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“SWING!” The command ricochets off the walls as seven kettlebells explode off the floor in unison. Their bearers – six men and one woman –swing the weights up to chest level and then begin counting off pendulum-like reps. “One, two, three, four…” They continue to 50, and then the largest man in the group cleans his kettlebell and does five overhead presses.
“We’re conducting an experiment this month – 500 swings a day, five days a week, with a strength exercise between each set,” says trainer Dan John as he lowers a 32kg kettlebell to the floor of his two-car garage in Murray, Utah. “The swing is the fundamental hip-hinge movement – a total-body power exercise – and we’re going to see what strength and body composition improvements result from doing 10 000 of them.”
Any other trainer might be kidding, but John, a former weightlifting champion and one of the top strength coaches in the US, is a man to be taken seriously. Indeed, studies like this one are commonplace at his training lab, known by the people who sweat here as the Westridge Street Barbell Club. And the results are often as strong and clear as the Tequila Cazadores he keeps stashed in a beat-up minifridge. (“For emergency use only,” he says with a grin.)
Consider John’s most popular creation, the goblet squat. “Without a lot of coaching, almost no one does a traditional barbell squat properly,” he says. “So we started experimenting.” A position change this way, a movement tweak that way, and he soon found that when a guy holds a kettlebell or dumbbell in front of his chest like a goblet, he typically squats perfectly every time – with little or no instruction beforehand. “It forces you to keep your chest up and use your hips to sit back into the movement,” says John.
His contributions don’t stop there – if you’ve ever done a loaded carry or used a slosh pipe, you have John to thank. Indeed, many of the most innovative exercises and training strategies of the past 10 years haven’t come from a government facility or university research centre. They originated or were popularised here, where every day at 9am, all types of people – accountants, stay-at-home moms, pro athletes, Navy SEALs – become lab rats. “We have a brain trust in this garage,” says John. “Anyone can work out for free, and that’s why we learn so much. Different people with different backgrounds and abilities create an environment where everything is looked at through many different lenses.”
Can’t make it to Utah to train with John? You can still reap the benefits of his research by embracing these four training principles.
1/ Focus on Movements, Not Muscles
“Isolating specific muscles is training like you’re Frankenstein’s monster,” says John. And the results are often as clumsy and impractical. True strength – the kind needed to hoist a sack of cement or carry a couch up a flight of stairs – comes from muscles working cooperatively as a team. So train them that way by performing compound, multijoint exercises that force your muscles to synchronize their efforts.
Try this “Make sure every workout includes the five fundamental movement patterns: push, pull, hinge, squat and carry,” says John. In practice, that might mean doing a push-up, a pull-up, a deadlift, a goblet squat and a farmer’s walk. “Pay particular attention to the movement you normally don’t do,” says John. For many men, he says, it’s the carry. “I also like to throw in something extra, such as a mini-band walk, so I can work on movements and muscle groups that are frequently neglected.”
2/ Do Something Every Day
It’s important to allow for adequate recovery time (at least a day of rest) between strenuous workouts, but that doesn’t mean you should sit on the couch. “Your goal is to master the key movement patterns,” says John. “Practising them on your off days makes all the difference, especially when it comes to reducing your risk of injury, boosting athletic performance, and maximising the effectiveness of your workouts.”
Try this Take time out during your day – at home, in the office, on the road – for three movement breaks. Do three body-weight squats, two push-ups, a few rows (you can use a briefcase or backpack), and a loaded carry (even groceries count). It may sound simple, but the effect is powerful; each time you practice the movements, you reinforce neurologic pathways that lead to mastery. “That makes using proper form all the more crucial,” says John. Concentrate on hinging at your hips instead of bending over at your waist, keeping your back naturally arched and bracing your core.
3/ Become a Minimalist
When it comes to building strength, many men think the relationship between time spent lifting and gains made is linear. And they’re right – but only to a certain point. “What you should really be shooting for is the minimum effective dose, which is the least amount of work you need to perform in order to earn the results you want,” says John. Any effort beyond that point is not only a waste of time but also potentially hazardous. Indeed, constantly pushing your limits can actually hinder muscle growth by impeding recovery. Even worse, it can land you on the disabled list.
Try this Limit yourself to 22 to 25 total sets per workout, and keep the list of exercises you do short, says John. A few sets of each of the five fundamental movement patterns (push, pull, hinge, squat and carry) are all you need to see results. And if you select the right tool for the job (check out “Lift This” on the bottom of this page), you’ll achieve those results in record time. Your goal is to walk out of the gym feeling strong and energised, not sore and spent.
4/ Do Lots of Repetitions
“Time under load is necessary for gains in size,” says John. “That makes reps key for building muscle.” Most guys do plenty of high-weight, low-rep strength work, but they rarely spend enough time keeping their muscles under tension. That’s unfortunate, says John, because that kind of stress is one of the most effective triggers for gaining lean mass.
Try this Once or twice a week, weave extended sets into your workout. “Try a few sets of 30 goblet squats, for example, or do a barbell complex, moving from one barbell exercise to the next without putting down the bar,” says John. His favorite: five reps each of the barbell row, clean, front squat, shoulder press, back squat, and good morning. “You’ll probably have to stop at some point to catch your breath, but you’re still holding the bar, so even during that ‘rest period’ you’re under load,” says John. “Of course, you could also do 500 kettlebell swings.”
Some exercises are more effective when performed with certain gear. Here are the best tools for seven common moves:
Because of its handle and inherently ballistic nature, nothing swings quite like a kettlebell, says Dan John. That makes this weight the perfect choice for dynamic, total-body moves like the swing. “And the way a kettlebell loads the shoulder in the getup maximises joint stability,” he says.
Bench press, deadlift
“These are lifts that benefit from heavy loads,” says John. “The beauty of the barbell is its versatility – that is, you can load it in increments as large or small as you want.” That’s not the case with dumbbells and kettlebells. “They don’t offer the same versatility or load capacity,” says John.
Using a suspension trainer instead of a bar for inverted rows adds instability, increasing the challenge to your core. Plus, you can easily adjust the intensity of the move by walking closer to or farther away from the anchor. The result: stronger shoulders and upper back, and a lower risk of injury.
This simple R50 piece of equipment can do wonders for your glute strength and lateral movement proficiency, both of which are essential for boosting power and athleticism. “Strap it on your ankles and walk side to side,” says John. “You’ll feel muscles you didn’t know you had.”
When it comes to increasing “time under tension”– a key muscle-building stimulus – few moves can compare to the loaded carry. Dumbbells edge out kettlebells here for two simple but important reasons: “More gyms have them, and you can load in smaller increments,” says John.