When it comes to getting in shape, there are always a bunch of excuses to use as to why you can’t get yourself in gear: you don’t know what program to start, you don’t have time, you don’t have any equipment, etc., etc.
My guest today cuts through those excuses and the unnecessary complications people often bring to health and fitness to show us how you can lose weight and get strong in ways that are wonderfully simple, but powerfully effective. His name is Dan John, he’s a strength and throwing sports coach, a writer of many books and articles on health and fitness, and a college lecturer. We begin our conversation with Dan’s two foundational approaches to simplifying your life called “shark habits” and “pirate maps,” which will help you organize and streamline all your decisions, in turn helping you focus on and stay consistent with your diet and workouts. We talk about the way being part of an intentional community can keep you on track with your fitness goals as well. From there we get into Dan’s quadrants for eating and exercise — Reasonable Workouts/Tough Diet; Reasonable Workouts/Reasonable Diet; Tough Workouts/Reasonable Diet; Tough Workouts/Tough Diet — and when you should be in one quadrant or another. We then talk about a very simple way to get started lifting called the “One-Two-Three” method, Dan’s highly effective 10,000 Swing Kettlebell challenge, and how you can still work out even if all you have is a single dumbbell. We also talk about one of the most effective bodyweight exercises, the pull-up, and the overlooked key to working your way into them if you can’t do even a single rep right now. We then talk about why Dan thinks you should exercise outside more often and the difference between health and fitness. We end our conversation with Dan’s prescription for losing weight.
If reading this in an email, click the title of the post to listen to the show.
- Dan’s best advice to get into a regular exercise habit
- How shark habits free up your mind
- How pirate maps help you achieve your goal
- The power of intentional community
- Dan’s Reasonable/Tough, Diet/Workout quadrant
- Vegetables for breakfast?!
- Why you shouldn’t necessarily feel destroyed by your workouts
- The infamous 10,000 kettlebell swing challenge
- What size kettlebell should you use?
- Getting a workout with a single dumbbell
- Why Dan advocates for exercising outside
- How do you lose weight and keep it off?
- Keeping your gut biome healthy
Resources/People/Articles Mentioned in Podcast
- My first interview with Dan on being a well-rounded man
- Counterintuitive Advice on Making Exercise a Sustainable Habit
- The 10 Best Ways to Make Exercise an Unbreakable Habit
- How Exercise Helps Us Find Happiness, Hope, Connection, and Courage
- One Moment Meditation
- Declutter Your Digital Life
- Everything You Need to Know About Creating a Home Gym
- Dan’s Workout Generator
- Fitness, Fellowship, and Faith
- How to Lose Weight and Keep It Off Forever
- The Pros and Cons of Intermittent Fasting
- The 10,000 Swing Kettlebell Challenge
- Do More Than One Stinking Pull Up
Connect With Dan
Listen to the Podcast! (And don’t forget to leave us a review!)
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Read the Transcript
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Brett McKay: Brett McKay here, and welcome to another edition of The Art of Manliness Podcast. When it comes to getting in shape, there are always a bunch of excuses to use as to why you can’t get yourself in gear. You don’t know what program to start, you don’t have any time, you don’t have any equipment, etcetera, etcetera. My guest today cuts through those excuses and the unnecessary complications people often bring to health and fitness to show us how you can lose weight and get strong in ways that are wonderfully simple but powerfully effective. His name is Dan John, he’s a strength and throwing sports coach, a writer of many books and articles on health and fitness, and a college lecturer. We begin our conversation with Dan’s two foundational approaches to simplifying your life called shark habits and pirate maps, which help you organize and streamline all your decisions, in turn helping you focus on and stay consistent with your diet and workouts. We also talk about the way being part of an intentional community can help you keep on track with your fitness goals.
From there, we’re get into Dan’s quadrants for eating and exercise. There’s reasonable workouts/tough diet, reasonable workouts/reasonable diet, tough workouts/reasonable diet, tough workouts/tough diet, and when you should be in one quadrant or the other. We then talk about a very simple way to get started with lifting called the 1-2-3 method, Dan’s highly effective 10,000 swing kettlebell challenge, and how you can still work out even if all you have is a single dumbbell. We also talk about one of the most effective body weight exercises, the pull-up, and the overlooked key to working your way into them if you can’t do a single rep right now. We then talk about why Dan thinks you should exercise outside more often and the difference between health and fitness, and we end our conversation with Dan’s prescription for losing weight. After the show’s over, check out our show notes at aom.is/simplestrength.
Alright, Dan John, welcome back to the show.
Dan John: Hey, it’s an honor, Brett. I don’t know if you know this, but I’ve been a big fan of the site for a long time, and we have a Catholic high school here in Salt Lake City called Juan Diego Catholic High School, and the Principal is actually using a lot of your work to work with the young men, and I think that’s something you should be lauded for, because the materials… Yeah, I mean, some of the stuff I’m like, “How to use an axe” and stuff like that, that’s great, but it’s some of the other stuff that’s on your site that has real value and meaning to this generation. A lot of important steps are being skipped in our education process, and I think you ought to know that people are listening and using your material to make a difference.
Brett McKay: Well, thanks for letting me know. That’s always great to hear, especially when schools are using the information. I’ve also like… Prisons use the information for stuff, so it’s always great to hear when that’s going on. I like that. That’s why we do what we do.
Dan John: Yeah, the guys over at Alcatraz were really interested in how to build a raft.
Brett McKay: That didn’t work out for them. That didn’t work out for ’em, maybe. Maybe, maybe they escaped, we don’t know. Alright, well, you’re a strength and conditioning coach, we’ve had you on, you were on three years ago, almost to the day, and wanted to bring you back because I’ve been seeing some of the stuff you’ve been writing about maybe a decade ago, making its way… It’s circulating again, it’s coming viral again, some of the workouts you’ve developed over the years, and I thought it’d be fun just to bring you back on, talk about some of this stuff, but also just dig deep into physical fitness, strength and conditioning, and just how to improve our performance.
