“The body is one piece”
- Dan John
This article is partly a story, partly a review and partly my notes of a fascinating seminar. For those of us who were there, this will be a useful reminder of what was discussed; for those of you who weren’t there, you’ll get an insight into the experience, pick up a whole load of tips (many of which you can follow up in Dan’s book, DVDs and on his website) and hopefully you’ll make it to the next event!
I recommend you get yourself a cup of coffee and settle back for an absorbing read…
Informed Performance in Dublin was a great venue for the seminar (apart from the lack of heating due to a fuel snafu!). They have an impressive range of equipment (racks, prowlers, platforms, lots of fighting space) and they seem to be making a habit of getting the big names in strength training in to share their wisdom. Jim Wendler visited in November 2009 and Dan John came in December. So I’d watch this space if I were you.
So what’s Dan really like?
“It was fricking awesome meeting Dan, the guy is a bit of a hero of mine.”
- Will Walshe, Crossfit Ireland
They say you should never meet your heroes because you’ll just be disappointed. But where Dan John is concerned, that isn’t true at all.
He is as personable, funny, down to earth and generous as he seems in his writing. His instinct to give is endless and he would have talked into the night if he could. Says powerlifter Kieran Dolan:
“Dan is probably the best presenter on the circuit. The man is like a machine and doesn’t know when to stop.”
A Dan John agenda, like jazz club open session, is an improvisational, reactive flow underpinned by a basic structure. He started off by asking “what do you want to talk about?” and this reflected his attitude throughout the two days: he was there to help us.
And yes, he did get out teh gunz. I’m sure there was a serious coaching point being made here…
Philosophy of strength coaching
Dan’s philosophy revolves around simple tenets that have stood the test of time. Whether it is ‘movements not muscles’ or the infamous ‘if it’s important do it every day, if its not important don’t do it at all’, Dan has a set of principles or ideas through which everything else gets rolled.
Dan talked about the difference between what you should be doing versus what you are doing. He offered a useful model for the sports coach of how to discern whether you need to be coaching greater maxes (does my athlete need a bigger deadlift?) or more qualities (do my athletes need to be more flexible?).
He also stressed the importance of repetitions as key to sport. As a discus thrower, his aim was 10,000 throws a year. That’s 830 throws a month, almost 200 throws a week, 27 throws a day.
“’If it’s important, do it every day. If it’s not, don’t do it at all’. Once you think this through, it becomes very difficult to fool yourself in your workouts. Also, the 10,000 repetitions (of your sport movement) in a year is a great way to say the same thing. Just get the important things done!”
- Ville Silventoinen
As Dan comments, “It took 42 years to make it this simple.”
One of the a-ha! moments for me was Dan’s illustration of the life of a trainee – whether pro athlete or home trainer. For older people – those over 30, say – the answer to the question of lifelong health and fitness is: hypertrophy and joint mobility.
Your life’s quest should be for these two qualities. Why? Because frankly, if you don’t focus on these two qualities they are going to go down the tubes and it will get harder and harder to make an impact on them. They are the prerequisites for being able to train and stay functionally fit throughout your life.
The JD warm up
Dan took us through the warm up he uses with his students and taught us the Kalos Sthenos method of the turkish get up.
This method fulfils a number of goals: it warms up the whole body; it is a systematic way of checking for issues as it is done exactly the same way each time; it contains valuable stretches that will improve over time; it promotes compression (or isometric) strength in the shoulder and elbow joints.
And when you perform the sequence – as we all did – with a paper cup of water balanced on the top of your fist, it promotes fierce concentration! I have never focussed so hard on an exercise as I did on that one and managed not to douse myself in water, which was unexpected.
This is also Dan’s handy tip for how to get a class of 15-year-olds to shut up and concentrate.
“The advantage of these exercises – in fact all exercises particularly for the posterior chain, not the mirror-dominated side – is that they keep you young. Overtraining the popular anterior muscles simply results in the posture of an old person.”
- Daniel Hahn
Dan talked about a concentric circle model where what goes in the inner circle are those exercises essential for health and fitness which are usually done on a daily basis (the squat, joint mobility exercises); in the next circle are those activities that support your training, such as good nutrition, recovery, conditioning. And then the fun stuff around the outside. This helps you to plan a training programme, especially if you have very little time to workout. Always do what is core, add other things if and when you have the time and of course the free will.
