I hate to say this, but your single biggest priority is to create some modest aerobic base. That is, if you were cursed by an evil genie to be allowed only one kind of exercise, it would need to be something aerobic.
Why do I hate saying that? Because it sounds so 1980s, when America fetishized cardio to the neglect of all else and said we should avoid dietary fat and live on bagels and pasta.
But you get the most happiness, health, leanness, and energy from a modest dose of easy aerobic exercise.
And I really do mean easy. I’m talking a maximum heart rate of 180 minus your age. That’s nothing. Unless you have a good aerobic base already, that’s probably just a fast walk while swinging your arms.
And the great part is, you benefit MUCH more from that easy pace than by pushing yourself. If you care about why, read the writings of endurance super-coach Phil Maffetone. Maffetone trains elite athletes mostly or entirely in that 180 Minus Age zone, which is also where the endorphins and the bliss are. But whether or not you concern yourself with the “why?” the important point is this: by keeping your heart rate low, you IMPROVE the training effect. You are not compromising your training by going easy. You will outperform the people who train at too high a heart rate (which is almost everyone).
How do I figure out my heart rate?
Buy a heart rate monitor. You’ll need to spend about $60 for an adequate, reliable basic model. Frugal to a fault, I seldom recommend throwing away money on wiz-bang fitness devices. But a heart rate monitor is one of the few exceptions. It really does help SO much that it’s a must-buy even for a tight-fisted Buddhist stoic who thinks that if the Red Army considered it an unnecessary frippery, you can too.
No, you don’t need to start running
So do I mean that you should start walking or running? Nope. Do anything that elevates your heart rate to that magic number and holds it there steadily. You can ride a bike, roller blade, paddle or row, ski or snowshoe, and you might also really like another obscure activity from the 80s called HeavyHands. Trust me on this one: HeavyHands is awesome and makes you feel incredible.
Exercise is a tale of two variables: Volume (how much you do) and Intensity (how hard you do it). In weight training, Volume is the number of reps you did and Intensity is how heavy they were (as a percentage of your 1-rep max). In cardio, Volume is how many minutes or hours you ran, rowed, or rucked and Intensity is how high your heart rate was (as a percentage of your max).
You can describe any training session, or week or month or year of training, in terms of how much Volume you accumulated and its average Intensity.
And now pay attention, because this is the important part: In this country we prize intensity for some reason, but it is easier and more reliable, and much more enjoyable, if you leave the intensity alone and just accumulate volume. Put reps in the bank, and keep them fairly light. Put miles on the track, and keep them pretty slow. That is the Tao of the Lazy Badass.
By way of illustration, let’s examine Alexey Faleev’s very effective 5×5 program for “power bodybuilding” (getting big by getting strong). Faleev’s program works so well because it has you putting a lot of reps in the bank, day after day, week after week. Each session is manageable—up to 25 reps, mostly with moderate poundages—and you are fresh and ready for another session the very next day. By the end of the week, you’ve put in 105 quality reps with poundages that were heavy enough to be no joke but well within your capacities. By the end of the month, it’s 400+ reps. After 10 weeks, a thousandreps, of which fewer than twenty were very difficult, and none were more than 80% intensity (i.e. 80% of your 1-rep max). After five of those low-key cycles, you’ve get over a thousand reps each in the squat, bench, and deadlift, and you are a lean, solid dog.
All you did was show up to the gym every day, work up a very light sweat, and leave after 45 minutes. It was easy in terms of exertion, but you got much stronger. Why? Because the royal road to training success is to just accumulate Volume. And although you can skin that cat in several ways—we’ll cover most of them—all of them involve going pretty easy on Intensity so that you can come back and do it again tomorrow. That is why we say that Easy + Often = Badass.
“Like water, volume is soft and yielding. But volume will wear away rock, and it beats the crap out of excess fatigue. As a rule, volume wins over fatigue. This is another paradox: what is soft and voluminous is strong.”
from the lost training manual of Laozi (Lao-Tzu)
In the most original book on training in decades, Pavel Tsatsouline describes a certifiable badass, a special operations ninja-type whom he pseudonymously calls “Victor.” Victor combines a pair of already-extraordinary feats into an extra-extraordinary combination: he runs ultra-marathons of up to 100 miles AND he does pullups with an extra 160# hanging from his waist. That’s a freakish level of endurance and world-class strength, a combination so rare as to seem impossible. (As we have said before, strength and endurance are rivals.) That is what makes Victor an elite among the elite, a certifiable badass.