So let’s start off with this. As a coach, one of your biggest challenges, I would think, maybe I’m wrong, but one of the big challenges of a coach is helping your athletes stay consistent with their programming or their training. And I know a lot of people, that’s the big challenge when they start off on a fitness program, they get going but then they fall off the wagon, they get going, they fall off the wagon. So in your experience, you’ve been doing this for decades, what are your best tips for being consistent with an exercise program?
Dan John: Well, see, I think, if you don’t mind, I think you just walked into a much bigger thing than you think. I just wrote a book called Attempts, and I like the book, and the first part is about some of my new discoveries about goal-setting, and I’m gonna tell you an odd thing. When I was an administrator back in 1996 I found this list in this little… It was, you know those… They don’t make them anymore, but it was a thing called a magazine, that’s gonna scare some of your listeners, and in this magazine it had these three rules of success: Show up, don’t quit, ask questions. And I just… That became my motto.
And so it’s number one, is to show up, but let’s… See, that, I say that and people are going, “Yeah, show up, I’m with you.” But that, I just wasted everybody’s time because what you need is an actual other toolkit, and if you don’t mind, can I go off for a few seconds about how I do it?
Brett McKay: Yeah. Do it.
Dan John: So I’ve got two basic tools I use. The first is called shark habits, and shark habits comes from my good friend, Robb Wolf, who is the paleo guy, the paleo nutrition guy. In fact, Robb was my second email that I ever sent, which will tell you how amazing that is to say out loud. Shark habits is this: One bite and it’s gone. So let’s just go to the basics. Brett, you call me up and say, “Dan, will you come to my wedding?” To me, that’s a binary decision. I look at my calendar. Yes or no. So that’s, to me, a shark habit is, yes, if I am gonna go, I RSVP, I go to online, I buy the gift that you registered for, and then I show up. You got that?
I wear, it’s kind of a joke, but it’s true, I bought 16 of the exact same black polo shirt because all they had in North America was the 16 in my size. So I got all 16 of these shirts, and that’s what I wear, so I never think about what I’m gonna wear ’cause it’s a shark habit. I decided black polos look nice on me, that’s what I’m gonna wear. So that’s what shark habits are, and they can become a little bit more elegant too. For example, I’m a big believer that as a family, you should have a menu. When my daughters were young, it was steak and salad on Monday, Tuesdays was what… My wife would make what we called Viking enchilada; three, on Wednesdays I made what I called Irish jambalaya, and four was breakfast for dinner. That’s good enough for you.
But we also had a chores chart, and we did white laundry on Monday nights, dark laundry on Tuesday nights, and Wednesday was clean the bathrooms. Now, you’re gonna have people say, “Well, I don’t… How does that help you?” Well, if on a Saturday I walked past the bin of white laundry and I saw it was full, you know what my reaction was? “That’s a Monday chore, not a Saturday chore.” And I was able to dismiss it out of my head.
And when you go shopping, you have a shopping list that ties into the menu. When my daughters got a little bit older I even moved to a breakfast menu that we would do… I don’t know if you know what these are, but bird’s nests or pirate eyes. That’s where you cut out a hole in the middle of a piece of bread and you put the egg in it. Everyone knows what it is, but that might have been Wednesday breakfast. Monday breakfast might have been protein-enriched oatmeal. You got that?
Brett McKay: Got it.
Dan John: So what it does, what shark habits do, is it frees your mind up. Anything that’s kind of a binary decision… I mean, seriously, I hate to say this, but what’s for dinner is kind of a very small end decision. Most families probably have, I’m gonna say 10 but honestly, it’s probably less, list of meals that they actually eat and you can make nutritious, you know, adding more vegetables and all that. So why not just make it a policy? “Monday this is what we eat.” And then when we go shopping we buy the ingredients of what we’re gonna eat on Monday. So shark habits is number one.
Now, number two comes from Pat Flynn; in fact, Pat is coming out this week with a whole bunch of these, something we call pirate maps. Now, this is important for athletes and anybody who has a goal. So just stick with me for a second. Pirate map: Go to St. John’s Island, find the white coconut tree, takes seven paces to the west, dig down. That’s pretty simple, right? Let me give you my pirate map. Every night before I go to bed I make my to-do list. In fact, Brett, your name is on my to-do list from last night, I have you at 1 o’clock. And then I make coffee, ’cause I wake up to the smell of coffee, and then the first thing I do in the morning is I try to be grateful for something.
If I can’t be grateful it kind of indicates I didn’t sleep well. Every day I take a short meditation, I use a app called One Moment Meditation, or I do the longer one with Brain.fm’s. Every day I strive to eat 8 to 14 different vegetables, and then the final pirate map is every day I do some mobility work called original strength, and then five days a week I lift weights and walk. If I do those five things every day… And by the way, that’s taped on my computer, on the top of my computer, and it’s also in my journal. If I do those five steps every day, statistically there’s a good chance I’ll dance at my grand-daughter Josephine’s wedding.
I’m 63, she’s 6. People in my family don’t live long. So this is the toolkits that I use… Now, so you say, “Well, how does that relate to performance? Coach Munn told me back when I first met him in fall of 1977, “The secret to being a good discus thrower, lift weights three days a week, throw the discus four days a week for the next eight years.” Now, Brett, for the record, everybody misses that last part where it said eight years. But if I just say, “Okay, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I’m gonna throw the discus.” Okay. “Monday, Wednesday, Friday, I’m gonna lift weights. Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, I’m gonna throw the discus.”
If I just stick to that simple template, all my dreams come true. If I get a good night’s sleep, I eat my vegetables, I eat my protein, drink my water, lift weights three days a week, throw four, in eight years I’m gonna be about as good as I can be. Yes, obviously, there’s more. Obviously. But that’s pretty good. And so for me the first that thing I do when I work with people now is I try to… I love that the decluttering craze that’s been around for a while. The first thing I’m gonna do is try to get you to declutter your life. I’m gonna ask you about the food that you have in your food cupboard, what’s in your refrigerator, what is your bedroom like? Is it quiet? You actually allow your… You have a TV in your bedroom? No, no, let’s get that out of there. Are you sticking with me here, Brett?
Brett McKay: I am, yes.
