Strength Is a Skill

The third installment in our series, “Twenty 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.

0250630
Tsatsouline was like a distillery for Soviet sports research. Into his head went dozens of classics like Robert Roman’s Trenirovka tyazheloatleta (The Training of the Weightlifter) (1968), and out of his pen dripped a thin trickle of very potent training hacks.

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.

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.

After Faleev: What to Expect

Our fifteenth and final installment on Russian physical culturist Alexey Faleev. Please find links to the whole series here.

 

If you follow Faleev’s program, you will be a happy camper for quite some time.

First, if you were looking to gain weight, you are probably already doing so. When I followed his 5×5 system, I ate like a lumberjack and over several months I gained about 25#.

2015-07-01-2d-cookiemonst-a8059.jpg
Me on Faleev’s program.

Not that it was all muscle! That does not happen in the real world. In fact, I will assume that your appetite will soar like mine did and caution you that, because you will begin eating so much, you should commit to eating the “cleanest” diet you can. Do not think that you have stoked your metabolic furnace so hot that you will not plump up if you start eating Oreos and milk. (That may, possibly, be a real-life example from my own past.)

Remember, you control how lean you are almost entirely by how you eat. Exercise has little to do with it. This is not a popular truth but anyone in the fitness industry can tell you this IF they are being honest.

Second, you should have plenty of energy. Powerlifting can become a harsh mistress and consume a lot of your time and physical “oomph.” And though Faleev has you working out often–five days a week! I hope you train at home–he keeps your workouts short. Above all, he is a master of recovery and motivation. When I am faithful to his “applied yoga” (my word, not his)–when I stretch after lifting, reinforce myself with little rewards, drink kvass, sleep plentifully, and train not for the sake of exerting myself but enjoying the relaxation of heavy, thick, spent limbs afterward–I LOVE LOVE LOVE to train. It is a truly spiritual joy. (As it had better be, if I have to apply burning horse liniment to my groin!)

Third, you will get strong. According to much better powerlifters than I, on a minimalist program like Faleev’s, with only three exercises, you can reliably progress up to the threshold of advanced powerlifting, where you can bench 1.5 times your bodyweight, squat double your bodyweight, and deadlift 2.5 times your bodyweight. (That fits with my experience also.)

But after that, you might need a different program. (Just keep the recovery techniques!!) Different people are built to excel in different lifts and lag in others. Me, I am a natural deadlifter because I have long arms, but I am also a lousy bencher because I am forced by my long forearms to press farther than guys with short “T-rex arms.” As a rule of thumb, if you are built for a particular lift, you can benefit from a minimalist program in which you practice just that lift with no extras. I built my deadlift just by deadlifting, nothing more. But the opposite is also true: if you were born with bad leverages for a certain lift, then once you are sufficiently advanced, if you want to keep getting stronger you will need to judiciously add certain “assistance” exercises. So for example, to build enough momentum to bench press the bar through my extra-long range of motion, I personally need extra work on my shoulders and triceps.

dumbbell-clean
Alexey “Nothing Extra” Faleev forbids dumbbell cleans & presses, or anything other than the The Big Three: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. But the farther you advance, the likelier it is that you will need to depart from Faleev’s minimalist program.

Except for a few genetic freaks, most of us will need that more complicated program one day. With his own trainees, Faleev accomplishes this in part by prescribing special isometric exercises. (For example, I would be assigned to press against an immovable stick belted firmly to my own torso, to mimic the “off the chest” phase of the bench press which is my weak point.)

But most American powerlifters today solve this problem by a different strategy, called the “Westside” method, that employs a panoply of assistance exercises. Some might say that, compared with the monotony of Faleev’s system, this is typical of an American temperament that prizes variety. The modern American style also uses much shorter cycles than Faleev’s long, regimented, 10-week plans. For an advanced lifter this is valuable because progress becomes ever more difficult and finicky and you routinely incur small but consequential injuries. And when you do, it can become impossible to adhere to the complex, coordinated plan two-month plan because you have to work around the injuries.

