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.

Easy + Often = Badass

Part 2 of our series “Tao of the Lazy Badass”

Exercise is a tale of two variables: Volume (how much you do) and Intensity (how hard you do it). In weight training, Volume is the number of reps you did and Intensity is how heavy they were (as a percentage of your 1-rep max). In cardio, Volume is how many minutes or hours you ran, rowed, or rucked and Intensity is how high your heart rate was (as a percentage of your max).

You can describe any training session, or week or month or year of training, in terms of how much Volume you accumulated and its average Intensity.

And now pay attention, because this is the important part: In this country we prize intensity for some reason, but it is easier and more reliable, and much more enjoyable, if you leave the intensity alone and just accumulate volume. Put reps in the bank, and keep them fairly light. Put miles on the track, and keep them pretty slow. That is the Tao of the Lazy Badass.

By way of illustration, let’s examine Alexey Faleev’s very effective 5×5 program for “power bodybuilding” (getting big by getting strong). Faleev’s program works so well because it has you putting a lot of reps in the bank, day after day, week after week. Each session is manageable—up to 25 reps, mostly with moderate poundages—and you are fresh and ready for another session the very next day. By the end of the week, you’ve put in 105 quality reps with poundages that were heavy enough to be no joke but well within your capacities. By the end of the month, it’s 400+ reps. After 10 weeks, a thousandreps, of which fewer than twenty were very difficult, and none were more than 80% intensity (i.e. 80% of your 1-rep max). After five of those low-key cycles, you’ve get over a thousand reps each in the squat, bench, and deadlift, and you are a lean, solid dog.

All you did was show up to the gym every day, work up a very light sweat, and leave after 45 minutes. It was easy in terms of exertion, but you got much stronger. Why? Because the royal road to training success is to just accumulate Volume. And although you can skin that cat in several ways—we’ll cover most of them—all of them involve going pretty easy on Intensity so that you can come back and do it again tomorrow. That is why we say that Easy + Often = Badass.

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.

Cycling, Part 4: Two-stage Cycles

This is the 14th (and most technical) installment in our series on powerlifter and physical culturist Alexey Faleev. Find links to previous installments here.

This is Faleev’s most advanced cycle. You design it much as you would a three-stage cycle, except that you omit the second stage and instead spend five weeks on 5×5’s and then transition immediately to five weeks of 6-4-2-1.

Let us imagine a lifter who bench pressed 280# in his last competition. At this advanced stage, progress comes slowly, so he will only aim to add 5 lbs. to that in his next cycle. So starting from a goal of 285#, he backs off 75 lbs. and comes up with something like this plan.

Stage 1
      Week 1210 x 5 x 5
      Week 2215 x 5 x 5
      Week 3220 x 5 x 5
      Week 4225 x 5 x 5
      Week 5230 x 5 x 5
Stage 2add 15#
      Week 6210 x 6; 220 x 4; 230 x 2; 245 x 1 (The lifter decides his own weights for the first three sets–these are just arbitrary examples. They should not be all-out efforts. My advice is to stay at least 2 reps away from what feels like your limit.)
      Week 7220 x 6; 230 x 4; 240 x 2; 255 x 1
      Week 8230 x 6; 240 x 4; 250 x 2; 265 x 1
      Week 9240 x 6; 250 x 4; 260 x 2; 275 x 1
      Week 10 (Meet day)285 x 1

Doubles and Singles (Cycling, Part 3)

Part 13 in our series on physical culturist Alexey Faleev, where we get deep into the weeds. If you are just joining us, welcome! Please find links to previous installments here.

For a lifter at your stage, Faleev estimates that you can take your best weight in the 5×5 and aim to lift 120% of that in competition. So if you have pressed 200# for five sets of five, we will put you on a cycle to peak on contest day with a max lift of 240#.

