Captain America and the Welfare Check

Being part 2 of my field notes from a glorious 48 hours with my boots on. (Find part 1 here.)

The anguish of my unrecognized comic genius: At one point, the command post radioed our group to make sure that we hadn’t eloped with sasquatches or been eaten by raccoons. In the terse language of the Incident Command System, this came out as “Team Twelve: welfare check?” I wanted to drawl, “Thank you kindly, but we work for a living.” I’m pretty sure they weren’t in a mood for my mirth on a command channel, so I kept the fun to myself. But it hurts to be blessed with talent like mine and not be able to share it with the world. One day… One day search base will see me for the genius that I am!!

By odd coincidence, the searcher next to me was a map-loving Russian emigré from Siberia.

Map-reading and cognitive load: Since childhood I’ve loved maps, an unsurprising love for an intellectual, someone who interacts with the world more through concept and abstraction than through his moment-to-moment senses. When you read a map, you encounter the earth through a sort of “God’s-eye view,” taking in at once a panoply of information about the surroundings that far exceed what any one observer on the ground can see. But being a basically unobservant person, I must work hard to reconcile what I see on a map with what my eyes see. If I am in a canyon surrounded by distinctive ridgelines and peaks, then in principle I should be able to find those formations represented on a topographic map and thus find my location, but I’ve found it far harder to do in practice than in theory. Imagine that.

But I keep on practicing, and finally I’ve been succeeding. On this trip I played a game with my hiking buddy: occasionally I tried, in my comical professorial way, to guess our location with just a map and eyeballs and then he checked my guess against GPS or a compass. And … it worked! Pretty consistently! 

But fatigue blunts mental acuity. One teammate, Gunny, told me about a mud run he used to organize. Between wall climbs and rope swings, participants had to stop at other stations and solve math problems in their heads and other brain teasers. I would suck at that. When I suck wind, my head gets “thick” and turbid, like the thoughts are wading in knee-deep Jello. During the search I was navigating non-stop for hours in dense, tiring vegetation, and by the end of our assignment I lost 30 IQ points.

What to do about this? I’m sure practice and experience helps: the first time you “grid” a nasty slope of tough foliage, you’re at the steep part of the learning curve. I’m sure the tenth time is a different experience than the first. And it helps to travel as light as possible. As we’ve discussed before on this blog, researchers have quantified how much extra energy you burn by hauling unnecessary pounds. (Especially on the feet—we’ll return to that point soon in our post on French boots.) 

With the right tricks, it’s shockingly easy to approach a 1.5x bodyweight bench, double-bodyweight squat, and 2.5x bodyweight deadlift. After that, things get complicated and difficult.

However, beyond that, another factor is aerobic conditioning, and that’s squarely in your control. As an erstwhile strength athletes, it pains me to say this but there is no substitute for cardio, and I doubt you can ever have enough cardio, simply because I can’t imagine a time when you couldn’t improve further, or be better prepared for an emergency, just by having a bigger gas tank, better speed, and longer range. Don’t get me wrong—I still love strength, strength is still important, and most people have plenty of “room to grow” and get noticeably stronger with just a small investment in “easy strength” training. But in strength there are some very real points of diminishing returns. One is that, for almost any activity except powerlifting and maybe certain positions in American football, there comes a point when enough is enough. As we’ve written here before, Navy researchers found that aspiring SEALs who were too strong in certain events actually fared worse in training. Their explanation? If you’re deadlifting with such focus that you pull triple bodyweight, you’re robbing training time from equally important things like running and swimming and pullups. That is, you’re over-focusing. This brings us to the second point, which is efficiency. It takes almost nothing to train a healthy man to deadlift two “wheels” (225#, about 100kg). From there, it takes only a little more time to pull three wheels (315#). Four wheels takes a lot longer, and five (495#) takes many years. For six, you need several of the following: freakish talent, drugs, good coaching, a willingness to sacrifice your health, and many years of persistence. Each level gets harder, takes longer, and gives you less improvement in exchange for your time. Once you’re at the top of your game, you might spend a year trying to bump up a given lift just 10 pounds. You’ve become a highly specialized athlete and sacrificed lots of other attributes to become a strength specialist.

