Dan John: Symmetry Work

What’s missing in strength training? Dan says “Symmetry Work” . . . and shows you just the kind of lifts and exercises he uses to identify and correct asymmetries.


There is something we’re missing and it’s something that has been really missing in the sport world.

It’s symmetry—symmetry work.

The one area that I think is often missing in strength conditioning is that people do this stuff, but no one organizes it. I have found in the last few years two very insightful things about doing asym­metrical work. One, and it is kind of obvious, is that many athletes are asymmetrical and you want to see how I know? Because I put the weight in one hand and they turn out to be extremely asymmetrical. The kid with the bad right shoulder has been sneaking—has been bench pressing like this for a few months. You how I know that? Because I’m that guy!

You do a one-armed, what I call a suitcase deadlift, and on the one side you go like this and the other side you go like this. That might be an issue. One of the things that I like to push—and it’s not as popular as some areas—is asymmetrical training.

The first exercise—we’ll start in the order we’ve been doing things: We’ll start with the push. For me, it’s the one-arm bench press. It’s interesting because in one of my first articles ever published, I talk about doing the one-arm bench press. Would you be so kind? Would you spot him in a one-arm bench press? Now in my humble opinion if you want to play high school football, you should be able to do the 32-kilo kettlebell for five with both hands. The way I coach it is this: The off hand is free. Go ahead and start benching. The thumb goes into your armpit. There you go.

Now what’s happening is that you don’t see it yet, but this side of his body is lighting up. All the way down . . . there you go—get way deep on this one for me . . . that’s where I want it to be. Now, if this was heavier, you can actually see it. What’s happening is that this is like a throwing exercise. Everything on the off side is lighting up. At Wake Forest, Ethan Reeves expects his D-1 football players to do this with 125 pounds for five repetitions. If you can do 125 pounds for five repetitions, I would consid­er that pretty good. Thank you. Good, thanks a lot.

The next exercise—and this is something that we haven’t been able to do a very good job on until just the last few years—it’s this whole world of things that I would call one-arm rows. The problem is that one arm rows are always done like this because you have so many points of contact.

However, there is an interesting way to do one-arm rows where—now, one thing you have to keep looking for: Did you notice how I mentioned Rob’s planking on his off side? Chris is going to demon­strate now the one-arm row with a TRX device and what I want you to notice is the planking of his off side. Over here, please. I’m glad Chris Frankel from TRX is here.

He is just going to do the one-arm planked row . . . go ahead. Now the thing I want you to notice is that his body is planked. All of the asymmetry exercises look like he’s just moving his right arm. I can tell you…you will get a sore biceps doing this. ‘Oh, it’s a biceps exercise.’ Oh, shut up. No, but what it is—okay, now he’ll move his feet to make it harder because it makes me laugh. You’ll notice that his whole body is going right now. Now he’s going to add—this is as far as most people need it, but we’re going to add a lit­tle rotation to the movement here to up the intensity. You will notice we’re upping the intensity pretty simply. Touch the ground for me if you can—and this is my favorite one—this is the one that ruins my arms. We’re taking a very simple movement—hold there. Here’s the million-dollar secret to this. His metabolism isn’t doing this. His metabolism is . . . Jrrrr—his whole body is going, am I right? His whole system is lit up on fire.

Asymmetrical training is much harder than it should be. It’s wrong. It’s killing me. How many repetitions should I do? People ask me, ‘How many repetitions and sets should I do of asymmetrical work?’ And it’s usually, ‘Seriously? Less than you think.’ Why? Because you will get goofy about halfway through it. You’re so fried because the whole system in those one-arm bench presses—this whole side of your body is lighting up.

Now we’ll move back to the next movement, the asymmetrical hinge. On the hinge movements, I recommend you look at something as simple as the Suitcase Deadlift. I use the term, ‘suitcase’ any­time that I use the word one-handed. The suitcase—it’s in one hand. Would you please be so kind as to demonstrate the suitcase deadlift? What we’re looking for is symmetry here even though—now, she’s still just pushing . . . that’s hyper-flexible—she’s just going to push her butt back. Exchange hands for me now and do it wrong if you don’t mind. Yes, very good. If you have an athlete who does it perfectly on one side and then really torques over on the other, do you really want the athlete snatching? Then you say, ‘What’s wrong?’ ‘Well, I just had ACL surgery on my left knee.’ Oh, so let’s put a huge load on you and see if we can break you. We will see how good that surgeon was, right?

