“Have fun. Luck goes to those who are strong and smile a lot. That is the only way.”
-A.V. Tarasov, father of the Russian hockey program
I hate insipid sports psychology, but Faleev has two tricks that really work.
First, I dislike cheesy, bombastic affirmations (“I will be unbeatable!”) because, when I try them, I stress myself out. First, it is objectively false that I am unbeatable or certain to succeed, and I end up reminding myself of how not confident I am by the fact that I awkwardly verbalize these ginned-up affectations. I am patently, clumsily trying brainwash myself, and I’m too smart for that (I hope).
Second, I suck at visualization, and ultimately sports are just a hobby. If I’m going to bust my nut re-landscaping my entire psyche, I need a better goal, something with really loooooong-term value, like enlightenment.
But Faleev does teach one kind of visualization that I’ll deign to do, and he throws a twist on it that is authentically brilliant and once saved my bacon big time.
He starts with a technique for assuaging pre-game jitters. Lying down and relaxing, “a person imagines himself as the protagonist of a movie who has the qualities that he desires to have in real life, such as confidence, courage, and composure.” In the movie, our character enters the arena on the day of the competition. We see the weather outside, the field being set up, the spectators beginning to fill the seats, and the referees milling around the scoring table. [Editor’s note: Just by typing this, I feel the familiar chilly pre-competition jitters rising, like I might barf.] Our character is walking around there with all the qualities we want for ourselves. He’s confident and cool as a cucumber. The movie follows our character into the locker room and the warm-up room, weaving our way among the other competitors. He looks unflappable, like James Bond.
Finally, the movie shows the athletes taking their places and the competition kicking off, with our character showing all the qualities we desire. And if at all possible, on game day we should arrive at the arena well ahead of time so that we can repeat our mental movies in the place itself.
If you ask me, the keys here are that you see yourself modeling the feelings you want to feel. Let me say that again. First, you aren’t just mentally visiting the arena and imagining the pre-game buzz (though you are indeed doing that). Importantly, you are seeing yourself walking around there feeling perfectly at home and ready to rumble. And second, you are seeing yourself feeling the desired feelings. You are not focused on visualizing a physically, outwardly flawless performance. You are imagining yourself with the dispositions that make you perform your best. To me this is important because (a) that is easier for me to imagine that in detail, and (b) I am not distracted by the sense that I am imagining a lie or brainwashing myself. I really am the master of my own dispositions, they are mine to control—that much is not a lie.
Speaking of control, Faleev adds something ingenious. Sports psychologists “have found that it is not enough just to imagine yourself in a normal competitive environment. It is also important to include various [adverse] surprises in the movie.” For example, a soccer player might imagine the referee making a clearly bone-headed, possibly even malicious call that costs her team a penalty kick. Such an unjust call “can simply kill players’ morale … and lead them to lose fighting efficiency … and surrender almost without a fight.” So during training, our player imagines these bad calls and her character responding by just playing even harder. She watches these mental movies of herself handling unexpected trouble with aplomb, and she affirms to herself, “Any difficulties just mobilize me!”
Fine, that makes for unidiomatic English, but I still like it! You or I might rather have said “motivate,” but I like Faleev’s “mobilize” (мобилизуют) because to my ear it doesn’t just sound subjective or mental. As we have observed before, Faleev scarcely differentiates between the athlete’s mental and physical thriving, and when he says the athlete is “mobilized,” he means it literally.
The poster boy for this was Alexander Kirichenko, a Soviet cyclist in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In a 1000m sprint, Kirichenko got to the 700m mark when he blew out a tire. “An unprepared person could easily have been unsettled by such a failure, but Alexander just ‘mobilized.’ He rode the last 300 meters on one tire and won the gold medal.”
Me, I took the “visualizing ugly surprises” technique to heart. (What could be more Buddhist?) In idle moments, I imagined myself hitting a minor obstacle and shaking it off. For example, I might see myself unracking a weight and accidentally banging it off the uprights, which unbalances you at a vulnerable moment. But then, in my movie, I went ahead and did my job anyway.
