I recently had the pleasure to speaking with Dan John about his experience with working with athletes and building muscle. Dan John is a world renown strength coach and all american discus thrower who has competed in the highest levels of olympic lifting.

David (H2B): Walk me through a step by step process you would take with one of your athletes who needs to build muscle to better compete in their sport.

Dan John (DJ): Well, that’s a big question. Before you can even get to the next step, you need certain things done. The answer is going to be complexes and high rep squats. But before to the high rep squats we need to make sure this athlete knows how to squat.

When you first start training with a kid, if you put them on something as simple as a program consisting of power cleans, military press, front squats, rows, and bench press – they’ll make good progress for a while because they’ve never lifted weights.

Now with a slightly more experienced individual, you have to ramp it up. I have a program called Mass Made Simple, which is 14 workouts over 6 weeks (just over 2 workouts per week).

It consists of:

1. Basic heavy upper body movements (the bench press and the one arm overhead press)
2. Complexes (a series of back to back movements with a light weight on the barbell where you don’t put it down in between movements)
eg. 8 snatch grip deadlifts, 8 hang snatchs, 8 overhead squats, 8 back squats, 8 good mornings, and 8 rows with 65 lb, put the bar down and repeat 3-5 times
3. High rep back squats
eg: 2 sets of 20-30 reps using light weight and working up to being able to squat your bodyweight for 50 reps by the end of the program

If you don’t get bigger doing something like that for 6 weeks then nothing’s going to work.

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H2B: What seems to set your approach apart from traditional muscle building programs is the inclusion of high rep squats and complexes, can you explain why you chose these exercises?

DJ: Oh yeah, absolutely. I think of all the things you can do, building lean body mass is the most difficult.

You see guys going to the gym for 5, 6, 7, 8, 9 years doing the same arm day, leg day, triceps day, etc. and never actually training. In fact, some of the guys I hang around with [who take this approach] you may never even know they lift weights. If you put them in front of a group of women, they would never guess [who lifts weights and who doesn’t].

You’ve really got to put the time under the bar to get lean body mass. And I don’t think you can do it for very long – 6 or 7 weeks really caps you out. In my book Mass Made Simple, you’ll notice the first two weeks are really only getting you ready to go after it [effectively making it only a 4 week program].

I’ve had a lot of people actually tell me doing the 2 and 3 sets of 30 squats with 95 lb. has really made them get bigger – and it noticeable. My thought is – it just might be the first time in their life they’ve ever had enough time under load. 

If you’re lifting on the machines, for example, the only time you’re under load – and it’s only for one very small part of your body – is when the weight clears the stack. But if you’re doing a complex, even if you’re resting you still have the load beating you up. When you’re taking a breath during a set of 30 squats, say at rep 22, you’re still under load. And I think that is what actually makes the body respond and build muscle. The response to the stress.

H2B: Do you think time under tension is what a lot of guys are missing in their mass building routines today?

DJ: Well I mean everybody is an expert on hypertrophy now. But what most people got into is this Frankenstein type of isolation training.

Guys like Arnold and Frank Zane – all the greats in history – alway started off as competent lifters. Arnold snatched 242 and cleaned and jerked 303. If you read Arnold’s book you will notice there is squatting and big lifts throughout the book. And most people have thrown them out.

It’s funny, whenever I travel I have this joke with my throwers – if I ever go past the school weight room and someone is not doing curls then we won’t have practice. I’ve never walked by and not seen someone doing curls. And every guy in there looks like they’ve never lifted weights. They look like they could run a marathon, maybe.

H2B: Another thing I notice is that you only focus on hypertrophy for 6-7 weeks at a time, rather than always being on the grind. Why is that?

DJ: You need to focus on a quality, just one quality at a time. I think the best way to prepare for a mass building program might be a insane, strict diet for a month. Focus on getting as lean as you possibly can – attack it like a bodybuilder attacks getting ready for the stage. And then go into a mass building program.

And the funny thing is I’m not sure how long you can work on that quality. Even something like hammer or discus throwing. If you decide to spend 2 months and say, “I’m going to make myself the best technician in the world,” and you focus on 1000 or 2000 turns per week – you can do that and make progress. And then come to a crashing stop. Now it’s time to work on the next quality.

So taking this approach to hypertrophy- throw everything you got into mass building for about 6 weeks – that mass will stick around, it’s not going to go anywhere. But most people try and do too many different things. You goto a typical gym and you’ll have guys that don’t want to lose their six pack, but they also want to get their bench up, and they also want to do this, and also want to do that. It’s too many things at once, and you really got to circle the calendar and say I’m doing this now, and then that next.

My point is, if you’re going to build mass – then BUILD MASS. No pickup basketball games, no hockey, no 10k runs – just MASS!

H2B: I couldn’t agree more. If you could boil down your philosophy on building lean muscle to three key ingredients, what would they be?

DJ: 1. Nutrition: Eat protein, eat veggies, and drink water. And then a lot of PB&J sandwiches (or some food that will allow you to get in the calories necessary to grow).

2. Time under tension: In the case of my program – the complexes and high rep squats.

3. Relax. When you’re not training, you’re not doing anything else. You need to commit totally to building mass.

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