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.”
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.
Strength and endurance are rivals. “Strength loves rest,” as the saying goes, and it hates endurance. Strength and endurance compete against each other for your training time and recuperative powers. Yes, you can do both (and you should, at least a little). But unless you are a pure strength athlete or pure endurance athlete (e.g. a powerlifter or an ultra runner), you must strike some kind of compromise between the ancient enemies.
Which should you favor? Usually there’s a clear answer that’s dictated by (1) the rules of your sport and maybe (2) your individual game plan.
(1) Gaming the Rules: Most “mixed” sports—not purely strength or endurance—clearly favor one or the other. Middle-distance runners and soccer players are basically endurance athletes who need just some strength training, and vice versa for football linemen and sprinters. That’s determined by the rules of their respective games. Now, if soccer players were allowed to grapple each other, they would have to get stronger. If football had continuous play like soccer, the players would need more endurance. Similarly, if wrestling matches lasted two hours, wrestlers would need even bigger gas tanks. But if matches lasted only a few seconds, or if they had no weight classes, you would get sumo wrestlers.
In those mixed sports, athletes face a point of diminishing returns for certain kinds of endurance or strength. For example, a boxer needs to bench more than his own bodyweight, but he doesn’t need to bench twice his bodyweight, and if he invests the training time to do so, he’ll neglect his running, to say nothing of actually practicing boxing. Boxers win by boxing. They don’t win extra points for the biggest bench. And no one cares if a shotputter is great at jogging.
Speaking of diminishing returns, in a study of SEAL trainees, sailors who scored the highest in pushups and pullups and certain other measures fared worse overall! The Navy concluded that, in each of their many physical tests—running, swimming, sprinting, pull-ups, deadlifts—they could clearly identify a point of diminishing returns. A max of 70 pushups is not enough, for instance, but 100 is plenty. They tell the hopefuls, “don’t spend valuable time and energy trying to do more. Make your push-up training economical, so you leave time to train the many other qualities important for success in [the first phase of SEAL training].”
(2) Your Personal Game Plan: In the mixed strength-and-endurance sports, the right balance might also depend specifically on your game plan. If you plan to box like Floyd Mayweather, you’d better have a bottomless gas tank, so put endurance first. But if you’re going to be Mike Tyson and assassinate guys in the first round, then for you power comes first.
So what about ruck marching? Should you favor endurance or strength? It’s complicated because so many variables are left up in the air—light or heavy loads? short distances or long? what’s the terrain?—but according to the data, the short answer is …
Neither strength nor endurance! Instead, invest in muscle mass.
Jack Rabbits in Flak Jackets
When Army physiologists studied ruck marching in the early 80s, the height of America’s obsession with aerobics, they concluded that, sure enough, soldiers marched fastest who had the best aerobic capacity. Sure, strength was important too, but the guys who could ruck the fastest were the skinny “jack rabbits” who excelled at running.
Or so the physiologists said. Old soldiers told a different story, though. They claimed that in the field, the jack rabbits lagged behind bigger guys when they were loaded down with a rucksack, a flak jacket, and other gear. Whom to believe?
It seemed significant that the early Army studies tested people carrying light packs for short distances. Under those conditions, it was little surprise that your best runners would shine. But what if you saddled soldiers with 100 lbs. (45kg) (a real-world infantry load) and made them schlep it 12 miles (20km)? That’s what Joseph Knapick and his team did in 1990. And at the moment, those are the conditions that interest me because they come closest to the rules of the game that I’m training for right now, the GORUCK Heavy Challenge.
In that “heavy and long” event, the soldiers who rucked fastest were the most muscular. Not the strongest, heaviest, tallest, leanest, or the fastest runners, or the most aerobically capable, but specifically the ones with the most lean body mass.
Let me repeat that: not muscle strength but muscle mass.
With just one exception, even “skinny strength” did not help. That is, guys who were wiry and strong out of proportion to their bodyweight. The winners were the Dwayne Johnsons of the world, not the Brad Pitts.
I am surprised at this, and dismayed. It’s not the answer I wanted. Regular readers know that I enjoy “skinny strength” training and push it as an alternative to bodybuilding. Normally I only spend a few weeks a year bodybuilding and then go back to my kettlebells and low reps gladly. So this is not the conclusion I wanted, but apparently “facts don’t care about my feelings.”
The researchers measured many kinds of strength (as distinct from muscle mass), and only one made a significant difference: the abs. They tested strength in the soldiers’ grip, low back, quads, hamstrings, and calves, and none of the others was significant. [But there’s a caveat to this in our next post. -Dog in Chief] Only ab strength made a difference.
Strange as that seems superficially, it isn’t surprising. As Pavel Tsatsouline says, strong abs + strong hands = strong person. More and more, kinesiologists are pointing out the importance of what is sometimes called “core strength,” our ability to make our torsos rigid at pivotal moments and resist bending or twisting.
In the case of walking under load, your abs pull your hips under you and keep them there. That way you stay upright, and your legs step quickly and freely. Without that ab strength, you angle forward at the waist and walk bent over. You walk slower that way, and over time you pound the hip joints. So if you can stay more upright, you go faster and stay healthier. That’s what you need abs for.
