Your weight is junk data, your mirror is unreliable, and your feelings are fake news

Feeling fat, looking fat, and being fat are three separate things. You can “feel fat” without looking or being fat. I’ll hazard a guess that it’s mostly emotional, but even when you’re not being particularly neurotic, you can feel fatter or leaner depending on the fit of your clothes and your posture.

You can also look leaner or chubbier from day to day, just based on factors other than bodyfat. Posture is a big one. So is lighting. And biggest of all are the ebbs and flows of hydration and muscle glycogen. Do you ever glimpse yourself in the bathroom mirror and look surprisingly lean? Well unless little elves came during the night and gave you liposuction, you just happened to eat a combination of things that inadvertently flushed out subcutaneous water without depleting muscle glycogen. On that particular day, your skin happens to be at its thinnest and your muscles right at their fullest. Result: you look a little ripped, at least for a couple of hours. 

If you track your bodyfat every day, you find that there’s less correlation than you thought among your weight, your bodyfat level, and your appearance. Right now I weigh a lot, a level that was only normal when I was a powerlifter eating like an ox. And I don’t look very lean either: I’m waterlogged, with thick skin and blurry abs. And subjectively I feel a little chubby: I’m wearing the big-waisted jeans that I keep in storage for the occasional squatting cycle, when I bloat into a stout, gluteal Michelin Man, and if I strip off my shirt at yoga these days I look like a tanned marshmallow with a rubber band around its middle. And yet to my amazement, when I run the numbers, I find I’ve got way more lean body mass with just the same amount of fat as last summer, when I had a nice, wasp waist. Strange as it seems, even though I feel bloated and look pretty “blah” in my shaving mirror, I’ve got maybe the best body composition of my life right now.

So why the difference? It’s that I’m holding way more water too. Yes, I’ll have to change some things if I’m suddenly offered a photo shoot as a middle-aged underwear model. But for now, since no one has recognized my potential—give me a chance, Madison Avenue! I could be great!—I shouldn’t change a thing. 

I’m glad I know that, because now I won’t mess with success. But I want to underscore that the only reason I know it, despite cockeyed subjective impressions, is that I’ve got an objective measure in the Tanita scale. 

So here’s today’s takeaway for everyday lean, solid dogs:

  1. Your regular bathroom scale only gives you junk data, your mirror is unreliable, and how lean or fat you feel is fake news. 
  2. If you’re going to track something, make it something objective and reliable. Spend $40 for a Tanita scale. Track your actual bodyfat percentage. Everything else is evanescent, subjective, or both.
  3. Try out the many successful, easy approaches for leaning out, and (here’s my $.02 for the menfolk), once you get to 12%, just hold steady there. I’m not alone in thinking that that’s a sweet spot: easy to reach, easy to maintain, and makes you fit and healthy and mobile and trim without being onerous.

Forty-Mile Ruck: Lessons Learned

To prep for the (in)famous Star Course, I tried a 42-mile ruck march.

I’d read one man’s AAR suggesting that in training you aim for 40 miles (64km) in something close to 10 hours, and on paper that sounded almost reasonable. It’s only 15 minutes per mile, right? Heck, I’ve motored along at that speed in perfect contentment for plenty of 12-mile marches with a 30# pack. So with just 20# dry (not even 10kg), wouldn’t I cover at least the first half of my journey at that pace? And if I allowed myself a full 12 hours, plus an extra hour for lunch, that would be almost leisurely! Right?

That was HUBRIS, and I got punished! Instead of treading a merry 13 hours, I slogged out a tough 15½ hours, and rather than a carefree and gay picnic walk, at times it felt like a death march.

This was a major lesson in all the factors that can slow a march down. Let me count the ways!

What I Did Badly

Feeling so sluggish, I sensed I was in for a long day. But I had no idea just how long.

First was my own poor condition. I’d been training hard, demanding a lot of my foot muscles (which work overtime in yoga and kettlebell lifting too), and the day before my ruck romp, I’d had a small migraine that I tried to cure by testing my rep max in the kettlebell snatch. (That worked pretty well, by the way.) Coupled with a 4am wakeup, it’s little surprise that I felt like hell when I started my walk, and it slowed me down. By mid-morning I was already an hour behind schedule. And that was before other adverse conditions started piling up.

I am blessed to live out in the country. Only problem is, my body thinks it belongs in a different country.

What other adverse conditions? Next was the heat, which is my personal kryptonite. I’m stocky and descended entirely from Northern European bog dwellers. Even in modest heat, a full sun clobbers me like an axe.

