David Rigert: even now one of the most popular Soviet sportsmen ever. But what the hell kind of name is “David Rigert” for a Russian weightlifter?!

It’s a trick question: Rigert isn’t ethnically Russian, he’s German.

Rigert was born in 1947 to a family of “Volga Germans” who immigrated to Russia in czarist times and supplied the Czar with many of his army officers, like Rigert’s grandfather.

But you can imagine how popular Germans were during the war, even Soviet Germans, and Rigert’s family was forcibly deported to Kazakhstan along with other Volga Germans. (Think “Japanese-American internment” if it were carried out by Soviets, with their, er, “businesslike” approach to state security.) Never mind that the Rigerts were of Jewish descent and hardly likely to sympathize with the Nazis. Stalin distrusted Jews too, and in any case he didn’t take chances with enemies of the state.

As it happens, Russian Germans account for a disproportionate number of the world’s great celebrity strongmen: when F.W. Müller (1867-1925) relocated to Victorian London and invented bodybuilding showmanship, he anglicized his Russian mother’s name and became famous as Eugene Sandow. George Hackenschmidt (1877-1968), the celebrity wrestler and strongman who also started a new life London after leaving his German-speaking community in czarist Latvia. And Rudolf Plyukfelder (b. 1928) and his Volga German family were deported by Stalin from their home in the Ukraine to Siberia; there his father and brother were shot but he survived to work in a mine and later became an Olympic champion and national coach for the USSR.


Like Hackenschmidt, Pavel Tsatsouline also grew up in Latvia.
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How is Heavier Faster?

Yesterday we wrote about some Army researchers’ finding that, in a long, heavy ruck march, the guys who march fastest are the most muscular ones. Not necessarily the strongest, but the most muscular.

How can that be? If you beef up for a long ruck with an extra 20 lbs. of muscle, you’re schlepping an extra 20 lbs. What compensates for all that extra weight if not strength? And maybe bigger legs and glutes would make sense, or even bigger traps, but what will I gain from heavier arms, shoulders, chest, and lats? Those muscles don’t even do much work in rucking. 

In those respects Knapick’s finding are hard to understand, but I have a three guesses.

When you pick up a weight, you and the weight share a common center of gravity. The heavier the weight is in relation to your body, the more it’s in charge. You’ll have to lean over to keep it centered over your feet without toppling over. The lighter you are, the more you have to lean.

Center of gravity. Imagine two guys each carrying a huge, 100-lb. backpack of bricks. They’re equally tall, but one guy weighs 150# and the other weighs 300#. Since each guy is wearing a huge bag of bricks behind him, that shifts his center of center of gravity back. Light Guy must lean hard into his straps to try to balance the load over his feet, and he doesn’t have much bodyweight to lean with. His own center of gravity doesn’t count for very much against the backpack of bricks; basically the bricks are in charge. But Heavy Guy isn’t pulled off balance as much because he’s counterbalanced by an extra 150# of meat that Light Guy doesn’t have. In the battle against the backpack of bricks, his center gravity weighs twice as much as Light Guy’s and isn’t too impressed by all the bricks. He can stay on his feet just fine.

But this can only be part of the story, because it would apply just as much to a 300# fat guy as to the beefcake. But there’s one other attribute the muscular guy has working for him.

Squat for high reps and grow. Strength-endurance makes for big muscles.

Strength-endurance: The Army researchers were measuring absolute strength, i.e. “one-rep max” (1RM). And that’s the kind of strength they concluded didn’t help the men ruck faster. But there’s a distinct attribute called “strength-endurance,” which is your ability to exhibit strength for a long time. It’s the difference between, say, squatting 500# for one rep and squatting 250# for 20 reps.

Big muscles are particularly associated with strength-endurance. In fact, squatting for 20-rep sets will make you HUGE. And every gym rat since the Coolidge administration has known that you get biggest by lifting in sets of 8-15 reps with restricted rest periods. That is solidly in strength-endurance territory. It won’t improve your 1RM much and powerlifters will talk down to you, but you won’t care because you’ll be swole and get all the girls.

