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A lot has been rolling around my head lately...

March 31, 2009 07:50 AM

A lot has been rolling around my head lately. I am coming off a fairly successful year as an athlete and I think that using this "head" of mine is part of the reason my body responded so well. I talked with Pavel after winning the National Discus Championships (50-54) and by the time we talked again, I won the big Pleasanton Highland Games (50+).

Here is the thing: I'm 51 and learning more about sport than at any time in my career! I have adapted, stole, developed, forgotten and experimented with every great idea in lifting history and I was asked to share some insights. If you don't mind, just let me spill out some thoughts quickly:
  1. "Order" in training is fine. But, it's also okay to do something sometimes and not do it at others.
  2. Once you find something that works, keep on doing it. But, don't keep doing it until it doesn't work!
  3. Success, in sport and life, usually depends on what happens when it is finished. In other words, don't judge the success or failure of something until it is over. I would argue that you still don't judge it for months or weeks later, too.
To make a long story short, success in sports (and life) is not linear. You can't plan to meet the perfect person the day after you finish grad school. You can't plan the best day of your life. And, you certainly can't plan to peak in sports…but you can plan to be good on a particular day or week or month or year. This season, I tried my best to allow myself to be at my best when I needed to do my best. It's a tall order.

I am following some principles that I acknowledge may or may not be true. Research could destroy some of these little beliefs of mine, but I am fine with that because my experience tends to tell me this is true. Work from Janda and Chek have indicated that the following muscles need to be strengthed:
  • Serratus Anterior
  • Rhomboids
  • Middle and Lower Trapezius
  • Deltoids
  • Triceps
  • Gluteus Maximus
  • Gluteus Medius
  • Transverse Abdominis
  • Rectus Abdominis
  • External and Internal Obliques
  • Vastus Medialis
If you pull out an anatomy chart, you will note that these are also the muscles that make you throw things. In fact, do an old Olympic lifting workout like Clean and Press, Snatches, and Clean and Press for singles and note that these are all the sore muscles the next day. You will also note that the Rite of Passage program from Enter the Kettlebell will teach you the same thing.

The other muscles "tend to tighten" as one website put it. The Biceps, the Psoas, the Hamstrings, and the Pecs are often overworked by most gym rats and office workers and need a good stretch. Instead, most people celebrate National Bench Press and Curl Day every Monday, Wednesday and Friday. No wonder most people age as they train. Look at the gait of what we perceive as an old person. Now flex just the four muscles I just noted (Biceps, the Psoas, the Hamstrings, and the Pecs) and walk. Welcome to old age!

So, my training is/was based on strengthening the muscles that weaken and stretching those that tighten up.

My next basic principle is simple, but few follow it. I am asked to compete at different times. 8:30 a.m. for the larger Highland Games is often our start time. Track meets have me throwing from 8:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m. without any rhyme or reason. So, when do most people train? The "answer" has to be varied to reflect the competition start times. I often get up at 6:00 in the morning simply to get a few swings in. I note in my journal whatever issues might be a problem at this time. Honestly, here are some keys:
  1. If you are used to a morning bowel movement, how do you literally find time for it? Laugh now, but I bet you will find this to be an issue on a Saturday morning in a stadium a half a mile from the closest porta-potty.
  2. How long does it take to digest your breakfast before you can train or compete? For me, it is simply one hour. Why? I noted this after several practice sessions. Would you like to try four eggs and a can of Green Beans followed by a VO2 Max Test fifteen minutes later? There is no need to repeat the experiment.
  3. If you are competing at night, what are you going to do all day? If you compete in the morning and have to return the next day, what are you going to do in the afternoon? I go to the hotel and watch a "New Release" movie. For twelve bucks, I have two hours to watch something in the theaters. Then, I eat a low carb meal, then read a new book I picked up that week. Basically, I am eating time rather than sitting around in the sun or at some bar. I'm here to compete, not win Miss Congeniality.
There are two little things I do (well, don't do really) that seem to really make a difference. I pack my gear up to five days early for a contest. If I can't find athletic tape, I have five days to fix it rather than five minutes. If my laces are worn, I can fix them rather than wrapping duct tape around my shoe (and you know who you are who did this). The other thing is something I picked up from Phil Maffetone. I don't get a haircut the week of a contest. There is no empirical work done on this, but Maffetone's point is simple: if you never have a week off to cut your hair, is there any wonder why you are mentally exhausted? Take a week off from competition now and again and cut your hair and reconnect to your loved ones. No loved ones? Well, then, what are your priorities?

