An Interview with Pavel Tsatsouline? by Chris Shugart
“Get on the floor,” the Russian said. He did not say please.
“Now? Here?” I asked.
“Now, I want you to do push-ups, but I want you to turn your hands like this and breathe like this… “
So it began. Over the next hour, I learned to up the intensity of my squat, to instantly jack up the power of my bench press, and to increase the speed of my punch. No, I wasn’t in some dank Russian gym and I wasn’t in an elite European training center. I was in the lobby of the posh Hyatt Regency hotel in Columbus, Ohio, interviewing up and coming strength guru, Pavel Tsatsouline. It was the first interview I’d conducted that left me sore the next day.
I first heard about Pavel “The Evil Russian” Tsatsouline from those involved in the martial arts community. Many were breaking through their stretching plateaus by using his techniques. I picked up a few of his books and videos and was immediately struck by Pavel’s in-your-face ideas about strength training. Frankly, I’d never heard of most of the exercises he’d written about and immediately disagreed with at least half of what he had to say. In other words, I was intrigued and had to learn more.
Pavel isn’t a big guy, nor does he want to be. Wiry, functional strength and power is his game. His body is more Bruce Lee than Arnold, and he’s more interested in training for combat than training for the beach. As a former physical training instructor for Spetsnaz, the Soviet special forces, his job wasn’t to make them pretty, but to make them into efficient killing machines. The fact that they developed rock hard physiques was almost a side effect.
Pavel holds a Soviet Physical Culture degree in physiology and coaching and was also a nationally ranked athlete in the ethnic-strength sport of kettlebell lifting, a practice he’s now attempting to popularize in America. These days, Pavel is proud to say he’s a “capitalist running dog” and is living the good life in California with his American wife. Pavel spends his time writing books, making videos, holding seminars and training American SWAT team members and other law enforcement professionals.
I’m just glad he’s on our side.
Testosterone: Pavel, you’ve written that bodybuilding is the worst thing to ever happen to strength training. What’s up with that?
Pavel: I was quoting Dr. Ken Leistner and referred to the “new” bodybuilding, post Arnold and Franco. The stuff they do today in the gyms is more cosmetic surgery than strength training. The emphasis is on the hypertrophy of everything but contractile proteins. A typical dude with eighteen-inch pipes is a big joke on an arm-wrestling table… provided he has enough nerve to test his virtual muscle in this manly art.
Strength training for sports does not rely on sarcoplasmic hypertrophy, unless you are a sumo wrestler or a football lineman. It should focus on myofibrillar hypertrophy through many sets of low reps and, more importantly, on a host of neural factors: motoneuron excitability, neural drive, Golgi tendon organ disinhibition, etc. What bothers me is when newbies who come to the gym to up their strength for, say, Alpine skiing, are told to do three sets of ten for lunges, leg presses, leg curls, and other fluff instead of simply hitting five sets of five for squats or deads.
T: You’re pretty quick to call out bodybuilders and their “fake” muscles. What’s so bad about being big?
Pavel: It’s a matter of preference, but in some activities super-sizing is inappropriate. Middleweight weightlifters are the strongest relative to their bodyweight. You don’t see many 250 pound rock climbers because, well, they’re all dead. As your bodyweight increases and you get heavier, your relative strength gets compromised more and more. Take a SWAT officer who has to carry 45 pounds of gear plus his bodyweight. If he weighs too much, he won’t be able to get over a fence or climb into a window fast enough. So where relative strength is an issue, being too big is inappropriate.
If you’re a lineman or a sumo wrestler, being big can make sense and if you do it for cosmetic reasons, then it’s perfectly fine. Otherwise you must be very selective about what you are building. Rock climbers have a saying: A good climber has the lats of a flying squirrel, Popeye forearms, and the legs of a starved chicken. It’s functional, for them.
T: So you’re more about functional, real world strength?
Pavel: You bet. A friend fascinated with special warfare showed me his copy of what was supposed to be a Navy SEAL memoir. He pointed out a photo of frogmen boarding a ship. The caption read something like, “My guys can bench press 500 pounds because they have to.”
If you have any sense you should ask two questions: 1) How many of your guys does it take to bench press 500 pounds? and 2) How is the bench press supposed to help you with any of the physical demands of your duty? One of the top tactical officers in the state of Texas, a Brit named Mark from SAPD, kicked butt at the last state SWAT competition. The man can knock off twenty-some pull-ups and does rock bottom one-legged squats with ease. How much does this officer bench? He tried it once and did 225. Not a bench press to write home about. But that it is the point.
