One Pull, One Press

Part 5 in our series “20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline”

Pavel Tsatsouline likens his programs to Kalashnikov rifles, which have just a few simple moving parts. You can strip the “Kalash” one-handed in the dark: pop off the top cover, pull out a spring and bolt carrier, and you’re left with one huge, solid main assembly.

A rare but useful pull: the deadlift with a “snatch grip.” It toughens the complex musculature of the upper back.

In Tsatsouline’s programs, that huge main assembly is a deadlift or some near relative, what lifters call generically a “pull.” A deadlift, a snatch, a clean, a kettlebell swing—these are all pulls. In each case, you hinge backward at the hips and straighten up under load. That’s the most powerful motion you can make, summoning all your biggest muscles at the same time. 

In fact, when pulling you recruit almost all of your “real life” muscles. As an experiment, help someone move house. Haul their furniture, appliances, and all those boxes of books for the afternoon, across front yards and up and down stairs. Or help out in your corner pub, hauling kegs and crates up and down the basement steps. In effect, you are doing a day’s worth of pulls. Now tell me, what muscles are tired?

“All of them!” you might exclaim. That’s almost right, but try to be more precise: You tired out your glutes and hamstrings. They spent the day extending your hips. And your abs did some honest work for a change! When you pull a heavy box off the floor, your abs pull your hips underneath you and keep them there. In effect, you are doing a “standing plank.” Your abs also have to keep your trunk pressurized under load. If you’re holding 300# in your hands, your abs must squeeze to pressurize that squishy tube of air and gel called your thorax. That’s the purpose of a lifting belt, but even without one, your abs cinch hard to provide a “virtual lifting belt.” 

And after your moving adventure, your back is completely smoked, from bottom to top. There’s a reason that in English we say “a strong back” as a metonymy for “a body hardened in all the right places to do heavy labor.” With its complicated musculature and tough fascia, the back is the center of the body at work, the true core that holds everything together. Your lats keep your arms from pulling out of their sockets when you lift that washing machine off the floor, and your spinal erectors are the super-high tension guy wires. And when you move around with arms loaded, the muscular jigsaw puzzle of your upper back holds up the fancy cuckoo clock machinery of the shoulder girdle. 

Think of the upper back as the guy underneath the ballerina or figure skater who hold her aloft while she does the intricate, eye-catching stuff. He’s Mr. Stability, unglamorous and seemingly unremarkable, who creates a platform for the fancy moves out of thin air.

Your rhomboids are the guy in red: they aren’t big or macho-looking, but their support makes the stable platform for the flashy, eye-catching stuff.

You’ll even be sore in unexpected places like your calves and your pecs. Yes, your pecs! You think of them as “the bench press muscles,” which is not wrong, but when standing under super-heavy loads they flex hard to clamp down your shoulder girdle by making a front-and-back vise with your lats. Me, if I deadlift a near-max weight, what cramps up hardest is my pecs.

So with our pulls we work the whole back of the body, from the nape of the neck down to the heels, and the front of the body from the armpits down, and the gripping muscles in the hand and forearm.

The pulling muscles, formally called the “posterior chain.” The dark red areas mark the prime movers, and the lighter red muscles assist them, as do the leg and trunk muscles on the front of the body. peakperformancerehab.co.uk

Therefore it’s no surprise that Tsatsouline wants you to practice pulling above all things. In fact, he wants you to practice little else. Remember that Tsatsouline treats strength as a skill, a kind of motor learning. And you can learn most efficiently if you concentrate on getting good at just the one or two key skills at a time, rather than spreading your practice ineffectually over a dozen things. So the Party dictates that you concentrate on pulling.

The side press. In Tsatsouline’s earliest program, he paired this with the deadlift because it is technically simple (despite its exotic look) and safe, and you need nothing but a barbell.

Now only one thing is missing: a press. You’ll want the strength to press a heavy weight away from your chest and shoulders—either over your head or out in front of you. It is a more technically complex skill than pulling—the shoulder girdle is architecturally complicated, fragile, and inherently unstable—and you have to work on it separately. You won’t develop any pressing strength through your deadlifts. 

