Dan John: Ramping Up — Training Rules for the Big Push

I have lifting journals that go back to 1971. In them, I can see struggles with 85-pound incline bench presses, decisions involving college and recoveries from illnesses and injuries. I often wince and yell at the pages when I read them: “Danny, don’t open that door! Don’t go in that room . . . can’t you see the lunatic with the hatchet?!”

Well, it’s not that bad, but I do wince when I see myself buying dozens of books on Nautilus training (the same book with 14 different covers) or trying a new fad or idea because of the promise of a 750-pound deadlift from doing burpees.

One thing I often find in there is this: “Time for the Big Push.”

Even as a 14-year-old outside linebacker, I understood the reality that there was a time in every aspect of life to step it up, to bring up the energy and ramp things up.

And . . . nothing has changed. True, I’ll be collecting my retirement funds soon and I can’t seem to find a joint without at least one surgery scar over it, but still, every so often, it’s time for the Big Push.

But let’s talk about three important points before we get to ramping things up:

  • Park bench versus bus bench training
  • The Life Balance Compass
  • Performance should trump practice

You’ve heard me speak about them before, but we’re going to talk about them again, because without implementing these three concepts, you will ramp up on quicksand.

Park bench versus bus bench training

Twenty-five years ago, I popped open the March issue of Emmanuel Magazine and in an enlightening article on Christian ministry by Father Stephen Bevans, I noted a quote that sounded familiar. The person quoted was one George Niederauer. I sent off a little memo to Bishop George Niederauer, whose office was literally “at my feet” one floor below, to see if, indeed, the Bishop was responsible for this insight on prayer. The Bishop wrote back, “Guilty!” then noted that the article spelled his name wrong.

The article noted the Bishop’s interesting image of the kind of prayers most people seem to struggle with. In the Tale of Two Benches, Bishop Niederauer describes sitting on a bus bench. When one waits for a bus, one is filled with expectations:

The “G” bus should be here at 8:11. It is 8:13, no bus, and the day is ruined. We want to get off this bench and get going somewhere else! The bus should be here . . . now. Wait . . . now!

On the park bench, however, is a time to sit and listen and watch. We wait for nothing. The local squirrels that showed up yesterday may or may not be here today.

And, that is okay.

The approach most athletes take to competition is the bus bench image. “On Saturday, the 26th, I will defeat all who show up, break all my personal records, find perfection in all I do and meet the person of my dreams.”

This, my friends, is the “G” bus of sports preparation. It is a tough model to follow. As I look over my decades in organized competition, I can only think of a few (three?) times when the bus showed up on schedule.

For most athletes, most of the time, the park bench model is more appropriate. When you compete or train, take time to enjoy the view, breathe the air and don’t worry about the squirrels. Whatever comes along during your competition or training should be viewed through the lens of wonder and thanks.

To get a park bench mentality, you have to realize that, at best, very few competitions are going to be perfect. In addition, when the stars arrange for you to have those perfect competitions, you had better not try to mess it up with a lot of extra energy. You just have to let things go.

Being in the park bench mindset also helps you with the 20% of competitions where things go all wrong. If you can keep your wits and feed a squirrel or two, you may just salvage this competition.

And by the way, nothing frightens your competition more than a serene smile on your face. They will think you are up to something.

Train hard, but enjoy competition.
Compete hard, but enjoy your training.

One key final point must be kept in mind at all times: NEVER judge a workout or competition as “good” or “bad” solely on that single performance. Judging one’s worth as an athlete over the results of single day is just idiocy . . . and will lead to long-term failure.

So, a caveat, a warning and maybe a threat:

When you age as an athlete, things will not always be perfect. Maybe you have a wrinkle on your skin, a sag in your bottom and a touch of white in your hair. You might have trained perfectly, but that darn hotel bed had a lump in it that left a lump in your back.

Things don’t have to be perfect. In fact, congratulations to you: You showed up. You competed. Judge yourself on “showing up” and “keeping going.”

The Life Balance Compass

Achieving clarity in the roles of health, longevity, fitness and performance was the single biggest hurdle in my coaching career, but I think my first glimpse into the art of lifelong fitness actually happened in the second grade.