Unless you are training purely for looks, you must focus on the strength needed for your sport, job, or lifestyle. When I got the contract from the state of New Mexico to develop new strength tests for their select Special Weapons And Tactics Teams, I did not contemplate the bench press or curls, but enforced ten pull-ups, ten rock bottom one-legged squats, and ten hanging leg raises. Everything performed with a forty-five pound plate, the weight of standard tactical gear. For pull-ups and leg raises the plate hangs on a waist belt; for one-legged squats the officer holds the plate in front of him.
T: Interesting. What can you offer bodybuilders?
Pavel: I can show them how to get stronger immediately by training their nervous systems. The best bodybuilders, when you think of Ronnie Coleman, Dorian Yates, or Arnold, they’re very strong. Even if you don’t feel like getting strong for the hell of it, you do not get the muscle density and muscle tone without heavy training. Besides, when you are stronger you are able to use more weight in your bodybuilding exercises. Will you make better gains curling 95 ten times or 115 ten times? It’s a no-brainer.
T: Okay, so how are you going to accomplish this?
Pavel: Through various neurological phenomena. Let me show you something, Chris. Squeeze my hand.
T: Okay. [I squeeze his hand as hard as I can.]
Pavel: Now, tighten your abs, squeeze your glutes and crush my hand again. [I do]. Okay, what’s the difference?
T: Did I squeeze your hand harder the second time?
Pavel: Much harder. It seems preposterous to a bodybuilder that clenching your cheeks and bracing your abs will strengthen your grip, but that’s the way your body works. What I teach is just the opposite of isolation. Isolation is impossible anyway. There is something called irradiation.
Make a fist, Chris, a tight, white-knuckle fist. Notice how the tension spreads into your biceps, shoulder and chest. So whenever the load is meaningful, the tension will spread elsewhere. It’s going to happen. If you try to fight it, you’ll only hurt yourself.
Quotable Dr. Ken Leistner compared a bodybuilder to “a collection of body parts”. That’s really the problem. Used to “isolating” and doing exercising sitting and lying down, they have no knack of integrating their body as a unit. These guys walking around the Arnold Classic may be able to bench press 400 pounds, but most can’t tackle a hundred pound metal ball, like one of my kettlebells. Some can’t even clean it to their shoulders and most can’t press it overhead, at least not without horrendous back bending. They just don’t have the core strength and they can’t integrate their whole body in the act.
Only by using those Malibu Ken and Barbie weights can you truly isolate. So you might as well decide to use your core muscles, brace your abs and your glutes and go the anti-isolation route. Bodybuilders may think that will take away from the contraction of the target muscle. We have just demonstrated with the grip test that this is not the case. Whenever you intelligently contract other muscles — your glutes, your abs, your diaphragm, and if you’re working the upper body, your grip — you automatically increase the intensity of the contraction of the target muscles.
T: Haven’t you written that squeezing the bar really hard when benching can increase your poundage?
Pavel: You can expect ten pounds within a workout or two. This works with any upper body exercise, including curling. There is one provision — you must do it either when you keep your reps very low, like five or less, or in the very last reps of a set. If you can normally do fifty push-ups, you can do five more using this technique. Get on the floor.
[The next thing I know, Pavel has me pumping out push-ups right there in the lobby. Since this was during the Arnold Classic, the lobby was filled with fitness babes. I tried my best to impress. Pavel showed me how to grip the floor as hard as I could with a claw-like grip, like I’m trying to twist a piece of it off, and contract my glutes and abs while doing the movement. Sure enough, I immediately felt stronger and was able to do more reps.]
T: [Panting] This is great stuff.
Pavel: By using extra muscle groups in a very intelligent fashion, you do not take anything away from the exercise. You increase the stimulation. Think if it as cheering versus cheating. You’ll immediately get stronger. For example, flex your wrists during curls and you’ll get even more stimulation to the biceps. And by doing all this you increase the tension which protects the joints. You end up getting a great workout with fewer exercises. You can do a curl and work the upper body with just a curl alone using these techniques.
T: Tell us about breathing and training.
Pavel: Russian scientists have studied the so-called pneumo-muscular reflex. Here’s how this reflex works. Think of your muscles as loud speakers. Think of your brain as the CD player. The volume control is located in the abdominal cavity. These special baroreceptors sense the pressure. Whenever the intra-abdominal pressure goes up, it’s like turning up the volume in your stereo and vice versa. So no matter how hard you’re trying, if you decrease the intra-abdominal pressure you’ll be immediately weaker.
