The thing you are not doing

Back in October, 2014, I was experiencing a very distressing problem with my health that completely derailed my training and my life for a few months. It turned out later to be something like a bone bruise and separation or dislocation of my right clavicle, along with costochrondritis, but at the time, it felt like a series of pre-heart attack chest pains, aka “exercise induced angina.”

I went to the doctor. My heart is fine, he tells me. But that didn’t mean I wasn’t having problems.

I had been doing my 45 year old’s version of 5/3/1 for nearly two years, and I was bored out of my skull. Every training session—often dark and cold or wet—it was me, alone, by myself at the gym. Every week it was squats, deadlifts, presses, bench-presses, and I would throw in some power snatches and power cleans.

It was the power cleans (doing scores and scores of them week after week) that had messed up my clavicle and chest. But it was all the other mistakes and decisions I’d made that prevented me from recovering from that injury and bouncing back. I had also let diet slide. I had let conditioning slide. I felt like I was in a slide.

In short, I was lonely, I was broken down a bit, and I was a bit of a mess.

Furthermore, I looked at my training, and couldn’t help but notice that on “5/3/1″ I had not made the gains I had fantasized about. The arbitrary numerical goals I had set for myself in the squat and deadlift—in truth they were other people’s goals for me, but I had owned them for several years—didn’t seem much closer. This wasn’t the fault of “5/3/1″ … it was undobutedly my fault. Obviously, I was doing things wrong. Maybe I was doing everything wrong. In any case I was ready for a change.

So, as I started trying to figure out how to evaluate my life and training plan, I remembered that Dan John had a book called Intervention, and I was figuring this: “I love Dan John, and I need an intervention in my training routine, and, maybe, just maybe, this book will offer that.” It seemed reasonable to assume so. After all, there was the subtitle: “Course Corrections for the Athlete and Trainer.” This seemed like the time for a course correction to me. If you’re lost, if you’re wandering, perhaps hurt, perhaps broken down, perhaps unsure of the future or of your goals, you need an intervention, right? So I figured, what have I got to lose? Dan John can intervene for me, and help me correct my course.

Click on Cover to Purchase on

Short story long: I bought and read the book. It was good. No, this is not the review of the book I have planned for later. I imagine that later I may put up a personal review, a sort of discussion of how the principles in his book have influenced my thinking about my “training.” I’d assess the book as someone like me might, someone not a professional athlete, working in a relatively low-impact “white collar” job, and well past where most optimistic estimates would put the mid-point of a likely life-span, a grown person about as strong as what John would call a “Big Blue Club” teenage athlete. But at any rate that’s another post.

But for now, in this post, I just want to offer one single pearl of wisdom from Intervention, and talk about how it got me thinking about where to go next.

Dan John’s wisdom is usually expressed directly, with Yogi Berra-esque economy and simplicity. On almost every page he’s dropping a gem or a shiny pebble of knowledge. But on my reading of the book one bauble in particular stuck out. It comes right at the end of the 13th chapter, about the seventh question (out of ten) in the trainer’s intervention inquiry: “What are your gaps?” The trainer asks the trainee about gaps, and obviously, gaps (or weaknesses, asymmetries, or, gasp, imbalances) exist in every trainee. Just as obviously, John expects that you should work on your weaknesses in a targeted way. If the trainee is willing to honestly assess this, then John is going to point the way forward by working on the weaknesses. But for the impatient, the person who can’t wait for a detailed assessment of what to do next and why John offers a simple, short statement:

What you are not doing is what you need to do.

The movements you are ignoring
are the things you need to do!

—Dan John, Intervention (Kindle location 1094).

For me, this quote spurred immediate insight.

I didn’t have to think about what I was not doing. I knew exactly what I wasn’t doing. Out of fear, embarrassment, avoidance of discomfort and pain, etc. I was ignoring: road work (running, sprinting), loaded carries, jumping, and also pulls, specifically, pull-ups. In fact, when I thought about it, there was one thing above all that I was most not doing: pull-ups (or really any pulls at all). [No, deadlifts do not count as pulls; they are hinges.]