Here are the nuts and bolts of my training:

Great 8 Sprints: I enjoy explaining these to people. These are 8 sprints where I "start slowly, then taper off." They are 30-100 meter sprints that I ease into, play with tempo and accelerations, and don't worry about much save getting the magic number "eight" into the mix. The goal is to run a little fast, if you will, but don't get injured. The idea is to enjoy the process, but don't make it goal focused. In other words, I think sprinting is important for the athlete, but don't blow a hamstring trying to do too much here. Reviewing my journal, it seems I do this about six times a month, some weeks twice a week, others once a week and sometimes I don't do them at all. But, sprinting is good for you.

Barbell work: For those of you who have endured my workshops at the RKC, you will know that I have a paradigm for lifting: the big core lifts are the Rule of Ten (don't go over ten total lifts), the various pushes and pulls deserve around 15-20 reps in a workout (3 sets of 5; 1-2-3-1-2-3-1-2-3) and swings and snatches should be done in sets of ten or twenty (for the power athlete). This year, I lived on my favorite workout with the barbell: 5-3-2.

Do a set of five, add weight.
Do a set of three, add weight.
Do a double. Move to the next lift.

You can do a lot of work with this simple scheme as you can do about five series barbell lifts without a great deal of emotional fatigue. Emotional fatigue? That's my term for somebody that lifts great in the gym but can't perform on the practice field. We also say this about those athletes "Looks like Tarzan. Plays like Jane." Don't brag about having better lifts than me at track meet or a better marathon time to me at a weightlifting meet. Focus.

See Saw Press Walk: The single greatest throwing exercise ever may be this simple little walk. I found that one press per step is right and that takes more oomph than one might think when just reading this on paper. I have some insights on this:

One, don't be afraid to use different size bells. Walk for twenty meters, rest, switch bells to other hand and return. I found the 24s and 12s to be "easy," but the 32s and 16s to be frightening. It does mimic throwing better than "normal" kettlebells and be ready to discover which arm is weaker rather quickly.

Two, go heavier and shorter. Yes, an epic quest across the heartland of America with the 4 kilo bells would shiver the hearts of a jogger, but throwers need to load up. I am convinced that this is the closest to throwing that I have ever encountered with a weight lifting exercise. The first one to do Double Bulldogs with one press a step for a mile gets a fresh one dollar bill from me!

Double Swings: Years ago, I was told that European throwers had stopped doing full squats. Just to remind ourselves that there is nothing new under the sun, my college coach, Ralph Maughan, told us the same thing years before when he noted that "Quarter Squats are all you need." This year, after a bizarre left hip injury that made walking or standing up nearly knock me over in pain, I had to reconsider squatting.

The Double Swing was the answer. I keep the reps at ten. The idea is to use big kettlebells and to snap them as high as necessary, but not a centimeter higher. Quality is king here and don't fall into the trap of "more is better." "More is more," as the modern cliche is used in sport. So, the Double Swing is now my squat and my deadlift. It's also my conditioner. Hey, it's my whole toolbox.

Farmers Walk. It's been a staple of my training for years, but, this year, I decided to add a few variations. First, we discovered at discus camp a few years ago that walking backwards with weights uphill works the Vastus to death. Now, since this is a muscle that weakens with disuse I decided to follow my own advice and really push this lift. So, I have a gentle slope up my driveway and I worked on sets of three practically every workout. Beyond the usual improvements in grip strength and overall body work, I noted that my knees became much happier over time. Second, I discovered that no matter what I do with the Farmers Walk, I recover very quickly. So, I can up my volume in this exercise without paying too high a price in the rest of my training. So, it's an exercise that makes me feel better and pays off on weekends. I believe we call this a "no brainer."

I won't go into the actual throws training, but I do want to talk about the issue of recovery. I believe in both active and passive recovery. In my backyard, I have a hot tub and a cold shower hooked to the garden hose. I spend a lot of money on supplements, quality protein and amber colored liquid analgesics. For active recovery, my wife and I go for long easy bike rides on the river trail behind our home. Occasionally, I will bring along some liquid refreshment and we will enjoy some quality time together. And, to be honest, I think that is the goal for all the health and fitness work I do during the year.

Dan John, RKC Team Leader is ranked Number One in the world in the Highland Games, ages 45-49, broke the American Record in the Weight Pentathlon last August, holds numerous National Championships in weightlifting and throwing and maintains a full-time free internet coaching site at