Strength Is a Skill

The third installment in our series, “Twenty Years of Pavel Tsatsouline.” 

“Nothing is more practical than a good theory,” and Pavel Tsatsouline has always excelled at distilling exercise science into something immediately useful and dummy-proof. In his short, entertaining 1999 book, Power to the People, he changed popular strength training by drawing consequences that now seem obvious from a theory so simple that it seemed axiomatic and boring.

The theory? “Tension = Strength.” “The tenser your muscles are,” Tsatsouline wrote, “the more strength you display.” You’re nodding and yawning, right? But what that means is that you can get stronger by “acquiring the skill to generate more tension.”

That one word, “skill.” Few of us understood right away, but with that word Tsatsouline had just started a revolution by introducing a very Russian paradigm that was almost completely new to the West:

Strength is a skill. You don’t “build” it physically, you “practice” it.

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Tsatsouline was like a distillery for Soviet sports research. Into his head went dozens of classics like Robert Roman’s Trenirovka tyazheloatleta (The Training of the Weightlifter) (1968), and out of his pen dripped a thin trickle of very potent training hacks.

That is why strength training is much like learning to play the piano, speak Hungarian, or do yoga, and you can use many of the same principles.

Recognizing strength as a skill practice was the seed of all Tsatsouline’s signature teachings: minimalism, sets of five, avoiding fatigue, and practicing as often as possible while staying fresh—all things that we will explain in due time. But for now, let us jump straight to some picturesque, practical examples.

Once you get that strength is a skill, you can apply that immediately and hack the nervous system to create extra tension (meaning extra strength) that very minute.

Here’s one such hack: With one hand, squeeze a friend’s arm as hard as you can. Now get ready to squeeze it a second time, but this time simultaneously squeeze your other hand in a fist as hard as possible. Or better yet, squeeze your other hand around some object, like your Nalgene water bottle. For neurological reasons, you can boost the tension in one limb by tensing the other one too. You can punch or push harder with one hand if you are pulling with the other hand, and your abs will light up like Christmas lights.

Here’s another one: if you are struggling to complete a pullup, have a partner stand behind you and lightly “karate chop” you under the armpits. Those are the lats, which power most of the pullup, and they will respond to the chopping by tensing up. That is, they will get stronger that very instant! And with a little practice, they will stay stronger even after your friend stops chopping on them. What has happened? Easy, you have learned to create more tension in your lats.

Furthermore, as it happens, the lats are special because they are heavily involved in virtually all strength movements. Once you learn to tense the lats hard at will, you get noticeably stronger in pretty much everything: squatting, deadlifting, pressing, grip strength, swinging a kettlebell, and lots of yoga postures. That tension in the lats will flow both to the smaller muscles—the shoulders, arms, hands, and abs—and  also to large powerful muscles like the glutes, hamstrings, and quads.

Before the Russian Revolution: The Ancien Régime of 1999

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.

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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?”

20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline

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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

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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).

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https://www.dragondoor.com/b10/

 

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.

Rhomboid Rodeo

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Volodya surveys the valley after earning his blue-and-white David Rigert tel’nyashka

To initiate Volodya the 28kg Kettlebell, I suitcase-carried him with the Backpack of Bricks up the summit. Today’s game was that I could set him down when needed, but for the whole hike I had to hold my chest and head upright. No hunched backs.

I had no idea how bad I’d be at that. Sure, in a life full of keyboards and steering wheels we’re all weak in the postural muscles of our upper backs, but I must excel at believing, “Ha, boring universal truths don’t apply to ME!!”

 

Of Anvils and Overtraining: Why Bodybuilding Is Probably a Lousy Choice

d91194bb21cdbef0263505fcd6af56fa--bodybuilders-vintage-magazineIn America, we confuse bodybuilding (lifting for bigger muscles) with strength training in general. From the 50s on, from its Mecca on Venice Beach, bodybuilding loomed biggest in the public eye, thanks to its proximity to Hollywood and the new muscle mags aimed at boys and young men across America. So naturally Americans inherited most of our ideas about how to do strength training from professional bodybuilders. For example, if you’ve ever done 3 sets of 10 or 5 sets of 5 with one or two minutes’ rest three times a week, then you’ve done classic bodybuilding routines.

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70s legend Bill Kazmaier did it all: powerlifting, Highland games, and strongman competitions. But for most of the year he trained a lot like a bodybuilder.

In the popular American mind, bodybuilding is almost the only paradigm people know for strength training. Bodybuilding even shaped American powerlifting, a pure strength event where lifters compete for the highest one-rep max, not for the nicest shape. In the 1970s and 80s, the sport’s golden age, powerlifters trained and looked a lot like plump, off-season bodybuilders, and even today most American powerlifting follows a version of the “Westside” method, which retains a strong bodybuilding influence.