“It was great to get live exposure to the various exercises he’s currently using too. It’s one thing to sit at home watching a dvd and say ‘ok, so that’s how Dan teaches the turkish getup’, and quite another to lie on the floor on day 2 with tired abs and shaking shoulders thinking ‘f***, so that’s what this exercise does…’”
- Will Walshe
For those of us who were there, here is a summary of the full warm up:
Goblet squat (with curl)
Hip flexor stretch
Scap push up
Maxercist row (single leg)
Maxercist press (single leg)
Maxercist deadlift (single leg)
Wide/narrow push ups
Turkish get up sequence
- cuddle and roll
- ear right and left
- straight leg raise to ceiling
- bent leg raise to kettlebell
- punch ‘n’ crunch
- T position
- Hips high
Dan also talked about the importance of stretching and rolling the feet. This is a fairly new area for him – a personal aha moment, if you like. He’s a convert to Vibrams (as you can see in the above picture) and suggests rolling the feet using a ball every day.
For more on this warm up material, see Dan’s DVDs Warm ups, workouts and complexes and Perfecting your kettlebell form
Bow & Arrow: teaching the Olympic lifts
Dan John’s method is one of the fastest and most accessible ways to teach the Olympic lifts. If you have a class of people, the full range of ability and genetics, and you need to get them all snatching and cleaning without hurting themselves or overloading them with information, Dan John has the answer.
Central to this is his ‘bow and arrow’ concept. The torso is the arrow, extending from chin to butt as far as possible. Butt BACK, chin FORWARD until you can’t stretch any further (you should be feeling it in the hamstrings like a Romanian deadlift). Then the arrow is released as you extend and jump.
Dominic Munnelly took this video of Dan explaining the concept:
“The Bow and Arrow exercise is what stuck in my head the most.”
- Sean Behan
Now in the video below, filmed by Daniel Hahn, you’ll see Dan explaining the bow and arrow concept in the context of some actual weight, using a neophyte Olympic lifter (me) to demonstrate.
“The workshop is going to do a lot to change the way I train myself, and the poor bastards under my care in CF Ireland. I thought his “JUST MAKE THE DAMN LIFT” method of coaching you on the snatch was particularly inspired” – Will Walshe
I thought so too, Will. That was all I needed to hear, and probably all the information I could cope with!
Groove in makes, not misses. If you miss at 40kg, go back and groove in makes at 25kg, 30kg, 35kg.
Summary of olymic lifting key points
Cues for Olympic lifts:
- Weight on heels
- Big chest
Things to practice every day with Olympic lifts:
- Bow and arrow position
- Romanian deadlift position
- Goblet squat
- Overhead squat position
- Foam rolling
- Feet rolling
Things to do every workout with Olympic lifts:
- Squat Snatch
- Technique days and power days.
- Power Snatch + Overhead Squat (= 1 rep)
- Power Clean + Front Squat (= 1 rep)
- Power Snatch + Overhead Squat, Hang Squat Snatch, Squat Snatch from floor (= 1 rep)
- Power Clean + Front Squat, Hang Squat Clean, Squat Clean from floor (= 1 rep)
See more in Dan’s DVD Olympic Lifting for Beginners.
Nutrition and recovery
This part of the seminar is typical of the Dan John style. It wasn’t on the agenda but someone asked about the Velocity Diet and we were off and away on a fascinating riff on diet, supplements and recovery. Anyone familiar with Dan’s writings will know how enthusiastic he is about fish oil and magnesium. Expect to hear a lot more about L-leucine as well.
This struck a chord with many people. Dan suggests that for each aspect of recovery you rate it either 0, 1, 2, or 3 every day, and note it in your journal. The aspects he suggests are:
- Life issues (i.e. things that get in the way of training and recovery)
So if you had an excellent day and rated all of the above at 3, your recovery index for that day would be 15.
You should also rate your workout, using say A, B, C, D and F (for failure!). So this excellent day you are having might be rated overall 15A.
The advantage of doing this daily assessment is that you can relate the quality of your recovery to the quality of your workouts. If you have a bad workout, you might be able to look back and see that your recovery index was low. On the other hand, if your recovery is in place but the workout still wasn’t great, then perhaps the training was the problem.
It is common for people to blame their training when progress isn’t being made – but what happens outside the gym is just as important. As an athlete, if you can’t get to sleep and you have trouble waking up you are likely to be overtraining.
“my favourite part was his idea of a systematic, quantitative method of tracking recovery with a training journal. Being a gigantic wimp, I burn out very easily, so some kind of early warning system like that is just what I need!”
- Will Walshe
“Recovery Index was something I haven’t done before. I know, I know, I MUST do it! Good way to spot overtraining.”