When I teach people to do the splits, I teach them to minimize intra-abdominal pressure with a sigh of relief. But for strength you want to maximize the intra-abdominal pressure, that is , if you do not have a heart trouble or high-blood pressure. One reason why some martial artists exhibit such tremendous power is because they understand the importance of intra-abdominal pressure. They have a different way of putting it, but that’s what they do. The loud “Kiai!” that you make when you strike the target increases the pressure in the abdomen and immediately amplifies the power. This is how a 130 pound man could strike with the force of a heavyweight boxer.
When I started arm wrestling, I was told by a professional in the sport, “Don’t let me hear you breathe.” This is because the moment you exhale, you’ll get beat. Arm wrestling, by the way, is a very sophisticated sport in terms of incorporating all these techniques of using the body efficiently.
As Marty O’Neal, one of the top arm wrestlers in the Midwest, said, all of us have been beaten by somebody who doesn’t look like anybody. In arm wrestling you find that more than in any other sport because these people really understand how to tap into their hidden reserves and use their muscle software.
T: How can we modify this karate breathing and apply it to weight training?
Pavel: You have to learn to maximize this internal pressure but time it with exertion, in martial arts lingo, “match the breath with the force.” One way of doing this is to pull up the rectal sphincter to increase the pressure further, take a normal breath — 75% of maximal breath is usually recommended by Russian scientists — and then you expel the air at really high pressure with your teeth pressed against your tongue: “ts-ts-ts!” Make sure not to release all your air, you need it to protect your back and joints.
In some exercises you have to modify this. For example, in the bench press your rib cage would sink in, your shoulders would come up, and you would die about three inches off your chest. So in the bench, you wait until you reach your sticking point and then power breathe. In squats and deadlifts, of course, you have to hold your breath because you can’t afford to lose the air; you need to stabilize your spine. If you are really hard-core you may apply a highly sophisticated “reversed breathing” technique to your squats and deads. If you are interested, pick up an April 2001 copy of Powerlifting USA.
T: Anything else on reflexes and bodybuilding?
Pavel: Think of them as muscle software. Being a bodybuilder is like having a powerful ThinkPad computer and only using it as a word processor. Think of a little 130 pound martial artist. This guy could break a stack of bricks. A bodybuilder who weighs twice as much would go to the hospital from that. Now, the bodybuilder may have a lot more hard drive, so to speak, but he’s computer illiterate. He hasn’t learned how to program his muscle software.
If you learn how to run your software — the pneumo-muscular reflex, irradiation, successive induction, etc. — you immediately get a lot more out of your computer, regardless of whether you’re a lifter, an arm wrestler, or a bodybuilder. You don’t have to sacrifice the function for the form. You can train this way to get big very fast, and you encourage myofibrillar hypertrophy, not just blowing yourself up like a balloon with soft, useless tissue.
T: So when you apply all these strength-training principles to bodybuilding, you can lift more weight, which means you get bigger, faster?
Pavel: Yes, and do it in much greater safety because your body is super stable under the load. That also means you can get bigger faster because you don’t have to nurse injuries and resort to Barbie exercises.
T: Gotcha. Let’s get into your history a little bit. Where did you grow up?
Pavel: I grew up in Latvia, one of the former Soviet republics, in the city of Riga.
T: Were you involved with sports?
Pavel: Martial arts. And then martial arts brought me to kettlebells, which happen to be a spectacular conditioning tool for any combat sport. I received a degree in sports science and physiology from the Physical Culture Institute and I did a stint with Spetsnaz as a PT drill instructor. What I do right now in the United States is the same thing, only kinder and gentler. [chuckling]
T: When did you come to the States?
Pavel: I came to the US in the early 90s. It was a time when you could get out of Russia, barely, and could still get into America. I started out doing all sorts of odd jobs, bouncing at a night club, selling hot dogs, etc. I started an unsuccessful import/export business with friends; I just didn’t know a thing about it. I finally realized I’d better do something that I know about. So I rented an old bank vault and started a personal training business.
T: A bank vault was your personal training facility?
Pavel: Yes, an old bank vault with submarine doors and bars. You could hear the screams echo and the dropped deadlifts nicely. I did it for awhile in the Midwest along with some seminars. Last year my wife Julie and I moved to LA. Today I train SWAT and special response teams for various government agencies and write.
T: How did you get involved with writing books and articles?
Pavel: John Du Cane walked into one of my seminars one day and asked if I wanted to do a book. So we did a stretching book. Things started getting better and I got to know more and more people, mostly in the powerlifting community. I got interviewed by Powerlifting USA and wrote something for them. Then I started writing for Milo which was totally down my alley.
T: What’s your current involvement with EAS and Muscle Media?
