The Piñata & The Wrecking Ball: Why can small people hit so hard?

You can’t tell freakishly strong people by looking at them. Some athletes “look like Tarzan but play like Jane,” but I’m fascinated by the opposite, people who are deceptively strong. People who look like a piñata but hit like a wrecking ball.      

(That’s not just paddycake. That girl jabs like a tire iron.)

An octagenarian taijiquan teacher once had me bang forearms with him, and his felt like jelly rolls with rebar in the middle. This summer a female instructor of maybe 120 lbs. demonstrated a slap block on my left arm that felt like it came out my right kidney. Last week I took stinging jabs from a 12-year old jeet kune do prodigy, and she whipped out these lazy leads that could smack my eye like a rolled-up beach towel.

“Stealthy Strength”

As cool people who read this blog know, strength is a surprisingly “stealthy” quality. It’s almost as hard to pick out strong people by looking at them as it is to guess who’s a good piano or chess player. Much of “real-world strength” comes down to the very unsexy, un-visual traits of grip and rotation/counter-rotation, and hence as a great man once wrote, “strong hands + strong abs = strong person.” (And as we began to explore last week, the formula really should read “strong feet + strong hands + strong abs.”) There are some other factors too, like connective tissue and neurological efficiency, but you can’t see those with the naked eye either, short of dissecting someone.

Bob Peoples deadlifted almost quadruple bodyweight, in an age before steroids, at age forty, but you’d look right past him on a beach. A farmer his whole life, Peoples obviously had unearthly tendon and ligament strength that few Americans today are likely to approach. That’s a HUGE ingredient in “stealthy” strength that’s not visible in a weight room mirror.
Frank’s hands are like the massive root ball of a mutant redwood in the Dagobah system.

Granted, there exist some useful heuristics, but they’re not eye-catching or (to a modern eye) intuitive. Dan John has remarked that, if looking for strong football players, you should view them from the back, where you can scope out their glutes and hams and lats, because those muscle groups count for more than chests and shoulders. And if I had to wager on a strongman contest, I’d put my money on someone with big, tendonous hands and forearms. My great uncle Frank, who repaired elevators for 40 years, has hands that grew thick in every dimension and freaky tendons like gnarled tree roots on Yoda’s home planet. Last time I visited, he spent the day putting in split-rail fence posts by hand at age 85. 

As we’ve discussed here before, you can tell more about physical attributes by seeing people in motion.  Loose-limbed people with corrugated abs or whippy waists? Those are your natural lumberjack types. Definitely pick them for your volleyball team. At one softball game in grad school, this skinny guy from the school of education tried out a bat by making a couple loose, sleepy arcs from the shoulders, and instantly you knew this guy could knock satellites out of orbit. Twenty more like him with ponies and croquet mallets could have Genghis Khan’ed the whole Metro Boston area. 

A few months ago I began again with my boyhood obsession, martial arts. I started making pilgrimages to the Greenville Academy of Martial Arts, home to three interlocking programs in boxing, JKD, and my boyhood favorite, wing chun.

Jason Korol, head instructor at the Greenville Academy of Martial Arts. In coming months I’ll be reflecting a lot on this blog about their teachings, but I’m totally unqualified to do so. Whatever damned fool things I say are not their fault and probably do not adequately describe their ideas. What does do justice to them are their excellent books and YouTube channel. You should probably just stop reading this blog now, go there, and forget about Lean Solid Dogs forever.)

After 20 years as a (mediocre) strength athlete, I can’t help relating everything they teach to strength sports and thinking of fight training as a sort of “applied strength” sport.

I know, I know, jeet kune do isn’t a “sport” in the sense of “rule-governed recreational contest,” but it still is in the older sense, in which hunting, fishing, and mountaineering are “sports.”

No, fighters don’t lift barbells or kettlebells for a score, but they score by exerting force on something heavy. Oly lifters loft barbells, shot putters throw iron balls, pugilists throw shots, and wrestlers throw bodies. QED: fight training is an applied strength sport. 

And a body accustomed to strength sports finds tons of familiarity in the new skills of fight training: the feet and knees feel like club swinging; the elbows feel like a certain kind of bench pressing; the “short power” (短劲) feels like board presses and lockouts; technique training benefits from “greasing the groove;” things about the wooden dummy feel like girevoy sport.