And hallelujah for that, because it helped me recover from a huge mistake. At a powerlifting meet, I’d misheard my start time and thought I had hours before I needed to warm up. So I was sitting in the audience wearing my street clothes, drinking tea and eating a snack, when the announcer called my name over the PA and said that I would make my first squat attempt in just a few minutes!! That left little time to change into a singlet and sneakers, barely time to chalk up and cinch my belt, and ZERO time to warm up.
I’d forked up big time, and as I scrambled to get my gear on and find my shoes, I should have been a basket case of catastrophizing and self-reproach. But instead I distinctly remember laughing a little bit as I mounted the platform for that first, ill-starred squat attempt that seemed destined to be a sh**show. And I must tell you, it really was a lousy squat and it got red-lighted. But I was still smiling and didn’t fall apart mentally,which surprises me to this day, and that afternoon I went on to PRs in the bench and deadlift.
Power Slang: “Red lights” – Rejection of a lift by the judges. In the squat, this is almost always because the lifter did not squat deeply enough.
In fact, it’s a measure of how little upset I was that I forgot about it right away. The whole circus happened so fast that my girlfriend was still outside parking the car and missed all the comedy, and I don’t think I even remembered to tell her that night!
In other words, Faleev trains you to respond to calamity as just a snafu, something you can bounce back from straightaway and maybe laugh about, not a FUBAR nightmare that poisons your morale and craters your equanimity.
Today we learn to drain the tension and enter bliss mode at will. This is the “warm and cozy” side of physical culturist Alexey Faleev’s yogic nervous system hacks. For its more vigorous flip side, where you learn to hit your “go switch,” visit our last installment, “The Dark Arts of Applied Yoga.” Or start from Part 1.
After the workout, Faleev wants you to plunge into a state of profound relaxation and pleasure right away so that you can begin recovering. “Do not forget, stress is just a prelude to the main goal: relaxation. We did not strain [in training] in order to strain, but to relax afterward.”
For that, we must turn off the sympathetic nervous system and switch on the parasympathetic system. And we can hack into it using any of the same three variables as before: muscular tension, breathing, and emotions.
To begin with, Faleev insists that you stretch immediately after lifting. This is non-negotiable: to jump-start recovery you must release the muscle tension with static stretching.
Take a tip from me. I hate static stretching because it’s uncomfortable. So get yourself some Jumpstretch bands. Play around with them and you’ll find that (1) you can stretch without hitting a hard “edge” since the bands have some give, and (2) you can stretch the muscles you want to target without having to contort yourself or support your bodyweight in uncomfortable positions.
To release muscle tension, Faleev likes relaxation techniques in which you tense muscle groups one by one, very briefly, and then lapse into full relaxation. Me, I say run to a “restorative yoga” class as fast as you (mindfully!) can. Hot yoga is the gold standard for active recovery, in my opinion, and a priceless complement to powerlifting, but it isn’t leisurely. Restorative yoga is an entirely different animal–all deep relaxation all the time–and it’s exactly what Faleev is looking for here, like jumper cables for your parasympathetic system.
Faleev wants you to love training, so he conditions you, like Pavlov’s dog, to associate your workouts with pleasure and relaxation. He says that psychologically you will be imprinted subconsciously with whatever happens at the very end of the workout, so we want to make it something very happy. After your exercise, he says, stretch with a feeling of languid, feline pleasure, like a cat stretching and relaxing in a sunbeam. Get under a hot shower and enjoy the pleasing sense of light tiredness in your muscles.
You must also reward yourself. Make it something that you enjoy, that you reserve solely for workouts. You must get the reward immediately after you complete the workout to benefit fully from the Pavlovian conditioning. For me it was chocolate chip cookies, as soon as the bar hit the floor. They really do sharpen your enthusiasm for training!
