20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline


This is the first installment in our series on the training doctrines of Pavel Tsatsouline.

Pavel Tsatsouline entered my life through a side door. In 1998, on an internet forum hosted by the first man to squat 1000 lbs., “Dr. Squat” Fred Hatfield, I read a terse post by a polite Russian émigré. He introduced himself as a former competitor in something obscure that he described as “the Russian ethnic strength sport of kettlebell lifting.” I would have forgotten him instantly except that this exotic-sounding background earned him surprising respect from the gruff old powerlifting legend.

A year later I was to run across Tsatsouline again, and had that not happened, I cannot picture what my life would be like now.

Tsatsouline (Цацулин): tsa-TSOO-leen

Semper fi, Mr. Schubert.

To that point, I had already been lucky in my athletic influences. In high school I did some Olympic weightlifting under John Schubert, who inoculated me against some of the silliness found in bodybuilding magazines, and I escaped the baleful obsession with the bench press that ruins many young men. No, if I had a monomaniacal obsession, it was the squat. And that was a pretty good problem to have, better than drugs or video games.

But it was still a problem. Squats build bodies, and sure enough, I’d grown an extra 45 lbs., all of it seemingly in my neck and thighs. This was all very exciting to a young man, and I could eat cheeseburgers, milkshakes, and chocolate muffins with wild abandon, but it was a terrible drag. Imagine buying 45 one-pound packages of ground beef and molding them аll onto your body. Now get up and walk around. You are like a land blimp. And you’ll soon be tired and sweaty because, in effect, you’re wearing a backpack full of meat. Now sit back down: that’s not so comfortable either. It’s hard to cross your thickly swollen sausage legs, but it’s also hard to point them straight ahead since your huge hams flop outward in “manspreading” fashion. I ate like a pair of teenagers and drank a gallon of milk a day, which cost not just time and money but health. I was inflamed and tubby from eating so much, and with the size of my neck it’s little wonder that I couldn’t sleep well either.

Big, swollen melon that I was, I was ripe for the message of Tsatsouline’s first major publication. In our next installment, we examine that book, Power to the People (1999).



Lift Less to Lift More: The Joyful Magic of Light Workouts

Back in the 80s, most of us were taught that you had to lift all out, every time. Boy, was that stupid. Not only were we courting injury, we were making exercise, which should be joyful, into a grim discipline. It’s a wonder that any of us still likes to train.

Everybody has to “cycle” their training by easing up regularly. No one improves in an unbroken straight line forever. And athletes cannot be at their strongest and fastest at every workout. If they try, they burn out or get injured. This is called overtraining.

That is why strength athletes “cycle”: They push toward a personal record (PR) and then ease up, and then push and ease up again, in a planned cycle.

Traditionally, powerlifters practiced long cycles of two to three months. (Our awesome friend and mentor Alexey Faleev uses 10-week cycles, which traditionally would have been considered a little short.) However, the farther you advance in your training, the harder it is to commit to a multi-month cycle confident that you will not be thrown off schedule by some minor injury or recovery problem.

Then lifters discovered they could get away with shorter cycles lasting just a few weeks. Pavel Tsatsouline, the groundbreaking teacher of “skinny strength,” even suggests cycles just two weeks long.

Clarence Bass at 78 by Carol Bass Abs and Hat
Seen here at age 78, bodybuilder Clarence Bass has stayed big, ripped, and pretty injury-free for sixty years through the simplest of cycles: he just alternates heavy workouts with light workouts.

In the simplest form, you can accomplish the purpose of cycling—scheduled periods of “deloading”—if you just alternate heavy workouts with lighter workouts (or heavy weeks with lighter weeks) where you cut the workload down to 60% of what you did the last time. For example, if you squat 250# for 5 sets of five on a heavy day, then squat the same weight for just five sets of three on your light day. (This is a trick taken almost directly from Faleev.) Or you could keep the reps the same but reduce the bar weight to 60%. Or reduce both in sufficient proportions so that you lift just 60% of the total tonnage (bar weight times total number of reps for the day).