Club swinging is to kettlebells what heroin is to cough syrup. Master coach Tom Furman, my personal voice of reason and adult supervision, put me back onto this and directed me to the work of this guy, Mark Wildman. Like everything Tom tells me to do, it’s awesome. And the carryover to wing chun was unexpected but enormous.

So it feels like an ever-new mystery when I get overpowered in fight training by short, thin, or otherwise gracile people who, it seems to me, can’t possibly have as much power. Not just outmaneuvered and outskilled, but manhandled or just plain pounded. I’m talking bony teenagers, featherweight women, even a girl who’s too young for PG-13 and weighs less than my checked luggage. What gives?

The wooden dummy, wing chun’s “second sifu,” tells you when your structure is weak. This is what strong looks like: bones all lined up in triangles that point at the bad guy’s center of gravity. With structure this good, even if this student were made of balsa wood, with some footwork he could wedge this bad guy up off his center of balance. And then comes the hand in the throat.

The answers still come down to elementary school physics, just as with barbell squats and bicycles, but the applications are zanier, more complicated, and more interesting than plain old flat-footed strength sports and cyclic endurance sports. That makes “martial strength” like chess to powerlifting’s checkers.

How Come Girl Scouts, Flyweights, Elves, and Stick Figures Can Hit Hard? 

Here’s what this humbled, has-been strength athlete has figured out so far. 

1. Fast and Loose

“Hitting hard is about mass times acceleration,” said the coach one night. “You can’t get bigger during a fight, so you have to get faster.” And it turns out that speed is teachable, too. A lot of it seems to involve being loose—tense is never faster that loose. So if the light, willowy person can relax better than the stiff, heavy person, she becomes a better puncher. 

This is an area where I have TONS of room to improve. Just as “the man with a hammer treats everything like a nail,” I approach every problem with tension. Now that I’m waking up to what “usefully loose” really feels like, I’m discovering excess tension all over my body: in my quads, my hip flexors, my waist, shoulders, arms, and even my traps. I would hear coaches telling me, “Relax, be loose!” but it took weeks before I experienced what it was like to punch with a relaxed waist. (For what it’s worth, my “aha!” moment was a low-speed mitt warmup, hitting crosswise for a completely unrushed 1-2-3-4-5. It felt like hitting a slow, fat softball when you’re not rushing to meet the ball and, with no effort or tension, you bang it right on the sweet spot when it’s exactly out in front of you.)

2. Levers

Height and long limbs look like they help a lot. I wouldn’t know, since I’m a short fireplug, but long limbs must make great levers. They sure do when tall people are flinging them at me. Those punches come in fast and hard, sometimes quicker than I can even see them.

Don’t cry for the short people. They have their own leverage tricks, like at clinching distance, where Lady Physics smiles on the lower center of gravity. (Photo courtesy of parhessiastes.)

But long arms and legs are only one type of leverage. There are others too that are part of any person’s punching mechanics. At the Greenville Academy, there’s lots of talk about Jack Dempsey, and I bet that nobody would think it was too weird if I showed up with quotations from the Manassa Mauler’s book Championship Fighting tattooed on my arms. In fact, if Greenville weren’t so Protestant, you’d probably see icons of Jack lit by votive candles. (As it is, I’m pretty sure one family at the school named a child after him.) So anybody who’s paying attention in Sifu Jason Korol’s classes should know by heart Dempsey’s four sources of power for straight punches—the “falling step,” “springing step,” “shoulder whirl,” and “upward surge”—plus a couple others that aren’t legal in boxing, like holding and hitting. Mostly these are simple applications of leverage. For example, once your fist is in motion, you can put more speed on it by springing off your back foot (a class 2 lever) like a fencer, and/or rotating your shoulder girdle (a lever arm) around your vertical axis. Skilled people can sequence those so that they add up like two waves that are “in phase” and then the fist/palm/foot cracks the mitt like a bullwhip, reliably.

