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.”

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