I made some poor nutrition choices too. Normally in these long events, I thrive on a scant 25g of carbs per hour and, being keto-adapted, I draw the rest of my calories from body fat. It’s a trick I got from ultra champ Zach Bitter and it makes me immune to the usual nausea and GI trouble of endurance events. But on this morning I treated myself to a big, sugary frozen mocha, and it was way too much carbs and gook. I’ll spare you, gentle reader, an account of the results and just summarize them as “sub-optimal.” Lesson: Just 25g of carbs per hour.

If you want to geek out on this stuff, read the work of Mike Prevost.

By my choice of routes, I also gave myself a (poorly timed) lesson in how much you can be slowed by terrain. The Army has researched rucking speed and found that, even more than pack weight, you’re slowed by factors as mundane as the ground’s surface. And elevation gain is another biggie. When climbing a 10% grade, you cut your speed in half. (EDIT: Researcher Adam Scott finds that it’s only a one-third reduction.)So on one steep 4-mile stretch, I climbed for almost two hours.

Nor did I factor in stream crossings. Foot care guru John Vonhof insists that you remove shoes and socks at streams, carry them across, and dry your feet before putting them on again. I did this each time, dutifully but grudgingly, but I ate up nearly an hour and disliked feeling my way painfully across the stream bottom in sore, bare feet. Lesson: Bring water shoes and a microfiber hand towel. On trips where I’ll recross the stream at the same point, I can even stash them near the crossing to wait for my return trip.

Finally, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to wear brand-new boots. Though they didn’t need much breaking in, they still required time-consuming experimentation on the trail, trying different combinations of socks, liner socks, and lacing.

Ridiculous math like this is an example of why the metric Mondopoint system is so great. You measure your feet in millimeters. That’s your size. Simple.

However, there was one thing about these boots that was a godsend: they’re actually big enough! My toes have never been so free. I owe this too to John Vonhof, whose simple trick is to remove the insoles from your shoes, set them on the ground, and stand on them. If your feet lap over the insoles at any point, or even touch the edge, the shoes are too small. That’s how I went from a size 9.5 to a 10.5 Wide!

What Went Great

Aerobic base: Aerobically this trip posed little challenge. As in all my training, I throttled back enough to stay within my “MAF” heart rate (“max aerobic function”). And even on such a long ruck, I found, as long as I stay within my MAF heart rate, I can put my legs on cruise control and motor along indefinitely. My feet might get sore, but my heart and lungs can hack it just fine.

Our Lady of Electrolytes and Mr. Delirium

Electrolytes: At long last, I didn’t cramp! I can’t take credit for this. The unsurpassable Lean Solid Girl met me at my turnaround point with a princely feast of burritos, trail mix, cold drinks, and (best of all) electrolytes.

Blisters: I only got one blister, on my heel. Zero blisters would be better, but I’ll take this as a victory considering this was a distance PR in boots that were new out of the box.

The Great Takeaway

The home stretch. From this bridge, it’s 3 miles to my door. The last time I passed it feeling this tired was only a few months ago. That night I was doing my first 12-miler, but now that’s just a warmup. Reflecting on that was a real morale boost. #cookiejar

I didn’t quit. That’s the great takeaway. At 5:30am, only 5 minutes into the day, I still had a lingering headache from the day before, felt like hell, and had no spring in my step, and I thought, “I picked an awful day to do this. It will be amazing if I actually finish 40 miles today.” And I was right on both counts: it was terrible timing–WTH kind of plan is “be sick all day, then max out on snatches, and then do 40 miles the next day?!”–and it’s amazing to me that I finished it. I should have rescheduled–stupid stuff is stupid, and it would have required effort to choose a worse day for this. But once I (foolishly) committed to it and decided to stick with the (dumb) plan, it was almost a certainty that I’d finish–eventually–as long as I didn’t quit.

Rucking up at Mile 23. Don’t believe the smile, it’s a lie. I’m feeling pretty sorry for myself here. Out of the frame, milady’s Prius is whispering, “Give up! I’ll take you home right now. How about some air conditioning?”

And that, friends, is the big lesson. (Cue the “rousing emotional crescendo music!”) It seems that in an event like this–a low-intensity slog played out over a very long time–there’s almost no way to suck so much that you can’t finish. There’s no opponent to KO you, pin you, or steal the ball, and you need zero coordination or athletic talent–it’s just walking. Physically the demands aren’t even very intense or the perils great: you won’t get a concussion or cascade off the side of Mount Everest. You can suck as much as you want for as long as you want, but unless you decide to quit (or you get abducted off the road by a UFO), you are pretty much assured of succeeding eventually. As Goggins says, “No talent required.”