Dan John: Because once we kinda clear things up and kinda get a little bit… I hate being binary, I hate binary, but when it comes to certain things in life that are important but are not your goal, turn those into shark habits. Okay, you’re not gonna get bored eating Viking enchiladas every Tuesday night, you’re just not. ‘Cause we did it for years, okay? Anything my wife cooks we call Viking anything, anything I cook we call Irish. But here’s the nice thing, you always have the ingredients you need, you know what to bring out for tomorrow night’s defrosting, or sometimes I’d even make tomorrow night’s meal. I’d make two meals in a row. And all of a sudden what you notice is all this… And it’s not… You’re not getting free time here, you’re not getting extra hours to the day, but what you’re doing is you’re freeing your brain up to focus on what’s truly important, and in my case it’s eating the vegetables, getting the protein, drinking the water, getting a good night’s sleep, exercising almost every day of the week.
And if I do that day in and day out, magic will happen. So, for me that’s the secret. Now, if we’re gonna talk about performance athletes, yeah, we’re gonna probably have a lifting component, a hill sprint component, technique component, a tactical component, a strategic component, whatever. But really, we’re gonna try to get that into a very simple pirate map. It is sort of a “Do this for the next eight years” list.
Brett McKay: Alright, so just to recap, pirate maps are your things like your daily habits, your daily routines and your programming, you always do this, then that, then that. And if you keep following these steps, they’re kinda like recipes, right? If you keep following these steps, over time you get to the treasure of better health and fitness. And then shark habits, you make a decision once and you never have to make that decision again. If X then Y, if it’s Monday you’re eating this, if it’s Wednesday you’re doing this workout, you don’t have to keep figuring out what you’re gonna do, you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every day. And part of this overall “one bite and it’s gone” philosophy for you too is just “Do stuff now. If it need doing, do it now.”
Dan John: Hey, Brett, what happened when you emailed me?
Brett McKay: You emailed me back.
Dan John: See, I hate to say this to you, but you’re a shark habit. I said yes, right? That was it. I had a binary decision. “Yes, I’d love to speak with you again, Brett,” or “No, I hate you. Go away.” You got the yes, fortunate for you. That’s it. And so if I get an email, if I open my email, I answer every single email. If a bill comes in the mail I have a checkbook right here, I have stamps right there, I have envelopes right there. I don’t write many checks anymore because everything’s automated… By the way, automating your bill pay is the ultimate shark habit.
I don’t know how many bills I pay a month, but I don’t think about any of them. It’s all automatic. My money goes to my bank, and then we have a little system and this magic device happens and the bill comes in and it gets paid. I don’t think about any of that stuff. So to me that’s what the shark habits are, and then the pirate map is a very simple… Personally, I think you can do five, some people make pirate maps up to eight, but I’m… Five is about right for me. If I stick to this eight-year, 10-year, 20-year to-do list, good things will happen.
Brett McKay: Well, and another thing that can help with consistency, so besides, okay, kind of distinguishing between shark habits and pirate maps, know what your pirate maps are, but you also talk about having a home gym or just even just equipment in your home. It could be a dumbbell, it could be a kettlebell, can also help with just consistency as well.
Dan John: Well, I don’t even know, there’s no nice way to say what I’m about to say, ’cause it comes off as kind of I’m a jerk the second I say this, but for my business, COVID has been one of the best things to ever happen to me. And I know it’s terrible, and I’m a horrible person for saying it, but it is the truth. And in fact, if you’ll share with the listeners that code to get that discount at my site, we have this thing on the site called The Workout Generator, you put in what equipment you have at home and what goals you have and then you get personalized workouts on how many days a week you wanna workout, how long you wanna workout, with what equipment you have and what you know, and then you can scale up and down, like in the squat family you can go to goblet squats to overhead squats, for example.
But if you have no equipment, that’s still fine, because body weight is a wonderful tool for a lot of people. If you have one dumbbell, okay, that’s fine too. And you’re right, I have a magnificent home gym, Brett. I’ve got 26 kettle bells, three Olympic bars, bumper plates, two different kinds of hip thrust machines, every farmer bar you can think of, all the Highland game equipment, all the track and field throws equipment, that’s just part of it. It just goes on and on and on. So for me to train at home, that’s no problem at all, I’ve got everything you need.
But gentle listener, you might not, but you still have your body for body weight, you might have a couple of jugs of water. One of my clients realized that empty vinegar bottles are actually a pretty good weight to do a lot of things. I’m like, “I never thought of vinegar bottles.” So you have this guy training and making progress with these discarded vinegar bottles. So it’s the old cliche when I was young, it was very common when I was young, “If there’s a will, there’s a way.” And I still think… And to be honest with you, that is one of the most important things we need to teach young people. If you have the determination, you’ll figure out how to do it.
Brett McKay: Well, in addition to determination and will power you also talk about one thing that can really help to supercharge your consistency, is being a part… Like doing your programming, doing your fitness goals, with an intentional community. People who are… Let’s talk about that.
Dan John: Let’s talk about intentional community, I am a huge fan of this, so every day at my house at 9:30, literally people from all over the world show up and train with me. I want you to know something, Brett, and this is important for you to hear, I’m 63. Do you think I roll out of bed and saying, “Boy, jeepers, I can’t wait to work out again today”? Do you think that? No. But what I have, Brett, is I have equipment and I have know-how. And the people who show up to my house have enthusiasm or interest. And what intentional community means is that we are gonna come together as a community and we are gonna work together to better all of us.
Now, sometimes it’s worse than others, and I’ll tell you when it’s worse. If someone says, “I’m getting ready for a kettlebell certification and I need help,” you’ll hear everyone kind of groan, ’cause that means we are all gonna be practicing kettlebell swings and snatches and all the rest, which is very tiring. If someone like myself right now, I got an Olympic lifting meet in about a month, so I’m getting ready for this Olympic lifting meet, but at the same time, at my age, I need to do hypertrophy and mobility, so when my group is doing hip thrusts and goblet squats and deficit deadlifts, I’m snatching and cleaning and jerking.
