Your weight is junk data, your mirror is unreliable, and your feelings are fake news

Feeling fat, looking fat, and being fat are three separate things. You can “feel fat” without looking or being fat. I’ll hazard a guess that it’s mostly emotional, but even when you’re not being particularly neurotic, you can feel fatter or leaner depending on the fit of your clothes and your posture.

You can also look leaner or chubbier from day to day, just based on factors other than bodyfat. Posture is a big one. So is lighting. And biggest of all are the ebbs and flows of hydration and muscle glycogen. Do you ever glimpse yourself in the bathroom mirror and look surprisingly lean? Well unless little elves came during the night and gave you liposuction, you just happened to eat a combination of things that inadvertently flushed out subcutaneous water without depleting muscle glycogen. On that particular day, your skin happens to be at its thinnest and your muscles right at their fullest. Result: you look a little ripped, at least for a couple of hours. 

If you track your bodyfat every day, you find that there’s less correlation than you thought among your weight, your bodyfat level, and your appearance. Right now I weigh a lot, a level that was only normal when I was a powerlifter eating like an ox. And I don’t look very lean either: I’m waterlogged, with thick skin and blurry abs. And subjectively I feel a little chubby: I’m wearing the big-waisted jeans that I keep in storage for the occasional squatting cycle, when I bloat into a stout, gluteal Michelin Man, and if I strip off my shirt at yoga these days I look like a tanned marshmallow with a rubber band around its middle. And yet to my amazement, when I run the numbers, I find I’ve got way more lean body mass with just the same amount of fat as last summer, when I had a nice, wasp waist. Strange as it seems, even though I feel bloated and look pretty “blah” in my shaving mirror, I’ve got maybe the best body composition of my life right now.

So why the difference? It’s that I’m holding way more water too. Yes, I’ll have to change some things if I’m suddenly offered a photo shoot as a middle-aged underwear model. But for now, since no one has recognized my potential—give me a chance, Madison Avenue! I could be great!—I shouldn’t change a thing. 

I’m glad I know that, because now I won’t mess with success. But I want to underscore that the only reason I know it, despite cockeyed subjective impressions, is that I’ve got an objective measure in the Tanita scale. 

So here’s today’s takeaway for everyday lean, solid dogs:

  1. Your regular bathroom scale only gives you junk data, your mirror is unreliable, and how lean or fat you feel is fake news. 
  2. If you’re going to track something, make it something objective and reliable. Spend $40 for a Tanita scale. Track your actual bodyfat percentage. Everything else is evanescent, subjective, or both.
  3. Try out the many successful, easy approaches for leaning out, and (here’s my $.02 for the menfolk), once you get to 12%, just hold steady there. I’m not alone in thinking that that’s a sweet spot: easy to reach, easy to maintain, and makes you fit and healthy and mobile and trim without being onerous.

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.

A Farewell to Fatigue: How to “Fragment the Load”

Did Hemingway invigorate himself to run with the bulls in Pamplona by blowtorching his lungs doing Crossfit? Hell no. Papa knew how to pace himself.

Part 5 in our series “Tao of the Lazy Badass.” Find the first four installments here, here, here, and here.

You already know the First Law of the Lazy Badass: “Do a lot of volume while minimizing fatigue.” Today we teach you how to minimize fatigue.

When you accumulate volume (i.e. total reps), you’re depositing money in the bank. The deposits seem small and insignificant, but you make them often and with no sense of sacrifice. That’s important: we want you refreshed by your workouts and recovered quickly. That way you’ll crave your next bout of exercise—you dirty endorphin junky!—and you’ll be fresh and ready to hit the iron or the trail again ASAP. That is why the lazy badass minimizes fatigue.

Sounds great in theory. But how do you maximize volume without also building up fatigue? Get ready, because here comes the second big secret …

Fragment the load

“That’s pretty gnomic,” you might be saying. “WTF does that mean?” It means that you should space out the work. Chop it into bite-sized pieces.

Let me start with an example of the WRONG way to do a lot of volume.

Gironda was not a tactful man.When the Iron Guru first met a young unknown named Schwarzenegger, who announced his intention to become Mr. Universe one day, Gironda sneered and retorted, “You look like a fat fuck to me.”