Pavel: Vince Andrich asked me to design the training program for the new EAS Supplement Review and I just started writing for Muscle Media.
T: They could use you. You were a top kettlebell lifter in Russia, correct?
Pavel: I was nationally ranked. Competitive kettlebell lifting involves one arm snatches and clean and jerks for repetitions. It’s what they call a “military applied sport.” They learned that a combination of high-rep kettlebell snatches and clean and jerks improved many motor abilities simultaneously. They measured strength by the three powerlifts and grip strength and it all went up. They measured strength-endurance with pull-ups and dips; it went up. They measured runs at various distances, sprints, vertical jumps, you name it. They all improved.
Ironically, in many instances the numbers went up more than with specific training. They had a bunch of college subjects go through the typical Soviet military PT program based on standing broad jump, pull-ups and a middle-distance run. One group did nothing but kettlebells. This group outdid the first group even though they didn’t practice the actual exercises.
T: You mean those that did only kettlebell work beat out those actually practicing the events?
Pavel: Yes. They didn’t practice pull-ups or anything, but the kettlebell group improved in those exercises. Can I explain it? No. But if something is in your face, even if you don’t understand it, you’d better take it and run with it.
T: Fascinating. What’s your stance on steroids?
Pavel: Obviously the Soviet teams have done plenty of the stuff. My background is in the military and steroids are not something that we used, although we did take stimulants on rough occasions. Personally, I’m opposed to steroids. No matter how knowledgeable you are, when you are messing with your endocrine system you have no idea which straw you are going draw in a long run. Any mathematician who studies non-linear dynamics will tell you that.
T: You write a lot about training men for combat. You say that a warrior doesn’t have time to warm-up when someone is coming at him to kill him. So what did training men for war teach you about training the average person who just wants to be in better shape?
Pavel: What it taught me was that an average person has a much greater capacity than they think they have. For instance, when I give a seminar to the general public, I have these guys that come out of the seminar with about 30% more strength than when they went into it. They just learned to tap into their strength reserves much better.
I also learned a lot about psychological conditioning. If you believe you can do it, then it’s something you can do and vice versa. If you believe that a warm-up is going to prevent an injury, then that’s what’s going to happen. This is the same thing as believing that if I don’t wear my magic socks then I’m not going to win.
In the Russian military the alarm sounds in the middle of the night. The sergeant strikes a match and before it burns his hand you had better be dressed and on your way to get your gear and ammo. Warm-ups aren’t appropriate for the military.
Ditto for law enforcement and other government agencies. These people do not have the luxury of a warm-up. Take the US Department of Energy, one of my clients. If a bad guy is going to try to hold up a nuclear power plant you can’t tell him, “Sorry, I’ve got to warm up first.”
T: So what do you think about warming up before a workout for the average guy? Is it overrated?
Pavel: You bet. Pyramiding with high reps and light weights or riding a bicycle is a waste of time or worse. You may progressively practice your technique, e.g. pulling 315 x 1, 405 x 1, and 455 x 1 before deadlifting five wheels, but do not abuse it. Motor learning geeks know that performing a skill out of the blue, a so-called retrieval practice, is very effective for learning. My friend Dr. Judd Biasiotto squatted 600 at the bodyweight of 132. He did this a couple of minutes after waking up and without any warm-ups.
Occasionally, usually in competition, you could improve your immediate performance by just supporting a 110 to 120% weight [of your max] a minute before going for the max, greasing the groove with the wave loading Charles Poliquin and Ian King have been writing about. But do not make a habit of it so your body does not get “spoiled.”
T: I understand you have some strong opinions about our mag. What do you think of Testosterone?
Pavel: I think you provide a lot of great information, but you should save your Testosterone for the bite and not waste it on the bark. Some of your editorials sound like the ramblings of an old man who can do nothing but ogle women in a strip bar. Some reader mail could have been written by fifteen year olds bragging about their imaginary conquests. Save your Testosterone for the gym where it counts.
T: Hey, we like ogling women in strip bars! Fair enough, Pavel, but since we’ll likely reach 25 million hits this month, we must be doing something right. Next subject: Where do Americans screw up in the gym?
[Editor’s note: My people — the Finns — had 44 wars with Russia. Now I know why.]
Pavel: The so-called “high intensity training” is the worst. A bunch of lunatics from a galaxy far far away keep trying to convince us that their stuff works while their bench press has been stuck since Arnold’s first movie. Jimmy Stewart’s character in Harvey must have been a HIT Jedi; he said, “I wrestled with reality for thirty-five years and I’m happy to state that I finally won over it.”
