dan john

Training Tip: Eliminate the Useless

I have been working my way through Easy Strength by Dan John and Pavel. If you are a coach, of any sport, reading it should prerequisite to taking that job. If you're an athlete or self-trained person (like a weekend warrior), this book will change the way you approach training- definitely for the better. Between the two men, there is much wisdom packed into their words that I find myself taking notes on every page. Seriously, if you're serious about training, you need to read this book.

Dan John posited a fantastic question regarding training priorities that I wanted to pass along to our SAPT readers.

"Let's say, for some reason, you've found that you can only train for a total 45 minutes a week. Maybe you've become a political prisoner or something. You'll only be able to get in three workouts of 15 minutes each. What will you do?"

Not only does it put my own training into perspective, but that of the athletes I coach. The answer to the question reveals where you should be spending the majority of your time and energy. As Dan John says, "Training sessions should put your on the path of progress toward your goals."

We humans are finite (this isn't going to get metaphorical so stick with me) and therefore have a finite amount of energy, time, and capacity for adaptation/recovery. In contrast to our in-born capacity, we live in the age of programs like p90X/Insanity (do everything as fast as you can), Crossfit (train everything to the max all the time), and the pervasive mentality that a "good" workout or practice should encompass every possible variation of an exercise/drill and should last a long time. But remember, we're finite!

Thus, anything you're doing that does not directly relate to your overall physical goal will only take away from your ability to achieve your goal.

Refer back to Dan John's question, if you only have 15 minutes to train/practice, what are you going to do? If you're an athlete (or the coach of athletes) what skills would most benefit you/the team to master? If you're a regular trainee, what exercises will bring your closer to your goal- be it lose 10 lbs, or bench 225, or compete in a Sand Race. Find these core elements and devote your energy and time to them.

I'll use myself as an example.

My goal: deadlift 300lbs and perform 20 pull ups in a row.

Conveniently (or not), I also have chronic Lyme disease and over the past year, I've found that I only really have enough gas in my tank for about 20 minutes of hard training. (This is a far cry from what I'm used to.) Even before reading Easy Strength I had to pare down my training considerably base on my energy levels and joint pain. So, Dan John's question was perfect! It did two things: 1) trim my workouts down a bit more, which I believe will make them more effective and 2) encourage me that I'm not being a wimp for eliminating excessive accessory work. My capacity for recovery is also inhibited, so I need to be extra careful with exercise selection as, again, anything that is outside of my goal will only take away from its accomplishment.

Therefore, here is my training split:


Deadlift- currently I'm in a higher volume cycle, so I perform 2-3 series of (1, 3, 5, 7) reps.

Handstand pushups, skater squats, band rows-  3 easy sets of 6-8 each


BB Front Squat Grip Step Back Lunge- (the only single leg movement I can perform without pain). My weakest link in my deadlift and pull ups is my upper back. This variation keeps my legs balance (because it's unilateral work) but also nails my upper back. - 5x5

NG Chin Ups= total of 50 reps. I'm working at increasing the number of chin ups per set and reducing the number of sets I have to do.

BB Back ele. Glute Bridge- stronger butt = stronger deadlift 3-4x8

Band-resisted Pushups 3x8


Aerobic Power Circuit, performed for 15-18 minutes:

Heavy swings x 10

Pull ups x 4-5

Feet Ele. Push ups x 12

Weighted Crawls x 4 trips


Snatch Grip Deadlift- I chose this because of my stupidly weak upper back, so this variation hammers it. I also focus on moving the bar fast to work on the speed of my pull.

GHR, weighted pushups, inverted rows- 3 easy sets of 8 each


Easy movement day and crawling- I use this day to move around and work out any kinked up joints but nothing terribly difficult.

I also start each session with some kettlebell swings. I like them because they warm up my nervous system and get my glutes firing on all cylinders.  All of my accessory work aids in deadlifting and/or pull ups (glute work, upper back, and core strength). I train my core through my pushups and crawling. I perform step back lunges because a) I can't deadlift every day (darn!) and b) I can't squat any more and these fit the bill for challenging my upper back, core, and glutes.