In popular muscle media, there’s a renaissance in people writing about “German Volume Training,” the (in)famous bodybuilding protocol that, despite its name, probably originated in Hollywood with Vince Gironda, preceptor to the young Arnold Schwartznegger and “Iron Guru” of bodybuilding in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Vince taught trainees to rack up a lot of volume—so far so good!—but he made them hurry through that at a breakneck pace with very little rest. He prescribed a whopping 100 total reps per exercise, done in 10 sets of 10 with just 30-60 seconds of rest in between. That’s massively fatiguing. And you have to settle for using wimpy weights, because you can’t complete that protocol with even moderate poundages. And you will need days to recover from it. And it’s the opposite of fun and refreshing. It takes great willpower to do it even one time, and you will NOT look forward to doing it again. 

Fatigue sucks, and that’s why it is contrary to the Tao of the lazy badass to rush through volume with little rest, a thundering pulse, and buckets of sweat. To delay fatigue and accomplish more total work, the lazy badass fragments the load by breaking it up into many short sets. Instead of completing your sets and reps quickly, space them out. For example, instead of blowtorching the muscles with high-fatigue sets of 10 reps, an aspiring lazy badass could do the following:

Set up a clock near your kettlebell / barbell / whatever. At the top of every minute, do an easy 4 reps. That might only take you 10-20 seconds, and that’s fine. Rest for the remainder of the minute. At the top of the next minute, do your next four reps. Keep repeating, making haste slowly. While your friend attempts the German Volume protocol with his trachea on fire, you’ll be happy as a clam. As the minutes tick by, not only won’t you tire out, you might actually feel stronger and zestier than when you started.

Training “on the minute” is associated with Scott Sonnon, the martial artist who brought back exercise clubs in this country.

Your friend will be very lucky to complete his 100 reps at all; but you’ll cruise along contentedly, til after 25 minutes you’ve cranked out your 100 reps and gotten high on endorphins too. And if you start to tire before then and your heart rate starts to climb, no problem! Just drop down to 3 reps per minute. Or even 2 reps. There is no time limit here! Your only job is to accumulate volume, and there’s no penalty for doing it slowly. 

This “on the minute” protocol is only one of the many proven ways for a lazy badass to fragment the load. In our next installment or two, we’ll talk about some of the other techniques. You can pick the one that suits your schedule and your pace the best. It makes little difference. They all follow the Tao of the Lazy Badass (which, once again, is to maximize volume and minimize fatigue) by breaking up the work into small, enjoyable packets with lots of rest smeared all over, like butter on pancakes. 

“Those the gods would destroy, they encumber with a TRX instructor”

It’s always some heavily muscled personal trainer. My toughest moments at Goruck challenges are when I must fireman’s carry a teammate, and it’s never the vegetarian triathlete who works for a socially conscious startup. I always get the dense, hypertrophied Paleo stevedore-type who runs a gym.

It’s amazingly easy to fireman’s carry someone, but it’s surpringly hard to keep it up for long. So today’s game was called “Desmond Down,” in honor of the barrel-chested personal trainer whom I had the horror honor of helping to carry for the last mile on Saturday, when he was suddenly designated a “casualty” by cadre fiat. I trudged up the Rock of Faeries shoulder-carrying the 150# sandbag.

You’d expect the climbing to be the worst part, and you’d be right, but I was surprised by just how hard–I’ll bet the last 150 vertical feet took close to an hour. And it wasn’t much easier to lift the bag onto the shoulder in the first place. In both cases, the golden rule seems to be keep your hips directly under the bag. “Duh,” right? But you can let the hips drift without noticing, and even a couple of inches increases the stress and heart rate.

I’ll do this one again, but not on rocky slopes. I have plenty of good training ideas that don’t risk falling on igneous rock, and if I had attempted this in the shallowly-treaded Goruck boots, I’d be blogging from Valhalla right now.

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.

The Tao of the Lazy Badass

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Enter the Deadlift

Part 6 in our series “20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline.” Complete table of contents here.

Before Pavel came along, we did not deadlift. By “we” I mean young ironheads who wanted big muscles and got our (mis)information from dime store bodybuilding magazines.

“[T]he deadlift is THE exercise of choice for anyone.” In 1999 Pavel sounded so radical to me that I wondered if he was a crackpot.

When I began lifting weights as a teenager, I absorbed the prevailing leeriness about the deadlift. We imitated bodybuilders, and the bodybuilders said deadlifts were risky. 

Perhaps it was natural that they would be wary. Bodybuilders normally train with high reps (10+), and that really is too much for an exercise that demands perfect form like the deadlift, where even five reps is a lot. Also, bodybuilders grow best on very modest poundages, so many of them lack experience with big weights like those involved in deadlifting. After all, even a (male) beginner soon deadlifts a massive-looking three “wheels.”

