Pavel’s Minimalism: “When All You Have is a Hammer…”

The third part in our series “Twenty Years of Pavel Tsatsouline”

In our last installment we encountered Pavel Tsatsouline’s first major book, Power to the People,and his then-revolutionary doctrine that “strength is a skill.” From that doctrine, you can trace virtually every other part of Tsatsouline’s evolving system over the last 20 years. 

The first is his minimalism. You can only learn so many new skills at one time. If you did ten different lifts in a workout, you would be stretching your adaptive powers much too thin to be efficient. (Translation: You would not get much better.) Instead, you’d do better to focus on just one or two new skills at a time. Your nervous system will catch on faster and you will get the quick gratification of gaining strength very rapidly.

Also, when you have few variables in your training, there’s less that you can screw up. Tsatsouline compares a good program to an AK-47: it is reliable and forgiving, even in the hands of the unintelligent and unmotivated, because its design is unsurpassably simple. To use a Kalashnikov, you can learn everything you really need to know in less than 5 minutes. It is almost impossible to mess up irreparably because it is unsurpassably simple.

“The Party is always right.”

A former sergeant in Soviet special forces, Tsatsouline used to joke about being an “evil Russian” and Stalinist authoritarian and would remind his “comrades” to stick closely to his programs and resist the temptation to meddle with them. There was no need to improvise or modify because, as he used to proclaim, “the Party is always right.” He was joking, but he was also serious, and he really did take some of his ideas about how best to train people from his days in the Soviet army. 

Soviet designers were masters at “de-skilling,” creating a process or tool where, as much as possible, they had designed away any need for experience or finesse by the end user, or even enough flexibility for end user to go badly wrong. The designers made the important decisions for the end user and created something ingeniously minimal that removed the need for judgment calls by their peasant conscripts. They presented the soldiers with piece of sturdy equipment and childishly uncomplicated instructions on how to use it. (“See this shovel? Whenever you stop mark dig a foxhole. Unless ordered otherwise, keep digging til it’s chest deep. Then dig to your left and link up with the next guy’s foxhole.”) The system would not be fancy or interesting, but it could be used reliably by anyone with a pulse. And by golly, things got done.

In huge parts of the USSR, few people knew Russian. If you were a conscript from those republics, you got a crash course that taught you the Cyrillic alphabet and basic phrases like “Это солдат” (“This is a soldier”). That’s why the Soviets liked solutions that were easy to communicate. 
https://apps.dtic.mil/dtic/tr/fulltext/u2/a254733.pdf

American fitness enthusiasts are not illiterate peasant conscripts, but we are notoriously bad at adhering to directions and staying focused on a goal. (To be fair, Plato says the same about young Athenian men.) It is easy to ruin a great exercise program by changing things to suit one’s whim. We compulsively read fitness magazines and websites and get distracted, flitting from one program to another and never sticking to any for more than a week. Or we add more work to the routine: young men sneak in extraneous “beach work” like curls and bench presses and hard-charging athletes tack on extra sets, mileage, and even whole extra workouts. Where before we were poised to make real progress, now we are dissipating their limited recovery energies. 

And finally, few of us have good coaching (or any coaching). Most of us are just flying by the seat of our pants, flailing about based on subjective emotions like boredom and impatience; half-baked “bro science” and fads; and vanity and overestimation of our capacities. So when it comes to training, we really are kind of like conscript boys fresh from the some collective farm in Kazakhstan, the kind of unlettered two-year draftees to whom you give an unbreakable rifle, a small shovel, and dummy-proof orders in super-simple Russian that give him a two-part plan covering every contingency: “When the officer says ‘attack,’ you run, shoot, and yell. If the officer says ‘stop,’ you start digging, first down, then left.” 

So Tsatouline appointed himself the officer. In our next installment, his two-part solution to every problem: “One pull, one press.”

HR Stands for “Hilarious Replies”

https://www.varusteleka.com/en

I was ordering camping gear from Varusteleka, a Finnish company with a winning sense of humor. Typical product descriptions are “This is hands down the ugliest motherfucking hat ever made” and “smells starkly of old mould, might be incomplete/damaged and is overall very nasty. You don’t want to touch this without a full [hazmat] suit. Get yours now.”

On their order form they asked customers to consider applying for a job opening as a product manager. Me, I’ve never been headhunted before while buying East German surplus boot socks, so I was really chuffed and sent them a cover letter:

“Dear sir– I lack military/LE experience, talent for negotiation, or any gifts for business administration, and the only time I worked for a commercial enterprise, I was a failure. I am also unavailable to work in Finland and in any case would probably be considered undesirable by your government. However, I love smoked and pickled fish, deadlift a lot, and know Chinese and Sanskrit, so I believe I have what it takes to form exciting relationships with the People’s Liberation Army and ancient Indic chariot armies. I am available for interviews at your convenience.”

