I recently managed to get hold of one of the most experienced strength coaches around, Dan John.
Dan has produced some great work in this industry and has been a huge inspiration to me. He has a uniquely simple approach to training and life and has more analogies and anecdotes than I’ve had hot dinners!
Dan was kind enough to let me interview him over skype and I got so much quality info I had to turn it into a 2 part series. Here is Part 1:
Hi Dan, Firstly thanks for taking the time to do this interview. Could you just let our readers know a little bit about yourself and how you got into this industry?
Wow! I’ve been doing this for 50 years! At the age of 15 my brothers and I Bought the Sears Ted Williams Barbell set. So this was a long time ago 110 lbs. or 50 kilos. I loved it right from the beginning and as I got older and wanted to play sports I was able to leverage my strength training even with the other guys because I was younger than the rest of them. You know being Irish you don’t hit puberty until in your thirties!
Throughout high school people were first discovering basic lifting weights, I was able to move onto other things like Olympic lifting. The guys that I was competing with figured out Olympics nothing was helpful. I was well into it and it always kept me ahead of the game. Right out of college Coach Ron said that the way we were doing weight lifting was all over the place. So he decided to organize it a bit.
In 1979 he asked me to coordinate the strength training for the track and field programme and when you think about it, in 1979 I might have been one of the first strength coaches in their late twenties for a sport! There wasn’t many people doing it.
I made a lot of mistakes. My biggest mistake was I thought if the whole world is a nail my answer to every question was a hammer! Honestly on the list of answers it was not bad, but throughout the years I realized you need a quiver, like a bow and arrow to use with your athletes.
The best thrower I am working with now because he has a bit of a knee issue he can’t do the classic Olympic lifts. I am glad he came around in time that I was not a one trick pony.
It was strength coaching and being an academic teacher for 36 years I really enjoyed it. Now I basically write and hold a daily free workshop called Intentional Community where people from all over the world come to train. My weekends are basically giving workshops on the road and Intentional Communities are important because they allow me to practice a few things and become better. I write for magazines and I spend my mornings with a cup of coffee talking to people on Skype!
I love your Park Bench and Bus Bench workouts analogy, could you explain this for my readers?
I stole this from Archbishop George Niederaurer who referred this to prayers. He said that there are two kinds of prayers when you are expecting something and of course when you just kind of hanging out! I kind of stole that idea obviously because a bench is a bench is a bench. If you are at the bus stop, you are expecting something. You are expecting the bus to come by but if that same bench is in a park you just sit there and look at squirrels and birds and you have no expectations. I think that way about training.
I did the soviet squat program if my squat hadn’t of gone up I would have been very angry! I did the velocity diet that was insane. At the end of the 28 days of real issues I was shocked at the progress but it was so difficult that I had to have something nice. Most of the time you can’t train like that so I tell people it is like a park bench things you go to the gym, you enjoy the experience, you get things done but don’t expect anything.
Here is the funny thing that people miss is that most of us get better progress park benching than when you bus bench. After a certain age, I don’t know what age, I think its young though, but you should never peak or focus on an event. Couple weeks ago I did a Highland game and I crush all these records. I am 58 years old, how did I get better and when I look back over my training and the last 320 day leading up to this even out of 365, I worked out and when the event came around my body was in shape to do the performance.
Whereas I could have peaked for the event and had high expectation and yes I would have done better but it wouldn’t have been as easy. It is hard to explain unless you have been around it a long time. We call it the “What the Heck” effect. You’re doing this very reasonable work out all day every day and then you perform better than you ever thought. This is what I started to learn late in my career.
Things like peaking have a place but it is rare that it ever works especially for a sport like rugby and you think you peaked, your too stupid to be a strength coach. I work for American football and we’re like drunks stumbling off of a bus considering we are hurt and tired and beat up at the end of the season. There is no peak there, we are going to show up and hope for the best.
So, if people choose not to do “Bus Bench” workouts how should they train?
You have to do the fundamentals correctly from the beginning and just keep building on it. Everyone knows the analogy of how you build a pyramid. One brick at a time and pretty soon you will have this huge thing. Well half way through someone can’t say instead of building a pyramid let’s build a square or instead of having red bricks have brown bricks. If you get about 80% of it right you are doing well. People will cut each other’s throats over perfection, just get the bulk of it right and you will be fine.
There is a lot of buzz about marginal gains these days. What’s your opinion of it?
People will show me some little test that they do to make improvements, but the test is out there in the field of play! That is why I like being a track and field athlete and most sports is that the true test is field play. You know watching Wales this last year or two. I don’t know what they are doing but they are doing something right. That’s why I love coaching track and field, if this idea you had worked, you would throw farther, jump higher and run faster and that is it. There is no how did you feel about it? No one cares how it felt, what matters is did it go farther.
Yours and Pavel’s book Easy Strength is like a bible to me! What is the biggest message people should take from it?
The most important thing to learn from easy strength or basic a flexibility program is that strength and flexibility is really nervous system issues. Training the nervous system is really important for improving your flexibility. Flexibility is a neurological trick. They say that once you go under general anaesthetic every joint becomes hypermobile.
Drunks are great to observe because you can learn so much about motor control. Once you are under general your joints become hyper mobile and you become very flexible. It is when your brain or nerves kick on they start to tighten up.
I am not telling you to take general anaesthetics for your flexibility but to get stronger is just showing up every day. Doing the movement you want to improve, flexibility is telling your body it is ok to get into that position.
Once you build that layer of strength, good things begin to happen. You get stronger, then it seems like we get more powerful if you can use that and then your body gets this thing call hypertrophy look as big as you are strong and that seems to be how things happen. You get stronger and then it carries over to this thing we call power and if you need it the athlete then gets bigger and when you blend these things together then you have a bigger and better athlete and it is ideal in a lot of sports.
Easy strength’s idea is to find the easiest route we can to not only keep you strong but get you stronger and that is the question and easy strength is going to tell you the answer. This is especially important if you don’t have a lot of time, in-season for instance.
Stay tuned for Part 2…