For anyone who takes fitness and sports seriously, learning for the first time about Pavel Tsatsouline is like being inducted into a secret club. Once you learn about him you see clues everywhere: kettlebells in gyms, forum threads about the “evil Russian” training program, people literally saying they are disciples of Pavel. Before, you thought you had a grasp on how to train; after, you realize you knew very little about strength. And the kicker is that the information and techniques he espouses, while technical and often derived from the world of competitive weightlifting, apply to absolutely everyone.
Minsk-born and educated, Tsatsouline became a trainer for Spetsnaz (the Russian special forces) in the 1980s before eventually moving to the US where he has been a subject matter expert to the United States Marine Corps, the US Navy SEALs and the US Secret Service. He’s best known for introducing the now-ubiquitous kettlebell to the American exercise vernacular in 1998. He has since founded StrongFirst, which trains and certifies kettlebell instructors, and published extensively, beginning with an article, “Vodka, Pickle Juice, Kettlebell Lifting and other Russian Pastimes“, and then moving to 17 books focused on flexibility, joint health and kettlebells. We spoke to him about his little-known appreciation for impressionist paintings, what’s wrong with the typical American’s approach to fitness and how to get really, really strong.
Q. What’s one thing every guy should know how to do?
A. Deadlift at least two times your bodyweight from the ground. This ability will come in handy many times over, even if civilization does not end.
Q. What’s the hardest thing you’ve ever done?
A. It is private.
Q. What are you working on right now?
A. I am refining Plan Strong, a high-end programming method for serious strength athletes.
Q. What’s one thing you can’t live without.
A.A strong cup of coffee and time for reflection.
Q. Who or what influences you?
A. Professionally, the Soviet strength training methodology is going to remain the number one influence until the Olympic weightlifting records set by the Soviets in the 1980s finally fall. (They have not; the federation only changed the weight classes.)
Personally, I am a student of different cultures and authors. Russia taught me to be a survivor. America has taught me to be free. France has taught me the joie de vivre.
The book that made the most impression on my worldview last year is Antifragile by Nassim Taleb. To name the first favorite classic that comes to my mind, The Art of Making Up One’s Mind by Jerome K. Jerome.
Q. What are you reading right now?
A. Five Epochs of Civilization by William McGaughey.
Q. What’s one thing that no one knows about you.
A. I love impressionist paintings. Must be an act of unconscious rebellion against socialist realism.
Q. It’s your last drink and meal on earth. What’ll it be?
A. The basics: steak and red wine.
Q. If you could go back and tell your 16-year-old self something, what would you say?
A. In everything you do, focus on the mastery of the basics, son, and the rest will come.
Q. How do you want to be remembered?
A. I am not planning on leaving a legacy. It is naïve or vain to believe that anyone but key players in history — people of Ben Franklin’s caliber — will be remembered.
Q. In the world of strength and fitness, where do you fit in? In other words, what do you consider your areas of greatest expertise and contribution?
A. Powerlifting coach extraordinaire Louie Simmons commented to me, “You have reverse engineered what the strongest guys do naturally.”
I will teach you three techniques as examples. When you are doing any strength exercise, do this: (1) Crush the handle to pulp; (2) brace your abs as if you are about to get punched; (3) cramp your glutes as if you are about to get kicked. You will instantly get noticeably stronger.
You can replace your whole gym with a couple of kettlebells. The kettlebell is a gym in your hand.
Another contribution I am proud of is “Grease the Groove”. I am convinced that it is the most foolproof strength and strength-endurance training method in existence. I have had beginners go from five to 10 pull-ups in a week and SWAT operators from 25 to 40 in a couple of months of doing GTG.
Here is the summary of GTG: Select one or two strength or strength-endurance exercises you can do throughout the day. Bodyweight exercises like one-arm pushups and one-legged squats are most convenient. So are heavy-duty grippers like those from ironmind.com. Or you could keep a kettlebell under your desk and press it.
Throughout the day, train your chosen exercises when it is convenient and you feel fresh. There must be no less than 15 minutes between each set — but 30, an hour, or even longer are acceptable. Do only half of the reps you are capable of and never more, e.g., if your pull-up max reps are 10, do sets of five, if it is 15, sets of seven, etc.
Some days do more sets, other days fewer. Take a day off whenever you feel like you need one. Every two weeks, on a day when you are feeling exceptionally strong, go for a new weight or rep record.
Q. You’re credited with introducing the kettlebell to the US. What makes the kettlebell such an important tool?
A. The shape and compact size of a kettlebell allow one to safely accelerate it on the way down in exercises like swings and snatches. There is a growing body of research that such “virtual force” is exceptionally effective, efficient and safe at improving many components of fitness: dynamic strength, many types of endurance, muscle hypertrophy and fat loss.
Researchers who made the 2010 study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise (ACE) concluded that in a kettlebell snatch workout the subjects “we’re burning at least 20.2 calories per minute, which is off the charts”, one of the authors of the study, Dr. John Porcari, wrote. “That’s equivalent to running a six-minute mile pace. The only other thing I could find that burns that many calories is cross-country skiing up hill at a fast pace.” The other researcher, Chad Schnettler, said, “We knew it would be extremely intense. It’s a quick workout, and you do get a big bang for your buck in a very short amount of time.”