In a future series we will learn about one very successful Russian coach, Konstantin Rogozhnikov, and his own home-grown solution to problems of how to train a powerlifter who has outgrown minimalism like Faleev’s.

header-17
Unless you are pretty advanced, you have not gotten close to outgrowing Faleev’s system. But even if you do one day, KEEP HIS RECOVERY TECHNIQUES! They are priceless.

“Nothing Extra!”

Part 7 in our series on physical culturist Alexey Faleev. If you’re behind, catch up here.

Not afraid of a little nationalism, Faleev says that former Eastern Bloc countries dominate strength sports largely because they concentrate on doing the few important things well, whereas Western trainees are influenced by bodybuilding, physique magazines, and exercise machines. He does not actually say words like “narcissism” or “effeminacy,” but I’d guess he’s thinking them.

maxresdefault-5
Nyet.

When you enter a gym, if you see anything covered in chrome, that is a bad sign. So are Nautilus-like machines. Faleev acknowledges almost no legitimate use for them except so that gym owners can gull misguided people into paying monthly gym dues. What you want to see in a proper gym is “an unpretentious room where serious people are working” like burly, menthol-scented medieval monks on squats, deadlifts, and benches. “Nothing extra.” Indeed, this could be Faleev’s mantra or his epitaph. “Nothing extra!”

“This idea is so unusual for many athletes, that I will repeat it again,” he writes. “For rapid muscle growth and results you have to do only three exercises: the bench press, squat, and deadlift.” Do one lift well (meaning, according to a predetermined plan), then stretch, and leave. “Anything more is detrimental. … You will feel like you are not doing enough. You will leave the gym feeling completely fresh. This reserve of energy is what lets you add weight next time and shoot beyond your past performance.”

 

Squat

Faleev gives basic cues for the three lifts, and I will not recapitulate them here. You can learn them better and more easily from any powerlifter. And I repeat, powerlifter. Not a bodybuilder! (Bodybuilders—peace and blessings upon them—are wonderful people, but they do things differently and it could cost you some joints. You are now a baby powerlifter.)

in-outs-knee-wraps-church-goggins-100714
Knee wraps aren’t comfortable, but they’ll let you use higher working weights.    https://www.elitefts.com/education/the-ins-and-outs-of-knee-wraps/

But Faleev does hold some unorthodox opinions that I’ll record here. On your heavy squat days, Faleev wants you to wear knee wraps. For all sets, even warm-ups. They protect the knee, he says, and boost your working weights, making you stronger faster. Knee sleeves are OK, but he seems to prefer real powerlifting wraps. Wrap them loose or wrap them tight, but wrap them.

I hate squatting in wraps. They cut off circulation, jack up your blood pressure, and at the bottom of the squat they crush the back of your calf so hard they feel like bear traps. But Faleev retorts, “The pain has a positive value – it motivates. The athlete gets angry, thinks less about the weight of the bar, wants to execute the set more quickly, and eventually lifts more.” Sheesh, fine, but only because I get to reward myself with cookies afterward.

Next time, Faleev on the bench press and deadlift.

The Buddhist Backpack, Beads (and Bears!) Pilgrimage

Following an idea from the Manly Monk of Vilnius, I declared this weekend the Great Buddhist Backpack & Beads Pilgrimage. The idea was, one step, one mantra, and in 27 miles that would make fifty-five thousand mantra reps. That’s got to be enough to make you a buddha in this very lifetime (即身成佛), right?

But a meditation retreat is always a hilarious circus of human foibles. My mind took the the last song I heard, “Billy Jean,” and for three miles it composed ribald lyrics.

Then came the bears. A mother and two cubs CHARGED across the trail, 20 yards in front of me, like OJ and his blockers. Thank heaven they kept going and started crashing around in the bush. But I couldn’t tell from the noise where they were going—“Do bears circle around and take people from behind?” I wondered—so I walked the next stretch very quickly and “mindfully,” shall we say, before I took my hand off my gun and remembered anything about a mantra.

36th.jpg
Also, without armed Buddhists we wouldn’t have kung-fu movies. Case closed.

Yes, there is a tradition of Buddhist pilgrims with weapons, and we just saw why. Bears eat you alive and screaming, even if you’re Buddhist. Mama Bear begins her meal as soon as you’re pinned down, without so much as a break-your-neck.