Or you can get slightly more complex and divide workouts into three types: heavy, light, and medium.

You can even link them together into longer chains. Konstantin Rogozhnikov likes to give his athletes a light week followed by a heavy week, then another light week and heavy week, and finally a light week followed by a medium week: L-H, L-H, L-M. After that he repeats the sequence (sometimes called a “mesocycle” or mid-length cycle).

In our next installment, Rogozhnikov’s light workouts (легки тренировки), which are the bread and butter of his system of training. You will like doing them, and you will like what they do to you!

Rogozhnikov: Post-Soviet Hero of Anti-Labor

Why do I like Russian coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov so much? One reason is that his name looks cool in Russian italics: “Константин Витальевич Рогожников.”

But more importantly, I like him because I am lazy. If you visit us regularly here at Lean, Solid Dogs, then (1) I weep for you, and (2) you know that I prize happiness, good cheer, pleasure, and rest, so I gravitate toward forms of training that are more fun and relaxing than stoic and Stakhanovite.

Sure, in Stalin’s Russia, Com. Stakhanov could get his name on a poster by exceeding his coal shoveling quotas. Hurray! But in powerlifting, no one cares if you busted your hump in the gym. Save yourself for competition. Throttle back and exert yourself as little as you can get away with.

Rogozhnikov is my kind of guy. He accomplishes great things as coach of one of Russia’s national teams but he obsessively reins his lifters in, rests them, rests them some more, and allows them only the bare minimum of exertion needed to do freakish feats like squat 1000 pounds. When his athletes feel beat up or lack enthusiasm for training, he sends them for a 10-day vacation from the gym. “Go on nature hikes,” he recommends, writes Pavel, “take a Russian steam bath, get a massage, even physical therapy. He stops short of recommending manicures, thankfully.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

Make no mistake: despite their moderation, Konstantin Vitalyevich and his crew clean up big in competition. The old goat himself still benches over 450, deadlifts 600, and squats an eye-popping 770.

Rogozhnikov is also honest. His athletes use drugs and he says so. And in his writings, he distinguishes clearly between how drug-assisted athletes should train and how “clean” lifters should. This is wonderful, because the correct answer is “very differently.” In countries where juiced lifters need to be coy about their “restorative measures,” many unsuspecting clean athletes waste years of training trying naively to ape the training methods of the drug-using elite. Rogozhnikov tells it straight: if you use “Russian supplements,” he gives you one plan, and if you don’t take “Vitamin S,” he gives you a different one.

In this series, we will tell you about Rogozhnikov’s “clean” plan–and also enough about the “dirty” plan to show how the two differ and give you a peek at the crazier corners of the powerlifting world.

So put on your “power pants” and buckle up your lifting belts. We’re on our way!

Lazy Fitness

If you are a Lean, Solid Dog, you need a lot of rest.

By a quirk of history, Americans took much of what we “know” about fitness from a terrible source, bodybuilders. Why terrible? Because since the Seventies, bodybuilding has been transformed a few times over by steroids, and if you are training with “Vitamin S,” then you are operating with a whole different physiology than the rest of us. Therefore you don’t have much training advice that can apply to people not using mind-blowing “Russian supplements.” * Think of drug-assisted athletes (and they are now the norm) as almost a different species from yourself, and taking your ideas about training from them is like following the nutrition plan of a zebra.

It is from bodybuilding that Americans got most of our counterproductive “no pain, no gain” illusions about fitness. If you were juicing, you could get some use from that approach, just like the Incredible Hulk can perform great even without a rubdown and a nap. But you, dear friend, unless you are a professional hardman hardperson, you probably don’t need more than one challenging strength and aerobic session every week or so. What you do need a lot of is “active recovery.”

Clarence Bass by Guy Appelman age 50
Clarence Bass, father of the “ripped” look, does strength and cardio once every 5-10 days. The other days he just walks in the hills. (Apparently in bikini briefs.)

It’s a cliché of training that “You don’t get fitter from exercise, you get fitter by recovering from exercise.” And it’s a cliché because it’s true. Your muscles don’t grow while lifting weights, for example. They grow afterward by taking in nutrition and thickening in case they get worked hard again.

