Legendary strength and throwing coach Dan John has spent decades helping develop some of the most effective training methods in use today. In this guest post adapted from his upcoming book, Dan examines our conceptions of health and fitness, and whether they're really what we need to accomplish our goals. The views expressed herein are his. For more from Dan, visit his website at danjohn.net.
Not long ago, a woman asked me about losing five pounds of bodyweight. I was kind and courteous and told her that she probably wanted to lose five pounds of body fat, as five pounds of bodyweight is easy: Chop off part of a limb.
My advice was safe and sane. It’s the same basic things that I tell everyone: lower your carbs, add some fish oil, drink some more water, and lift a few weights. It’s not sexy and it certainly isn’t anything that gets the blood pumping. I admit it: I’m boring.
She hooked up with a personal trainer that had one of these one-day certifications for about a thousand dollars and promised her “elite” training and used all the terms like “hard core” and “badass.” Within a few months, she left her family, started dating the trainer, and lost her house. Later, he dumped her and moved on to another gym girl. The good news: She lost the five pounds.
At about the same time, another young man called me at my desk. We were getting ready to defend and win our second state football championship and this young man, newly certified with a thousand dollar piece of paper, wanted to introduce my guys to some “advanced techniques.” Rather than saying, “Do you KNOW who I am,” I let him go on and tell me about how he trained the Olympic lifts, something that “no one is doing.” Well, that may be true, except for me, my athletes, and most of the world. Later, I would bump into him again and he had his arm in a sling after blowing his pec off doing a combination of swinging pull-ups followed by max bench presses.
Why? Why do people continue to fall into this trap of smashing their heads against a wall only to discover later that it hurts to smash your head against a wall? What is this insanity that I continue to see in the strength, conditioning, and fitness world where people will trade in their future of chasing great-grandchildren around a park for a temporary fix on a body part?
I can only help with part of the madness, but I am willing to step up here. Really, the bulk of my rantings, not only live, but online and in articles, centers around this lunatic idea that somehow putting yourself next to death’s door is good for you. Oh, I know the t-shirts:
“Pain is weakness leaving the body.”
“That which doesn’t kill me makes me stronger.”
“Tippecanoe and Tyler too.”
Well, maybe not the last one, but why did simple questions like: “I want to feel better, can you help me?” or “I would like to lose a few pounds, what should I do?” turn into battlefield tactics?
Well, I’m going to tell you. It’s going to take a while, but let’s get through the first issue: the idea that “health” and “fitness” is the same thing. They are not, and when you confuse them, you really start down the wrong road. I have been using Philip Maffetone’s definition for health for a long time now:
“Health is the optimal interplay of the organs.”
Health is something that can always get a little better. Health is something measured by blood tests, longevity, and the lack of bad health. Health is something you probably take for granted until you don’t have it. In fact, I remind myself often to breath in deeply, smile, and enjoy a moment of good health. It is a gift.
So, isn’t that fitness? No. Fitness is simply the ability to do a task. Years ago, a guy I know jumped into the shallow end of a swimming pool drunk and broke his neck. He can’t move well, but he fathered two sons. He is “fit” for the task of procreation, although he can’t walk.
If you throw the discus 244 feet then need a nap for an hour, you are the new world record holder and no one is going to remember anything else about this story. If you can do 100 pull-ups or run a marathon, but you have a major cancer lurking inside your body, you are fit for a task but not healthy.
People often comment on the way I train athletes: My throwers throw. For the record, my jumpers jump and my sprinters sprint, but I don’t want to give away my trade secrets too soon. Here is the thing: My throwers don’t run. My throwers don’t do agilities or jumping or, really, just about anything else besides throw and lift. Why? I want them to be fit to throw. Our mantra is two-fold:
Smooth goes far.
Fit goes far.
The more a thrower throws, the smoother the technique and the farther the implement goes. The more a thrower throws, the “fitter” the thrower. Sure, your athlete might jog more than mine, but there is nothing in the rulebook that rewards jogging for throwers.
For health, I will have my throwers floss their teeth twice day, insist on wearing seatbelts and helmets on bikes or motorcycles, and encourage a generous use of fish oil. Moreover, I will encourage my throwers to find a life partner willing to remain active physically, optimize rest and recovery, and discover a spiritual life. But jogging? Insane cardio workouts? Nope, that’s an issue of fitness.