Wait,” you ask, you would really shoot a charging bear, Mr. Buddhist?” It’s “Dr. Buddhist,” thank you very much, and HELL YES! Ain’t no precept tells you to yield meekly while The Three Bears eat your liver.

Some wiseacre will now point to folklore where bodhisattvas (superhero-saints) offer their flesh to starving carnivores as an act of compassion. (Sigh.) But those are hyperbolic hero tales, like a Wonder Woman comic, not practical instructions for conducting yourself on a camping trip.

Much gratitude to Remi Warren for his lesson about this, or I’d have been lazy and carried my gun in my pack. As they say, “You almost never need a gun, but when you do, you need it real bad.” This whole thing started and finished in 2 seconds.

51ZzJSi9n7L._AC_US436_QL65_
Read this book if you’re intrigued by anything I’ve written here, other than the stuff about getting mauled by bears.

For a few miles after the bear encounter, the only mantra I was repeating was “HF!! WTF!!!” which is not officially sanctioned. But after that I settled my breath and my feet back into a happy rhythm, and in 5 miles I almost forgot that it ever happened. Feet, breath, mantra, all thumping along cheerfully in time with each other, far from the proverbial smoke and fire of human settlements (人间烟火)–well, it’s pretty close to heaven.

Between the bears and Billie Jean, I only got in maybe 30,000 good reps in, but I’ll take it! Svaha!

US Soil Literally Ground Under Heel of Communist Jackboots

Since our posts on footwraps and jackboots, Lean Solid Dogs has been flooded with queries from peace-loving people of all fraternal nations. In response, I conducted harsh field trials on the Russian-style jackboots and footwraps, equipment worth over $20.05, assuming a value of one nickel for the remnants of my old pillowcase. Nothing but the best for you, dear readers!

20180728_100427
To me they still look like I should be rounding up Polish hostages.

I’d been told that where jackboots and footwraps excel is in water and damp. However, I had doubts. Sure, jackboots have high sides, and no doubt some of them are well sealed too. But it seemed like once they did flood, you would be doomed and your feet stuck for your whole walk in knee-high water buckets. At the recent GORUCK challenge, I’d chosen exactly the opposite strategy, wearing a second-hand pair of “Moab Ventilators,” so named because of the mesh sides intended to let water drain out like from scuppers on a ship’s deck. But whatever the designers’ intended, the Moabs stayed wet all night, encrusted on the outside with a thin cement of caked-on sand and moistened from the inside by my waterlogged wool socks.

20180815_121935And just as Krushchev predicted, the Communist jackboots buried their pricey, effete capitalist counterparts. I tried to flood them all the way and could not! First I stood in a creek up to my ankles, patiently waiting for water to find its way through the seal, but it never did. Impressed, I knelt down in the creek hoping that water would rush over the boot tops like Soviet tanks through the Fulda Gap. Still no joy. As I have mentioned before, the portyanki are so long (90cm/30”) that you wind half the fabric around your calves, and to my amazement this sealed the boot tops so thickly that water could not cascade in. I had to wiggle and fishtail around, trying to coax water into the jackboots, til after about 30 seconds I had to be satisfied with getting my feet about 40% soaked.

20180815_123752
See the ring of creek filth around the calf? The portyanki created a thick cloth seal there that kept out the dirt, and most of the water too.

I walked the next mile that way and found it perfectly satisfactory. I had wondered whether water would continue to drip down my calf and slowly make a sopping, sucking fishbowl around my feet, but this never happened. Either the footwraps pack up all the loose space around your feet and leave little room for water to gather, or as Lars from Survival Russia suggests, maybe the footwraps really do wick it up and out.

Certainly I was amazed at how well the wraps dried out. After a mile, I stopped to turn the wraps around. This is something that portyanki fans like Lars are always try to sell you on: “Instead of changing into dry socks,” they’ll say, “you can turn portyanki around and wrap your feet from the other, drier end. The wet end will get a chance to dry out, now being wrapped around your calf or even sticking out your boot top. It’s like having a dry pair of socks built right in.” Without impugning Lars’ integrity, I must confess I thought that sounded almost as fishy as Lenin’s “democratic centralism,” but he was right. After a mile, not only had the top end of my footwraps dried enough to be comfortable, they were also drier than my pant legs, which were directly exposed to the air!

