The Tao of the Lazy Badass

“Like water, volume is soft and yielding. But volume will wear away rock, and it beats the crap out of excess fatigue. As a rule, volume wins over fatigue. This is another paradox: what is soft and voluminous is strong.”

from the lost training manual of Laozi (Lao-Tzu)
A difficult book, but the most important one I know.

In the most original book on training in decades, Pavel Tsatsouline describes a certifiable badass, a special operations ninja-type whom he pseudonymously calls “Victor.” Victor combines a pair of already-extraordinary feats into an extra-extraordinary combination: he runs ultra-marathons of up to 100 miles AND he does pullups with an extra 160# hanging from his waist. That’s a freakish level of endurance and world-class strength, a combination so rare as to seem impossible. (As we have said before, strength and endurance are rivals.) That is what makes Victor an elite among the elite, a certifiable badass.

To reach those heights, Victor trains in a very special way: lazily. Or to be more precise, with low fatigue. From his amazing accomplishments, you might suppose that he spends all day exercising and puking his guts out. Nope. Most days he works out for all of 30 minutes, much of it with a 24kg kettlebell, which is strictly a “Joe Average” weight, and some pushups and pull-ups and yoga. He left behind even low-key barbell training long ago, explaining that when he deadlifted, “I felt my ego pushing me harder and faster than my body wanted to go. So I decided to limit myself to one kettlebell and two [steel exercise] clubs …”

As the core of his lethargic-looking super-routine, Victor runs … sloooooowly. Slowly enough to breath only through his nose, with rhythm and relaxation. He writes:

“The key is … the LOW INTENSITY. I use a heart rate monitor, and I stay at 60% to 65% of my [max heart rate]. This means that I am often walking on the hills. If I ran [faster], my recovery time would be much longer.”

Allyson Felix knows the Tao of the lazy badass. Her coach, Barry Ross, keeps his athletes fresh and unfatigued in training. See Easy Strength.

Pavel and Victor are insistent: Victor is not succeeding in spite of his low-key training but precisely because he throttles back. Victor has perfected one way of applying the near-magical formula for productive and happy training: do as much work as possible while staying as fresh as possible.

Are those twelve words too much to remember? Then stencil this on your kettlebells, barbells, and running shoes: Volume Without Fatigue. That is the red thread that runs through many of the successful training philosophies out there, connecting disparate-looking approaches whose only apparent link is that they work well, and it is the subject of our next series, “Farewell to Fatigue: The Way of the Lazy Badass.”

Your author. Not a badass, but I make up for it in laziness.
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Loopsided

This morning’s game was called “Loopsided”: three mismatched weights all carried off-center, starring the Leaden Loop.

People don’t like one-arm or one-legged lifts very much, including me, because they take more time and tire the core muscles. But you need to work in the transverse (side-to-side) somehow, and you can check that box with weighted carries, or even by lifting mismatched dumbells. You’ll feel challenged and kinesthetically interested, but it won’t suck up a lot of time or smoke your abs so much that it becomes just an elaborate core exercise.

See the unusual indented look of Pat McNamara’s waist. That’s how you tell someone with pro-grade one-arm and rotational strength. Don’t casually challenge such a person to a tug of war or a wrestling match.

Enter the Deadlift

Part 6 in our series “20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline”

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.

Medium Days: Get Your Bodybuilder On

Part 5 in our series on the methods of Russian powerlifting coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov.

Rogozhnikov designs his medium days as “bodybuilding” days. You “pump the muscles up with blood” with 3 sets of 8 using “a weight that you couldn’t just easily cruise through 8 reps with.” Timur Andreev, a former champion from Rogozhnikov’s stables, makes this more concrete: On medium day, you pick a weight that you could do nine reps with and do just 8, leaving one rep “in the tank.” Experienced powerlifters, you can choose to do eight speed triples instead if you wish. (Note: Rogozhnikov uses triples for speed squats.)

On medium days you get a lot of choice. On medium bench days, you are not just limited to competition benches. You can try dumbbell benches or pause benches or close-grip benches too. On leg and back day, you can squat to boxes of various heights if you like, or maybe do pause squats (where you pause for a couple of seconds in “the hole”).

