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Four Challenges to Light Your Fire!

Four Challenges to Light Your Fire!
by Dan John

Training with Dan John is fun.
Wait, scratch that.
Training with Dan John is “fun.”

That’s better. The quotation marks are crucial because it’s difficult to use the word fun if you’re talking about gasping, straining, and sucking wind like a football player who shows up fat ‘n sloppy for two-a-days.

Sure, challenging is probably a better word. It wakes you up, jolts you from your training stupor, and yanks you by the hair out of your rut. After a Coach John workout is over you feel like you’ve accomplished something. You feel, well, good. And that’s fun.

In that spirit we’ve asked Dan to hit us with a handful of his “fun” challenges. Give ’em a shot, then come back here and let us know how you did. — Chris Shugart

4 Challenges to Light Your Fire!

“Kick the tires and light the fires, big daddy!” Captain Wilder, Independence Day

Challenge #1: Kick the PUPP
It’s true, some coaches don’t like the plank exercise. They say it’s too easy, at least for their advanced athletes.

But here’s the deal: If you start shaking like a wet cat in winter before you even reach the 60 second mark, then you need planks.

I know, I know, you’re too “advanced,” just like everyone else on the Internet, all of them just one cycle away from being Mr. Universe… But if you can’t plank for one full minute, let’s just pretend that you need some work on this.

If you’re the Olympic 400 meter champion, you can skip it. Fair enough?

Okay, so what’s a plank? Basically, it’s holding a push-up in the top position. Yes, it’s that simple. I’d make you a video of it, but it would be quite boring.

Form? Well, a plank is like my deck. My deck is made of Trex and it’ll be straight 10,000 years after the end of the world. So, be like my deck and make one smooth straight line, hips solids, head locked in the “military fashion,” and body rigid. No need to coat yourself in varnish, though.

Planks are probably my favorite underrated exercise in my quiver of training tools. I now have about a dozen variations with names that mean something to me and probably nothing to anyone else. I think it’s important for a coach and athlete to share a vocabulary, but translating it to others in print or online is impossible. So, I won’t comment on star planks, dead bugs, get-up planks or — my favorite — “resurrected dead bugs with a heartbeat.”

Let me give you one to try today. I’d like you to fall to the floor and give me a PUPP: a standard. The shaking in your waist after 30 seconds is a sign that your body wants to discuss some issues with you.

But wait, this is TMUSCLE! I’m going to ask that you do it the way we do it in our gym. I want you to use the PUPP as your rest period for your workout.

Yeah, you read that right.

Simply take a squat movement and use a weight that you can get for ten reps. For this workout, however, we’ll halve those reps, so we’ll do sets of five. Instead of resting, you will PUPP.

Here’s an example:

Front Squat x 5 (with 10 rep weight)
PUPP for 30 Seconds
Front Squat x 5
PUPP for 30 Seconds
Front Squat x 5
PUPP for 30 Seconds

Front Squat
Front Squat
Push-Up Position Plank
Push-Up Position Plank

Be careful on the last set as the heaving of the chest makes handling the barbell a bit suspect. I strongly encourage you to rest for a little bit after this workout.

Yes, you can PUPP longer than 30 seconds. Yes, five reps with a weight you can front squat for ten is very light. And guess what? Neither will matter when you attempt to leap off the ground and front squat that last set.

How about this? Try it first, then decide if you want to ask me about longer PUPPs and more weight on the bar.

Challenge #2: The Big 55
The next little idea that I use in training is “The Big 55.” I had a smart kid once answer a question rather quickly in a math class. The instructor asked, “What’s the sum of 10 plus 9 plus 8 plus 7 plus 6 plus 5 plus 4 plus 3 plus 2 plus 1?”

My lifter answered “55!”

The instructor was amazed he could add those numbers so quickly, until the student told him the truth: “That’s Coach John’s favorite workout.”

Here’s how to do it. First, put two moves back to back. My good friend, Pavel Tsatsouline, has fallen in love with this little twisted workout:

Kettlebell Swing
Kettlebell Swing

Goblet Squats

The workout: Simply do 10 swings, followed by 10 goblet squats, then 9 and 9, 8 and 8, and — you know where this is heading! — we go all the way to 1 and 1. I don’t recommend putting the weight down if you’re doing this with the same kettlebell or dumbbell. Enjoy.


The swing is simple: Maintain a nice back arch, sit back, keep your head up, stay braced at the bottom, and use a powerful hip snap on every rep. The ‘bell shouldn’t rise above your shoulders.

Think of a goblet squat as a front squat holding a dumbbell in front of your body at your chest (see pic). This allows for a “comfortable,” natural, upright position.

Challenge #3: The 23-Minute Man-Maker
Pick five exercises. Like these:

Overhead press
Deadlift (any variation, use thick bars if you have them)
Pull-up (preferred) or pulldown
Ab wheel or ab roll-out using a bar or Swiss ball

The chore is to do ten reps back-to-back of each of the five lifts, then start again doing nine, then eight, then seven… and, again, you see where this is heading!

I have a “tap out” rule that you have to finish in 23 minutes. I insist you use weights that are so light in the squat, press, and deadlift that you’re embarrassed to begin the workout. If you follow my sage advice, you might be able to finish it.

Challenge #4: Tumble
One other area of training that I feel most people have completely ignored is tumbling.

Barbell Rollouts
Barbell Rollouts

Tumbling is part of bodybuilding’s history. Tumbling was a key to “body culture” a hundred years ago and it existed well into the Muscle Beach era. Franco Columbo was a gifted acrobat and could do amazing things with his total body strength.

I’m telling you this: If you want a workout that will gas you and leave you sweating and crying in a heap, go ahead and tumble. The following workout recently led a fairly good athlete of mine to puke:

Five forward rolls
Five right shoulder rolls
Five left shoulder rolls
Three cartwheels followed by three cartwheels to the other side
One set of bear crawls (about ten meters)
Sprint to waste basket

Note: The bear crawl is a “quad-ped” crawl. Your knees don’t touch the ground, just your hands and feet. The two basic variations are the bent-knee Spider Man or “military” version, and the straight-leg version.

I don’t like my athletes to puke, but the level of intensity, both physical and mental, it takes to tumble really seems to ramp up the metabolism.

Furthermore, I don’t push the tumbling repetitions. We take time to review technique and position and protection. But, the workload seems insane compared to rotator cuff exercises on a Bosu ball…

“Accept the challenges so that you may feel the exhilaration of victory,” said General Patton. Well, you’re going to feel something after one of these challenges. Let’s hope the exhilaration of victory is part of it!

About Dan John

Never Let GO Dan Joun
Never Let GO Dan Joun

Dan John is head strength coach at Juan Diego Catholic High School in Daper, Utah. He’s also a religious studies instructor in Salt Lake City. An All-American discus thrower, Dan has competed at high levels in Olympic lifting, Highland games, and the Weight Pentathlon, an event in which he holds the American record. Dan’s new book, Never Let Go, is available from

Models: Tim Smith, Andrew Barker
Location: Gold’s Gym, Abilene, Texas

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Valentine Rawat
Personal Trainer · S&C Coach · Official Trainer to Sky1 Obese A Year to Save My Life & SkyLiving FAT: The Fight of My Life I'm a father and a husband, and my girls are my inspiration to be better, do better & continually help others achieve better of themselves.

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