Dan John: My Game Changers

A relatively simple question came up on the Q and A forum at davedraper.com . . . the question, to sum, is this:

What were the “game-changing” events in your life?

It got me and many other forum members thinking. In fact, I began pulling out old journals, rereading magazines and books and calling some people on the phone.

What I discovered, overall, is that what I used to do still fits my highest scientific observation: “That’s pretty good.”

And often, something comes along and makes things “better.”
And sometimes, something shows up that changes the game.

Let’s start off with a bit of history and maybe some warnings about being too negative about past programs. The old gem, “Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater” applies well to this discussion. Remember, and this will come back again . . . and again: It worked!

When I first thought of game changers, I went back to 2002. What a year that was for me in so many ways. I began teaching online, won the Master Nationals in Olympic lifting and broke my wrist so badly it required two operations and enough metal to qualify for a rock band.

In response to my doctor’s insight that “You will never lift weights again,” I started a little newsletter called “Get Up.” (Find ALL of them at http://danjohn.net/get-up/ ) In the second edition, after a long talk with Mike Rosenberg, I offered our readers my mission statement:

  1. The Body is One Piece (Integrity)
  2. There are three kinds of strength training:
    Putting weight overhead
    Picking it off the ground
    Carrying it for time or distance
  3. All training is complementary

Every point still rings true. When I wrote that in 2002, it often seemed that my discussions about loaded carries were being missed by most people. Today, we see them everywhere—and people who were barely born in 2002 take credit for inventing them. For the record, if you have ever heard the terms:

Waiter Walk
Suitcase Carry

. . . well, you’re welcome. Like the goblet squat, you can choose to NOT give me credit, but the historical record should be clear.

How did carries become such a big thing with our training? It comes down to that broken wrist. On the cover of Never Let Go, I am grasping the bag in a big bear hug, because I still couldn’t grip bars or ’bells most of the time.

Within a year, my Highland Games and discus throwing numbers were increasing, an odd thing for a 40-something person. Why? The only change, besides basically having to eliminate the Olympic lifts due to injury, was the carries.

So, yes, loaded carries might be the greatest game changer in my career. But to say that, that would miss, as Paul Harvey used to say daily, “the rest of the story.”

In 1996, I coached three National discus champions. Now, criticize my work all you want, but that is pretty good. John Price and I won our Masters championships that year and Paul Northway was the best high school thrower.

Our template was simple and I graphed it for a national track and field coach’s gathering like this:

We got strong, we added overweight implements, then we focused on competing, hoping to stay strong enough with minimal work. This was based on my understanding of the East German model of track and field training:


The longer I coach, the more I see the gap of accumulation. Athletes should play and learn as many sports as possible, learn and use every lift and every variation possible, and take time accumulating a “body” of knowledge.

For that reason, in this plan we also included weekly sports, other varsity sports and John Price beating me in racquetball every single time we played.

Intensification meant cutting back on everything and trying to focus on the discus or whatever the sport was.

Transformation had three parts:

  • Going from another sport to discus throwing—we gave the athletes a few weeks to ease into it.
  • Going from a really intense program to another program.
  • Finally, “transforming” from a winter athlete with heavy loads to an outdoor athlete who simply needed to throw far (jump high, run fast . . . whatever).

The strength training block was organized like this:

There is more detail in the links above, but, basically:

Transformation Program
3 sets of 8
One minute rest (Exactly!)
Ab work after each workout

Day One:
Bench Press
Power Curl

Day Two:
Front Squat
Overhead Squat

 Day Three:
Clean Grip Snatch
Whip Snatch (Hi hi Hang)

Hill sprints two days a week

The Body is One Piece Program
Monday: Snatch
Tuesday: Back Squat
Wednesday: Power Clean
Thursday: Off
Friday: Press

Each lift is followed by an explosive move.
Med ball toss or jump

Week One: 7 sets of 5
Week Two: 6 sets of 3
Week Three: 5-3-2
(Max Double Test)
Week Four: Deload

The Big 21 Program
Clean and Press
Clean and Jerk

63 reps per workout . . . a LOT

Three days a week needs a LOT of planning. Each workout, add five pounds (2k or so) to the opening lift. Add after EACH set!

Nine workouts: Plan last weight on last workout first . . .

Set of five, add weight
Set of five, add weight
Set of five, add weight
A single, add weight
A single, add weight
A single, add weight
A single, add weight
A single, add weight
A single (21 Reps!!!)

