Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

Notes from Dan John Strength Seminar

Last weekend I had the privilege of attending Dan John’s strength seminar hosted by Danny Sawaya, RKC II and his staff at Evolution Fitness here in Tucson.  As we’ll see below, Dan covered a wide range of topics.  One disclaimer: These notes hardly do justice to Dan’s presentation skills and his love of teaching.  He’s one of the most engaging speakers in the sports performance field and I highly recommend seeking him out whenever possible.  


*Spent 95 percent of career telling people they are doing too much…usually the same people!

*7th day God rested…I kept working

*How do you know if a girl has an ACL injury?  She plays basketball

Two kinds of athletes

1)  Show up in sixth/seventh grade = Ideal scenario

  • Ideal program
  1. Primary lifts: power clean, military press, front squat, bench press. 
  2. HKC moves (goblet squat, Turkish getup, kettlebell swing)
  3. Tumbling 
  4. Play multiple sports during school year; lower key competition during summer (church league)

2)  Everyone else = Intervention program

*Foundation of intervention program: Red light- Yellow light - Green light

Red light scenarios – not good time for high level training.  Examples…

  1. Surgery
  2. Certain ages of your kids
  3. DUI’s – If you get DUI, it’s a sign of other problems in your life

Yellow light – Caution, but can train more than red light.  Example…

  • Adult going back to college

Green light

  • High school/college – Youthful body and lots of time to train….BUT most kids waste these years!  Freshman 15 has become the freshman 40!
  • Divorce?!  Used to think divorce was red light; now thinks its green light.  Newly divorced people are highly motivated to train (show off for old flings, prove themselves, etc.)


*Myth of self discipline in young athletes....Interesting story…

...Former athlete called him from London and wondered “what happened to my self discipline to train?...I used to be so disciplined in high school…”

Dan's silent reply…”SELF discipline?  Your mom cooked you breakfast, got lunch in school cafeteria, trained with Dan for two hours after school, then mom cooked dinner.”  A lot of habits that young people THINK were SELF discipline really aren’t SELF motivated

*Try to talk people out of their goals first…If you can be talked out of your goal, you probably won’t stick with it anyway

*Better to have two hundred easy workouts a year than three hard ones the first MWF of January

1st question to new athletes…what is going on in your life?

2nd question…Can your lifestyle support your goal?  Are you in a place in life that will support your goals (going back to red light-yellow light-green light...)??

  • Division I athletes have life that supports goals…someone else cooks, cleans, vacuums, etc. BUT D-I sports are like slaughterhouse…

*Fitness – “Fit” comes from Norse word meaning “To knit.”  Knitting takes time and patience

  • Fitness and food have become religion….Good way to lose 1k friends of facebook?  “Write Paleo sucks”
  • Fitness/health should be wound into tapestry of life.  If you are in great shape but the rest of your life is a mess, you really aren’t fit

Factors of longevity…50pct genetics, 40pct lifestyle, 10pct luck

  • Jack Lalane was paragon of exercise, but his non-exercising brother lived longer

More on longevity

1)      Don’t smoke

2)      Wear seatbelt…and helmet when appropriate.  Human body can go faster, but we stop the same speed when we hit trees.  Technology can go faster than your brain can get thicker

3)      Learn to fall and recover.  Can save a life!  Tumbling for kids more important than sports skills.

4)      Healthiest thing you can do for your heart is to floss.  Research showed that blood profiles improved when people lost final tooth.  You only have one circulatory system…Dental inflammation is a stress on that system…the same circulatory system you need for performance!

***If athlete doesn’t have time to floss two minutes a day, will they actually do what it takes to make Olympic team?

5)      More protein.  "Feel free to eat all you want" diet.  First eat two pounds of salmon, dozen eggs, cottage cheese....after that TRY to eat all you want the next day!  Almost impossible to overeat protein.

6)      More fiber

7)      More fish oil

8)      More water (BUT...Vitamin Water has as much sugar as soda)

9)      Build muscle

10)   Keep joints healthy

*Skin – largest organ of the body. 

  • Zits early sign of overtraining
  • When he hears people complementing skin, then he knows he’s doing things right.

*Statement that he is known for: “The Goal is to Keep the Goal the Goal”

*Discus throwers…spending too much time on agility.  No one throws anything at discus thrower!  Spend time throwing stuff at walls instead

*Find balance

  • Work
  • Rest
  • Play
  • Pray (or "alone time")....Sometimes “alone time” can be more valued and restful than rest/sleep. 