Gear Check

Final installment in my after-action report from the GORUCK D-Day Heavy Challenge.

The faithful, indomitable, light, nimble “Moose Head” rucksack. I love this thing. Made in the 1930s, it was intended by the Swedes as a cheap mass-production item for hurriedly equipping a big army that Germany would choose not to tangle with. Eighty years later, with just a little sewing, it’s my favorite pack.

What Worked Out Great

1. Webbing: I had about 6′ of webbing and it saved me twice. First we had to carry an insidiously-shaped rock a few miles uphill. I bound it up like a birthday gift and then some genius added D-rings and carabiners so that folks could hang it from their pack straps. The final effect was like a newborn boulder in a Babybjörn. It still sucked, but it substantially reduced the Suck Value. Second, I broke a pack strap at dawn, but it took all of 30 seconds to improvise a fix with the webbing. Without it, I would probably have washed out of the event over that petty equipment failure. So write this down, someone: webbing is the duct tape of rucking.

Weight: 40g. Not quitting the whole event over a busted pack strap or wasting everyone’s biceps cradling a f#&%ing rock: priceless.

2. Spare shoelace: Whipped this out to secure the flag to the pole better. Again, it nullified what could have been a huge pain in the butt for essentially zero added weight.

3. Rocky S2V boots: Thank you, Sgt. Šileika! The Rockies were champs. My search for the perfect all-round boot is over!

I’m blown away by the contrast to the Moab Ventilators that I wore last year. The point of the Ventilators is that, with their mesh sides, they let water and sweat flow out and let air rush in. It’s a great idea for running trails, but not for sloshing around in surf and sand because your shoes and socks fill with sediment. I got grit between my shoes and socks, between my socks and sock liners, and between the liners and my skin.

Perhaps not coincidentally, the other teammate who wore Rockies completed a “Heavy-Tough-Light” (i.e. he is a freak who did three events back-to-back over 48 hours, totaling well over 70 miles). And the teammate who wore Ventilators got a silver dollar-sized blood blister so heinous and unearthly that I expected an alien to spawn from his heel. (Amazingly, he just cheerfully popped it, dressed it, and walked on it for the next 12 hours without grimacing. People are freaks, and this guy must have the pain tolerance of a barn animal.)

4. Synthetic fabrics: Impressed by Lean Solid Girl’s successes, I left behind most of my old-school cotton, wool, and hair shirts and wore so much stretchy space-age fabric that I felt like Spider Man. And it worked great: I stayed warm, dry, windproof, and free of chafing.

It was only at midday that I wore a cotton shirt (one of the dozen awesome $4 Bundeswehr quarter-zips that I stash everywhere–#notaffiliatedIjustlovethem). But as soon as we got wet, I changed back to polypro gratefully.

5. Tights: Goofy yoga shorts are still great, but in water and wind, I was even happier with running tights. Even better, mine had built-in knee pads.

6. Categorized bags: Since my old-fashioned ruck only has one big compartment, I sorted gear into four marked bags: Food, Shirt, Jacket, and Head & Foot Stuff (hat, headlamp, sunglasses, socks, and foot care supplies). It worked great. Next time, I’ll color code the bags too.

7. More sock changes than a Madonna concert: I brought two extra pairs of socks and sock liners, and I rotated through all of them. Again, cheap insurance. I’ve had great success with the combination of Finnish M05 “liner socks” (which are socks unto themselves here in temperate climes) and FoxRiver liners, so I won’t mess with success.

8. Tailwind and GU: Here too, I owe Lean Solid Girl, who’s a past (and future?) runner, for initiating me into the secrets of distance athletes.

9. My hydration bladder: Our team had at least two burst hydration bladders, which did not enhance their owners’ lives. Usually I’m the first person to cheap out and get suckered by a false economy, but I’ve never encountered this problem even after hundreds of miles, so I’ll keep using Hommitt.

Dumb Ideas

1. Powerlifting knee sleeve: It’s stupid to change your game plan at the last minute, and that includes switching to gear you haven’t tested. I grabbed a squatting knee sleeve on the way out the door because I worried about padding my sore knee. It guarded my knee from abrasion, alright, but over 40 miles it knotted up some soft tissue behind my knee from the pressure.

