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.

Cycling, Part 2: The Training Wheels Come Off

Part 9 in our series on physical culturist Alexey Faleev. If you are just joining us, welcome! You can find our table of contents here.

Nobody can get stronger continuously forever. At some point, you plateau and you have to drop your working weights down and build them back up over a period of weeks. If you plan correctly, you will then surpass your old limit and hit a couple of new personal records (PRs). Then you will repeat the cycle: lower the working weights, build back up, hit new PRs, and then “back-cycle” again.

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Powerlifting is like a super-friendly cult without the social isolation or group suicide. When you show up at your first meet, people love-bomb you because they’re so proud and excited that you showed up. They’re just glad to have you there and will go out of their way to encourage you and help you.

Once you’ve milked the last of your easy beginner’s gains and plateaued, it is time for you to make like a real powerlifter and start a cycle. Assuming you have already competed in a powerlifting meet–you have done that already, haven’t you? Haven’t you?!–then in my mind, the moment you finally resort to a classic training cycle is the moment that you remove the last of your “training wheels” and claim your place as an intermediate-level powerlifter. Congratulations!!

How to Plan Your Cycle

I will make this easy for you. Take out a piece of paper. Add 10# to the highest working weight you achieved in the squat, bench, and dead. Write that down. That is the personal record (PR) you are going to achieve at the end of your new cycle. Now subtract 45# from that number. That is the weight where you will begin your new cycle. You will do 5×5 with that weight next week, and will add 5# to the bar every week til you complete your cycle, ten weeks from now.

For example, if you plateaued in the squat at 250# for 5×5, in your new cycle you will begin in Week 1 with 215#, add 5 lbs. each week, and end with 260# in Week 10. With luck, you will complete all 25 reps at that weight, but even if you do not, this is nothing to fret over. You have completed your first powerlifting cycle. What a stud!

You will include all three lifts in this cycle. That is, when you “back-cycle” (i.e. reduce working weights) in the squat, you back-cycle in the bench and deadlift at the same time. You will begin your new 10-week squat cycle in the same week as you begin a new cycle in the bench and deadlift. Some powerlifters follow a different philosophy, but Faleev is absolutely adamant on this point. The reason we back-cycle is to give the body a rest and prepare it for its next great campaign, and Faleev insists that you back-cycle all the lifts together so that we give you a very thorough rest. (After all, it would not be resting very effectively if, when you rolled back your bench press poundages, you were still killing yourself on Wednesday nights to hit PRs in the infamously taxing deadlift!)

Power Slang: “Back-cycle” means to reduce your working weights and begin a new cycle.

I don’t want to leave questions unanswered, so at the risk of beating this to death, I am writing out the whole cycle below, week by week, for a lifter who has just plateaued at the following weights in the 5×5:  SQUAT 250# ; BENCH 185# ; DEADLIFT 275#.

SquatBenchDeadlift
Week 1215  (5×5)150  (5×5)240  (5×5)
Week 2220  (5×5)155  (5×5)245  (5×5)
Week 3225  (5×5)160  (5×5)250  (5×5)
Week 4230  (5×5)165  (5×5)255  (5×5)
Week 5235  (5×5)170  (5×5)260  (5×5)
Week 6240  (5×5)175  (5×5)265  (5×5)
Week 7245  (5×5)180  (5×5)270  (5×5)
Week 8250  (5×5)185  (5×5)275  (5×5)
Week 9255  (5×4-5)190  (5×5)280  (5×4-5)
Week 10260  (5×3-5)195  (5×5)285  (5×3-5)

Notice that, in Week 9 in the squat and deadlift, our athlete couldn’t complete all 25 reps in good form. That’s OK! He still followed the plan, added weight to the bar as scheduled, and hit some good reps with that higher weight. OORAH!!

Now he draws up a new 10-week cycle, just like the one above, but the weights will all be 10# heavier this time.

