Why do I like Russian coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov so much? One reason is that his name looks cool in Russian italics: “Константин Витальевич Рогожников.”
But more importantly, I like him because I am lazy. If you visit us regularly here at Lean, Solid Dogs, then (1) I weep for you, and (2) you know that I prize happiness, good cheer, pleasure, and rest, so I gravitate toward forms of training that are more fun and relaxing than stoic and Stakhanovite.
Rogozhnikov is my kind of guy. He accomplishes great things as coach of one of Russia’s national teams but he obsessively reins his lifters in, rests them, rests them some more, and allows them only the bare minimum of exertion needed to do freakish feats like squat 1000 pounds. When his athletes feel beat up or lack enthusiasm for training, he sends them for a 10-day vacation from the gym. “Go on nature hikes,” he recommends, writes Pavel, “take a Russian steam bath, get a massage, even physical therapy. He stops short of recommending manicures, thankfully.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.
Rogozhnikov is also honest. His athletes use drugs and he says so. And in his writings, he distinguishes clearly between how drug-assisted athletes should train and how “clean” lifters should. This is wonderful, because the correct answer is “very differently.” In countries where juiced lifters need to be coy about their “restorative measures,” many unsuspecting clean athletes waste years of training trying naively to ape the training methods of the drug-using elite. Rogozhnikov tells it straight: if you use “Russian supplements,” he gives you one plan, and if you don’t take “Vitamin S,” he gives you a different one.
In this series, we will tell you about Rogozhnikov’s “clean” plan–and also enough about the “dirty” plan to show how the two differ and give you a peek at the crazier corners of the powerlifting world.
So put on your “power pants” and buckle up your lifting belts. We’re on our way!
Here at Lean, Solid Dogs, we aim to foster cross-cultural appreciation among fellow Pointy Headed Intellectuals for the rich folkways of the Toxically Masculine Hooah (TMH) community. #intersectionality
So it warmed my heart when readers asked, “OK, so what are the reasons to lift extra-thick barbells that are too big to hold onto securely? That sounds dangerous.”
First of course, thick handles strengthen your grip, and if you have a strong grip and strong abs, you are strong enough for most real-world purposes. There is even a sub-sub-culture of lovable weirdos who specialize in feats of grip strength like ripping decks of cards, bending nails with their hands, or deadlifting heavy weights with just one or two fingers.
But there are other, geekier reasons for fat barbells like “specialized variety.” After you master the essential lifts (viz. squat, deadlift, bench press, overhead press, and pullup), you get stronger faster if you stick to those few exercises but inject a tiny bit of variety into how you do them. There are virtually endless teensy details that you can vary: you can switch up the order or speed of your exercises, change the width of your grip or stance, shorten or lengthen the range of motion, or switch barbells for dumbbells, or mess with your sense of balance by lifting blindfolded. You can even switch to a version of the exercise that purposely gives you bad leverage, like “diamond pushups,” where the tips of your index fingers and thumbs touch each other and make a diamond shape. (Try one right now; it’s fun.)
Bad leverage is what you get with extra-thick-handled bars: their center of gravity is farther outside your grasp and therefore wobblier. (Imagine holding a sledgehammer. It’s easy to control if you hold it just under the head. If you choke down farther, you can’t lift it or control it as easily. And if you hold it all the way down at the end of the handle, that dinky 8-pound head suddenly feels uncontrollably heavy.
This brings us to the other great benefit: increased muscular tension. You have to fight harder to hold on, and so you will be recruiting many more muscle fibers up and down the arm and chest and back, and that means you will be creating more muscular tension. In short order, you learn to create more muscular tension at will, and that is pretty much the definition of strength. Long story short: because the thick handles force you to clench everything harder, you learn to tense up harder whenever you want, i.e. you learn to be stronger.