Achieving clarity on the role of health and fitness was the single biggest hurdle in my coaching career. All too often, I, like almost everyone else in the field, would find myself trying to do this and that for myself and my athletes and finding that we got ourselves not only farther and farther from our goal, but sick and injured, too.
Let me spell this out even clearer: I have had the opportunity, the gift, of doing the Heimlich Maneuver twice in my life. Once was a family member and another time it was a teen girl in a cafeteria whose friends thought she was joking around grabbing her throat. I am “two for two” and, without any braggadocio on my part, I feel blessed that I was in the right place at the right time with my basic level First Aid skills. For your own longevity, I suggest that you get everyone you know to learn the basics of CPR, the Heimlich, and the use of a defibrillator. You might ask, “Well, shouldn’t I learn it, too?” Well, certainly, but when YOU need it, you can insure your longevity by having people around you who know how to save YOU. There I said it: for selfish reasons, keep a lot of quality, well-trained people around you!
So, keep in mind that health and longevity are different than losing “this” around you midsection or running five miles in a fundraiser. When people confuse and mix up these two is when the real issues appear.
For anyone who is wondering, the following are my “Ten Rules” that I give literally everyone I work with in health or fitness. The first eight are health-related and the last two are universally true for any fitness goal.
- Don’t smoke.
- Wear your seat belt (and a helmet when appropriate, too).
- Learn to fall… and recover!
- Eat more protein.
- Eat more fiber.
- Drink more water.
- Take fish oil capsules.
- Floss your teeth.
- Keep your joints healthy.
- Build some muscle.
A small note about number two above: it’s hard to explain this to some people, including me… But, just because you “can” go that fast, doesn’t mean you should. Hence, today with tricked out bikes, skis, rollerblades (try to go fast with the ancient roller skates of my youth!), and all the rest can lead a novice to overextend their ability to stop. Remember, the issue isn’t with speed, the issue is with how you stop. And, if you use trees, sidewalks, walls or any other solid object to stop, you need a helmet. Technology and metallurgy have made some sports certainly better in terms of speed and learning curve, but they also make the sports far more dangerous during the learning curve.
Again, like teaching everyone you know the Heimlich maneuver, err on the side of caution for YOUR health.
And finally, the shortest, but most important, point ever:
Why strength training? Good question. My good friend and mentor, Brett Jones, once told me this: Absolute strength is the glass. Everything else is the liquid inside the glass. The bigger the glass, the more of “everything else” you can do. So, lifting weights is the quickest way to build strength. As your strength goes “up,” everything else can be expanded, too.
The more I teach this point and listen to the excellent feedback, the more amazed I am to hear “real world” examples about it. Recently, a woman told me that her friends can’t “make a mistake.” What? Well, what she told me basically was this: Since they were attacking fat loss with just aerobic work and strict dieting, they didn’t have any wiggle room. The woman, who holds herself nearly year round at just 19 percent body fat told me that she enjoys desserts, cocktails, BBQs, and fine food. But… and this is a “big but”… she can also do 10 pull-ups. She is very strong in the weight room. In other words, her glass is so big, she can afford to cheat a little here and there.
And, that made no sense to me. Then, I watched her train and thought about some other women I work with in the gym. When she presses an impressive bell overhead (half her bodyweight with ONE hand), her entire system has to gather up resources and then adapt and recover from the effort. When little Edna at my gym thinks that the five-pound dumbbell is “heavy,” she isn’t going to tax her body very hard. So, Edna can’t eat cake.
It is almost a cliché now, but this leads us to another issue: I watch moms pick up, put down, lift, swing, load, and carry fairly large loads all the time. We call these loads “children.” Yet, when we get to the gym, we seem to think that a woman needs to use very light loads. Like Milo and his calf, perhaps we should start women off with an eight pound weight and progress upwards as the child grows.
One final point: There is a television commercial about a woman who falls and can’t get up. She makes a famous statement that I am sure is copyrighted, but picking yourself off the ground or rolling yourself to a position that you can get up from might save your life. You owe it to yourself and loved ones to keep your level of strength up for as long as you can.