“Isn’t it discouraging when you have to begin a whole new cycle with weights that now feel so easy to you?” NO!! That is the voice of a newb talking, and you are no longer a newb! You are a real-deal powerlifter, so we need to make you understand this: When you start over with those “easy” weights, you are accomplishing something very important, and I do not just mean recovering.

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If you’re interested in these “complicated reasons” that I’m being so evasive about, read this.

To grow bigger and stronger, you must accumulate a LOT of reps over months and years. As I’ve mentioned briefly in the past, the magic ingredient in getting stronger and bigger is volume, the total number of reps in a given period of time, regardless of the exact poundage. In other words, for complicated reasons I won’t try to explain, you are actively improving in those early weeks of the cycle despite using submaximal poundages. (In fact, for other complicated reasons, you’re progressing much faster and farther precisely because you are varying your poundages.)

One last thing: During those easy, early weeks of the cycle, you have some leisure to reflect and enjoy the success you have created for yourself so far. Flip back a few months in your training journal: Look how far you have come! You now toy with weights that would have flattened you when you started. You are probably closing in on some classic milestones of the early-career strength athlete, like squatting and bench pressing your own bodyweight for reps or deadlifting twice your bodyweight. Or maybe you have already passed those benchmarks. This is the time to pat yourself on the back. Don’t worry, you will struggle soon enough! In a few weeks, the bar will be heavy and you will need to concentrate hard. By the end of the cycle, as workout time approaches, you will have butterflies in your stomach about the ordeal ahead.

In our next installment, we will talk about how Faleev teaches you to handle dread and fear. But now, early in your cycle, this is the time for you to revel in your accomplishments.

Cycling, Part 1: The Salad Days of the Powerlifter

Find the table of contents to our whole 15-part series on the system of Alexey Faleev here.

When you start out in strength training, it is exhilarating because you can add muscle weight and bar weight very quickly. After all, it is easy to improve on zero!

Faleev prescribes five short, refreshing workouts per week. If you haven’t yet read Pavel Tsatsouline’s short article on Faleev, do so now and familiarize yourself with the basic set-up. I will not repeat that material here but will assume that you have already absorbed it.

Ready? Follow Faleev’s advice and begin by attempting sets of 8 reps. When you complete all 8 reps in good form for all 5 sets, the following week add 5# (for the bench press) or 10# (for the squat or deadlift). These 8-reps sets will start inflating your muscles quickly.

As a rule of thumb, sets of 8+ reps build bigger muscles, sets of 1-3 reps make you stronger but not bigger, and sets of 4-6 reps do both. With these eight-rep sets, Faleev is going to pack some muscle onto your frame to prepare you for the big weights to come, and he is also taking advantage of the lighter weights you are using right now to give you practice in the subtleties of squat, bench, and deadlift technique.

In your first few months of serious training, it’s a lot of fun to see your muscles swell up like sausages. To enjoy it fully, I would invest now in something that everyone should own anyway, a Tanita scale (Tanita BF680W Duo Scale Plus Body Fat Monitor with Athletic Mode and Body Water). Aside from measuring your total bodyweight, it also uses your skin conductivity to estimate your bodyfat percentage and, with simple arithmetic, you can calculate your lean body mass. In other words, you can track exactly how much muscle you’ve gained.

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Before Faleev. A long-time gym rat and kettlebell fanatic, but no background in powerlifting. Compare this to…

As you add weight to the bar over successive weeks, at some point you’ll find it hard to complete 5 sets of 8. When that happens, change to 5 sets of 7. And remember, this is not a defeat, this is a good thing! You are gradually starting to use some serious weight! After yet more time, you will need to drop down to sets of 6, and finally to sets of 5. When that day comes, celebrate! You’re no longer a total newb; you are now officially a beginning powerlifter! And you are definitely thicker and stronger than before.

WABDL meet in Chico 2010
…Less than six weeks into the Faleev program but already 10 or 15 pounds heavier. For perspective, compare the necks in the two photos.

