Sports Spiritualism: Waxed Moustaches, German Nudists, and Russian Powerlifters

This is the second installment in a series on the physical culture system of Russian powerlifter Alexey Faleev. Read Part 1 here.

Why am I so charmed by Faleev’s system? Aside from how effective it is, what I love is his holistic “sports spiritualism” (my word, not his). Who else would write a guide to powerlifting with sections on Buddhism, the Gospels, how to talk to your spouse to ensure marital harmony, and the use of poetry for max attempts in the clean and jerk?

Then again, that is not so unusual among Russian “physical culturists.” In his book on breath training for combat sports, martial artist Vlad Vasiliev quotes the Bible in most chapters and talks as much about Hesychastic prayer as walking and jogging. In a typical passage Vasiliev remarks:

I have noticed, especially in the West, that many … close up when they are asked to pray to God in training. If this is a problem for you … try it just a few times. Take yourself to the breaking point in one of the breath-holding exercises and start saying ‘Lord have mercy’ in your mind. Do not let pride prevent you from doing this, you will be glad you tried.

Faleev for his part mixes a traditionalist respect for Russian Orthodox mysticism and old-time Russian foodways and health practices with a strong interest in Russian experimental psychology and what we could call “applied yoga.”

In the West, we had a related “physical culture” movement a century ago centered around exercise, healthy living, and human thriving for a population that was beginning to live in cities, eat an industrialized diet, work at desks, and get less exercise and fresh air. In these novel, urbanized lives, they were less physically vigorous and close to the land than their grandparents had been and some sensed that they were making trade-offs in health and happiness.strongmen

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Yes. Naked Aryans juggling kettlebells in the Third Reich. Right from the 1800s, German “Körperkultur” included plenty of nudism and that got absorbed as a matter of course into Nazi art like Hans Surén’s “Mensch und Sonne.”

“Physical culturists” taught ways to hang on to some of the old-time physicality and grit that they thought we moderns would still need to feel healthy and fulfilled. Think of the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts, Victorian strongmen with waxed moustaches, the modern Olympiad, the YMCA, “muscular Christianity,” Theodore Roosevelt, the Victorian vegetarian movement, German fruitarians and nudists, Seventh-Day Adventists, and anti-masturbation foods like Kellogg’s cereals and Graham crackers. It was an extremely broad movement, a diverse three-ring circus of eccentrics and visionaries, but they had this in common: they saw people as embodied souls who require physical vigor to be spiritually fulfilled. Phrasing it differently, they were a holistic health cult.

In the West, we stopped talking about “physical culture” much after the 1940s. The movement branched off into independent specialties and governing bodies—academic medicine and nutritional science, psychoanalysis, sanctioning federations for organized sports, sports media companies—and the adorably zany and heterogeneous old holistic health cult evolved and specialized itself out of existence.

Alexandr+Zaichikov+2015+International+Weightlifting+b1M7urgGiWAlIn strength training, the old-time strongman was replaced by distinct sports: first weightlifting was standardized as an Olympic event, then bodybuilding declared its independence in the 1950s, followed by powerlifting in the 1960s. The new sports were not obsessed with psycho-physical health nearly as much as with rankings, records, and titles and there were also organizational politics to navigate and publishing industries and supplement businesses to build. The competitors also had access to steroids for the first time, and increasingly they had to choose between staying natural and winning.

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Incidentally, some of the founding fathers of the Southern California hippy movement were (drumroll) German immigrant raw foodists and nudists! Instead of a military haircut and a Kugelhantel (kettlebell), William Prester has Unabomber hair and a guitar, but the history of physical culture is full of muscular naked German men.

Granted, after the old “physical culture” model broke apart in the post-war West, there remained a minority of people intrigued by holistic health practices. But instead of weightlifting, wrestling, gymnastics, and the like, they now gravitated toward yoga, vegetarianism,  novel practices drawn from dance, and New Age psychotherapies. For quick-and-dirty heuristic purposes, I’d describe their new home as more feminine than masculine, more pacifist than martial, and more Gandhi than Charles Atlas.

It was in the Russified world where physical culture (физкультура) stayed relatively intact and kept closer to the old holistic model. Yes, it too was permeated and changed by drugs and competitive pressures. But the Soviet fizkul’turniki stayed close to their roots in rough-and-tumble sports and they kept using herbs, folk medicine, ice baths, and saunas, and their sports scientists plundered yoga for breath control disciplines, relaxation techniques, and other Jedi mind tricks that athletes could use to lift, run, wrestle, box, or throw better.

In our next installment, we will learn the “how to” of Faleev’s holistic sports spiritualism.

Training Age and “Dad Strength”

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.)

muscle_structureWith 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.

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Scot Mendelson with an example of a blown pec. Lifting weights is generally safe, but the bench press has real risks. If you choose to bench, study up and then get some lessons from an advanced powerlifter. (Not a bodybuilder, a powerlifter.)

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.)

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Outwardly, retired champion Valery Federenko has the body of a dentist, but because of his skill and  tendon strength, he can balance this wobbly stack of kettlebells weighing 176# (80kg) upside down.  http://ipswichkettlebells.com/fedorenko-on-kettlebells/

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.

The Gods Must Be Crazy

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.”

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It’s the ungainly orange thing wrapped around the handle.
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Strength Hipster is rolling his eyes at you.

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!”

What Did We Learn, Class?

1. Things That Worked

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It’s also fun to see onlookers wonder whether one is even wearing anything on bottom.

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.

 

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The best one-stop shopping I know for GPP (general physical preparedness).    Photo from calorie bee.com

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.