At moments like this, I adore Faleev because the great, thick-necked powerlifter talks about relaxation like a soft-handed voluptuary lying on a settee in Kubla Khan’s stately pleasure dome: “You have come a long way and have every right to rest now. So take advantage of it one hundred percent! After your relaxation exercises, lie down and feel the pleasant warmth spreading throughout the body. How pleasant rest is after exhausting work! This is bliss in comparison with rest after idleness – is that not so? So … go to the country of true pleasure, do not resist it.”
For breathing, Faleev likes a variation on a common pranayama technique, with a subtle difference. If you’ve tried “triangular breathing” (an inhale, a pause, and an exhale), you probably learned to inhale and then hold the breath on a bellyful of air. But Faleev wants you to lengthen the exhalation as much as feels natural and then pause the breath on empty lungs: exhale, then pause, then inhale. Then transition immediately to the exhale and repeat. I can speak as someone who has dabbled in stuff like this for years, and I think Faleev has it right: if you are trying to lower your arousal and relax, pause for a little while after the exhale, not the inhale.
As for the emotions, Faleev points to “a law of the human psyche, that a person can keep his attention simultaneously on [only] three dynamic objects,” which is to say three moving or changing things, “and when there are three such objects in consciousness, then there comes an inner calm … You must have noticed that it’s nice to look at fire, flowing water, the breeze in the treetops, or fish floating in an aquarium. This is because when you observe three dynamic processes (the tongues of flame, the waves, the leaves, the fish), the brain is completely occupied and there is no room left for any other thoughts. It is from this that a person relaxes, plunging into a calm, peaceful state.”
Here’s another idea, something that was a game changer for me. Search for videos marked “ASMR.” I won’t try to explain, just do it. I’ll wait here … … … Done? The variety of such things is huge. Sample many types and see which kinds, if any, give you “the tingles.” (Two of my own favorites are here and here.) I’m told that not everyone responds to these stimuli, but they soothe me instantly into a helpless, blissful transcendence puddle and provide the inverse of an out-of-body experience, where my body feels like a warm, briny bubble bath and my consciousness dissolves in the huge tub like bath salts. Your mileage may vary, but for me, it’s instantaneous and unfailing.
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.
“Athletes don’t lift with their muscles,” writes Alexey Faleev. “They lift with their heads.” He makes zero effort to separate physical performance from the athlete’s thoughts, moods, and happiness. In this, he is following some other great Russian physical culturists. The “father of Russian hockey,” Anatoli Tarasov, tracked key statistical indicators like a true scientifically Marxist Soviet planner long before the Moneyball revolution in America, but he trained his players to approach their hockey as a beautiful act of creativity. He kept them mindful that playing hockey is supposed to give you joy. Otherwise, why play games at all? Famously, he would call out to his players on the ice, “Smile! You’re playing hockey!”
Accordingly, Faleev loves to talk about how to get into “the zone.” Except he calls it vdokhnoveniye, “inspiration.” I love it!
“There are different practices to achieve ‘inspiration,’” he says, “but they all boil down to regulating the pulse.” (Remember what we said? Faleev doesn’t differentiate between mental readiness and physical readiness!) To get “inspired,” you need to maintain your pulse in its optimal range. Above that range you can get ragged and sloppy. Worse still, below that range you’ll be understimulated and too sluggish and unfocused to do your best.
He illustrates with a story from sports psychologist Anatoly Alexeev about his work with the Soviet shooting teams.
At the national trap shooting championship, Alexeev approached one of his athletes as she stood on the firing line shortly before the final round. He noticed something “off” about the athlete, so Alexeev took her pulse. “As expected,” he wrote later, “it was just 88 beats per minute,” much lower than her optimal 124 bpm. “Quick, give me the gun!” he snapped. “See that birch tree over there? Sprint there and back. Now! Go!” Confused, afraid, and a little irritated with Alexeev, the athlete did as ordered, came back with her pulse suitably elevated, and went on to demolish her opponent.
What’s your optimal range for “inspiration?” It differs by sport and athlete, but if you want my opinion, a good formula for strength sports is 160 beats per minute minus your age. Stay within +/- 5 beats per minute and you’ll be good. (Keep in mind, I’m nobody. This is just one mid-level amateur’s opinion.)