3. Structural Strength

Maybe leverage suffices to explain the 12-year-old JKD girl who zings long-range smart bombs from somewhere around the height of my armpits. But wing chun spends a lot of time on what amounts to clinching, stand-up grappling, or dirty boxing. To my mind, that calls to mind wrestlers struggling for neck and arm control, grip-fighting judo players, Thai clinches, and grapplers pummeling for underhooks and overhooks. That should be Muscletown USA, right?

That’s where I expected some consolation for my ego. “Well, you martial artists. I may not be able to punch a Tickle-Me Elmo doll off a toy store shelf, but if I can just get in a shoving match with you…”

But that doesn’t work either! A gaunt teenager grabs my elbow and pushes me around like a shopping cart! On paper, I feel, I should be much too strong to let him steer me around. Or at least too heavy and short! So how can he do that? 

The guy’s got incredibly good structure. Young, ectomorphic, and still filling in, nevertheless he keeps every bone lined up against me so that, if I push, I’m pushing against a big tripod. If I press further, to bull my way through, the tripod falls aside a couple of inches and then I’m (a) stumbling past with a fist in my face, (b) slingshotted by my elbows, (c) clutched by my throat, or (d) all of the above.

Consider those cool science fairs where kids build weight-bearing bridges out of toothpicks. At a recent one, the winning toothpick bridge supported over eleven hundred times its own weight. Relative to that, my young partner has it easy: he could be nothing but bones in a track suit and I still couldn’t bull in on his structure. With that and footwork, he can walk me all over the dance floor like Fred and Ginger. You have to experience it to really believe it.

All the good wing chun and JKD people there are like that. They may only weigh a buck twenty, but if you try to muscle them, you’re pushing at smoke; as soon as give them your center, rotate away from them, lift an elbow, cross your hands or feet, or commit one of many other positional sins, they’re on you with their entire weight. The whole 120 pounds falls on you all together, in one dense package, like Tarzan swinging on a rope and drop-kicking you.

The cool thing about structure is that it gives more strength without even needing more tension. It’s not magic, of course—physics is still physics. But if you’ve ever been a so-so powerlifter and then gotten good coaching, you know how your bench press goes up in literally minutes when the coach fixes your untutored hand, elbow, and back position. No, you can’t stop a charging elephant or knock out a gorilla just with good structure. But it turns out you can handle most humans that way, which continues to blow my mind whenever people do it to me. 

* * * *

Structure is a (wonderfully) complicated subject. Not mysterious—no chakras, no kundalini energy—but still complicated in the sense that there are so many moving parts (feet, ankles, knees, hips, etc.), degrees of freedom, axes of movement, fulcrums and centers of rotation, and so on. As Sifu Aaron Bouchillon says of wing chun, “Some assembly is required.” 

But there are other, simpler, “plug and play” techniques for hitting power that give quick gratification. Some sound recondite but aren’t (“borrowed energy,” “short power”), others sound as plain and unexotic as they really are, like holding-and-hitting.

We’ll return to those another day. In the meantime, as they like to say in Greenville, in the words of Jim Driscoll, another nearly canonic figure:

Hit first. Hit straight. Hit hard. Hit often.

“Attention, Walmart Shoppers: You Already Have a Prize-Winning Physique For 1900”

Part II of “Before Buff.” (Please find Part I here.)

Bare-knuckle champ John L. Sullivan, gushed over by sports writers as a “beautiful specimen of manhood” on account of his plump good health and energy. (However, he often “took ill” with a pathogen transmitted in oak barrels that disparately afflicted the Irish community.)

You travel back to 1900 and ask Americans, “Show me your most splendid specimen of manhood!” Beaming, they present John L. Sullivan, the world’s heavyweight boxing champion. “Behold!” they exclaim, beaming. “The newspapers proclaim him ‘the physical superior of all men!’”

Stripped to the waist, you reckon, the Gilded Age’s greatest GigaChad and physique star would tie for fourth place in a beauty contest for Walmart shoppers at the superstore in Fort Wayne.

What excites men’s admiration, you see, is his energy–he exudes vigor and hardihood like a scentless musk. It’s contagious. He makes you feel sanguine and strong! Again you consider taking up wet shaving, with a strop and a horsehair brush.

