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.

A Farewell to Fatigue: How to “Fragment the Load”

Did Hemingway invigorate himself to run with the bulls in Pamplona by blowtorching his lungs doing Crossfit? Hell no. Papa knew how to pace himself.

Part 5 in our series “Tao of the Lazy Badass.” Find the first four installments here, here, here, and here.

You already know the First Law of the Lazy Badass: “Do a lot of volume while minimizing fatigue.” Today we teach you how to minimize fatigue.

When you accumulate volume (i.e. total reps), you’re depositing money in the bank. The deposits seem small and insignificant, but you make them often and with no sense of sacrifice. That’s important: we want you refreshed by your workouts and recovered quickly. That way you’ll crave your next bout of exercise—you dirty endorphin junky!—and you’ll be fresh and ready to hit the iron or the trail again ASAP. That is why the lazy badass minimizes fatigue.

Sounds great in theory. But how do you maximize volume without also building up fatigue? Get ready, because here comes the second big secret …

Fragment the load

“That’s pretty gnomic,” you might be saying. “WTF does that mean?” It means that you should space out the work. Chop it into bite-sized pieces.

Let me start with an example of the WRONG way to do a lot of volume.

Gironda was not a tactful man.When the Iron Guru first met a young unknown named Schwarzenegger, who announced his intention to become Mr. Universe one day, Gironda sneered and retorted, “You look like a fat fuck to me.”

In popular muscle media, there’s a renaissance in people writing about “German Volume Training,” the (in)famous bodybuilding protocol that, despite its name, probably originated in Hollywood with Vince Gironda, preceptor to the young Arnold Schwartznegger and “Iron Guru” of bodybuilding in the 1950s and ‘60s.

Vince taught trainees to rack up a lot of volume—so far so good!—but he made them hurry through that at a breakneck pace with very little rest. He prescribed a whopping 100 total reps per exercise, done in 10 sets of 10 with just 30-60 seconds of rest in between. That’s massively fatiguing. And you have to settle for using wimpy weights, because you can’t complete that protocol with even moderate poundages. And you will need days to recover from it. And it’s the opposite of fun and refreshing. It takes great willpower to do it even one time, and you will NOT look forward to doing it again. 

Fatigue sucks, and that’s why it is contrary to the Tao of the lazy badass to rush through volume with little rest, a thundering pulse, and buckets of sweat. To delay fatigue and accomplish more total work, the lazy badass fragments the load by breaking it up into many short sets. Instead of completing your sets and reps quickly, space them out. For example, instead of blowtorching the muscles with high-fatigue sets of 10 reps, an aspiring lazy badass could do the following:

Set up a clock near your kettlebell / barbell / whatever. At the top of every minute, do an easy 4 reps. That might only take you 10-20 seconds, and that’s fine. Rest for the remainder of the minute. At the top of the next minute, do your next four reps. Keep repeating, making haste slowly. While your friend attempts the German Volume protocol with his trachea on fire, you’ll be happy as a clam. As the minutes tick by, not only won’t you tire out, you might actually feel stronger and zestier than when you started.

Training “on the minute” is associated with Scott Sonnon, the martial artist who brought back exercise clubs in this country.

Your friend will be very lucky to complete his 100 reps at all; but you’ll cruise along contentedly, til after 25 minutes you’ve cranked out your 100 reps and gotten high on endorphins too. And if you start to tire before then and your heart rate starts to climb, no problem! Just drop down to 3 reps per minute. Or even 2 reps. There is no time limit here! Your only job is to accumulate volume, and there’s no penalty for doing it slowly. 

This “on the minute” protocol is only one of the many proven ways for a lazy badass to fragment the load. In our next installment or two, we’ll talk about some of the other techniques. You can pick the one that suits your schedule and your pace the best. It makes little difference. They all follow the Tao of the Lazy Badass (which, once again, is to maximize volume and minimize fatigue) by breaking up the work into small, enjoyable packets with lots of rest smeared all over, like butter on pancakes. 

Easy + Often = Badass

Part 2 of our series “Tao of the Lazy Badass”

Exercise is a tale of two variables: Volume (how much you do) and Intensity (how hard you do it). In weight training, Volume is the number of reps you did and Intensity is how heavy they were (as a percentage of your 1-rep max). In cardio, Volume is how many minutes or hours you ran, rowed, or rucked and Intensity is how high your heart rate was (as a percentage of your max).

You can describe any training session, or week or month or year of training, in terms of how much Volume you accumulated and its average Intensity.

And now pay attention, because this is the important part: In this country we prize intensity for some reason, but it is easier and more reliable, and much more enjoyable, if you leave the intensity alone and just accumulate volume. Put reps in the bank, and keep them fairly light. Put miles on the track, and keep them pretty slow. That is the Tao of the Lazy Badass.

By way of illustration, let’s examine Alexey Faleev’s very effective 5×5 program for “power bodybuilding” (getting big by getting strong). Faleev’s program works so well because it has you putting a lot of reps in the bank, day after day, week after week. Each session is manageable—up to 25 reps, mostly with moderate poundages—and you are fresh and ready for another session the very next day. By the end of the week, you’ve put in 105 quality reps with poundages that were heavy enough to be no joke but well within your capacities. By the end of the month, it’s 400+ reps. After 10 weeks, a thousandreps, of which fewer than twenty were very difficult, and none were more than 80% intensity (i.e. 80% of your 1-rep max). After five of those low-key cycles, you’ve get over a thousand reps each in the squat, bench, and deadlift, and you are a lean, solid dog.

All you did was show up to the gym every day, work up a very light sweat, and leave after 45 minutes. It was easy in terms of exertion, but you got much stronger. Why? Because the royal road to training success is to just accumulate Volume. And although you can skin that cat in several ways—we’ll cover most of them—all of them involve going pretty easy on Intensity so that you can come back and do it again tomorrow. That is why we say that Easy + Often = Badass.

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.