Power Slang: “The hole.” In the squat, the very bottom part of the lift, where your hips are sunk lower than the tops of your knees.

deep-squat-2
Anatoly Pisarenko down in the hole.

For your deadlifts, do them after your squats, with 2 sets of 6-8 from the floor. (Eight reps would best, since the recovery-conscious Rogozhnikov is worried about taxing the body with too much weight when it comes to pulls from the floor). And if you deadlift sumo, Rogozhnikov suggests that you alternate conventional and sumo stances on your light and medium days.

taylor-atwood
A “sumo” deadlift, where the feet are wider than the hands.

In our next installment, Rogozhnikov’s unique “heavy days,” which can be all-in death marches but are also strangely conservative.

Assistance

Part 4 in our series on the training methods of Russian powerlifting coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov.

Rogozhnikov prescribes a standard regimen of “assistance” work every day for his athletes. But is it right for you? Probably not.

Powerlifters label “assistance work” any lifting outside of the three “main lifts”: the squat, bench, and deadlift. That includes anything from curls to pressing weights overhead to those silly Nautilus leg thingies to dumbbells to pushing and pulling a tire sled. Powerlifters don’t compete in those lifts, but they use them instrumentally to help build their main lifts. They do their assistance work after the main lifting of the day and in a low-key way. Usually it’s all light weights, high reps, and no psyching up or going for personal records.

ed-coan-sumo
American lifter Ed Coan, the greatest pound-for-pound champion for generations, devoted most of his training to assistance work. (Incidentally, the coolest moment in my own uneventful powerlifting career was to get upbraided at a meet by The Man Himself for giving up on a deadlift attempt too early.)

American powerlifters tend to do a lot of assistance work. Partly they are looking to strengthen whatever muscles they think are their “weak links.” For example, lifters who feel limited in the deadlift by their grip muscles might row a dumbbell for high reps. They also might use assistance work to grow certain muscles larger after the low-rep strength work, which believe it or not does not swell you up very much. With some extra size in well-chosen locations, you can make it easier to press or squat a barbell by using your own body as launching pad or a cushion. For example, you can boost your bench a lot just by growing bigger lats and biceps. At the bottom of the press, when your upper arms are mashed against your sides, you can help bump the bar up a couple of inches just by flexing your arms and flaring your lats. They give you a sort of “hydraulic lift” that helps you start the press.

But like a lot of Eastern European coaches, Rogozhnikov spares his athletes the plentiful assistance work favored by their American counterparts. Above all things, he wants you to rest and recover. Only do as much work as you must! So he prescribes a very limited regimen of assistance, which his athletes use as a sort of cool-down. Their only aim is to pump fresh blood and nutrients through the muscles they have just worked to kick off the recovery process. In this too he is typical of coaches from the former Eastern Bloc: they prize recovery, study it, and use disciplined methods to speed it up.

Rogozhnikov and crew follow the same assistance regimen that scarcely varies.

Unlike you, they compete in maximal supportive “gear,” and therefore they are using somewhat different sets of muscles than you. In their bench shirts, for example, they get a lot of help at the bottom of the lift for their pecs and shoulders. Where they struggle is in the middle of the lift, when the relatively small and weak triceps must extend the arms all alone under a load that nature never intended, from 700# to over a thousand.

In short, Rogozhnikov and his “geared” benchers rely most of all on their triceps. They also need extra strong lats because, owing to their powerful bench shirts, they have to use those big back muscles to pull the bar downward against the resistance of the bench shirt just to be able to touch the bar to their chests!

So would you be surprised to learn that, on bench day, Rogozhnikov tells his lifters to do a little extra work for their triceps and lats? For the triceps they do two sets of 12-15 or one set of 25 or so in an exercise of their choice, the object being to pump the tris through with blood. For lats they do two sets of 12-15 and add very light biceps work in the form of one set of curls or hammer curls and another set of reverse curls for 20-30.

But you are different. You are benching in just an ordinary cotton t-shirt, so you are mainly concerned with the start of the lift and whether you can move the bar off your chest quickly. That means you are really worried about your pecs and shoulders, not your triceps. Those are strong enough.