*          *          *          *

Around 1900, America’s muscle men were boxers and wrestlers. Americans didn’t yet lift barbells and dumbbells, which were bleeding-edge imports from Germany, the ground zero and mecca for “heavy gymnastics.”  

Outside of German enclaves, few Americans even had access to gymnastic apparatus or coaching, which was in German anyway. (Sorry, kein Englisch!)

For rough-and-tumble fun, Americans took after the British cousins, who enjoyed wrestling and led the world in pugilism. So when they talked of “fine athletic physiques,” they thought of wrestlers and boxers.

And what kind of physical development did wrestling and boxing create? Well first we have to distinguish look from feel from ability.

“Um, I’m more of, like, a tactile learner?”

It’s a funny thing about men: In my experience, when you hug a dude, you have no idea what’s coming. He might feel like he’s carved out of wood, made of ground beef, or big as two gorillas. Sometimes you put your arm around a lanky guy and he feels like a washer-drier combo wearing a t-shirt. (Straight women, gay men, massage therapists: am I right about this?)

For some reason, it’s hard to know what any given man is “made of” until you clap hands on him. Trainer Rory Miller writes somewhere about his first tussle as a young corrections officer with an intimidating inmate. The guy looked tough as a bowl of razors, but when Miller grabbed him, “the guy felt like he was made out of cheese.” Beneath appearances, the man was crumbling from a lifetime of drugs and hard living and he’d been all hollowed out.

As a lousy high school wrestler, I wrestled a kid from the neighboring industrial town whose arms looked no different from mine, but they felt like steel cables. He pushed me so hard that I tumbled into the wall. If we’d been cartoon characters, I would have flown right through it and left a boy-shaped hole.

Competition kettlebells are color-coded by weight. Since I’m habituated, I feel their different weights in my body with a casual look. In fact, I’m straining in my midsection because the left side of the image “weighs” three times too much for the right side. Apparently my body thinks the picture will collapse if I don’t brace and hold it up with my eyes!

In English the word physique skews visual. We borrowed it from French, the language of Descartes, where it just meant “the body, as opposed to the soul.” But in English it connotes “how fit a body looks.

But I’ll bet that, before modern people got our brains rewired as image-sophisticates, when people did more physical labor, they felt a physique as much as saw it. If not by actually touching it, I bet they “felt” with their eyes. (Think of the way you can look at sandpaper or ice cubes and feel their texture in your fingers.)

I think we need a word for what a thing visually feels like. Heck, I’m inventing that word right now: I’m calling it “look-feel.”

So after just a little first-hand trauma experience, you too may “look-feel” what I look-feel in this wrestler’s photo: me getting double-legged and dumped on the ground. Because as an under-athletic 14-year old, this sight was often followed by the rapid acceleration of my butt toward the mat, hard enough to crater it.

“At sparring tonight, I ate so many jabs, I’m not hungry for dinner! Ba-dum-bum, tss!”

I’ve only sparred in boxing gloves a tiny bit, but I cover myself worse than a blind man addicted to codeine. That’s enough operant conditioning that I see this other picture and feel my left eye stinging. Seriously, I can feel the disinfectant from his glove in my cornea right now, because I backstop a lot of light jabs with my face.

Some guys my same size and age can clinch me casually and I’ll feel like I’m being rag-dolled by a chimpanzee. But when I clinch my teacher back, he feels absurdly wide, like an inverted pyramid that you can’t get your arms round.

Fistic philosopher and inverted pyramid Jason Korol at the Greenville Academy of Martial Arts.

So around 1900, I’m guessing, men rough-housed more than enough to look at these boxers and wrestlers and light up with kinesthetic memories right down in their brain stems.

As for “physique,” i.e. buffness, they ran the gamut from fatback to beef jerky, though not too much prime rib. That is, there were more plump guys and wiry guys than buff ones. There are lots of reasons, and they’re all highly instructive.

Buffness: The Anatomy of a Rare Bird

What ingredients make for a buff physique? It’s a very specific formula of just two ingredients:

buffness = muscular hypertrophy + low bodyfat

It’s tricky to combine the two. For muscular size (hypertrophy), your body must build tissue up, but for leanness, it must pare tissue down. Your body can’t do either one without some effort, and doing both together is much harder.

