by Mike Hussle
Dan John is a big name in the functional fitness world. And getting bigger. His book, "Never Let Go," is a must read of strength training strategy and a no bs approach to lifting and life. It's such a good resource, it is required reading on the upcoming Fatal Fitness trainer curriculum. We were lucky enough to get Dan to take some time to chat with us.
Mike: Thanks for taking the time to chat with us Dan. You are a teacher and a coach- could you tell us how you started getting into strength, when all that began?
Dan: It all began when my Aunt Florence died and my brothers bought a Sear Ted Williams barbell with our inheritance. I started doing what I thought was lifting and enjoyed it. It was simple stuff, but it worked. This was probably in 1965 or 1966. I fell in love with the idea that when I did a little work, it paid off almost immediately. I figured out how to use my brain to lift more by feeling how light twenty pounds was then telling myself that "this is only this much more." It lasted my whole career. I took lifting seriously from the beginning. I loved it. Still do.
Mike: So you seem to have both a passion for strength and fitness and a very simple approach. Many coaches have an overly complex approach. One could almost make an analogy to Rocky IV, in the scene where Rocky trains in a barn while his Soviet opponent trains with a team of scientists (and plenty of "vitamin s"). How would you say a simple, rugged approach pays off in the end? Outside of cheaper gear and making you feel like Rocky, that is.
Dan: Actually, I don't think it is big a deal as some people make it out to be, especially online. When I work out or train athletes, some people get the impression that I have thrown away technology and I'm getting back to Fred and Barney workouts. What we are really doing is things that work, and work well, for everybody. I always joke that the best fat loss program I know is repeat hard 400s (sprinting), but I can never get anyone to do the second rep. Hard workouts work! Never let "simple" fool you. Many people let machines and multiple angles and multiple sets and rep schemes fool them every day. Trust me, one set of max reps with a bodyweight squat (not doing "bodyweight" squats, but loading the bar up with your bodyweight and squatting THAT) is far better than a bunch of timed machined movements. It just is. What's funny, by the way about the Rocky IV thing is that, at the time, the Soviets trained like Rocky and the USA trained like Drago, or whatever his name was in the movie. I have had a lot of discussions with former Soviet athletes and they thought that we (the Americans) were so overtrained we couldn't compete. It's a lesson to remember. It's funny, but in my next book, I discuss this kind of thing to death about how doing this and that and this and that and this and that probably does more harm than good. An honest workout does more for you than all the nonsense. Sadly, most people major in minor things, as the cliche goes...
Mike: I agree, and I would say 99.99% of personal trainers out there are guilty of that. By the way, we do those 400 sprints! When it comes to the various attributes of fitness (i.e., strength, work capacity, stamina, mental toughness), the place of strength gets debated. That debate grows when you're talking about fitness for military jobs. What benefits would you say functional strength training has to offer these athletes, who we call "tactical athletes"?
Dan: Well, if all you have is strength (a lot of it), you can do all the rest of these qualities. I would always put strength first. Bill Starr wrote "The Strongest Shall Survive" for a good reason, I think. I'm not sure I can make the point "strong" enough: the single biggest key to performance, tactical or otherwise, is your strength. I see people take flexibility far too far and joint stuff and jogging and are worthless helping you move a couch. As Brett Jones says: "Absolute strength is the glass, everything else is the liquid you put in it." In other words, getting the biggest glass you can get. For anything...
Mike: Is there a balance though? We can all imagine that at some point strength equals bulk, and bulk equals harder work over the long haul. Or that developing too much Type I fiber would inhibit Type II fiber. I know that you are a strength athlete, and in your book you stated you gave a triathlon a shot. Did you find the transition to stamina training difficult?
Dan: Balance? Well, that is a tough one. I have yet to meet an elite athlete with balance. I think the reason that people come to my workshops is that I praise and demand balance, then give shocking example after example about how I have none. Strength equals bulk in a poorly designed approach. Unless you need hypertrophy, and my new book really goes into detail on this, you can get freaky strong and stay light. Go to a top end Olympic lifting meet and note that guys who weigh in the mid hundreds are snatching close to 400! I know this: I have never seen an athlete get smaller in competition, so bulk has its merits, I will grant you that. A 330 pound lineman can just move his feet and make life miserable for you. So, that kind of bulk would equal less work. I'm not quibbling, I'm just pointing out that everything depends on what you are aiming for in sport. My experience with biking and swimming taught me that endurance athletes have a totally different brain pattern than me. How the hell can they do those endless laps in the pool? At least with biking, the scenery changes! After long discussions with Lyle McDonald, it is obvious that I am hotwired for explosive stuff. I'm becoming more and more of a believer that a simple test with pen and paper (I will be vague here) might unlock the keys to finding your right sport. I think Dr. Atkins had it right: if you come in with an unbalanced diet, you have to solve it with an unbalanced diet. So, too, with our field: if you come in with a crappy bodybuilding routine as your program, we have to quickly move you to all kinds of stuff that may be "unbalanced." In this case, I'm your guy. After I finish with you, go find Mike Boyle to get back to "normal," which certainly won't be normal any more. It is a subtle concept, but worth really taking time to think through here.
