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.

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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).

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

 

Eight Square Feet of Endorphins

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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.)

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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.

When In Doubt, Be Strong?

One school of thought says, “If you lack skill in some athletic event, you can compensate for a lot of your suckage by being strong and brute-forcing it. Therefore, make strength your top conditioning priority.” I have reservations about that, about which I’ll post, but in this particular event, being strong saved me.

Had this been a pure endurance sport—an ultra-marathon or Ironman—I would have gassed out and they could have put my corpse on a Viking ship, set it on fire, and pushed it out to sea. But rucking contains enough of a strength element that it rewards an background in iron sports, and by incredible luck this night’s challenge happened to involve tons and tons of lifting. For almost the entire night, you were humping a sandbag, “suitcase carrying” something, or pressing it overhead. Thank heaven, that’s my wheelhouse.

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I wouldn’t mind a million dollars either, but I’m a simple man so I was satisfied with “sandbag across your shoulders.”

It was like the gods taking pity and throwing you a bone. Imagine you’re on this evil game show where the wheel of fortune is full of nightmarish possibilities like “Hypothermia,” “Slow Death By Cardio,” “You Should Have Jogged More,” “You’re the Weak Sister,” and “How About More Hypothermia!” but then the wheel stops at “Exactly the Stuff That YOU Do.” Yessir, I won the lottery. And as long as we were bear-walking backwards up hills, we were warm and dry.

What Did We Learn, Class?

1. Things That Worked

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It’s also fun to see onlookers wonder whether one is even wearing anything on bottom.

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.

 

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The best one-stop shopping I know for GPP (general physical preparedness).    Photo from calorie bee.com

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.

2. Terrible Ideas: Four of the Many

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.

 

3. Insights Into Myself

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.