2. Leaving my electrolytes to chance: I prepared for pushups poorly enough. I didn’t need cramped arms on top of that, but I chose to trust that I’d get all my electrolytes from the Tailwind. Dumb. Electrolytes are cheap insurance, just like webbing or an extra shoelace. Without Mike the Forester’s generosity, I’d have been in trouble. Next time I’m bringing extra electrolytes.

3. Poorly secured pill bottle: To help with pain, I cleverly brought some CBD, ibuprofen, and caffeine pills, but I foolishly hung the bottle from a carabiner with my gloves, and within an hour it was lost.

Aryan Invasion

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My house has been invaded by yogis! It’s great!

Everywhere you go, you stumble over someone pacing and chanting silently, hunkered down translating Bengali hagiographies on an iMac, or playing ragas on a guitar in the garden. These guys all trail the scent of sandalwood around the house, they keep the kitchen always smelling of warm cauliflower and turmeric, and in various places they have white dhotis laid out to dry and little pots of paste for painting the tilaka on their foreheads.

Imagine you are a teenage heavy metal fan and then Black Sabbath descends on your house and throws a week-long rager. Only now imagine that instead of stone-cold rockers they’re yogis, and their idea of a tear-the-walls-down-to-the-studs party is to smile a lot, be fairly quiet, and laugh frequently. It’s just like that.

Everyone should have a yogic bliss squad of Hindu mendicants who takes their home over twice a year and rejuvenates the place. Haribol! (Don’t tell the Buddha I said that. I’ll get in trouble. Seriously.)

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After Faleev: What to Expect

Our fifteenth and final installment on Russian physical culturist Alexey Faleev. Please find links to the whole series here.

If you follow Faleev’s program, you will be a happy camper for quite some time.

First, if you were looking to gain weight, you are probably already doing so. When I followed his 5×5 system, I ate like a lumberjack and over several months I gained about 25#.

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Me on Faleev’s program.

Not that it was all muscle! That does not happen in the real world. In fact, I will assume that your appetite will soar like mine did and caution you that, because you will begin eating so much, you should commit to eating the “cleanest” diet you can. Do not think that you have stoked your metabolic furnace so hot that you will not plump up if you start eating Oreos and milk. (That may, possibly, be a real-life example from my own past.)

Remember, you control how lean you are almost entirely by how you eat. Exercise has little to do with it. This is not a popular truth but anyone in the fitness industry can tell you this IF they are being honest.

Second, you should have plenty of energy. Powerlifting can become a harsh mistress and consume a lot of your time and physical “oomph.” And though Faleev has you working out often–five days a week! I hope you train at home–he keeps your workouts short. Above all, he is a master of recovery and motivation. When I am faithful to his “applied yoga” (my word, not his)–when I stretch after lifting, reinforce myself with little rewards, drink kvass, sleep plentifully, and train not for the sake of exerting myself but enjoying the relaxation of heavy, thick, spent limbs afterward–I LOVE LOVE LOVE to train. It is a truly spiritual joy. (As it had better be, if I have to apply burning horse liniment to my groin!)

Third, you will get strong. According to much better powerlifters than I, on a minimalist program like Faleev’s, with only three exercises, you can reliably progress up to the threshold of advanced powerlifting, where you can bench 1.5 times your bodyweight, squat double your bodyweight, and deadlift 2.5 times your bodyweight. (That fits with my experience also.)

But after that, you might need a different program. (Just keep the recovery techniques!!) Different people are built to excel in different lifts and lag in others. Me, I am a natural deadlifter because I have long arms, but I am also a lousy bencher because I am forced by my long forearms to press farther than guys with short “T-rex arms.” As a rule of thumb, if you are built for a particular lift, you can benefit from a minimalist program in which you practice just that lift with no extras. I built my deadlift just by deadlifting, nothing more. But the opposite is also true: if you were born with bad leverages for a certain lift, then once you are sufficiently advanced, if you want to keep getting stronger you will need to judiciously add certain “assistance” exercises. So for example, to build enough momentum to bench press the bar through my extra-long range of motion, I personally need extra work on my shoulders and triceps.

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Alexey “Nothing Extra” Faleev forbids dumbbell cleans & presses, or anything other than the The Big Three: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. But the farther you advance, the likelier it is that you will need to depart from Faleev’s minimalist program.

Except for a few genetic freaks, most of us will need that more complicated program one day. With his own trainees, Faleev accomplishes this in part by prescribing special isometric exercises. (For example, I would be assigned to press against an immovable stick belted firmly to my own torso, to mimic the “off the chest” phase of the bench press which is my weak point.)

