10 Insights on Writing from 40 Years of Insights on Strength Training, Part 1

Among the many hats I wear is my role as the “Strength and Conditioning Coordinator” for my high school football team. It’s a role that I’m grossly unqualified for, but one that I generally enjoy. And, frankly, it was a job that no one else wanted. So, it’s mine.

As part of this job, I spend a fair amount of my time in the winter reading articles and watching videos/webinars looking for ideas about how to revamp and improve our strength program. This year, I stumbled on to the writings of Dan John and spent several days obsessively reading as many of his articles as I could find. What I find particularly engaging about Dan John is…

1) even though he is an elite athlete and one of the pre-eminent strength coaches in the world, his philosophies are brilliantly simple and reasonably grounded;


2) his articles are surprisingly well-written and accessible, while at the same time containing frequent inspiration from and allusion to literature, religious studies, etc.

In other words, Dan John is not a semi-literate meathead using his role as a published strength guru as a platform for bragging about his own accomplishments, nor is he some bozo prescribing overly convoluted programs that can only be completed by people with no jobs yet unlimited access to supplements (legal or otherwise). He’s a real human being – albeit a uniquely gifted one – with a real life and real interests outside the weight room and off the track. And God bless him for it!

During this recent adventure in Dan John binge-reading, I discovered a pair of articles in which John pontificates on the forty most important lessons he’s learned from 40+ years of strength training. Some of them are specifically about what you do in the weight room, some of them are about the hours you spend away from the gym, but all of them are applicable to real life.

As I read and re-read these articles, what struck me most was how many of Dan John’s lessons were specifically applicable to writing (so much so that I’ve already begun to use some of them). With that in mind, I thought I would share some John’s insights and some of my own thoughts on their value in the writer’s realm.

The following list was adapted from Dan John’s article 40 Years of Insight, Part 1 on T-Nation.com. The insights are listed here in the same order they appear in the original article.

Keep a journal of some kind

Dan John explains that the inspiration for his article began with a look back at forty years’ worth of his own training journals. In these, he has not only recorded sets/reps/weights, but also a running record of what was happening in his life at the time and how he was feeling physically/mentally/spiritually on any given training day. I’ve kept similar logs of my workouts for years, although never in so comprehensive a manner. My records are largely numerical, focused on sets and reps in the weight room, skips and misses with the jump rope, total mileage on the road, etc. I frequently include commentary on my bad days and their supposed causes (over-doing it my previous workout, poor nights of sleep, heart about to explode after taking a double-dose of decongestant, etc), but none about my good days. The upshot is that, on analysis, I have extensive insight into how to avoid repeating my worst performances, but none about how to live up to my best. And without knowing how to continue to raise the bar on my workouts, I’m limiting my goals to simply being less mediocre.

Worse than the deficiencies in my training journals is my complete lack of such records about my writing. Until I read Dan John’s article, I had never in my life kept a log of my writing efforts. I finally started a few weeks ago. I’m keeping it simple for right now: word count, what piece I was working on, and a short paragraph on how it went. This last typically includes my mindset going into my office as well as some thoughts on how quickly I was able to “get into a groove” and why (enthusiasm, fatigue, distraction, etc). Despite this simplicity, I’m already reaping immense benefits. Having a tangible reminder of what I have and haven’t accomplished each day goes a long way towards keeping myself acccountable. Simply put, I *dread* having to open up my journal and write down 0 words.

You must master the squat movement

I’d like to say that the dustiest and most overlooked piece of equipment in most gyms is the squat rack, but – let’s be honest here – there’s always a line of bozos waiting to use it for curls and shoulder presses. Dan John’s point, however, is not to trumpet the classic SQUAT TIL YOU PUKE!!! meathead mantra, but to convey that the squat is a fundamental human movement pattern, one that too many people ignore. There’s no way to be strong, fit, or even healthy if you ignore something so fundamental to human life.

As a coach, I stress fundamentals above all else. And, yes, I both prescribe and practice a variety of squatting exercises. As a writer, however, I realized that I’ve lost sight of the little things. Specifically, I’ve sorely overlooked the simple joy and fundamental value of short stories and poetry. I was so fixated on writing *novels* that I ignored everything else. In fact, the short story that I finished in November was the first one I’d written in years (more of them than I’m willing to admit). Regardless of whether or not it’s worth a shit as a story, as an exercise, it was invaluable. Don’t believe me? The next time an idea hits you, set yourself an arbitrary word or page limit. Assuming you don’t say F*@# it! and give up, see how much more forethought you have to put into both plot and character development. Watch how much more focused your descriptions have to become. And try not to freak out when you realize how heavily you weigh the value of each individual word in the editing process.

Too easy? Try to express anything meaningful in exactly seventeen syllables (the generic formula for a haiku, which is always fun to play with). Good luck!

