3 Simple Tips That Work
Telling The Rest of The Story
by Dan John
Paul Harvey made a career with the statement, "And now, the rest of the story." I think most readers will recognize the phrase and perhaps, like me, they've leaned in to hear what interesting turn the story we've been hearing is about to take.
When the Beijing Olympics finished, a lot of people came up to me and asked, "Do you think the Jamaican sprinters are using drugs?" When I caught my breath after laughing for a few minutes, I mentioned that there may be an "outside" chance that one or two athletes somehow slipped past and, just maybe, a sprinter may have beaten the tests.
But I also know that, soon, I'm going to hear the rest of the story. It might be something new in the world of training, or something spectacular that we've all just missed. Most likely, the answer will be simpler than we all think.
There's Usually More to The Story
In one of my favorite books, John Jerome's The Sweet Spot in Time, the author makes a wonderful, but naive, point regarding the East German swim team at the 1976 Olympics:
"Observers maintain that the East German 'breakthrough,' if any, is not in basic science, not in physiology of training, but in development of the computer programs which can plan workloads with such precision.
"For the East German women, who dominated swimming for a period of years before and after the 1976 Montreal Olympics, the method seemed to work, at least for a while. For the East German men, interestingly enough, it did not."
Well... I'm sorry... but it might have been something else. If you're really interested, watch this great special from PBS and you may realize that computers helped a little, but essentially turning women into men helped even more.
So that's the rest of the story, and the longer I play in this game called strength, fitness, and health, the more stories I hear.
Old Stories Worth Hearing Again (For the First Time)
Years ago, I had a great interview with Dick Smith, the master of functional isometric contractions (FIC), a training trend that swept the world in the early 1960's. Simply, one pushed and pulled against immobile objects until muscularity and fat loss happened.
Dick Smith during an FIC workout.
This was almost 50 years ago, so nearly all of this method is lost, but I have dozens of articles cataloging football teams that "won overnight" by pushing and squeezing for a few minutes a day. As a coach, I can tell you that any program that promises instant strength increases in minimal time will get noticed.
Later, of course, writers such as Terry Todd and John Fair opened the door that anabolic steroids were the rest of the story. (Fair does a marvelous job in this issue of the Journal of Sports History.)
Those "pink pills," the original steroids, were touted as something that would basically help you digest protein. Through the 1960's and 1970's, many writers, including Vince Gironda, would emphasize that digestion was the missing link in super muscularity and size.
Gironda, with his pupil and the first Mr. Olympia, Larry Scott.
Papaya extract, HCL pills, and a plethora of awful metallic-tasting things were sold to mimic the effects of drugs. In any case, the verdict on isometric training was that "it" didn't work; the steroids made the lifters improve. But, the story continues.
Tip #1: Making FIC Work
A few years ago, I had trouble standing up with cleans at a weightlifting meet, so I called Dick Smith. His advice? Get in the rack! First, Dick emphasized that you simply clear the bottom pin in rack work. One didn't need to use static things, like door jams or your other limbs. He emphasized using maximal weights in the rack.
The perfect weight is one when all you can do is clear the weight off the rack and hold it for all you've got. I took Dick's advice and found that the human body can clear a lot of weight off of a rack.
Second, he was very clear that one quickly overtrains in the rack, but at the same time, doesn't notice this overtraining at all. I found this to be true. In 1991, I went on a serious imitation of Bill March's program (one of the original "experimenters" in isometrics).
I got very strong... then I pulled my right trap. My friend, Paul Northway, commented, "God, you jerked 315 off the rack without any warm-ups." I got seriously strong and badly overtrained mixing programs, and I commented in my journal, "This stuff works!"
Later, after talking with Dick again, I began my dead stop front squat program, to cure my sticking point in the front squat. The best thing I ever did for my front squat strength, which is a basic indicator of total leg strength, was to purchase an inexpensive set of sawhorses (I got them adjustable, to set at my exact sticking point).
I packed on a lot of plates and squatted from the dead stop, bottom position. It worked wonders! I could've purchased a rack for $2000, but the sawhorses were about 70 bucks.
The term "dead stop" simply explains having no rebound or bounce on a lift. It works wonders for the bench press and military press, too.
In just a few weeks, I fixed a serious issue. Here were my observations:
1) Six singles, max! I believe I'd argue for less now; after a couple of warm-ups, maybe two or three total effort reps. (Dick wouldn't agree with this, but I don't just clear the bottom position, I stand right up, so the weight would actually be less.)
2) To warm-up, I like 2x5 with 50% of the estimated max in the full motion. For example, 165x5x5, if you're using 330. I tried doing dead stop front squats cold (no warm-ups at all) and it works, but I noticed that my hips/psoas killed me the next few days. Of course, I'm a geezer. Young bucks might not need it.