Nevertheless, mostly we were intimidated by the deadlift because of ingrained superstition. In modern America we are as paranoid about straining our backs as medieval villagers were about vampires or bathing. I do not know how we aspiring bodybuilders supposed that powerlifters got away with pulling triple bodyweight in such a supposedly dangerous lift. In those days, powerlifters seemed like leprechauns, rare and mysterious creatures in a faraway land, and you stood little chance of even meeting one, much less learning his ways.

Bodybuilders also did not know how deadlifts would fit into their peculiar kind of training schedule. Most bodybuilders practice what they call a “split.” They divide the body into two or three areas, such as “chest, back, and legs” or “upper and lower body,” and train a different area each day in isolation. But you cannot cram the deadlift into those pigeon-holes because it is a whole-body lift: the deadlift does not care if today is supposed to be “leg day” or “back day,” it uses both hard.

Bob Peoples, patron saint of deadlifters, pulled more than anyone alive but he still weighed less than my T-ball coach. Not exactly what my teenage self was going for.

Finally, bodybuilders noticed that the deadlift builds little bulk. You can pull well over 800# and still be much too small for even a Division III linebacker.

For all these reasons, bodybuilders much prefer to squat. Squats add far more meat to your bones than the deadlift. They fit easily into a bodybuilding split, since they are unambiguously a lower-body exercise, even though they add muscle to the whole body. (Fun fact: if you want bigger biceps, do squats.) And you can recover much faster from squats than from deadlifts, especially when you squat with the moderate poundages and high reps that bodybuilders favor. 

… But teenagers like me wanted to look like “the quadfather,” Tom Platz, so we squatted til our legs turned to jelly.

So I did as I was taught. I specialized in the squat, which did indeed inflate my legs so much that I looked like I was wearing football thigh pads even if I wasn’t, and I avoided deadlifts in favor of—and this is crazy—stiff-legged deadlifts. That was standard practice at that time. We used the stiff-leg to develop our hamstrings, which it certainly did, and luckily it also taught many of the same important lessons as real, bent-legged deadlifts, like cinching the lats and abs to stiffen the trunk. The mystery is why we thought it was safer than deadlifts. True, you were limited to a lower poundage, but not much lower: I was routinely stiff-legging 275# as a medium-sized teenager. And furthermore we were putting much greater shear forces on our spines, especially with the exaggerated ranges of motion that we practiced for (supposedly) better muscle-building effect.

Stiff-legged deadlifts, an old classic. Do not try these at home. Stick to real (i.e. bent-legged) deadlifts.

We could and should have been doing real deadlifts instead, but we were captive to bodybuilding folklore. 

Pavel changed that in Power to the People (1999).

Call me biased,” he wrote, “but the deadlift is THE exercise of choice for anyone, from a computer geek to an Olympic athlete! It lends itself to tremendous weights [and] teaches you some useful habits for everyday life … Hardcore metal heads usually praise the squat as the numero uno exercise … I disagree. The squat is a very technical lift. A beginner needs a few months of instruction by a powerlifter before he can do a decent squat. 99% of the squats I have witnessed at health clubs, even by seasoned gym rats, were atrocious in form. Besides, you need reliable spotters and/or a safety rack unless you want to get squashed like a bug if you make a wrong move. The deadlift can simply be dropped which makes it a lot more user friendly. And the deadlift works a lot more muscles than the squat because you must hold on to the bar instead of letting it ride on your shoulders. Any way you look at it the deadlift wins hands down! … Squat fans, please send your hate mail directly to the round file.”

In later years, when Pavel had made his name, he would be even more blunt: “If you are not deadlifting, you are not training” (Easy Strength, 2011).

He was absolutely right about the deadlift. Of course, it took a few years for the message to catch on, and students of Pavel’s methods could recognize each other because we were usually the only people in weight room deadlifting. In 2000, I visited a new gym and, as I started to deadlift, I noticed a stranger who kept looking my way. It wasn’t a disconcerting look, just the sort of studying gaze you might give someone who seems oddly familiar. I stripped the bar down after just two sets of five deadlifts—fewer sets and fewer reps than you normally saw in those days—and this was a dead giveaway. I saw the man nod to himself and march over to greet me like strangers who meet in a foreign land and recognize each other as fellow countrymen. “You’ve been reading Power to the People, haven’t you? Me too!”

Why did two sets of five reps alert this man to my membership in “the Party” as surely as a secret Masonic handshake? This will be the subject of our next installment.