Welcome to what are about to be the greatest months of your powerlifting career, the “easy gains.” Long may they last! You will train 5×5’s (five sets of five) in the manner described in Pavel’s article, adding 5# or 10# to your bench or squat and deadlift weights (respectively) whenever you complete all 25 reps. Being new to the game, you will be able to add weight to the bar (and to your frame) regularly and don’t need any fancy strategizing. During this phase, I was already a 20-year iron rat, and nevertheless in five or six months I gained 30#. You will also be buying new clothes, so set some money aside. Seriously, you won’t fit into your old stuff.

Eventually, though, the strength gains will slow. You will add weight to the bar and find that you are struggling to complete all 25 reps even after three consecutive weeks. For me, it happened in the bench press first. My squat and dead were still humming along, but my bench was stalling.

If this happens to you—two lifts are still progressing well but one lift holds out against you for three weeks—I have a fix for you. Leave everything unchanged with those first two lifts—we want to milk them for all the easy gains we can—but in the stubborn lift we will drop you down to 3 sets of 3.

For example, your squat and pull are still progressing but your bench is stalling at 205#. Maybe you can get to five reps on the first set or two but not all five. Very well, next week we will keep the bar weight at 205# but you will only attempt 3×3! (BTW, this is not a bad thing or a failure. In fact, you should treat this as a milestone and an honor. “Triples” are for real strength athletes only! Normal people have no business attempting them, and even dedicated strength athletes have to work up to this level and earn the privilege. You are now there!)

Power Slang: “Triples,” “doubles,” and “singles” are sets of 3, 2, or 1 reps. These are very powerful medicine and generally have no place in a normal person’s routine. Now that you are powerlifting, I regret to tell you that you are no longer normal. However, you are still not authorized to fool around with these unless specifically directed to do so. Your bread and butter is 5×5’s.

Chances are that you will nail the 3×3 at the very next workout. Great! The following week, add 5# to the bar as usual and attempt 3×3 again. Stay with that 3×3 scheme in the bench for as long as the other two lifts are still cruising.

Finally, when your progress also stalls in one or both of those other lifts, then stop there. It is now time for us to award you your Official No-Longer-a-Beginner Powerlifter patch and induct you into the greatest of powerlifting mysteries: CYCLES!

(To be continued)

Push-Pull: The Bench and Deadlift

Part 8 in our series on Russian physical culturist and powerlifting coach Alexey Faleev. If you are just joining us, click here for the table of contents linking to all 15 installments.

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http://www.jtsstrength.com

In the bench, Faleev wants you to learn to arch as high as you can. Your powerlifting friend(s) will help you with this. He definitely wants you wearing a belt for the bench press because it cues you to hold the tension in your lats and upper back needed for a heavy bench press, and he suggests you try wearing the wide part over your belly to prevent it from interfering with your arch. (Here in gear-crazy Murica, you could just buy a purpose-made benching belt.) Also, wrap your wrists: you will press more and protect the joints.

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On deadlifts, Faleev is radical: he insists that you always train with straps.

Rarely seen in powerlifting gyms, straps are a way to bind your wrists to the bar to relieve much of the burden on your grip strength. In my experience, they are frowned upon by most serious powerlifters. I for one would feel a little embarrassed if someone I respected found them in my garage. No, they’re not child porn, but they are a crutch. Instead of looking for the easy way out of a notoriously demanding lift–so say the purists–it’s better to train the deadlift under competition conditions, no?

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But Faleev’s answer is cogent: you are already not training under competition conditions. During a powerlifting meet, you only pull singles, whereas in training you crank out five reps at a time. In competition, grip endurance will not be a problem.  So why make a big deal of it in training? When you insist stubbornly on pulling five-rep sets without straps, you get preoccupied with your hands and their struggle to keep hold of a slipping bar. So now, instead of working your back like you are supposed to, you are spending huge personal resources–deadlifts being the most draining of the three lifts–to develop grip endurance, which is not even part of powerlifting! “As a result,” he says, “the back is left underdeveloped.” Don’t fret: in case your grip really does start to lag behind for some reason, there is an easy fix. Faleev will approve specialized grip work for you—problem solved. So when you deadlift, use the exercise for its actual purpose: pushing the envelope with your back muscles. Don’t waste this opportunity by turning it into a petty grip endurance event. (Shameless plug: Use IronMind Strong-Enough Lifting Straps)

