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The Dan John Dragon Door Interview

Master RKC Dan John

Dragon Door: What do you think are some of the most valuable aspects of kettlebell training?

Dan John: That's easy, because frankly I'm not sure that we even need much more than the goblet squat, the swing, and the get-up—though if we called it the "Turkish roll-up" then I think 90% of our problems would be fixed. But with those three, I can teach the most fundamental movements: the ones which make athletes, the ones which burn fat, and the ones that can walk us into healthy old age. One of my buddies only teaches those three movements and the windmill stick—that’s it! So with these three, I can teach the most fundamental human movements with some kind of load. Then, I can ratchet it up into a workout or training session which will do some good things for your metabolism. Lastly, I have seen these movements carry over onto the field of play. Any time I see something carry over into the field of play, I am right and you're wrong!

Dragon Door: What have you seen carry over?

Dan John: The ability to explosively hinge. Football is a series of explosive hinges with other human beings as your target. And for those of us into the throwing arts, it’s amazing what our little kettlebell friends can do. It may sound weird because it doesn’t look very "throwy", but the Turkish get-up is good for throwing—the packed shoulder and long arm are what you want. And the way that the human body works while throwing is that same as in the Turkish get-up. So I am a big fan of it!

My good friend Josh Hillis—who I think is a genius—has said that the scoreboard at a basketball or football game only tells you so much. But really, like in football, it's the blocking, tackling, special teams and the pursuit, which win the game. If you focus on the blocking, tackling, special teams, and the pursuit, then the scoreboard will reflect that over time. In the fitness industry, most of us only like to look at the scoreboard—what's my waist measurement, my weight, or my dress size? But Josh says that if you focus on swings, intelligent grocery shopping, and following a menu, then the scoreboard will take care of itself.

I come from track and field, where if I improve the scoreboard, then I know my training is right—and if I train right, then my scoreboard improves. I found that the kettlebell improved the scoreboard for track and field athletes. They ran faster, threw farther, and jumped better, so I knew we were doing the right thing. And I am not trying to be esoteric, but if something works in track and field, you can usually assume it is correct. The measuring stick is time and distance, it isn't something that can only be felt or imagined.

It’s not like when these guys walk up to your client and say, "Push my arm… ok, now cross your eyes and tug your earlobe and try it again, doesn’t that feel stronger?" That's just voodoo, and it doesn’t work. But in in track and field, if you cross your eyes and tug your earlobe and now you throw farther, then you're right, man! You'd be stupid, but you'd be right and that's the bottom line, as odd as that sounds. Some people have a hard time getting used to that idea, but most of life is that way. "Buy low, sell high" works, saving 10% when you're 22, like in my case, worked. And you can hate it all you want, but it works. Same with the kettlebell stuff, it works, so we will keep doing it until it doesn’t!

Dragon Door: How long have you been involved with kettlebells?

Dan John: There's two sides to this... First, I have almost every Strength and Health Magazine ever printed. I have the 80s, 70s, and 60s in their entirety, the bulk of the 50s, and many from the late 40s. In these magazines, there's articles by Hackenschmidt, Earle Lederman, and others who mention kettlebells. So, I was aware of kettlebells back when I was young, but I didn't really know what to do with them. My strength coach, Dick Notmeyer, used to talk about the difficulty of exercises called "the swing" and "the one-arm snatch." Then when I first read Percy Cerutty's work where he mentions swinging a dumbbell, I didn't fully understand it. So, I had seen kettlebells in gyms growing up, but didn't really know what they were. Back then, the swings I thought I was doing were not actually swings.

Before I went to one of the early RKC conventions in 2005, I had no idea what a swing really was! I was so quad dominant that I was doing leg extensions as swings, because I didn't know. At that convention, I picked up my first kettlebell, got involved in sending some emails back and forth with some people, and now here we are! It’s interesting because many people think that all of this stuff is new, but it's really ancient! I did a workshop on Sunday and presented some tumbling, and many people had never learned about it. They really should have learned it in high school, but that’s just the way things are now.

Dan John "Did You Get Better Today?"Dragon Door: It’s well known that you’re very enthusiastic about the HKC, what do you like most about it?

Dan John: First and foremost I like the HKC because I love the swing, squat and get-up. But, also because it’s a one day certification, and I don't have to go to deal with the hassle of a multi-day event! I don't have to deal with people getting upset because they failed the cert after three days. And even though it is just one day, like in the case of meeting Mark Fisher, these one day events can be life-changing for me too.

Dragon Door: What happened at that HKC?

