Dan John: Old Drills Reborn—Training Programs for “Everybody Else”

Recently, I had a chance to go to Germany. I love my visits there; I have many friends and I tend to enjoy myself far too much.

Gernot Brecht is one of these friends. We knew each other before we ever met. Our mutual love of the discus—he was an outstanding thrower—brought us together via email and social media. We finally met a few years ago and like most of the time when I meet fellow travelers in sports, we sat down, drank beer, shared stories and, most important, shared information.

When Gernot talks, I listen. He has been expanding his business lately and he is one of the few who own gyms where people actually succeed in their goals. He told me the secret of modern training for the group of people I call “Everybody Else.”

Thirty seconds on.

Thirty seconds off.

For thirty minutes.

Yep, that’s it. When he first explained it, I nodded my head and did what most of you are doing, too: “Yep, sure. Makes sense. Can’t argue. Fine idea. Well played. Want another beer?”

I recognized Gernot’s idea as “Circuit Training” and, like all great ideas, I missed what he said at first. This is classic “I go/You go” training and it has been the basic kettlebell workout since John Ducane and Pavel reintroduced kettlebells to the world.

30/30 is nothing new. But that doesn’t make it bad.

I grew up when circuit training was the answer to most coaching issues. With limited equipment and large numbers of athletes, we learned to move from exercise to exercise at a fast pace and work every muscle as well as our cardiovascular system.

Did it work?

I dunno! But we were sure good in sports and life. Back then, no one asked silly questions like “Did it work?” or ever questioned a coach. (If you insist: Yes, it worked.)

As a teenage lifter, everything seemed to work. We blended two kinds of training:

  1. The style that would be recognizable as “supersetting” in bodybuilding, with complementary movements back-to-back (push-pull, biceps-triceps, crunch-hyperextension).
  2. The style that was more “cardio,” with a general bodybuilding or calisthenic movement mixed with a cardio movement like skipping rope, running in place or some kind of movement machine . . . we had cheap exercycles.

Okay, so there is actually a third method that might be valuable for “Active Athletes.” Active athletes, the term we use in our assessment process (see Can You Go?) is that less than one percent of the population who compete. I have the circa 1960s books in German that show mixing cardio work, strength work and skills like free throws or dribbling tests in basketball, but we never really had a chance at the time to assess if it worked. The anabolic wave hit so hard at the time that many great ideas got lost, like Peter Tschiene’s ideas of “Mixed Training.” I love this concept:

  1. Essentially, you bring barbells and kettlebells to the practice field and mix lifting with technical and strategic work.

Peter Tschiene, by the way, is one of forgotten geniuses (genii?) of our training world. His views on periodization seemed to become Russian ideas and we forgot Tschiene’s impact. Just saying.

Each of the three have value, of course. The first method is still in use as an off-season conditioner and John Powell, former World Record holder in the discus, still has his athletes use his Twenty-Minute Drill:

Twenty-Minute Drill
Alternate sets while doing each group.

In Group One, for example, do 10 repetitions in the bench, followed by 10 repetitions in the bentover row. This process would be repeated two more times before moving on to Group Two.

Group One
Bench Press, 3 by 10
Bent Over Row, 3 by 10

Group Two
Hamstring Curls, 3 by 10
Leg Extension, 3 by 10

Group Three
Curls, 3 by 10
Triceps Extension, 3 by 10

Group Four
Overhead Dumbell Press, 3 by 10
Lat Pulldowns, 3 by 10

Group Five
Side bends, right 3 by 10
Side bends, left 3 by 10

Group Six
Sit-ups, 3 by 10
Back Extensions, 3 by 10

The first goal is to finish all of this in 20 minutes. After that, we can discuss loading up the lifts.

The second method, mixing cardio movements with calisthenic movements, is what Gernot is emphasizing. The devil, of course, is in the details.

We have really had fun putting together some ideas. Here is a warning: The more basic the format, the HARDER the workout.

