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.

Aryan Invasion

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My house has been invaded by yogis! It’s great!

Everywhere you go, you stumble over someone pacing and chanting silently, hunkered down translating Bengali hagiographies on an iMac, or playing ragas on a guitar in the garden. These guys all trail the scent of sandalwood around the house, they keep the kitchen always smelling of warm cauliflower and turmeric, and in various places they have white dhotis laid out to dry and little pots of paste for painting the tilaka on their foreheads.

Imagine you are a teenage heavy metal fan and then Black Sabbath descends on your house and throws a week-long rager. Only now imagine that instead of stone-cold rockers they’re yogis, and their idea of a tear-the-walls-down-to-the-studs party is to smile a lot, be fairly quiet, and laugh frequently. It’s just like that.

Everyone should have a yogic bliss squad of Hindu mendicants who takes their home over twice a year and rejuvenates the place. Haribol! (Don’t tell the Buddha I said that. I’ll get in trouble. Seriously.)

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After Faleev: What to Expect

Our fifteenth and final installment on Russian physical culturist Alexey Faleev. Please find links to the whole series here.

 

If you follow Faleev’s program, you will be a happy camper for quite some time.

First, if you were looking to gain weight, you are probably already doing so. When I followed his 5×5 system, I ate like a lumberjack and over several months I gained about 25#.

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Me on Faleev’s program.

Not that it was all muscle! That does not happen in the real world. In fact, I will assume that your appetite will soar like mine did and caution you that, because you will begin eating so much, you should commit to eating the “cleanest” diet you can. Do not think that you have stoked your metabolic furnace so hot that you will not plump up if you start eating Oreos and milk. (That may, possibly, be a real-life example from my own past.)

Remember, you control how lean you are almost entirely by how you eat. Exercise has little to do with it. This is not a popular truth but anyone in the fitness industry can tell you this IF they are being honest.

Second, you should have plenty of energy. Powerlifting can become a harsh mistress and consume a lot of your time and physical “oomph.” And though Faleev has you working out often–five days a week! I hope you train at home–he keeps your workouts short. Above all, he is a master of recovery and motivation. When I am faithful to his “applied yoga” (my word, not his)–when I stretch after lifting, reinforce myself with little rewards, drink kvass, sleep plentifully, and train not for the sake of exerting myself but enjoying the relaxation of heavy, thick, spent limbs afterward–I LOVE LOVE LOVE to train. It is a truly spiritual joy. (As it had better be, if I have to apply burning horse liniment to my groin!)

Third, you will get strong. According to much better powerlifters than I, on a minimalist program like Faleev’s, with only three exercises, you can reliably progress up to the threshold of advanced powerlifting, where you can bench 1.5 times your bodyweight, squat double your bodyweight, and deadlift 2.5 times your bodyweight. (That fits with my experience also.)

But after that, you might need a different program. (Just keep the recovery techniques!!) Different people are built to excel in different lifts and lag in others. Me, I am a natural deadlifter because I have long arms, but I am also a lousy bencher because I am forced by my long forearms to press farther than guys with short “T-rex arms.” As a rule of thumb, if you are built for a particular lift, you can benefit from a minimalist program in which you practice just that lift with no extras. I built my deadlift just by deadlifting, nothing more. But the opposite is also true: if you were born with bad leverages for a certain lift, then once you are sufficiently advanced, if you want to keep getting stronger you will need to judiciously add certain “assistance” exercises. So for example, to build enough momentum to bench press the bar through my extra-long range of motion, I personally need extra work on my shoulders and triceps.

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Alexey “Nothing Extra” Faleev forbids dumbbell cleans & presses, or anything other than the The Big Three: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. But the farther you advance, the likelier it is that you will need to depart from Faleev’s minimalist program.

Except for a few genetic freaks, most of us will need that more complicated program one day. With his own trainees, Faleev accomplishes this in part by prescribing special isometric exercises. (For example, I would be assigned to press against an immovable stick belted firmly to my own torso, to mimic the “off the chest” phase of the bench press which is my weak point.)