If increase work, find a way to increase rest!


*Absolute strength…the stronger you are, the closer you get to your goals.  "Filling the glass" analogy: Strength increases the size of your glass.  Training is how you fill it with water.

*Believes US distance running got supplanted by Kenya because we stopped lifting correctly (my note: we also had a lot more guys running 100+ miles per week back then!!  Strength complements, but doesn't replace mileage.  Of course, many anti-aerobic people conveniently forget that small point...)

Role vs. impact of strength coach...

  • What is the ROLE of the strength coach?  Coach strength! (what is the role of the English teacher?  Teach English!)
  • What is the IMPACT of the strength coach?  Tougher to figure out.  Relative contributions get fuzzier on the field.

*If deadlift, bench press, vertical jump, etc increase…strength coach did something right.  If athlete/team performs well on the field, can you really say anything about the strength coach’s impact?...Example: If Lebron James walks into your weightroom, the strength coach just got a lot smarter!!!

Dan’s Four Quadrants

Many different qualities can be trained….strength, speed, tactics, agility, etc. etc. etc….

I.                  High number of qualities at low level of max output.  (General physical education)

II.                 High number of qualities at high level of output (collision sports and collision occupations...examples: NFL, special ops)

III.                Low number of qualities at low level of max output (interaction of strength and skill)

IV.                Low number of qualities but high level of output (specialized elite sports....examples: 100m dash, discus)

Physical education triad

  1. Military (marching…good for coordination...but good luck getting marching approved in schools!)
  2. Sports and games (football = chess = war)
  3. Pedagogy (“leading the child to education”…teaching how the body moves – Monkey bars, obstacle courses, Indian clubs)

*PE class – should learn every quality you’ll need in life…including first aid

*Twenty years ago everyone wanted to be body builder…now everyone wants to be fighter or Navy SEAL.  Takes YEARS to develop high level performance.  Example: many professional MMA guys former D-I wrestlers.   

*Programs are simple if you give yourself fifteen years

*Fat loss:

  • ALL diets work.  ALL exercise programs work…..If you actually follow them.
  • Find the most inefficient exercise for fat loss.
  • For women fat loss: press + squat

*Role of genetics:  Parent asked “why isn’t my son a Division I athlete?”  Silent reply: maybe you should have chosen better in the backseat of that car….

*Need enough strength, but not TOO much if your technique is off. 

*Quadrant II is about managing compromises – Goal is to win; not to be the best conditioned. 

  • 5’6’’ with 4.3 40yd vs. 6’5’’ with 4.5 40yd?  It depends! (type offense)

Learn to fall in love with the plateau

  • in sports and in life!  (example: people start philandering in relationships when they hit a plateau…)
  • Plateau is a sign a breakthrough is coming!  We WANT people to plateau


  • Find four months a year when you can ratchet up training (doesn’t have to be continuous four months).  Remaining eight months do “punch the clock workouts”   = routine; not hard; no training to failure!
  • Examples of planning – Schoolteachers back off in Aug/September; Accountants back off during April.  Just punch the clock in these red light/yellow light time periods.
  • Lots of PR’s come randomly during the “Easy” eight months of the year
  • Surgeries tended to come during “push” blocks of training (nature’s way of giving you a red light)

Go from managing compromises to managing options....

*Managing compromises – watch TV or read a book?  Eliminate compromises by getting rid of the TV at night!  This forces you into…

*Managing options…what book to read?

*Let people pick their diet…but hold them to keeping their food journal!

*Become proactive about “squirrel prevention” (clients who like to jump around to different things)

Arousal control

*Strength coach is the best equipped to train mental side.  Mental lessons taught in weightroom.

*Arousal control – Learning to stay aroused for minor meets

*But don’t need everyone to stay on high arousal…quarterback needs calmness; not high arousal

*Turkish getup – Example of low arousal exercise

*Can choose exercises to fit arousal level of sport – Throws/Olympic lifts similar arousal level

Etching versus reaction

*Discus = etching (First to 10k throws in the year usually wins first meet)

*Football = reaction…BUT individual skills are etching, which then require reaction in game.  Kids never learn how to tackle (=no etching of that skill)...even if they learn to react in time, they can’t make the tackle anyway

*Too much jumping around impairs etching


*Tonic muscles = upper traps, pecs, biceps, psoas, piriformis, hamstrings, calves

*Phasic muscles = rhomboids, midback, triceps, delts, glutes, abs, obliques – Can build entire training plan around these muscles!