That is how steroids work too. They are not exactly performance-enhancing drugs, they are recovery-enhancing drugs. They make you bounce back from training faster and higher, and that’s how they improve your performance indirectly.

For a lazy person like me, it’s wonderful to know that I can limit serious exertion to one or two weekly bouts and then use the rest of my “training” time on rest and recovery. Yes, it’s true that we really should get exercise every day. But what we’re looking for is “active recovery.”

You rest better and quicker through active recovery than passive recovery, i.e. sitting on the couch. You just do light activity that makes you breathe a little harder and get some blood and endorphins flowing, but that’s all! As a rule of thumb, you are doing it right if you are breathing a little more deeply but you could hold a conversation or sing a song without feeling short of breath. This could be just walking or riding your bike for transportation. Similarly for light (!) hiking.

The late mountaineer Anatoli Boukreev was way ahead of his time in the West about preaching active over passive recovery. Here as in so much of exercise science, the former Communist bloc really had the edge over us.

For fairly serious athletes in any discipline, I think the king of active recovery is yoga. You go for the active recovery and in the bargain you also get invaluable prehab and rehab, which no one gets enough of, in an environment that is also a huge serotonin factory AND full of lithe, beaming people.


* Note: I don’t necessarily poo-poo drug-assisted training as morally inferior or easier. On the first point, I exercise because it makes me so happy, not so I can imagine myself as someone else’s better (as if anyone cares anyway). Second, drugs don’t exactly make training easier. If you think that, start squatting under a bar that’s 200# heavier than you use now—do it however you have to, I don’t care—and then get in touch to tell me about how easy your training has become.

Skinny, Lazy, and Strong–They Go Great Together

Lamar Gant had pencils for legs and scoliosis too, but he also deadlifted nearly 700# while weighing less than your niece.

Strength is a skill in the way that hitting a baseball far is a skill, or boxing. Being big and hitting big do not correlate all that well. The same goes for judo and jiu-jitsu, where leverage and technique are king.  Of course size helps, but it turns out that coordination counts for waaaay more.

So there are ways to “learn strength” without adding meat to your frame. Why do that? Maybe you are a runner or gymnast, or you do not want to buy a new wardrobe, or you want to stay within a weight class. Once I saw the West Point rugby team play and remarked that their players were much smaller than ours. It was explained that the cadets were required by the Army to stay within a prescribed weight limit. They were not allowed to inflate themselves to mountainous sizes at the squat rack.

I am ripping all of this off from Pavel Tsatsouline, whose early books in particular are the best introductions to strength in English by a non-scientist. http://www.strongfirst.com

Also, learning “skinny strength” is easy and comfortable, both physically and mentally, and so it is wonderful for lazy people like me. You just practice your skill as often as possible while staying as fresh as possible. You must stop long before you get fatigued. Don’t you love that? To succeed, you must avoid working hard! In fact, you will not even do a “workout”—remove the word from your vocabulary. Seriously. What you will do is a practice session. If you were learning a language, you would learn better and more happily in 15 minutes a day than in a single 2-hour slog each week. This is no different.

For fun, try the “ladder” method. Say you can do 10 pushups. Not bad! Get down and do one pushup, then take a short rest. Now do two pushups and take a short rest. Then do three pushups. And stop there. Take a longer rest and repeat the “ladder”: first one pushup, then two, then three. Repeat that sequence, with ample rest, until you get bored or you feel the first whiff of fatigue, and then stop. It will take only a few minutes and make you feel peppier than when you began. Do that once a day for a week (or better yet twice a day, as long as you stop well before muscle fatigue), and then take a day off and test your pushup max again. You will BLOW AWAY your old number.

You can use these “ladders” easily for exercises like pushups, pullups, crunches, and planks—where you’re trying to increase reps or time—and it’s so simple that you can probably teach rodents and ultra marathoners to do it. (Just kidding, ultra runners! I love you guys! I just don’t understand what drives you.) For higher primates like the rest of you, there are also simple tweaks that let you apply it to pure strength exercises.