In my own life, I won’t run into many problems that call for a 500# deadlift. But I often would like the freedom to move farther faster longer and with more surplus energy and mental clarity that comes from a huge aerobic gas tank. And I can maintain a deadlift of close to 400# without thinking about it. That’s enough for a deadlift—for cardio, I don’t think enough is ever enough.

Captain America and “third-line” equipment: Many teammates have introduced me to the idea of what some describe as “first-line” and “second-line” equipment, meaning roughly the stuff that’s so essential that you attach it directly to your body (e.g. in a pocket or a belt pouch) and the stuff that you relegate to your pack. That way, in case you get separated from your pack, you’ve still got the indispensable “must-haves” for staying/getting out of trouble.

But this weekend, a teammate’s example got me thinking about what I guess could be called “third-line” gear, stuff that you can’t schlep around all over the field and probably won’t need—but you’d still like to have options. Normally I keep that kind of “just in case” stuff in my car—tons of water, a hatchet and shovel and knife, ropes, lights, and spare clothes. And that’s great—until I catch a ride to a call in someone else’s car! This other teammate, a lantern-jawed Captain America-type, had a better idea: he showed up at staging with both a pack and an elephant-sized duffel bag that he stashed in the truck. As he told me, “Sometimes you can’t be sure what to bring, so I bring everything.”

This sounds like a good piece of insurance for when I show up at a call and find a situation that’s different from what I expected—which is every blessed time. I always arrive to find weather or terrain or something that’s different from what I expected. And in that moment, I think, “I can get by with my usual boots/gloves/layers/whatever, but I would have brought something specific if I’d known it would be this swampy/parched/dusty/thorny/humid/ drizzly/windy/cold/hot/rocky/slippery.

Food, Non-eating of: I still prefer not to eat much in the field. Over two days I spent about 4000 calories more than I ate, subsisting mostly on milk and pistachios, and it was only late in the second day that I developed more than a casual interest in food. If the keto crowd are right, this means that I’m sufficiently “fat-adapted” to draw my energy directly from fat stores (which I have in plenitude right now). This is a nice perk. Aside from mere convenience, I love being liberated from the alternating hunger and nausea I felt during the Star Course, when I was all sugared up.

Chest rig and dump pouches: At the big search, the chest rig was a dream. As often happens, I suddenly had to start manipulating a bunch of tools at once and clear space in pouches for a second radio and batteries, and the chest rig kept everything in order almost effortlessly. Losing stuff is a thing of the past for me—thank you, chest rig! And I finally I realized what I should be using those thigh pockets for: dump pouches. When somebody thrusts a jumble of spare radio parts into my already full hands just as I need to ruck up and jump on a departing vehicle in a hurry, I can either (a) juggle like a circus clown, (b) lose stuff, (c) drop everything on the ground and start sorting the puzzle pieces while everyone waits there, or (d) use those big thigh pockets as dump pouches and then sort out the whole Rube Goldberg machine when there’s a quiet moment. I’ve tried A through C before, with unimpressive results. But D looks like a winner! 

Easy + Often = Badass

Part 2 of our series “Tao of the Lazy Badass”

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.

Enter the Deadlift

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.

“[T]he deadlift is THE exercise of choice for anyone.” In 1999 Pavel sounded so radical to me that I wondered if he was a crackpot.

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.

Bob Peoples, patron saint of deadlifters, pulled more than anyone alive but he still weighed less than my T-ball coach. Not exactly what my teenage self was going for.

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. 

… But teenagers like me wanted to look like “the quadfather,” Tom Platz, so we squatted til our legs turned to jelly.

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.

Stiff-legged deadlifts, an old classic. Do not try these at home. Stick to real (i.e. bent-legged) deadlifts.

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.

One Pull, One Press

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.

A rare but useful pull: the deadlift with a “snatch grip.” It toughens the complex musculature of the upper back.

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.

Your rhomboids are the guy in red: they aren’t big or macho-looking, but their support makes the stable platform for the flashy, eye-catching stuff.

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.

The pulling muscles, formally called the “posterior chain.” The dark red areas mark the prime movers, and the lighter red muscles assist them, as do the leg and trunk muscles on the front of the body.

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.

The side press. In Tsatsouline’s earliest program, he paired this with the deadlift because it is technically simple (despite its exotic look) and safe, and you need nothing but a barbell.

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.

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.

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


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

Semper fi, Mr. Schubert.

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).

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
  7. Power to the People!