A month later, I have received this surprisingly earnest reply from their HR department:

“We have received your application [and] appreciate your interest … Unfortunately, you are not the person we are looking for. Thank you … we do appreciate the time that you invested in this application.”

Guileless and naive or masterfully dry?

Strength Is a Skill

The third installment in our series, “Twenty Years of Pavel Tsatsouline.” 

“Nothing is more practical than a good theory,” and Pavel Tsatsouline has always excelled at distilling exercise science into something immediately useful and dummy-proof. In his short, entertaining 1999 book, Power to the People, he changed popular strength training by drawing consequences that now seem obvious from a theory so simple that it seemed axiomatic and boring.

The theory? “Tension = Strength.” “The tenser your muscles are,” Tsatsouline wrote, “the more strength you display.” You’re nodding and yawning, right? But what that means is that you can get stronger by “acquiring the skill to generate more tension.”

That one word, “skill.” Few of us understood right away, but with that word Tsatsouline had just started a revolution by introducing a very Russian paradigm that was almost completely new to the West:

Strength is a skill. You don’t “build” it physically, you “practice” it.

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Tsatsouline was like a distillery for Soviet sports research. Into his head went dozens of classics like Robert Roman’s Trenirovka tyazheloatleta (The Training of the Weightlifter) (1968), and out of his pen dripped a thin trickle of very potent training hacks.

That is why strength training is much like learning to play the piano, speak Hungarian, or do yoga, and you can use many of the same principles.

Recognizing strength as a skill practice was the seed of all Tsatsouline’s signature teachings: minimalism, sets of five, avoiding fatigue, and practicing as often as possible while staying fresh—all things that we will explain in due time. But for now, let us jump straight to some picturesque, practical examples.

Once you get that strength is a skill, you can apply that immediately and hack the nervous system to create extra tension (meaning extra strength) that very minute.

Here’s one such hack: With one hand, squeeze a friend’s arm as hard as you can. Now get ready to squeeze it a second time, but this time simultaneously squeeze your other hand in a fist as hard as possible. Or better yet, squeeze your other hand around some object, like your Nalgene water bottle. For neurological reasons, you can boost the tension in one limb by tensing the other one too. You can punch or push harder with one hand if you are pulling with the other hand, and your abs will light up like Christmas lights.

Here’s another one: if you are struggling to complete a pullup, have a partner stand behind you and lightly “karate chop” you under the armpits. Those are the lats, which power most of the pullup, and they will respond to the chopping by tensing up. That is, they will get stronger that very instant! And with a little practice, they will stay stronger even after your friend stops chopping on them. What has happened? Easy, you have learned to create more tension in your lats.

Furthermore, as it happens, the lats are special because they are heavily involved in virtually all strength movements. Once you learn to tense the lats hard at will, you get noticeably stronger in pretty much everything: squatting, deadlifting, pressing, grip strength, swinging a kettlebell, and lots of yoga postures. That tension in the lats will flow both to the smaller muscles—the shoulders, arms, hands, and abs—and  also to large powerful muscles like the glutes, hamstrings, and quads.

Before the Russian Revolution: The Ancien Régime of 1999

Pavel Tsatsouline changed strength training so much—and so relatively quietly—that unless you are a middle-aged meathead, you probably cannot remember what it was like before “the Evil Russian” subverted our country’s established order with his 1999 book Power to the People.

It was the apogee of the Clinton years and strength training, like the broader world, was at the historical peak of its American-ness. Most lifters were reading the glossy bodybuilding magazines sold at the corner store by impresario Joe Weider, trying to follow their routines, and failing. We understood that the magazines were platforms to sell dubious nutritional supplements. (Only years later did most of us understand that they’d also doubled as plausibly deniable gay erotica that could be sold where gay porn couldn’t). And we knew that success with these programs was entirely hit-or-miss if you weren’t on steroids. But most ironheads had no alternative—as far as they understood, bodybuilding was all that existed, outside of the tiny, restricted communities of Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting.

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Before Tsatsouline, the high water mark of popular strength training in the U.S. was Louisville lawyer Brooks Kubik’s revalorization of old-time strongman training.

By the 90s, some of us had gone back to “old-school strength training.” We pored over texts from before the steroid era and imitated the training of pre-war weightlifters and circus strongmen. There were lots of squats, deadlifts, pullups, presses and overhead lifts and we got much more interested in low reps with very heavy weights. I remember many, many walks around the neighborhood bear-hugging a 150-lb. bag of sand, and I recruited patient friends and relatives to shift my car into neutral and steer it around an empty parking lot while I pushed from behind. Other guys got into “farmer’s walks,” where you would walk carrying a heavy dumbbell or a bucket of cement in each hand.

We were now getting MUCH farther than we had on the Muscle Beach routines, and I daresay we felt quite pleased with ourselves and very macho. Humans love their tribes and cliques and identities, and we were very pleased to distinguish ourselves from the pencil-necks and narcissists doing sets of 20 curls in front of a mirror with tiny colored dumbbells. Bah!!

