Wednesday, June 30, 2010

Pressing Matters: a wee chat with Dan John

Greetings b2d readers and especially, if i may, to fellow Canucks, as tomorrow be Canada Day. To Roll in the New Great Summer month of July, something special: an interview with Dan John - mainly about pressing.

For some folks in strength training, Dan John needs no introduction. He is both an active coach in sport, and strength and conditioning as well as being an just-won't-quit competitive athlete in both his favorite sport, the discuss, as well as in the Highland Games. In very recent times, he has become a fan of the humble russian kettlebell, and a proponent of its value as part of one's trainstreing program.

I had the pleasure of connecting with Coach John at the past RKC II in San Jose, where we got talking about the Press in particular, and since then has ranged to a host of related topics from what makes a press beautiful, where it sits next to the deadlift, instinctual training, coaches and training women.

Dan will also be co-delivering a new workshop this fall with Pavel Tsatsouline for RKCs called SCIENTIFIC STRENGTH SECRETS for EXTREME PERFORMANCE (with a book to follow). The workshop i am told is also a once-only, not-to-be-repeated event.

And so without further ado, a conversation with Dan John.

Dan's Book. You have a book out called "Never Let Go" the title of which struck me as  a wee bit ironic for a guy who has a reputation for throwing objects at speed away from himself. I know you explain this in the book, but could you review the rationale?
The Sword in the Stone
Never Let Go: A Philosophy of Lifting, Living and LearningWell, of course, I discuss this in the book, but it comes from T. H. White’s “The Sword in the Stone.” It was the book, along with Jerry Kramer’s “Instant Replay,” that turned me into a reader. In the book, young King Arthur (Wart) is taught by Merlyn by being turned in animals. The first law of the foot, animals who live and die by their foot or talons, is “Never Let Go.” I base my life on the principles of that book…odd as it might sound.
No, thank you, that makes sense.  That's really kind of cool. So with that grounded base for discussion, let us move to something it usually makes good sense to keep in hand when practicing. Kettlebells.

Kettlebells in general - You've progressively moved into working with KB's. How come? what's the attraction to this tool? Where, if i may, does it fit in with the rest of your personal practice and work you do with the athletes you coach?
The attraction of the tool is simply that: it is an awesome tool! On my limited porch, I recently moved, I can train hard, really hard, with the space that used to be about the size of my storage in my training area. I love Double Kbell Cleans and Front Squats for working hard and I love windmills and Get Ups for stretching and assessments. The Kbell is harder than it should be no matter what you are doing. Too light? Do them bottoms up! And, there is nothing better than Kbells for swings.
It's really intriguing to me how many senior kb practitioners are celebrating  the Swing and the bottoms up press. Potent training can be pretty simple.