Next workout: Start five pounds heavier!
Workouts 1, 2, 3 are too easy . . . then you don’t sleep before 7,8,9.

(Here’s a Big 21 spreadsheet to help simplify your math.)

So, generally, for about four months, things looked like this:

Transformation Program
The Body is One Piece (usually 2 months)
The Big 21 Program (three weeks)
Transformation Program (as needed)
The Big 21 Program (three weeks)
Transformation Program

I look back on this work in 1996 with the eye of an internet warrior. Oh, the errors!!!

  • Learning curve on the O lifts
  • Learning curve on the squats
  • Lack of loaded carries
  • No bag carries, KB snatches (or dumbbell snatches)
  • No one-sided work
  • No chains, bands, KBs
  • I taught “Relax and Win,” but I didn’t stress tension enough.
  • Isometrics were “sprinkled in,” but not organized
  • Virtually no correctives
  • Recovery was “built in,” but needed structure

Oh, but one thing: It worked! Really well. We were simply “better than you.”

Can you learn anything from these workouts? Sure, as Vladimir Zhatorski said:

“Only the general ideas of underlying noteworthy training programs, not the entire protocol, should be understood and creatively employed.

The general ideas of these programs worked well. Two decades later, I look at this and marvel at three things:

  1. The emphasis of O lifting, especially the snatch, was ideal for throwers. (tension)
  2. The emphasis on competition worked for arousal levels.
  3. The utter disdain for cardio (for throwers) helped us not overcondition “conditioning.” (heart rate)

The author of Now What? would be proud:

So, where did I learn this idea of mixing the Olympic lifts and power lifts? It was my first organized training program at Southwood Junior High. Sure, I had lifted for years before, but these were cobbled programs I made up from magazines and things the neighbors told me.

Southwood Program, 1971:
Two laps and an obstacle course
General warmup

Power Clean 8-6-4
Military Press 8-6-4
Front Squat 8-6-4
Bench Press 8-6-4

 Games and Sports

The upside?

  • Junior high athletes
  • Large groups (50 plus)
  • Ted Williams barbells (stored in one closet)
  • Four-person cohorts
  • Logical progression
  • Three years later, these athletes dominated varsity play

Did you see that? It worked!

When I met Dick Notmeyer in 1975, he had a very hard O lifting program:

Monday, Wednesday Friday
Clean and Jerk

Tuesday, Saturday
Front Squats

Always to max effort, tons of volume

And, boy . . . did it work for me!!! I went from a good high school thrower to a Division One MVP. I paid for all my education, saw the world without joining the Navy—Dick changed my life.

Let’s get back to Vlad’s point:

“Only the general ideas of underlying noteworthy training programs, not the entire protocol, should be understood and creatively employed.

I can say this confidently:

  1. The O lifts, taught well, are marvelous for athletes.
  2. Combining the power and O lifts really works . . . if done well.
  3. Hard work is better than fancy programming
  4. No matter what the circumstances, you can use your brain to improve performance training.

In 1996, I got an administrative job and slid to just part-time coaching. I retired from active competition and just did an occasional Highland Game. I got online and met other people with the love of lifting. My wife and I lifted together three days a week, basically working our arms and doing presses and squats. I ate paleo-style and my weight dropped down to 209 pounds (94 kilos).

Then, my friend and lifting coach, Dave Turner, called. He need a lifter to defend the team championship for the State meet in Olympic lifting. My training had started to evolve with some new toys:

  • Thick Bar DLs
  • Chains
  • Farmer Walks
  • Wheelbarrow Carries
  • One-arm snatches

With one tenth my normal training time, I lifted 90% of my best.

At 209 pounds!!

I went on to win the Nationals. And break my wrist.

I had to change again. I couldn’t “lift,” but I could train.

  • Bag Carries
  • Tabata Front Squats
  • Sleds

By 2003 and 2004, I had the best two years of my discus throwing. I broke my left wrist (thankfully), but I could throw. This was with two full-time jobs, Mr. Mom duties (as Tiffini was on the road all the time,) and training in my garage.

So, yes: Loaded carries were the game changer.

But, in addition, so were the O lifts.

And, oh yes: I also started using this weird iron bowling ball called a kettlebell.