Power Slang: “Pull” here just means “deadlift.” You deadlift using the “posterior chain,” the same set of muscles you’d use to do a tug-of-war. So even though superficially it looks like someone grabbing a barbell and standing up with it, what it feels like is pulling something up and backward. In the photo you can see that, even before Valeriya Shcheglova has started the lift, already she is leaning back so hard that she would somersault if she weren’t counterbalanced by a barbell that’s more than twice her weight.

I have found straps nice for stretching, too. I use Jumpstretch bands to stretch the upper body, but it tires my grip to grab the bands and suspend a lot of bodyweight from them when my hands are sweaty and fatigued. So I strap my hands to the bands, and then stretching is once again the relaxing, gooey-melting-chocolate-chip treat that Faleev intends.

If you are truly a rank beginner, Faleev orders you to wait for a month before you deadlift. During that time, you will strengthen your back, glutes, and hams and learn to use them together by squatting. Within a month you will be up to speed and ready to deadlift.

In our next installment, cycling. Not the kind with lycra and velodromes but varying your working weights over weeks and months, from lighter to heavier to lighter again, to keep yourself progressing instead of plateauing.

“Nothing Extra!”

Part 7 in our 15-part series on physical culturist Alexey Faleev. If you’re behind, catch up by visiting the table of contents.

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.

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

Part 6 on the physical culture teachings of Alexey Faleev. See here for links to all 15 parts.

Faleev treats recovery almost as a religion. Sleep is sacred, he writes, and any athlete must make it a top priority.

Visit the Russian bath once a week. (I guess most of us will have to make do with a steam room.)

Like every Russian physical culturist, he likes “tempering” with cold water. Traditionally this is done by standing outside, with bare feet on bare earth, and pouring a bucket of ice water over oneself. I’ve done this before and it really does feel great. But he insists that you begin and end with heat, either a steam room, a sauna, or a hot shower. (A simpler alternative is the “contrast shower”: hot water, then cold, then hot and cold and hot again. It’s very invigorating.)

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You can make kvass with almost anything. Most commonly it’s rye bread, but here at Dog HQ, gluten is not on the menu, so we often use oats and berries.

And no ice-cold beverages. Go for hot drinks instead. He also strongly recommends pickled and fermented foods, pine nuts, raw honey, and—my favorite!—kvass.

Faleev praises kvass for its vitamin content and effect on our gut biome, and he claims it speeds recovery from exertion and even has saved the lives of many a zek (prisoner) in the death traps that are Russian prisons:

“We all have heard what Russian prisons are like. The reality is that our prisons are not aimed at reforming people but mainly at destroying them. … Death in prison can be violent, of course, but more often it comes from exhaustion, lack of vitamins, and disease … The zeki are beaten and use any tiny opportunity to stay alive. The most experienced zeki make kvass in secret and thus are able to maintain their health. They get a spoonful of sugar and a piece of bread daily, and they can scrounge a jar [to hold the sugar, bread, and water] and bury it so that no one will inform the authorities. In ten days, the kvass is ready. If there is no bread, they make it with tree bark, especially aspen bark. Kvass lets you ward off sickness and maintain strength.”

As Faleev notes, you can make kvass from most any vegetable matter: traditional kvasses include those made from rye bread, berries, watermelon rinds, or beets. For athletes he particularly recommends kvass made with herbs, including sage, foxglove, lily of the valley, eucalyptus, and pine needles.

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These guys were deliberately worked to death in Arctic lumber camps and uranium mines. Faleev figures, if kvass kept them alive through that, maybe you should consider some too.

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 the beginning of our series! Links to all 15 installments are here.

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.  Find links to all installments here.

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.
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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.

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.

Powerlifter-Puke
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. Please find links to all installments 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.