Three-Stage Cycle

If you are new to peaking cycles, Faleev starts you with a three-stage cycle. In the first stage, you will subtract 70lbs. from the target weight. For the first four weeks, you will do 5×5’s as usual, adding 5lbs. per week. Then you will add 10lbs. and graduate to the second stage, in which you will do three weeks of 4×4’s. (In this stage, as usual, you will add 5# to the bar in succeeding weeks.)

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With these doubles and singles, you will find out whether you are paying enough attention to the little things, like scrunching your upper back up super-tight. It’s with details like this that you make your body a stable platform off which to press.

In the third stage comes the exotic part, the 6-4-2-1 workouts. You are about to get a real treat befitting your status as an experienced powerlifting competitor.

Take the weight you handled the previous week and add 15# to it. You are going to work up to a single with that weight today. First you will do 6 reps with a comfortably heavy weight. (Faleev lets you choose it on your own. I suggest something 30 to 40# lighter than your top weight for the day.) After 5 minutes’ rest, add some weight to the bar—not too much! 10# is plenty—and do four reps. Then add some more weight and do a double. Finally, jump all the way up to your planned weight for the day and “single” it.

Remember, this is not a max single!! Save that for game day! Today you are just practicing with a sub-maximal weight to build you up gradually up so that you peak on meet day—and not before!

The following week you will add 10# and repeat this process.

And the week after that, in place of a tenth workout, you will hit your planned weight of 240# in competition. Hooah!

Stage 1
      Week 1170 x 5 x 5
      Week 2175 x 5 x 5
      Week 3180 x 5 x 5
      Week 4185 x 5 x 5
Stage 2Add 10#
      Week 5195 x 4 x 4
      Week 6200 x 4 x 4
      Week 7205 x 4 x 4
Stage 3Add 15#. Work up to that in several jumps, as shown below.
      Week 8185 x 6; 195 x 4; 210 x 2; 220 x 1
      Week 9195 x 6; 205 x 4; 220 x 2; 230 x 1
      Week 10 (Meet day)240 x 1  (Suggested attempts: 215; 230; 240)

In our next installment, the even more advanced two-stage cycle.

Into the Rare Air

Part 12 of our series on the physical culture system of Alexey Faleev. If you are just joining us, find previous installments here.

You must compete, in sanctioned powerlifting meets. Faleev insists on it. You will focus much more intently on your training, progress farther faster, and get valuable experience and advice. You will expand your horizons: You will meet more advanced lifters (including major stars, since powerlifting is a pretty small world) and witness people lifting weights that now seem to you superhuman, but with this new frame of reference, you will start rising to their level. “Every last person in this room just squatted at least three wheels,” your subconscious will note. “It must not be a big deal.” Soon you will be squatting three wheels too.

Power Slang: “One wheel,” “two wheels,” “three wheels.” The big plates weighing 45# (or 20kg). When you include the weight of the bar itself (also 45#), these give you the major benchmarks of barbell lifting: 135#, 225#, 315#, 405#, and 495#.

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Under Faleev’s method, you train in sets of 5 because that is the “sweet spot” for growing in strength and muscle size and minimizing injury and fatigue. And in your first few competitions, you can go straight from a whole cycle of 5×5’s to competition and perform your best.

But as you grow stronger, you will need to accustom yourself to heavier weights occasionally. Why? It has less to do with your muscles, which are growing like weeds from the 5×5’s, than arcana having to do with motor learning, “stabilizer muscles,” and the emergency “circuit breakers” in our connective tissue. But suffice it to say, when you lift bigger weights, things that used to be minor details become a big deal, and you shouldn’t wait until game day to experience the shock for the first time.

Imagine a trainee who passed an early milestone and squatted 5×5 with his own bodyweight—well done!—and cycled up to two wheels (225#). In competition, he will launch 250# and, if properly focused, could stand up with 275#. Outstanding!

Thrilled by his success, he then keeps training til he’s using well over three wheels (315#) in his 5×5’s. By this point, he could conceivably get 400# in his next meet.

On game day, he crushes his first two attempts, which were safe and conservative, and he decides to swing for the fences and go all the way up to 400# on his third attempt.