I didn’t know exactly what I was going to do with my training now, and I still don’t. But one thing was sure. I was going to build my strength up, and train the motion, and fix the pain and sorrow of my pull-ups. And that’s part of what I’ve been doing since then (though I have also been taking my time getting my whole act together; but that’s another ‘nother post).

More than that… upon further reflection I could eventually see that the things I wasn’t doing included psychological and personal things, like planning and executing shopping and meal preparation, like prioritizing sleep and health. There was also this matter of “exercise,” like getting my heart rate up, my breath working, and a sweat going for longer than a minute at a time. I’d been experiencing fear and anxiety because of my chest pains; but it was the psychological toll of ignoring things I know and believe are good for me that led to the anxiety. And furthermore, if I thought about it, it didn’t take a genius to realize that some of my pain, discomfort, and chronic issues were being exacerbated by not only the cardiovascular weakness but by the strength gaps I’d allowed to open up and grow. In any case, all this made me realize, another thing I hadn’t been doing was keeping my priorities straight.

Intervention: achieved. Priority realignment: in progress.

Currently Reading: “Fat Loss Happens on Monday”

It was Saturday morning (this past Saturday), and I was feeling… tired, out of shape, unmotivated, sad, sore, and pissed off.

I was standing around in my underwear, looking very unsvelte, or even swelled, and drinking my coffee, while talking about my issues with my ever loving and supportive spouse. My habits were out of whack. I’d let the training slide. My conditioning was shot. I’d let the diet slide too, and was getting soft. I’d been prioritizing work work work above everything. Losing sleep to prep classes and grade papers. Working seven days a week. Heck, why am I writing this in the past tense? This was only two days ago.

I know that habit is key. I know this. I know it in part because I see the way I have over the course of my life constantly bounced back and forth between mutually exclusive habitudes, or patterned habitual ways of living. I’ll establish a good habit for a while… months, years even, and then let something shift and boom, habits replace habits. And I was thinking a lot about habit here, early, on Saturday morning. The question I was asking myself was, how can I shift my habits back into a better pattern, making room for diet and exercise. My wife was asking me the same question. And then I logged into facebook. Because, you know, habit.

What met me there was a classic example of “synchronicity,” that became a moment of serendipity for me. I saw a post from my “friend,” coach Dan John. Dan John is one of America’s premier coaches of throwing sports, and a leading authority on strength and conditioning. He’s also an entertaining writer (besides following him on blogs and social media, I’ve read two of his books, Never Let Go and Intervention), and in every way a humane, gentle, completely down to earth person. I also identify with him because he teaches “religious studies” (or religious education)—though he does so in a Catholic context and I’m sure we would probably not see eye to eye theologically. But I could be wrong; he’s that kind of “real” Christian who just lets his manner of life do the talking. He never proselytizes or uses his coaching work to preach; on the other hand he might occasionally quote Gilgamesh which is all right by me.

Anyway, what was the first thing I saw on Facebook when I logged in? This:

Obviously I was “meant” (by whom, I will not say… but let’s say I have more akin with the paranoid type that could conceive of Facebook snooping on us than I have with the person who belives in divine providence) to see this book at this moment. I bought a copy. And I’m currently reading it.

I started reading it that very day, after my Saturday workout. (The first such Saturday workout in months.) The book almost instantly provided a framework that answered my current needs. A lot of what Dan John does in this book is already done in his other work, especially his recent book Intervention. I didn’t expect a revolution there. But the framework developed by Josh Hillis, for a habit-centered approach to changing one’s relationship to food and exercise, that is something I can live with.

This isn’t meant as a detailed review. I’ll mention that I’ve started to implement the “mindfulness” strategy for bringing Hillis’ eleven habits into play. This involves keeping a hand-written food journal (habit #4), eating to only 80% fullness (habit #8), eating slowly—at least 15 minutes per meal— (habit #7), and practicing gratitude for what works in one’s body (habit #11). After that you add in the other habits. Anyway, it seems like a cool book. I’m about 30% of the way through it.

I’ll be happy to share more about this below, in the comments, if you’re interested, and I’ll undoubtedly post more about this stuff in the near future. And I’ll dedicate a post soon to Dan John’s Intervention, writing a personal review of it, and explaining how it has begun to influence my thinking about how I want to train.