The fact that I can remember a talk from the early 1960s, literally decades and miles ago, is enough to thank the memory of Sister Maria Assumpta and her few minutes at the chalkboard.

Sister walked up to the board and put up a basic compass shape. Rather than North, South, East and West, she replaced them with Work, Rest, Play and Pray. Very simply, she told us, “Your lives should always live in a balance with these four things.”

If you work too much, you’ll ignore important things and burn out. If you rest too much, you’ll become slothful and ignore real living. If you play too much, you’ll be like the grasshopper from Aesop’s tale who played all summer instead of storing food, and starved to death in winter as a result.

Curiously, Sister never went into praying too much. I guess she figured that was something that young group would never go into too far.

But I’ve often pointed out that “pray” could just as easily be alone time for some. Pray could also just be taking an appreciation of goodness or beauty. There’s something restful about watching a waterfall or witnessing a plane land at night. Breathe in, breathe out . . . and enjoy it.

For the mature athlete, balance is as important as it has been since birth, but now you HAVE to have it!

We can’t outwork age. We can’t beat back the decades with a mallet. We need to be sure we are balanced.

Seriously, and I mean this as sternly as I can make it, by God, I hope you are having fun as an aging athlete. Otherwise, why?

Why are you spending the money and time on travel?

Why are you getting those hours in on the machines, track, pool, bike or field.

Why are you dealing with the cold, heat, sun and rain?

Seriously, have fun!

During the most stressful times of my life, discus throwing brought me back to center. I used to think it was the exercise that did this until I realized it was the “alone” time. I throw. I walk out and retrieve. I think about my movement. I try to improve.

Bills vanish. Problems float away. I relax by accelerating an implement and turning my body into a launcher.

Discus throwing is meditative for me. Competition is the reward; the interaction with others, the play.


Performance should trump practice

I like to keep things pretty simple when addressing athletes. They’re not dumb. Far from it. But we need to make sure we have clarity. It’s one of the reasons I don’t like using complicated peaking programs: I don’t want the athlete to get lost in the minutiae and miss the big picture, the big point.

Performance should be better than practice!

There are three outcomes, generally, when looking at the relationship between practice and performance.

A. Performance is better than practice.
B. Performance is the same as practice.
C. Performance is worse than practice.

A or B are fine, but C is an issue.

The ideal model of practice and performance is what we usually see in track and field.

During the early season, the practice marks are below the prior year’s performance. A lot of second guessing happens and some begin questioning the whole program.

Ideally, at the first meet, tension and arousal will lift the athlete’s marks up from practice. This begins the process of building a throw. The next week, the practice marks are better, as if hidden wires have been cut from the athletes and they can move like magic again.

Performance explodes.

The next meet sees another improvement, and then the next practice marks improve, too.

This continues to wave upward during the season until the athlete wonders out loud: “Why didn’t I throw this far this easy early in the season?”

As a master athlete, there is nothing more heart deflating than performance efforts subpar to practice marks. “Woulda/coulda/shoulda” is a curse for the aging athlete. This effort seems to bring a spiral of self-defeating thoughts:

‘Why did I waste my time and money coming here?’

‘Why did I think all those hours of work would pay off?’

‘Why did I lather up on the sunscreen (or put on an extra raincoat) for this kind of day?’

Understanding the park bench mentality and striving for a balance in life and training will go far in teaching that performance should be better than practice.

Ramping it up

Now, after clarity in those three concepts, we can discuss the ideas of ramping up training.  Most master athletes can sum training in a simple way:

“I wish I would have known this before.”

There are some tough lessons as we age. The body seems to be conspiring against us to get more brittle, less stable and weaker at every turn. But, these can be addressed—and defeated—with some simple concepts:

  • Train the phasics and tonics . . . right!
  • Focus on speed, speed, speed.
  • Use your checkbook.
  • Seek and destroy your weaknesses.
  • A little bit goes a long way.

Before we get deeper, I have to agree with the criticisms that many will come up with as they read this: You are right! The professionals and Olympians don’t do this!

But at age 35+, with a full-time job and family responsibilities, you probably aren’t the cream of the crop for the Olympic selection committee either.

