Easy Strength - Dan John's 40 Day Program

Easy Strength. Isn’t that an Oxymoron?

From what I had experienced strength was anything but easy. The book Easy Strength is written by Dan John and Pavel Tsatsouline. If you aren’t familiar with either name, check them out.

To put it bluntly, these guys know their shit. Read all you can by these guys. It will make you a better lifter, athlete, coach and human being.

So how is strength easy?

When I found this program it made a lot of sense to me. It’s simple and it works. You might think of it as "simple strength".

You eliminate all the extra stuff that you don’t need and put your efforts into 5 movements per workout. It reminded me of when I first read 531- Jim Wendler’s awesome book that I’ve mentioned before. No bullshit, no fancy equipment necessary, no crazy rep schemes and definitely not some program that calls for eight different exercises to blast your chest and biceps.  

The Story of Easy Strength

Dan John tells a story of when he met Pavel Tsatsouline, who gave him this 40 day program. Pavel told him to pick 5 lifts to be performed for 2 sets of 5 reps and never go close to failure or even struggle.

The weight should feel easy and when it’s really light, add some weight to the bar. Dan John used this program exactly as told. Alone in his garage on his 22nd workout he broke his best Incline Bench Press record of 300 with 315x2. All his other lifts improved. 

I was sold.

I read some reviews of the program and more of Dan John’s articles. I wanted to get stronger of course, but I liked the idea of working with lighter weights and with more frequency. Improving a few lifts at a time instead of trying to do a 6 exercises per body-part made perfect sense.

The Basics of the Program

Pick 5 lifts.

A push, pull, squat, hip hinge, and loaded carry.

Push- Any bench press variation. Overhead Press, Seated Press, Landmine Press.

Pull- Any deadlift variation. Pullups, Rows.

Squat- Again, any variation is fine. Box, Front, SSB etc.

Hip hinge- Dan John and Pavel are big on Kettlebells and swings are a great movement to learn and get strong with.

Loaded Carry- Farmer’s walks, waiter’s walks, sled pulls, prowler pushes, suitcase carries. Use Kettlebells, dumbbells, trap bar, sled, sandbag. Just grab something and move with it.

Each workout you do 2 sets of 5 reps on the squat, press, pull. For the hip hinge Dan John suggests the Kettlebell Swing for reps in the 75-100 range. Sets of 20-25 to really get that important hip hinge pattern down. For the loaded carries just vary the distance or load as often as possible

Why Should You Try Easy Strength?

If consistency is something you lack, start now. Build the habit of just getting to the gym and doing the same workout for 40 days. You will gain a ton of practice on the 5 chosen movements, gain strength and prove to yourself that you can stick to the plan.

My review of this program doesn’t do it justice so my advice is to go to Dan John’s website and buy the book. It would benefit you to read his blog and books as well as Pavel’s. They know their stuff and they are quite entertaining to read as well. Bonus!

Dan John has written variations of this program, he has a post on his page called 'Even Easier Strength' with some options to mix things up a bit but it’s basically the same concept.

With ‘Even Easier Strength’ you just change the exercises every two weeks and do a few different rep ranges like 5,3,2 and a day of 6 singles and a day of 1 set of 10 instead of 2x5.

The book is much more than just the program, Pavel and Dan John's landmark Easy Strength delves deeply into the role and impact of strength training in fitness, sports, and life.

Whatever your chosen physical activity and whoever you are, there are proven methods that can get you and your athletes to their goals faster and more effectively. The book is for athletes, coaches and general fitness enthusiasts (such a strange term but it’s fitting).

My Gains

I chose Close Grip Bench Press, Pullups or Batwings, Front Squats, kettlebell swings and various loaded carries.

Front Squat. This is a lift I had not practiced in a few years and was rusty with. I started the program with 105 lbs on the bar for 2 sets of 5 and ended up with 265 for a single. My previous PR years before was 245x1.

Close Grip Bench. Another lift I didn’t use much and wanted to improve on. I started at 155lbs. for 2x5 and ended up most days doing 185 or 195 for two easy sets and tested my max after 40 days at 245x2 paused.

Pullups. I did these on most days,  mixed in with batwings to give shoulders a bit of a break. I started with just bodyweight and ended up hitting a solid 5 reps with 55lbs. around my waist.

Batwings” are a Dan John creation and are basically a chest supported row with dumbbell or kettlebell. The focus is on holding the contraction and squeezing your shoulder blades together. It’s not about heaving the weight up with momentum but targeting the rhomboids and balancing out your shoulder girdle.

Kettlebell Swings- I never did these before. Started at 26lb and finished up with the 53lb kettlebell for high rep sets. These are harder than they look but provide a ton of benefit. Great for building glute strength and the posterior chain.

Loaded Carries. I improved my farmer’s walks to the 97lb. kettlebell and the trap bar to 275lbs. I did various loaded carries; suitcase carries holding a kettlebell, prowler pushes and waiter walks. I did these at the end of my training session and tried to vary the weight and/or distance as much as possible.

I had done farmer's walks a few times with dumbbells and the trap bar but never consistently. This was great for my total strength and conditioning. If you've never done them, you are in for a treat. As Dan John says "they are a game changer".

I did no other exercises save for a few sets of abs once in a while. This is crucial. Do not do anything extra even if you feel like you can and you will.  Most sessions were 2 sets of 5 reps with a few days going a bit heavier for 5,3,2 or 6 singles. I never went close to maxing out until after 40 days. Then I tested. Sure enough, I was stronger and hit some solid PR's. 

During this time I also switched my diet somewhat. I took out dairy and wheat and all processed foods. Granted I didn't eat much junk anyway but it made a difference. I lost about 12 lbs. during this time and got stronger.

Dan John talks about how this is a good time to cut a bit of fat and I would agree. You aren't trying to build size and you aren't maxing out so you it's a good time to drop a few lbs but it's not necessary for the program to work either.

Final Thoughts

I liked this program. I knew every day what I was going to do and the practice made each movement fluid. I trained 4 days a week so that’s a good 40 reps at a weight that is easy.

You can control each lift and really nail down your form. This program allows you to focus and discard much that you don't need.

There were days I would walk into the gym and say to myself, man I’m doing this same workout again.

After about 20 days of the same lifts you start to look around and think about doing some calf raises or dips. Anything other than the same Front Squats and Close Grip Bench. I would change up the order sometimes or do a variation of the rep scheme which helped.

Dan John made his progress in 20 or so workouts so I think an intermediate-advanced level trainee would make solid gains doing the same.

Another bonus of Easy Strength is training in an intuitive way and regulating yourself. If you are feeling beat up or really tired you don’t have to go heavy, in fact you don’t want to with this program.

Start light and add weight to the bar slowly. It’s not about one session in the gym but the whole program and where you will be at the end of it. Stronger.

Sessions are short and you leave the gym refreshed not drained. This may be a change for some. It was for me. Enjoy it. It’s not forever, it’s a month or two of training. It’ll do you good.

So if you’re looking to get more consistent with your training and keep it simple, try “Easy Strength”. Sticking to the same workout for 40 days is not easy but it will bring a solid reward at the end. Start now and let me know how it goes!

If you need help an individualized program, check out my online training here