In the suitcase deadlift there are two things you’re looking for. One is that the athlete gets pulled over both times—well, that could be something as simple as weakness in this area here. We’ll call it the QL, but let’s be honest, we’re a lot more complex than that. If the athlete only bends to one side, we’ve got an asymmetry issue.

Once you go through the suitcase deadlift, the area that I look for is asymmetry in the squat. Now, I cheat a little bit on the symmetry with the squat. I do have some people do overhead squats. That is a barbell exercise—it’s true. The weight is up here, but very often, if you have somebody do an overhead squat, as they go down you look for the chin, sternum, zipper line, and if you see an athlete trying to do an overhead squat like this, you’ve got an athlete with injuries. We have to deal with their asymmetry before we move any further. So we can find it . . . and by the way, I can do that with a 20-kilo, 45-pound bar. What you’re looking for, even when she did the suitcase deadlifts—chin, sternum, zipper line. If you see a lot of this happening and a lot of this happening, they are not in symmetry. Would you pop up?

The easier one for some people—and I want you to really look at her carefully—is the single kettlebell front squat. But what we’re looking for here is . . . go ahead . . . chin, ster­num, zipper. If her zipper runs away, as often happens when people are at the bot­tom . . . well, why? Maybe there is no reason. Maybe they are not hurt at all. But if we can undo that, good things happen. That’s ex­cellent. She’s . . . I’ve been working with her for a few months so we will find no flaws in her.

Now we come to the greatest (I think), most under-utilized, under-examined aspect of what we do—the loaded carries for symmetry.

Dan, would you be so kind? Dan is going to demonstrate my two favorite movements—the waiter walk and the suitcase walk. Anytime that you have a weight overhead like this, that’s very good. That’s called the waiter walk. Now Dan, I want you to walk on that straight line for me. Now if Dan can’t walk on a straight line, one of the questions I have to ask is, ‘Why can’t Dan walk on a straight line?’ Now, I’ve had many evenings that I can’t walk a straight line, but that’s a different story altogether and for another time. So that is the waiter’s walk.

Would you demonstrate the suitcase walk for me? The suitcase walk is under-appreciated for a lot of reasons—head up, chin up. If he can’t hold the line and then he tells me, ‘My back is killing me all of the time,’ but he can’t hold the line. Maybe we’re just weak here? Is it just that simple? If he can’t hold the line up here . . . if he can’t hold position here. . . Why?

Would you go back and do the waiter walk for me real quick? Just one quick small point—now just move your head around like that . . . there. That’s something you always have to look for on a waiter walk. The head is on a swivel. If you can’t turn this way, what’s going on? Why can’t you?

Now comes kind of the excitement of how this all comes together. If you have an elite athlete who needs a de-loading week. . . okay. . . I work with a lot of really good athletes who can train. They can slam their head against the wall for months at a time. My job is to make them de-load, unload, reload or whatever phrase you want to use. One of the best ways to do it is on Monday, left hand—Thursday, right hand.

When I talk to people who travel a lot, one of the workouts I always give them is when you arrive in town, you are going to go to the hotel’s weight room, grab that 50-pound weight, do suitcase walk, waiter walk— try to do a front squat with it . . . do a deadlift. . . do some of these. . . do some of those. Why? Because when you’re on the road, it’s like an air­plane landing energy-wise. I do that with my left hand on Monday, guess what I’m going to do on Tuesday? My right hand, but I can handle it because it’s only going to take. . . I’ll go in and just do it. If someone is on the road a lot because of work or whatever, I know I can get them two workouts a week just by doing that simple thing.

Now the other thing that really surprises people when you do this workout is how shockingly exhausting it is, because as we saw with Chris, you’re not doing one-arm rows. You’re doing a whole body plank with one-arm moving. Most of this one-sided stuff is planked. You’re planking. Remember, for fat loss, the most under-appreciated part of fat loss is holding the plank for the whole workout. That’s why I loathe when somebody is doing fat loss by doing treadmills. They put their hands on here. They disengage entirely. They watch Oprah or whatever the hell it is, but they disengage, and this is how they move. If I make you do half an hour of waiter walks, we might have to check you into the hospital. Seriously, you would be toast. It would be like having a disease. You couldn’t do it. Because the amount of this going on would be too much.

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