Power Slang: “Attempts.” You get three attempts at each lift, and your score is the best of the three. Powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting both use this system, as do throwing and jumping sports.

His belt and wraps cinched tight, he wedges himself under the bar, lifts it off the uprights and … panics. His eyes, ears, and neck veins are popping—he never confronted such internal pressure in training—and the bar is pressing his trapezius muscles to jelly and mashing skin hard against bone. And he still has to walk the bar out! That is, he must step back from the uprights and make space for himself to squat the bar. He has never done this before either, walked backwards while balancing a 7-foot weight that’s heavier than his two best friends and contending with tunnel vision, shallow breathing, and elevated blood pressure. For a terrifying moment he feels his upper back buckle slightly, but he braces hard, steadies the swaying bar, and shuffles back in two choppy steps. His feet arrive and plant themselves, but the bar has not stopped—it’s still drifting backward! He can’t shuffle back fast enough to get under it because his legs are bound up in mummy wraps, and if the bar floats back past his feet, he’s going down. Frantically, he flexes his abs with the strength of the damned, but he’s never practiced this maneuver before. Behind him the spotters’ eyes grow wide and they make ready to rescue him, one to grab him around the chest and the others to try to catch the bar if it plummets…

Enough catastrophizing. The problem is that our athlete is strong enough to squat the bar, but with just 5×5’s he never got a chance to practice the little details with very heavy weights—the unracking, the walk-out, the panic-inducing effects of compression and intra-thoracic pressure. Early on, under lighter weights, he didn’t notice these little thing—only after he crossed an invisible threshold into Big League Weights. These problems only get more numerous as you climb higher in the sport. (Incidentally, when you practice visualizing yourself handling emergencies with suave sang-froid, scenarios like the above are perfect.) None of these issues is a huge deal, but our athlete learned about them all for the very first time during his competition, which is the very worst time to learn a new skill.

That is what training is for. And that is why Faleev provides a pair of more advanced cycles for seasoned competitors who need extra practice with heavy doubles and singles in the weeks before a major meet.

In our next installment, “Doubles and Singles.”

SNAFU But Not FUBAR: Practicing to Be Unflappable

Part 11 in our series on powerlifting coach Alexey Faleev. If you are just joining us, click here to find our table of contents for the whole series.

I hate insipid sports psychology, but Faleev has two tricks that really work.

First, I dislike cheesy, bombastic affirmations (“I will be unbeatable!”) because, when I try them, I stress myself out. First, it is objectively false that I am unbeatable or certain to succeed, and I end up reminding myself of how not confident I am by the fact that I awkwardly verbalize these ginned-up affectations. I am patently, clumsily trying brainwash myself, and I’m too smart for that (I hope).

Second, I suck at visualization, and ultimately sports are just a hobby. If I’m going to bust my nut re-landscaping my entire psyche, I need a better goal, something with really loooooong-term value, like enlightenment.

But Faleev does teach one kind of visualization that I’ll deign to do, and he throws a twist on it that is authentically brilliant and once saved my bacon big time.

He starts with a technique for assuaging pre-game jitters. Lying down and relaxing, “a person imagines himself as the protagonist of a movie who has the qualities that he desires to have in real life, such as confidence, courage, and composure.” In the movie, our character enters the arena on the day of the competition. We see the weather outside, the field being set up, the spectators beginning to fill the seats, and the referees milling around the scoring table. [Editor’s note: Just by typing this, I feel the familiar chilly pre-competition jitters rising, like I might barf.] Our character is walking around there with all the qualities we want for ourselves. He’s confident and cool as a cucumber. The movie follows our character into the locker room and the warm-up room, weaving our way among the other competitors. He looks unflappable, like James Bond.

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Faleev’s “mental movie” trick makes me feel as robotically calm as Ivan Drago.

Finally, the movie shows the athletes taking their places and the competition kicking off, with our character showing all the qualities we desire. And if at all possible, on game day we should arrive at the arena well ahead of time so that we can repeat our mental movies in the place itself.

