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.

Eight Square Feet of Endorphins

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http://www.strongfirst.com

A complete gym in one tidy corner:

  • Kettlebells. One is enough, but in a happy home they multiply.
  • Somebody to swing them. Note the bare feet–that’s how you should do it too.
  • Rucksack and boots. Insert kettlebells and start walking.
  • Pavel Tsatouline’s classic Russian Kettlebell Challenge (1999), still the best book there is on this stuff.
  •  Sledgehammer (optional). Style points for the awesome camo pattern on his pants, too. (Anyone recognize it? British MTP?)
  • An AK (optional), to protect the kettlebells.

If you just add companionship, kombucha, and a dog, you have most of the elements of earthly happiness right here.

Of Sapogi and Sixguns

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“我不下地獄,誰下地獄?” (“If I do not descend into hell, who will?”)

During the Buddhist Backpack Pilgrimage, I acted as your personal bodhisattva, dear readers, and compassionately offered myself as a sacrifice for your welfare. How? By venturing out to do the whole 34 miles in jackboots (sapogi) and footwraps. In our previous field test we’d shown their value in wet conditions, but we still didn’t know how they would compete with hiking boots on hard, dry roads and rocky moonscapes. And who else would be lunatic enough to do so?

Hyperbole aside, I really was a little leery about this. It’s one thing to don strange footwear for a walk in the park, it’s another commit to them irrevocably for two days of hard walking.

Bundeswehr_Knobelbecher_OriginalThe boots I chose were surplus West German “Knobelbecher” (“dice-cups”). They’re heavy (1.1kg each), older than I am, and I bought them for $20.

My feet I wrapped in my homemade Russian-style portyanki. (In the world of footwraps, there is a Russian style and a very different German style called Fußlappen. Don’t worry, we’ll experiment with those too in due time!)

What did we learn? First, jackboots are awesome on roads, hardpack, and the forest floor. I’ve remarked before on how they make me walk by swinging my foot from the knee instead of from the hip. For whatever reason, on flat surfaces I sometimes felt like the jackboots were walking me or like I was a Bionic Marching Man. Not for nothing do Germans call them Marschstiefel, “marching boots!”

The jackboots also performed nearly as well as hiking boots on loose gravel and decaying roads. The only time I really wished I could change into hiking boots was on certain stretches of Mad Max-level rubble where your ankle rolled a different way with each step. With hiking boots you can plow straight over the rocks, if the ground is stable, as if you had little ATVs on your feet. With jackboots, you have to do a little extra work with your own foot and leg muscles, and I have to think that over time your knees absorb more torque.

The footwraps were positively delightful. They stayed put on every kind of terrain, and it was nice to refresh my feet by sitting down every few miles, turning the portyanki around, and rewrapping them. I also tried out wearing a pair of wool socks with the footwraps over them, something common in winter, and found that very comfortable too.

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You know how I treasure revolvers, but this is too ugly even to be Russian. And yet now I can see the genius of it.

A final thought on trail guns. I’d always wondered why someone would buy the Ruger LCRx, a misshapen 5-shot airweight .357 with a 3” barrel. It seemed like an overpowered pocket rocket that won’t even fit in your pocket! But after my close encounter with the bears, when I’d almost been too lazy to carry a gun at all, I saw the LCRx in a whole different light. It looks like a perfect “just in case” backwoods beater gun for when you’re weighing the annoyance of a real belt gun against the pathos of your family getting your remains back in a wet, 2-quart Ziploc bag.

The Buddhist Backpack, Beads (and Bears!) Pilgrimage

Following an idea from the Manly Monk of Vilnius, I declared this weekend the Great Buddhist Backpack & Beads Pilgrimage. The idea was, one step, one mantra, and in 27 miles that would make fifty-five thousand mantra reps. That’s got to be enough to make you a buddha in this very lifetime (即身成佛), right?

But a meditation retreat is always a hilarious circus of human foibles. My mind took the the last song I heard, “Billy Jean,” and for three miles it composed ribald lyrics.

Then came the bears. A mother and two cubs CHARGED across the trail, 20 yards in front of me, like OJ and his blockers. Thank heaven they kept going and started crashing around in the bush. But I couldn’t tell from the noise where they were going—“Do bears circle around and take people from behind?” I wondered—so I walked the next stretch very quickly and “mindfully,” shall we say, before I took my hand off my gun and remembered anything about a mantra.

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Also, without armed Buddhists we wouldn’t have kung-fu movies. Case closed.

