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Interview: Pro Strongman Dan Harrison, from Japan

If somehow you’ve never heard of Dan, he’s probably the strongest person you don’t know about! Some accomplishments to his name include: Pro Strongman, 2000+ Lb Raw Powerlifting Totals, an 860 Lb official Squat in competition, 900+ Lb Deadlifts, and now Armwrestling.

We are very proud to introduce to you Dan Harrison, straight from Japan!

LIFT: To start off, tell us a bit about your early years. What got you started lifting, and what were the first memorable lifts that come to mind?

I had my very first workout at age 14 with my dad, I moved in with him and saw his set of dumbbells in the garage, then demanded he show me how to use them. From the first workout I knew I’d be doing this for the rest of my life. I was also very lucky because my grandmother, Ruby, took me down to Venice Beach all the time to workout at Gold’s Gym Venice during the mid 90s. I got to meet all of the monster bodybuilders of that era. I even had Bolo Yeung spot me on a set of squats! As a sophomore, loading up 335 on the squat rack and being laughed at by the seniors was especially cool, because after I did a set of 5 deep reps nobody was laughing. The weight room coach and I had a race to a 365 squat, winner gets a Big Mac. Let’s just say I had a nice lunch that day! Ultimate Orange was still legal so I took it all the time and just went gonzo in the gym at 6am all the time.

LIFT: Did you have your mind set on where you wanted to be, or who you wanted to become from the beginning? Did somebody influence you?

Muscle and Fitness magazine was my only source of inspiration in the beginning, but that was back when it was AWESOME. All the top bodybuilders were on the cover, and it always had badass training articles. I remember the first one I saw had a big picture of Rich Gaspari, and I just lost my mind. I was always extremely driven to be the best I could be, so I always looked at the other kids in school with wonder as they went off on weekends to get drunk, high, and went to Tijuana all the time (I lived in Chula Vista, about a 15 minute drive to the border). Fat kids had my scorn and pity, like how could you live with yourself being such a dumpy turd? I didn’t know anything about Strongman until late 2004, I really didn’t get on fire for Powerlifting until 2008, and my inferno of passion for Armwrestling was born in 2012.

LIFT: What motivates you, and what is it about lifting that you are so passionate about?

Before I got into Strongman I don’t know how I would have answered that question, but since I began it has always been to do Odd’s show (Fitexpo), get to the WSM qualifier shows (Super Series, now Giants Live), and make it to WSM. Other goals have came and been vanquished along the way, like when I became hell bent on a 405 incline press, 800 raw squat, then an 800 and then 900 deadlift. Now along with the Strongman goal is Armwrestling… I have a DEEP passion for that GREAT sport and I would feel like a failure if I did not take that as far as possible too. Strongman and Armwrestling can, and have began to take me around the world, which is another amazing reason to keep getting better. From a few bad quad pops this year I have decided to sort of back off from squats/lunges in favor of just focusing on getting that huge deadlift better than ever, and building as much upper body power as I can for Armwrestling and Strongman. Besides, when my deadlift goes up my squat ALWAYS does too, but that is NOT true the other way around (for me).

LIFT: How were you introduced into Strongman, powerlifting, and now Armwrestling?

I met Josh Bryant in a personal training class in 2004 who introduced me to The Freak Factory, a group of amateur strongmen out of Downey, CA. With them I learned what the true meaning of pain and suffering in a strongman training setting truly meant. Bryant also introduced me to Odd Haugen, who became my main trainer, mentor, friend, teacher, and for about 8 months in 2008, roommate! In 2008 I decided to get into Powerlifting to become a better Strongman, so I contacted Steve Denison of the USPF (now USPA) and signed up for a meet that was held in 2 weeks. Had a BLAST and kept competing! Armwrestling was sort of a slow evolution, I had gotten more and more interested in it after shaming some guys in a bar in Japan (in front of all their girls), and talking to a bunch of friends about it. I found Jonathan Hoffman on an Armwrestling message board (left handed FREAK!!!), we quickly became pals and I trained with him as often as I could. Armwrestling in a competitive setting just rang my bell like crazy, I won my first tournament and now I’m 100% hooked. It’s so new and fresh for me too, and it is such an international sport!! I’m doing a big televised Armwrestling tournament in Korea this December!!!

After Dan's First Stongman Workout, 2004

After Dan’s First Stongman Workout, 2004

LIFT: What activities do you do outside lifting? I hear you have an interest in 80’s metal.

Who doesn’t like 80s metal? Outside lifting, ummmm…. well between Strongman and Armwrestling, my job, living in a new country, learning the language as well as all the ins and outs of public transportation in Japan, I am pretty mentally busy. I like going to Osaka or Okayama to go to bars and clubs, and I’m still sort of getting accustomed to how things are around here.