In my humble opinion, the greatest error of the American Olympic effort over the past 30 years is abandoning the things that work for American athletes and adopting stuff from other countries. I imagine British athletes, who were a dominant force in track and field as well as the O lifts and early powerlifting, would look back a few decades ago and agree they made the same mistake.

Review the lifting successes of the Duncan YMCA team in Chicago in the late 1960s and the parade of names that exploded with national and world records—Holbrook, Karchut, Lowe and others—and you will be left wondering why no one follows their simple “easy week, hard week” training cycle. It works.

The basic lesson of capitalism seems to have been tossed out in the training circles:

If it works, do it.

So, yes, you are right, the Chinese and Russians and Olympians don’t do what I’m going to recommend. Of course, my five-on-five flag football team doesn’t train like the Minnesota Vikings either. Sure, we could . . . but our wives might complain about us quitting our jobs to get ready for Saturday’s games.

Train the phasics and tonics . . . right!

Years ago, Dr. Vladimir Janda, a Czechoslovakian neurologist and exercise physiologist, began discussing the muscles necessary for posture. To simplify, Janda separated muscles into two groups: tonic, which tend to shorten when tired (or old!) and phasic, which tend to weaken under stress (or age, let’s face this head on).

I usually explain it this way: If you were chased by a tiger up a tree, the muscles you use to hang on to the branch for a long time are tonic muscles.

If you decided to chase a deer and throw rocks at it, you would use your phasic muscles.

Sadly, most trainees have this backwards. They tend to emphasize the “mirror muscles” like the pecs and biceps (bench press and curls) and ignore the muscles that are really the muscles of youth.

In 1998, I had this wonderful conversation with some women in the “100-Pound Club.” To be a member, one needed to simply lose 100 pounds. Most of them had figured out that all they needed for the biggest bang for their buck in terms of weightlifting was to do standing presses and squats. They intuitively understood the need for strengthening the phasic muscles.

But here’s the issue: Should you go to hot yoga five days a week for two hours at a time, then drive to the weight room and then to the track stadium and train like a track and field athlete?

Well, you could, I guess.

Let me simply suggest this: Stretch the tonic muscles in as efficient a way as you can and train the phasic muscles with some level of intensity.

Focus on speed, speed, speed

Coach Ralph Maughan at Utah State University enjoyed decades of success with a track and field program located in the backwaters of Northern Utah, time zones away from the hot spots of athletics. How? Coach Maughan focused on recruiting two things: speed and smarts.

“You can’t coach either one,” he told me once.

But it sure is possible to ruin both of them.

There is one thing the master athlete needs to continually keep in the forefront: speed, speed, speed. Train yourself to go fast and faster.

How? First, avoid the temptation to go slow. I enjoy using the “Paleolithic Hunter” paradigm for training and dieting. I just can’t see myself trying to feed my family by slowly throwing a spear or properly warming up before being chased by a saber-tooth tiger. Speed equals survival.

In older athletes, speed equals success.

Second, in your training, you have to be willing to go fast.

In 1982 at the Olympic Training Center, Curt White told me to stop doing anything slow in the weightroom.

“Snap up 20 kilos as fast as you can, explode out of every snatch and clean bottom position.”

He destroyed every warmup and told me to think “fast, fast, fast,” every lift, every time.

Practically, though, how do you do it?

One of the great coaches of yesteryear, Larry Barnholth, who coached the George brothers, used to tell his athletes to explode out of everything. Rather than pulling yourself out of your easy chair, leap out of it.

Try to find little places in your work and home routine where you can explode. I take the stairs two or three at a time. When I play backyard games with my grandkids, I find a place for an occasional “over the top” movement. It also has the added benefit of making the kids and their friends laugh.

Speed, speed, speed, but with a warning: One piece of advice that a master athlete should listen to was a common warning among Olympic lifters in the 1960s and early 1970s—Don’t lift on “nerve” very often.

I argue two points: First, never, never, never fail in training.

Make every lift. Don’t miss lifts. Stay within yourself. Perfect practice makes perfect.

Missing lifts can damage you, true, but more important is that missing lifts costs you a lot of energy. For a hurdler, crashing down to the ground is going to mean bad things sooner or later.

