I’m currently reading the book Shades bought me “40 Years with a Whistle” by legendary strength coach Dan John. Dan John may have been the first strength & conditioning coach in the USA starting in 1979 long before the title “Strength & Conditioning coach” even existed. A national level discus thrower Dan has spent a lifetime training with iron to improve his throws and this has seen him compete at and win the Highland Games, compete at the national level at Olympic Lifting meets (in his mid 60’s he doesn’t lift like he used to but can still clean & jerk 315lbs) and compete in powerlifting (he once walked on winning a competition he hadn’t trained for by pulling a 628lb deadlift cold in his first attempt).
Dan is one of the most frequently cited strength experts having coached highschool and collegiate athletes in track & field, wrestling and football. And this is in the US where athletes are competing for full ride scholarships. In his field results matter! What I love about Dan is he is always eager to learn and is willing to try everything but he also has a very straight forward way of evaluating the efficacy of any training modality. Does it help him (or the athletes he trains) throw farther? If so, he adopts it. If not, he doesn’t waste time with it. This no nonsense quantifiable approach cuts out a lot of BS. And at the end of the day it is the basics that work. They worked in 1970, they worked in 1980, they worked in 1990 and no surprise, they still work today. And not just in a sample of one, Dan has trained thousands of elite athletes to success. Through his 40+ years Dan’s had the opportunity to really test things out.
In his early days when he was building basic strength Dan had access to half a dozen or so fixed-weight barbells starting at around 65lbs and finishing up around 135lbs, no incremental weights. To get strong his team would do front squats and shoulder presses in sets of 8, 6 & 4 starting with the lightest barbell and advancing until they couldn’t lift anymore. They didn’t have racks so they cleaned each set from the floor resulting in up to 22 cleans per lifting session. And that was all they needed to develop a good strength base: cleans, front squats, shoulder presses.
Dan had the opportunity to train under a very accomplished lifting coach who produced many Olympians so good as Dan was he was never top of his particular class. His coach subscribed to a very simple lifting program. Monday: Snatches & Clean & Jerks, Tuesday: Front Squats & Jerks from the rack, Wednesday: Rest. Thursday & Friday: repeat days one and two. That was it. And it worked.
Dan used the Olympic and power lifts to build his throws but he also found hill or stair repeats of critical importance.
Dan likes to try new things but if they don’t work he quickly discards them. In the 70’s athletes were getting excited about bodybuilding but it didn’t translate into better sports performance. Steroids also became popular but the athletes who used them back in his day are mostly not alive anymore. Steroids may boost performance but not health. Two of Dan’s biggest regrets are time wasted with the bench press and Nautilus machines. It’s interesting to note, but not at all surprising, that Dan did not find CrossFit improved his throws. Given his already prodigious strength, most CrossFit WODs would be merely conditioning for him. And a thrower needs strength and explosiveness much more than conditioning. CrossFit was never intended for sport specific performance but rather to provide a foundational fitness base and help reduce training imbalances.
Things Dan Likes
Dan likes kettlebells and uses them a lot in his training. Overhead Squats: If he could only recommend one squatting movement he would do this one. Luckily this gets covered already in the squat snatch. He found the biggest game changers are loaded carries, sled pulls/pushes and Original Strength. I knew about OS but it wasn’t until I discovered that Dan dedicated one full training day each week for himself and his athletes to Original Strength that I paid attention. Original Strength was a big game changer for him and he continues to rave about it. Based on his recommendation I decided to check it out and am forced to agree it has been a game changer for me too!
WWDD: What Would Dan Do?
So what makes the short list of Dan John strength training recommendations?
1. Front Squat
2. Shoulder Press
4. Clean & Jerk
6. Loaded Carries
7. Sled Pulls/Pushes
8. Original Strength
9. Hill/Stair Repeats
That’s it. Nothing too fancy. No bells and whistles. The time-tested basics (yes Original Strength and Kettlebells predate most barbell exercises). If you do not have a screen to measure efficacy such as athletic performance, it is sometimes easy to get dazzled and distracted by the promise of shiny new toys and training programs but in the end, what worked best in the past usually still works best today.
If you do not have a bodyweight back squat or barbell and rack to play with, use what you’ve got. Front squat it, goblet squat it, overhead squat it. Make it as close to bodyweight as you can. If it’s light, it’s not the end of the world, you will just find yourself doing A LOT more burpees;)
Equipment: A heavy load to squat
5 min AMRAP
10 Full Body Rocks
10 Goblet Squats
Back Squat and alternatives
Complete as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes of:
15 bodyweight back squats
Upper Body Rolls
Lower Body Rolls
Hands & Knees Rock