LIFT: As a basic outline, how do you train now?

Right now I’m doing twice a week… I have a big gym in Tsuyama City where I do all my barbell stuff, then I have some very heavy bands and “Fat Gripz” that I do most of my Armwrestling work with, as well as some shoulder work during the week. I could *never* recover benching heavy once a week, nor could I survive deadlift conventional once a week, so right now I am doing my bench work one Saturday, then the opposite Saturday all my deadlift/lower body work. My frequency is super low compared to a lot of guys, but I am looking better than ever, and my strength is awesome right now. I have been having some bad quad problems this year, as well as some repeated glute strains, so I am just going to cool it with the crazy squat training and just work on deadlifts again. After all, my squat goes up on its own when the DL goes up, and in Strongman, deadlift is king. I like deadlifts standing on a 6” block, they build a ton of leg power as well as all of the deadlifting muscles. They also tear up the lats and rear delts pretty amazingly.

LIFT: Your training seems to have a lot of single repetition work. Do you use repetitions, and accessory work as well?

I always did rep work only with isolation movements, but I’m starting to experiment with doing one maybe 2 down sets of 10 or so reps after my main very heavy set.

LIFT: When people say “singles only test strength, not build it”, do you agree?

No. Singles build absolute power and absolute explosiveness if you do them right. It has been said before, “you can’t lift a heavy weight slowly.” When you do singles it forces you to give 150%, and that will build the upper limit of your max output better than anything. My best lifts and how quickly I increased power are evidence of that.

dan-harrison

LIFT: I’ve seen you mention trying out some crazy training approaches that worked for you, that you’d never recommend to anyone else. What’s the most crazy example that worked, and would you still not recommend it?

I’ve actually come around on that. The last few people I’ve trained, I have them do the same stuff I do and they get great results. If I can turn a flabby Vietnamese girl into a much more fit looking 110 Lb powerlifting machine doing the EXACT exercises I do (albeit with somewhat higher reps, like 5s sometimes), then it can work for anybody.

LIFT: Do you push for progress and personal records as hard as possible every session, or do you have planned back off periods?

Yeah I always push for new records. If you’re overtrained or don’t feel right, it’s probably just better to stay home and keep eating.

LIFT: Have you found it to be possible to set up training for Strongman, powerlifting, and Armwrestling, in a way that they all work together?

When I have trained specifically for powerlifting meets (training the big 3 often), everything goes to hell. Complete hell. My low back just cannot take squat (full powerlifting stance squat) and deadlift work in the same training cycle. Same with benching, if I do all this narrow grip stuff with bands and higher rep stuff with a lot of overhead work, I hit PRs in flat bench press. When I do a good amount of comp grip flat benching, my numbers take a dump. So basically when I am training for Strongman is when my powerlifts seem to increase the most! Armwrestling is just something to train one extra day of the week, just don’t do it too close to a bench day and you’ll be fine. Funny enough, my best powerlifting meets always ended up happening a week after big strongman shows! I call it double peaking.

LIFT: Let’s talk briefly about squats. What were some of your biggest breakthroughs to increase progress, finding your foot position, and what kind of accessory works best?

Like Captain Kirk said, always videotape your training and competitions! I was having trouble finding my best squat stance, so I just kept watching the videos of when I did my best squats, and when I did my crappy ones, and realized what I was doing in the bad ones. Then I was always in my best position after that! Barbell lunges were probably my biggest help, but I have had so many quad issues the past year that I am going to have to say goodbye to those. All the banded box squats taught me how to EXPLODE out of the hole, too.

804 Lb Squat

804 Lb Squat

LIFT: The band tension you train with is huge. What is your rule of thumb when setting up band tension, and why do you use it [band tension]?

When just the empty bar feels pretty hard, I’ve got the right amount. I don’t use bands now for lower body work. When I did banded speed box squats I ALWAYS alternated weekly between bar on back and SSB.

LIFT: How did you put about 200 pounds onto your deadlift in such a short period of time, especially while already being at an advanced level?

It wasn’t really 200 lbs, it was more like 150, but yeah, still. My squat was going up quickly, but it didn’t seem to be making my deadlift fly up at nearly the same pace. I was using more squat variations than deadlift for my max effort movements, and my friends kept talking crap because I still hadn’t pulled an 800 deadlift, and I really didn’t know where my DL was at, with straps. I decided to really focus on it and decided on a good handful of max effort movements to really beef up my floor pull. Half of them being sumo, by the way. I missed 800 3 times before I finally hit it, but when I did blow it up it was smooth and had no hitching. 4 weeks later I did a rough 850, and then 4 weeks after that I did a pretty smooth 881 with a slight ramp at the top. I was so close to the big 9-0-0 that I just gave it everything a week later and it happened! On my speed day I just did the banded box squats, and on max day I always did a DL variation. Doing this still made my squat go up so I just kept it that way, improving up to a 925 floor DL (with straps, hitch), 875 beltless floor deadlift, and 800 beltless deadlift standing on a 6” block, until my back took a dump in mid 2011 from too many super banded max effort box squats without a belt. I was really pushing things hard when I really could have used 2 or 3 weeks of zero training.

dan-harrison-deadlift

LIFT: You’ve made a huge amount of mass gain from when you first started lifting. Did you have any trouble gaining weight? Do you have any special weight-gaining breakthroughs that really helped?