If you ask me, the keys here are that you see yourself modeling the feelings you want to feel. Let me say that again. First, you aren’t just mentally visiting the arena and imagining the pre-game buzz (though you are indeed doing that). Importantly, you are seeing yourself walking around there feeling perfectly at home and ready to rumble. And second, you are seeing yourself feeling the desired feelings. You are not focused on visualizing a physically, outwardly flawless performance. You are imagining yourself with the dispositions that make you perform your best. To me this is important because (a) it is easier for me to imagine that in detail, and (b) I am not distracted by the sense that I am imagining a lie or brainwashing myself. I really am the master of my own dispositions, they are mine to control—that much is not a lie.

SNAFU, Not FUBAR

Speaking of control, Faleev adds something ingenious. Sports psychologists “have found that it is not enough just to imagine yourself in a normal competitive environment. It is also important to include various [adverse] surprises in the movie.” For example, a soccer player might imagine the referee making a clearly bone-headed, possibly even malicious call that costs her team a penalty kick. Such an unjust call “can simply kill players’ morale … and lead them to lose fighting efficiency … and surrender almost without a fight.” So during training, our player imagines these bad calls and her character responding by just playing even harder. She watches these mental movies of herself handling unexpected trouble with aplomb, and she affirms to herself, “Any difficulties just mobilize me!”

Fine, that makes for unidiomatic English, but I still like it! You or I might rather have said “motivate,” but I like Faleev’s “mobilize” (мобилизуют) because to my ear it doesn’t just sound subjective or mental. As we have observed before, Faleev scarcely differentiates between the athlete’s mental and physical thriving, and when he says the athlete is “mobilized,” he means it literally.

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Daniel’s wide-eyed, distracted, fearful, far-off staring dramatizes the near-paralysis of feeling intimidated so well that hearing the song from this sequence can almost make me hurl. In this moment he’s so incapacitated that even Ali in her pink sweater and cheerleader skirt could overpower him and give him a wedgie.

The poster boy for this was Alexander Kirichenko, a Soviet cyclist in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In a 1000m sprint, Kirichenko got to the 700m mark when he blew out a tire. “An unprepared person could easily have been unsettled by such a failure, but Alexander just ‘mobilized.’ He rode the last 300 meters on one tire and won the gold medal.”

Me, I took the “visualizing ugly surprises” technique to heart. (What could be more Buddhist?) In idle moments, I imagined myself hitting a minor obstacle and shaking it off. For example, I might see myself unracking a weight and accidentally banging it off the uprights, which unbalances you at a vulnerable moment. But then, in my movie, I went ahead and did my job anyway.

And hallelujah for that, because it helped me recover from a huge mistake. At a powerlifting meet, I’d misheard my start time and thought I had hours before I needed to warm up. So I was sitting in the audience wearing my street clothes, drinking tea and eating a snack, when the announcer called my name over the PA and said that I would make my first squat attempt in just a few minutes!! That left little time to change into a singlet and sneakers, barely time to chalk up and cinch my belt, and ZERO time to warm up.

I’d forked up big time, and as I scrambled to get my gear on and find my shoes, I should have been a basket case of catastrophizing and self-reproach. But instead I distinctly remember laughing a little bit as I mounted the platform for that first, ill-starred squat attempt that seemed destined to be a sh**show. And I must tell you, it really was a lousy squat and it got red-lighted. But I was still smiling and didn’t fall apart mentally,which surprises me to this day, and that afternoon I went on to PRs in the bench and deadlift.

Power Slang: “Red lights” – Rejection of a lift by the judges. In the squat, this is almost always because the lifter did not squat deeply enough.

In fact, it’s a measure of how little upset I was that I forgot about it right away. The whole circus happened so fast that my girlfriend was still outside parking the car and missed all the comedy, and I don’t think I even remembered to tell her that night!

In other words, Faleev trains you to respond to calamity as just a snafu, something you can bounce back from straightaway and maybe laugh about, not a FUBAR nightmare that poisons your morale and craters your equanimity.