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.

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.

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.

Wrist-Strap-in-use

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.