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.

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.

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


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

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).



Eight Square Feet of Endorphins


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

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!!”


How to Customize Rogozhnikov’s (Non-) Routine

Rogozhnikov emphasizes that you are allowed to tinker with his plan. He emphasizes that he isn’t teaching a “routine” at all but an approach, and he tolerates much more customizing and fiddling from you, the athlete, than most Eastern European coaches would.

And if you are reading this blog, you will probably need to tailor his basic formula. Why?

First, I presume you aren’t using gear or drugs (NTTAWWT). Rogozhnikov’s team uses lots of both, and that changes a lot of things, especially their recovery abilities. As we’ve said before, clean athletes cannot copy and paste the training routines of drug-assisted lifters.

Second, you are not nearly as strong as Rogozhnikov’s lifters. Almost no one is. Other things being equal, you might not need as much rest as they do. At first blush you might think I’ve gotten that backwards—“More advanced athletes recover more slowly than regular Janes and Joes?!” But it makes sense: if you deadlift 400# (which is excellent) and Konstantin Konstantinov deadlifts 900#, who has stressed his soft tissue and nervous system more? QED.

But before you start modifying things, first get a baseline. Apply Rogozhnikov’s standard rotation: Light, Heavy #1, Light, Heavy #2, Light, Medium, and repeat. If you do well and can reliably set PRs in your second heavy workout—and I would add, if you can keep your bodyweight up—then keep truckin’.

But if you are not improving or adding muscle mass, it’s time to start tinkering. Rogozhnikov says you should try adding some extra Medium blocks. His rule of thumb is that you depend more on Medium blocks to the extent that you are (1) drug-free, (2) raw, and/or (3) still months away from competition. In your case, you will probably be two or even three of those! So Rogozhnikov suggests you try this:


See what happened? You’re adding an extra Medium block, and you’re also putting two of those mass-building Medium blocks between your two Heavy blocks. Why is that important? First, if you aren’t lifting in a squat suit and bench shirt, you depend more on plain old muscle size. It will make you stronger and the extra padding around the joints will help protect your shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees. And furthermore, because you aren’t juiced, you’ll have to dedicate more training time specifically to building size than the pros who get their anabolism from a pill bottle.

Rogozhnikov does not say how to join these mesocycles together. Do they repeat just as written above, or do you add those Medium blocks between all Heavy blocks (L-H1-L-M-M-L-H2-L-M-M-L-H1-L-M-M-H1a-L-M-M-H2a, etc. etc.)? My guess is that it’s probably the former.

Rogozhnikov makes a final suggestion for lifters who are both raw and drug-free. You might be able to tolerate more frequent workouts, especially if you are a “lightweight” (which in powerlifting means anything under 200 lbs!) or less advanced. If that is you, you can try this approach.

ennis 001
In powerlifters’ hyperbaric frame of reference, Bill Ennis is a “lightweight.”

On Monday, do a Heavy or Medium bench workout. (Alternate them each week.) On Wednesday, take a squat/deadlift workout, rotating each week using the familiar formula: L-H1-L-H2-L-M. (Rogozhnikov adds that you need only deadlift heavy once during that cycle. Heavy deadlifts are draining.) And on Friday, do a Light bench workout. LIGHT!! Because benches are less punishing than the other lifts, you can get away with doing them more often. But don’t overdo it.

Rogozhnikov’s Formula

In Louie Simmons’ Westside method, which is as American as bald eagles and AR-15s, the near-equivalent of Rogozhnikovs medium workouts is “speed day,” where you lift a relatively light weight against  Jumpstretch bands.

We’ve seen that Rogozhnikov divides his training into light, medium, and heavy days, and he alternates bench press workouts with squat/deadlift workouts. He did not invent either of these practices, and we find American lifters using comparable building blocks in the popular Westside method.

But Rogozhnikov is an artiste in how he stacks up the blocks and mixes and matches them for different types of lifters and in different seasons of training.

The Default Formula

If you lifted on Rogozhnikov’s team, your gym life would be organized around this formula:

L – H1 – L – H2 – L – M

That is, you’d have a light block, then a heavy one, then another pair of light and heavy blocks, and finally a light block and a medium block.

Each of these blocks would last six days. It would begin with a bench workout, followed three days later by a squat/deadlift workout. And three days later you would begin your next block.

That means that you would take 36 days (6 blocks of 6 days) to complete this mesocycle.And during that time you would have two blocks of heavy workouts, which Rogozhnikov calls “H1” and “H2,” and your goal is to set a PR in H2.

At the start of a new mesocycle, you choose one of Rogozhnikov’s approved bench press variations, like the floor press. On your first heavy bench day, you work up to a weight that you can barely handle for 3 sets of 5. And three days later, you do likewise for your heavy squat and deadlift day. That’s block “H1.”

A week or so later, when you come to block H2, you try to beat your record from H1. Ideally, you’ll take the weight you handled for 3×5 and manage 3x6. If you nail it, that is quite something: a 20% rep PR. Normally that would be a strain on your recovery capabilities, but that is why Rogozhnikov has packed your schedule with recovery-oriented light and medium workouts, like sandbags around a foxhole.

And even if you only manage to improve on your numbers on one or two sets, that is not nothing. If you get a PR, you have made progress.

You finish out your mesocycle with light and medium days, which will give you enough hypertrophy (muscle growth) to keep up your size and weight and prime the pump for future gains.

In your next mesocycle, you repeat this process but use a different exercise in the heavy workouts.You have milked a lot out of that exercise in a short time. Don’t stress your central nervous system (CNS) by going back to that well right away. Change to a different exercise.