If someone’s interested, like Jeff Hemingway was here during the summer, and he and I would Olympic lift together while the group was doing the rest of the workout. But we were all together as one, during the warm-up period, the original strength, some of the hypertrophy work, certainly the mobility work, and then the walk after. So what you try to do is you just say, “Let’s come together.” When I first moved to California, I’ve since moved back to Utah, Dan Martin called me up one day and he said, “You know, I found a park, let’s go work out.” So Dan brought egg salad sandwiches, I brought the one kettlebell that I was able to save, some other people brought TRXs when they first showed up, and kettlebells and mats, and I would look around at the assorted pieces of equipment we had, and I’d say, “Okay, here’s what our workout’s gonna be.”
Now, if somebody was supposed to bring suspension trainers and forgot, well, that meant we were all going to have to go around that. Or if someone was supposed to bring water and didn’t, well, we were all gonna go thirsty that day. So what you try to do with intentional community, Brett, is get a buy-in by every single member, and each of them becomes an important cog in the success of the entire group. I think it is the most elegant way of training I’ve ever done in my whole career.
Brett McKay: Alright, so recap there, for consistency it sounds like make shark habits, also have pirate maps, but then also find a intentional community that can help… Sort of everyone buys in, everyone depends on each other, and that can help encourage you to keep going even when you don’t feel like going, cause you’re like, “I’ve got… That guy depends on me.”
Dan John: Exactly. Yeah, if you’re a musician it’s nice that you play in your basement all the time, but I guarantee you will improve if you join an orchestra or a band.
Brett McKay: Well, let’s talk about this quadrant that I came across in your writing, you got so much stuff out there. What I love about what you do too is you have these… I love these quadrants you create, ’cause it really helps you think about things that are easy to remember.
Dan John: Yeah.
Brett McKay: So one quadrant is, is how you can approach your diet and fitness, and the quadrant’s this: You can have a reasonable workout/tough diet, reasonable workout/reasonable diet, a tough workout/reasonable diet, or a tough workout/tough diet. So where do you think for just like people who aren’t even doing anything, what are they doing? What quadrant are they in here?
Dan John: Well, here’s the problem, one day you wake up fat and you decide… And that’s literally what I’m told all the time, “I woke up fat one day.” Well, there could have been a process ahead of that, but okay. Most people think that they can just light it up and go the tough workout/tough diet. Now, when I do workshops with this, Brett, one of the first things I do is I ask the people, you know, “What is a tough diet?” Certainly I’m a big fan of fasting, I think there’s great value to it. I like intermittent fasting. Hardest diet I’ve ever done was the velocity diet. That’s six protein shakes a day. Ask me, Brett, what else?
Brett McKay: What else?
Dan John: Yeah, there’s nothing. You drink six protein shakes a day for 28 days. Folks, that’s a tough diet. That’s a tough one. People think they can do the velocity diet and the Soviet squat workout. I did the Soviet squat work out years ago in the front squat, and one of the days calls for six sets of six, and at the time, I needed to use about 315, 325. And when I racked the bar, Mark asked me, “What’s wrong?”
I go, “I gotta do that five more times.” It was brutal, six sets of six with 315 in the front squat. People think that they can do the Soviet squat program and the velocity diet at the same time, and that’s literally impossible. So the interesting thing though, Brett, people seem to understand, professionals in this field, personal trainers, coaches, they know what tough diets are and they know what tough workouts are, but when I follow up and I say, “Okay, folks, what’s a reasonable workout?” I mean, dude, it’s crickets. “I don’t know. What’s a reasonable diet?” “Eat carbohydrates, protein and fat.” Oh, that’s really insightful. Thank you, sir. When we get to the other side, the reasonable reasonable, where people should live, I would say 8 to 10 months a year, people don’t even know what reasonable means anymore.
To me, reasonable is when you do push-pull, hinge squat, loaded carry, in that 15 to 25 total rep range with loads that you’re building up on and it’s three sets of eight, five sets of five, with a reasonable weight. Three days a week you have a day for mobility only and then another day when you do something long. A long walk, a long bike, a long hike. There, that’s reasonable. Did that sound reasonable?
Brett McKay: Yeah, it sounds reasonable.
Dan John: Yeah. What’s a reasonable diet? Well, I think at every meal you should have vegetables. Boy, does that throw people off. Vegetables at breakfast? It’s not in the constitution, it’s okay with the UN, you can eat vegetables at every meal if you’d like. Vegetables and protein at every meal, drink a lot of water. That’s what you should be doing the bulk of the time. Now, there are times where you… Like for example, if you wanna lock it up for… You’re gonna go down to Spring break and you wanna show off everything, that’s when I would tighten up on the diet. So that’s maybe where you’d wanna have a tough diet for maybe a month. Three weeks to six weeks, six weeks would be the top end. A month is usually about right, where you lock the diet down.
Now, if you wanna go low, low whatever, do whatever, it doesn’t matter, but we all know at some level what that means. We wanna cut back on the total calories, we probably wanna cut back on some stupid food. Okay, so reasonable workouts, I’d still like you to lift three days a week, go for that long walk with mobility day, and then have the tough diet. There’s other times where you’d really like to maybe light it up, especially if you’re an athlete, with some tough workouts.
Maybe you’re in a ultimate frisbee league or… [chuckle] I’m not… Discus throwing, I don’t know, where maybe the month before you get going you really wanna amp up the number of workouts. But to do that I think you should keep your diet extremely reasonable. Tough workouts, reasonable diet before you do something physical. Like you’re gonna go climb Mount Olympus or Mount Rainier or something like that, you really gotta up your training, but I would keep very reasonable on the diet.
Brett McKay: Alright, so mostly you’re gonna stay in reasonable workout/reasonable diet, occasionally dip into reasonable workout/tough diet, or tough diet/reasonable workout?
Dan John: Right, right. I don’t think you can ever actually do tough/tough.
Brett McKay: That makes sense.