“So,” you ask, “does that story mean I should do sprints before a workout or competition?” No! That was an emergency measure. Faleev says that you should get up to your sweet spot in some way that doesn’t involve using your legs, which would tire you out.
How creative can you get? Weightlifter Yuri Vlasov, the great Soviet sportsman of his generation, was a bespectacled poetry fan. Just the kind of “muscular intellectual” we like here at Lean, Solid Dogs! To bump up his heart rate before big attempts, Vlasov would silently recite macho, stoic verse like Emile Verhaeren’s poem “The Sword” (Le Glaive): “Your body, where the blood of unsullied ancestors sours, / fragile and clumsy, will break itself with each effort / You will be the febrile man bent upon the windows (??) / whence we can see leaping life and its golden chariots.” Damn, get me to a barbell! I’m inspired!
If you are not as literary as Comrade Yuri Petrovich, who did wear pop-bottle glasses after all, Faleev recommends shadow-boxing or “fast and loose” drills. They will elevate your heart rate suitably without fatiguing you.
In our next installment, Faleev’s dark arts of applied yoga.
The Goofy Yoga Shorts. Never mind what the smart-alecks say [looking sideways at Lee], these were SOOOOO practical. They didn’t bind my legs and, when wet, they drip-dried in no time.
Caffeine and Sugar. I drank the equivalent of six or seven cups of coffee. I only regret not drinking twice that. And on Ultra Scott’s advice, I broke out of ketosis during the event and inhaled a pound and a half of chocolate. He was so very right about this: I did get momentarily tired, but I never got exhausted.
Kettlebells: More than ever, I think that if you have only one conditioning tool in your toolbox, it should be a kettlebell. If someone asks, “What is the single thing you could do to prepare for ten different physical challenges, chosen at random by a smiling, demonic taskmaster?” you should answer, “Kettlebells.”
The glasses strap: They look dorky, but one poor sod lost his glasses in the surf.
Boonie hat: If it wasn’t getting sucked off my head in the surf, it was obstructing my vision. It’s perfect in the climate where I live, but for these events, it’s a wool beanie or nothing.
Not layering: I knew we’d get wet and cold, so why didn’t I pack some kind of underlayer? After Surf Horror™, other people changed into something dry and looked very happy, whereas I was a trembling wreck.
Not finding a cold place to train: I trained in 100° temperatures, and though I tried a couple of short night hikes in wet clothes, around here we only get nightly lows of about 70°. I figured, “What difference will 15 or 20 degrees make?” For the answer, see “Shivering Horror”© above.
Not avoiding cramps: Sgt. D-Zazzy warned me I needed more salt or my legs might stop working. Did I listen? By morning even my hands cramped up.
I’m a “smiler”: I respond to exertion with irrational gaiety and buoyance.
I throw more F-bombs than almost anyone I know who doesn’t seem to me somewhat evil.
The infamous “surf torture” was really fun for a short while. It was neat to find out firsthand why it’s so hard. (The answer is that when the waves recede, they pull the sand out from beneath you. Everyone starts tumbling and getting sucked out of line, so when the next wave hits, it’s not hitting a solid wall of linked arms but scattered human flotsam and you go under.)
But it turns out that exposure to cold is terrible and demoralizing. One moment I was charging along, feeling “strong like bull,” wet and tired but still smiling, but then in the next moment I fell apart into a shivering wreck. After that, I couldn’t be far enough from the water for my liking. I think the precise word for what I felt is “horror,” a bristling, shrinking fear and aversion that mewls “NOOOOOOOOOOO!”
Yet another surprise was that, later when we *were* sent back into the water, I was able compartmentalize the horror and jump in anyway. More exactly, I was “mindful” of the horror but distant from it, like the difference between watching an NBA game from the very edge of the court, where the players are so close that you feel the floorboard thundering underneath you, and watching the same game from up in the rafters. Same game, less drama.