Steel Bending, VFF, Yoga & Dan John

by Dan Cenidoza, CSCS, RKC, AKC, CK-FMS

The following is a report on my current training goals and how I've successfully married the completely unrelated pursuits of steel bending, barefoot running, yoga and strength training minimums as per Dan John.

My first priority training goal right now is steel bending. All sorts of steel; short, long, flat, round, horseshoes, hardware, whatever. I'm about a year into a long and slow process of conditioning my hands to the pressures of bending steel. I just recently bent the Ironmind red nail and although that is considered by many to be an elite level of bending, I feel like I'm only scratching the surface of my potential. Best of all, I'm having a lot of fun in the process!

Because I'm having so much fun, it's difficult to find the right training balance of this potentially dangerous activity. I can't train too often, or too hard, less I get hurt. I have to wait patiently until the tissues adapt to such forces. Even if I can block out the pain involved in bending steel, I must gradually increase the workload... my body demands it!

I'm still figuring out how to progress in this type of conditioning, one that has nothing to do with my muscular or cardiovascular development. I imagine that anyone who has been down this path had to pave their own way. Because steel bending involves trauma to the body, not to mention belief and commitment from the mind, it makes it a highly individual endeavor. Experienced benders can offer only general advice to those who inquire about steel bending programs. Just the sound of a "steel bending program" sounds ridiculous! Each man must find his own way.

Very similar to the desensitization process I'm going through with my hands, I'm going through with my feet via barefoot running (not quite barefoot, but the Vibram Five Fingers is about as close as it gets). The goal here is a multi-faceted one. I want to strengthen my feet, I want to be in good cardiovascular shape and I want to shed a couple pounds of bodyfat; so I run in VFF's. Sometimes I run sprints, sometimes I run miles, sometimes I run while carrying really heavy weights (more on that later) but I do so all in the VFF's and it all goes towards the aforementioned goals.

Barefoot training is not a new concept but it is a new experience for me. I'm about 2 months into training in the VFF's and so far what I have found is that the stronger my feet are, the stronger I am. Pavel wrote about the mechanoreceptors in the hands and feet in his book Power to the People and he explained why you should lose the lifting gloves and soft cushioned shoes (if you haven't read this book, I suggest you do). I can't help but think that desensitizing my feet is somehow helping to desensitize my hands for steel bending. Regardless of any relation there, I can tell you for certain that with stronger feet I am now a better runner. In fact, the last time I checked I had improved my 1.5 mile time by 30 seconds and my 3 mile time by 90 seconds.

The other thing that barefoot training is doing for me is helping my yoga practice -- I can hold poses much longer and much steadier now. I've been practicing yoga on and off for nearly 10 years now. I find that I feel much better, and move much better when I am doing yoga at least a couple times a month. Plus it's always fun for a 225lb steel bending weightlifter to attend a yoga class full of petite women who are into things like organic granola and saving the trees and have them inquire about my training and compliment me on my flexibility. It happens every time. :)

With all of these different pursuits you may wonder where I fit in my strength training and what Dan John has to do with any of this. In order to prioritize steel bending and running, I have cut my strength work back to bare bones minimum. Dan John has helped me to realize what that minimum is for me and not only has he given me a new perspective on what strength training is but he's also been kind enough to provide me with a little guidance on that which ails me, my overhead press.

First let's talk about what strength training is according to DJ:

  1. 1. Lifting a weight off the ground
  2. 2. Lifting a weight overhead
  3. 3. Carrying a weight for distance

I think you really need to understand training to be able to appreciate this perspective. Tell this to your average gym rat and he'll probably ask what you do for your bi's. Huh? Nevermind. These 3 things are the fullest expressions of total body strength! I can see that now.

So in order to meet these facets with the bare minimum I've cut my strength work down to 2 lifts -- the clean & press and the farmers walk. (Interesting to note that the C&P is one of my weakest lifts while the farmers walk is one of my best.)