So maybe you will follow the lead of other raw benchers. For assistance they favor things like close-grip bench presses, dumbbell presses (on a flat bench or straight overhead or in between), or pause-benches, where you lower the bar to your chest and hold it there motionless for 1-3 seconds. But Rogozhnikov would enjoin you not to go crazy with these! These exercises are purely secondary, so don’t blow a lot of precious energy on them. Just pump the muscles up using light weights and high (but leisurely) reps to bring them blood and nutrients. Then stop.

reversehyper2
Reverse-hyper machines are expensive and rare outside of specialized powerlifting gyms, so jerry-rig something in your garage, if you decide to do them at all.

On leg and back day, Rogozhnikov follow their squats and deadlifts with 20-25 reps of the “hyper” and “reverse-hyper” to move blood through their low backs and hamstrings, followed by a little something for abs and calves. Listen, I’m nobody, but unless you are a seasoned powerlifter and you know your recovery capacities well, I’d say you should maybe skip the low back and hamstring stuff. Why? You’ve just put those muscles through a lot and, in my humble experience, it’s easy to get carried away on hypers and reverse-hypers and tire yourself out on them. That’s just the opposite effect of what Rogozhnikov wants here. Just go for a brisk walk instead.

In our next installment, Rogozhnikov turns up the heat with his “medium” workouts.

The Raw and the Geared

Part 4 in our series on the system of Russian powerlifting coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov.

Imagine that you had a high-tech superhero suit that boosted your strength, a little like Iron Man. Where you are weaker, it would do some of the lifting for you. You would be a sort of cyborg athlete.

Powerlifters evolved stuff like this long ago. Their suits aren’t as slick as Tony Stark’s—no armor-piercing tasers—but the latest ones can add hundreds of pounds to your lifts.

chic-metal-jack-canvas-squat-suit
http://www.gometal.com

They say it started with tight cutoff jeans, to help boost lifters out of the bottom of the squat, which is the hardest part. From there, they began a decades-long arms race (or rather, a “legs race”) of designing special, super-tight squat suits, first out of polyester, than multiple layers of same, then one or more layers of denim, and then canvas, and then two such garments layered on top of each other. And lifters are still pushing the technology forward.

We have the same thing in the bench press: “bench shirts” that are more than skin-tight. Even with a low-grade bench shirt, typically you cannot squeeze into it without a helper and some baby powder. The most advanced shirts do not even fit over your head. They are more like denim aprons that have an open back or Velcro straps.

Why-I-lift-in-Gear-Bench
Scoop necks are in. They are easier to squeeze into and give you incredible leverage. They are not allowed in more conservative federations.

Powerlifters who use this equipment are called “geared” lifters, and they are playing a different kind of game than the “raw” lifters. Since they are like cyborgs—half muscle, half armor—they can move differently under load than raw lifters. Notably, with the heavier suits you can squat with a super-wide stance that would tear your hips apart without the protection of your artificial “glutes.” You also bench very differently in a shirt that gives you what are, in effect, bionic super-pecs.

wide-stance-squats-2
You’re very strong in this outrageously wide stance, but without the suit your hips couldn’t take it.       http://www.muscleandbrawn.com

So “geared” lifters have to train differently too. Like NASCAR drivers, they spend a lot of time experimenting with new equipment, in new combinations, and fine-tuning their movement patterns to take fullest advantage. They also have to condition their bodies to the truly brutal loads—not just their muscles but their connective tissues and central nervous systems.

Most importantly for us, the geared lifters–and this includes Rogozhnikov and his crew–must emphasize different muscle groups. When you or I do a bench press, we struggle most at the bottom of the lift, where we have little leverage and must do most of the work with our pecs and shoulders. But a geared lifter is different. He is helped off the chest by his artificial pecs. He reaches the “sticking point” halfway up, where he gets no more help from the shirt and must lock out his arms with just his own tricep strength. Therefore, where “raw” lifters like you or I must pay special attention to our pecs and shoulders, the geared lifter must do extra work for his triceps, since for him those are the weak link.

In our next installment, on assistance work, we will see that this means you might need to part company from Rogozhnikov and his up-armored lifters.