In recent years, companies who sell this thick-handle equipment also claim that if you use it, you will get not just stronger arms but bigger ones too. (Remember, “big” is a different quality from “strong,” but it sells more product.) Will that really work? Indirectly, it could: if you get a lot stronger and then you employ that strength in bodybuilding-type training at some future time, yes, you will grow more than a weaker person. But in the near term, I am skeptical that the average exerciser will get her money’s worth if she just wants bigger arms. She will certainly get neurological improvements (viz. the ability to contract more muscle at will) and stronger “stabilizing” muscles, the dozens of small, aesthetically insignificant postural muscles that help you balance an awkward load), but that stuff doesn’t make you look swole in a tank top.
Lastly, is it dangerous to use these things? Won’t you drop them? Yes, you probably will at some point, so make sure it’s not on your face or your dog. If you’re smart enough to avoid that, they’re perfectly safe. (The big rule is just that you mustn’t use these things with a “false grip.” And if you don’t know what a false grip is, (1) congratulations, you are probably a normal, well-adjusted human being with a normal sense of values and perspective, and (2) you probably aren’t yet experienced enough to need this kind of equipment. Wait until you can bench press substantially more than your own body weight. You will progress faster that way.
Athletically, it does pay to be young in general, but you also improve certain things and make your life easier with what they call “training age.”
Take the example of “dad strength.” “Growing up,” writes Dan John, “a lot of us used to lift weights all the time but still could not torque a wrench or open a jar like dad, who never did any lifting.” By 16 I was bigger than my skinny dad and much stronger with a barbell, but it was another decade before I was better at moving a refrigerator. Dad had spent half a lifetime playing sports, loading moving trucks, and manhandling boxes down from the attic.
In real-world strength tasks, dad was stronger because he had an extra 30+ years of “training age.” With all that experience of moving everyday stuff around, he was just really good at it. Folks underestimate how much strength is a skill, the sum of a dozen mundane little variables of balance, posture, breathing, timing, and the use of your abs. Especially the abs. (As Pavel Tsatsouline says, strong abs + strong grip = strong person. Everything else is icing on top.)
With training age you can also get another huge asset: tendon and ligament strength. Even with little training, most of us already have good strong muscles. Our weak link is the thin little tendons that hold our big muscles onto the bone. (Think of eating drumstricks. Those little white plasticy cords that hold the meat onto the bone? Those are tendons.) Tendons are weak and vulnerable, and your muscles are already so strong that you could accidentally tear them off the bone, and then you’re in big trouble. So your body protects you by turning your muscles off if they get too close to overloading your tendons.
And it’s hard to thicken and strengthen your tendons. They receive little blood flow, unlike your muscles. So to grow them you need years of stimulus. In other words, you need years of training age! If you’ve handled heavy things routinely over many years, you’ve gradually grown and toughened those tendons and ligaments and so you can exert more muscular strength before your body gets worried and shuts the muscles down. (Incidentally, this is a problem with steroids: they build muscles faster but not the tendons and make it easier to “blow a tendon,” usually in a pec or bicep.)
Sometimes you meet retired athletes who have not trained in years and have average-guy muscles, but they can still do freakish feats of strength because under the skin they still have those Superman tendons. And because your strength depends so much on skill and tough tendons, which depend a lot on training age, strength ages really well. Powerlifters may not peak until their early 40s, for example, and they can retain much of their strength even if they stop training and regain it quickly when they resume.
Of course, you do not improve every attribute with training age, or all the Olympic medals would go home with the silver foxes. You lose some joint elasticity and aerobic capacity every year that you are alive, for example, and though you can mitigate that with training, you can’t reverse it. But if you are a lifelong athlete or laborer, then depending on your sport you may find yourself with relative advantages that you can play to.
Following an idea from the Manly Monk of Vilnius, I declared this weekend the Great Buddhist Backpack & Beads Pilgrimage. The idea was, one step, one mantra, and in 27 miles that would make fifty-five thousand mantra reps. That’s got to be enough to make you a buddha in this very lifetime (即身成佛), right?
But a meditation retreat is always a hilarious circus of human foibles. My mind took the the last song I heard, “Billy Jean,” and for three miles it composed ribald lyrics.