On all of my days, the main focus (the deadlift or the lunges/chin ups) take only about 15-20 minutes, including my warm ups. The accessory work I keep at a lower intensity and I use primarily for focusing more intently on my "deadlifting" muscles. It's not a perfect plan by any means, but it's all geared towards increasing my deadlift and pull ups.

I encourage you, reader, to find out what you would do with your 15 minutes.

Q & A: Writing Training Programs, Part 4: Try Things Yourself, and Borrow and Steal

Q. One thing I was wondering, and maybe it’d be a topic to write about … how do you come up with workouts?? Do you make stuff up?? Have a “grab-bag” of moves and pull out of that?? Borrow and modify from other trainers??  I always wonder where trainers come up with new ideas.

4. Before Giving Something to an Athlete or Client, Try it Yourself

One of the things I pride myself in as a strength coach is never giving someone an exercise or program that I haven't tried myself. Well, most of the time.


One such instance in which I failed to do this happened a little over a year ago. I was doing the programming for Ron, who was in the middle of a "get shredded" phase. I had progressed him through the basic planking exercises, and wanted to spice things up a little. Sitting at my keyboard, Ron's excel file open and perhaps a bit too much caffeine running through my blood, I had a vision of a more challenging plank variation I wanted to give him. It was a single-arm PUPP with the feet suspended in the TRX (see picture on the right).

No, I hadn't actually tried this myself at the time, but I figured, "How hard could it be? Ron's a beast and he'll love this one."

Well, the following week, I'm on the coaching floor and I hear some laughing followed by grunts of frustration coming from the corner of the gym that Ron was using. I turn around to only to see him face down on the floor, feet suspended in the TRX, laughing a bit to himself. He then looks up at me and shouts across the gym for everyone to hear:

"Steve, have you actually TRIED this exercise, you inconsiderate, good-for-nothing, bag of fart???"

That was not verbatim.

So I stood there, stammered for a bit as everyone else around waited for my response, and then replied, "Ummm, yes of course I have....well, kinda....okay maybe I haven't actually tried it."

Come to find out, it was a pretty darn hard challenge even for me to do! I'll admit it took me a few tries to get it, as you literally have to fight for your life to prevent yourself from being barrel-rolled 180 degrees in the air and thrown onto your back.

Now, fortunately Ron is very good-humored and knows how to laugh at his own expense (he also never forgets to remind me of that fail of mine with his programming). We figured out a modification so that he could do something similar, and we moved on. He also never hurt himself in the process.

But what if you're working with someone who's not-so-good-humored? What if the athlete ends up getting hurt because you didn't try something beforehand? I really don't feel I need to explain the "why" behind trying an exercise or program out yourself before giving it to someone else, as I feel it's pretty self-explanatory.

The key is to set people up for success. Make it challenging, but at the same time ensure that you match the appropriate progression/regression to the individual so that they can see and experience themselves succeeding as opposed to failing.

And the best way to do this is to yes, practice writing programs and coach people on a regular basis, but also try everything yourself before giving it to someone. You'll discover a number of things this way:

  • Some programs look MUCH easier on paper than they actually are in application
  • What supersets really suck, and others that don't
  • Exercise sequencing that is brilliant, and sequencing that is not-so-brilliant
  • What exercises make you unnecessarily sore (that will negatively impact a subsequent training day and/or sport practice and competition)
  • The ideal set and rep range depending on the movement/where it is in the program

Etc., etc., etc.

5. Yes, Borrow and Steal

You asked if I ever borrow and modify from other trainers/coaches. In a word: Absolutely, and shamelessly.

But rather than reinvent the wheel, I'll direct you to this post by Mike Boyle (seriously, read it, it's short) as he discusses the very topic:

Should You Stick to the Recipe?

HOWEVER, remember that other strength coaches and trainers are only human. They still make mistakes, and not everything they say should be taken as pure, liquid gold.**

Following the programs of other trainers can be fantastic start (assuming you don't pick a doofus to emulate), but eventually, once you become a "chef," as Boyle said, you need to be confident in you're own program writing skills. In fact, I find myself disagreeing, on multiple occasions, with the opinions of many of the world's current "renown and expert" coaches. Does this mean these men/women are inferior and less knowledgeable than me? Of course not. But you have to be careful to avoid falling into the trap of blindly following every word they say without doing some critical thinking of your own.

