Speaking of Baltic hardmen like Hackenschmidt and Pavel, our Vilnius correspondent Sgt. Šileika has been trying kettlebells. He reports:
“Kettlebells are so cool because they have their own idea of where they have to go. It takes my whole body to control them. Just handling them is an exercise in itself.”
So true! Many years ago I had a kettlebell delivered by UPS. The guy asked me to open it and show him what was inside. He’d been weirded out by the mysterious 70-lb. thing wobbling around inside a small delivery box, like an egg standing on end, and thought maybe I was receiving illicit shipments of mercury.
At the GORUCK Heavy Challenge, after some refreshing PT, you start the 24 hours with a twelve-mile timed ruck. You need to walk it in 3½ hours or you can be disqualified.
Lauren Four Boots and I were discussing this menacing prospect in the middle of a hike in the foothills. Already tired and a little footsore, I supposed we must have already traveled a long way. So I was crestfallen when Ms. Multiboots checked her GPS and found that, in two hours, we’d only moved three miles as the crow flies.
I wondered aloud whether this meant I was destined to flunk the Heavy Challenge before the sky was even dark.
So I did a full-dress rehearsal that night, a 12-mile out-and-back with the regulation 35# plus water.
Fortune smiled on me and I made it with 8 minutes to spare without any sense of hurry. The night’s takeaways were:
I’ve been helped by doing “LSD” (long, slow distance). I managed to stay well under 65% of my theoretical max heart rate.
Since I do my training hikes in extra-heavy boots and/or ankle weights, in my light boots I felt like my feet had wings.
Ditto for logs, sleds, and kettlebells. I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to carry just a pack, without also holding a stone or a sandbag. This was like a vacation, at least for a few miles…
However, my feet were the limiting factor. After just 7 miles, my toes were feeling squished and uncomfortable.
After that, my second biggest limiting factor was my legs. They felt a little rubbery by Mile 9.
I used a minimalist hip belt (just a 1” canvas strip) and an ill-fitting sternum strap, but I wouldn’t try to forego those features. When one part of my back tires out, I appreciate being able to tweak the straps and belt and shift the load to fresh muscles.
I didn’t use The German Caffeine Chocolate on this outing—I’m saving it for game day, when my teammates and I need a special boost—but I did eat dates and they were almost as good.
Rucking looks to be the “next big thing” in exercise. In a word, you fill a rucksack (a glorified backpack) with weight and go hiking. For bonus points, you can haul other heavy things too: sand bags, a water can, a kettlebell, a log, a sledgehammer, a stone, a weighted sled.
Like many strength athletes, I retired from powerlifting reluctantly because I was accumulating injuries. Desperate for something to do, I started jogging and … loved it! I gravitated toward obstacle course races, on account of the goofy, exciting agility drills and also because I could put my strength to some use. Sure, I run slower than a man wading through oatmeal, but I can climb walls and flip tires all morning, so now I only sucked at half of the event.
For me, one key was to run barefoot. As a teenager I was prone to shin splints when I ran, but once I ran in bare feet, my gait changed and I got lighter on my feet.
It also helped that I was literally lighter, in bodyweight. Once I stopped lifting seriously and started jogging, thirty pounds dropped off me and I felt like I could lope along forever like a stocky gazelle.
To train for the obstacle courses, sometimes I hiked the foothills carrying heavy things. Such joy! From running, I had learned to love the endorphins that come from long, slow cardio, but I had to restrain my enthusiasm to keep my feet healthy and happy. They could carry my stumpy powerlifter body bouncing along the pavement for only so many miles a week without complaining. But now in weighted hiking I found a whole extra modality, and while my feet took it easy, I could get high on endorphins using all my other muscles.
The great gift of weighted walking is that you can shift work around the various muscle groups, resting some while you load others. For example, carry a kettlebell in one hand like a suitcase. When that hand tires, switch hands. Then carry it on your shoulder, and then the other shoulder. Then over your back, and maybe even “racked” at the chest or at arm’s length overhead. That will take you a long time, and then you can return to the “suitcase carry” and repeat the cycle indefinitely. You are spreading the work out all over the arms, shoulders, back, obliques, abs, hamstrings, and quads, and nothing gives out first. You can do this for hours. It doesn’t pound your joints, and you can work around any injuries just by avoiding positions that hurt.
From here, it was just a short hop to group ruck marching events like the GORUCK challenges, organized by a backpack manufacturing company owned by ex-Green Berets. Originally they dreamed up these bootcamp-style marches as marketing events to promote their line of backpacks, but the events themselves proved even more popular and took on a life of their own. Now you can choose from GORUCK challenges lasting from six hours to 48 hours (!!).
These people are my tribe. As regular readers know, I think that because humans evolved to face physical hardship in small groups, we need that experience in some form. GORUCK provides plenty of intimate, shared strife. I grew so attached to the folks who survived the 12-hour “Tough Challenge” with me last year that next I’m joining them for the 24-hour “Heavy” event. Gulp.
As I train for it, I’ve been contemplating this question: How big should I be? What’s the optimal bodyweight for carrying a backpack of bricks and a log for 40 miles? The answer would be simple for a straight endurance event like running an ultra-marathon (weigh less) or a straight strength event like Highland Games (weigh more). But what about an ultra-distance strength-endurance event like rucking? I certainly wouldn’t want an extra 10# of bricks in my rucksack, weighting me down unnecessarily. But what about an extra 10# of muscle? That sure would help me carry logs and sand bags, but enough to justify moving all that extra bodyweight?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
The third part in our series “20 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.
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.
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.”
The third installment in our series, “20 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.
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.