There are several “Modern Classics” that will support your training goals

Where I expected to find a bibliography of modern training tomes, Dan John surprised me with a short list of both literary classics and popular fiction with the explanation that “at times big goals and big stories also include epic tragedy and overcoming failure”. And who among us hasn’t faced such tragic circumstances as crashed computers, dead flash drives, rejection letters, etc? Who hasn’t poured their heart and soul into a brilliant idea only to walk into the local bookstore and discover that someone else has beaten us to it? Where better to turn for the strength to carry on than the very classics we’re trying to emulate. If Cormac McCarthy’s man and boy can reach the sea – and if Harry Potter can ultimately overcome the all-consuming evil of the dark lord – then can’t we find the strength to overcome misplaced notebooks and negative reader reviews?

Lift Outdoors

In several articles, Dan John advocates lugging some equipment out of the gym (a workout in and of itself) and out into the sunshine for a group training session. He expounds on the benefits of group motivation, the added accountability of having an audience as you lift, and the value of simply breaking out of your routines doing something different. As the old saying goes, changes in latitude…

As far as writing goes, I interpret this advice a couple of different ways. The first is simply the need to write “out in the open” every once in a while. Now, if you’re reading this post you are, in all likelihood, a WordPress blogger. In which case, I’m preaching to the proverbial choir here. For better or worse, writing under the looming shadow of near-immediate publication is going to have a huge impact on your work (a subject I’ve already written about on this site).

In a similar vein, I recently taught a lesson that I cribbed from Kelly Gallagher’s Teaching Adolescent Writers in which I wrote a timed essay in front of my English 1 class. I narrated my thoughts and my decision-making process as I went, and I wrote every word on a legal pad under my ELMO. I don’t know if I’ve ever felt more self-conscious about a rough-draft in my life (which was, of course, one of the main points of the lesson – that we all deal with anxiety about our writing, and that we all generally write shit on the first go-round). It was a humbling experience, to say the least.

Another, perhaps simpler, way to apply John’s advice is to literally write outdoors. Or at least out of your house. I say this, of course, with some trepidation. We all look down our noses at the dipshit sitting behind his laptop at Starbucks, the guy who needs you to know that he’s “working on a novel”…and that we all know is never going to make it past page 3. But I can say from experience that some of my most productive days were spent writing in a spiral notebook on an airplane, or surreptitiously scratching out ideas in a legal pad while proctoring the ACT exam (a serious no-no, I know, but…). Too often, it doesn’t occur to us that we’re in a rut until we’ve been forcibly driven out of it. Only once we’re on the outside of our comfort zone looking in do we realize the value of discomfort (something any weightlifter can tell you all about).

Learn to meditate or relax “on command”

For Dan John, this is largely a matter of emphasizing the value of sleep in the recovery process (which is, of course, where the real growth and gains and occur). Too many of his clients/athletes sleep too little, some because they don’t try and others because they simply can’t. Aside from carving out adequate time from your schedule to rest and sleep, John advocates teaching your body and spirit alike how to relax and willingly embrace that rest. Both my worst mornings writing – and most of my writing is done in the morning – and my worst days lifting generally come after my worst and/or shortest nights of sleep. And, more often than not, my most fitful sleep comes when I’m the most anxious, stressed, and distracted. How many such nights and, by extension, how many such poor performances (at both the keys and the gym) could I have avoided by teaching myself how to relax, unwind, and let go “on command”?

“90% of success is simply showing up.” Woody Allen

“If you’re gunna gunna,” as Dan John puts it (meaning if you’re “gunna do this and gunna do that”), “you have to show up….[I]f you just show up, you’re gunna gunna do just fine.” At the risk of over-simplifying a major point in John’s book Easy Strength, 200 easy, fun workouts over the course of a year are infinitely more beneficial than three miserable, balls-out sessions at the height of New Year’s Resolution season. In other words, simply showing up all year long will do a hell of a lot more for you than killing yourself for a week or two.

I read once that Nicholas Sparks holds himself to a minimum daily word count, whereas Stephen King writes for a bare minimum of four hours each day. They’re different authors in different genres with notably different approaches to their craft. But they have two very important things in common. First, they show up. Regardless of how long it takes to hit the daily quota or how fruitless those hours might be, they show up every day. Second, they’re both wildly successful authors with multiple best-sellers on their respective resumes.

Anybody can show up for those first bursts of creative energy, the initial fits of passion when an interesting idea takes hold of you and the first few pages (or chapters) seem to pour from your fingers as if channeled directly from the Muses themselves. The real trick is forcing yourself to keep showing up at the gym when February rolls around. Even just 100 words a day – EVERY day – adds up to 36,500 words in a year. Keep that up and within a few more months you could have the first draft of your first novel.

We tend to be “glib” about our weaknesses

Weaknesses in most people’s weight-training are a result of over-emphasizing certain lifts or muscle groups at the expense of others. For the average man, this means a lot of time on the chest, biceps, and shoulders with little attention paid to the back and legs. Or, almost as typical, it means focusing too much on the muscles on the front of the body (the ones you can see easily in the mirror) and too little on the back of the body. And this is generally part of a self-perpetuating cycle of poor reasoning. You go into the gym and find that a certain muscle group is weak, which makes you dislike working it. Because you dislike working it, you don’t. And because you don’t work it, it gets weaker. Lather, rinse, repeat.

