Navigational Epiphanies

To prepare for the Seattle Star Course, I’ve been playing with topo maps, Google Maps, and Road Warrior, feeding them different scenarios, and here’s what I’ve concluded:
1) Plan with Road Warrior, but don’t walk with it. As far as I can tell, Road Warrior is really designed for delivery drivers. It’s great for driving on errands in the most efficient order. But when you choose this path or that path to walk to your next point, you’re stretching Road Warrior outside of what it’s designed for. Despite its “walking” mode, it thinks you’re a very slow car and cares nothing about elevation. I fed it scenarios in Seattle and it always dictates the straightest possible line, even up steep slopes, and even when a flatter alternative exists. (Example: In one scenario, instead of a 2.4-mile route with only 100 ft of climb, it chose the more direct 2.3-mile path that climbs almost 400 feet!)
2) Walk with Google Maps on CYCLING mode: Cyclists terrify me on the winding rural highways near my home, where once a year I whizz around a turn at 55mph and suddenly have a near-death encounter with a slow-moving peloton. But DAMN they get things done in Silicon Valley! Because even though Google Maps shows decent awareness of elevation when you ask for directions in walking mode, it rocks at avoiding climbs in cycling mode. Here’s an example: It suggests three routes: 2.2 miles and a 285-ft climb; 2.3 miles and a 108-ft climb; or 2.7 miles and a 49-ft climb. And no traffic either.

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In a side bar they provide a graph comparing the climbs:

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You still need Road Warrior (or a comparable app) because Google Maps can’t handle your “hit list” of a dozen-plus waypoints. But I’d say that after you order the points in the optimal sequence, you can pretty much leave Road Warrior alone and just glance at it occasionally to reacquaint yourself with the bigger picture. But speaking of the bigger picture…

3) Paper maps. I’m going to use my paper map(s) more. When I’m tired or busy, I want to look at something bigger than my index card-sized phone screen, and whose scale doesn’t zoom in and out to the point of disorientation. And if I have time during halts, I’ll pencil in our macro-level route plan so we’ll have a tangible depiction of our progress through the course.

The GAO Shirt

The débardeur GAO or chemise GAO. Quintessentially French, this man’s expression says it all: “With shirts like these, we are the masters of every hot climate we deign to visit. En fait, we would be the envy of the world if only we had ditched these hats, which apparently were designed as a team-building exercise between a Soviet puppet government and Japanese war criminals.”

The French really understand parched, roasting climates. From 200 years of walking around North Africa, they figured out what to wear for brain-boiling heat.

Call me an insufferable American chauvinist, but I rejoice that my ancestors left Strasbourg for a new land where they would be free to have short shorts with proper back pockets.

If you’re a regular reader of Lean, Solid Dogs, you already know that I love short shorts. And my favorites are surplus French Army shorts. Cheap, durable, and comfortable, they would be 100% perfect if not for the tragic European aversion to back pockets.

But my French cousins absolutely aced one other piece of hot weather gear: the GAO shirt. Think of it as an optimized tank top. Its most distinctive feature is that it doesn’t have sides, just straps that hold the front and back together while ventilating your body. For even more ventilation, there’s a deep V-neck that leaves about half your chest exposed to the air. Only the shoulders get extra coverage to protect them from the sun and the chafing of pack straps or other loads. And the designers even compensated for the lack of back pockets on their shorts but putting a sort of dump pouch across the small of the back, like some cycling jerseys have.

The GAO shirt’s origins are somewhat mysterious and people are unsure where the name comes from. It might be named after the Gao region of Niger, or it could be an acronym for “Operational Support Group” (Groupe d’Appui Opérationnel). What we do know is that it appeared in 1983 in Chad, when the French Army helped repel a Libyan invasion.

Beau travail (1999)

To my surprise, I’ve never seen a GAO shirt on anyone else in the United States. Peerless for hot, dry weather, they deserve to be better known. I first saw them years ago in Claire Denis’ film Beau travail and instantly saw how comfortable they would be.

French surplus GAO shirts are cheap but very difficult to buy from within the US for some reason, even in the age of Ebay and FedEx. However, they are easy to make. If you get hold a French specimen to copy, a sewing machine, and some 33% polyester ripstop fabric, you’re in business. If readers are dying for a pattern, drop us a line and I’ll do my best to provide you to provide you with one.

After Faleev: What to Expect

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

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

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

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Me on Faleev’s program.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cycling, Part 4: Two-stage Cycles

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

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

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

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

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.”

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.