*Get tonic muscles tight if you want to look old!

*Once Dan stopped benching, people said he looked lighter

*Best ab exercise?  Vomiting

1940-55 -> Golden age of strength research (Delorme, Heidinger, Feldenkrais, Alexander, Pilates).


  1. Strength comes back sooner after each subsequent layoff
  2. Athletes aren’t as strong in winter vs summer.  Why? Vitamin D.

*Where did we get sidetracked? Anabolics!  You can do any stupid thing you want on anabolics!

*People struggle because they try to follow plans that were developed for drugged athletes

*Everything works for six weeks…On drugs, those six weeks become eight weeks!

Business: Keys to fitness industry

1)     People want results

2)      “Don’t make me look stupid”

3)      Community (like “Cheers”…Crossfit actually got this right)

*Race to the bottom…$9.95/month…some place $2/month!  Homeless people buying memberships to hang out….

*Gender only gyms coming back?

*Curves got two out of three right (Didn’t make you look stupid, and built community…failed because no results!)

Three rules

1)      Movement trumps everything else…including muscles.  Whenever you get away from movement everything suffers

2)      Realistic reps for that movement…Just because you can doesn’t mean you should ("spandex" rule)

3)      Load

Basic movements in order of importance

1)      Loaded carry

  • Farmers walk.  Assess whether athlete can maintain straight line

2)      Squat

  • Goblet squat.  Elbow to knee skin contact makes you forget about squatting

3)      Hinge

  • Hinge assessment test. 
  • Single leg work – Always have balance point available

4)      Pull

  • bat wings.  Can be done with TRX or pole too.

5)      Push

  • Planks, push up position planks
  • McGill – If you can’t hold plank for two minutes either you’re morbidly obese or your training sucks
  • Plank assessments – Quads cramp = Tight psoas; Calves cramp = poor nutrition (in high schoolers)

6)      Sixth movements (rolling, Turkish getup, tumbling)

*Things everyone can improve

  • strengthen rhomboids
  • hip flexor flexibility
  • add 100lbs to front squat
  • double your pull ups

*Corrective work is bigger metabolic challenge than stuff you know

*In general: more vertical pressing and horizontal pulling…less horizontal pressing and vertical pulling

*Not as many symmetry issues with women…if they lose symmetry early, could be a load issue (too heavy)

*You can train symmetry anywhere.  Use symmetry work to assess

*Don’t add ballistics with load to dysfunction...

  • Like diving off 10m platform before you can do 1m
  • Another analogy – like putting freshman into pro football game!
  • Strength coach – only has three-four years to screw up athlete…now imagine ballistics on dysfunction for over a decade of crappy training!


*Everyone talks about the “four months.”  A lot of programs do this well…not as many get the remaining eight months right.

*One-lift-a-day program….people asked him if clean and jerk + bench press OK on same day!

*How the 40 Day Easy Strength program emerged

  • Trying to make 2004 Olympic trials at age 40+.  Program recommended by Pavel.
  • Not that many all-out reps in the tank at a high level
  • Program includes “Tonic workout” – Movement patterning/low load.  Found these reduced soreness for harder days.

*Hire someone to train you!

*Even Easier Strength – Instead of trying to elevate 100pct effort, try to make your 80pct better.  Consciously trying to make weight feel lighter

*If you do something so hard that you can’t imagine doing it again, your career is over

*Every time you fail in the weightroom you have to undo that damage.  Three perfect lifts to make up for missed lift

*Key to Easy Strength program – Just do the workout: No judging!  (Example: bench in garage on way to taking out trash)

*At the end of Easy Strength program…feel like you’re READY to attack ballistic training!

*Most of us end up in quadrant III: 80 pct sport training, 10 percent corrective, 10 percent weightroom

*Thick bars – Good for beginners.  Impossible to deadlift wrong

*When grip goes, its indication nervous system is taxed

*Every basic human movement every workout!

*Waiters walk in warmup = Gear change from rest of life….Gets the workout started

*Ground based warmup for adults (about 30 minutes of hands-on demonstration)

Using the ground as foam roller (rolling, tumbling)


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