Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Dan John, Simplicity, Etching, and Movement Mastery

The man himself.
Dan John is a pretty cool cat. He has lifted big weights, thrown various implements impressive distances, and coached amateur and professional athletes to sporting success. Furthermore, the combination of his experience, his wisdom, and his penmanship has helped him amass a considerable, and well-deserved, internet following.

In addition to these accomplishments, Dan John is a captivating speaker. While I have never seen or heard him in person, I have been able to listen to and watch interviews that he has done. The first time I heard him speak was on an episode of The Strength Coach Podcast in July of 2009, shortly after his now classic book, Never Let Go, had been released. During this interview, Coach John elaborated on a few of the points he had made in his book, and two of the concepts that he expanded on immediately struck me as strength and conditioning gold.

These concepts were simplicity and "etching", and they have influenced my lifting and my coaching tremendously since the day I first heard Dan speak about them.

Simplicity and Etching
Simplicity, as Coach John explains it, is fairly simple to understand; it is all about whittling your thought process during a complex movement down to the most basic and most important aspects of that movement. Once the most basic and most important aspects are identified, short, descriptive words or phrases are applied to each of the highlighted components. If you have ever played American football, then you have experienced how powerful simplicity can be. "Spread, right, twenty two-dive" can inform eleven young men playing eleven different positions exactly where to go and what to do in a football game. All Dan John did was take this lesson he learned while coaching football and applied it to the individual sports, such as track and field and lifting.

The second thing that Dan talked about was what he termed "etching". Etching, in Dan's words, is "when you do the same thing over and over again" until that process or movement is "etched" into your mind. I find it funny how plainly Coach John refers to etching, because it is a concept that is also held in high regard by other, more technical entities (like the Russians; see principle #4).
Use etching if you want to become The Greatest.
Movement Mastery
Simplicity and etching work hand in hand, as breaking down and labeling different aspects of a process or a movement make it much easier to do that movement in a consistent fashion. Due to the fact that lifting technique seems to greatly benefit from consistency, these tools prove to be incredibly effective during heavy lifting. For example, when I squat, I focus on four words at different phases of every single repetition that I do. These four words are:
  • Tight
  • Breath
  • Spread
  • Hips
"Tight" reminds me to squeeze my upper back before I initiate each rep. This ensures that I do not begin a rep with a loose upper back, which can cause the chest to drop, the upper back to round, and the entire rep to get flat-out ugly. The next word I think of before I begin my descent is "breath," which guarantees that I remember to fill my belly with air, tighten my torso, and hold my air throughout the remainder of the rep. Neglecting to do this makes it difficult to maintain adequate torso stability under heavy loads. As I initiate my descent, I think of the word "spread," which forces me to shove my knees out to the sides. Shoving the knees out is an integral part of the Starting Strength-style squat that I employ, as it lengthens the adductors (enabling them to contribute to the squat more effectively) and makes it easier to reach proper depth.  The final word that I think of is "hips"; this reminds me to drive my hips up out of the hole, as I reverse from the eccentric to the concentric portion of the squat. Again, if you are familiar with Starting Strength (which you should be), then utilizing hip drive is probably nothing new or exciting to you. The benefits of hip drive can be made clear with a lengthy biomechanical explanation that I won't bore you with; just believe me when I say that focusing on driving the hips up is much more effective than focusing on the chest or on the heels when squatting (at least when utilizing the style of squatting that I utilize).
For those interested, I squat like this (except I am not as strong, as awesome, or as 70's Big as Justin Lascek).
Focusing on this mental checklist has led to tremendous improvements in my squatting technique. In addition to thinking about these points while squatting, I have made a strong effort to "etch" the squat pattern that I want to utilize by goblet squatting before every lifting session that I do. Even though I don't have a bar on my back, I always think "tight" before every rep of goblet squats, and then I follow that with my routine of "breath, spread, hips". This process is what simplicity and etching are all about: figuring out what the most important aspects of a movement are, labeling them, and then practicing the movement with laser-like focus.

The technical points that you focus on while squatting might not be the same as the ones I chose, and that is fine. Also, your cues will likely change with different squatting variations (for example, I focus on driving my chest up out of the hole as opposed to my hips when front squatting). As long as you are focusing on the things that you should be focusing on during each lift, the only thing that really matters is that you are consistent from session to session.                        

Focus, Distractions, and Discomfort
In addition to improving technique, I have noticed that the mental cues that arise from simplicity and etching make it harder for me to be distracted and decrease my awareness of discomfort. If I am focused on nothing but "breath, pull, drive" while benching, then the frat bros at the next bench over talking about how wasted they got last night are not an issue. I have seen some weird shit in the gym (Asian guy doing box jumps off of balance disks with a bar on his back), but I am routinely able to focus because I have my simple mental cues to fall back on. Just remember, a wandering mind tends to lead to wandering limbs; thinking of nothing but a few key words can make all the difference in a crowded commercial gym.

Another added benefit of using simplicity and etching while lifting is that you can be slightly desensitized to discomfort. Let's say you want your arms registered as lethal weapons and, therefore, you are curling. Thinking "contract" (during the concentric), "squeeze" (at the top of the movement), and "control" (during the eccentric) will make it easier to bust out a few more high quality reps because you will be focusing on the execution of the movement rather than the burning in your biceps. I know, that is a dumb example. But, think about this; you are doing a set of three reps with a tight, tucked, arched-style bench. By the third rep your head feels like it is going to explode from the pressure of holding your breath and contracting just about every muscle in your body. With this kind of discomfort, mental cues are absolutely invaluable because they allow your to stay focused, not panic, and continue to grind out reps in the perfect groove. More perfect, heavy reps means more results. Remember that before you kick your feet and flop around while struggling to grind out one last, ugly rep.

Simplicity and etching can even help during curling!
Simplicity and etching are just two of Dan John's great lessons. I gave examples of how I applied his wisdom, but there are many more applications that I didn't touch on. Do you use simplicity and etching? Also, if you are a Dan John fan, what DJ tenets have stuck with you? Let me know in the comments section below...

Thanks for reading!     

1 comment:

  1. Excellent Post!
    My favorite quotes of DJohn are - "moderation is for sissies" and "if it's worth doing, do it everyday."