The point is, if you look at the training of the strongest people in the world, be it weightlifters, powerlifters, strongmen, whatever, there’s one universal truth. They always lift heavy, in terms of percentage of one rep max, they always keep their repetitions low, and they never, ever train to failure. The exceptions you can count on your fingers without taking your shoes off.
Look at Ed Coan. He can do a set of three in the squat with 875 pounds, but he could have done five reps. He does three and calls it a day. If he was dumb enough to listen to these high intensity idiots, he would have used a lighter weight, say 660, and done 12 reps to failure. Then the ambulance would have to be called because he would have blown out a hamstring. That would be the end of the greatest powerlifter in the world.
T: Isn’t intensity important for weight training?
Pavel: That’s correct, but the mainstream definition of intensity — a percentage of momentary ability — is very ephemeral. It’s meaningless. Dmitri Mendeleyev, Russian chemist and the author of the periodic table of elements, said that science does not start until you start measuring. The only way you can measure intensity is through the percentage of your one rep max, period.
If you look at the studies going back to 1962, you shall find that there is only one variable that matters and it’s the absolute value of tension. Not relative tension, like how hard it feels, but the absolute tension, how much force the muscle is exerting and the time the muscle spends under tension. Failure, fatigue and exhaustion do not factor in. In fact, when you train to failure, because of something called the Hebbian mechanisms, you train yourself to fail. You grease the failing groove of the nervous system. As Dr. Terry Todd, the father of American powerlifting, said, “Don’t train to fail, train to succeed.”
So the next time you get brainwashed by the HIT Jedis, go into a powerlifting gym or a weightlifting gym and watch how the best people train. You’ll find a ton of weight, very low reps and no failure. Why low reps? Safety. It’s the tension of the supporting muscles that protect you. Low reps are generally much safer even if you’re using a heavy weight.
Twenty-rep squat programs are great. They’re worth doing once in a while, but don’t make it the mainstay of your training. You can’t have the focus with so many reps. You don’t respect the weight and you get hurt. People squat heavy with no problem, then blow out their backs loading a 45 pound plate. Why? They don’t respect the weight. It’s hard to respect something light. When you learn to keep your whole body tight — and you can only do it when the reps stay low — that’s when you can really achieve maximum safety.
T: But how are we supposed to build muscle with low rep training?
Pavel: I shall sum up the energetic theory of muscle hypertrophy without using any big words: If you get a pump with heavy weights you shall grow. You need the volume to really deplete the muscle, but you need the tension to increase the amino acid uptake. Now if you lift really heavy like a powerlifter and rest for five minutes in between sets, you have the tension but don’t have enough fatigue. If you start using the little color coded dumbbells and do a hundred reps, you have the fatigue and the pump, but not the tension. You may build some “virtual” muscles, but nothing else.
But if you set it up like this, if you use a heavy weight and do reps of five (not taken to failure) with only one or two minutes of rest for up to twenty sets, you’re going to be able to use a heavy weight and get a great pump. Every bodybuilder who’s tried this approach has reported sensational gains.
Just to give you an example, I was in the Muscle Media/EAS compound a couple of months ago. I put David Kennedy, the science editor, through a bench press workout that used this format and the high-tension techniques. Today his bench is going through the roof and his pecs are getting huge. It’s a lot more enjoyable way to train, too.
It’s almost like you’re posing under the barbell. Ironically, bodybuilding posing is so much more effective for getting definition than any high-rep program people do. That’s another mistake comrades make. They think high reps get them cut up. There’s nothing about high reps that makes you cut up. If you feel the burn that’s just exhaust fumes from your muscles, lactic acid. It doesn’t mean a thing. Muscle gets that “cut” look first of all when it’s very dense (heavier training, myofibrillar density etc.). Second of all, there’s great resting tension and that comes from high tension training such as heavy iron and posing.
So if bodybuilders would lay off their leg extensions for sets of twenty and instead go cramp your quads and pose them, they’ll get a lot better gains.
T: In your book and video Power to the People!, you talk a lot about two lifts — the deadlift and the all-but-forgotten bent press, or side press. Why the emphasis on those two lifts?
Pavel: The deadlift is the working class answer to the squat. The squat is a wonderful exercise, but it’s like a clean and jerk. You just don’t go out and learn to squat on your own. People complain about their blown out knees and their hurt backs. The proper squatting form that involves keeping your shins vertical, keeping the normal curve in the spine, not letting the knees bow in, keeping the whole body under tension, etc., it’s something that takes a lot of time to learn.