Dan John: Now, I have a buddy who is getting ready for the Mr. Utah contest, and I helped him. And it’s still one of my favorite memories. When his partner asked me to help him, I thought, “Oh, you want me to help because of my genius in training.” No, basically he wanted me to help him by picking him up between sets and putting him back on the machine, because he was at about zero calories doing very long workouts. I’ve never seen anybody else ever do this before. Boy, he looked good under the lights, he was just ripped to shreds. But folks, you might think you can cut like a bodybuilder… Hate them or love bodybuilders, watching those guys cut it is just, it’s impressive. It is impressive.
And the one famous bodybuilding coach told me one time, “Oh, yeah, it takes about 14 contests to figure out how you should prep.” And I’m thinking about my buddy, going, “He had to do that 13 more times to figure it out?” Yeah, that’s not the sport for me. I wanna be… I’m gonna just keep throwing the discus and Olympic lifting, yeah. Holy cow. So I just… There are people who can do it, there are not many.
Brett McKay: Well, so going back to this idea of reasonable workout, like you said, that can contribute to people giving up on exercise because they’re not reasonable…
Dan John: Absolutely.
Brett McKay: They over-complicate things, they make things too hard. And you’re a big proponent of keeping it as super easy and simple as possible, and that reasonable workout you gave, just a few movements and you weren’t destroying yourself, you weren’t going to failure every set. It was just, “Get stronger, go for a walk.”
Dan John: Yeah, I mean, my math skills aren’t what they used to be, but if you lift three days a week, it comes out to 156 workouts a year, I think. If you work out 156 times a year, and they’re reasonable and repeatable, you’re gonna be miles ahead of those clowns who just show up the first week of January.
Brett McKay: One of the programs you have, it’s a simple one that you’ve written about, it’s like the 1-2-3 program, where it’s just like you start with one rep and then do all the movements, like squat, deadlift, press, and then it’s two reps, then three reps, and then you’re 3-2-1 and that’s it. You’re not killing yourself, you just… Every rep is fast, you feel strong and it’s a clean rep.
Dan John: Yeah, and it’s… For example, you and I are gonna do presses. Now, there’s two ways to do it, you can do 3-2-1 or 1-2-3. It just kind of depends on what you like. But these are called ladders, I think Steve Shafley’s the master of these, but I’m gonna do… I’m gonna do two rounds of 1-2-3. So I put on a load that I know I can do five for, I do it for one, then I look at you and go, “That’s it?” Yeah, that’s it. Then I do two. “That’s it?” Yeah. Then I do three. That’s it. Then I do one. That was easy. Right, because to get strong you need to train your nervous system. So you wanna repeat, it’s like learning to type, as I always explain to people. When you first type you go “click, click, click, click, click… Click… Click”, but pretty soon you figure out where those letters are and you go… That’s the nervous system figuring out what you want to do.
Well, weight lifting starts off with the nervous system kinda catching up to what you want and then there’s that wonderful phrase Robb Wolf uses, “the hormonal cascade.” When the body says, “We’ve gotta get… Whatever’s going on, we’ve gotta get bigger and leaner and better.” And then that “whoosh” happens and all the magic happens. I think the best thing most people could do is just get stronger. You know, I’m 63, Brett, and I’m still the person you call when you move, or you got a couch or a refrigerator to move, because strong people tend to be pretty helpful when it’s time to move stuff. And I think if you get to a certain level of strength, a lot of magic can happen. And that magic is you can make yourself more flexible, you can push through your mobility, and of course you build up some lean body mass that also counters the adipose tissue, the fat.
Brett McKay: And again, this is reasonable. I think people have this idea with workouts, you have to feel like you’re destroyed after a workout, or you can’t… You have your legs, you can’t walk after a leg day. And you’re kind of like, “No.” You actually have this idea, it’s like “easy strength.” Workouts you should feel enthusiastic after, you should feel invigorated afterwards, not like you’ve been completely destroyed.
Dan John: Now, you know, Brett, there is a time for those. I also tell people, you should be able to do 50 reps with your body weight in the back squat, and then they go, “What?” I go, “Yeah.” But it’s that June of 1979 when you try to get your back squat high reps in. I didn’t say it was for the ’80s, ’90s, aughts and teens of the new millennium. There’s a time. And there is great value in having those workouts where you can’t climb up a flight of stairs, but that’s not what you do week in, week out, month in, month out, ’cause you can’t. You really can’t do it.
Brett McKay: Alright, so you don’t wanna push yourself really hard all the time, ’cause that’s not sustainable, but if you’re having trouble getting started with working out or you don’t know what to do, something that could help is taking on a specific challenge, and you’ve come up a lot of challenges over your career, some of them, a lot of them, have gone viral and they’ve become viral again in the past, I would say, few months, and one that’s come up again, I think it’s because of COVID, is the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge. So let’s talk about it. When did you develop it, why did you develop it, and what does it look like?
Dan John: Well, it’s funny ’cause I never write an article unless I’ve done it. Ever. So I got a call from Testosterone Nation, you know, T-nation.com, and the owner really wanted me to do more articles on kettlebells, and he threw out this thing, “Why don’t you do like a 10,000 swing challenge?” And I said, “That’s a great idea.” Of course, what’s the problem, Brett, when I said yes?
Brett McKay: You’d never done it before, and you don’t know what it’s gonna be like.
Dan John: I hadn’t done it before. So I had to… So, Mike Brown, who still trains with me, first day we picked up the 24 kilo bells and did a thousand swings the first workout. Next day we come in and we’re like, “Wow, that was a good one.” I get up to 800 swings and I say to Mike, “I can’t move.” My back didn’t… It wasn’t like I needed a spinal adjustment or anything, my back was so full of blood I couldn’t move. And then we kinda said, “A 1000 day is too many.” Let’s try 500. So on day three we did 500. Now, we had to make up one workout with 200 and fill in the other one, but… And so we finished the first 10,000 swing challenge and we were… I looked at my journals and my notes, it was all over the place, Brett, it was stupid, and so, “Okay, let’s try… ”
Poor Mike, you gotta feel for the poor guy. “Let’s try this.” And so I came up with these other ideas, and finally I settled on what the original article was, you would do a set of 10 and do like three push-ups, a set of 15, do two push-ups, a set of 25, do one push-up, and then that long set of 50. And then rest. And each day of the week you change the exercise. Push-up, goblet squat, pull up, and something that complemented the swing. Oh, and one day, nothing. Just swings.