For example, in Dublin, with just a 24-kilo bell, I mixed swings (the cardio portion) with planks. Here we go:

30 seconds of Push-Up Position Plank (PUPP)
30 seconds of rest—I suggest shaking things out, like we were taught by Bud Winters in Relax and Win.
30 seconds of swings—if you get 20, the workout will be 300 swings . . . a very good workout
30 seconds of rest
30 seconds of Glute Bridge—Isometric Hip Thrust, top position
30 seconds of rest
30 seconds of swings
30 seconds of rest
30 seconds of sitting at the bottom of the goblet squat[goblet squat]
30 seconds of rest
30 seconds of swings
30 seconds of rest
30 seconds of marching in place (high knees/slow cadence) with a ’bell in a left suitcase carry
30 seconds of rest
30 seconds of swings
30 seconds of rest
30 seconds of marching in place (high knees/slow cadence) with a ’bell in a right suitcase carry
30 seconds of rest
30 seconds of swings
30 seconds of rest

That’s 10 minutes, and I repeat this sequence an additional two times for three total rounds. There are issues with this: The grip gets fatigued and my legs “feel funny” for days.

Of course, if you don’t swing well, as so many people who took on the 10,000 swing challenge proved, this won’t be hard. If you don’t seriously plank, this won’t be hard either. It’s up to you to make it hard. Like Jerry Seinfeld said in Seinlanguage: “But the pressure is on you now. This book is filled with funny ideas, but you have to provide the delivery. So, when you read it, remember: timing, inflection, attitude. That’s comedy. I’ve done my part. The performance is up to you.”

I make fun in my workshops about the totally ineffective swing technique I usually see in online videos or in gyms. So, “yes,” the 10,000-swing workout didn’t do anything for you . . . because you didn’t swing!

Kettlebell snatches might be the answer for many; of course, dumbbell snatches are fine too. Remember to switch hands each round of snatches and have some method to remind yourself which hand to use the next round.

For reps, we—Michael Warren Brown and I—think 10–14 solid reps in 30 seconds is about right. Under 10 probably indicates you are doing clean and press (and that’s not a bad idea). Anything much over 15 reps indicates the load is too light for you.

And, that might be fine too.

The next method is to mix and match a bit more. It makes for an easier workout emotionally or mentally.

On the cardio side (those 30 seconds of swings in the example with planks and swings), we have found the following exercises to work well:
Concept II Rower
Jump Rope
Farmer Walks
High Knee March in Place with Heavy Hands
Mini-Band Monster Walks
Swings and Snatches

The following can be good, but you have to work around some issues:
Ball Slams
Sled Pulls
Heavy Bag Carries
Turkish Get Ups
Get Back Ups (See Can You Go? for details)

If possible, pick three at first, and rotate each cardio round. You will find the change mentally refreshing if you tried the swing-only or snatch-only variations.

We also do a method Mike really likes: We place the equipment in an area and move from piece to piece in a completely random order. If you have enough equipment and ideas, you might only do each cardio movement once. We use a program that gives a three-second count up and a three-second count down for each round.

With the cardio period, you will want to be moving a bit as the time begins. This will make sense when you do it. It’s easy to waste lots of time setting up, especially it seems in the rower, and you lose the benefits of the 30 seconds of work.

Using heart rate monitors, we have discovered that the heart rate moves up and down throughout the training session, but the 30 seconds of rest is NEVER enough to drop the HR down to anything resembling rest. When I was at the Olympic Training Center, we were told that training the heart with lots of variation was “better” than steady state for performance and perhaps longevity. So . . . this is “better.”

During the rest periods, I think shaking the limbs, relaxing the face, smiling and some easy self-massage bleeds the tension off. This is particularly important during the plank workouts, but it is also a long-term solution to learning to control tension and arousal.

For the other side—the strength moves, the calisthenics and the bodybuilding movements—literally the only thing holding you back is your imagination.

On easy days, we pick TRX movements and just go for 30 seconds. These are what we use, but there are dozens of options:
Curls (Yes!)
Triceps Extensions
Single-Arm rows

A great “tonic” workout is mixing the TRX work with the high-knee marching in place with heavy hands. It might be the best thing I have done for my back and shoulder health. I just feel good when I finish.

As you climb the intensity scale, some movements might crush you. Dips and pullups look good on paper and are certainly appropriate, but it won’t be a normal set. You will come in fatigued, depending on where you put it in the workout. We have found rack deadlifts, goblet squats, and hip thrusts to be great strength movements utilizing the 30-second period.

I can envision a full set of 15 movements paired with 15 cardio moves in a large setting. By just playing “Follow the Leader,” 30 people (or more if you take the time to figure out the space) can train with a single trainer or coach observing and correcting.

In addition, we find the 30/30 for 30 to be a solid daily program, mixed with our focused mobility work, Original Strength work and Easy Strength workouts.

Like I said: when Gernot speaks, I listen.

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