For the last 3 months I've been pressing almost everyday -- an easy 135 for 2 sets of 5. I got the idea to do this from Dan's book Never Let Go (which reminded me Pavel also suggested this in PTTP). I'm not used to training a lift with this kind of frequency so I figured I would hit Dan up with a few questions about when to progress in weight and how often I should test my max. He was kind enough to answer my questions, my follow up questions and my questions thereafter. I should be paying the man for the advice he's given me but since he didn't ask I'll just buy his products, tell you what a nice guy he is and tell you that you should buy his products too!

After about 8 weeks of pressing 135x5 everyday I started cleaning each rep and mixing 3x8 and 5x5 workouts into the set/rep scheme. A few weeks later and my 1RM is up 5lbs from where it was when I was 20lbs heavier. Dan then suggested I do 2, 3, 5, 10 reps for 3, 5 and 2 ladders, and then test my max again. Problem was the first time I did this workout I hit my max on the 10th rep of the first ladder, second ladder I only got 8. Fine. Dan tells me to do 2, 3, 5, 8.

An interesting thing about ladder workouts is that they seem to confuse the body. I swear the 2 & 3 rep sets seemed to be the most difficult whereas the 5 & 8 rep sets the bar just flew up. This workout better than doubled the volume of pressing I was used to and caused noticeable hypertrophy in my shoulders that lasted long after the pump was gone. I've got another week before I test my max again but I'm feeling confident about adding another 5lbs to the bar. And though it's a little farther off, a bodyweight press is in the future as well.

As for the farmers walks, I know I said DJ was a nice guy but he is really a sinister S.O.B. who "does what [he] can to ruin peoples day" (direct quote). I guarantee you will curse name if you try the following workout...

It was about a month ago when I listened to a podcast that featured Mr. John. In it he suggested a workout in which you farmers carry a pair of 85lb dumbbells "as far away" as you can for 10 minutes. Then carry them back. I first tried this (20 minutes after I had listened to the podcast) with a pair of 70lb kettlebells. To make up for the 15lb difference I (foolishly) went downhill for the first half of the workout leaving the uphill climb for after I was already spent. Long story short, I made it a half mile in 10 minutes, it took me 19 minutes to get back home and then another 10 minutes to lie on the sidewalk and contemplate why I had subjected myself to such a thing. Somehow I think DJ knew this would happen. What a jerk that guy is!

It wasn't more than 2 weeks later (after I recovered) that I tried the workout again using 88lb kettlebells. (I know, glutton for punishment, but I had to at least give it a go with the prescribed weight.) This time I went uphill first and saved the downhill trip for the way back. That was a lesson I learned in about 19 minutes as per the last attempt. I traveled 3/4 of mile all in all, and it only took me 13:30 to get back. To my surprise, I did this workout again exactly one week later and carried the 40kg KB's an entire mile, only this time I did it in 3 laps around the block at my own pace, simply because I needed to periodically check on my daughter. But I digress...

Now is a good time to mention that all of these farmers walks were done in VFF. You think your feet get sore running in Vibrams? Try carrying a couple hundred pounds as far as you can over and over again and see how your feet feel the next day! Do this for a couple weeks and take note of how your feet feel during the workoutS as you progress. I mentioned that I am stronger with stronger feet, see if you don't find the same to be true.

I find it very interesting how all of these seemingly unrelated goals have blended together. I've found complete harmony in several extreme forms of training and I'm making gains on every front. Thanks goes to the following people for helping me on my path: Adam Glass for recommending Dennis Rogers' Oldtime Strongman University. Thanks to mc for securing the RKC discount on VFF's. Thanks to Dan John for all the help with my pressing program (I will let you know how the next max effort goes). And thanks to everyone else who is kicking ass and taking names! From the athletes, to the trainers, to the business gurus and to the ones who are doing it all -- keep up the good work!