So how does a strength training legend actually train, day in, day out? We asked coach Dan John. Here’s what he had to say.
T Nation editor-in-chief TC emailed me recently to ask about my ongoing evolution in strength training and conditioning. He essentially wanted to know how I train. You know, like for real.
I had no idea how to answer.
I first started lifting in 1965. I've competed in a host of strength sports, and continue to be marveled and amazed that there's been so much progress and, indeed, so little.
Some people read my work and conclude that there's nothing new under the sun. Actually, there's a ray of truth to that (sun...ray...get it?) as the basic benefits of the barbell are unchanged. But there are marvelous new inventions and rediscoveries that make training today, as I approach my first IHOP meal with a ten percent discount on the senior's menu, as exciting as it was
5 Truths of the Idiot
The answer to the question, "How do you train?" is always evolving. For me, though, I think there are several "truths." Now, I have to be careful, because I might change these truths next week.
- I'm an idiot.
- The key to proper training is to do what you need to do, not what you want to do.
- If you're ignoring a basic human movement, well, that's the weakness in your program.
- You need to be sure your load and reps match each other.
- The role of some things are simply to refresh and recharge.
1 – I'm an idiot.
Happily, I know this. So, I hire a personal trainer to train me at least once a week. His name is Buddy Walker and I chose him because he has the strange ability to make me do things I don't want to do.
It's been said that any lawyer who represents himself has an idiot for a client. The same is true in this business – anyone who programs or coaches him or
I'm Dan John and I'm an idiot.
I've tried repeatedly to coach myself. Here's what I will do when I work in a typical gym setting:
- Bench press
- Incline press
- Decline press
- One-arm press
- Military press
As you can see, I'm really good at pressing! So good, in fact, that when I was in high school, kids from other schools would come to South City to watch me bench!
Sadly, pressing is the last thing I need (more on this later). Here's where my trainer, Buddy, comes in.
Buddy: "Dan. Do these Y-Pulls on the TRX."
Me: "Why pull? Why not?" (I crack myself up.)
Buddy: "Yeah, funny. Ten more reps."
Buddy makes me do all those things that Perry Mason would make me cry about if I were on the witness stand: "Yes, yes. That's right. I need to do more rows, pulls, planks, that geeky lunge thing, and that other thing I hate. I admit it. "
Now, if you don't have a personal trainer or a coach, you can sidestep this a little with a training community. One thing I pride myself in is establishing the Coyote Point Kettlebell Club.
We simply gather once a week and hit a general workout. Sometimes we focus on something that one of the members has asked to learn. It's funny how someone only asked to learn tumbling and double kettlebell clean and jerks one time (these are really exhausting to do even at the lowest level).
So, we agree to gather someplace at some time and train as a group. We used to gather in my backyard on Saturdays for Highland Games training and that works well, too.
Personally, I choose one meeting with a PT a week and at least one gathering a week. Both of these options are going to force you to work the areas you generally ignore.
2 – The key to proper training is to do what you need to do, not what you want to do.
One can easily see the connections between points one and two. What I usually want to do is the stuff I'm really good at in training. What I need to do is all of this:
Joint mobility, especially my hips and ankles
- Vertical pulling
- Thoracic mobility
- Left-arm work
- Balance drills
And I never do any of it. So, that brings us back to Truth #1!
The reason I assess so much with my athletes is that I'm trying to illuminate their own issues. We do it all: FMS, "Bottle Cap" tests, strength tests, and any profiles I can get my hands on. I'm striving to have as many "You see? Here!" moments as I can before we start moving into
3 – If you are ignoring a basic human movement, well, that's the weakness in your program.
I think the best thing I ever did for T Nation was my 40 Years of Insight that featured:
- And loaded carry movements
I make my living telling people to do goblet squats and farmer walks because almost no athlete who comes to me has either done these or done these correctly. Either way, the impact is immediate.
In my own training, I go out of my way to literally check off this list each week. It's funny to note how often I skip loaded carries as this is what I always preach to my athletes. (See Truth #1.)
I also believe in training a lot on the ground, especially as you age. So, I find myself doing lots of Turkish get-ups and rolls and rocks and crosscrawls on the ground to get the work in. As I often note, if all you did for a workout was get to the ground, get back up, and repeat, well, that would be a pretty exhausting workout.
4 – You need to be sure your load and reps match each other.
This is the key to extending your lifting career across decades. I think that the key rep scheme is nearly universally 15-25 reps. Yes, you can do the million rep march, but you won't repeat that workout.
Certainly, for swings and the like, you can slide up to hundreds of reps, but usually you'll find 15-25 is repeatable. If you can do lots and lots more, perhaps consider that your load is too light. You can't do 15? Perhaps, the load is too heavy.
The traditional programs represent this idea. Reg Park's famous 5 x 5 is the classic for building bulk and power. We also recognize 5 x 3, 3 x 5, 3 x 8, and the various programs that run up to around this number like 5-4-3-2-1.
Pavel's famous "deLorme Protocol" fits this, too:
- 1 x 10 with 50% 10RM
- 1 x 5 with 75% 10RM
- 1 x 10 with 100% 10RM
So, in my training, repeatable workouts are the key. If the total reps start sliding up, I increase the load. I don't put a lot of emphasis on one particular set because my experience has taught me that I have this great ability to blow up big lifts out of nowhere. I look for the total as my guide.
5 – The role of some things are simply to refresh and recharge.
I recently bought the coolest bicycle ever – a Panama Jack Cruiser. It has a beer holder, coaster brakes, and no gears. Basically, it's a bottle opener with a bike attached. I use it to do cardio or fat burning or whatever we call it now. It's inefficient, slow, and hard to bang up a hill. All this makes it better for fat loss than your cool little racer and your shaved legs.
