I answer a lot of questions. I answer my phone, emails, and texts. I give a lot of workshops and I spend a fair amount of time on the Internet.

One of the things that finally occurred to me recently is this – people are wonderful about reading articles and books, but sometimes they miss the point.

As I readily admit, it's my fault. I love experimenting, testing, and adapting good training ideas. My mistake is that I write up a little article or blog post about Tabata front squats or slosh pipes or the "Big 21" program. This is the start of the problem. People then read the article and are left with a big issue. And this is the point I'm trying to make here.

Not every good idea, training device, or diet can or should be done at once. In past articles, I've tried to explain this with terms like "Warrior," "King," and "Park and Bus Bench." Recently, I came to discover that I have to simplify it even more by using two words:

  • Reasonable
  • Tough

Reasonable is a fairly tame word, but it's rare today. Clint Eastwood has a marvelous quote (perhaps to an empty chair?):

"I tried being reasonable, I didn't like it."

I think Clint perfectly sums up the issue when you apply it to reasonable dieting and reasonable workouts. Let's be honest, they aren't very sexy. A reasonable approach to fitness lacks all the fun adjectives that define our business, but, most of us can handle "reasonable" for a fair amount of time.

Tough is more fun. I don't use any other terms any more because they may have been copyrighted. I do, however, have a handy tool for any of you wanting to put out your own e-book.

Simply pick one word for Column A, one from Column B, and one from Column C:

Column A Column B * Column C
Secrets Dynamic Strength
Rules Metabolic Mobility
Fundamentals Easy Speed
Tools Simple Endurance
Vision Radical Flexibility
Power Effortless Power
Habits Tactical Bodybuilding
  Instant Training
  Combat Physique
  Brutal Body
  Punishing Habits
  Military Conditioning

* For variation, preface your column B choice with a number, usually "Three," "Five" or "Seven."

Then fill in this form:

The   (Insert Choice From Column A)    of    (Insert Choice from Column B)      (Insert Choice from Column C)    program.

I'm as guilty as anyone here and I hope everyone takes this in the spirit of fun. Feel free to add your own descriptors, of course.

"Tough" workouts are what we tend to look for here at T Nation. If I write something about a workout that will make you puke, I'll get emails about it for years.

Are you interested in a tough diet? Maybe I can find you a link for the Velocity Diet somewhere here. Remember, and this is crucial, Chris Shugart sold the idea (after I begged him to do it) to me as a psychological makeover. I have to agree it was psychological, because after 28 days, I felt like a psychopath.

One of the articles that really turned me on to T Nation was Chris' series, "Eat Like a Man." It combined five days of high protein and high fat with a weekend of carbing up.

I adapted this for my athletes and I still use this as my "diet" template for strength athletes. I still think "Eat Like a Man" is a reasonable way to approach eating for someone "clean" who needs to build the qualities of power for sports.

It's the mix that people miss. I want to address that here. If you think of a simple quadrant, I'd like to chart out the next few years of your training the following way:

  • Reasonable Workouts, Tough Diet
  • Reasonable Workouts, Reasonable Diet
  • Tough Workouts, Reasonable Diet
  • Tough Workouts, Tough Diet

Let me address each quadrant.

Reasonable Workouts, Tough Diet

Most of us turn to diet to deal with our fat loss needs. Having said that, years ago at one of my workshops a noted professor (you'll see why I withhold details in a moment) told me, "Hell, we know how to get you to lose fat and weight: tie you to a tree and come back in three days."

I guess this works, folks, but I struggle to recommend it. Of course, that is going to be the only message some of my readers will take away from this: "Hey, Bubba...tie me to a tree!"

Tough diets work. We all know that. Adherence is an issue, of course, but tough diets do the job. I have issues when I try to diet hard; I turn into a real jackass. But, tough diets get the job done for me. I've lost a lot of weight really fast for lifting meets.

I think when you dive into a tough diet, you need to do reasonable workouts. What are reasonable workouts? Well, most of the time, I recommend that you do the basic human movements in your training:

  • Push
  • Pull
  • Hinge
  • Squat
  • Loaded Carries

In the archives here at T Nation, I've addressed each of these in great detail. For reasonable workouts, I tend to have people live in the 15-25 total reps range for each movement. You should easily recognize these workouts. The classic workouts live in this range:

  • 3 Sets of 5
  • 5 Sets of 5
  • 3 Sets of 8

The "5 x 5" workout was popularized by Reg Park half a century ago and it was the basis of most of Arnold's mass building phases. Five by Five in the bench press, row, deadlift, squat and farmer walks as a finisher is enough work for anyone.