Part 6 in our series “20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline.” Complete table of contents here.
Before Pavel came along, we did not deadlift. By “we” I mean young ironheads who wanted big muscles and got our (mis)information from dime store bodybuilding magazines.
When I began lifting weights as a teenager, I absorbed the prevailing leeriness about the deadlift. We imitated bodybuilders, and the bodybuilders said deadlifts were risky.
Perhaps it was natural that they would be wary. Bodybuilders normally train with high reps (10+), and that really is too much for an exercise that demands perfect form like the deadlift, where even five reps is a lot. Also, bodybuilders grow best on very modest poundages, so many of them lack experience with big weights like those involved in deadlifting. After all, even a (male) beginner soon deadlifts a massive-looking three “wheels.”
Nevertheless, mostly we were intimidated by the deadlift because of ingrained superstition. In modern America we are as paranoid about straining our backs as medieval villagers were about vampires or bathing. I do not know how we aspiring bodybuilders supposed that powerlifters got away with pulling triple bodyweight in such a supposedly dangerous lift. In those days, powerlifters seemed like leprechauns, rare and mysterious creatures in a faraway land, and you stood little chance of even meeting one, much less learning his ways.
Bodybuilders also did not know how deadlifts would fit into their peculiar kind of training schedule. Most bodybuilders practice what they call a “split.” They divide the body into two or three areas, such as “chest, back, and legs” or “upper and lower body,” and train a different area each day in isolation. But you cannot cram the deadlift into those pigeon-holes because it is a whole-body lift: the deadlift does not care if today is supposed to be “leg day” or “back day,” it uses both hard.
Finally, bodybuilders noticed that the deadlift builds little bulk. You can pull well over 800# and still be much too small for even a Division III linebacker.
For all these reasons, bodybuilders much prefer to squat. Squats add far more meat to your bones than the deadlift. They fit easily into a bodybuilding split, since they are unambiguously a lower-body exercise, even though they add muscle to the whole body. (Fun fact: if you want bigger biceps, do squats.) And you can recover much faster from squats than from deadlifts, especially when you squat with the moderate poundages and high reps that bodybuilders favor.
So I did as I was taught. I specialized in the squat, which did indeed inflate my legs so much that I looked like I was wearing football thigh pads even if I wasn’t, and I avoided deadlifts in favor of—and this is crazy—stiff-legged deadlifts. That was standard practice at that time. We used the stiff-leg to develop our hamstrings, which it certainly did, and luckily it also taught many of the same important lessons as real, bent-legged deadlifts, like cinching the lats and abs to stiffen the trunk. The mystery is why we thought it was safer than deadlifts. True, you were limited to a lower poundage, but not much lower: I was routinely stiff-legging 275# as a medium-sized teenager. And furthermore we were putting much greater shear forces on our spines, especially with the exaggerated ranges of motion that we practiced for (supposedly) better muscle-building effect.
We could and should have been doing real deadlifts instead, but we were captive to bodybuilding folklore.
Pavel changed that in Power to the People (1999).
Call me biased,” he wrote, “but the deadlift is THE exercise of choice for anyone, from a computer geek to an Olympic athlete! It lends itself to tremendous weights [and] teaches you some useful habits for everyday life … Hardcore metal heads usually praise the squat as the numero uno exercise … I disagree. The squat is a very technical lift. A beginner needs a few months of instruction by a powerlifter before he can do a decent squat. 99% of the squats I have witnessed at health clubs, even by seasoned gym rats, were atrocious in form. Besides, you need reliable spotters and/or a safety rack unless you want to get squashed like a bug if you make a wrong move. The deadlift can simply be dropped which makes it a lot more user friendly. And the deadlift works a lot more muscles than the squat because you must hold on to the bar instead of letting it ride on your shoulders. Any way you look at it the deadlift wins hands down! … Squat fans, please send your hate mail directly to the round file.”
In later years, when Pavel had made his name, he would be even more blunt: “If you are not deadlifting, you are not training” (Easy Strength, 2011).
He was absolutely right about the deadlift. Of course, it took a few years for the message to catch on, and students of Pavel’s methods could recognize each other because we were usually the only people in weight room deadlifting. In 2000, I visited a new gym and, as I started to deadlift, I noticed a stranger who kept looking my way. It wasn’t a disconcerting look, just the sort of studying gaze you might give someone who seems oddly familiar. I stripped the bar down after just two sets of five deadlifts—fewer sets and fewer reps than you normally saw in those days—and this was a dead giveaway. I saw the man nod to himself and march over to greet me like strangers who meet in a foreign land and recognize each other as fellow countrymen. “You’ve been reading Power to the People, haven’t you? Me too!”
Why did two sets of five reps alert this man to my membership in “the Party” as surely as a secret Masonic handshake? This will be the subject of our next installment.
Part 5 in our series “20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline.” See Table of Contents here.
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 fourth part in our series “20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline.” Table of contents here.
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 the 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.”