One thing you might not see or understand: The paradigm for most performance lifting is from 1975. Arnold brought out his book The Education of a Bodybuilder, and overnight everybody trained like a bodybuilder. It’s a lot like today, when people brag about training to be a “fighter.”

I had to swim against some fierce waters:

  • Bodybuilding takes over the weightroom
  • Arm Day. Back Day. Ab Day.
  • Supplements
  • Six meals a day
  • “You can’t overtrain, just undereat.”

Our field became about “muscles.” We ignored performance.

And this is “my secret.” I do have a game changer. It’s this:

Did the discus go farther?

You can answer this with any measure you want, but as long as I have a metric to measure my input, my changes in training or any new fun idea, I can tell you if it worked.

My game changer is all about performance: Did it improve things on the field of play? As an author, sadly, I have to use sales as a measure, BUT it tells me exactly how I am doing. Amazon stars and reviews are nice (usually), but the bottom line in business is the bottom line. In sports, it is the height, the time, the distance—the hard numbers.

Now, finally, for the Q and A, I added this, but I wanted you to know the story of the first two:

The three lifting Game Changers
1. Loaded Carries
2. Olympic Lifts
3. KB work

Circa 1998 was the biggest Game Changer; 2003 or so is number three; and 1975 is number two. What the hell was I doing in the 1980s?

Conditioning Game Changers
1. Stadium steps/hill sprints
2. KB snatch tests
3. Junk mileage

I started going up and down stadium steps probably when my brothers were in high school. Hills are my one-stop shop for all things athletic. The KB snatch test, not just the five but any time you want to use, has been marvelous—we go two and three minutes as part of our normal weekly training.

Finally, I am old enough to still remember “getting in shape” as running on the beach, getting some laps in, recovery runs and walks. That kind of thing—called “junk mileage” at every school I ever competed at—seemed to provide something good.

1. Discovering coffee and, more recently, fasting in the morning with just coffee
2. Atkins/Paleo/MLB
3. Water

Honorable Mention: Fish Oil, Magnesium

I never drank coffee until my senior year in college, then as a teacher. (Coffee half the day/wine the other half.)

I thrive on a non-grain diet. I know this. I need to practice this. I am also someone who does better with lots of water. Fish oil has been a boon to my skin health and magnesium just makes everything better.

1. Do NOT judge performance as good or bad until is it LOOOOOONG over.
2. Performance is when they call your name, you step in and you do your thing. That’s it. Practice is NOT performance. Showing off is not performance.
3. We can practice appropriate arousal, tension and heart rate to mimic performance.

1. Being debt free is a wonder and joy.
2. Taking care of things early in life is wisdom.
3. Make all your financial issues automatic.
See Automatic Millionaire, Think like a Millionaire, and Earl Nightingale’s Lead the Field

1. No TV on school nights.
2. Have a menu, shopping list and INSIST on dinner as a family.
3. Ask your kid’s opinions. Discuss stuff. Read the books they are reading in school (this ALONE helped me . . . I never read children’s books and I needed to catch up)

1. Show Up
2. Don’t Quit
3. Ask Questions

You can find that in my Resound! Newsletter from 1996. I’ve never found a better list. To expand it, refer back to Lead the Field, available for free now on YouTube.

1. Always go to the pound to find your next best friend.
2. Make sure the dog knows YOU are the Alpha and the dog has its own space
3. Like raising kids: The more consistent YOU are, the more they know what you want and what they need to do.

1. Listen to your children. They know you. Kelly told me not long ago to not fret over friends who were not friends any more: “Hey. You moved on. It happens.”
2. If you leave a person, organization or whatever . . . muzzle yourself. Don’t talk bad or post negative things about your old relationships. I have done this and it is stupid. My dad always told me to leave places better than when I found them and it was the best advice I ever received.
3. Fly one airline and stay in one hotel chain. Loyalty, in all things, is rewarded.

Things are going to change in your life. Keep notes, keep a journal and keep revisiting what worked in the past. In addition, keep an eye on things down the road. What I notice about game changers is that they seem to make things better not just now, but later, too.

We would all love to tell our young, prettier self these simple truths about life: Don’t go into debt, don’t hang out with him/her/them, take that path, save more, eat more veggies and learn to O lift, squat and farmer walk as soon as you can.

Here is the exciting thing for all of us: There is ANOTHER one right around the corner. Or, more likely, right in front of our faces. We just have to have the courage to try things and share the results.

Two decades from now, we will all be better.

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