So carrying a rucksack shares more in common with bodybuilding than powerlifting, namely moving sub-maximal poundages repeatedly with little rest.

What about squats and deadlifts? I wonder what would happen if Knapick had measured soldiers’ strength differently, with some of the big exercises like squats and deadlifts instead of isolating one joint at a time. See, Knapick’s team tested how good the subjects were at extending just the knee, flexing just the knee, extending just the ankle, and so on. In other words, they tested what are called “isolation exercises” (working just one joint at a time), and isolation exercises are notoriously bad at building or testing real-world strength. 

Not a very meaningful test in the real world.

What Knapick didn’t do in this study was point to a huge barbell and order the soldiers, “Try to deadlift that.” That would have told us a lot more about the pure strength of the guys who marched faster or slower. (It is even conceivable that the faster, more muscular test subjects had grown that extra muscle by having big squat poundages. You don’t know much about someone’s musculature just by knowing that it’s big. You’ll find big thighs on weightlifters, bodybuilders, and cyclists, but they have completely different attributes.)

Researchers now are trying to study squat and deadlift maxes among military trainees, but the results are messy. The Canadian military studied the soldiers who tried out for Canadian special forces and tested each guy’s squat max. The guys who squatted less were much, much more likely to drop out of training. But when the SEALs estimated their applicants’ deadlift maxes, they decided that in order for a sailor to make it through Hell Week it would be enough if he could just deadlift 1.75x bodyweight, which is nothing. A middle-of-the-pack weightlifter or powerlifter could deadlift that in stiletto heels on laughing gas. 

“Can” does not imply “should.” Advanced lifter on closed course with Olympic-grade stilettos. Do not try this at home.

The methodology is messy too. It’s hard to take a guy off the street, casually test his one-rep max in something like a squat, and get a meaningful result. For one thing, a little experience makes a huge difference, and so does technique. Give me a 98-lb. weakling and a couple sessions to improve his technique, and I can help him test better against stronger people just by optimizing his form. Also, testing somebody’s true one-rep max in a squat or deadlift is physiologically a huge deal and, even for an experienced competitor, your max varies up and down by a big margin over the course of a year. If you’re overtrained or you just peaked, you’ll be wiped out and your squat might be in the toilet. And the Navy researchers had to estimate their subjects’ deadlifts—maximal deadlifts are hugely stressful to the body and take months to recover from fully—using a questionable rep-max formula, which they acknowledge is a crude measure and makes the results hard to interpret. 

Of Mice and Mastodons: How Much Muscle Mass Should You Carry?

Strength and endurance are rivals. “Strength loves rest,” as the saying goes, and it hates endurance. Strength and endurance compete against each other for your training time and recuperative powers. Yes, you can do both (and you should, at least a little). But unless you are a pure strength athlete or pure endurance athlete (e.g. a powerlifter or an ultra runner), you must strike some kind of compromise between the ancient enemies.

Which should you favor? Usually there’s a clear answer that’s dictated by (1) the rules of your sport and maybe (2) your individual game plan.

(1) Gaming the Rules: Most “mixed” sports—not purely strength or endurance—clearly favor one or the other. Middle-distance runners and soccer players are basically endurance athletes who need just some strength training, and vice versa for football linemen and sprinters. That’s determined by the rules of their respective games. Now, if soccer players were allowed to grapple each other, they would have to get stronger. If football had continuous play like soccer, the players would need more endurance. Similarly, if wrestling matches lasted two hours, wrestlers would need even bigger gas tanks. But if matches lasted only a few seconds, or if they had no weight classes, you would get sumo wrestlers.

In those mixed sports, athletes face a point of diminishing returns for certain kinds of endurance or strength. For example, a boxer needs to bench more than his own bodyweight, but he doesn’t need to bench twice his bodyweight, and if he invests the training time to do so, he’ll neglect his running, to say nothing of actually practicing boxing. Boxers win by boxing. They don’t win extra points for the biggest bench. And no one cares if a shotputter is great at jogging. 