Therefore the Party generously allows you to practice a press. But only one! The Party forbids training like a typical gym rat, who is narcissistically obsessed with big arms and dabbles ineffectually at five different pressing movements. Remember, your training is an AK-47, effective because of its minimalism. You do only two things, a pull and a press, and therefore you do them very, very well.

In our next installment, the slow evolution of Pavel’s “pull and press” programs.

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 the 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 sturdy equipment and childishly uncomplicated instructions on how to use it. (“See this shovel? Whenever you stop marching 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 our limited recovery energies. 

And finally, few of us have good coaching (or any coaching). Most of us are just flying by the seats 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 them 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.”

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.

dinosaur-training2
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).

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

 

Eight Square Feet of Endorphins

hard-style-training-conditioning
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!!”

 

Training Age and “Dad Strength”

Athletically, it does pay to be young in general, but you also improve certain things and make your life easier with what they call “training age.”

Take the example of “dad strength.” “Growing up,” writes Dan John, “a lot of us used to lift weights all the time but still could not torque a wrench or open a jar like dad, who never did any lifting.” By 16 I was bigger than my skinny dad and much stronger with a barbell, but it was another decade before I was better at moving a refrigerator. Dad had spent half a lifetime playing sports, loading moving trucks, and manhandling boxes down from the attic.

In real-world strength tasks, dad was stronger because he had an extra 30+ years of “training age.” With all that experience of moving everyday stuff around, he was just really good at it. Folks underestimate how much strength is a skill, the sum of a dozen mundane little variables of balance, posture, breathing, timing, and the use of your abs. Especially the abs. (As Pavel Tsatsouline says, strong abs + strong grip = strong person. Everything else is icing on top.)

muscle_structureWith training age you can also get another huge asset: tendon and ligament strength. Even with little training, most of us already have good strong muscles. Our weak link is the thin little tendons that hold our big muscles onto the bone. (Think of eating drumstricks. Those little white plasticy cords that hold the meat onto the bone? Those are tendons.) Tendons are weak and vulnerable, and your muscles are already so strong that you could accidentally tear them off the bone, and then you’re in big trouble. So your body protects you by turning your muscles off if they get too close to overloading your tendons.

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Scot Mendelson with an example of a blown pec. Lifting weights is generally safe, but the bench press has real risks. If you choose to bench, study up and then get some lessons from an advanced powerlifter. (Not a bodybuilder, a powerlifter.)

And it’s hard to thicken and strengthen your tendons. They receive little blood flow, unlike your muscles. So to grow them you need years of stimulus. In other words, you need years of training age! If you’ve handled heavy things routinely over many years, you’ve gradually grown and toughened those tendons and ligaments and so you can exert more muscular strength before your body gets worried and shuts the muscles down. (Incidentally, this is a problem with steroids: they build muscles faster but not the tendons and make it easier to “blow a tendon,” usually in a pec or bicep.)

VF-40-and-40-up
Outwardly, retired champion Valery Federenko has the body of a dentist, but because of his skill and  tendon strength, he can balance this wobbly stack of kettlebells weighing 176# (80kg) upside down.  http://ipswichkettlebells.com/fedorenko-on-kettlebells/

Sometimes you meet retired athletes who have not trained in years and have average-guy muscles, but they can still do freakish feats of strength because under the skin they still have those Superman tendons. And because your strength depends so much on skill and tough tendons, which depend a lot on training age, strength ages really well. Powerlifters may not peak until their early 40s, for example, and they can retain much of their strength even if they stop training and regain it quickly when they resume.

Of course, you do not improve every attribute with training age, or all the Olympic medals would go home with the silver foxes. You lose some joint elasticity and aerobic capacity every year that you are alive, for example, and though you can mitigate that with training, you can’t reverse it. But if you are a lifelong athlete or laborer, then depending on your sport you may find yourself with relative advantages that you can play to.