And that was a good idea, and that’s what I published first, but very quickly, I got so much feedback that I realized, yeah, I can do 50 swings with a 24 kilo kettlebell, but I’m kind of a… If you could just reach across the microphone and pat me on the back I’d appreciate that, but I hate to say it, I’m a big Injun and I know how to swing a kettlebell, so the 50 swings was tough, but I could do it. So then we came up with this 15-35 idea, where after the set of 15 you would do a strength movement or a hypertrophy movement, and after a set of 35 a complementary mobility movement.
And, boy, I came up with six different programs to support that. And I still think, Brett, honestly, that might be the best way to do it. Another way to do it that I love, this is probably… Okay, I think the 15-35 with mixing the hypertrophy mobility, that’s really good ’cause you cover so many bases. But my favorite way to do it is I pick up a bell, I do 16 swings with it, my grip kinda goes, I put it down. Next I pick it up and I go from 17 to 35. Okay. Next I pick it up again and I go 35 to 40 because something came up. Then I go 40 to 60, and you just build yourself up to the 500 swings. Personally, for the way my brain works, that’s my favorite method.
And at the end of the 20 workouts you’ve accumulated 10,000 swings. Most people report real gains in their grip, many people report fat loss, very common, fat loss. And a lot of people say, “Weirdest thing, everyone says I look better, but all I did was swing for 20 days.” Yeah, well, you didn’t just swing, you did 500 swings. And good things came from that. So that’s kind of the long story. And so I’ve written two full articles on the 10,000 swing challenge and I’m still surprised how much it still seems to resonate with people.
By the way, I would consider the 10,000 swing challenge in the area of a tough workout. So while you’re doing that I would recommend having a reasonable eating program. One time I tried it doing a modified thing that Dan and Mary Eades, the Protein Power people had, so I was doing three protein shakes a day and eating a dinner. And I did the 10,000 swing challenge doing that. But honestly, the wheels started falling off, the bumper came off pretty quickly on that. That might have… You need to eat on this program, Brett. Normally.
Brett McKay: I imagine there’s been a resurgence, ’cause like, yeah, people have been stuck at home, they might just have a kettlebell, it’s all they got, and so they… “Well, I’ll just do this thing ’cause it doesn’t take a much space and I can get it done in my apartment.”
Dan John: And you know what? A lot of people are discovering that home train… Like I’ve known this my whole career, I’ve been training at home… Obviously, I use gyms. Obviously, there’s no question about that, but since 1971 I’ve always had my own home gym. Actually, it’d be a little bit earlier, I only started writing in my diary in March of 1971, but I had been lifting at home before that. It’s when I got my adjustable incline bench that I started recording workouts. And I’m glad I did, ’cause I can tell you what I was doing almost every day of my life since March of 1971.
What’s interesting about the home workouts, and a lot of your listeners who kinda moved to that, a lot of the excuses get knocked out of the way, and there’s also a weird kind of… Since I’m not being distracted by… Brett, I can’t say this without coming off as kind of a jerk, but I like to win in the weight room. I like everybody to know that I’m the strongest person there. I’m a horrible person, I just said it. Now, when I am training at home I just do the workout. If the workout calls for three sets of eight in the overhead squat, that’s what I do. I don’t get cute, I don’t add more, I don’t… I do what the workout says to do. And that is a real gift of home training, and the fact that you save all that time in commuting, which I’m not sure where you live exactly, but even if your gym’s 10 minutes away, that’s 20 minutes out of your day commuting, versus… I gotta tell you, in 20 minutes you can get a pretty good little workout in. Heck, 20 minutes is a lot of time.
Brett McKay: With the… Going back to 10,000 kettlebell swing challenge, how do you figure out which weight to use, like how much weight to use on that?
Dan John: Well, I have this really highly scientific formula that a few people have actually tried it, it’s in the articles, but honestly, in full candor, if you’re a male, use a 24, if you’re a female, you probably should use the 16 kilo, 12 if you’re truly light. That’s usually what it comes out to.
Brett McKay: Well, another piece of equipment that you can use… So a lot of people with COVID, they’ve been trying to build home gyms, but because everyone’s been trying to do it at the same time gym equipment is hard to come by. But people have been able to get their hands on some dumbbells, or even just a single dumbbell. And you say that’s enough.
Dan John: Mm-hmm.
Brett McKay: And so they can go to your site, they can generate a workout with that, but kinda give us an idea, if someone just had a single dumbbell what could they do with that for a workout?
Dan John: Well, a single dumbbell, that’s kinda… In 1991 I had one of the world’s best gyms to train at the upper limit, here in Murray, and then one day they closed. We had like nine Olympic platforms and bumper plates everywhere, and they just shut down. And so I had a rusty bar, two 35-pound plates, two 25-pound plates, but then someone found an old Olympic dumbbell that I could slide those 25’s on, and when I first saw kettlebell snatches, I started doing dumbbell snatches. Well, from the dumbbell snatches, that’s when I invented Waiter Walks, that’s where you walk with the bell over your head, right?
So I would do these dumbbell snatches, and then when I got tired, I would walk. So let’s say I could do 15 dumbbell snatches. I mean, it was 61 pounds, so it’s a good amount of weight. Walk a little bit, put the weight down, switch hands. You can also do, with a dumbbell, press, press, press, press, press. And then we do a variation when we do our heavy hands called the curl and press, and I gotta tell you, Mike was telling me the other day about these guys online, they take a light bell, be more like a 10 or 15 or 20, and they curl and press, curl and press for a couple of hundred reps.
Now, I don’t know if that’s good or bad for you, but that’s a lot of work, man. And sometimes that’s all you need. With the single dumbbell I would just go online and look up single dumbbell workouts, they’re all over the place. I have a whole book based on single kettlebell workouts. It’s gonna be the same thing: Goblet squat, a fundamental swing, curl and press, the snatch, waiter walks, you can do suitcase carries, that’s one-handed walks. Yeah, there’s plenty. There’s plenty to do.
Brett McKay: A lot to do.