Speaking of diminishing returns, in a study of SEAL trainees, sailors who scored the highest in pushups and pullups and certain other measures fared worse overall! The Navy concluded that, in each of their many physical tests—running, swimming, sprinting, pull-ups, deadlifts—they could clearly identify a point of diminishing returns. A max of 70 pushups is not enough, for instance, but 100 is plenty. They tell the hopefuls, “don’t spend valuable time and energy trying to do more. Make your push-up training economical, so you leave time to train the many other qualities important for success in [the first phase of SEAL training].”

The Navy researchers found that running and swimming scores best predict success specifically in the first phase of SEAL training, where I’m told there’s no rucking but tons of … you guessed it … running and swimming. Specificity usually wins.

(2) Your Personal Game Plan: In the mixed strength-and-endurance sports, the right balance might also depend specifically on your game plan. If you plan to box like Floyd Mayweather, you’d better have a bottomless gas tank, so put endurance first. But if you’re going to be Mike Tyson and assassinate guys in the first round, then for you power comes first.

So what about ruck marching? Should you favor endurance or strength? It’s complicated because so many variables are left up in the air—light or heavy loads? short distances or long? what’s the terrain?—but according to the data, the short answer is …

Neither strength nor endurance! Instead, invest in muscle mass.

Jack Rabbits in Flak Jackets

We’re specifically talking about men here. There is a separate body of research on ruck training for women, because it turns out they are a different kettle of fish.

When Army physiologists studied ruck marching in the early 80s, the height of America’s obsession with aerobics, they concluded that, sure enough, soldiers marched fastest who had the best aerobic capacity. Sure, strength was important too, but the guys who could ruck the fastest were the skinny “jack rabbits” who excelled at running.

Or so the physiologists said. Old soldiers told a different story, though. They claimed that in the field, the jack rabbits lagged behind bigger guys when they were loaded down with a rucksack, a flak jacket, and other gear. Whom to believe?

It seemed significant that the early Army studies tested people carrying light packs for short distances. Under those conditions, it was little surprise that your best runners would shine. But what if you saddled soldiers with 100 lbs. (45kg) (a real-world infantry load) and made them schlep it 12 miles (20km)? That’s what Joseph Knapick and his team did in 1990. And at the moment, those are the conditions that interest me because they come closest to the rules of the game that I’m training for right now, the GORUCK Heavy Challenge.

In that “heavy and long” event, the soldiers who rucked fastest were the most muscular. Not the strongest, heaviest, tallest, leanest, or the fastest runners, or the most aerobically capable, but specifically the ones with the most lean body mass.

Let me repeat that: not muscle strength but muscle mass.

With just one exception, even “skinny strength” did not help. That is, guys who were wiry and strong out of proportion to their bodyweight. The winners were the Dwayne Johnsons of the world, not the Brad Pitts. 

I am surprised at this, and dismayed. It’s not the answer I wanted. Regular readers know that I enjoy “skinny strength” training and push it as an alternative to bodybuilding. Normally I only spend a few weeks a year bodybuilding and then go back to my kettlebells and low reps gladly. So this is not the conclusion I wanted, but apparently “facts don’t care about my feelings.” 

The researchers measured many kinds of strength (as distinct from muscle mass), and only one made a significant difference: the abs. They tested strength in the soldiers’ grip, low back, quads, hamstrings, and calves, and none of the others was significant. [But there’s a caveat to this in our next post. -Dog in Chief] Only ab strength made a difference.

Strange as that seems superficially, it isn’t surprising. As Pavel Tsatsouline says, strong abs + strong hands = strong person. More and more, kinesiologists are pointing out the importance of what is sometimes called “core strength,” our ability to make our torsos rigid at pivotal moments and resist bending or twisting.

Your natural inclination is to bend forward at the hips, but you want to resist that somewhat. That’s where your abs come in.