20180815_124115
Turned around, re-wrapped, and almost as good as dry socks. The wet end is now poking out the top.

Score one for East then. No, the footwraps did not dry out completely until I took them off at home and hung them up, but now I was inspired to try some serious Marxist science. I soaked the portyanki and my favorite wool socks and hung them in the sun, side by side to make a fair trial, but the outcome was never in doubt. Unsurprisingly the thin, single-ply footwraps with their huge surface area dried in half the time.

So will I seriously wear these things in place of hiking boots? I certainly would in wet muck. I might even wear them on other terrain just for the fun of doing things the old-fashioned way, just like I prefer to shoot revolvers. Loyal readers of this blog know that I am a sucker for the seductions of kludgy but ingeniously designed Communist gear, and friends know that I suffer from Ostalgie, an aesthetic nostalgia for the lost world of the socialist Eastern Bloc. The city of my young adulthood was an actual Stalinist metropole, and it left me with a sentimental fondness for the blocky, heavy, dim, cheap, kitschy material culture and aesthetic that—as far as I can tell—originated in Moscow and was exported to all corners of the Second World as part of what might be called the “Stalinist cultural package.”

Jokes aside, let me be clear: Lenin, Stalin, and the state they made were evil, an evil unsurpassed in the 20thcentury, and it’s bizarre that they get a pass from so many bien-pensants in the West. I’m just saying that if (Heaven forbid) I were going to conquer and enslave half the peoples of Europe, I would definitely consider doing it in actual Communist jackboots.

 

 

With My Shield or On It!

“ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς” –Spartan moms in a time before enlightened parenting

 

I am ready to ruck! I’ve trained for weeks, obsessed minutely over man-toys Vitally Important Equipment Choices,™ and I just managed to give myself a second-degree burn with a piece of paracord that caught on fire. (Don’t ask.) But now I’m ready!

The event isn’t a race where participants compete against each other but a quasi-military model where we’re all on the same team and the fun is to carry out ludicrous challenges dreamed up by the race director. (E.g. “Next, jump in the water and then schlep your backpacks, a sandbag, and this telephone pole to the top of that hill. You have 30 minutes. Go.”)

I’m intensely curious about who shows up to such an event. I’m guessing it will be one part military types, one part mountaineers, and two parts people like me, hyperactive desk workers who did Tough Mudders and then asked, “Now what?”

Anthropologically, I wonder where these people will come from. These events are culturally very Red: run by ex-soldiers with commemorations of deceased service members, flag-centered ritualism, and plenty of American civic religion. And yet they are holding this particular event in San Francisco, the Vatican City of Blue America. I love juxtapositions like this and wonder whether I will meet a lot of other category-straddling Purple weirdos like me.

20180809_215349Gear is laid out all over the living room floor and I’m about to scrunch it into the pack like Tetris pieces. From toe to head we have: hiking boots with mesh sides (Moab Ventilators) to drain water; East German army socks and Fox River sock liners; yoga shorts that make me look like a pole dancer; tough Flecktarn shirt with huge pockets; Swedish surplus rucksack that was supposed to be a birthday present for Michelle Skadisdottir (sorry, dude!) that I pimped out and filled with the regulation 30# of weights; British surplus windbreaker; boonie hat (because the logs scrape your ears) with a headlamp; and pocket knife, Ibuprofen, and duct tape (because Macgyver).

20180809_215200In honor of my comrades at the Thursday Freedom Squad and CR&GC, I am packing our last can of fishcock. There is NFW I will eat it—it will be hard enough not to vomit if I have to bear walk up a hill backwards. No, I will be eating super-caffeinated German army chocolate and M&Ms, thank you, but I will take the fishcock along to be magically infused with Hooah Vibes© and then we can serve it out on a hilltop with mead when Son of Matt holds a blot for us.

I will be back on Saturday, with my shield or on it!