But most American powerlifters today solve this problem by a different strategy, called the “Westside” method, that employs a panoply of assistance exercises. Some might say that, compared with the monotony of Faleev’s system, this is typical of an American temperament that prizes variety. The modern American style also uses much shorter cycles than Faleev’s long, regimented, 10-week plans. For an advanced lifter this is valuable because progress becomes ever more difficult and finicky and you routinely incur small but consequential injuries. And when you do, it can become impossible to adhere to the complex, coordinated plan two-month plan because you have to work around the injuries.

In a future series we will learn about one very successful Russian coach, Konstantin Rogozhnikov, and his own home-grown solution to problems of how to train a powerlifter who has outgrown minimalism like Faleev’s.

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Unless you are pretty advanced, you have not gotten close to outgrowing Faleev’s system. But even if you do one day, KEEP HIS RECOVERY TECHNIQUES! They are priceless.

Kvass, Sour Life-Giving Ambrosia of Political Prisoners and Gods

Part 6 on the physical culture teachings of Alexey Faleev. See here for links to all 15 parts.

Faleev treats recovery almost as a religion. Sleep is sacred, he writes, and any athlete must make it a top priority.

Visit the Russian bath once a week. (I guess most of us will have to make do with a steam room.)

Like every Russian physical culturist, he likes “tempering” with cold water. Traditionally this is done by standing outside, with bare feet on bare earth, and pouring a bucket of ice water over oneself. I’ve done this before and it really does feel great. But he insists that you begin and end with heat, either a steam room, a sauna, or a hot shower. (A simpler alternative is the “contrast shower”: hot water, then cold, then hot and cold and hot again. It’s very invigorating.)

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You can make kvass with almost anything. Most commonly it’s rye bread, but here at Dog HQ, gluten is not on the menu, so we often use oats and berries.

And no ice-cold beverages. Go for hot drinks instead. He also strongly recommends pickled and fermented foods, pine nuts, raw honey, and—my favorite!—kvass.

Faleev praises kvass for its vitamin content and effect on our gut biome, and he claims it speeds recovery from exertion and even has saved the lives of many a zek (prisoner) in the death traps that are Russian prisons:

“We all have heard what Russian prisons are like. The reality is that our prisons are not aimed at reforming people but mainly at destroying them. … Death in prison can be violent, of course, but more often it comes from exhaustion, lack of vitamins, and disease … The zeki are beaten and use any tiny opportunity to stay alive. The most experienced zeki make kvass in secret and thus are able to maintain their health. They get a spoonful of sugar and a piece of bread daily, and they can scrounge a jar [to hold the sugar, bread, and water] and bury it so that no one will inform the authorities. In ten days, the kvass is ready. If there is no bread, they make it with tree bark, especially aspen bark. Kvass lets you ward off sickness and maintain strength.”

As Faleev notes, you can make kvass from most any vegetable matter: traditional kvasses include those made from rye bread, berries, watermelon rinds, or beets. For athletes he particularly recommends kvass made with herbs, including sage, foxglove, lily of the valley, eucalyptus, and pine needles.

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These guys were deliberately worked to death in Arctic lumber camps and uranium mines. Faleev figures, if kvass kept them alive through that, maybe you should consider some too.

Livid to Languid

Today we learn to drain the tension and enter bliss mode at will. This is the “warm and cozy” side of physical culturist Alexey Faleev’s yogic nervous system hacks. For its more vigorous flip side, where you learn to hit your “go switch,” visit our last installment, “The Dark Arts of Applied Yoga.” Or start from the beginning of our series! Links to all 15 installments are here.

The Cool-Down

After the workout, Faleev wants you to plunge into a state of profound relaxation and pleasure right away so that you can begin recovering. “Do not forget, stress is just a prelude to the main goal: relaxation. We did not strain [in training] in order to strain, but to relax afterward.”

For that, we must turn off the sympathetic nervous system and switch on the parasympathetic system. And we can hack into it using any of the same three variables as before: muscular tension, breathing, and emotions.

To begin with, Faleev insists that you stretch immediately after lifting. This is non-negotiable: to jump-start recovery you must release the muscle tension with static stretching.

Take a tip from me. I hate static stretching because it’s uncomfortable. So get yourself some Jumpstretch bands. Play around with them and you’ll find that (1) you can stretch without hitting a hard “edge” since the bands have some give, and (2) you can stretch the muscles you want to target without having to contort yourself or support your bodyweight in uncomfortable positions.

