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.
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”
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 part in our series “20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline”
In our last installment we encountered Pavel Tsatsouline’s first major book, Power to the People,and his then-revolutionary doctrine that “strength is a skill.” From that doctrine, you can trace virtually every other part of Tsatsouline’s evolving system over the last 20 years.
The first is his minimalism. You can only learn so many new skills at one time. If you did ten different lifts in a workout, you would be stretching your adaptive powers much too thin to be efficient. (Translation: You would not get much better.) Instead, you’d do better to focus on just one or two new skills at a time. Your nervous system will catch on faster and you will get the quick gratification of gaining strength very rapidly.
Also, when you have few variables in your training, there’s less that you can screw up. Tsatsouline compares a good program to an AK-47: it is reliable and forgiving, even in the hands of the unintelligent and unmotivated, because its design is unsurpassably simple. To use a Kalashnikov, you can learn everything you really need to know in less than 5 minutes. It is almost impossible to mess up irreparably because it is unsurpassably simple.
A former sergeant in Soviet special forces, Tsatsouline used to joke about being an “evil Russian” and Stalinist authoritarian and would remind his “comrades” to stick closely to his programs and resist the temptation to meddle with them. There was no need to improvise or modify because, as he used to proclaim, “the Party is always right.” He was joking, but he was also serious, and he really did take some of his ideas about how best to train people from his days in the Soviet army.
Soviet designers were masters at “de-skilling,” creating a process or tool where, as much as possible, they had designed away any need for experience or finesse by the end the user, or even enough flexibility for end user to go badly wrong. The designers made the important decisions for the end user and created something ingeniously minimal that removed the need for judgment calls by their peasant conscripts. They presented the soldiers with sturdy equipment and childishly uncomplicated instructions on how to use it. (“See this shovel? Whenever you stop marching dig a foxhole. Unless ordered otherwise, keep digging til it’s chest deep. Then dig to your left and link up with the next guy’s foxhole.”) The system would not be fancy or interesting, but it could be used reliably by anyone with a pulse. And by golly, things got done.
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.”
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.
The second installment in our series on the training doctrines of Pavel Tsatsouline.
Pavel Tsatsouline changed strength training so much—and so relatively quietly—that unless you are a middle-aged meathead, you probably cannot remember what it was like before “the Evil Russian” subverted our country’s established order with his 1999 book Power to the People.
It was the apogee of the Clinton years and strength training, like the broader world, was at the historical peak of its American-ness. Most lifters were reading the glossy bodybuilding magazines sold at the corner store by impresario Joe Weider, trying to follow their routines, and failing. We understood that the magazines were platforms to sell dubious nutritional supplements. (Only years later did most of us understand that they’d also doubled as plausibly deniable gay erotica that could be sold where gay porn couldn’t). And we knew that success with these programs was entirely hit-or-miss if you weren’t on steroids. But most ironheads had no alternative—as far as they understood, bodybuilding was all that existed, outside of the tiny, restricted communities of Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting.
By the 90s, some of us had gone back to “old-school strength training.” We pored over texts from before the steroid era and imitated the training of pre-war weightlifters and circus strongmen. There were lots of squats, deadlifts, pullups, presses and overhead lifts and we got much more interested in low reps with very heavy weights. I remember many, many walks around the neighborhood bear-hugging a 150-lb. bag of sand, and I recruited patient friends and relatives to shift my car into neutral and steer it around an empty parking lot while I pushed from behind. Other guys got into “farmer’s walks,” where you would walk carrying a heavy dumbbell or a bucket of cement in each hand.
We were now getting MUCH farther than we had on the Muscle Beach routines, and I daresay we felt quite pleased with ourselves and very macho. Humans love their tribes and cliques and identities, and we were very pleased to distinguish ourselves from the pencil-necks and narcissists doing sets of 20 curls in front of a mirror with tiny colored dumbbells. Bah!!
But we still had two problems in the pre-Tsatsouline era.
First, we did not know when to stop. We had figured out what worked—heavy weights in “the basic movements”—but we thought we should work ourselves to complete exhaustion. Without knowing it, we were uncritically following the bodybuilding trend of the day, which was to “bomb and blitz” the muscles to “force them to grow.” Thus it was that two or three times a week I would squat until my legs were too rubbery to walk, then rest half an hour and drink a putrid-tasting protein concoction, and then repeat that process. We would end an already-demanding session with what we called a “finisher,” a grueling strength-endurance torture event like a farmer’s walk til the weights dropped from your hands or several (!!) eye-bulging sandbag carries. Workouts were something very much to be feared as well as loved.
Second, we still worshipped size. Even though we’d re-identified ourselves as “strongmen” instead of “bodybuilders” and sneered haughtily at pumped-up but weak druggies who were “all show and no go,” we had little concept that it could be desirable or possible to get strong but stay wiry.
That changed when Tsatsouline appeared, a hard, spindly flexibility coach living in Minnesota who matched few of our expectations of a “strongman” in those days, looking more like a middle-distance runner who had toughened up in a gulag.
In retrospect, it is fortunate but surprising that so many of us “emptied our cups” and gave Tsatsouline a shot.
In our next installment, “What made us listen to him?”