But most American powerlifters today solve this problem by a different strategy, called the “Westside” method, that employs a panoply of assistance exercises. Some might say that, compared with the monotony of Faleev’s system, this is typical of an American temperament that prizes variety. The modern American style also uses much shorter cycles than Faleev’s long, regimented, 10-week plans. For an advanced lifter this is valuable because progress becomes ever more difficult and finicky and you routinely incur small but consequential injuries. And when you do, it can become impossible to adhere to the complex, coordinated plan two-month plan because you have to work around the injuries.

In a future series we will learn about one very successful Russian coach, Konstantin Rogozhnikov, and his own home-grown solution to problems of how to train a powerlifter who has outgrown minimalism like Faleev’s.

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Unless you are pretty advanced, you have not gotten close to outgrowing Faleev’s system. But even if you do one day, KEEP HIS RECOVERY TECHNIQUES! They are priceless.

Livid to Languid

Today we learn to drain the tension and enter bliss mode at will. This is the “warm and cozy” side of physical culturist Alexey Faleev’s yogic nervous system hacks. For its more vigorous flip side, where you learn to hit your “go switch,” visit our last installment, “The Dark Arts of Applied Yoga.” Or start from Part 1.

The Cool-Down

After the workout, Faleev wants you to plunge into a state of profound relaxation and pleasure right away so that you can begin recovering. “Do not forget, stress is just a prelude to the main goal: relaxation. We did not strain [in training] in order to strain, but to relax afterward.”

For that, we must turn off the sympathetic nervous system and switch on the parasympathetic system. And we can hack into it using any of the same three variables as before: muscular tension, breathing, and emotions.

To begin with, Faleev insists that you stretch immediately after lifting. This is non-negotiable: to jump-start recovery you must release the muscle tension with static stretching.

Take a tip from me. I hate static stretching because it’s uncomfortable. So get yourself some Jumpstretch bands. Play around with them and you’ll find that (1) you can stretch without hitting a hard “edge” since the bands have some give, and (2) you can stretch the muscles you want to target without having to contort yourself or support your bodyweight in uncomfortable positions.

To release muscle tension, Faleev likes relaxation techniques in which you tense muscle groups one by one, very briefly, and then lapse into full relaxation. Me, I say run to a “restorative yoga” class as fast as you (mindfully!) can. Hot yoga is the gold standard for active recovery, in my opinion, and a priceless complement to powerlifting, but it isn’t leisurely. Restorative yoga is an entirely different animal–all deep relaxation all the time–and it’s exactly what Faleev is looking for here, like jumper cables for your parasympathetic system.

Faleev wants you to love training, so he conditions you, like Pavlov’s dog, to associate your workouts with pleasure and relaxation. He says that psychologically you will be imprinted subconsciously with whatever happens at the very end of the workout, so we want to make it something very happy. After your exercise, he says, stretch with a feeling of languid, feline pleasure, like a cat stretching and relaxing in a sunbeam. Get under a hot shower and enjoy the pleasing sense of light tiredness in your muscles.

You must also reward yourself. Make it something that you enjoy, that you reserve solely for workouts. You must get the reward immediately after you complete the workout to benefit fully from the Pavlovian conditioning. For me it was chocolate chip cookies, as soon as the bar hit the floor. They really do sharpen your enthusiasm for training!

At moments like this, I adore Faleev because the great, thick-necked powerlifter talks about relaxation like a soft-handed voluptuary lying on a settee in Kubla Khan’s stately pleasure dome: “You have come a long way and have every right to rest now. So take advantage of it one hundred percent! After your relaxation exercises, lie down and feel the pleasant warmth spreading throughout the body. How pleasant rest is after exhausting work! This is bliss in comparison with rest after idleness – is that not so? So … go to the country of true pleasure, do not resist it.”

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“…close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.” Coleridge wrote it while high as a kite on opium and when Faleev writes these wonderful sybaritic passages on lassitude, I picture him as a gentlemen lying stoned on thick carpets with a cat.