But we still had two problems in the pre-Tsatsouline era.

First, we did not know when to stop. We had figured out what worked—heavy weights in “the basic movements”—but we thought we should work ourselves to complete exhaustion. Without knowing it, we were uncritically following the bodybuilding trend of the day, which was to “bomb and blitz” the muscles to “force them to grow.” Thus it was that two or three times a week I would squat until my legs were too rubbery to walk, then rest half an hour and drink a putrid-tasting protein concoction, and then repeat that process. We would end an already-demanding session with what we called a “finisher,” a grueling strength-endurance torture event like a farmer’s walk til the weights dropped from your hands or several (!!) eye-bulging sandbag carries. Workouts were something very much to be feared as well as loved.

Second, we still worshipped size. Even though we’d re-identified ourselves as “strongmen” instead of “bodybuilders” and sneered haughtily at pumped-up but weak druggies who were “all show and no go,” we had little concept that it could be desirable or possible to get strong but stay wiry.

hqdefault-6That changed when Tsatsouline appeared, a hard, spindly flexibility coach living in Minnesota who matched few of our expectations of a “strongman” in those days, looking more like a middle-distance runner who had toughened up in a gulag.

In retrospect, it is fortunate but surprising that so many of us “emptied our cups” and gave Tsatsouline a shot.

In our next installment, “What made us listen to him?”

20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline

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This is the first installment in our series on the training doctrines of Pavel Tsatsouline.

Pavel Tsatsouline entered my life through a side door. In 1998, on an internet forum hosted by the first man to squat 1000 lbs., “Dr. Squat” Fred Hatfield, I read a terse post by a polite Russian émigré. He introduced himself as a former competitor in something obscure that he described as “the Russian ethnic strength sport of kettlebell lifting.” I would have forgotten him instantly except that this exotic-sounding background earned him surprising respect from the gruff old powerlifting legend.

A year later I was to run across Tsatsouline again, and had that not happened, I cannot picture what my life would be like now.

Tsatsouline (Цацулин): tsa-TSOO-leen

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Semper fi, Mr. Schubert.

To that point, I had already been lucky in my athletic influences. In high school I did some Olympic weightlifting under John Schubert, who inoculated me against some of the silliness found in bodybuilding magazines, and I escaped the baleful obsession with the bench press that ruins many young men. No, if I had a monomaniacal obsession, it was the squat. And that was a pretty good problem to have, better than drugs or video games.

But it was still a problem. Squats build bodies, and sure enough, I’d grown an extra 45 lbs., all of it seemingly in my neck and thighs. This was all very exciting to a young man, and I could eat cheeseburgers, milkshakes, and chocolate muffins with wild abandon, but it was a terrible drag. Imagine buying 45 one-pound packages of ground beef and molding them аll onto your body. Now get up and walk around. You are like a land blimp. And you’ll soon be tired and sweaty because, in effect, you’re wearing a backpack full of meat. Now sit back down: that’s not so comfortable either. It’s hard to cross your thickly swollen sausage legs, but it’s also hard to point them straight ahead since your huge hams flop outward in “manspreading” fashion. I ate like a pair of teenagers and drank a gallon of milk a day, which cost not just time and money but health. I was inflamed and tubby from eating so much, and with the size of my neck it’s little wonder that I couldn’t sleep well either.

Big, swollen melon that I was, I was ripe for the message of Tsatsouline’s first major publication. In our next installment, we examine that book, Power to the People (1999).

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https://www.dragondoor.com/b10/

 

Eight Square Feet of Endorphins

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http://www.strongfirst.com

A complete gym in one tidy corner:

  • Kettlebells. One is enough, but in a happy home they multiply.
  • Somebody to swing them. Note the bare feet–that’s how you should do it too.
  • Rucksack and boots. Insert kettlebells and start walking.
  • Pavel Tsatouline’s classic Russian Kettlebell Challenge (1999), still the best book there is on this stuff.
  •  Sledgehammer (optional). Style points for the awesome camo pattern on his pants, too. (Anyone recognize it? British MTP?)
  • An AK (optional), to protect the kettlebells.

If you just add companionship, kombucha, and a dog, you have most of the elements of earthly happiness right here.

Rhomboid Rodeo

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Volodya surveys the valley after earning his blue-and-white David Rigert tel’nyashka

To initiate Volodya the 28kg Kettlebell, I suitcase-carried him with the Backpack of Bricks up the summit. Today’s game was that I could set him down when needed, but for the whole hike I had to hold my chest and head upright. No hunched backs.

I had no idea how bad I’d be at that. Sure, in a life full of keyboards and steering wheels we’re all weak in the postural muscles of our upper backs, but I must excel at believing, “Ha, boring universal truths don’t apply to ME!!”