Enter the Deadlift

Part 6 in our series “20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline”

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.

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One Pull, One Press

Part 5 in our series “20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline”

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. peakperformancerehab.co.uk

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.

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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

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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

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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!

How to Customize Rogozhnikov’s (Non-) Routine

Rogozhnikov emphasizes that you are allowed to tinker with his plan. He emphasizes that he isn’t teaching a “routine” at all but an approach, and he tolerates much more customizing and fiddling from you, the athlete, than most Eastern European coaches would.

And if you are reading this blog, you will probably need to tailor his basic formula. Why?

First, I presume you aren’t using gear or drugs (NTTAWWT). Rogozhnikov’s team uses lots of both, and that changes a lot of things, especially their recovery abilities. As we’ve said before, clean athletes cannot copy and paste the training routines of drug-assisted lifters.

Second, you are not nearly as strong as Rogozhnikov’s lifters. Almost no one is. Other things being equal, you might not need as much rest as they do. At first blush you might think I’ve gotten that backwards—“More advanced athletes recover more slowly than regular Janes and Joes?!” But it makes sense: if you deadlift 400# (which is excellent) and Konstantin Konstantinov deadlifts 900#, who has stressed his soft tissue and nervous system more? QED.

But before you start modifying things, first get a baseline. Apply Rogozhnikov’s standard rotation: Light, Heavy #1, Light, Heavy #2, Light, Medium, and repeat. If you do well and can reliably set PRs in your second heavy workout—and I would add, if you can keep your bodyweight up—then keep truckin’.

But if you are not improving or adding muscle mass, it’s time to start tinkering. Rogozhnikov says you should try adding some extra Medium blocks. His rule of thumb is that you depend more on Medium blocks to the extent that you are (1) drug-free, (2) raw, and/or (3) still months away from competition. In your case, you will probably be two or even three of those! So Rogozhnikov suggests you try this:

L-H1-L-M-M-L-H2

See what happened? You’re adding an extra Medium block, and you’re also putting two of those mass-building Medium blocks between your two Heavy blocks. Why is that important? First, if you aren’t lifting in a squat suit and bench shirt, you depend more on plain old muscle size. It will make you stronger and the extra padding around the joints will help protect your shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees. And furthermore, because you aren’t juiced, you’ll have to dedicate more training time specifically to building size than the pros who get their anabolism from a pill bottle.

Rogozhnikov does not say how to join these mesocycles together. Do they repeat just as written above, or do you add those Medium blocks between all Heavy blocks (L-H1-L-M-M-L-H2-L-M-M-L-H1-L-M-M-H1a-L-M-M-H2a, etc. etc.)? My guess is that it’s probably the former.

Rogozhnikov makes a final suggestion for lifters who are both raw and drug-free. You might be able to tolerate more frequent workouts, especially if you are a “lightweight” (which in powerlifting means anything under 200 lbs!) or less advanced. If that is you, you can try this approach.

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In powerlifters’ hyperbaric frame of reference, Bill Ennis is a “lightweight.”

On Monday, do a Heavy or Medium bench workout. (Alternate them each week.) On Wednesday, take a squat/deadlift workout, rotating each week using the familiar formula: L-H1-L-H2-L-M. (Rogozhnikov adds that you need only deadlift heavy once during that cycle. Heavy deadlifts are draining.) And on Friday, do a Light bench workout. LIGHT!! Because benches are less punishing than the other lifts, you can get away with doing them more often. But don’t overdo it.

Rogozhnikov’s Formula

Dynamic-Effort-Training-westside-method-dynamic-effort-Louie-Simmons-Powerlifting-Blog-271x300-2
In Louie Simmons’ Westside method, which is as American as bald eagles and AR-15s, the near-equivalent of Rogozhnikovs medium workouts is “speed day,” where you lift a relatively light weight against  Jumpstretch bands.

We’ve seen that Rogozhnikov divides his training into light, medium, and heavy days, and he alternates bench press workouts with squat/deadlift workouts. He did not invent either of these practices, and we find American lifters using comparable building blocks in the popular Westside method.

But Rogozhnikov is an artiste in how he stacks up the blocks and mixes and matches them for different types of lifters and in different seasons of training.

The Default Formula

If you lifted on Rogozhnikov’s team, your gym life would be organized around this formula:

L – H1 – L – H2 – L – M

That is, you’d have a light block, then a heavy one, then another pair of light and heavy blocks, and finally a light block and a medium block.

Each of these blocks would last six days. It would begin with a bench workout, followed three days later by a squat/deadlift workout. And three days later you would begin your next block.

That means that you would take 36 days (6 blocks of 6 days) to complete this mesocycle.And during that time you would have two blocks of heavy workouts, which Rogozhnikov calls “H1” and “H2,” and your goal is to set a PR in H2.

At the start of a new mesocycle, you choose one of Rogozhnikov’s approved bench press variations, like the floor press. On your first heavy bench day, you work up to a weight that you can barely handle for 3 sets of 5. And three days later, you do likewise for your heavy squat and deadlift day. That’s block “H1.”

A week or so later, when you come to block H2, you try to beat your record from H1. Ideally, you’ll take the weight you handled for 3×5 and manage 3x6. If you nail it, that is quite something: a 20% rep PR. Normally that would be a strain on your recovery capabilities, but that is why Rogozhnikov has packed your schedule with recovery-oriented light and medium workouts, like sandbags around a foxhole.

And even if you only manage to improve on your numbers on one or two sets, that is not nothing. If you get a PR, you have made progress.

You finish out your mesocycle with light and medium days, which will give you enough hypertrophy (muscle growth) to keep up your size and weight and prime the pump for future gains.

In your next mesocycle, you repeat this process but use a different exercise in the heavy workouts.You have milked a lot out of that exercise in a short time. Don’t stress your central nervous system (CNS) by going back to that well right away. Change to a different exercise.