Eventually, those strength imbalances limit the gains you can make on the muscles/lifts that you DO like. Worse, they’re injuries waiting to happen.

Dan John makes the point that we can’t afford to be glib about our weaknesses. He also stresses that we can’t overcome our weaknesses by merely *working on them*. To correct said deficiencies, we have to attack them with full force and full focus.

I’ve been very open in previous posts about some of my weaknesses as a writer. I’ve also admitted here that I don’t spend anywhere near enough time writing short fiction and poetry. These are areas I’ve started working on, but need to start attacking for the benefit of my writing as a whole.

It’s the movements you’re NOT doing that are impeding your progress

In Dan John’s case, he makes the point that most typical weight lifters undervalue – if not completely avoid – squat movements, hinge movements (RDL’s, cleans, swings, etc), and weighted carries (farmer’s carries, suitcase carries, etc). For me, it’s the steps that come after the writing and editing.

Where I most often fail to “show up” is in the query and submissions processes. Whether it’s a matter of being overwhelmed by the enormity of the task or terrified by the potential for torrents of rejection, I don’t know. But I do know that I’ve gone so far as to electronically publish a novel in order to avoid the time and stress of agent queries/submissions. As a result, I have a novel – one that I’m damn proud of, I’m not ashamed to add – languishing on various digital marketplaces because I’m lost in a sea of similar writers and at a loss for how to market my work. My lack of networking and marketing savvy is just that much more that I’m NOT doing…and in this case I’m not even a 100% sure what it actually is that I’m not doing.

I’m pretty sure that’s worse.

You can’t do everything at once!

Really, Dan John’s point is that you can’t do everything at once forever. When we’re young, our bodies can handle playing multiple sports and training multiple days each week and…well…pretty much anything we’re willing to throw at it. And, for a while at least, we can make tremendous gains in every arena specifically because we’re doing everything. Inevitably, time, age, and wear catch up with us, though, and those gains come to a screeching halt.

Admittedly, I’ve mostly fixed this problem when it comes to exercise. Over the past few years I’ve seen significantly greater benefits from 2-4 focused, intense workouts per week with ample recovery time in between than I ever did from 5-7 long grinds. I’ve also come to accept that I can’t have a goal of adding muscle mass if I’m going to routinely go on long, slow, ten-mile runs.

Beyond working out, I’ve been trying to do everything for a long time. I’ve written about this subject in the past, so I’m not going to bore you with any more of it now. I will say this, though. It wasn’t until I sucked it up and decided that the only way I was going to be able to write consistently was to do it during the pre-dawn hours that I actually started to make real headway towards my goals. Until recently, however, I was trying to accomplish everything I want/need to do as a writer during that 4:45-6:15 am window. When all that entailed was writing and editing, this was fine. But as I prepared to publish Rottweiler and needed to start trying to market, network, etc, I found more and more of my morning hours being spent on these tasks and far too little of it writing new material. And few things are more frustrating than getting up at 4:00 on a workday only to walk away from your desk feeling like you’ve accomplished nothing. So, I’ve decided that now my morning hours are to be devoted solely to the writing process. All marketing and social networking efforts, this blog included, are strictly forbidden. So far it’s working. I’ve written more words since the start of 2014 than I did for months prior.

Now…if only I could find the time to start blogging semi-regularly again.

If you really want a breakthrough, teach someone else. And if you need mastery, teach 65 fourteen-year-old sophomore boys something all at once.

To paraphrase a colleague of mine, just because I said it doesn’t mean they learned it. You can file this next to the fact that assigning a task (telling someone to do it) does not equal teaching the task (showing them how to do it). If you’re going to teach someone how to do something, you’d better know your shit. And you’d better know it inside and out.

It’s rapidly approaching a year since I started this blog, and in that span I’ve spent more time thinking about how I really write than I ever had before in my life. If I was going to share my thoughts on the writing process – on my writing process, at any rate – I needed to really *know* that process. The knowledge and self-awareness I’ve gained along the way are at the foundation of the growth and changes I’ve been prattling on about here. And this, of course, has made me a far better writer. At least in my own humble opinion.

Hopefully it’s been as illuminating of an experience for you as it has been for me.

As always, thanks for reading.


To continue on to Part 2 of this series, click here.


2 thoughts on “10 Insights on Writing from 40 Years of Insights on Strength Training, Part 1

  1. Pingback: 10 Insights on Writing From 40 Years of Insights on Strength Training, Part 2 | Christopher V. Alexander - Husband, Father, Teacher, Coach, Author

  2. Pingback: Taking Stock – Top Thoughts on My Top Four Writing Goals for 2014 | Christopher V. Alexander - Husband, Father, Teacher, Coach, Author

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