To release muscle tension, Faleev likes relaxation techniques in which you tense muscle groups one by one, very briefly, and then lapse into full relaxation. Me, I say run to a “restorative yoga” class as fast as you (mindfully!) can. Hot yoga is the gold standard for active recovery, in my opinion, and a priceless complement to powerlifting, but it isn’t leisurely. Restorative yoga is an entirely different animal–all deep relaxation all the time–and it’s exactly what Faleev is looking for here, like jumper cables for your parasympathetic system.

Faleev wants you to love training, so he conditions you, like Pavlov’s dog, to associate your workouts with pleasure and relaxation. He says that psychologically you will be imprinted subconsciously with whatever happens at the very end of the workout, so we want to make it something very happy. After your exercise, he says, stretch with a feeling of languid, feline pleasure, like a cat stretching and relaxing in a sunbeam. Get under a hot shower and enjoy the pleasing sense of light tiredness in your muscles.

You must also reward yourself. Make it something that you enjoy, that you reserve solely for workouts. You must get the reward immediately after you complete the workout to benefit fully from the Pavlovian conditioning. For me it was chocolate chip cookies, as soon as the bar hit the floor. They really do sharpen your enthusiasm for training!

At moments like this, I adore Faleev because the great, thick-necked powerlifter talks about relaxation like a soft-handed voluptuary lying on a settee in Kubla Khan’s stately pleasure dome: “You have come a long way and have every right to rest now. So take advantage of it one hundred percent! After your relaxation exercises, lie down and feel the pleasant warmth spreading throughout the body. How pleasant rest is after exhausting work! This is bliss in comparison with rest after idleness – is that not so? So … go to the country of true pleasure, do not resist it.”

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“…close your eyes with holy dread, For he on honey-dew hath fed, And drunk the milk of Paradise.” Coleridge wrote it while high as a kite on opium and when Faleev writes these wonderful sybaritic passages on lassitude, I picture him as a gentlemen lying stoned on thick carpets with a cat.

For breathing, Faleev likes a variation on a common pranayama technique, with a subtle difference. If you’ve tried “triangular breathing” (an inhale, a pause, and an exhale), you probably learned to inhale and then hold the breath on a bellyful of air. But Faleev wants you to lengthen the exhalation as much as feels natural and then pause the breath on empty lungs: exhale, then pause, then inhale. Then transition immediately to the exhale and repeat. I can speak as someone who has dabbled in stuff like this for years, and I think Faleev has it right: if you are trying to lower your arousal and relax, pause for a little while after the exhale, not the inhale.

As for the emotions, Faleev points to “a law of the human psyche, that a person can keep his attention simultaneously on [only] three dynamic objects,” which is to say three moving or changing things, “and when there are three such objects in consciousness, then there comes an inner calm … You must have noticed that it’s nice to look at fire, flowing water, the breeze in the treetops, or fish floating in an aquarium. This is because when you observe three dynamic processes (the tongues of flame, the waves, the leaves, the fish), the brain is completely occupied and there is no room left for any other thoughts. It is from this that a person relaxes, plunging into a calm, peaceful state.”

Here’s another idea, something that was a game changer for me. Search for videos marked “ASMR.” I won’t try to explain, just do it. I’ll wait here … … … Done? The variety of such things is huge. Sample many types and see which kinds, if any, give you “the tingles.” (Two of my own favorites are here and here.) I’m told that not everyone responds to these stimuli, but they soothe me instantly into a helpless, blissful transcendence puddle and provide the inverse of an out-of-body experience, where my body feels like a warm, briny bubble bath and my consciousness dissolves in the huge tub like bath salts. Your mileage may vary, but for me, it’s instantaneous and unfailing.

The Dark Arts of Applied Yoga: Psyching Up

This is part 4 of our series on Russian physical culturist Alexey Faleev.  Find links to all installments here.

Athletes do not grow stronger by training; they get strong by recovering from training and supercompensating. We use the workout as a brief, hard stimulus, and during this time Faleev wants us to psych up and focus our powers as intently as a man at war. But only for an hour or so! The instant the workout is over, before we even take off our sweatshirts, we must relax and luxuriate in the delicious pleasures of rest and heavy limbs. We worked out precisely so that we could recover afterward, so we want to plunge into rest and recovery just as intently and thoroughly as we went to war under the iron and not waste a moment of our precious recovery time.