Dan John: After the workshop, Mark told me about his gym and how his clientele is different, and usually ignored in fitness. We started talking and realized that finding your niche is the single most important thing in the fitness industry if you want to be successful. Later, I asked Tom Plummer about it and he agreed. Then he described my niche to me, and explained why it is so important that I never sell out or try to become someone that I’m not. I won’t talk about something I don't do, or something that's not safe because people expect a certain level of honesty and candor from me. Now, there are plenty these young guys writing daily blog posts with titles like "The 27 Things I Learned Yesterday About Improving My High End Performance." It’s all hacks and talking about hacking off body fat with two thousand different things they learned "just last night". So, that’s why I like to teach the three movements in the HKC, and I like the audience who shows up. It's a little bit more diverse, and not so "in-your-face". It's a kinder, gentler training session, and I frankly like that.

Dragon Door: How would you describe your niche?

Dan John: Tom Plummer said—and I'd love to disagree with him and say something nicer—that I am the "crazy uncle" of the fitness industry. I can make you laugh, and when your mom's having a bad day, I will fart in the living room to make her laugh. It sounds silly but there's some truth to it. But interestingly, if I were to get all macho and up in your grill saying that you don’t deserve to do this or that exercise, then I would lose my whole audience. Of course I make people work hard, especially the military guys. But, I can get them to work really really hard without any of them thinking that I’m having a macho contest with them. Instead, I am there to help them.

When it comes to advice, I try to have a big picture perspective. You will be going to your 40th high school reunion before you know it, and you don’t want to be there without a shoulder just because you tried to win some idiotic contest at the gym one day. Sadly, some of my friends do these kinds of things, and they pay a high price for it.

Dragon Door: What’s your advice for older exercisers or those of us who want to maintain our health and stay extremely active as we get older?

Dan John: It’s easy, do the fundamental human movements and don’t let yourself get into a situation where you’re writing checks you can't cash. I keep coming back to the idea of "park bench workouts". Basically, you show up, do your workout, pat yourself on the back and go home. I believe that about 1/5th of anyone’s training sessions are bad. Three out of five are fine, and are what I would describe as "punch the clock workouts". One in five are pretty good, so if you workout 1,000 times, then 200 workouts are going to suck, and 200 workouts will be really great. Of those 200 great workouts, you'll have 40 really great workouts and of those, only 4 will be really really really really good workouts. Of the four, one will be so amazing that you'll write an article about it and everyone will think that's how you train all the time. And of course, you will agree.

But the truth is, 80% of all workouts are "punch the clock" and bad workouts, but those are the base which really build us up. I try to look at what am I doing most of the time. In most of my workouts, I swing 250 times and do some goblet squats, pressing, and loaded carries. And I always do mobility work. So in that one workout out of 1,000 where I fart thunder and spit lightning, I reign it in mentally, and acknowledge that it doesn’t happen all the time.

The next thing to consider is that after a certain age you just can't eat six meals a day. In fact I don't think you can eat three meals a day after a certain age because—and this is true even though it’s shocking—everything just starts to slow down. As Tom Furman says, you can't outrun a donut.

The third area is recovery, and the easiest way to recover is sleep. But I want to add one more thing. Since 2011, a lot of research as come out, and what if I told you that there was something that for every hour you do it, it increases your chance of diabetes from 12-15 up to 33 percent for every additional hour? This activity is watching television, and it’s not just about me saying, "You kids and your TV!" The research as published in the Harvard Medical Review supports that the #1 cause of diabetes in America is not sugar but might actually be watching TV. So, as you age, if you can spend less time watching TV, and just go on to bed, you'll be much happier and healthier in the long run. And if you do decide to watch TV, then I have a rule: watch all the TV you want but you must be laying on the floor, so you will roll, curve, bend, and twist the whole time.

It comes down to practicing fundamental human movements, hanging in there with the workouts, and probably cutting back your meals. It’s easier for most of us to cut down the meals to maybe just two a day, and the third thing is to go to bed and get some sleep.

Dragon Door: At some point I had heard that you were discussing a two-day combination of an HKC and the next day a Dan John Coaching seminar. What would that experience be like and who do you think would most benefit from attending?

Dan John: One of the things I've always done with my HKCs is offer another workshop on the other day of the weekend. I love to talk about assessing and programming (especially since my book about assessment, Can You Go? came out, and my next book is about programming) and it fits best into a one-day format. So, a Dan John workshop on the same weekend with an HKC is a win-win for everybody.