 

Arguably, we’re still beholden to the bodybuilding model even now in the age of Crossfit. Bodybuilding works by moving a large tonnage (weight x total reps) in a short time. Classic Crossfit fits that formula as well, with its “race against the clock” format, though choosing shorter, more frenetic workouts than would bodybuilders who want to add size.

But bodybuilding is like the display in a shop window: it’s the most visible to the public eye, but inside the store are dozens of very different products that might suit you better.

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Lifting an anvil. By the horn, using freakish hand strength. With a total dad bod. In slacks, a tie, and dress shoes. This is the most un-bodybuilding thing in the universe except maybe for Ernie and Bert singing about friendship. But George Jowett was and is one of the heroes of strength sports.

In the wide world of iron sports, bodybuilding is an oddball and an outlier in that it scarcely cares about strength. The strength sports (powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, strongman events, jumping, throwing, sprinting, gymnastics) exist solely to move heavy things through space. Bodybuilding alone exists to re-engineer your own body tissue. It just happens to use barbells as a means to that end, because it turns out that the best way to expand muscle cells is through one very particular trait called “strength endurance,” the muscle’s ability to overcome fatigue and rep a moderate weight for one to two minutes at a time.

Many people blindly copy this peculiar bodybuilding style of lifting weights without knowing that it may actually push them farther back from their goals. Take trainees who want to “get toned” and improve their physiques. It might be perfect for them to lift like bodybuilders if they are underfed teenagers in the developing world, but in modern North America, for 98% of us, if we want to look buff, the way to accomplish it is to get leaner, not bigger. And—this is an open secret in the fitness world—when it comes to leaning out, exercise matters very little. Mostly it depends on how you eat.

And bodybuilding burns up a lot of physical/emotional resources, with its constant cycle of breaking down muscle cells and refurbishing them. Few other iron athletes destroy and build so much tissue. Strictly speaking, strength athletes do not so much “build” strength—that is a bodybuilding metaphor—as practice it, without necessarily changing much cellular composition.

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Yes, all the iron sports have long been saturated with drugs. But bodybuilding is the one with its own large media industry that markets to newcomers.

So more than other iron sports, you can easily overtrain on bodybuilding, deplete yourself, get inflamed and chubby, overeat, and mess up your sleep and mood. (And remember that after the 1960s, you must presume that any published bodybuilding routine is written by and for drug-assisted lifters.)

By all means, do consider a bodybuilding program. In the modern West, the old 3×10 and 5×5 routines are virtually rites of passage, voyages of physical self-discovery, and you almost have to master them as foundational skills. Just know that:

  1. Bodybuilding is just one small corner of strength training. The other iron disciplines offer some completely different goals, using methods utterly foreign to bodybuilding. You may or may not like them better.
  2. Be judicious about whose routine you follow. You want a coach with a proven record of training people of your age, fitness history, and level of motivation. If you do not have access to such an individual, follow the classic programs from the pre-steroid era of the 1950s.

What Did We Learn, Class?

1. Things That Worked

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It’s also fun to see onlookers wonder whether one is even wearing anything on bottom.

The Goofy Yoga Shorts. Never mind what the smart-alecks say [looking sideways at Lee], these were SOOOOO practical. They didn’t bind my legs and, when wet, they drip-dried in no time.

Caffeine and Sugar. I drank the equivalent of six or seven cups of coffee. I only regret not drinking twice that. And on Ultra Scott’s advice, I broke out of ketosis during the event and inhaled a pound and a half of chocolate. He was so very right about this: I did get momentarily tired, but I never got exhausted.

 

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The best one-stop shopping I know for GPP (general physical preparedness).    Photo from calorie bee.com

Kettlebells: More than ever, I think that if you have only one conditioning tool in your toolbox, it should be a kettlebell. If someone asks, “What is the single thing you could do to prepare for ten different physical challenges, chosen at random by a smiling, demonic taskmaster?” you should answer, “Kettlebells.”

 

The glasses strap: They look dorky, but one poor sod lost his glasses in the surf.

2. Terrible Ideas: Four of the Many

Boonie hat: If it wasn’t getting sucked off my head in the surf, it was obstructing my vision. It’s perfect in the climate where I live, but for these events, it’s a wool beanie or nothing.

Not layering: I knew we’d get wet and cold, so why didn’t I pack some kind of underlayer? After Surf Horror™, other people changed into something dry and looked very happy, whereas I was a trembling wreck.

Not finding a cold place to train: I trained in 100° temperatures, and though I tried a couple of short night hikes in wet clothes, around here we only get nightly lows of about 70°. I figured, “What difference will 15 or 20 degrees make?” For the answer, see “Shivering Horror”© above.

Not avoiding cramps: Sgt. D-Zazzy warned me I needed more salt or my legs might stop working. Did I listen? By morning even my hands cramped up.

 

3. Insights Into Myself

I’m a “smiler”: I respond to exertion with irrational gaiety and buoyance.

I throw more F-bombs than almost anyone I know who doesn’t seem to me somewhat evil.