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.
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 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.
This is the first installment in our series on the training doctrines of Pavel Tsatsouline.
Pavel Tsatsouline entered my life through a side door. In 1998, on an internet forum hosted by the first man to squat 1000 lbs., “Dr. Squat” Fred Hatfield, I read a terse post by a polite Russian émigré. He introduced himself as a former competitor in something obscure that he described as “the Russian ethnic strength sport of kettlebell lifting.” I would have forgotten him instantly except that this exotic-sounding background earned him surprising respect from the gruff old powerlifting legend.
A year later I was to run across Tsatsouline again, and had that not happened, I cannot picture what my life would be like now.
Tsatsouline (Цацулин): tsa-TSOO-leen
To that point, I had already been lucky in my athletic influences. In high school I did some Olympic weightlifting under John Schubert, who inoculated me against some of the silliness found in bodybuilding magazines, and I escaped the baleful obsession with the bench press that ruins many young men. No, if I had a monomaniacal obsession, it was the squat. And that was a pretty good problem to have, better than drugs or video games.
But it was still a problem. Squats build bodies, and sure enough, I’d grown an extra 45 lbs., all of it seemingly in my neck and thighs. This was all very exciting to a young man, and I could eat cheeseburgers, milkshakes, and chocolate muffins with wild abandon, but it was a terrible drag. Imagine buying 45 one-pound packages of ground beef and molding them аll onto your body. Now get up and walk around. You are like a land blimp. And you’ll soon be tired and sweaty because, in effect, you’re wearing a backpack full of meat. Now sit back down: that’s not so comfortable either. It’s hard to cross your thickly swollen sausage legs, but it’s also hard to point them straight ahead since your huge hams flop outward in “manspreading” fashion. I ate like a pair of teenagers and drank a gallon of milk a day, which cost not just time and money but health. I was inflamed and tubby from eating so much, and with the size of my neck it’s little wonder that I couldn’t sleep well either.
Big, swollen melon that I was, I was ripe for the message of Tsatsouline’s first major publication. In our next installment, we examine that book, Power to the People (1999).
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#.
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 LOVELOVE 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.
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.