- Ville Silventoinen
For me, this is where Dan John really excels. He takes both his own experience and models from other areas of life and applies them to strength training in a way that makes you see your entire training life in a single view. Goals crystalise, the unimportant or the lame crumbles away and you are left with what is really important.
It’s hard to do justice to the power of this process, but here are some things to ponder.
Move your goals from should or could to MUST.
Ask yourself – what is the pleasure of reaching my goal? (e.g. I am happy, proud, empowered, a winner) What is the pleasure of not reaching my goal? (e.g I can eat all the cookies I want and indulge in self pity)
Ask yourself – what is the pain of reaching my goal? (hard work, not going out, sticking to my diet) What is the pain of not reaching my goal? (all that hard work for nothing)
If you understand why you want to achieve your stated goal and you are motivated enough, you’ll be able to overcome any pain or discomfort involved in achieving it. Likewise if your goal is half-hearted or ill-defined, it will be all too easy to revert to the ‘pleasure’ of not achieving it.
“The goal setting chart with do’s and dont’s and pleasures and pains is something I’ve never done before, but I will now do. It made me wonder how serious I really am about my sport (I guess it’s more like a hobby to me, sad but true). I also really liked Dan’s comment that some people’s training suffers when they are in a relationship, which I think is true. It makes you really think hard what you MUST do to achieve your goals and understand the sacrifices that the top athletes make. How badly do you want it?”
- Ville Silventoinen
Remember, the goal is to keep the goal the goal.
The kettlebell swing
We had a practical session on the hardstyle kettlebell swing.
Most kettlebell swings are an almost languid movement where the trainee drops into a half squat, swings the bell far out in front of them and lets it drift up overhead.
The hardstyle swing is an aggressive hip snap where the kettlebell is actively pulled down from a position parallel to the ground, fast towards the groin. Yes, much hilarity as Dan proceeded to try to hit several participants in the balls with a heavy kettlebell!
Hip displacement continuum
The what??….okay, so it’s a continuum relating to how the hip moves. At one end is the squat, at the other end is the properly-performed swing with an aggressive hip snap.
SQUAT ——————————————————- SWING
Dan’s point is that most people perform the swing with a sort of squat, whereas they should perform it with a hip snap. They are at the wrong end of the continuum.
It is similar to the way Dan teaches the Olympic lifts – remember the ‘bow and arrow’ and the ‘butt BACK’ rule? The kettlebell swing is akin to the explosive hip snap required in the Olympic lifts. The standing long jump (we had a practical session on this too) and the vertical jump are also on the swing side of the continuum. Whereas the back squat, zercher squat, the front squat all live on the other side.
Dan also teaches a movement he calls the bootstrapper squat, which is right in the middle of the hip displacement continuum. Start in the goblet squat position (holding a kettlebell) and then extend your legs and swing the kettlebell back through them, extending your arms. So you end up in a Romanian deadlift position. Watch seminar participant Daniel Hahn demonstrate in this video (taken by Dominic) and listen to Dan explain further the difference between the squat movement and the swing movement:
So, it’s all in the hips – but all hip movements are not the same.
See Dan teaching the hardstyle kettlebell swing and the Kalos Sthenos get up in his DVD Perfecting your kettlebell form.
Rep rules and repeatable workouts
Another of Dan’s simple yet practical formulas that answers questions most people haven’t even asked yet. It is a rule of thumb for determining how many reps to aim for in a workout, but the bigger idea is to formulate repeatable workouts that train you efficiently without overstressing the system. They will keep you strong and keep your joints mobile.
Rule of ten
Ten honest, working reps – hard, heavy – is sufficient for one workout if you are an experienced lifter (a beginner can do more reps at a higher percentage of their max, since it isn’t a true max). This might include 5 x 2, 10 singles, one set of 10, 5-3-2 and so on. Best done using the following lifts:
- Back squat
- Front squat
- Clean and jerk
Rule of 15-25
Rep schemes such as 5×5 fit into this category. Best done with the major half body moves:
- Bench press
- Military press
- Double kettlebell press
Rule of 50+
Useful for total body, explosive but light movements, such as:
- Kettlebell swings
- Kettlebell snatch
Dan John also likes the following rep scheme:
2 – 3 – 5 – 10 x 5 = 100 reps
The 40 day program
Dan offered a practical example of these rep rules using one of his classic T-Nation successes: the 40 day program (quick summary: pick five exercises and for the next 40 workouts, do the exact same training program every day)
Choose five exercises – selecting a range of movements (push, pull, posterior, anterior, explosive and so on). Let’s say we choose bench press, snatch grip deadlift, kettlebell swing, pull up and ab roll. Here’s how you could apply the rep rules:
Deadlift – rule of ten
Bench press – rule of ten
Kettlebell swing – rule of 50
Pull up – ladder of 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3, 1, 2, 3 (Dan’s current favourite pull up protocol)
The point is to be able to do this workout without emotion, without psyche-up, without missing the lifts. You are greasing the groove. It is a kind of neurological training. In terms of weight, you gradually nudge your numbers up. You stay at 80% but that 80% slowly gets higher.