Most squatters don’t have the slightest clue how to carry the bar on their backs. It kills their wrists and it kills their shoulders. So the squat is a great exercise, but just like you don’t learn how to do gymnastics by yourself, you don’t learn how to squat without expert hands-on instruction. It can take years to learn. Besides, it requires a power rack and a spotter. Rephrase that, it requires a competent spotter.
With the deadlift on the other hand, you can drop the bar if you want to. You don’t need a spotter or a power rack. It’s also a much more natural movement. In our ontogenesis or development, there’s a reflex for the deadlift; it’s just extending your body. It’s very quick and easy to learn and it’s a skill you use everyday. Plus, you work more muscle groups. You work your shoulder girdle, your traps, your biceps, your forearms and your grip. Also, for athletes from sports where hypertrophy in the legs is not recommended, the deadlift is a great exercise. UFC champ Ken Shamrock is among the smart combat athletes who chose the dead over the squat.
If you are a bodybuilder and your legs are your strong body part, consider deads as your only leg exercise. I coached Jim Wilke, who went on to become one of the top natural bodybuilders in Minnesota, and it worked like a charm for him.
T: Okay, so what about the side press?
Pavel: The old-fashioned side press, or an overhead press with a sideways lean, is great for the shoulders, lats, and waist, but it is just a cherry on top of the deadlift sundae.
T: So if a person is super busy and can only get two workouts per week, they need to use the side press and the deadlift.
Pavel: A bodybuilder could make it the bench press and the deadlift. It’s the most comprehensive workout you could possibly hope for, especially if you use all the high-tension techniques we’ve been talking about. You’ll be able to use every muscle in your body at the same time.
T: Is soreness necessary?
Pavel: Nobody knows. People have gained with soreness and without soreness. One thing is for sure, you can’t use soreness as an indicator of progress. The only meaningful gauge is the increase in your strength or your muscle mass. Soreness doesn’t mean a thing. For athletes and hard living comrades, so to speak, soreness is not an option either.
If there’s a hostage situation, a tactical officer can’t say, “Sorry, Captain, I did my squats two days ago and I can’t walk.” That’s not an option. If you can’t perform on a dime, if you’re all stiff and tired, you’re lunch. Evolution is still at work. You must eliminate the soreness.
Let’s say you’re a martial artist. Martial artists are enamoured with high reps and low weights. They are under this impression that heavy weights build huge muscles. So these fighters are so exhausted from their silly fifty rep squats and thirty rep bench presses, that they have no energy left for their martial arts practice. They can’t punch, they can’t kick, and before you know it they give up strength training, if you can call that strength training in the first place.
If they go to low rep, heavy, non-exhaustive training — three sets of three or five sets of five — they would not get sore. This is what I teach to SWAT teams to keep them ready for action around the clock. If you are into combat sports, read the March 2001 issue of MILO and watch the Rapid Response videos of a PT training course I gave to Texas SWAT teams.
T: You’ve written a popular book on ab training. Where do people go wrong when it comes to abdominal training?
Pavel: Everywhere! Number one is this ridiculous notion that you have to use high reps to get cut up. Getting cut up is a function of resting tension in the muscle and low body fat. That’s all there is to it. Think of Bruce Lee who did a lot of isometrics, the ultimate high tension training. The guy was wiry, lean and hard. Some women will start doing high-rep programs thinking they’re going to cut up and some of them instead start gaining mass, especially glycogen and water.
You get so beat up from high reps you can barely sneeze. It’s like rigor mortis. So go heavy. Use a heavy weight but don’t get a pump. That means you keep your sets low and you rest a lot. Three sets of five is more than adequate for the abs, but the secret is to find a very challenging exercise. One option is to use a ton of plates or even a loaded barbell, as many of my powerlifting buddies do, and do sit-ups with it. But who really wants to do a sit-up with 225 pounds? It’s awkward, plus the technique has to be really precise. So you may want to choose a drill with poor leverage instead, e.g. the Janda sit-up or the dragon flag.
The other problem is exercise selection. There is this notion that abs can be isolated from the hip flexors by eliminating the movement in the hip joint, like they do in the crunch. It’s a big joke. It’s like saying that you are what you eat. You are a bagel. Doesn’t work like that.
You can only inhibit the hip flexors neurologically. Eastern European Professor Vladimir Janda developed a special sit-up where your training partner places his hands under your calves and pulls back. You attempt to sit-up while steadily pushing against his hands. This activates the hip extensor muscles. Reciprocal inhibition takes place and the hip flexors relax. Back stress is eliminated and the abs are isolated!
[Editor’s note: Read our Evolution of Ab Training article for more info (and pics) of the Janda sit-up.]