3) I'd agree with some who argue that one day a week is good, and you could do three if you're only doing one movement in the rack. This is going to be an experiment of one — what works for you and your weak points.
I did three days a week for about two weeks, then I started hating lifting (again) and I stopped improving. Two days, at the most, would work for me... I think.
The rest of the story is that, yes, isometrics work. FIC (rack work) could be the answer for those of you with sticking points in any basic "anti-gravity" lift. The deadlift from the floor is certainly a "dead" stop, but raise the bar up into the rack and see how much you can pull from just above the knees.
Tip #2: The Necessity of Abdominal Training
If you want to show off your abs... or core... or whatever you call it, go on the Velocity Diet and call me in 28 days.
As a reminder: Dan John before, and Dan John 23 pounds after.
Someday, each of you is going to pay for the 10,000 crunches that you were sure would build a six-pack. Instead, it built a bad lower back. Ab work does absolutely "nothing" for you. Just ask any long-time strength trainer.
And now, the rest of the story. I've been in touch with Dane Miller, who has been training with Dr. Anatoli Bondarchuk. "Bondy" is a legend in strength training, and Miller changed the way I'll look at abs forever. Imagine a mathematical formula as a template for your training program.
• D is your goal. It could be an athletic performance or a certain amount of lean body mass.
• A is an upper body movement, let's say the bench press.
• B is a full body movement, like the deadlift.
• C is abdominal work.
When I increase B, either by max lift or increased volume, I've noticed that D improves. Therefore, dropping B is universally bad. No matter what your goals are, you should keep deadlifting, or squatting, or whatever. Generally, increases in A have some effect on D, but it's more difficult to see the value.
Which leads us to C. Increasing ab work doesn't seem to help us with the goal. I've seen guys using ridiculous weight on 45-degree abdominal boards. What's the point, besides back surgery before you're middle-aged?
So, why do abs? Well, according to Miller, when you drop C, A and B go straight to hell, which we already know is going to impact D so fast it'll make your head swim. In other words, abs support your training goals as much as they support your internal organs! You have to do abs, simply to support the whole training system.
That's the rest of the story with abs. No, working your abs won't help your six-pack, but it will support all your efforts to be able to show off your six-pack.
Tip #3: Fat Loss is About Intensity
It's official. I've received my 10,000th email asking about the fat burning "miracle" that is HIIT and/or the Tabata protocol. Years ago, I bored the world with my article on The Tabata Method.
As a reminder, take 95 (or a humble 65) pounds and front squat for 20 seconds. I'd expect, and demand, between 8 and 14 reps. Rest for 10 seconds, then, without reading War and Peace, do another set of 20 seconds. Continue this cycle of "work 20/rest 10" for a total of four minutes.
Ever since then, I've had dozens of emails saying that people did "Tabata sit-ups" and got none of that pain I waxed so eloquently about. My friends... never compare sit-ups to front squats.
It's like comparing your neighborhood street football game to the NFL. Yes, you got a stinging two-hand slap from 'lil Timmy down the block. That doesn't quite compare to being manhandled like a puppy's favorite chew toy.
The HIIT workouts I'm told about are the same idea, too. One guy was "pouring the coals" to a vigorous interval treadmill workout... 30 seconds of high intensity jogging with five minutes of easy walking. For the record, I have no idea why people email me about anything beyond lifting and throwing.
I decided to figure out just what "HIIT" was. The best material I found was a summary from Dr. Tom Fahey: HIIT - High-Intensity Interval Training Workout: A Time-Efficient, Low-Volume, High-Intensity Training Strategy For Building Cardiovascular Endurance. Tom, an old friend and a great discus thrower, summed up the basics of HIIT very clearly, but I needed something more.
At a Highland Games fundraiser, we once sold "attempts" at a farmer's walk with 105 pounds per hand. To keep the event going, I had to jump in every few attempts and take a 30-second walk to reset the weights. The next day, and for several days after, Fahey's insights suddenly made sense.
Listen folks, this is Testosterone. Would you rather do a 30-second treadmill jog or would you rather march around death-gripping heavy dumbbells? I'm only allowing one answer. For your HIIT workouts, strap on a heavy sled, or grab two heavy dumbbells, and crush yourself into fat-burning mode.
This idea is a work in progress, but before you know it, you'll hear the rest of the story.
For Those Who Missed the Points:
• To fix a problem, consider a short experiment with dead stop (FIC) movements exactly at your sticking point. Don't do a billion reps, just a few.
• Ab work won't give you a six-pack. It will, however, be the best support work you can do for your entire training regimen.
• Instead of embarrassing yourself on a treadmill, burn fat using a barbell or dumbbell with either Tabata front squats or a HIIT version of farmer's walks.
And that's the rest of my story, anyway.
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