I think that much of our training time should be things that refresh and recharge us. I love spending time on bike rides with my wife and we stop and talk and laugh and spend hours riding along the trails here. We don't check our pulses or get GPS updates. We ride. We refresh.
I think that's the missing element of most people's training. Now, as we always say, any idiot can get you tired (sure, do 10,000 jumping jacks), but to continue to make progress and keep on keeping on, you can't always race.
My Actual Training
So what do I honestly do? Generally, Sundays are easy days for bike riding or walking. As for the rest of the week:
- Turkish get-ups
- Alternating clean and press with a single kettlebell. (I keep the weights light here and use this as a warming movement.)
- TRX Rip trainer moves (for my hips and mobility).
- Double KB presses – Usually ladders, 2-3-5-10-2-3-5-10 or 2-3-5-2-3-5...
Tuesday – Session with personal trainer
- All kinds of mobility mixed with specific body area strengthening (usually on a TRX).
- Ab wheels, bench press, pull-ups, and Aerodyne in a complex.
- More stuff I hate.
Wednesday – The Coyote Point Kettlebell Club
Lots of goblet squats, swings, and loaded carries. (See the free PDF on my website, danjohn.net.)
Usually "off," but that would be swimming, biking, or running. Often, a group of us goes to the beach and does a little Kettlebell work, followed by a dip in the northern Pacific Ocean. In the Bay Area, the water is c-o-l-d!
Usually, this is the day I work on more pressing, but I get some focused workouts on the KB snatch for high reps to keep my groove.
Usually, this is a workshop. If not, I sit down with the journal and note the gaps. This tends to be a day for some waiter walks, extra pull work, and some combinations of swings, goblet squats, and push-ups. See the Coyote Point KB PDF for examples.
Bonus – Sleep
I'm as sick as the next person over this new fear of doing anything without three hours of mobility complexes, foam rolling, and tissue work. The recovery area I'm most impressed relates to the king of recovery, sleep.
So, before I begin or end any discussion of "How does Danny train?," let's talk about sleep. Ever since Robb Wolf recommended the book, "Lights Out," I've taken sleep more seriously.
I once dropped from 226 to 213 in a week on my way to getting down to 209 pounds for an Olympic lifting meet by simply trying to sleep 12 hours a day. I was amazed when it worked. Not long before this, though, I had two friends both tell me that they couldn't sleep through the night any more.
Within a year:
One left his wife for what I'd consider a "poor choice".
The other left his wife for what I'd consider a "poor choice".
I began to notice that men start complaining about lack of sleep just before that mid-life crisis. I decided not to go there. I take sleep hygiene seriously:
- Good bed.
- Good shades.
- Quiet room.
- Comfortable temperature.
- Don't watch TV or surf the net about half an hour or so before going to bed.
Nothing earth shaking so far.
Robb insists on Vitamin D before sleep. He recommends the liquid kind and I take one drop with 5000 IUs. I don't know the difference between pill and liquid, but I trust the experts. Then, I start shoveling down the following:
- 3 Z-12™. I don't think this should be used in excess, but that's true of anything.
- 3 ZMA®. There's an argument that we should up this to six capsules to help with Testosterone levels, but I don't always have the opportunity to sprint to a toilet in the morning. Also, I love ZMA dreams!
- 3-5 Tribex®. For the aforementioned T-levels.
- Then, there's fish oil. I take a lot of fish oil. I try to constantly sneak up the amount I take, too. With Flameout®, I don't need to take as many to get what I'm looking for.
I believe the hype about fish oil – I see it in my athletes and I see it in myself. It not only gives an edge in performance, but it seems to help with skin health. Remember, the skin is the largest organ of the body. If your skin looks better, something good should be going on inside, too.
A final point: my friend, Steve Ledbetter, has me experimenting with an anti-inflammation trick concerning travel. I fly out nearly every Friday and come back Sunday or Monday. Every week, I deal with the TSA types, the nervous, sweating rookie flier on one side of me, and the person who doesn't understand that farting in a plane is poor travel etiquette. I also deal with my legs swelling up so that my socks bind my ankles.
So I'm cutting down on grains, increasing veggies and fish, drinking more water, and trying to double my fish oil and ZMA when feasible. I'm also adding aspirin several times a day to my meals. None of this is a recommendation; this is merely what I'm doing for a specific issue.
But it's worthy of consideration and something I want you to think about: How can you proactively keep ahead of your career, school, or life demands and stay on your path to your goals? This is just one way I approach this issue.
I work on recovery in a number of different ways beyond this, too, but sleep is the key. I own a mechanized massage table and probably a dozen things like rollers, balls, and odd knobby things for tissue health. It's all good, but not as good as quality sleep.
So that, T Nation readers and editors, is how I train and restore my body.
As for the food side of the equation – and that's an important one – for me it's almost universally meat (eggs, fish, chicken, bacon (!)) and veggies.
I try to drink excessive amounts of water, but I notice that the more I stick to just meat and veggies, the better I feel overall. I make a daily goal of trying to eat at least 10-14 different kinds of veggies. It's fun to try this and it makes shopping and dining out an adventure. You'll find that onions, green peppers, tomatoes, and olives are in nearly everything now, but expand your options a little.
Focusing on covering all the human movements, sleep, and striving to eat a variety of vegetables are a pretty simple formula for lifetime health. The important thing is, I use daily, weekly, and monthly checks to monitor that I'm not getting too far off of course.
And on my 55th birthday in August, I will be ordering a side of veggies with my Senior's meal.