So if you want to train your abs well, first of all do the power breathing techniques we’ve discussed and second, do Janda sit-ups. That’s the cornerstone of all ab training. In addition, you may want to add some other drills, but certainly not crunches. They belong in the junk pile of history next to Communism.
T: Your Ab Pavelizer device simulates a Janda sit-up, but you don’t have to have a partner, correct?
Pavel: Yes it does. As my friend Clarence Bass stated on his web site, a partner tends to help you and the device doesn’t. The Pavelizer is my creation so it’s just as indifferent to your pain as I am. If you can do five reps with it, you are a stud. This is the only ab training device that’s catching on in the powerlifting circles. Normally you don’t see a powerlifter using an ab device; it’s like seeing one wear pink tights. But the powerlifters like it because it’s so damn hard. Unlike a regular sit-up, it teaches you to contract all your midsection muscles the way you should for a deadlift, squat or overhead press. It teaches you to get tight under a bar.
[Editor’s note: Chris reviewed the Pavelizer in issue #121’s Stuff We Like column. There he said it was an good device but the workmanship was on the shoddy side. However, Chris says it has since been redesigned and the overall quality and usability has been much improved.]
T: Let’s talk about stretching. In your book on stretching, Relax into Stretch, the first words in the book are, “Stretching is NOT the best way to become flexible!” Explain that.
Pavel: The traditional Western approach to flexibility has failed because it started with the assumption that muscles and connective tissues need to be physically stretched. The premise that you need to stretch if you want to be flexible is wrong. Try this test. While standing, extend your leg out to the side at a 90 degree angle and place it on a table or chair. Now put that leg down and do it with the other leg. It’s easy. So what stops you from spreading both legs at the same time and doing the splits, or what Russian ballet dancers call “the dead split”? It has nothing to do with “short” muscles.
No muscles run from one leg to the other! No tendon, no ligaments, nothing but skin. So why can’t you do the splits? Fear and tension. The muscles tighten up and resist lengthening. Russian scientists call it antagonist passive insufficiency. It’s not short muscles or connective tissue that makes you tight; it’s your nervous system!
If you spend a lot of time walking or sitting a certain way, your muscles accept that length as normal. And whenever you try to elongate the muscles beyond that, the stretch reflex fires and it reins the muscle right back in. The key to exceptional flexibility is to control the stretch reflex, learn to override it and learn to relax the muscle into the stretch. Your muscles are already long enough to do the splits; they just don’t know it yet. So just like with strength training, I teach people to run their muscle software by manipulating tension and breathing.
T: Why should bodybuilders stretch?
Pavel: There are many reasons. For example, in my book I demonstrate a stretch for the hamstrings that’s favored by Russian weightlifters. If you’re one of those people who have a hell of a time keeping the arch in the back during deadlifts, squats or good mornings, that’s the stretch that’ll teach you how to do it. Russian scientist Robert Roman determined that you lose 15% of your pulling strength if you pull with a rounded back.
Also, if you improve the flexibility of your shoulders you can squat in greater comfort. If you increase the flexibility of the spine, you’ll bench more weight because your rib cage is much more open. There are also some esoteric forms of stretching that can make you stronger or bigger, such as loaded passive stretching.
T: What’s that exactly?
Pavel: Yefimov found out in 1977 that this type of stretching was really effective at increasing your strength. It’s literal stretching. You use fairly light weight and you let the weight stretch out the muscle after a set. For instance, between sets of barbell curls you sit on an incline bench and let two dumbbells stretch your bis. Don’t try to relax or contract the muscle. You just let it hang for about ten seconds. That sort of thing makes you stronger, although no one is sure why.
If you’re a lifter, you’ll find that an intelligent approach to flexibility is going to increase your total. For instance, some lifters can’t lock out a deadlift because their hip flexors are too damned tight. The right stretching can help you get your numbers up so you can drive without the emergency break on. Last year I helped Eddy Coan with his adductors and hip flexors; now he sent one of his powerlifting buddies to my booth at the Arnold so I could fix his sumos.
T: Describe your infamous “ladder” drills.
Pavel: It is the Soviet Special Forces favorite for upping strength endurance. They are required to perform 18 dead hang pull-ups wearing a 10-kilo (22 pound) bullet-proof vest. One of my SWAT cowboys worked up to forty consecutive pull-ups with this technique.