Weight gain came in bursts for me. When I started Strongman training I was 215… I became a 3-4x a week regular at Hometown Buffet where I’d hit after work and eat until I nearly died. That combined with Strongman training just blew me up so fast. I sort of peaked, give or take, 10 lbs here and there at around 280. Then when I got into Westside training to really focus on my powerlifts I had another huge spike, like 50 lbs! Just got huge and strong all over and became a new me!

LIFT: What kind of advice would you give to beginners who are looking to get bigger and stronger?

Don’t deadlift more often than once every 2 weeks, alternate front and back squat every week, and do weighted pullups and standing dumbbell military presses. Nutrition is simple, eat your meat, carbs, and animal/dairy fats. Take a multivitamin and creatine, and get 8 hours of sleep every night! Find someone with Powerlifting experience to train with, you will waste so much time until you do this! Don’t be one of those idiots who thinks they know how to lift from watching Youtube videos!

LIFT: Anything different for intermediate or advanced lifters?

More singles! The longer I’m lifting heavy weights it seems the less and less exercises are relevant for me. Of course in Westside I did a million exercises at first, but as time went by and I stagnated from time to time, I would usually throw a bunch out, find new ones, and stick to the ones that worked.

LIFT: How has your training been in Japan? Have you had any struggles come up?

Nope! The gym I have here is a REAL old school 70’s style gym, they have everything I need. I was of course worried about having my training and supplement needs met, but I have friends here who helped me out with all of that so I am set! The only “problem” now is every workout turning into a photo shoot!

dan-harrisson-japan

Strongman Challenge in Japan

LIFT: What about nutrition? How much do you eat, grams of protein per day?

I stopped using whey protein in favor of solid food and I’ve been fine. I use 10g creatine a day, tons of vitamin C, and a good multivitamin. I also take tons of stimulants before training of course. Mainly just caffeine pills! I don’t count grams of anything, I can sense pretty easily if I need more fat, protein, or carbs at any given time. I have a very affordable store by my apartment here, and I get TONS of fresh pork, milk, bread, and noodles for super cheap. A big piece of pork with noodles and a quart of extra fatty Japanese milk is infinitely better than a scoop of protein powder (with who knows what in it).

LIFT: Do you do anything specific for injury prevention or rehab?

If I keep hurting myself on a certain exercise I just dump the exercise, not worth it. I will roll on a very hard softball when I know I have knots somewhere. I make sure to do a good warmup, and for lower body that means walking lunges back and forth, and side to side. Literally every time I skip that, I strain something. 100% of the time. It is unreal, I was an idiot and skipped it last week, glute strain.

LIFT: How do you flip the switch and turn up the focus and intensity like you do? What goes through your mind?

It’s something that’s always just below the surface, but over the years I’ve learned to harness it and bring it out when I need to. Sometimes I really do need a hard slap in the face to bring out that last 10% of rage for a max deadlift or squat. I love watching Kaz’s videos, and I always felt I had that level of rage inside me before making a lift. It’s not putting on a face or acting crazy, it’s summoning the truest part of my soul in order to accomplish something impossible by mortal means. It is cleansing and amazing afterward, especially when the successful lift is made in an official setting.

LIFT: What are your future plans in strength sports? Continue with all three, WSM, powerlifting, and armwrestling? Or try something new, like pro wrestling in Japan?

All of the above……..

LIFT: If you could only choose one strength sport to compete in, what would it be and why?

My heart is probably more in Armwrestling, but I would feel like a huge turd if I didn’t realize my true potential in Strongman; because I am a goal oriented person and once I am hell bent on something it is very difficult for me to stop chasing it, no matter how long it takes. I know guys who began Strongman training and were at WSM in 2 years. Good for them. I can’t control anybody else, I have to look at myself in the mirror every day and know that I am giving it my very best and doing whatever it takes to get where I want to be, no matter what.

Thank you Dan for taking the time to do this interview. We wish you good luck in Japan, and in all your future endeavors.

Be sure to subscribe to Dan’s youtube if you haven’t already to follow his training, and journey through Japan.

dan-harrison-armwrestling


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