Dan John: Yeah, and remember, it’s the will… If you… Use your imagination. Don’t let the limitations bother you. So many times in my life I’ve been… And I gotta tell you, I think that this is my best coaching moments, is… And I have a phrase, when I coach people, “Deprivation increases capacity.” When I was coaching at Judge Memorial we didn’t have a discus ring, we didn’t have a field to throw in, yet we had nine straight state discus champions, because I innovated. We found a big wall and threw power balls into a wall. So if you only have something, don’t think of it as a bad thing, think of it as a boon, think of it as, “I have the opportunity to use my brain to increase my training,” that’s… I would hate to say… Yeah, I’m gonna say it, it’s a gift. It’s an odd style of gift.
Brett McKay: So another exercise, if you don’t even have any equipment that’s really effective to getting strong is the pull-up.
Dan John: Oh, I love the pull-up.
Brett McKay: Yeah, you say that every man should be able to do five pull-ups. There’s a lot of guys who can’t even do one. So how do you work your way up to doing more pull-ups if you can just barely do one?
Dan John: Sure, yeah, I have a whole program, it’s in my new book, Attempts. By the way, folks, when I say this, I’m not selling this stuff to you, I’m just saying this is where you can find it. It’s in my new book Attempts, and it’s also in the Dan John University site, it’s called the post-deployment program, and I came up with this working with our elite military forces. And I love it, by the way, I love this program a lot. The first month, week one you hang as long as you can, a straight-arm hang, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, for example. Okay? Week two, you do two rounds of straight-arm hang, Monday, Wednesday, Friday. Week three you do three rounds, and week four you do four rounds. On the fifth week, week one, you do the bent arm hang. Either the chin-up grip or the pull-up grip. Week one, once. Week twice, twice. Week three, three times. Week four, four times.
Here’s the funny thing, there’s a thing we joke about in my field all the time called middle-aged pull-up syndrome, and that’s the pain, and I’m pointing to it right now, right in that elbow when you try to try to kill a set of pull-ups that you were not ready for. Okay? Well, by hanging both straight arm and bent arm, with your… You know, your chin is over the top, your body figures out how to do it, and then month three, Brett, here’s what you strive to do, is that on month three hang for 30 seconds, and then do one more pull-up. Now, for those people who have never done a pull-up, I don’t wanna guarantee it, because that’s… I’m no Joe Namath in Super Bowl 3, but if by the third month, with all that hanging and all that time, your grip has gone through the roof and your specific strength has gone through the roof, and then pop up and see if you can get some pull-ups.
I had a guy who didn’t follow my sage advice and he decided about the sixth week of what I told you to do, he was gonna test himself on pull-ups, he had never done one, how many does he do on week six of this program? He does five pull-ups, because hanging is probably more important for most people who can’t do pull-ups than actually practicing pull-ups.
Brett McKay: No, hanging it is one of those overlooked movements. I mean, it’s not a movement but it’s… Most of us, because of our office jobs that we have, we’re hunched over a computer all the time, and your shoulder is like meant to go over your head, but we never give it an opportunity to do that with… And hanging can actually that.
Dan John: In one of my recent YouTubes I give people a one-minute daily mobility thing, and it’s 30 seconds of hanging and 30 seconds of sitting in the bottom of the goblet squat. And if all you got is one minute, do your… [chuckle] Okay, here’s your three minutes to somewhat happiness, okay? One minute of going over your to-do list and making sure you have all the phone numbers and everything else you need for the day. A one moment meditation, 30 seconds of hanging, 30 seconds of the goblet squat bottom position, go off on your day. If you can’t give me three minutes, well, first I think you’re lying to me, but that three minutes, that will be a game-changer for a lot of you listening.
Brett McKay: Well, another thing you talk about throughout all your work is you encourage people to get outside to do their workouts. Why have you long been an advocate for that?
Dan John: I don’t know, maybe because I was a discus thrower and you can only throw outside, I guess. No, I think, Brett, when you go outside the rules change a little bit. If you and I, we’re gonna go… I’m right near a big park called Wheeler, okay? So you and I, we’re gonna go over to Wheeler Farm and we’re gonna walk, we’re gonna put ankle weights on and we’re gonna walk around the park. Well, once we get there, which is a half a mile from here, we start walking and, “Oh, look there’s some birds,” and pretty soon… And by the way, I don’t want you to have your earbuds on. We’re just gonna talk and, “Oh, there’s a bird, a sage jay I think they’re called here in Utah, “Oh, look, there’s a cooper hawk. Oh, there’s a squirrel, yay.” And what you begin to notice is that what you thought was gonna be a 30-minute walk is an hour and 10 minute walk and then we gotta walk back that extra half an hour. When you go outside we become more playful and I think we become a little bit more human. And that’s a good thing, in my view.
Brett McKay: Yeah, that’s something you’ve talked about. That’s an important part of health. Maybe not fitness. Fitness, you’re fit to do something, you’re fit to lift weight, you’re fit to run. But if you’re looking for overall health, you need that engagement with outdoors, engagement with people. That makes you feel good.
Dan John: Yeah, let me… Let’s go through a couple of words real fast. Okay? So, the word “health,” I use Maffetone’s definition, “the optimal interplay of the human organs.” And you find out about your health through doctor visits, through going to the dentist, getting those blood tests done, that kind of thing. Fitness is the ability to do a task, and this is where we get ruined in my industry, because people run with the word “fitness” too much, they try to make it, “Oh, if you can’t do 10 muscle-ups, you’re not fit.” No, muscle-up is a test. The third word is “longevity,” and that’s both quantitative and qualitative discussions.
People in my family don’t live long, that’s just a fact. I said that at a workshop last year and someone came up to me after and said, “You know, you shouldn’t talk like that.” Didn’t know at the time that my brother had just died. So the next day, same workshop, I said, “This is breaking my heart, my brother died last night.” And the final one is what I do, which my career is all about, which is performance. And performance is when someone says your name and you step up and perform, and the mistake we get sometimes… By the way, the tools of performance can help you in fitness. The secrets of longevity can help you in performance. These four intertwine a lot, but you also have to keep them separate, otherwise you get a little confused, like for example saying that the fittest person on Earth won the Ironman triathlon.