When does buffness help a lot athletically? Only in those few events that reward high endurance right around the anaerobic threshold and high “relative strength” in the whole body. In short, you benefit from a jacked physique in sports where you must (1) outmuscle somebody, (2) at a fast pace, (3) using all the big muscle groups, (4) for about 2-5 minutes, (5) at a low bodyweight.

In other words, certain gymnastic events (e.g. rings and pommel horse) and some combat sports, especially modern wrestling and (to a lesser extent) modern boxing.

Tyson’s strategy called for short, sharp fights. His movement style–quick lateral shifts, turning blows that started down in his toes–capitalized on “relative strength” (i.e. the most force for the least bodyweight). His tactics–essentially “massed artillery from a broad front”–required huge anaerobic endurance. And often his high tempo could end a contest within a couple rounds. To top it off, Tyson was shorter than other heavyweights, so he looked extra broad-shouldered. Raytheon couldn’t engineer a boxer better designed to make use of the traits that create the jacked and shredded look.

Even then, there are still plenty of variables. As fighters say, “styles make fights,” and some athletes’ styles and game plans benefit more than others from the jacked athlete’s capacity to a unleash few short minutes of Tasmanian devil. Muscly Mike Tyson excelled at terrifying power output that KO’d people in the first round or two. That’s our formula, right there. But Muhammad Ali frequently fought for an hour and his physique matched his style: light for his weight class and height, with no use for excess muscle, because it’s exhausting to dance on your toes in tropical heat for an hour. The worst thing would be to add on the equivalent of a weighted vest. So it’s not even all boxers who gain by being jacked. Tyson was like “the perfect storm” that way.

Weightier still are your sport’s rules. Brazilian jiu-jitsu’s rule set doesn’t reward power and strength as much as wrestling’s rules, so BJJ players sensibly devote less training to them and are less jacked. Sumo rules reward huge bodyweight and absolute strength, and they don’t incentivize even short-term endurance, so sumo physiques reflect that.

And as it happened, around 1900, wrestling and boxing followed pre-modern rules that selected less for the peculiar combo of attributes that make men look jacked.

Wrestling grows more muscle than boxing, as a rule. It generates more power (i.e. foot-pounds per unit of time) and more time under tension, and therefore more hypertrophy. In other words, boxers throw hands, but wrestlers throw bodies, and that makes bigger muscles.

Wrestling champion George Hackenschmidt adopted dumbbells and barbells early. Nowadays he’s remembered less as a wrestling star than as a pioneering ironhead.
For building big muscles, wrestling is missing one huge factor: squatting. Despite tons of posterior chain work (think “deadlift”), the activity of wrestling doesn’t much mimic the king of whole-body hypertrophy, the heavy back squat. In 1900, no one trained heavy barbell squats much, neither wrestlers nor even weightlifters, and that helped limit athletes’ muscle size. (The limiting factor was just squat stands, like the ones above. To squat a heavy barbell, you must get under the bar somehow. After some handy ironhead invented special furniture for that purpose, people started back-squatting and thighs, hips, waists, and chests swelled like sausages!

However, a century ago, wrestling matches lasted far longer than under modern rules. In the 1896 Olympics, the final bout lasted 40 minutes, was suspended at nightfall, and continued the following day. At the 1912 Olympics, two middleweights set an unusual record when their match dragged on nearly 12 hours! And the light heavyweight finalists lasted nine hours with no winner and both got sent home with silver medals.

If you train for events lasting even 15 minutes, you’re already well past the sweet spot for the fickle, elusive combination of mass and leanness. Don’t fret, you can still rock a great mankini, but face it: you’re an aerobic athlete.

Never mind the bodice. This is more intrinsically hypertrophic than punching.

As an activity, boxing stimulates less muscle growth than wrestling. Once again, think of it as “throwing hands vs. throwing bodies.” I’ll skip the meathead physics and physiology, but it’s the same reason you can’t grow huge biceps throwing javelins or baseballs, things of scant heft that fly away too fast to load all your strength into them. To throw them fast, you depend WAY less on muscle than on speed and coordination. In boxing, you’re slinging just 16oz. of leather (450g). Add the weight of your hands themselves and that’s still 50 times less than an ice dancer doing one of those overhead crotch lifts. Don’t get me wrong, boxing blowtorches the lungs and tires the muscles! But in terms of hypertrophy, you’re basically in Jazzercise class.