You can get certified as a basic kettlebell instructor and then learn some programming basics that will obviously include the goblet squat, the swing, and the get-up. It will also include some assessment. You know the joke, "Hi, I’m Dan, I’m a three!" And because I am a "three", my programming is different than an offseason NFL outside linebacker. So once we have the assessment we need to answer the "now what" question, and that is what my workshop is all about.
Dan John Coaching Seminar

Dragon Door: What do you think are the most crucial elements for learning to program appropriately?

Dan John: It's called "now what," and I'm serious! But, before you get to "now what" you have to figure out the "what". That's why I came up with the 1,2,3,4 assessment. The three things most of us deal with are mobility (which includes flexibility too), body composition (people's waists being too big for their height), and strength. If your client doesn't need mobility work, but needs body composition work, the "now what" for that client is to focus on body composition work. If they need mobility and body composition work, that is easy because between sets of swings, we can do stretches and mobility. It’s pretty simple, but the key—and the sentence I’ve made my career on—is to keep the goal the goal. I said that back in 1994, but it’s true and I still stand by it.

But it’s often not what the client or athlete wants to do, it’s what the client or athlete needs to do. The moment you embrace that, you become a much better programmer because now you will work with what's needed. Part of the art of coaching is convincing a former high school football player that while they might want to bench press, curl and leg press, what they need to do is stretch out and sweat a little bit. It’s not always easy. For example, most of my clients who need to work on mobility are male, so I always mix hypertrophy with their mobility training. Most of my clients who need strength are female, so we will add in exercises that make them sweat between dips, pull ups, or deadlifts. And I am not being at all sexist, but generally men want to lift weights and women want to stretch—and sadly most men need to stretch and most women need to lift weights!

In our facility, I try to blend all the goals seamlessly... so if you come to my gym and need mobility work you might be next to someone who needs strength work—but you might not know that each of you need two different things. Because what you're doing and what Edna's doing are about the same thing. That took 300 years to put together!

Dragon Door: It's funny because when you sum it up like that of course it makes sense and of course it is very logical, but getting to that kind of statement in the real world is always a longer path.

Dan John: Well this is the 50th year I've been lifting weights, and this is also the 36th year I have been coaching. So sometimes when I say something and people say, "Dan John makes things so simple," it makes me want to drop an f-bomb because of how many years of hard work it took me to make it simple! It’s difficult to take all that info and slam it into a little statement. I am constantly thinking about how to make things simpler.

I realized the other day that people want programs for every single question. For the first two weeks after I assess someone, I need at least a total of 105 programs to answer every question—and while I don’t have to actually make those 105 programs, I will need to explain what my client or athlete needs to do. And as simple as I make it, there's still 105 programs! In my workshop I explain where those numbers come from, and it will become very obvious.

Dragon Door: Einstein is often quoted as saying, "The definition of genius is taking the complex and making it simple."

Dan John: Also, if you can't explain it to a 6-year-old then you really don’t understand it.

Dragon Door: So you've been lifting weights for 50 years, what made you pick up that first weight?

Dan John: My Aunt Pat died and she left us some money—not a ton, but at the time it was nice. We put it in a savings account and when I went off to look at colleges, that $500 had grown to $540. My brothers took some of the money and bought a Sears Ted Williams 110lb weightlifting set. In the garage, they would follow along with the little book that came with it and all the neighborhood kids would watch them lift, so I just had to do it. My first goal was to lift that bar with those big 10lb plates on each side. So, I started doing clean and press, and all the other exercises in the booklet.
By the way, about two years ago I found the same booklet on eBay, so now I have the original workouts from the 1965. I want to hug myself when I tell that story, because it’s so cute! But that’s why I started lifting. Also, I was a slightly undersized kid, but I started lifting weights before anyone else, so that helped me stay a little bit ahead. It all seemed to work out pretty well for me in the long term!

Master RKC, Dan JohnMaster RKC, Dan John is the author of numerous fitness titles including the best selling Never Let Go and Easy Strength.
Register for the Upcoming 2016 San Jose, California RKC taught by Master RKC Dan John with Senior RKC Chris Holder, and RKC Team Leader Chris White

Dan has spent his life with one foot in the world of lifting and throwing, and the other foot in academia. An All-American discus thrower, Dan has also competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting, Highland Games and the Weight Pentathlon, an event in which he holds the American record.

Dan spends his work life blending weekly workshops and lectures with full-time writing, and is also an online religious studies instructor for Columbia College of Missouri. As a Fulbright Scholar, he toured the Middle East exploring the foundations of religious education systems. For more information visit: