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Brutal or sensible?

Brutal oder vernünftig?

I answer a lot of questions. I answer phone calls, emails and text messages. I give a lot of workshops and spend a lot of time on the internet. Something I've realized recently is this - people are good at reading articles and books, but sometimes they miss the point.

I readily admit that this is my fault. I love experimenting, testing and adapting good training ideas. My mistake is writing a short article about Tabata front squats, slosh pipes, or the "Big 21" program. This is the beginning of the problem. People read these articles and are left with a big problem. And this is the point I'm trying to make here.

Not every good idea, training advice or diet can or should be used all at once. In previous articles, I've tried to describe this with terms like "warrior", "king" and "park bench". Recently, however, I realized that I need to simplify it even further by using just two words:

  • Sensible
  • Brutal

Reasonable is a pretty tame word, but it's rarely used these days. There's a fantastic quote from Clint Eastwood:

"I tried to be reasonable - I didn't like it."

I think Clint sums it up well when you relate it to sensible eating and sensible workouts. Let's be honest - they're not particularly sexy. A sensible approach to fitness lacks all the great adjectives that define our business, but most of us can get by with "sensible" for a long time.

Brutal is more fun. I no longer use other terms as they may fall under copyright. I do, however, have a handy tool for any of you who want to publish your own e-book.

Simply choose one word each from column A, column B and column C:

Column A*

Column B

Column C





of metabolic

















more brutal

training sessions




physical development

* For some variation, put a number in front of column A of your choice - usually "three", "five" or "seven".

Then fill in the following template:

The (insert a word of your choice from column A here) (insert a word of your choice from column B here) (insert a word of your choice from column C here).

I am just as guilty here as anyone else and hope everyone sees this with humor. Feel free to insert your own descriptions.

"Brutal" training sessions are what we tend to look for on this site. If I write something about a workout that makes you throw up, I'll be getting emails about it for years to come.

Are you interested in a brutal diet? Maybe I can find a link to the Velocity diet somewhere. I tried this diet as part of a psychological "retread" and I have to agree, it was psychological because after 28 days I felt like a psychopath.

One of the articles that really interested me was the "Eat like a man" series of articles. This diet combined 5 high protein, high fat days with a weekend of carb loading. I adapted this concept for my athletes and still use it as my nutritional template for strength athletes. I still believe this is a sensible nutritional approach to a 'clean' diet for athletes who need to develop strength and speed for their sport.

It's the mix that people overlook. This is what I want to address here. If you imagine a simple pie chart, I want you to lay out the next few years of your training as quadrants of the pie chart in the following way:

  • Sensible training sessions, brutal nutrition
  • Sensible training sessions, sensible nutrition
  • Brutal training sessions, sensible nutrition
  • Brutal training sessions, brutal nutrition

Let's look at each of these quadrants in detail:

Sensible workouts, brutal diet

Most of us use diet for our fat loss needs. Years ago, a well-known professor told me the following during one of my workshops, "Heck, we know how to lose fat and weight: tie yourself to a tree and come back in three days."

I would bet that works, but I would hesitate to actually recommend such a thing. Of course, the following will be the some message some readers will take away from this for themselves "Hey, dude...tie me to a tree!"

Brutal diets work - we all know that. Adherence can be a problem, of course, but brutal diets get the job done. I do, however, have a problem with trying to follow a brutal diet - I just don't do well on them. But brutal diets do the job for me too. I've lost a lot of weight very quickly with them before competitions.

However, I believe that if you are going to follow a brutal diet, you should do sensible training sessions. What are sensible workouts? Well, in most cases, I recommend that you perform the basic human movements as part of your workout:

  • Push
  • pulls
  • hip flexions
  • Squats
  • Loaded Carries (carrying loads over a distance)

I tend to have people stick to a total repetition range of 15 to 25 reps for each exercise in reasonable workouts. You should know these workouts. The classic workouts fall into this range:

  • 3 sets of 5 reps
  • 5 sets of 5 repetitions
  • 3 sets of 8 repetitions

The "5 x 5" workout was popularized by Reg Park over half a century ago and it formed the basis of most of Arnold's mass-building phases. 5 x 5 on bench press, rowing, deadlifts, squats and farmer's walks is enough training for anyone. I have a simple formula for the load used:

  • If you can't do 15 total reps (over all 5 sets), then the weight is too heavy
  • If you can easily do more than 25 total reps, then the weight is too light
  • If you stay in this range and increase the weight over time, then you are doing everything right. If you fail to increase the weight over a longer period of time, then consider this as the real problem underlying your lack of progress.

If you are putting all your energy into your diet plan, then choose an exercise program that you know you can do. At best, you can follow a brutal diet twice a year. So choose a training program that you know how to do, make sure you have sufficient recovery and - most importantly - be aware that you don't have to expend a lot of mental energy in terms of discipline and free will to complete this phase successfully.

Sensible training sessions, sensible nutrition

I think you should spend most of your training year (a better term would probably be training decade or training life) combining sensible training sessions with sensible nutrition.

A few years ago at a clinic in Colorado Springs, we were told that our diet should revolve around three things:

  • Low-fat protein sources
  • Vegetables
  • Pure water

This is still good advice. I've been to several workshops over the years centered around the Mediterranean diet and these two approaches seem to be in line with each other. However, if you are more comfortable with Atkins, Paleo, Zone, Ornish or whatever you consider "your" way of eating, then this would be your sensible diet.

You should spend most of your life on this method of "sensible and reasonable". That seems sensible to me.

Brutal training sessions, sensible nutrition

For me, these are phases in life when it's all about maximum performance. As a teenager, I referred to these phases as "the big push." As I prepared for the track and field season or an Olympic weightlifting competition, I knew it was time to spend extra time in the weight room or on the sports field. Not only did I need to improve the quality of my movements - I also needed to increase the quantity.

And that's the key to brutal training sessions. Marty Gallagher is planning these for 12 weeks. Tommy Kono is planning an eight-week maximum phase. And Dave Turner (my strength coach) plans eight weeks of increasing load, followed by two weeks of perfecting technique, which is immediately followed by competition. The Soviet program I used to use involved six weeks of long, heavy squat training three days a week.

If you are doing a really brutal training session then your diet needs to match this and be simple. I hope you are supporting your training with "big boy" food choices.

For years I believed that brutal training could offset any nutritional choices. However, based on my experiences and observations of others I trust, as well as long discussions with one of the brightest minds in sports nutrition, I've learned that I was wrong - again.

Choose your foods wisely as you ramp up your training! Like a brutal diet, most people can do a period of brutal training maybe twice a year. I have encouraged my older athletes (mid-twenties and up) to think about a smaller increase per year and work up from that to a maximum increase later in the year. This is also reasonable, doable and repeatable.

Brutal training sessions, brutal nutrition

Everyone thinks they can pull this off, but in reality there are very few people who can train hard and diet brutally at the same time. Years ago, I had two bodybuilder friends who helped each other compete. One day, Lance called me and asked if I could help them with their training. The other bodybuilder, George, had a week to go until his competition. He was basically living on salad. That and no more. That's a brutal diet.

He did one set and then lay on the floor. It was my job to get him back on his feet and push him to do the next set. And then - bang - he was back on the floor. After the timed rest period was over, I had to push him again to do his next set.

Personally, I can't understand this. I might be able to muster the energy and resources to approach my training in this way once every four years, but it would really have to be worth the time and effort. There would have to be something really big at stake.

But if you look on the internet, everyone seems to be training with absolute ruthlessness and eating nothing but straw mixed with protein powder. Hats off to you!

Workout-free, diet-free

This is something I never understood until recently. Just stop worrying about training and diet once in a while. Go on vacation to an all-inclusive hotel, don't work out, eat whatever you feel like and forget about everything else. I learned a lot about being human on a week-long cruise, believe me.

Just for the record - if you haven't sunbathed for a while, don't spend day one lying in the sun and drinking beer all day. I've seen a lot of this. And women who drink a lot of alcohol in a hot pool seem to leave the pool with less clothing than they were wearing before. These are lessons I didn't realize I needed to learn.

The idea behind all of this is pretty obvious. Structure your year or training career in a way that includes different phases of really hard training and some phases of strict dieting efforts, but have an eye on long periods of smart, progressive resistance training.

When I read something about an excellent diet or training idea, I file it away in my extensive collection of materials. I let it simmer there for a while and then look for a place in my training year where I can incorporate that idea.

It's that simple - and that sensible.


By Dan John | 10/15/12

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