Pavel’s Minimalism: “When All You Have is a Hammer…”

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.

“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.”

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Strength Is a Skill

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.

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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.

20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline: Table of Contents

  1. 20 Years of Pavel Tsastouline: Introduction
  2. Before the Russian Revolution: The Ancien Regime of 1999
  3. Strength Is a Skill
  4. Minimalism: When All You Have Is a Hammer
  5. One Pull, One Press
  6. Enter the Deadlift

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.

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#.

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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.

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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.

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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.)

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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.

Physical Culture with Alexey Faleev

Table of Contents

Part 1: Warm and Loose!

Part 2: Sports Spiritualism: Waxed Moustaches, German Nudists, and Russian Powerlifters

Part 3: Sports Spirituality: How to Get “In the Zone” the Russian Way

Part 4: The Dark Arts of Applied Yoga: Psyching Up

Part 5: Livid to Languid

Part 6: Kvass, Sour Life-Giving Ambrosia of Political Prisoners and Gods

Part 7: “Nothing Extra!”

Part 8: Push-Pull: The Bench and Deadlift

Part 9: Cycling, Part 1: The Salad Days of the Powerlifter

Part 10: Cycling, Part 2: The Training Wheels Come Off

Part 11: SNAFU But Not FUBAR: Practicing to Be Unflappable

Part 12: Into the Rare Air

Part 13: Doubles and Singles (Cycling, Part 3)

Part 14: Two-Stage Cycles (Cycling, Part 4)

Part 15: After Faleev – What to Expect