Then came the bears. A mother and two cubs CHARGED across the trail, 20 yards in front of me, like OJ and his blockers. Thank heaven they kept going and started crashing around in the bush. But I couldn’t tell from the noise where they were going—“Do bears circle around and take people from behind?” I wondered—so I walked the next stretch very quickly and “mindfully,” shall we say, before I took my hand off my gun and remembered anything about a mantra.
Yes, there is a tradition of Buddhist pilgrims with weapons, and we just saw why. Bears eat you alive and screaming, even if you’re Buddhist. Mama Bear begins her meal as soon as you’re pinned down, without so much as a break-your-neck.
“Wait,” you ask, “you would really shoot a charging bear, Mr. Buddhist?” It’s “Dr. Buddhist,” thank you very much, and HELL YES! Ain’t no precept tells you to yield meekly while The Three Bears eat your liver.
Some wiseacre will now point to folklore where bodhisattvas (superhero-saints) offer their flesh to starving carnivores as an act of compassion. (Sigh.) But those are hyperbolic hero tales, like a Wonder Woman comic, not practical instructions for conducting yourself on a camping trip.
Much gratitude to Remi Warren for his lesson about this, or I’d have been lazy and carried my gun in my pack. As they say, “You almost never need a gun, but when you do, you need it real bad.” This whole thing started and finished in 2 seconds.
For a few miles after the bear encounter, the only mantra I was repeating was “HF!! WTF!!!” which is not officially sanctioned. But after that I settled my breath and my feet back into a happy rhythm, and in 5 miles I almost forgot that it ever happened. Feet, breath, mantra, all thumping along cheerfully in time with each other, far from the proverbial smoke and fire of human settlements (人间烟火)–well, it’s pretty close to heaven.
Between the bears and Billie Jean, I only got in maybe 30,000 good reps, but I’ll take it! Svaha!
Deep in the boonies, miles from human habitation, I found something lying in the dust that’s completely out of place … a “Fat Gripz Extreme.”
In the already-marginal world of strength training, these are rare and highly specialized. You put them on dumbbell handles to purposely make them hard to hold onto. There are legit reasons for doing so, but all are advanced and/or weird.
Somewhere out there is a drug grower who is a very serious ironhead, and he’s pissed. These things are expensive, and now I’ve got his stuff! (Shudder.) But I’m taking it as a sign from the gods of Valhalla: “Develop thy grip!”
In America, we confuse bodybuilding (lifting for bigger muscles) with strength training in general. From the 50s on, from its Mecca on Venice Beach, bodybuilding loomed biggest in the public eye, thanks to its proximity to Hollywood and the new muscle mags aimed at boys and young men across America. So naturally Americans inherited most of our ideas about how to do strength training from professional bodybuilders. For example, if you’ve ever done 3 sets of 10 or 5 sets of 5 with one or two minutes’ rest three times a week, then you’ve done classic bodybuilding routines.
In the popular American mind, bodybuilding is almost the only paradigm people know for strength training. Bodybuilding even shaped American powerlifting, a pure strength event where lifters compete for the highest one-rep max, not for the nicest shape. In the 1970s and 80s, the sport’s golden age, powerlifters trained and looked a lot like plump, off-season bodybuilders, and even today most American powerlifting follows a version of the “Westside” method, which retains a strong bodybuilding influence.
Arguably, we’re still beholden to the bodybuilding model even now in the age of Crossfit. Bodybuilding works by moving a large tonnage (weight x total reps) in a short time. Classic Crossfit fits that formula as well, with its “race against the clock” format, though choosing shorter, more frenetic workouts than would bodybuilders who want to add size.
But bodybuilding is like the display in a shop window: it’s the most visible to the public eye, but inside the store are dozens of very different products that might suit you better.
In the wide world of iron sports, bodybuilding is an oddball and an outlier in that it scarcely cares about strength. The strength sports (powerlifting, Olympic weightlifting, strongman events, jumping, throwing, sprinting, gymnastics) exist solely to move heavy things through space. Bodybuilding alone exists to re-engineer your own body tissue. It just happens to use barbells as a means to that end, because it turns out that the best way to expand muscle cells is through one very particular trait called “strength endurance,” the muscle’s ability to overcome fatigue and rep a moderate weight for one to two minutes at a time.