For breathing, Faleev likes a variation on a common pranayama technique, with a subtle difference. If you’ve tried “triangular breathing” (an inhale, a pause, and an exhale), you probably learned to inhale and then hold the breath on a bellyful of air. But Faleev wants you to lengthen the exhalation as much as feels natural and then pause the breath on empty lungs: exhale, then pause, then inhale. Then transition immediately to the exhale and repeat. I can speak as someone who has dabbled in stuff like this for years, and I think Faleev has it right: if you are trying to lower your arousal and relax, pause for a little while after the exhale, not the inhale.

As for the emotions, Faleev points to “a law of the human psyche, that a person can keep his attention simultaneously on [only] three dynamic objects,” which is to say three moving or changing things, “and when there are three such objects in consciousness, then there comes an inner calm … You must have noticed that it’s nice to look at fire, flowing water, the breeze in the treetops, or fish floating in an aquarium. This is because when you observe three dynamic processes (the tongues of flame, the waves, the leaves, the fish), the brain is completely occupied and there is no room left for any other thoughts. It is from this that a person relaxes, plunging into a calm, peaceful state.”

Here’s another idea, something that was a game changer for me. Search for videos marked “ASMR.” I won’t try to explain, just do it. I’ll wait here … … … Done? The variety of such things is huge. Sample many types and see which kinds, if any, give you “the tingles.” (Two of my own favorites are here and here.) I’m told that not everyone responds to these stimuli, but they soothe me instantly into a helpless, blissful transcendence puddle and provide the inverse of an out-of-body experience, where my body feels like a warm, briny bubble bath and my consciousness dissolves in the huge tub like bath salts. Your mileage may vary, but for me, it’s instantaneous and unfailing.

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Dark Arts of Applied Yoga: Psyching Up

This is part 4 of our series on Russian physical culturist Alexey Faleev.     Part 1.  Part 2. Part 3.

Athletes do not grow stronger by training; they get strong by recovering from training and supercompensating. We use the workout as a brief, hard stimulus, and during this time Faleev wants us to psych up and focus our powers as intently as a man at war. But only for an hour or so! The instant the workout is over, before we even take off our sweatshirts, we must relax and luxuriate in the delicious pleasures of rest and heavy limbs. We worked out precisely so that we could recover afterward, so we want to plunge into rest and recovery just as intently and thoroughly as we went to war under the iron and not waste a moment of our precious recovery time.

We could imagine that Faleev wants us to develop an on-off switch. When we flip the switch on, we are psyched up, electrified in mind and body, and ready to fight. But in the next moment, when we flick the switch off, we do not merely end our sports performance, we positively immerse ourselves in an ocean of relaxation, pleasure, and languor.

Stated technically, what Faleev wants us to learn is to control our sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” system) and parasympathetic system at will. We will be able to enter a state of hyper-arousal at any moment and be prepared to kick butt—breath quickening, nostrils flaring, and muscle fibers crackling with incipient tension—and then just as quickly pull the plug on that arousal and fall downward into a deep valley on the ocean floor of relaxation.

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TRIGGER WARNING: Do not google “Russian yoga” if you are psychologically vulnerable to disobliging jokes about alcoholism.

Reading this, you may not think “That sounds just like yoga!” because we associate yoga more with the pole of relaxation and calming. (And not without reason. Yogaścittavṛtti nirodhaḥ, says Patanjali: “Yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuation,” which if we take him literally would be a catatonic state!) But there are two sides to the yoga coin—tension and relaxation, quickening and calming—and yoga works both sides. Not sure what I’m talking about? Go to a Bikram studio and take a hot yoga class. For $15 you will get a 90-minute tour of heaven and hell. (Ok, mostly hell.) Then you will re-read this paragraph and nod sagely.russian1

Faleev does not mention yoga in his book, but he inherits a tradition of Russian breath work rooted partly in Soviet military research into pranayama that diffused into the world of Soviet sports, and it works on the famous yogic trio: body, breath, and mind.

Psyching Up

Faleev teaches three ways to hack the “fight or flight” system and switch it on at will. In fight or flight mode, there are three things happening inside us. Our (1) muscle tension and (2) breathing pick up to prepare us to run or fight, and we feel (3) emotional alarm or anger at the approaching danger. Before a big lift, says Faleev, you can deliberately create any of those three conditions and turn on the sympathetic nervous system artificially.