We could imagine that Faleev wants us to develop an on-off switch. When we flip the switch on, we are psyched up, electrified in mind and body, and ready to fight. But in the next moment, when we flick the switch off, we do not merely end our sports performance, we positively immerse ourselves in an ocean of relaxation, pleasure, and languor.

Stated technically, what Faleev wants us to learn is to control our sympathetic nervous system (the “fight or flight” system) and parasympathetic system at will. We will be able to enter a state of hyper-arousal at any moment and be prepared to kick butt—breath quickening, nostrils flaring, and muscle fibers crackling with incipient tension—and then just as quickly pull the plug on that arousal and fall downward into a deep valley on the ocean floor of relaxation.

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TRIGGER WARNING: Do not google “Russian yoga” if you are psychologically vulnerable to disobliging jokes about alcoholism.
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Reading this, you may not think “That sounds just like yoga!” because we associate yoga more with the pole of relaxation and calming. (And not without reason. Yogaścittavṛtti nirodhaḥ, says Patanjali: “Yoga is the cessation of mental fluctuation,” which if we take him literally would be a catatonic state!) But there are two sides to the yoga coin—tension and relaxation, quickening and calming—and yoga works both sides. Not sure what I’m talking about? Go to a Bikram studio and take a hot yoga class. For $15 you will get a 90-minute tour of heaven and hell. (Ok, mostly hell.) Then you will re-read this paragraph and nod sagely.

Faleev does not mention yoga in his book, but he inherits a tradition of Russian breath work rooted partly in Soviet military research into pranayama that diffused into the world of Soviet sports, and it works on the famous yogic trio: body, breath, and mind.

Psyching Up

Faleev teaches three ways to hack the “fight or flight” system and switch it on at will. In fight or flight mode, there are three things happening inside us. Our (1) muscle tension and (2) breathing pick up to prepare us to run or fight, and we feel (3) emotional alarm or anger at the approaching danger. Before a big lift, says Faleev, you can deliberately create any of those three conditions and turn on the sympathetic nervous system artificially.

Breathing: Either take a deep breath and hold it for a few seconds, and/or tense your thorax and force out a thin stream of breath under high pressure, like a compressed air hose. Pavel Tsatsouline teaches the compressed air technique brilliantly as the center of his truly peerless system of “skinny strength,” and also a technique for purposely hyperventilating to pump your blood full of excess oxygen before a huge effort.

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This is a deadlift, and it’s a low-technique, brute force lift. Womenfolk, deadlifting will soooooo not make you un-feminine.

Hyperventilating does work, sometimes too well. In my experience, I get a few seconds of “beast mode” strength from hyperventilation, but I also get tunnel vision and lose a lot of coordination. So I can only use it to deadlift, since it’s a fairly low-skill lift; I wouldn’t use it in the squat or bench, which are more technical.

Muscle Tension:  Like rapid breathing, Faleev says, the subconscious associates a rise in muscle tension with danger and so we can hack into the fight or flight system by purposely loading our muscles with extra tension. “Instantly,” he writes, “all resources are mobilized – emotions change, adrenaline and anxiety hormones like corticosteroids are released, and the work of the internal organs goes into danger mode.” This works well together with the breathing tricks above, in my experience.

Emotions of Anger or Threat: More than in almost any other sport, weightlifters can benefit from emotional arousal bordering on blind rage. At powerlifting meets, you see certain competitors working themselves into hysteria before they mount the platform for a big attempt. They might scream, grimace with wide eyes and bulging veins, and maybe punch themselves or have teammates dish out slaps or other simulated abuse. It is easy to mock these displays–I confess I find them adolescent-looking and embarrassing to watch–but there is a legitimate purpose to their histrionics. “The blows cause feelings of rage” and arouse an “emotional spirit of danger and struggle.”

But “all this can be done more quietly,” Faleev adds, “without … blows to the head and loud roaring.” How? “Remember some injustice.” Get mad. I knew a lifter who prepared for max attempts by remembering childhood beatings. I don’t use emotional triggers much, but when I do, it always involves some story of a man left behind to face the enemy alone or someone who throws his life away on purpose to buy time for the women and children. Faleev tells of a colleague who volunteers at searching for unburied remains of soldiers on the old Eastern Front. One day this colleague found an unknown soldier in the middle of nowhere, a man sent into a hopeless attack against German machine guns armed with just a stick and a bayonet. This man knew for a certainty he would be shot to pieces and end up as a bullet sponge, yet he went anyway. Since he had no dog tags, this man’s family will never know what became of him or what he did for them. Before you squat, Faleev suggests, ask yourself whether perhaps this man was your grandfather? Examine yourself: do you have even a fraction of his mettle?