In the case of walking under load, your abs pull your hips under you and keep them there. That way you stay upright, and your legs step quickly and freely. Without that ab strength, you angle forward at the waist and walk bent over. You walk slower that way, and over time you pound the hip joints. So if you can stay more upright, you go faster and stay healthier. That’s what you need abs for. 

Rucking: Does Muscle Mass Help or Hamper You? (Part 1)

Rucking looks to be the “next big thing” in exercise. In a word, you fill a rucksack (a glorified backpack) with weight and go hiking. For bonus points, you can haul other heavy things too: sand bags, a water can, a kettlebell, a log, a sledgehammer, a stone, a weighted sled. 

Try to read this book and not develop a running addiction. Just try. I dare you.

Like many strength athletes, I retired from powerlifting reluctantly because I was accumulating injuries. Desperate for something to do, I started jogging and … loved it! I gravitated toward obstacle course races, on account of the goofy, exciting agility drills and also because I could put my strength to some use. Sure, I run slower than a man wading through oatmeal, but I can climb walls and flip tires all morning, so now I only sucked at half of the event.

For me, one key was to run barefoot. As a teenager I was prone to shin splints when I ran, but once I ran in bare feet, my gait changed and I got lighter on my feet.

It also helped that I was literally lighter, in bodyweight. Once I stopped lifting seriously and started jogging, thirty pounds dropped off me and I felt like I could lope along forever like a stocky gazelle.

To train for the obstacle courses, sometimes I hiked the foothills carrying heavy things. Such joy! From running, I had learned to love the endorphins that come from long, slow cardio, but I had to restrain my enthusiasm to keep my feet healthy and happy. They could carry my stumpy powerlifter body bouncing along the pavement for only so many miles a week without complaining. But now in weighted hiking I found a whole extra modality, and while my feet took it easy, I could get high on endorphins using all my other muscles.

An early adventure with Vanya the 32kg bell and a clapped out laptop bag filled with bricks.

The great gift of weighted walking is that you can shift work around the various muscle groups, resting some while you load others. For example, carry a kettlebell in one hand like a suitcase. When that hand tires, switch hands. Then carry it on your shoulder, and then the other shoulder. Then over your back, and maybe even “racked” at the chest or at arm’s length overhead. That will take you a long time, and then you can return to the “suitcase carry” and repeat the cycle indefinitely. You are spreading the work out all over the arms, shoulders, back, obliques, abs, hamstrings, and quads, and nothing gives out first. You can do this for hours. It doesn’t pound your joints, and you can work around any injuries just by avoiding positions that hurt. 

From here, it was just a short hop to group ruck marching events like the GORUCK challenges, organized by a backpack manufacturing company owned by ex-Green Berets. Originally they dreamed up these bootcamp-style marches as marketing events to promote their line of backpacks, but the events themselves proved even more popular and took on a life of their own. Now you can choose from GORUCK challenges lasting from six hours to 48 hours (!!). 

These people are my tribe. As regular readers know, I think that because humans evolved to face physical hardship in small groups, we need that experience in some form. GORUCK provides plenty of intimate, shared strife. I grew so attached to the folks who survived the 12-hour “Tough Challenge” with me last year that next I’m joining them for the 24-hour “Heavy” event. Gulp.

As I train for it, I’ve been contemplating this question: How big should I be? What’s the optimal bodyweight for carrying a backpack of bricks and a log for 40 miles? The answer would be simple for a straight endurance event like running an ultra-marathon (weigh less) or a straight strength event like Highland Games (weigh more). But what about an ultra-distance strength-endurance event like rucking? I certainly wouldn’t want an extra 10# of bricks in my rucksack, weighting me down unnecessarily. But what about an extra 10# of muscle? That sure would help me carry logs and sand bags, but enough to justify moving all that extra bodyweight?

(To be continued)

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.

Before the Russian Revolution: The Ancien Régime of 1999

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.

dinosaur-training2
Before Tsatsouline, the high water mark of popular strength training in the U.S. was Louisville lawyer Brooks Kubik’s revalorization of old-time strongman training.

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.

hqdefault-6That 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?”