“Nothing Extra!”

Part 7 in our series on physical culturist Alexey Faleev. If you’re behind, catch up here.

Not afraid of a little nationalism, Faleev says that former Eastern Bloc countries dominate strength sports largely because they concentrate on doing the few important things well, whereas Western trainees are influenced by bodybuilding, physique magazines, and exercise machines. He does not actually say words like “narcissism” or “effeminacy,” but I’d guess he’s thinking them.

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Nyet.

When you enter a gym, if you see anything covered in chrome, that is a bad sign. So are Nautilus-like machines. Faleev acknowledges almost no legitimate use for them except so that gym owners can gull misguided people into paying monthly gym dues. What you want to see in a proper gym is “an unpretentious room where serious people are working” like burly, menthol-scented medieval monks on squats, deadlifts, and benches. “Nothing extra.” Indeed, this could be Faleev’s mantra or his epitaph. “Nothing extra!”

“This idea is so unusual for many athletes, that I will repeat it again,” he writes. “For rapid muscle growth and results you have to do only three exercises: the bench press, squat, and deadlift.” Do one lift well (meaning, according to a predetermined plan), then stretch, and leave. “Anything more is detrimental. … You will feel like you are not doing enough. You will leave the gym feeling completely fresh. This reserve of energy is what lets you add weight next time and shoot beyond your past performance.”

 

Squat

Faleev gives basic cues for the three lifts, and I will not recapitulate them here. You can learn them better and more easily from any powerlifter. And I repeat, powerlifter. Not a bodybuilder! (Bodybuilders—peace and blessings upon them—are wonderful people, but they do things differently and it could cost you some joints. You are now a baby powerlifter.)

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Knee wraps aren’t comfortable, but they’ll let you use higher working weights.    https://www.elitefts.com/education/the-ins-and-outs-of-knee-wraps/

But Faleev does hold some unorthodox opinions that I’ll record here. On your heavy squat days, Faleev wants you to wear knee wraps. For all sets, even warm-ups. They protect the knee, he says, and boost your working weights, making you stronger faster. Knee sleeves are OK, but he seems to prefer real powerlifting wraps. Wrap them loose or wrap them tight, but wrap them.

I hate squatting in wraps. They cut off circulation, jack up your blood pressure, and at the bottom of the squat they crush the back of your calf so hard they feel like bear traps. But Faleev retorts, “The pain has a positive value – it motivates. The athlete gets angry, thinks less about the weight of the bar, wants to execute the set more quickly, and eventually lifts more.” Sheesh, fine, but only because I get to reward myself with cookies afterward.

Next time, Faleev on the bench press and deadlift.

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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 Spirituality: How to Get “In the Zone” the Russian Way

Part 3 in our series on physical culturist Alexey Faleev. Read earlier installments here and here.

“Athletes don’t lift with their muscles,” writes Alexey Faleev. “They lift with their heads.” He makes zero effort to separate physical performance from the athlete’s thoughts, moods, and happiness. In this, he is following some other great Russian physical culturists. The “father of Russian hockey,” Anatoli Tarasov, tracked key statistical indicators like a true scientifically Marxist Soviet planner long before the Moneyball revolution in America, but he trained his players to approach their hockey as a beautiful act of creativity. He kept them mindful that playing hockey is supposed to give you joy. Otherwise, why play games at all? Famously, he would call out to his players on the ice, “Smile! You’re playing hockey!”

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Anatoli Tarasov, father of the Russian hockey program

Accordingly, Faleev loves to talk about how to get into “the zone.” Except he calls it vdokhnoveniye, “inspiration.” I love it!

“There are different practices to achieve ‘inspiration,’” he says, “but they all boil down to regulating the pulse.” (Remember what we said? Faleev doesn’t differentiate between mental readiness and physical readiness!) To get “inspired,” you need to maintain your pulse in its optimal range. Above that range you can get ragged and sloppy. Worse still, below that range you’ll be understimulated and too sluggish and unfocused to do your best.

He illustrates with a story from sports psychologist Anatoly Alexeev about his work with the Soviet shooting teams.

At the national trap shooting championship, Alexeev approached one of his athletes as she stood on the firing line shortly before the final round. He noticed something “off” about the athlete, so Alexeev took her pulse. “As expected,” he wrote later, “it was just 88 beats per minute,” much lower than her optimal 124 bpm. “Quick, give me the gun!” he snapped. “See that birch tree over there? Sprint there and back. Now! Go!” Confused, afraid, and a little irritated with Alexeev, the athlete did as ordered, came back with her pulse suitably elevated, and went on to demolish her opponent.

What’s your optimal range for “inspiration?” It differs by sport and athlete, but if you want my opinion, a good formula for strength sports is 160 beats per minute minus your age. Stay within +/- 5 beats per minute and you’ll be good. (Keep in mind, I’m nobody. This is just one mid-level amateur’s opinion.)