In case you still have not grokked Faleev’s point, he spells it out: If using the emotional method, then “before your attempt, you should cause yourself an attack of rage.”

The emotional approach is not right for everyone. Personally, whenever I have used it in powerlifting competition, I have turned in my very worst performances. I get too wound up and lose good technique. Instead, since my teen years I have always competed best when I’m doing mindfulness meditation right up to the moment when I touch the bar. Eyes open and walking around, of course, but with a spooky, detached calm that reminds me of a scuba diver deep underwater, watching strange shapes move with crystal clarity through a glass mask and his ears filled with the sound of his own breathing.

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As you can see, even in the deadlift there is such a thing as over-arousal because you’re already fighting a ton of intra-thoracic pressure. This lifter managed to splatter the head judge, but she FINISHED THE LIFT! HOOAH!

Sports Spirituality: How to Get “In the Zone” the Russian Way

Part 3 in our series on physical culturist Alexey Faleev. Please find links to all installments here.

“Athletes don’t lift with their muscles,” writes Alexey Faleev. “They lift with their heads.” He makes zero effort to separate physical performance from the athlete’s thoughts, moods, and happiness. In this, he is following some other great Russian physical culturists. The “father of Russian hockey,” Anatoli Tarasov, tracked key statistical indicators like a true scientifically Marxist Soviet planner long before the Moneyball revolution in America, but he trained his players to approach their hockey as a beautiful act of creativity. He kept them mindful that playing hockey is supposed to give you joy. Otherwise, why play games at all? Famously, he would call out to his players on the ice, “Smile! You’re playing hockey!”

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Anatoli Tarasov, father of the Russian hockey program

Accordingly, Faleev loves to talk about how to get into “the zone.” Except he calls it vdokhnoveniye, “inspiration.” I love it!

“There are different practices to achieve ‘inspiration,’” he says, “but they all boil down to regulating the pulse.” (Remember what we said? Faleev doesn’t differentiate between mental readiness and physical readiness!) To get “inspired,” you need to maintain your pulse in its optimal range. Above that range you can get ragged and sloppy. Worse still, below that range you’ll be understimulated and too sluggish and unfocused to do your best.

He illustrates with a story from sports psychologist Anatoly Alexeev about his work with the Soviet shooting teams.

At the national trap shooting championship, Alexeev approached one of his athletes as she stood on the firing line shortly before the final round. He noticed something “off” about the athlete, so Alexeev took her pulse. “As expected,” he wrote later, “it was just 88 beats per minute,” much lower than her optimal 124 bpm. “Quick, give me the gun!” he snapped. “See that birch tree over there? Sprint there and back. Now! Go!” Confused, afraid, and a little irritated with Alexeev, the athlete did as ordered, came back with her pulse suitably elevated, and went on to demolish her opponent.

What’s your optimal range for “inspiration?” It differs by sport and athlete, but if you want my opinion, a good formula for strength sports is 160 beats per minute minus your age. Stay within +/- 5 beats per minute and you’ll be good. (Keep in mind, I’m nobody. This is just one mid-level amateur’s opinion.)

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Four-time world champion and author of eight books, including a three-volume novel! Can you tell I heart Yuri Vlasov? Well so did Arnold Schwarzenegger, so deal with it.

“So,” you ask, “does that story mean I should do sprints before a workout or competition?” No! That was an emergency measure. Faleev says that you should get up to your sweet spot in some way that doesn’t involve using your legs, which would tire you out.

How creative can you get? Weightlifter Yuri Vlasov, the great Soviet sportsman of his generation, was a bespectacled poetry fan. Just the kind of “muscular intellectual” we like here at Lean, Solid Dogs! To bump up his heart rate before big attempts, Vlasov would silently recite macho, stoic verse like Emile Verhaeren’s poem “The Sword” (Le Glaive): “Your body, where the blood of unsullied ancestors sours, / fragile and clumsy, will break itself with each effort / You will be the febrile man bent upon the windows (??) / whence we can see leaping life and its golden chariots.” Damn, get me to a barbell! I’m inspired!

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The “Austrian Oak” meets his childhood idol, Yuri Vlasov. (1988)

If you are not as literary as Comrade Yuri Petrovich, who did wear pop-bottle glasses after all, Faleev recommends shadow-boxing or “fast and loose” drills. They will elevate your heart rate suitably without fatiguing you.

In our next installment, Faleev’s dark arts of applied yoga.