The Press And speaking of the press,  you seem to be a guy who likes the Press as a move, why? where does that fit into the Dan John picture of strength practice?
The overhead press would be along with the deadlift as the two most important lifts that most people should do. Yes, you should do a squatting movement every day, for the same reasons toss in a hinge, a walk, and joint mobility work, but for loading, you want the press (maybe even first and foremost in my thinking now) and the deadlift. I have worked with women in fat loss programs that simply get everything they need from pressing. Now, they also were on zero carbs, stacking ephedrine and caffeine and aspirin, drinking huge amounts of water and walking every day, but the simple overhead press seemed to pop them to another level. 
If can overhead press it, you can bench it. The more you press overhead, the more stable you become overall. Also, for whatever reason, call it what you want, but pressing overhead seems to apply to sport and general badassary.
Do these thoughts vary when thinking about the KB press rather than bar/dumbbell? or when you think of the press now, do you think pretty much press=kb press?
Well, for me, with my new situation, I can’t just pop into the garage and pick one of four O lifting bars, or dumbbells. I have kettlebells, so there you go!
When you think about the press, or the kb press in particular, then,  what would you say is the art of the press, and of developing a beautiful press?
Well, two things: first, the alignment of wrist, elbow and shoulder. I used to be dumb enough to teach this, now I just have the person do a Bottoms Up Press and then, after lots of failing, flailing and fumbling around, the person gets it right and I say “Yes, just like that.” The response is “Oh, I didn’t know that.”
The second is stability. Pick up a foot (either works, but not both at the same time) while pressing and just note how the body locks down in support. That is the key. Certainly, there are details, but I like to let the body teach you what to do. If there is a “secret” to coaching, it is to provide a simple drill to address an issue.
Around women and pressing.
When we were talking about improving the press, you suggested that in your experience women have to press more than guys to press heavier.
“Press more” in terms of volume, of course…women should press probably every day, doing something in a pressing movement. I didn’t say heavy, I didn’t say 100 reps. In the same vein, woman should stop stretching all the time. They are predisposed to flexibility, yet lack in pressing strength. No, for total candor, I like the female design and I am not being critical. My point is that everyone likes to play to their strengths and ignore their weaknesses. Women need to press. Women tend to have a narrow shoulder base vis-à-vis the waist and it is difficult to press with that issue. I would argue that a guy can get away with just one press in his program, but a woman should master every variation they can find. I have had some great insights, by the way, from training women, as working with this “problem” has given me some insights to improve my own lifting. So, I decided to add more variation into my training and it has made it more fun and more productive.

In terms of load, well, adding weight to a woman’s press is stubborn work! Percents are worthless and it is really hard, like with Dragondoor Kbells, for a woman to jump up the four kilos from like the 12 to the 16. So, we get back to drills and stability work. This is fine. One little thing: if you screw up a press, you can get hurt like “Bang!” So, drilling, training and thinking is also a way NOT to hurt yourself.
In that conversation, you've also plugged in doing windmills with presses to complement the press. How have you seen these go together?
The more I teach and work with Windmills, the more insights I am gaining about the upper body. This one guy in Ohio dismissed the Windmill with “I just feel it in my ribs.” I thought to myself, well, you know, the ribs are a amazing series connective tissues, hard matter and key organs below and the beauty and design of the things are poetry (certainly, it’s a rare epic that doesn’t mention them somewhere) and if you feel them moving and stretching, that’s good. Also, with all the hip work I have been doing, the Windmill is a MUST after every hip stretching workout. It is the best way to stretch the outer hips I know.
Are there other moves related to supporting the press you'd suggest?
The Get Up for a moving shoulder analysis, the various presses like SeeSaws and the like, and, this won’t surprise too many people, the Double Kettlebell Front Squat. If you worked with me, you would know this one. It is a great way to teach the rack and the need to squeeze.
RKC II Strength Requirements for Women's press
Dan, in the RKC II as you know, one of the skills/strength tests for certification is a kb press. For men, it's half their body weight. For women, it's 1/4. Some gals have been saying a quarter is too light, why not a third, or even half for women too? For a 60KG woman, going by the men's chart, this would mean, closest bell is the 28. Personally, while the 20 is fine, i'm still working to get the 24 as a 58-60kg gal.

I guess what i've been wondering is given that if we accept that women need more volume to press heavier, more volume can also mean higher exposure to possible overuse injury. Is it worth it to put up the strength requirements for women? and if they were to go up, what would you see as a sane progression?
For me, this is one of those questions for someone with more experience. I wouldn’t mind a quick study of this as something to discuss it with the hard numbers, but I think a lot of women can just grab the 16 and press it with no training. The 106 KB is NOT something most guys can just pick up who weight over 100 Kilos. So, I have mixed feelings about this. I like standards, but I also like people to feel they can do accomplish the task. Real mixed feelings…
Interesting...So if we think about upping weight, though, what are the cues you'd give your athletes - perhaps the gals in particular - to help head off overuse injuries before they occur?
Overuse injuries are rarely caused by me! The volleyball crazies and the basketball loons with all their year round clubs and travel teams and all the BS lying about full ride scholarships. We have girls with multiple ACL surgeries and then someone comes into the weightroom and tells me that I am overdoing something? I guess it “can” happen, but just remember Pavel’s basic programming point: any idiot can “work you out.” And, there seems to be plenty of idiots on the internet. Hire someone who will teach you, train you. That will prevent most problems: proper training. Pay attention: if you are about to fail, stop. Rest, start again.
high volume; lighter loads for strength
Something all yours, kenneth jays and pavel's volume emphasis along with Asha Wagner's training results. Asha pistoled a 24 without ever training it - just trained a lot of pistoling the 12. a lot - is that doing a lot of lighter reps (50-60%) is a potentially great way to train for The Big Lift. This may seem like stating the obvious, but i'm not sure if i have lost the plot? how might you suggest that be tuned?
The one great lesson that lifters can learn from throwers: you should thrive in submaximal ranges. Not every throw is the World Record…they can’t all be gems!