For load, I have a simple formula:

  • If you can't do 15 reps total, the load is too heavy.
  • If you can easily do over 25 reps total, the load is too light.
  • If you're getting those reps and, over time, increasing the load, you're getting it right. If you haven't added plates in a while, consider this as the real issue behind your lack of progress.

If you're putting all your energy into your eating plan, pick a workout you know you can do. At best, I think you can only follow a hard diet about twice a year. So, pick a training program that you know how to do, understand how you tend to recover, and, most importantly, know you won't have to use a lot of mental energy in terms of discipline and free will to complete.

Reasonable Workouts, Reasonable Diet

I think that we should spend most of our training year (probably a better term is "Training Decade" or "Training Lifetime") combining Reasonable Workouts with Reasonable Diets.

A few years ago at a clinic in Colorado Springs, we were told that our diet should center around three items:

  • Lean Protein Sources
  • Vegetables
  • Clear Water

It's still pretty good advice. I've gone to several workshops in the past few years concerning the Mediterranean Diet and the two approaches seem to be in step with each other. Now, if you thrive on Atkins, Paleo, Zone, Ornish or whatever and find it's "your way of eating" and not your diet, this would be your reasonable diet.

Most of your life should be in this method of reasonable and reasonable. It seems reasonable.


Tough Workouts, Reasonable Diet

For me, these are peaking periods of life. As a kid, I called these periods "The Big Push." As I geared up for track season or an Olympic lifting meet, I knew it was time to spend extra time in the gym, the track, and the field. The plan expanded. Not only did the quality of movement need to improve, but the quantity needed to go up.

I visualize peaking as pulling a rubber band in a classroom. If you keep stretching and stretching the band back, it's going to snap in your face. You have to let it go to hit the pretty girl in the fourth row.

And that's the key to Tough Workouts. Marty Gallagher plans these for twelve weeks; Tommy Kono planned an eight-week peak; and Dave Turner (my lifting coach) plans eight weeks of increasing load followed by two weeks of perfect practice and then competition.

The Soviet Squat program I used to do was six weeks of squatting long and hard three days a week.

If you're truly doing a tough workout, your way of eating has to be built in and simple. Hopefully, your habits are such that you support your training with "big kid" food choices.

For years, I believed that tough training could outrun any diet choices. From my experience and observations from others that I trust, as well as some long discussions with some of the brightest minds in sports nutrition, I learned I was wrong. Again.

Make wise food choices while ramping up your training! Like a tough diet, most people can do tough peaking programming perhaps twice a year. I've encouraged my older athletes (somewhere around the mid-twenties) to think about a minor peak each year and progress to a major peak upon that later. Again, it's reasonable, doable and repeatable.

Tough Workouts, Tough Diet

Everyone thinks they can do this, but, really, it's a rare bird that can both diet hard and train hard. Years ago, I had two bodybuilder friends who would help each other out for contests. One day, Lance gave me a call and asked if I could help them train. The other lifter, George, was just a week from the platform. He was living on lettuce. That's it. That's a "Tough Diet."

He would do a set, then lie on the ground. It was my job to stir him, pick him up, and push him along to the next set. Then, bang to the ground again. When the timed rest period ended, I picked him up and away we went.

Personally, I can't follow this type of thing. Maybe once every four years or so I could sum up the energy and resources to make a run at training like this, but it would have to be really worth my time and effort. Something big would have to be on the line.

Yet, when I read the Internet, it seems that everybody is training with a vengeance and only eating straw mixed with protein powder. Hats off to you!

Off Workouts, Off Diet

This is something I never understood until recently. Every so often, stop worrying about everything. Go to an all inclusive resort, don't train, and eat what you feel like and really forget about things. I learned a lot about humanity on a weeklong cruise, I can tell you.

For the record, if you haven't suntanned in a while, don't spend day one drinking beer in the sun all day. I saw a lot of that. Also, women who drink heavy in a hot tub seem to leave the tub with fewer clothes then they started. These are lessons I didn't know I needed to know.

So, the idea behind all of this is fairly obvious. Structure your year or decade in a way that you can swim through various periods of really hard training and some attempts at strict dieting but with an eye to long periods of intelligent progressive resistance training.

When I read a great diet idea or training idea, I file it in my expansive collection of materials. I let the idea simmer for a while and then find a place in my year where I can apply this plan.

It's that simple. It's that reasonable.

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