Hands low to attack and protect the solar plexus. Posture upright to guard against headlocks and rabbit punches. (And eye gouges. They weren’t allowed, but they still happened.)

Furthermore, old-time boxers fought under older rules that slowed down the action and didn’t favor the tornado-like attributes of a buff physique.

To begin with, prize fighters fought without time limits. They also fought without gloves, which meant they actually had to slow way down. They couldn’t throw many hard head shots, lest they break their unprotected hands on somebody’s dome.

So instead of head-hunting, they went for the body. The old-time prize fighter wore you down slowly, in a long stalking match. He might beat on your arms, head-lock or hip toss you (legally!), and whale on soft targets until you tired and ached enough to expose your solar plexus carelessly. And then THUMP!

Against a competent opponent, such a bout was a long, tiring grind. In his 1889 title defense, John L. Sullivan savaged his rival handily in 100-degree heat, but it still took over two hours. That was only a little longer than average.

We’ll speak again of Sullivan, the “beautiful specimen of manhood” who looks to our Instagram brains like an East German factory manager enjoying the beach in exotic Poland. Because believe it or not, his training methods will make you wish you were a bare-knuckle prize-fighter!

The Wisdom of Our Fathers (pt. 2): French Surplus Shorts

These guys aren’t wearing short shorts because the weather is hot. They’re the only way to guarantee complete freedom of movement for your thighs.

Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we have previously lamented the problem of finding pants that do not bind active, thick, “plus-sized thighs.” When buying pants off the rack, unless you are shopping for BDUs, then often you must choose between too much room in the waist and not enough room in the thighs.

Part of our continuing series on “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.”

But it was not always thus. Another, better way was once known to our hardier, more vigorous, manlier forefathers: short shorts. Thirty to forty years ago, when men had over twice the grip strength and sperm count of men today, men had bigger thighs and had the good sense not to cover them with baggy, oversized shorts. It was understood that the proper length of shorts was roughly like so:

If you wear shorts that stop above the swell of your thighs, they can’t bind your thighs, even if they get wet, and no matter how big your thighs are.

Eighties-era F1 shorts. Note the GAO shirt and Palladium boots as well. Illustration by Kevin Lyles, in M. Windrow & W. Braby, French Foreign Legion Paratroops (1985), reproduced by kind permission of Osprey Publishing (London).

This truth was once known to every man in America and informed the design of basketball shorts, wrestling and weightlifting singlets, and military shorts like UDTs and ranger panties.

However, practical is not always presentable. The shorts that work great in a hot yoga class can get you the wrong sort of attention on the street (especially if you’re near sketchy public men’s rooms in municipal parks). You will need something just a little longer if you don’t want to be mistaken for a pride marcher or a catamite.

If you are a thickly thighed outdoorsman who gravitates to cheap surplus gear, you already have ample reason to be thankful to France. With its “almost Juche-like self-reliance” in design and “riens a foudre” (“zero f***s given”) attitude of indifference, France was unafraid to try ideas that looked weird. That’s how we got the GAO shirt, the most underrated hot weather garment in existence, and the stupendously light but tough “bush shoes.”

But wait, because only now do we come to the greatest of France’s gifts. Voilà! The “F1” tropical/desert shorts! These are truly the perfect “dual-purpose” shorts for athletic use and social wear. They are equally at home rucking around in the desert propping up a neo-colonial strongman regime and making droll conversation at the yacht club.

What is so great about F1 shorts? First, they keep you cool. With a 4″ inseam, they are the perfect length: just long enough to keep your thighs from rubbing each other raw when you run, but short enough to vent body heat without looking like a banana hammock.

You can get away with a lot on a European beach, but in the more puritanical US, you can only go so short without creating a spectacle. The F1 shorts snuggle up to that line without crossing it.