* women's strength in general
Training colleague Kira Clarke recently suggested that a coaching colleague has seen a correlation between strength and persistent well being. This is worth repeating so let me post it here, from Kira:
"My coach friend (Will Heffernan) has a simple test (and benchmarks) he uses regularly on his athletes (he adjusts them for different types of athletes, but these are his general guidelines)
Squat or deadlift: 2 x bodyweight
Inverted rows in 1 minute: 30+
Pushups in 1 minute: 50+
Pullups in 1 set: 10+
Bench press: 1.5 x bodyweight

In his experience, once his athletes hit these numbers (and ratios) their injuries drop significantly. And as they surpass them, he still likes to see lower/upper body strength numbers increase together, and the bodyweight numbers increase maintaining the ratio of approximately 5:3:1."
He recommends the following for female athletes ...
deadlift: 2 x bodyweight...
pullups: 8+
pushups: 50+
inverted rows: 30+
bench press: 1-1.25 x bodyweight
(It's basically the same benchmarks he uses for 100kg+ male athletes)

He also shared the following snarky remark ...

"The biggest problem that female athletes suffer from is the low expectations of male coaches"
Does the above resonate with you at all as injury proofing? Anything you'd highlight or modify?
I have two very strong daughters (State Champion in the shot for Lindsay) and a very strong wife. One of things I would agree with entirely is that male coaches often coddle their females (sadly, literally true) but I have pushed my family to some big numbers in the weightroom simply by expecting it. There is no question that the human female is not that weak in comparison to the male, I just read about this in a book (I’m usually reading about two or three at a time, so I don’t remember which one) and for primates we are pretty even between males and females. So, we shouldn’t be afraid to push females in the weightroom. I do.
What are your approaches to help keep your athletes injury free, and do you modify that council at all between gals and guys?
This is going to shock you, but I change nothing working for males or females. I have to admit, I have more feminine products in my gym bags than most guys.
* everyone needs a coach?