To reach those heights, Victor trains in a very special way: lazily. Or to be more precise, with low fatigue. From his amazing accomplishments, you might suppose that he spends all day exercising and puking his guts out. Nope. Most days he works out for all of 30 minutes, much of it with a 24kg kettlebell, which is strictly a “Joe Average” weight, and some pushups and pull-ups and yoga. He left behind even low-key barbell training long ago, explaining that when he deadlifted, “I felt my ego pushing me harder and faster than my body wanted to go. So I decided to limit myself to one kettlebell and two [steel exercise] clubs …”
As the core of his lethargic-looking super-routine, Victor runs … sloooooowly. Slowly enough to breath only through his nose, with rhythm and relaxation. He writes:
“The key is … the LOW INTENSITY. I use a heart rate monitor, and I stay at 60% to 65% of my [max heart rate]. This means that I am often walking on the hills. If I ran [faster], my recovery time would be much longer.”
Pavel and Victor are insistent: Victor is not succeeding in spite of his low-key training but precisely because he throttles back. Victor has perfected one way of applying the near-magical formula for productive and happy training: do as much work as possible while staying as fresh as possible.
Are those twelve words too much to remember? Then stencil this on your kettlebells, barbells, and running shoes: Volume Without Fatigue. That is the red thread that runs through many of the successful training philosophies out there, connecting disparate-looking approaches whose only apparent link is that they work well, and it is the subject of our next series, “Farewell to Fatigue: The Way of the Lazy Badass.”
I have lots of surplus packs, but there are two that I love and cherish. For big jobs, I have a version of the legendary Swedish LK-35. For everything else, I carry the nimble, gorgeous Swedish M39, the “Moose Sack.”
Like in Switzerland, Sweden’s neutrality is very much an armed neutrality. Even though Sweden did not fight WWII, they kept over half a million men under arms. And since the Swedes knew a thing or two about the outdoors, Erik and Oskar were issued a rucksack that is a work of genius. You can recognize it anywhere by the strange, perforated, leather-covered crescent shape at the top, which is a godsend for comfort.
As its backbone it has a peculiar X-shaped frame. It holds the pack close to your back without quite touching, and the top of the pack moulds itself over your shoulders, so it is pleasant to carry and makes you feel quick and light. In addition, the pack “grabs” the body firmly and stays put, with minimal slipping, flopping, or bouncing. On a heavy march, that saves energy because you don’t have to hold the pack still. And it feels more ergonomic and somehow more agile than something with a rectangular frame. You can also adjust the ride height and even the spacing of the straps on your shoulders!
As Julien says, I recommend Pavel Tsatouline’s original primer on kettlebells, The Russian Kettlebell Challenge (2001), and the open-ended, unscripted training guidelines he gives there:
Train 2-7 times per week.You can vary this week to week. You benefit from a certain amount of randomness in loading.
Keep it to 45 minutes or less. Sometimes a lot less. Vary it at every workout.
Do your exercises in a “slow circuit.” For example, after a set of presses, catch your breath for a minute or two and do some swings. Then overhead squats. Then windmills. Then front squats or pistols or pullups. Whatever. Then repeat.
Vary your sets, reps, and exercises.Again, this is not a “program” from the pages of fitness magazine. Instead of a scripted routine, we are looking for controlled randomness.
Confine “grinding” exercises to just 1-5 reps. Avoid failure like the plague. For the reasons why, see Pavel’s Power to the People.
This is a pleasant and refreshing way to train, physically and mentally, and it’s very productive.
But the way people screw up strength training is that they up the poundages too fast, before they accumulate a lot of training volume with easier weights. They race ahead, only to overtrain, and then they’re back on the couch recuperating instead of getting steadily stronger. Like a baseball season, strength training is a marathon, not a sprint.
With kettlebells, you can’t do that on account of the big jumps in size. Kettlebells are the perfect thing for accumulating lots of reps with moderate poundages, without injury and in a recoverable way. Which is to say, they are the perfect thing for productive, healthy, sustainable training.
So it’s absolutely OK to stick with just a 16kg, a 24kg, and a 32kg. And if anything, it is better. Vary those other factors—frequency, duration, volume per session, exercise selection, workout pace, rep tempo—but don’t screw around with the big red button marked “intensity” (% of RM, i.e. your choice of weight). Let the kettlebells make that choice for you, with their big jumps. That really is a case of their Kalashnikov-like simplicity making them foolproof.
Let the volume do the work. Leave the intensity (i.e. the choice of weight) to the kettlebell.
One last piece of advice on kettlebell selection: get “competition bells,” not the cast iron monstrosities with the ludicrously thick handles. Those were fine in the 19thcentury, or when kettlebells were first reintroduced to North America 20 years ago. But they’re objectively inferior and obsolete, and there are plenty of affordable competition bells nowadays. If you especially want oversized handles to challenge your grip occasionally, wrap the grip in a thin towel, or soap it, or get an inexpensive fat-grip attachment. ‘Nuff said.
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.