Well, that’s not true. He’s fit for the Ironman triathlon, he can’t throw the discus 244 feet. The fittest discus thrower of all time is Jurgen Schult. He threw 243. Someone raised their hand and goes, “Well, Dan, that’s a weird definition.” No, your definition is screwed up, because it’s a task, and if the task is I’m… I don’t know, but if you meet a guy who’s 106 and he became a father this year, well, first off, God bless you. And number two, he might not be fit to teach the kid how to drive, but he was fit for the task of becoming a father. You follow that? And I think people miss that. Oh, one other thing, Brett, before I go, whenever I go over those four, a hand goes up and says, “What about fat loss?” And I’m always like, “Ugh!” Okay. And now of course the fat loss discussions, which…
Brett McKay: That’s why most people are like, “I’m gonna exercise, because I got the spare tire. Wanna lose some weight, gotta get rid of it.”
Dan John: And fat loss mostly happens in the kitchen, and I quote this all the time, but years ago a woman raised her hand at one of Art De Vany’s workshops and she says, “How do you get rid of fat?” And he famously said, “Don’t get fat in the first place.” And I think one of the things you can do with your site, Brett, and I’m not telling you what to do, but having honest conversations about the teenage and 20-somethings buying into, “You don’t wanna put on that freshman 40, you don’t wanna do the pizza and beer diet, you really… ” I’m 63 and little Danny did a nice job, staying in fairly good shape his whole life, and I have to applaud him for it because it allows me to do certain things at 63 that I otherwise, we have him do other things at this age to undo the damage of my idiocy of my youth.
Brett McKay: Well, this “Don’t get fat in the first place,” but let’s say you are fat, it’s basically a lot of it’s nutrition. Anything with exercise that you can do to help with that?
Dan John: Yeah, yeah, here’s the thing, now, what’s gonna happen when you go to a workshop, and it happens quite a bit, and I deal with this all the time, someone is gonna say, the nutritionist will say, “Fat loss is 95% nutrition.” And by the way, that’s true up to a point. They did a very interesting study. Now, the study is still being replicated ’cause it’s new, but they had people who averaged 10,000 steps a day, for no reason, just cut back. This is the study. You’re only gonna walk 2,0000 steps a day. Within weeks, Brett, these people who had been active… In fact, they had to stop the study because they were already sliding into type 2 diabetes. They were already falling into some other blood profile issues. It was a very short amount of time. So yeah, on paper, what we do in the gym is only 5% fat loss. Okay, I get that. However, not exercising instantly almost turns you into a person with issues, with blood profiles, insulin, and all the other hormones.
So, what you need to do if you just… You wake up one day and you find yourself fat is you want to do some hypertrophy work, okay? You wanna do some bodybuilding, you really want to. You wanna do some mobility work, ’cause mobility also assists you in keeping things going. Okay, so the basic idea is just three to five times a week do a mix of basic… Hypertrophy is the bodybuilding numbers in the strength world. Okay, so that’s 15 to 25, maybe 30 total reps, that’s three sets of eight, five sets of five, five sets of three. Push-pull, hinge squat, loaded carry. Do mobility exercises between each set, that’s what I recommend, and then the moment you get done with that go for a walk.
I use heavy hands, I put ankle weights around my ankles, and I take these three-pound weights, I go for a half an hour or 45 minutes. You certainly could go longer, but what happens is what you’re trying to do is free up fatty acids, and you do that in the weight workout, and then that gentle walk after, your body then uses the free fatty acids to eat. And it’s win-win. But really what’s gonna happen is it’s gonna be on the nutrition side, you cannot be getting calories from liquids. So coffee, tea, water. Water, water, water, water. I would suggest vegetables at every meal, protein in every meal, and it’s worked a million times and it’s gonna work again.
If you go to Dan John University, that’s the workout, the fat loss workout generator, we’ll plug all that in for you. On the nutrition side, I would add one other thing, if you don’t mind, Brett. I just cannot believe, the more I read and read, the destruction of the enteric system, which we also call the gut biome through antibiotics, through all the stuff that’s in certain foods, I guess some of the sweeteners, the artificial sweeteners are just hard on the gut biome. I strongly recommend eating sauerkraut, fermented foods, once or twice a day. I eat it now at every meal, I make my own sauerkraut, I make my own pickled vegetables, because the fermented food can be such a game-changer to build up that gut biome. Everyone makes fun of it. My daughters call “the butt guy-ome,” which makes me mad because I say butt guy-ome more often now than I say gut biome. But I really think it’s a missing link for many of us. It’s really something people should consider.
Brett McKay: Well, Dan, this has been a great conversation, so I guess people can go to Dan John University to find out more information about what you’re doing?
Dan John: Mm-hmm. Yeah, yeah, absolutely. And don’t forget, listeners, there’s a discount code for you, Art of Man, and that’ll give you… Instead of 29 bucks a month it’ll give you three months for 29 bucks, which is a pretty good deal considering the number of things you can download. We’ve gotta have almost 20 plus books on there and tons of articles, great forum, a really good forum. I know I’m selling it, but I only sell things I believe in. So there you go. Okay?
Brett McKay: Awesome. Well, Dan John, thanks for your time. It’s been an absolute pleasure.
Dan John: Absolute pleasure. Let’s do this sooner than later next time, okay?
Brett McKay: Sounds good.
My guest today was Dan John, you can find out more information about his work at his website, DanJohnUniversity.com. Also use that discount code, Art of Man, give you that discount that he mentioned in the podcast, and you can also check out our show notes at AOM.is/simplestrength, where you can find links to resources where you can delve deeper into this topic.
Well, that wraps up another edition of the AoM podcast, check out our website at artofmanliness.com where you can find our podcast archive, as well as thousands of articles we’ve written over the years. And if you’d like to enjoy ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast, you can do so on Stitcher Premium. Head over to stitcherpremium.com, sign up, use code MANLINESS at checkout for a free month trial. Once you’re signed up, download the Stitcher app on Android or iOS and you can start enjoying ad-free episodes of the AoM podcast.
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