Breathing: Either take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds, and/or tense your thorax and force out a thin stream of breath under high pressure, like a compressed air hose. Pavel Tsatsouline teaches the compressed air technique brilliantly as the center of his truly peerless system of “skinny strength,” and also a technique for purposely hyperventilating to pump your blood full of excess oxygen before a huge effort.

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This is a deadlift, and it’s a low-technique, brute force lift. Womenfolk, deadlifting will soooooo not make you un-feminine.

Hyperventilating does work, sometimes too well. In my experience, I get a few seconds of “beast mode” strength from hyperventilation, but I also get tunnel vision and lose a lot of coordination. So I can only use it to deadlift, since it’s a fairly low-skill lift; I wouldn’t use it in the squat or bench, which are more technical.

Muscle Tension:  Like rapid breathing, Faleev says, the subconscious associates a rise in muscle tension with danger and so we can hack into the fight or flight system by purposely loading our muscles with extra tension. “Instantly,” he writes, “all resources are mobilized – emotions change, adrenaline and anxiety hormones like corticosteroids are released, and the work of the internal organs goes into danger mode.” This works well together with the breathing tricks above, in my experience.

Emotions of Anger or Threat: More than in almost any other sport, weightlifters can benefit from emotional arousal bordering on blind rage. At powerlifting meets, you see certain competitors working themselves into hysteria before they mount the platform for a big attempt. They might scream, grimace with wide eyes and bulging veins, and maybe punch themselves or have teammates dish out slaps or other simulated abuse. It is easy to mock these displays–I confess I find them adolescent-looking and embarrassing to watch–but there is a legitimate purpose to their histrionics. “The blows cause feelings of rage” and arouse an “emotional spirit of danger and struggle.”

But “all this can be done more quietly,” Faleev adds, “without … blows to the head and loud roaring.” How? “Remember some injustice.” Get mad. I knew a lifter who prepared for max attempts by remembering childhood beatings. I don’t use emotional triggers much, but when I do, it always involves some story of a man left behind to face the enemy alone or someone who throws his life away on purpose to buy time for the women and children. Faleev tells of a colleague who volunteers at searching for unburied remains of soldiers on the old Eastern Front. One day this colleague found an unknown soldier in the middle of nowhere, a man sent into a hopeless attack against German machine guns armed with just a stick and a bayonet. This man knew for a certainty he would be shot to pieces and end up as a bullet sponge, yet he went anyway. Since he had no dog tags, this man’s family will never know what became of him or what he did for them. Before you squat, Faleev suggests, ask yourself whether perhaps this man was your grandfather? Examine yourself: do you have even a fraction of his mettle?

In case you still have not grokked Faleev’s point, he spells it out: If using the emotional method, then “before your attempt, you should cause yourself an attack of rage.”

The emotional approach is not right for everyone. Personally, whenever I have used it in powerlifting competition, I have turned in my very worst performances. I get too wound up and lose good technique. Instead, since my teen years I have always competed best when I’m doing mindfulness meditation right up to the moment when I touch the bar. Eyes open and walking around, of course, but with a spooky, detached calm that reminds me of a scuba diver deep underwater, watching strange shapes move with crystal clarity through a glass mask and his ears filled with the sound of his own breathing.

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As you can see, even in the deadlift there is such a thing as over-arousal because you’re already fighting a ton of intra-thoracic pressure. This lifter managed to splatter the head judge, but she FINISHED THE LIFT! HOOAH!

Sports Spiritualism: Waxed Moustaches, German Nudists, and Russian Powerlifters

This is the second installment in a series on the physical culture system of Russian powerlifter Alexey Faleev. Read Part 1 here.

Why am I so charmed by Faleev’s system? Aside from how effective it is, what I love is his holistic “sports spiritualism” (my word, not his). Who else would write a guide to powerlifting with sections on Buddhism, the Gospels, how to talk to your spouse to ensure marital harmony, and the use of poetry for max attempts in the clean and jerk?