Another note is, once you have taken a look at a number of trainers and coaches, only pick a few to follow. Often we quickly experience paralysis by analysis by continually looking at too much "stuff." You'll begin to spin round and round with no direction if you try to follow everyone out there.

A book that holds a special place in my heart is The New Rules of Lifting by Alwyn Cosgrove and Lou Schuler. It was the first book I read that took me away from the stupid, brought me over to the Dark Side, and opened my eyes to the beauty of good training habits. If you're brand new to the field, I highly recommend this. Is a bit of it outdated? Yeah. But if you're still programming 3 sets of 10 for everything, reading Flex magazine and Bodybuilding.com for your primarily sources of information, it's a great place to start.

If you've been in the field for a while now and/or have a solid base under you, I honestly can't recommend Easy Strength, by Dan John and Pavel, highly enough. The book is easily worth its weight in gold, and I honestly think that the price is a steal for what it provides. If you train anyone, be them elite athletes or pure newbies in the weight room, do yourself a favor and read it.

And that's it for now. I'll be back on Friday discussing the pitfall of Perfectionism. And yes, I realize we're bordering on a marathon here with this series so I promise you I'll save you from your misery soon enough.

**Unless they're the SAPT staff.

"Sort of Maxes": The Key to Dominating Competition and Longevity in Training

Just last week I posted a video of SAPT client, Lisa, nailing a 240lb deadlift on her "Test Day." Within a mere twenty-four hours of posting the video on my YouTube channel, someone commented the following: "good bar speed. i know your not powerlifiting but theres a few more pounds on the table so to speak. great strength and keep up the good work."

For those of you who haven't seen the video and don't know what he is talking about, here is the deadlift below:

As you can see, the YouTube commentator is exactly right! There are a few more pounds on the table. In fact, I'm willing to bet that Lisa could have pulled 260-265lbs (and perhaps a bit more) had she decided to "grind out" another max attempt. The 240lbs she pulled in the video was certainly not her true max, even though this was a freaking TESTING DAY for her.

And that is precisely the point.

I heard some advice from Dan John that couldn't have put into words a better description for what we do with our athletes and clients on a daily basis at SAPT, in order to facilitate continued strength and power development and reduce their risk of injury. In fact, it is something that everyone should do if they desire any hope of continuing to set PRs in the weight room and dominate the playing field:

"Go for a PR, single or rep, when you are feeling exceptionally strong, but stop short of an all-out max. Set a "sort of max."

This is the type of max you need to drive up. The "sort of max." Not your actual max. This is the key to safeguarding your body to remain fresh, injury free, and efficiently managing its stressors to continue to do what most of you reading are after: moving onward and upward, both in the gym and on the playing field.

And yet, this is something that many seem to miss once we get all riled up in the weight room.

It's as if we lose all sense and wisdom once we get under that bar, in an effort to satisfy our ego more than the health of our spine.

In fact, this relates closely to what I personally believe sets the wise apart from the fool in this world: The degree of one's capacity to defer immediate satisfaction for the sake of a greater future reward.

This applies to all spheres of life, but, keeping within the context of strength training, the immediate satisfaction would be an extra 5-15lbs on a squat, bench, deadlift, or snatch attempt (the consequence often being stalling your progress, burning out, becoming injured, or feeling exhausted on game day). The greater future reward (in resisting urge the throw more weight on the bar) would be a healthy body, high performance levels, and continued PRs in the weight room.

It is telling that the great sprint coach, Charlie Francis, said the following as he was preparing Olympic sprinter Ben Johnson:

If there is any degradation in training, stop. If there is any doubt about one more rep or run, don't do it. If you are trying to learn with reps, you won't get it later if you haven't already. Leave it and come back to it.

This is ESPECIALLY true when it comes to training athletes. It makes me sick to my stomach when I (frequently) hear of high school and college strength and conditioning coaches pushing the limits of their kids during each and every training session! It continues to blow my mind how many coaches don't have the most basic understanding of physiology and demands of the sport at hand in order to coach their athletes properly.

I conclude with two of Rif's famous corollaries:

  1. The next step off a peak is always down.
  2. One should step down rather than fall off.

Continue to push up your "sort of max" in the weight room. It's the best way to ensure continued growth and longevity in training. You'll thank me (and Dan John) later.