Not finding a cold place to train: I trained in 100° temperatures, and though I tried a couple of short night hikes in wet clothes, around here we only get nightly lows of about 70°. I figured, “What difference will 15 or 20 degrees make?” For the answer, see “Shivering Horror”© above.

Not avoiding cramps: Sgt. D-Zazzy warned me I needed more salt or my legs might stop working. Did I listen? By morning even my hands cramped up.

 

3. Insights Into Myself

I’m a “smiler”: I respond to exertion with irrational gaiety and buoyance.

I throw more F-bombs than almost anyone I know who doesn’t seem to me somewhat evil.

With My Shield or On It!

“ἢ τὰν ἢ ἐπὶ τᾶς” –Spartan moms in a time before enlightened parenting

 

I am ready to ruck! I’ve trained for weeks, obsessed minutely over man-toys Vitally Important Equipment Choices,™ and I just managed to give myself a second-degree burn with a piece of paracord that caught on fire. (Don’t ask.) But now I’m ready!

The event isn’t a race where participants compete against each other but a quasi-military model where we’re all on the same team and the fun is to carry out ludicrous challenges dreamed up by the race director. (E.g. “Next, jump in the water and then schlep your backpacks, a sandbag, and this telephone pole to the top of that hill. You have 30 minutes. Go.”)

I’m intensely curious about who shows up to such an event. I’m guessing it will be one part military types, one part mountaineers, and two parts people like me, hyperactive desk workers who did Tough Mudders and then asked, “Now what?”

Anthropologically, I wonder where these people will come from. These events are culturally very Red: run by ex-soldiers with commemorations of deceased service members, flag-centered ritualism, and plenty of American civic religion. And yet they are holding this particular event in San Francisco, the Vatican City of Blue America. I love juxtapositions like this and wonder whether I will meet a lot of other category-straddling Purple weirdos like me.

20180809_215349Gear is laid out all over the living room floor and I’m about to scrunch it into the pack like Tetris pieces. From toe to head we have: hiking boots with mesh sides (Moab Ventilators) to drain water; East German army socks and Fox River sock liners; yoga shorts that make me look like a pole dancer; tough Flecktarn shirt with huge pockets; Swedish surplus rucksack that was supposed to be a birthday present for Michelle Skadisdottir (sorry, dude!) that I pimped out and filled with the regulation 30# of weights; British surplus windbreaker; boonie hat (because the logs scrape your ears) with a headlamp; and pocket knife, Ibuprofen, and duct tape (because Macgyver).

20180809_215200In honor of my comrades at the Thursday Freedom Squad and CR&GC, I am packing our last can of fishcock. There is NFW I will eat it—it will be hard enough not to vomit if I have to bear walk up a hill backwards. No, I will be eating super-caffeinated German army chocolate and M&Ms, thank you, but I will take the fishcock along to be magically infused with Hooah Vibes© and then we can serve it out on a hilltop with mead when Son of Matt holds a blot for us.

I will be back on Saturday, with my shield or on it!

 

Junkyard Orthopedics

A mentor of mine says, “A piece of exercise equipment is valuable in inverse proportion to its cost.” Meaning that if you spend $5000 on a Bowflex machine, you will receive no benefit from it, but an implement you make for $1 will be almost invaluable.

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Like Excalibur, this piece of equipment, fit for a hero, cost its user $0.00.

By that measure, this is my pot of gold at the end of the rainbow.

With a few days before The Great Ruck-Off to rehab dinged up joints, I reached into my disused bag of powerlifting tricks and pulled out the grand old Tire Sled. The most important tool for powerlifters after a barbell, the sled mends broken bodies by pumping blood and synovial fluid through overstressed joints with moderate work and light poundages. And just like yoga, it wakes up the  stabilizing muscles of the thorax, elbows and knees, and shoulder and hip girdles and teaches them to coordinate in funky, unaccustomed combinations.

To accomplish that, you just pull the sled up and down the block in every conceivable way: forward, back, sidestepping, cross-stepping, bent over double, one-handed or two-, hands overhead or thrust out front or behind your back or between your legs, rowing, pressing, extending, curling, whatever. The sled is to the horizontal plane what the kettlebell is to the vertical plane: endlessly versatile and wonderfully therapeutic. To paraphrase what powerlifting great Donny Thompson says about kettlebells, the sled works the tissues without killing them.

There is nothing to count here: no sets, reps, or poundages. This is just active recovery. You pull it, work up a lather, get pleasantly tired, and then go happily about the rest of your day.

EndorphinFest

In this upcoming all-night ruck, everyone moves as a team, so the slowest person sets the pace. Hopefully that’s not me–there will be a lot of cardio studs with lungs like jet turbines. I can live with it if I end up as the “weak sister,” but actually I think I’m in luck. The team has to schlep a 30# “team weight” and a jerry can of water (maybe 40#) throughout the night, and though that may not sound like fun, it’s good news for me. Even though I’d be lucky just to be middle-of-the-pack aerobically, I’ve misspent much of my life lifting heavy things, so I think I can serve the team as The Guy Who Can Lug the Can.

To that end, today’s game was to suitcase-carry Alik the 16kg Kettlebell up the Rock of Faeries without setting him down, while also wearing the Luxurious Belgian Backpack of Bricks. I was shocked at how well it went. As long as I switched hands often and slowed down enough to only breathe through my nose, I could schlep along indefinitely and stay in the Happy Zone, high on endorphins. In fact, the trip went so smoothly that I stretched it out and did a second lap and still finished with a big smile on my face.