Second, they are tough. I have surplus pairs made over 30 years ago, and they still look ageless. And though hard to find in the US, if you’re persistent you can find them for $20. And being a plain OD serge herringbone, they do not look military. You can wear them in polite company and not look like a Three Percenter.

Power to the People!

Part 6 of our series “Tao of the Lazy Badass” and part 7 of our retrospective series, “Twenty Years of Pavel Tsatsouline.” (Follow the links to find all previous installments.)

In our last post, we talked about “fragmenting the load,” a fancy way of saying that you should chop up your workload into small, easy chunks. Psychologically, you will enjoy it more, and physiologically it turns out that you can perform a much higher volume of work that way. (And volume is the magic variable for the lazy badass.)

Twenty years ago in a normal gym, if you were doing deadlifts, you stood out as an oddball. And if you deadlifted and did two sets of five, it was a dead give-away. To anyone else who followed Pavel “the evil Russian” Tsatsouline, it was as obvious as a facial tattoo saying, “Hey, comrade! I’ve been reading Power to the People!” 

In his milestone book, Pavel said two things that were heretical in the American weight-training world of the 1990s, which was still ruled by the ideas of bodybuilders. First, he said that almost all of us—especially average people—should base our training on the deadlift. Not the mullet lift bench press and not the squat, but the much-feared, unjustly maligned deadlift. Second, and shockingly, he advised deadlifting almost every day. Bodybuilders would never dream of working a bodypart more than three times per week, at a maximum, and certainly not the deadlift. And many American powerlifters deadlifted at most twice a month. But Tsatsouline was coming from a different world, the world of Soviet sports science, with its time-honored technique of jacking up volume by using frequent workouts, modest weights, and lots of sets. 

Specifically sets of five. In the Soviet tradition, five reps is almost a magic number. It occupies a sweet spot in the rep range. First, it keeps intensity modest. On a set of five, even if you go all-out, it’s hard to use much more than 80% intensity (meaning eighty percent of your 1-rep max). If you’re smart you’ll go even lower—mostly I’d stay close to 70%—but even if you get over-enthusiastic and add too much weight to the bar, as long as you’re doing sets of 5, you can’t overdo the intensity too badly. Think of the 5-rep set as a kind of circuit breaker that keeps intensity in the safe range.

Second, because sets of five are fairly short, you can hold good form. That is a very, very big deal. When people get injured while squatting, for example, you can usually blame it on fatigue. They’ll be 8 or 10 or 15 reps into a set, when the small postural muscles are tired and lazy, and their backs bow or their knees drift off track. Injury! But in a 5-rep set, you only need to hold your form and your mental focus together for considerably less than half a minute. Especially when using moderate weights. Less injury, less inflammation, and faster recovery. Over time, that means more volume, which means better training results. In sum, then, a five-rep set is short enough for perfect form and long enough to keep the weights reasonable.

As I got stronger in the deadlift, 5-rep sets of deadlifts got too tiring, so I dropped to “doubles and triples” (2-rep and 3-rep sets). But leave the doubles and triples to advanced athletes! You can get yourself in big trouble. Instead, if deadlifts are a problem, you can consider “block pulls” or “rack pulls.”

So in Pavel’s first famous protocol, he prescribed just two reasonable sets of five, every Monday through Friday. Like most of his programs, he called for just “one pull, one press.” The workouts were short, lasting about 20 minutes, and refreshing. If you were following the program correctly, you really would end up feeling stronger and peppier at the end than the beginning. In fact, Pavel avoided even calling them “workouts,” which connotes exhaustion, and instead told you to call them your “practice sessions.” 

Here as in all lazy badass programs, you avoid fatigue. To use another favorite metaphor, when you do fatiguing, high-intensity exercise, you are expending finite recovery resources, like withdrawing money from a bank account. It is fine to make a big “withdrawal” on game day, when something important is at stake. But you must not train like that regularly. In your day-to-day training, you deposit money into your account, with enlivening, invigorating practice sessions that are recoverable or even downright restorative.

The Tao of the Lazy Badass

“Like water, volume is soft and yielding. But volume will wear away rock, and it beats the crap out of excess fatigue. As a rule, volume wins over fatigue. This is another paradox: what is soft and voluminous is strong.”

from the lost training manual of Laozi (Lao-Tzu)
A difficult book, but the most important one I know.