Many people blindly copy this peculiar bodybuilding style of lifting weights without knowing that it may actually push them farther back from their goals. Take trainees who want to “get toned” and improve their physiques. It might be perfect for them to lift like bodybuilders if they are underfed teenagers in the developing world, but in modern North America, for 98% of us, if we want to look buff, the way to accomplish it is to get leaner, not bigger. And—this is an open secret in the fitness world—when it comes to leaning out, exercise matters very little. Mostly it depends on how you eat.
And bodybuilding burns up a lot of physical/emotional resources, with its constant cycle of breaking down muscle cells and refurbishing them. Few other iron athletes destroy and build so much tissue. Strictly speaking, strength athletes do not so much “build” strength—that is a bodybuilding metaphor—as practice it, without necessarily changing much cellular composition.
So more than other iron sports, you can easily overtrain on bodybuilding, deplete yourself, get inflamed and chubby, overeat, and mess up your sleep and mood. (And remember that after the 1960s, you must presume that any published bodybuilding routine is written by and for drug-assisted lifters.)
By all means, do consider a bodybuilding program. In the modern West, the old 3×10 and 5×5 routines are virtually rites of passage, voyages of physical self-discovery, and you almost have to master them as foundational skills. Just know that:
Bodybuilding is just one small corner of strength training. The other iron disciplines offer some completely different goals, using methods utterly foreign to bodybuilding. You may or may not like them better.
Be judicious about whose routine you follow. You want a coach with a proven record of training people of your age, fitness history, and level of motivation. If you do not have access to such an individual, follow the classic programs from the pre-steroid era of the 1950s.
One school of thought says, “If you lack skill in some athletic event, you can compensate for a lot of your suckage by being strong and brute-forcing it. Therefore, make strength your top conditioning priority.” I have reservations about that, about which I’ll post, but in this particular event, being strong saved me.
Had this been a pure endurance sport—an ultra-marathon or Ironman—I would have gassed out and they could have put my corpse on a Viking ship, set it on fire, and pushed it out to sea. But rucking contains enough of a strength element that it rewards an background in iron sports, and by incredible luck this night’s challenge happened to involve tons and tons of lifting. For almost the entire night, you were humping a sandbag, “suitcase carrying” something, or pressing it overhead. Thank heaven, that’s my wheelhouse.
It was like the gods taking pity and throwing you a bone. Imagine you’re on this evil game show where the wheel of fortune is full of nightmarish possibilities like “Hypothermia,” “Slow Death By Cardio,” “You Should Have Jogged More,” “You’re the Weak Sister,” and “How About More Hypothermia!” but then the wheel stops at “Exactly the Stuff That YOU Do.” Yessir, I won the lottery. And as long as we were bear-walking backwards up hills, we were warm and dry.
The Goofy Yoga Shorts. Never mind what the smart-alecks say [looking sideways at Lee], these were SOOOOO practical. They didn’t bind my legs and, when wet, they drip-dried in no time.
Caffeine and Sugar. I drank the equivalent of six or seven cups of coffee. I only regret not drinking twice that. And on Ultra Scott’s advice, I broke out of ketosis during the event and inhaled a pound and a half of chocolate. He was so very right about this: I did get momentarily tired, but I never got exhausted.
Kettlebells: More than ever, I think that if you have only one conditioning tool in your toolbox, it should be a kettlebell. If someone asks, “What is the single thing you could do to prepare for ten different physical challenges, chosen at random by a smiling, demonic taskmaster?” you should answer, “Kettlebells.”
The glasses strap: They look dorky, but one poor sod lost his glasses in the surf.
2. Terrible Ideas: Four of the Many
Boonie hat: If it wasn’t getting sucked off my head in the surf, it was obstructing my vision. It’s perfect in the climate where I live, but for these events, it’s a wool beanie or nothing.
Not layering: I knew we’d get wet and cold, so why didn’t I pack some kind of underlayer? After Surf Horror™, other people changed into something dry and looked very happy, whereas I was a trembling wreck.