Yes, there is a tradition of Buddhist pilgrims with weapons, and we just saw why. Bears eat you alive and screaming, even if you’re Buddhist. Mama Bear begins her meal as soon as you’re pinned down, without so much as a break-your-neck.

Wait,” you ask, you would really shoot a charging bear, Mr. Buddhist?” It’s “Dr. Buddhist,” thank you very much, and HELL YES! Ain’t no precept tells you to yield meekly while The Three Bears eat your liver.

Some wiseacre will now point to folklore where bodhisattvas (superhero-saints) offer their flesh to starving carnivores as an act of compassion. (Sigh.) But those are hyperbolic hero tales, like a Wonder Woman comic, not practical instructions for conducting yourself on a camping trip.

Much gratitude to Remi Warren for his lesson about this, or I’d have been lazy and carried my gun in my pack. As they say, “You almost never need a gun, but when you do, you need it real bad.” This whole thing started and finished in 2 seconds.

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Read this book if you’re intrigued by anything I’ve written here, other than the stuff about getting mauled by bears.

For a few miles after the bear encounter, the only mantra I was repeating was “HF!! WTF!!!” which is not officially sanctioned. But after that I settled my breath and my feet back into a happy rhythm, and in 5 miles I almost forgot that it ever happened. Feet, breath, mantra, all thumping along cheerfully in time with each other, far from the proverbial smoke and fire of human settlements (人间烟火)–well, it’s pretty close to heaven.

Between the bears and Billie Jean, I only got in maybe 30,000 good reps in, but I’ll take it! Svaha!

Acts of Faith

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I had my first encounter with one of the hill dwellers who, I’d been cautioned euphemistically, “isn’t real social.” As it turned out, we just ignored each other. I was taking a break at the side of the road, he was watering Some Kind of Plant Life 100 yards away, and neither of us acknowledged the other. Moments later I was on my way.

When you wander far into the boonies alone, it is an act of faith in people. Where phone service is hours away and the sheriff another hour or two after that, anyone you happen upon with a vehicle or a friend has an almost insuperable advantage over you, and if they wished you harm, they could do it with a free hand and complete privacy, and they would probably get away with it forever.

And yet the people I meet in the middle of nowhere prove cordial and downright benevolent. Most recently it was a couple of thick, rough men with neck beards in a Suburban who stopped to exchange a few words and offer water or a lift, and as they rolled away their parting words were “Stay safe.” I marvel at how nice people are even when they have no reason to be.

I’m not offering an ecstatic panegyric about the innate goodness of humankind personkind, just noticing that we are such social animals that even in settings where we can harm people with impunity, we mostly still do the opposite.

It doesn’t hurt that both parties can virtually take it for granted that the other is armed: an armed society really is a polite society. But by itself that would only explain a wary indifference, not the warmth, concern, and fellow-feeling that’s actually out there.

The Seduction of Soviet Gear

dtl6qcw7aOld Soviet gear is often ugly, heavy, and uncomfortable. What can make it a winner is that it streamlines your life. You may get bored or sore, but you will get a lot done.

As an example, my friend and I both love exercise, but we have totally different setups. He has a membership to a beautiful, clean, abundantly equipped gym, whereas I have a hot, dirty garage full of kettlebells. My setup is Soviet in its philosophy: it looks drab and monotonous, but it makes my life simple. When I want a workout, I just (1) open the garage door and (2) exercise. I can easily do this every day, even twice a day. I don’t even have to change clothes. Heck, sometimes I bang out some pullups in my suit on the way to work. In contrast, my friend’s quintessentially American gym membership looks much more appealing, but it is logistically complicated. To work out, he must (1) pack a gym bag, (2) drive to the gym, (3) park and enter, (4) change clothes, (5) find a squat rack that is not monopolized by someone else, and finally do steps (6-10) in reverse. It takes a lot of time, it is a pain in the ass to fit into his day, and it takes a lot of discipline. Me, I’m lazy, and as a result I exercise 10 times more than my friend.

The Russian approach is not necessarily cheaper. This is a common misunderstanding. Durable goods are expensive. Contrary to myth, AK rifles are hard and expensive to make. The reason that Eastern Bloc gear is available dirt cheap to me is that it was mass-produced at huge expense to governments that no longer exist and is now surplussed off for pennies on the ruble. So the stuff in my garage cost Brezhnev and Ceausescu big money and then I snapped it up for $4 at their garage sale.

My menagerie of kettlebells would probably cost me $1000 today. Just shipping a 90# cannonball is a big deal. But it was a onetime cost. I’ve had my kettlebells for 20 years, handled them roughly with no ill effect, and a century from now they will still be used by my great-great-great-grand-dogs. Contrast my friend, who pays $1000 for his gym membership every year.

