This is part 4 of our series on Russian physical culturist Alexey Faleev. Find links to all installments here.
Athletes do not grow stronger by training; they get strong by recovering from training and supercompensating. We use the workout as a brief, hard stimulus, and during this time Faleev wants us to psych up and focus our powers as intently as a man at war. But only for an hour or so! The instant the workout is over, before we even take off our sweatshirts, we must relax and luxuriate in the delicious pleasures of rest and heavy limbs. We worked out precisely so that we could recover afterward, so we want to plunge into rest and recovery just as intently and thoroughly as we went to war under the iron and not waste a moment of our precious recovery time.
We could imagine that Faleev wants us to develop an on-off switch. When we flip the switch on, we are psyched up, electrified in mind and body, and ready to fight. But in the next moment, when we flick the switch off, we do not merely end our sports performance, we positively immerse ourselves in an ocean of relaxation, pleasure, and languor.
Stated technically, what Faleev wants us to learn is to control our sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” system) and parasympathetic system at will. We will be able to enter a state of hyper-arousal at any moment and be prepared to kick butt—breath quickening, nostrils flaring, and muscle fibers crackling with incipient tension—and then just as quickly pull the plug on that arousal and fall downward into a deep valley on the ocean floor of relaxation.
Reading this, you may not think “That sounds just like yoga!” because we associate yoga more with the pole of relaxation and calming. (And not without reason. Yogaścittavṛtti nirodhaḥ, says Patanjali: “Yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuation,” which if we take him literally would be a catatonic state!) But there are two sides to the yoga coin—tension and relaxation, quickening and calming—and yoga works both sides. Not sure what I’m talking about? Go to a Bikram studio and take a hot yoga class. For $15 you will get a 90-minute tour of heaven and hell. (Ok, mostly hell.) Then you will re-read this paragraph and nod sagely.
Faleev does not mention yoga in his book, but he inherits a tradition of Russian breath work rooted partly in Soviet military research into pranayama that diffused into the world of Soviet sports, and it works on the famous yogic trio: body, breath, and mind.
Faleev teaches three ways to hack the “fight or flight” system and switch it on at will. In fight or flight mode, there are three things happening inside us. Our (1) muscle tension and (2) breathing pick up to prepare us to run or fight, and we feel (3) emotional alarm or anger at the approaching danger. Before a big lift, says Faleev, you can deliberately create any of those three conditions and turn on the sympathetic nervous system artificially.
Breathing: Either take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds, and/or tense your thorax and force out a thin stream of breath under high pressure, like a compressed air hose. Pavel Tsatsouline teaches the compressed air technique brilliantly as the center of his truly peerless system of “skinny strength,” and also a technique for purposely hyperventilating to pump your blood full of excess oxygen before a huge effort.
Hyperventilating does work, sometimes too well. In my experience, I get a few seconds of “beast mode” strength from hyperventilation, but I also get tunnel vision and lose a lot of coordination. So I can only use it to deadlift, since it’s a fairly low-skill lift; I wouldn’t use it in the squat or bench, which are more technical.
Muscle Tension: Like rapid breathing, Faleev says, the subconscious associates a rise in muscle tension with danger and so we can hack into the fight or flight system by purposely loading our muscles with extra tension. “Instantly,” he writes, “all resources are mobilized – emotions change, adrenaline and anxiety hormones like corticosteroids are released, and the work of the internal organs goes into danger mode.” This works well together with the breathing tricks above, in my experience.
Emotions of Anger or Threat: More than in almost any other sport, weightlifters can benefit from emotional arousal bordering on blind rage. At powerlifting meets, you see certain competitors working themselves into hysteria before they mount the platform for a big attempt. They might scream, grimace with wide eyes and bulging veins, and maybe punch themselves or have teammates dish out slaps or other simulated abuse. It is easy to mock these displays–I confess I find them adolescent-looking and embarrassing to watch–but there is a legitimate purpose to their histrionics. “The blows cause feelings of rage” and arouse an “emotional spirit of danger and struggle.”
But “all this can be done more quietly,” Faleev adds, “without … blows to the head and loud roaring.” How? “Remember some injustice.” Get mad. I knew a lifter who prepared for max attempts by remembering childhood beatings. I don’t use emotional triggers much, but when I do, it always involves some story of a man left behind to face the enemy alone or someone who throws his life away on purpose to buy time for the women and children. Faleev tells of a colleague who volunteers at searching for unburied remains of soldiers on the old Eastern Front. One day this colleague found an unknown soldier in the middle of nowhere, a man sent into a hopeless attack against German machine guns armed with just a stick and a bayonet. This man knew for a certainty he would be shot to pieces and end up as a bullet sponge, yet he went anyway. Since he had no dog tags, this man’s family will never know what became of him or what he did for them. Before you squat, Faleev suggests, ask yourself whether perhaps this man was your grandfather? Examine yourself: do you have even a fraction of his mettle?
In case you still have not grokked Faleev’s point, he spells it out: If using the emotional method, then “before your attempt, you should cause yourself an attack of rage.”
The emotional approach is not right for everyone. Personally, whenever I have used it in powerlifting competition, I have turned in my very worst performances. I get too wound up and lose good technique. Instead, since my teen years I have always competed best when I’m doing mindfulness meditation right up to the moment when I touch the bar. Eyes open and walking around, of course, but with a spooky, detached calm that reminds me of a scuba diver deep underwater, watching strange shapes move with crystal clarity through a glass mask and his ears filled with the sound of his own breathing.