Then again, that is not so unusual among Russian “physical culturists.” In his book on breath training for combat sports, martial artist Vlad Vasiliev quotes the Bible in most chapters and talks as much about Hesychastic prayer as walking and jogging. In a typical passage Vasiliev remarks:

I have noticed, especially in the West, that many … close up when they are asked to pray to God in training. If this is a problem for you … try it just a few times. Take yourself to the breaking point in one of the breath-holding exercises and start saying ‘Lord have mercy’ in your mind. Do not let pride prevent you from doing this, you will be glad you tried.

Faleev for his part mixes a traditionalist respect for Russian Orthodox mysticism and old-time Russian foodways and health practices with a strong interest in Russian experimental psychology and what we could call “applied yoga.”

In the West, we had a related “physical culture” movement a century ago centered around exercise, healthy living, and human thriving for a population that was beginning to live in cities, eat an industrialized diet, work at desks, and get less exercise and fresh air. In these novel, urbanized lives, they were less physically vigorous and close to the land than their grandparents had been and some sensed that they were making trade-offs in health and happiness.strongmen

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Yes. Naked Aryans juggling kettlebells in the Third Reich. Right from the 1800s, German “Körperkultur” included plenty of nudism and that got absorbed as a matter of course into Nazi art like Hans Surén’s “Mensch und Sonne.”

“Physical culturists” taught ways to hang on to some of the old-time physicality and grit that they thought we moderns would still need to feel healthy and fulfilled. Think of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Victorian strongmen with waxed moustaches, the modern Olympiad, the YMCA, “muscular Christianity,” Theodore Roosevelt, the Victorian vegetarian movement, German fruitarians and nudists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and anti-masturbation foods like Kellogg’s cereals and Graham crackers. It was an extremely broad movement, a diverse three-ring circus of eccentrics and visionaries, but they had this in common: they saw people as embodied souls who require physical vigor to be spiritually fulfilled. Phrasing it differently, they were a holistic health cult.

In the West, we stopped talking about “physical culture” much after the 1940s. The movement branched off into independent specialties and governing bodies—academic medicine and nutritional science, psychoanalysis, sanctioning federations for organized sports, sports media companies—and the adorably zany and heterogeneous old holistic health cult evolved and specialized itself out of existence.

Alexandr+Zaichikov+2015+International+Weightlifting+b1M7urgGiWAlIn strength training, the old-time strongman was replaced by distinct sports: first weightlifting was standardized as an Olympic event, then bodybuilding declared its independence in the 1950s, followed by powerlifting in the 1960s. The new sports were not obsessed with psycho-physical health nearly as much as with rankings, records, and titles and there were also organizational politics to navigate and publishing industries and supplement businesses to build. The competitors also had access to steroids for the first time, and increasingly they had to choose between staying natural and winning.

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Incidentally, some of the founding fathers of the Southern California hippy movement were (drumroll) German immigrant raw foodists and nudists! Instead of a military haircut and a Kugelhantel (kettlebell), William Prester has Unabomber hair and a guitar, but the history of physical culture is full of muscular naked German men.

Granted, after the old “physical culture” model broke apart in the post-war West, there remained a minority of people intrigued by holistic health practices. But instead of weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics, and the like, they now gravitated toward yoga, vegetarianism,  novel practices drawn from dance, and New Age psychotherapies. For quick-and-dirty heuristic purposes, I’d describe their new home as more feminine than masculine, more pacifist than martial, and more Gandhi than Charles Atlas.

It was in the Russified world where physical culture (физкультура) stayed relatively intact and kept closer to the old holistic model. Yes, it too was permeated and changed by drugs and competitive pressures. But the Soviet fizkul’turniki stayed close to their roots in rough-and-tumble sports and they kept using herbs, folk medicine, ice baths, and saunas, and their sports scientists plundered yoga for breath control disciplines, relaxation techniques, and other Jedi mind tricks that athletes could use to lift, run, wrestle, box, or throw better.

In our next installment, we will learn the “how to” of Faleev’s holistic sports spiritualism.