's look at those two bookend workouts:

Day One:

145 x 5
150 x 5
155 x 5
160 x 1
165 x 1
170 x 1
175 x 1
180 x 1
185 x 1

Day Nine:

185 x 5
190 x 5
195 x 5
200 x 1
205 x 1
210 x 1
215 x 1
220 x 1
225 x 1

For the psychos out there:

Day two starts with 150 and ends with 190
Day three starts with 155 and ends with 195
Day four starts with 160 and ends with 200
Day five starts with 165 and ends with 205
Day six starts with 170 and ends with 210
Day seven starts with 175 and ends with 215
Day eight starts with 180 and ends with 220

Here's what you're still missing: that's for one lift! You still
have to do two more each day! The Big 21 is 63 reps of full body,
explosive, big lifting. Just writing it down gives me wrist cramps.

What kind of Physical Capital does it take to do this workout?
Let's look:

1. Equipment: One bar, a 310 pound set. So, it's easy and cheap
for equipment.

2. Do you know how to do the lifts: the clean and press, the
snatch, and the clean and jerk? If you don't, honestly,
please, don't do The Big 21 workout!

3. If you answer "yes" to both questions, can you do
them with the weights suggested?

4. Finally, do you have the ability to stick to a program for
nine workouts and hate the last three?

As a lark, I figured out the lightest a person could do this
workout with a traditional Olympic bar set up:

Day One:

45 x 5
50 x 5
55 x 5
60 x 1
65 x 1
70 x 1
75 x 1
80 x 1
85 x 1

Day Nine:

85 x 5
90 x 5
95 x 5
100 x 1
105 x 1
110 x 1
115 x 1
120 x 1
125 x1

For the record, the dad who wanted his daughter to do this
workout couldn't figure out how "to make it work when she
can't snatch 85; so how will she snatch 110 in a few
weeks?" You see, Mr. Cinderella's StepSister, the shoe
don't fit.

And that's the whole point: all too often, the shoe doesn't

Key Principles

Let's summarize with a few key principles that can help most of
us adapt the programs we see online or in magazines (or in emails)
to fit our needs:

1. I strongly recommend at least a two month focus on the major
lifts. If we can just agree to get a Max Max squat, bench press,
and deadlift and work from there, we'll all be miles ahead. Yep,
that will take about six months. If you can't deadlift double
bodyweight, you need to by the end of the six months.

2. You need to make an honest evaluation of your equipment. One
of my workouts calls for four bars and several kettlebells. Now, if
you don't have four bars then don't try it. Alwyn
Cosgrove has several one-bar workouts and that will be fine for
those with one bar. If you don't have one bar... sorry, I
forgot the question.

3. When you begin a program, if you don't know how to do a
lift, move, or exercise, spend a few workouts mastering it, and get
yourself to a place where you're lifting weights that will actually
make your body react. Hint: If they're foam and brightly colored,
go heavier.

4. I'd strongly suggest that you also take some time to look at
a bunch of different training programs to honestly see which ones
"resonate" with you. When I read the workout of the
Iranian Superheavy, something in my core says, "Yes, that
sounds right." When I read about the 1000 crunches a fitness
model does before her one hour of cardio, my brain looks for potato
chips. Make sure the shoe fits...

Taking a few minutes aside every so often to account for your
physical capital – your shortcomings and your assets – is like
finding a vein of pure gold. Mine it.

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