Mike: So balance becomes sort of the holy grail we chase after... with the guys who train with Fatal Fitness, people all run into a wall with something or another. Big guys tend to be slower. Skinny guys tend to lack strength. People like myself are in that magical, fun zone where they struggle with both. Everybody's lacking balance, and even beginners eventually find the one area they're always going to suck at. We have a motto, "to hell with genetics, it's all you." This basically is tossing out genetic advantages/disadvantages as an excuse. I may never be Michael Phelps, but if I work hard I can become a very good swimmer. For the guy who's always had trouble with running, maybe he will always have trouble with it, but if he pushes himself he can absolutely still get good scores. I think that goes right along your idea of training through unbalance with unbalance. The guys who find that they continually lack in one area need to train that area intensively. And even if no athlete ever gets that holy grail of "ideal" balance, they are going to end up very well rounded and excelling, and just maybe defying that "genetic disadvantage" that had been holding them back. With all the athletes you've trained, what is the biggest example you've seen of an athlete defying their genetics? That one athlete who excelled despite not fitting the normal physical characteristics?
Dan: Well, I would be hard pressed to find a better example than myself. I was well undersized for a thrower, lacked speed and didn't have a ton of coaching at first. In fact, in my first meet, I threw 72 and when I told the coach he just basically said "that's it?' and I, wisely, never listened to another word he said. I work with Division One specimens all of the time who will never make it because their mommies fight their battles, they would rather play video games, or this or that or this. And, guys like me kick their ass. Let's be clear though: Balance in life. Balance in one's approach to training. Not medium! Guys will do medium sets with medium reps with medium reps until they have medium results. I see it all the time. With my personality, it's either "balls to the wall" or nothing. I'm fine with that because I would rather train hard and heavy versus changing the weight selector on the lat pulldown and crank up my itunes. Here's a hint: if you spend more time adjusting your music than adjusting your plates, don't ask me why you are struggling towards your goals. I loathe that medium crap. Hate it. If you want to be great, you need to spend more time reading stuff like "Black Swan" or Art deVany. It seems to me that Power Laws have it right.
Mike: Then I take it you're not a fan of the guys who wear lifting gloves and safety belts to do their bicep curls? We used to have a banner on the top of our site that read, "If you're looking to get 'jacked', 'ripped' or 'swoll', this is not the place for you. Go buy a 'Flex' magazine and be on your way." Do those guys that are all about their appearance bother you? Toughness, both mental and physical, is something we're always looking to train. What have you found truly changes athletes? What takes them from that soft putz who's mommy fights their battles, and turns them into a hard athlete, a warrior in mind and body? In your case, would you say that dabbling in endurance sports (i.e., your triathlon) toughened you at all?
Dan: What changes an athlete is time and exposure. I have no issues with a kid coming in soft. They simply may have never been exposed to anything. So, give them some time, some coaching and some experiences and you will be amazed. With my work with the military, I have discovered that something like a Boot Camp transforms the person. Very little of it is physical, I would argue. What you see is a mental and emotional change. That's the key for everything. So, the emotional component needs a look. I find on heavy dieting (or just fast weight loss for a sport) that the emotional impact of food really amazes me. In the same way, transforming an athlete has these issues. So, what do you do? Well, teach them O lifts, kettlebells, powerlifts, general stuff and this and that. From there, expose them to sports and games and always make sure that some of the time, they are with somebody "better." It's a process. Most guys in gyms fall in love with there comfy little niche and never see how small a pond they live in.
Mike: Your book, "Never Let Go," was a great collection of essays, with tons of information. How long had you been working on that book?
Dan: Since the day I first touched a barbell. The actual book happened so fast it was staggering, though. Laree Draper, the publisher, was amazing. It went from "a good idea" to a book so fast I was honestly shocked! The writings cover about three or four years, of course, and I have two more coming out soon. Mike: What hints can you give us about the new ones? Dan: Well, Pavel and I are finishing up a very interesting book about strength training. Although there is really nothing new in lifting, and maybe some people hate to hear that, there is a way to look at the relationship between lifting and sport that I honestly don't think has ever been discussed. In addition, I am writing another more "person friendly" book that might be titled: "The Art of Lifelong Fitness." I think, as you can guess, that using your brain is an underrated concept in training!
[NOTE: For those readers who didn't catch that, that's Pavel Tsatsouline. Master of the kettlebells himself.]
Mike: Both of those sound excellent. Dan, thank you for taking the time to do this interview, and good luck with the new books!