****This is not and indictment of any particular training concept, coach, or fitness system. It’s simply a description of how to make smart training decisions and to rely on your judgment rather than the prescriptions of others.
I got a question from friend recently who attended a seminar I worked. This person, wanted to know what I thought of the using the “Litvinov workout.” as a training mainstay. If you’re not familiar with it, this workout was made mainstream by an article written by Dan John. The workout structure, relayed second hand from John Powell, an American discus legend, was performed by Sergey Litivinov, an extremely successful hammer thrower throughout the 1980’s. The workout is as follows.
“Eight reps of front squats with 405 pounds, immediately followed by a 75-second 400-meter run. Repeat this little combination for a total of three times and go home, thank you. Let’s just stop here and marvel at what Powell observed. A 196-pound man front squatted 405… eight times!”
The author went on to describe his own version of this basic couplet, several very heavy reps of a compound exercise followed by a fast run of around a minute. This couplet was repeated for several cycles.
All of the players in this story are legends: Sergey Litvinov as a hammer thrower, John Powell as a discus thrower and coach, and Dan John as a writer and coach as well as an accomplished athlete in his own right. All have impressive credentials. So, if you’re going to contradict this crowd, you better have solid reasons. I do.
Personally, I don’t care if the method was designed by a Russian sport scientist or a middle school track coach. If you want to include a new element into your routine (whether it be 531, a 10,000 kettlebell swing challenge, or Bikram yoga) you need to run yourself through some basic diagnostic questions. Ninety-nine percent of people refuse to do this basic first step.
Why are you doing that? No really….WHY?
You have a limited budget of time and energy…it’s the one constant between all of us. The clock is ticking. So before you start spending your clock hours ask yourself…What EXACTLY am I hoping to get? If Litvinov actually did this workout at all, there was a clear goal. As described in the original article, it is suggested this couplet will promote leanness and conditioning. Ok. So… Are you too fat? Is conditioning the main priority in your training?
So, what if the answer to both of these questions is yes? Maybe being too fat is the major detriment to your progress. Maybe your conditioning is so bad that you can’t adequately train for your sport. Sounds important. If it is important, use the right tool for the job. Is this the best tool? How do you know? Have you seen people lose weight and get more conditioned using this? Have you done something similar? Do you have peers or coaches that rely on the same methods? But…it’s Dan John and he has a wealth of experience. All true, but in my case, I look at exotic options like this and I think, “this might work, but my experience tells me, I cant outrun a donut.” Diet is what makes you lean.” My experience also tells me I am not Sergey Litvinov, I don’t have 20 plus years in the ring honing the basics of throwing. I can’t afford to spend energy on curiosities. Sergey and Powell had decades with the basics. I don’t. Do you?
So, when considering new methods, self assessment is your first line of defense. Does the new shiny method you want to employ address your problems and your specific issues? Will it hone your existing strengths in some way? If you can’t answer this almost instantly and intuitively, walk away.
Context is King.
In the above quote from the original article, make a note of the emphasis from the author. Litivinov, a man of two hundred pounds could front squat more than double bodyweight for a set of eight. This is a level of strength that takes either freakish natural talent or years of dedicated squatting. You do not BUILD this strength with couplets of barbell lifts and quick runs. You might preserve strength this way. Sergey or anyone else who you would categorize as “very strong” can do a lot of creative things to preserve a base of strength and athleticism. Do you have a base worth preserving or does it need building?
Until you’re very good at your chosen sport, you should be more interested in what Litvinov was doing before he came up with this workout. That is where the real progress was made. The internet is littered with articles, ebooks and newsletters, extolling the virtues of what the “Elite”are doing in their training at their peak. It may be interesting, or even fascinating, but it has very little to do with what most people should be doing in their own practice.
What ninety percent of the population needs to be studying is what these guys were doing in high school, in college, and the many many years leading up to their overnight success. I have been told more than once that no one is interested in exercise programming for beginners and intermediate lifters…… “It’s boring, no one will pay for that.” True. Very few will and yet, establishing a foundation in the basics is what EVERYONE needs. It’s not super ultra sexy, neither is compound interest…but that is where the money is made.
The fact is, progress is made inches by inches. Monotony is the engine of progress and it’s not always fun. Embracing the erratic jerky stepwise approach of a toddler learning to walk is the key, not investing training resources gambling secret methods. Always remember, before they were legends, the best athletes all did the same basic stuff. You need to ask yourself, have I gotten the most out of the basics yet?
So, how you know if something works?
The best way to know if something is going to work is rely on your reasoned judgement. This is the conundrum of judgment, most people develop it by making a lot of bad decisions first. Again,this point goes back to the initial assessment and how well you know your own abilities. The self coached athlete or layperson will invariably have a blindspot. Finding your own blindspot is hard but I’ve got a very simple rubric, tell me the thing that you absolutely will not do and hate doing and can’t do under any circumstances. That’s where we start. People avoid their weaknesses.
Learning and training are about change. Transformation requires you to do things you haven’t done, to stretch yourself and relentlessly ferret out weakness and patch holes in your ability. Frankly,most of the time, this is obvious. Glaring lack of technique, flexibility and strength or power can usually be assessed at a glance. On your own, your best guide is to start with the work you find most distasteful and make it your new best friend. I hate working flexibility, I hate throwing drills and I love to lift heavy. Knowing this, you can be damned sure my off season needs to include yoga, lots of footwork and no more than two days of weights a week. Your greatest strength will highlight your greatest weakness.
Spice is ok.
So what if, at the end of the day, a person really just wants to use a new method because it looks like fun? ( lets be honest, most of these new shiny methods are all about alleviating boredom). I use a basic eighty/twenty rule with all programming. The eighty percent of your time is working the stuff you know delivers, it’s the basic obvious best practices that all your competitors are using. Do that. Then Do More. The twenty is important too. You have to reserve time to experiment, to Play. To build your experience and judgement. This is where things like the Litvinov workouts and 20 minute deadlift challenges and offseason fun runs come in.
Fun little couplets and circuits can be great adjuncts to your training to make you “feel” athletic, to spice up effective training that is by it’s very nature, monotonous. But spice is just that: great in moderate amounts, but it’s not a meal. There is nothing nourishing about a bowl of taco seasoning. So reserve time to try things like the subject workout. Fooling around with oddball tools may lead to important self discovery. What looks like a goofy workout today could be a best practice in 20 years. Until these things have proven their merit over a long period of time, avoid that bowl of taco seasoning and eat your steak.