Things Are Going So Well, Help Me Screw It Up, Part I

Co-author Mike Warren Brown, former StrongFirst Certified SFG I Instructor

EDITOR’S NOTE: Dan’s writings will appear in italics.

The other day on the SFG forum, one of our regulars made an excellent post about his improvement. His goals of a double bodyweight deadlift and 15 reps on the pullup were closing in and, from my window seat, things looked pretty good. He then asked the usual question: “What can I do better?”

Although we always hear, “Best is the enemy of better,” sometimes I change this to:

“Things are going so well, help me screw it up!”

I know that as we approach any goal, due date, top-level competition, or wedding day, the pressure increases to make things perfect. “Something old, something new, something borrowed, something blue” soon leads to a discussion about the perfect temperature for Champagne from the best wineries of France.

Sometimes, you simply just have to let the process happen. Moreover, you need to finish what you started. Then, seek perfection.

Working with Mike Warren Brown, SFG, we have dissected the basic training templates of the SFG and Pavel’s body of work. Our attempt is to show the connections between programs, the levels of progress, the equipment needs and, at some level, the need for commitment to attain the basic standards of each program.

A systematic approach to strength from StrongFirst
Technique testing at the 2013 UK SFG.

The Beauty of a Systematic Approach

I was fortunate to work under Dan John, StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor, when he was coaching hundreds of athletes at Juan Diego Catholic High School in Draper, Utah. I still remember the first class I witnessed. It was full of seniors from a variety of sports ranging from swimming to football. I was amazed at the confidence and lifting proficiency the students displayed as they plowed through a grueling hour-long training session that most adults would struggle to finish. Every squat was beautifully taken to full depth, and power cleans were explosively pulled to perfectly positioned racks. There is nothing quite like standing in the middle of a room full of athletes demonstrating powerful technique in the big lifts.

All of those athletes started with zero training experience. How did Dan take them from weak, pimple-faced freshmen to what I saw four years later? Dan told me the answer is systematic education. Think about how you learned to read (I’m still learning). You began with the alphabet and then start forming words. Grammar is taught and sentences take shape. Reading is a high-level skill that requires a systematic approach to teach. Learning to lift does as well.

Watching a group of StrongFirst leaders train has the same effect as that class of seniors. Mastery is apparent as heavy kettlebells are swung with powerful crispness. Tension is channeled into awesome strength while big presses are locked out. The beauty of the StrongFirst school of strength is in its systematic approach.

There is one overreaching principle in a systematic approach:

Performance Standards Dictate Complexity in Training

The road to mastery is, and should be, a long one. It would be a mistake to skip steps in search of novelty and entertainment. The first tenet of the StrongFirst system is Continuity of the Training Process. The following is a systematic approach to mastery using programs created by Pavel.

There is no better way to learn the StrongFirst system of training than to fully immerse yourself in a single-minded journey down the time-tested path Pavel has laid out. Set your performance standards high and follow through. The best way to understand the nuances of the techniques and programming principles of StrongFirst is to take the long route. Becoming the quality coach that your students deserve takes time and patience.

Lead from the front.

That’s it in four words: Lead from the front.

Our goal is to outline a long-term plan to mastering the SFG Six. First a solid foundation must be set. It is time to learn your ABCs. The snatch, clean, press, and double front squat are extremely effective when taught on a strong foundation, but first master the basics.

The foundational moves are swings, goblet squats, and get-ups. The first step in our systematic approach is laying a technical foundation for these three basics. These three are also the key lifts in any and all programming no matter the goals of the athlete or client.

At a recent SFG, Dan explained his approach to programming like this:

“We need to get back to the basics of getting people to move more and move better so they can move more and move better. And, I have a solution for you and it’s Mexican food. Jim Gaffigan is one of my favorite comedians and he has a funny joke about Mexican food in his home state of Indiana where he used to be a waiter:

“Mexican food’s great, but it’s essentially all the same ingredients, so there’s a way you’d have to deal with all these stupid questions. “What is nachos?” “…Nachos? It’s tortilla with cheese, meat, and vegetables.” “Oh, well then what is a burrito?” “Tortilla with cheese, meat, and vegetables.” “Well then what is a tostada?” “Tortilla with cheese, meat, and vegetables.” “Well then what i-” “Look, it’s all the same s–t! Why don’t you say a Spanish word and I’ll bring you something.”

You see, I see training people the same way. You want to play in the NFL? Good, then we have to do: swing, goblet squat, and get-ups.

Swing, goblet squat, and get-ups.

Fat Loss?
Swing, goblet squat, and get-ups.

Basically, swing, goblet squat, and get-ups are going to be what we are going to serve you first.”

All too often, we see well-meaning instructors fresh out of a certification and excited to teach progress way too quickly to snatches and cleans before a true foundation has been put in place. What you see is double cleans being performed with weights that are way too light, sometimes I think you may as well just do “heavy hands.”

Instead, use performance standards to dictate when new skills are introduced. Follow the path laid out by Pavel and other top instructors.

**Continued in Part II**

Daniel John
Dan John, former StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor 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.

His books, on weightlifting, include “Intervention,” “Never Let Go,” “Mass Made Simple,” and “Easy Strength,” written with Pavel Tsatsouline, as well as “From Dad, To Grad.”

7 thoughts on “Things Are Going So Well, Help Me Screw It Up, Part I

  • Thank-you for the great information. Looks like I need to practice with perfect form before adding any weight.

  • “All too often we see well-meaning instructors fresh out of a cert and excited to teach progress way to quickly to snatches and cleans before a true foundation has been put in place. What you see is double cleans being performed with weights that are way too light, sometimes I think you may as well just do Heavy Hands.”

    It should be “way too quickly.” I am ashamed.

    • Dan, that’s the first typo I’ve picked up in any of your stuff, and I’ve read most of your books by now. Whether that’s a testament to my poor editing or your grammatical excellency I’ll never know… It happens to the best of us. Keep up the great writing.

  • Simple and basic is often best but also often overlooked in favour of complex, shiny and new!

    Great post, great reminder and can’t wait for part 2!

This article is now closed for comments, but please visit our forum, where you may start a thread for your comments and questions or participate in an existing one.

Thank you.