If done with a partner, it works like this: I do a pull-up, you do one. I do two, you match me, etc. until one of us cannot keep up. Then we start over. One rep, two reps, 3,4,5,6,7,8,9,10… (start over) 1,2,3,4,5,6,7… (start over) 1,2,3,4,5. We totaled hundreds of pull-ups almost daily without burning out, and the extreme PT tests of our service were a breeze. You should stop each ladder one or two reps short of your limit. In other words, if you can work up to ten reps at the top of the ladder, it’s best to stop at about eight, and then begin at one again.
You can perform these by yourself as well. Basically, you do a rep, rest a few seconds, do two, etc. until things get hard but not impossible. Then you start at one again and work up. You may do another round of ladders later in the workout. A couple of months later your armpits will chafe.
T: I’ll have to try that. You have a new video out on kettlebells. What’s so great about these things?
Pavel: Kettlebells used to be a favorite tool in many countries, including America. A kettlebell is a large cast iron basketball with a handle. You can do the same things with it as you can do with dumbbells, but better.
T: Why better?
Pavel: For example, when you perform curls with a bar or regular dumbbells, the resistance drops off at the top of the exercise. With the kettlebell, the center of gravity is displaced, so you get a peak contraction. It forces you also to flex your wrists. Developed wrist flexors means big biceps. You may have noticed how arm-wrestlers are flocking to my booth. World champ Mary McConnaughy gave two thumbs up to K-bells and so did many others.
With pec work, you can do flyes with kettlebells and still have resistance at the top of the movement. Try the Scott or the Arnold press with kettlebells and you shall see why they are also superior for shoulder work. Kettlebells also teach you the proper squat form. Overhead squats is one of the best ways to improving your squatting technique. But most people can’t even get started; they can’t hold the bar far enough back. Do it with the kettlebell and the center of gravity is displaced and will help you improve your shoulder flexibility. World powerlifting champion Amy Weisberger just tried them at my booth and immediately saw their value.
Kettlebell lifts like the one arm snatch and the repetition clean and jerk make great working class alternatives for the Olympic lifts. These are great exercises for athletes. And I mentioned before, for reasons not completely understood, repetition clean and jerks as well as snatches with a relatively light weight develop absolute strength.
Another thing I like about kettlebells is the dinosaur factor. They’re just damn nasty and evil. Guys are scared of them!
T: You’ve been criticized for writing in your Power to the People book that a person only needs to use one or two exercises.
Pavel: That only comes from people who don’t understand how to use the high tension techniques. My buddy Marty Gallager, who used to coach the Powerlifting Team USA, doesn’t work his abs. He says if you can pull a 500 pound deadlift you don’t need to work your abs. If you work heavy and learn how to use the body properly, you can do that. You can get great results from an abbreviated program.
My book has two uses. Beginners and people who like the efficient use of time may just use the minimalist program in it. Advanced bodybuilders can follow any program they like and just add in the high tension and power breathing techniques from the book.
T: Every time I read your stuff you shock me with something. Let’s hear one of your ideas about training that would shock T-mag readers.
Pavel: There is a belief that you have no business coming back to the gym until you can better yourself. You must have complete recovery, they say. This is totally ridiculous. This is called distributed loading and it’s something that’s fine for beginners, perhaps for intermediate athletes, but not for advanced athletes. The alternative is concentrated loading. You build up the fatigue then you back off and taper.
For example, the Russian national powerlifting team is benching up to eight times a week. Obviously, they do not completely recover, but they build up the volume and the fatigue, then have some unloading workouts, high volume, low volume, high intensity, low intensity, then medium etc. There is such a thing as continuity in your training. As long as you keep stimulating the nervous system with the stimulus, even if your body is not totally recovered, you’re going to make much better gains. Once in a while go easy, once in a while go hard… this is where instinctive training comes in.
Some pseudo-scientific authorities make fun of bodybuilders who train instinctively. But sometimes it really does make sense. Today you may be able to do five sets of five in the bench. Tomorrow you can come back and do three triples with the same weight. You’re not totally recovered, but you’re greasing the same groove in the nervous system. Then maybe you can bench again the third day, really beat it up, and then take two days off. That’s something to consider.
T: So sometimes, as long as you’re not going to failure, you can train the same muscle group two days or more in a row? Okay, you’ve shocked me. Thanks for the interview, Pavel.
Pavel: Anytime, Chris.
The next day at the Arnold expo, Pavel put me though some unique kettlebell lifts and showed me a few “vibration drills” to increase speed. Overall, I was impressed. Do all of us at T-mag “buy” all of Pavel’s theories regarding to bodybuilding? Not by a longshot. Will I incorporate many of Pavel’s techniques into my current program? You bet, already have in fact, and with great results. After all, I want to be buff and functional. The body of Arnold and the practical strength and speed of Bruce Lee? Yeah, I can dig that.