In the most original book on training in decades, Pavel Tsatsouline describes a certifiable badass, a special operations ninja-type whom he pseudonymously calls “Victor.” Victor combines a pair of already-extraordinary feats into an extra-extraordinary combination: he runs ultra-marathons of up to 100 miles AND he does pullups with an extra 160# hanging from his waist. That’s a freakish level of endurance and world-class strength, a combination so rare as to seem impossible. (As we have said before, strength and endurance are rivals.) That is what makes Victor an elite among the elite, a certifiable badass.

To reach those heights, Victor trains in a very special way: lazily. Or to be more precise, with low fatigue. From his amazing accomplishments, you might suppose that he spends all day exercising and puking his guts out. Nope. Most days he works out for all of 30 minutes, much of it with a 24kg kettlebell, which is strictly a “Joe Average” weight, and some pushups and pull-ups and yoga. He left behind even low-key barbell training long ago, explaining that when he deadlifted, “I felt my ego pushing me harder and faster than my body wanted to go. So I decided to limit myself to one kettlebell and two [steel exercise] clubs …”

As the core of his lethargic-looking super-routine, Victor runs … sloooooowly. Slowly enough to breath only through his nose, with rhythm and relaxation. He writes:

“The key is … the LOW INTENSITY. I use a heart rate monitor, and I stay at 60% to 65% of my [max heart rate]. This means that I am often walking on the hills. If I ran [faster], my recovery time would be much longer.”

Allyson Felix knows the Tao of the lazy badass. Her coach, Barry Ross, keeps his athletes fresh and unfatigued in training. See Easy Strength.

Pavel and Victor are insistent: Victor is not succeeding in spite of his low-key training but precisely because he throttles back. Victor has perfected one way of applying the near-magical formula for productive and happy training: do as much work as possible while staying as fresh as possible.

Are those twelve words too much to remember? Then stencil this on your kettlebells, barbells, and running shoes: Volume Without Fatigue. That is the red thread that runs through many of the successful training philosophies out there, connecting disparate-looking approaches whose only apparent link is that they work well, and it is the subject of our next series, “Farewell to Fatigue: The Way of the Lazy Badass.”

Your author. Not a badass, but I make up for it in laziness.

The Famous Telnyashka

Rigert is said to have inspired the sport’s governing body to change their rule requiring a uniform of a single color so that he could wear the striped t-shirt on the platform.

Soviet weightlifter David Rigert was famous for his signature telnyashka, the blue and white striped t-shirt.

Originally part of the Russian naval uniform in Czarist times, the telnyashka got associated with valor in Soviet art through propaganda about the Kronshtadt sailors in the October Revolution, naval infantry who defended Leningrad, and petty officer-turned-sniper Vassili Zaitsev, hero of Jude Law’s Enemy at the Gates.

After the striped jerseys became cool, the Soviet airborne corps wore them too. But Rigert wasn’t in the airborne either.

But it turns out Rigert had nothing to do with the navy. He got his famous telnyashka through a misunderstanding.

In 1972, when Rigert traveled to a meet in the Romanian port city of Constanta, he met a group of sailors who mistook him for a fellow navy man. It seems they had seen a picture of him wearing a telnyashka and assumed that he’d done his mandatory military service in the navy, like them, so they proudly presented their honorary shipmate with a sailor’s telnyashka. Rigert had to disappoint his seagoing fans with the truth–he’d actually served in an army radar unit–but accepted their gift with gratitude and promised that he would wear it in competition for them.

Two months after getting the magical telnyashka, Rigert pressed a world record 198kg / 436 lbs., representing 220% of his bodyweight. I’d be overjoyed if I could squat that much raw.

Rigert dominated that meet and wore the jersey again at major meets in the early 1970s, as he cemented his reputation. Soon it became part of his public image.

Most memorably, he was wearing the telnyashka at the Munich Olympics, when he set an Olympic record in the press only to “bomb out” in the snatch. At least outside the USSR, those pictures from Munich–the triumph in the press, the disaster in the snatch–probably did more than anything to make the telnyashka his signature uniform.

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.

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.