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Four-time world champion and author of eight books, including a three-volume novel! Can you tell I heart Yuri Vlasov? Well so did Arnold Schwarzenegger, so deal with it.

“So,” you ask, “does that story mean I should do sprints before a workout or competition?” No! That was an emergency measure. Faleev says that you should get up to your sweet spot in some way that doesn’t involve using your legs, which would tire you out.

How creative can you get? Weightlifter Yuri Vlasov, the great Soviet sportsman of his generation, was a bespectacled poetry fan. Just the kind of “muscular intellectual” we like here at Lean, Solid Dogs! To bump up his heart rate before big attempts, Vlasov would silently recite macho, stoic verse like Emile Verhaeren’s poem “The Sword” (Le Glaive): “Your body, where the blood of unsullied ancestors sours, / fragile and clumsy, will break itself with each effort / You will be the febrile man bent upon the windows (??) / whence we can see leaping life and its golden chariots.” Damn, get me to a barbell! I’m inspired!

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The “Austrian Oak” meets his childhood idol, Yuri Vlasov. (1988)

If you are not as literary as Comrade Yuri Petrovich, who did wear pop-bottle glasses after all, Faleev recommends shadow-boxing or “fast and loose” drills. They will elevate your heart rate suitably without fatiguing you.

In our next installment, Faleev’s dark arts of applied yoga.

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.

Warm and Loose

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Like Faleev’s cheekbones, his system could not be more Russian if it played a balalaika and recited Pushkin over a chess board covered with vodka and pickles.

There are three things (OK, four) that I’d like to go back and experience again for the first time:

  • learning Chinese, when each conversation was a fresh mystery;
  • lifting kettlebells, whose weird centers of gravity made it like driving a sports car recklessly fast on a twisting road;
  • and starting out in powerlifting with Alexey Faleev’s system. 

 

I can’t go back in time, but I still get a vicarious thrill because lifting-and-throwing partner Michelle Skadisdottir is starting the Faleev program! Unfortunately, in English we only have one short article on his system, so I’ll gradually publish the notes I made years ago while I struggled through Faleev’s book (Sekrety silovogo treninga, 2009).

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Today we’ll begin with a subject that is almost an obsession with Faleev: keeping athletes warm.

 

 

 

 

Stay Warm and Loose

Faleev believes in a looong warm up. For a workout where you will reach cruising altitude with 300 lbs., he wants you to warm up with 15 reps with an empty bar, then 10 reps with 100#, then 8 with 180#, 6 with 220#, and 5 with 260#. [There’s nothing magical about these particular numbers. Just do five warm-up sets, starting with an empty bar and working up to 80-85% of the day’s working weight.]

He also wants you to prepare your muscles for strain with some kind of hot liniment.

In America, powerlifters use liniments made for horses. They stink but are very effective. When applying to the hip creases, carefully avoid contact with the, um, organs of generation. Maybe I am especially bumbling, but I constantly had misadventures in this department. Not fun, and a real distraction from training. I recommend a few practice runs beforehand, experimenting with different underwear options, using a harmless moisturizer before you risk the horse stuff.

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President Putin can strip to the waist and wrestle bears if he wants, but Faleev insists that you dress warmly when lifting.

Finally, Faleev wants you to dress warmly too. Abbreviated costumes like you see in the Chrome and Fern Pleasure Palaces (commercial gyms) are out of place. Real lifters wear sweats. This is simply a practical matter: muscles, tendons, and ligaments are soft tissue. Life taffy, they are supple when warm but when they got cold and then are suddenly pulled hard, they can break.

 

You get to rest a full 5 minutes between sets, but you should stay standing and walking around. You guessed it—Faleev is afraid you will take a seat, cool off, and stiffen up. But more than keeping your muscles warm, Faleev wants to keep your heart rate slightly elevated and keep you “inspired.” More tomorrow on “inspiration” and what I think of as Faleev’s “Sports Spiritualism.”

Physical Culture with Alexey Faleev

Table of Contents

Part 1: Warm and Loose!

Part 2: Sports Spiritualism: Waxed Moustaches, German Nudists, and Russian Powerlifters

Part 3: Sports Spirituality: How to Get “In the Zone” the Russian Way

Part 4: The Dark Arts of Applied Yoga: Psyching Up

Part 5: Livid to Languid

Part 6: Kvass, Sour Life-Giving Ambrosia of Political Prisoners and Gods

Part 7: “Nothing Extra!”

Part 8: Push-Pull: The Bench and Deadlift

Part 9: Cycling, Part 1: The Salad Days of the Powerlifter

Part 10: Cycling, Part 2: The Training Wheels Come Off

Part 11: SNAFU But Not FUBAR: Practicing to Be Unflappable

Part 12: Into the Rare Air

Part 13: Doubles and Singles (Cycling, Part 3)

Part 14: Two-Stage Cycles (Cycling, Part 4)

Part 15: After Faleev – What to Expect