His setup is much cooler, with lots of options, but it has an over-abundance of features I don’t want to pay for. And features are another area where the Soviet designers chose simplicity. My friend’s gym has Precor treadmills that I love because they are technological marvels. You can adjust the slope and speed, choose from preset programs or customize your own, monitor time and distance and calories burned, measure your heart rate using touch sensors (!), and watch entertainment on an integrated TV screen. But most of that stuff is stupid and, aside from being hugely expensive, the treadmills have so many features that they are fragile. At any given time, 20% are broken and awaiting a service call by repair staff, who probably charge good money. In contrast, my kettlebells have only one feature: they are cannonballs with a handle and they never break.

Instead of features, the Soviet designers went for versatility, which is a little different. The kettlebell is optimized for nothing, but you can use it on a “close enough” basis for many things. Squat it? Yeah, good enough. Weighted pullups? Yeah, close enough, you just hang it off your foot. It sucks but it works. Circuit training? Absolutely. Train the deadlift? Yeah, close enough, you just swing it a lot. Cardio when you have no space to run in? Sure, it’s not optimal but it’s good enough. I have also dragged kettlebells, thrown them, carried them in many positions, juggled them, used them as doorstops, tied errant dogs to them, and pounded soybeans with them. When I was in grad school, I think all I owned was a laptop and some kettlebells. Maybe you could say the kettlebell is “strategically underspecialized.” Contrast Nautilus machines or Hammer Strength machines. The Hammer machines are brilliant designs and so durable they could almost be Russian, but they only do one thing apiece and even now that I have a salary, I don’t have money and space to buy a dozen specialized machines.

101Finally, Soviet gear is always very easy to learn. The designers did not care about ergonomic comfort. In their machines, the Soviets left out many automated or labor-saving features and instead made the end-users pick up the slack by doing those things manually. But the Soviets were design geniuses at simplifying things for the user conceptually. You can figure out a lot of Soviet gear just by watching a quick demonstration and practicing. Especially if you are spurred along by motivational beatings from the sergeant!

The Soviets were designing for teenage draftees who might be functionally illiterate and scarcely understand Russian. (Remember, the USSR had 14 major languages and 51 million citizens who did not know Russian!) They were assured only four quick training cycles under brutal conditions, and then after two years they would go home and forget all their training. But thirty years later they might be called up from the reserves suddenly, issued their old equipment, and fed into battle with no refresher training. So the designers assumed an end-user who might (a) understand nothing the trainers said and then (b) forget almost everything.

They also wanted to minimize the variety and amount of stuff traveling up and down their chronically overstressed supply chain. They wanted fewer parts, less breakage, fewer trips to repair depots, and fewer training sessions. We often say the Soviets prized “reliable” gear, but more precisely, they wanted it to be reliable for the supply officers. It was not necessarily super reliable for the operator: Mosin-Nagant rifles seize up constantly and need to be hammered open, and Soviet vehicles were not designed to be “survivable” for the crew. But their gear is ingeniously optimized for giving a mass army a reliable supply. It seldom breaks, and when it does, the soldier can patch it up in the field well enough to keep it limping along at some minimal level of effectiveness. That soldier may not survive with his patched-up equipment, but there are millions more soldiers in the army who can carry on the fight when he is gone. The designers are interested in supplying the army, not the individual.

But then why would you choose Soviet gear?! If they made it to benefit the logisticians, not the end-user (i.e. you), why would you want it? The answer is that you are also your own logistician. You are responsible for securing equipment you can afford and you are responsible for organizing training for the end-user (i.e. yourself). Since you are responsible for overseeing maintenance, if you do not trust the end-user (yourself) to be diligent about that, you want forgiving gear. You are also the repair depot, so you might want something that you can fix yourself or throw away and replace without a second thought.

20180712_184710This is really huge: no one cares if they manage to break their Soviet gear. But when I have nice gear, I baby it and don’t want to risk it. Take as an example my “Tale of Two Hatchets.” On top is the hatchet I inherited from the grandfather I never met. It is gorgeous and nimble, so I would hate to hit something wrong and bend the edge. Therefore I use it a little tentatively. On bottom is a Soviet surplus hatchet. Calling it “rough-hewn” would be entirely too poetic. It is downright crude. But it hits like Thor’s own hammer, and since I only spent $20 on it, I would not weep if I somehow contrived to break it. In fact, it would be something to brag about.