On the theme of gym bags and coaching then, a lot of folks who practice their sport or their skill do so without getting together with a coach. They run or they lift or do whatever independent of any formal checks. They may say i don't know anyone, i'm only doing this for myself, not competing, why do i need to spend money on a coach i know what i'm doing. THoughts? Suggestions?
Well, I need a pair of eyes to watch me! No one coaches me and it really hurts my quality of training. I would strongly suggest that everyone get some level of coaching. It doesn’t have to be much, but it really helps. I am cutting my own income, but some coaching can help. Now, don’t let the coach become a God with all knowledge and all knowing and all this and that. It’s just a coach. One’s deity should be a bit more complete.
* attitude of the Converted?
Related to dieties, and conversion, are there any attitudes that you see in folks coming to a new training practice - like oly lifting or kb's - where they've drunk the kool aid, and focus seems to narrow perhaps rather than enlarge, or everything is seen through the lens of the One True Movement?  Any suggestions for folks either going through this, or observing it?
How about: Get over it?
How about: Shut up?
Number Two is my issue with the guys on the net, especially. One 40 kilo snatch and they start giving advice like the Olympic champ. Show some discipline and continue to learn. I snatched 142.5 and felt like I still knew nothing. Hell, I still don’t!
That's pretty clear. Still on coaching,  this topic of instincutal vs planned routine training seems to come up more frequently. Your thoughts  on "instinctual training" vs "training plan? 
I really think you need a lot of experience to train without guidance. I like what Alwyn Cosgrove says about doing a program: now, you can critique it. So, do about ten different programs, then try something on your own. I was a fairly accomplished athlete when I did ETK from Pavel, AfterBurn II from Alwyn and the Velocity Diet from Chris Shuggart. That’s the key: follow plans until you trust your instincts to follow plans.
* Athletic Achievement/reality-checking
You coach folks who are frequently identified as athletes, who compete formally in sport, and then there's the rest of us who mayn't compete or think about competition. I'm not quite sure how to frame this question, but do you think there's something important about either formal competition or some kind of external check in performance that any athlete - formal or not - should consider? Do you think it's important (that's not the right word) for people to compete or be evaluated in some way (i think about the challenge of being evaluated at the RKC certs for instance)? and if yes why? or why not?
Well, sports gives you the right world for a goal. It is on this day, at that place, with these “things.” So, no BS. You do what you say you will do. It is hard for a person to follow their goals without the built in support systems that a sport naturally has going for it.
Personal moments of athletic happiness?

Well on that note, could you offer a few moments in your own athletic practice that have been particularly meaningful to you, and why?
  • My daughter’s last throw, personal best, winning toss to win the State Championship in the shot put.
  • Having both daughters in the finals at the state meet in the discus…at once!
  • The many times I have won things on the last throw or last effort.
I always love overcoming all the barriers in the way of being a champion. There are so many…
* Dan Faves?
- fave dan lift?
Double Kettlebell Press
- fave dan throw?
- fave dan move he wishes he could do but currently does not see himself doing in this lifetime?
The Bent Press
- fave dan move he wishes he could do and can see that happening this lifetime?
A correct Windmill
Final Dan Thoughts
What's a practice perspective that you'd say has been of most pracitcal (and/or spiritual) benefit for you in your athletic career?
If you'd reference “To Grad from Dad” on my website here? It is all of this…and more!
You bet sir. Thank you for your time. Much obliged. That was fun.

Coming up Later This Week:
Hope y'all enjoyed that.  With Dan's permission granted, coming up later this week i'll post the routine Dan gave me for increasing the press (part II of the interview).

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Chris said...

Great interview mc. Dan John is a fantastic guy. Don't Let GO is an inspirational read.

dr. m.c. said...

Why thank you Chris. It's nice to chat with nice, sane, smart folks, eh? kinda restores faith a wee bit.

thank you so much for stopping by.

feel well,


Anonymous said...

Holy Crap, I got mentioned in a Dan John interview. And he didn't even say I sucked ... SWEET!

If they ever made a Star Wars movie for strength coaches, Dan John would be Yoda ... I'm a total fan-boy :)

Great interview mc!

I particularly liked his advice:

"The one great lesson that lifters can learn from throwers: you should thrive in submaximal ranges."

I've been working on this a lot and a few of my friends have suggested I'm wasting my time and should just stick with heavy.

It's always good to hear a knowledgeable guy suggest you're heading in the right direction :)

BTW, Will isn't my coach ... Even though I've learned a hell of a lot from the guy via the internets, I've never trained with him. He's based in Ireland and I live in Australia :)



Steve Corso said...

That was great, mc. Thanks so much. Never let Go is one of my favorite books about training, and, in fact, in general.Coach dan is like E.F. Hutton in the old commercial, when he talks, people listen.

dr. m.c. said...

Jura, got your ref fixed about friend vs coach. glad the 'view resonated with you

steve, thanks for dropping by.

Gary Horn said...

Great interview, MC. Did he tell you to "break a finger"? Check it out at 2 minutes into this video:

Anonymous said...

Heh heh!

I love it when you call me, Jura ... It makes me feel so exotic and euro-chic :)



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