Phasic v Tonic Muscles
This looks alarmingly technical at first glance, but stick with it and it will make sense. Phasic muscles tend to be fast twitch and tend to weaken over time. Tonic muscles tend to be slow twitch and tend to stiffen over time. Some muscles are a bit of both.
|Triceps||Traps||Parts of traps|
|Rhomboids||Lats||Psoas (hip flexor)|
So the muscles that weaken over time need to be strengthened, and the muscles that stiffen over time need to be stretched. It’s a wonderfully simple way to prioritise different aspects of your training. “Stretch what is tight. Strengthen what is weak.”
“This was a definite “a-ha!” moment for me, although I remember reading about this in Dan’s book. It’s great to hear stuff like this. It’s not too much “mobility voodoo”, just enough to understand what to lookout for.”
- Ville Silventoinen
Dan showed us one of his favourite exercises for the rhomboids – neglected and therefore weak in many people. This is the batwing. Lie face down on a bench, grab a kettlebell in each hand and draw it up in a row-like movement until your thumbs are in your armpits. Hold the weight there.
It’s a simple exercise but many people won’t be able to get the weight high enough and hold it there at first because their rhomboids are too weak. Dan suggests 10-15 reps of 5-15 seconds each (i.e. hold at the top for 5-15 seconds).
Litvinovs and Eagles
Dan introduced us to a long time favourite conditioning sequence: Litvinov sprints, named after a Soviet hammer thrower. Litvinov used to do 8 reps of heavy front squats followed by a 400m run. Dan has adapted this to be any big lift (although front squats still work best) followed by a sprint; it doesn’t have to be 400m, it can be much shorter. The training is in the transition from the big lift to the sprint.
I was the guinea pig for this little adventure so I cleaned and then front squatted 40kg (I know – massive!) eight times and then dropped the bar and sprinted as hard as I could across the gym. For the first few paces you hardly know where your legs are. We also tried this with overhead squats, still with 40kg on the bar (much more of a challenge for me – in fact it was an overhead squat PR).
Naturally this routine works best if you can take your weights outside and drop them freely.
Dan also showed us Eagles with a kettlebell. You do 8 reps of front squats, then a farmers walk out with a kettlebell; 8 reps of front squats at the other end, then a farmers walk back with a kettlebell. You do this four times. You make the weights heavy enough, this is an exhausting workout.
Is it really the end?
“I got a hell of a lot out of the two days, it’s gonna take a long time to digest all of it. I’ve literally got 14 pages of notes from day 2 alone!
- Will Walshe
The end of the two-day extravaganza came far too quickly. There’s still plenty that was covered that I haven’t included in the summary above – you’ll just have to come to a seminar yourself if you want the full SP!
And not only did we have two days of Dan’s wit and wisdom in the gym, we also got to spend nights out in Dublin with him and his family, sharing beers and chatting.
Although we had a good-sized, enthusiastic group, I was surprised that more people didn’t make the seminar. It’s not often that you can be part of something that could influence the way you train for years. Watching Dan teach is also a lesson in itself. Powerlifter Kieran Doyle made the interesting observation that:
“the most frightening thing about the seminar is the amount of people that attended the seminar that don’t work in the fitness industry, very passionate people that could give a lot to the industry.”
Dan John instills and nutures this kind of passion and has perhaps inspired some of these individuals to put their passion to broader use. And fight crime!
Check out the Informed Performance website and keep an eye open for forthcoming seminars. Also well worth reading are the blogs of IP’s coaches, Will Heffernan, strength & conditioning coach, and Barry Oglesby, MMA coach.
Many thanks to the seminar participants who contributed their thoughts, photos and video clips to this review: Daniel Hahn, Ville Silventoinen, Will Walshe, Dominic Mullenny, Kieran Doyle, Sean Behan, Jerzy Samolej.
Thanks to Dan Fouts, Will Heffernan and Barry Oglesby at Informed Performance for being great hosts and for bringing Dan John over in the first place.
And thanks of course to Dan John for his unfailing energy, wit and wisdom over an intense but fun few days.