Simply dealing with a miss is energy consuming, but worse is the mental effort in psyching yourself up for the next attempt. Keep within yourself in training!

Remember this? Performance should be BETTER than practice!

Second, focusing on speed and keeping the weights, reps and distance in a manageable range will save your nervous energy for meets.

True, there is no “nervous energy” research, but anyone who has gone to the well too often can tell you the downside of overtraining. The master athlete can afford very little error in the direction of overtraining. Sure, you can do it, but you will never reach your potential in meets.

Trust me, this is experience talking.

Use your checkbook

The great advantage an older athlete has is a job, a career, a profession or, at least, access to money. When I first learned the O lifts from Dick Notmeyer, I had a hard time coming up with the dollar a month training dues. So, how does one “use the wallet” for athletic success? Ask any athlete who doesn’t have money!

First, use your wallet to travel to meets. Get around. Contests and meets—both Open and Masters—are a wealth of coaching and training information. There are people at these meets who will give you, for free, decades of information for the cost of asking a question. Sure, some of it is suspect, but the vast majority of people are more than happy to help.

Second, use your wallet to help with equipment. I have a hot tub and sauna, as well as a great variety of training objects. During the summer, I cool off in my outdoor shower, then jump in the hot tub to recover from training. I couldn’t have done this in my 20s.

Third, use your wallet to put together a support team. I have a doctor I visit for blood tests; I have an old college teammate I visit at his chiropractic office, and I am not afraid to spend money on quality food.

Finally, use your wallet to purchase information. Subscribe. Buy books. Buy videos. Rent a coach for a couple of hours. Spend some money on your bar habit! Barbell, that is.

Never stop learning.

Seek and destroy your weaknesses

This idea, work your weaknesses, is easy to ignore . . . at your peril. The master athlete has to reconsider the notion of tomorrow where weaknesses are concerned. As a teen, or even in your 20s, there is always the next day to deal with skipping dreaded squat workouts or boring technique work, but you are at your peril as a master when ignoring your weaknesses.

Today is the day to, first, discover your weaknesses, and second, deal with them.

How do you discover your weaknesses? Honest feedback from a coach or a training partner is a start. Usually, though, everyone knows their weaknesses. You probably do too.

For the competitive lifter, it is what makes you miss in meets.

As I have noted, the American throwers and lifters in the 1960s were diligent in dealing with their weaknesses. Often in articles in Strength and Health magazine, these athletes would note that “I’m really not that strong/good/technical . . . and I’m really working on this or that.” The writer would comment on the modesty of the athlete, yet I believe the real reason for the modesty was an honest appraisal of weaknesses.

Work your weaknesses until they become strengths.

A little goes a long way

Fifteen minutes a day, yes, only 15 minutes a day of technique training may be enough to keep you going. Sure, 30 minutes might be better and an hour better yet, but if the hours at work and dealing with family are piling up, a little goes a long way. I have been able to win open lifting meets by lifting for a TOTAL of one hour a week.

To be able to do this abbreviated approach, you need a reasonable approach to each week’s training.

And if I can offer the time-conscious trainer any advice, it would be to monitor your rest periods.

The research about rest periods points to increases in natural growth hormone and testosterone production. For the master lifter focusing on speed, monitored rest periods keep us focused on the lifting and not the garden, yard, housework, engine drippings or whatever else might grab that attention.

Use a timer to get back under the bar and get going again. I usually stretch between every set of lifting to keep a balance between strength work and mobility work. It’s a valuable way to “rest.”

Ramping up our training after youth has faded involves the same truths we teach quality young up-and-coming athletes:

  1. Master the basics—the fundamentals.
  2. Master technique.
  3. Show up, keep going and get the work done.
  4. Keep a balance in life.
  5. Performance should be better than practice.
  6. Stretch what needs stretching and strengthen what needs to be stronger.
  7. Find your weaknesses and turn them into strengths.
  8. Try to go faster—focus on speed.
  9. Use rest periods wisely.
  10. Use your wallet passionately.

Apply these simple tools to your training. Then, with purpose, do better.

It’s a formula that works.


Ramp Up with more training know-how from Dan John:
assessing and program design for athletes


Dan John A Lifelong Approach book


Dan John Before We Go


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