Some of the kettlebell’s benefits have not yet been explained — hence we talk about the “what the hell effect”. For example, several years before he became the CEO of StrongFirst, Eric Frohardt spent several months doing presses, swings, and snatches with a 53- and a 70-pound kettlebell. He did not touch the barbell or the pull-up bar. When he decided to test himself, it turned out that his 360-pound deadlift went up to 450 and he suddenly could do a strict pullup with over 100 pounds. “What the hell?!”
Because the unique nature of the kettlebell lifts allows you to get a powerful training effect with a relatively light weight, you can replace your whole gym with a couple of kettlebells. The kettlebell is a gym in your hand.
Q. After reading some of your work, one of my first impressions was that everything we think we know about fitness is wrong. If you look at the general American understanding of strength and fitness from 50,000 feet, what would you say is wrong with it?
A. The biggest problem is what Barry Schwartz called the “paradox of choice”. There are too many options — and most of them are just distraction from what matters.
15 years ago Marty Gallagher, my friend and writing mentor and former coach of Powerlifting Team USA, wrote an article entitled “The Russian Mystery”, lamenting the decline of strength sports in the West and analyzing the root causes of Russian dominance. He writes:
“The [former] USSR powerlifters have a primitive commonality in their eating, training and living conditions. They lack variety. Their poverty has demanded they stick to power basics…and do damn little else. Who can argue — should we emulate them and become purposefully primitive? We in the West are continually dazzled by the latest innovation, seduced by shortcuts, lured by sleek and glossy exercise machines and razzle-dazzle nutritional supplements, debuted each year like GM introducing the latest Chevy minivan. Human nature given an opportunity prefers choice to monotony, variety over sameness, but perhaps our affluence is our downfall. We are continually searching for variety (the spice of life) when in powerlifting it might well be the kiss of death.”
Q. High-intensity interval training has been the darling of the fitness media and it shows up in a lot of workout programs. What do you think about it?
A. I presume you are referring to glycolytic smokers that make you burn and puke.
If you want to “get in shape” and your cardiologist has approved this type of training, HIIT undoubtedly will improve your body composition and many fitness components — if you are motivated enough to push yourself. High stress and acidity promoted by this type of training stimulates release of hormones that make you leaner and more muscular.
But do not automatically presume that rest intervals between hard efforts must be short. One version of glycolytic training we have been very successful with at my organization involves “repeats” rather than “intervals”. Do three to five all-out sets of 15 to 25 reps of a quick-lift kettlebell snatch, jerk or swing — for, with long recovery, about five minutes, between them. Recovery must be active: walk around, shake the tension out of your muscles, do breathing exercises. This protocol produces impressive body composition changes and performance — “what the hell effects”.
A totally different approach to improving endurance and burning fat involves much shorter all-out efforts with ample rest between them, e.g., 10 seconds of work followed by 50 seconds of rest, repeated 20 to 30 times.
I despise the word “workout”. It does not even exist in the Russian language; we use the word “lesson”.
Your muscle uses three energy pathways. The first, most powerful and least enduring, is alactacid. You can go very hard for 10 to 30 seconds — and then the tank is empty. The second energy system, glycolytic, takes over. It has a lot less power — less than half — but lasts for several minutes, typically two to six. (This is the pet energy system of today’s fitness industry.) Finally, it is the turn of the aerobic system. It produces even less energy, but it can go on forever. This is an oversimplified picture, as all pathways operate at the same time, but good enough for our purposes.
More and more Russian research is revealing that athletes from combat and team sports are making a mistake killing themselves in the glycolytic pathway. Prof. Victor Selouyanov said in a lecture to wrestlers: “Whose muscles are more acidic in the end of the match? The loser’s!” The new paradigm is: train your maximal alactacid power (MAP) in 10-to-20-second bursts of intense effort and your ability to replenish your tank aerobically. The conditioning portion of the training regimen in my book Kettlebell Simple & Sinister is designed in that exact manner.
Do not write off aerobic training, either; it has come a long way since Jane Fonda’s days. Lance Armstrong’s strength coach Peter Park sent me a book I have been recommending ever since: The Big Book of Endurance Training and Racing by Philip Maffetone.
Q. Talk about training the nervous system.
A. Strength is a skill. There are two aspects to this skill: inter-muscular coordination and intra-muscular coordination. The first is obvious: the alignment, the posture, which muscles to use and in what order, the speed, etc. The second is the ability to contract one’s muscles harder. Both must be practiced if one is to become strong.
A “practice” is the opposite of a “workout”. The former is internal; the latter is external. The former aims for perfection; the latter just wants to smoke you. “Literally he has worked himself out”, wrote strongman Earle Liederman back in 1925, “and this is exactly the thing the strength-seeker cannot afford to do.”
I despise the word “workout”. It does not even exist in the Russian language; we use the word “lesson”.
Q. Does your approach to strength training have value for endurance sports, in which the understanding is that you have to do lots of high-volume training to improve?
A. Norwegian scientists conducted two landmark studies on experienced athletes, one on long distance runners and the other on cyclists. These endurance athletes were put on a pure strength program, four sets of four reps of heavy half-squats three times a week, in addition to their usual endurance training. Eight weeks later the athletes not only got stronger and more explosive — without gaining any weight! — they improved endurance in their sport. Their movement efficiency improved and the time they could last to exhaustion at maximal aerobic power increased.
How does it work? The stronger the muscle, the less it has to contract to produce a given amount of force. It may be obvious, but it is profound. In the above studies the athletes increased their movement economy and decreased their perceived effort.
The key is not to waste your time on high-rep lunges but to do real strength work like heavy low-rep dead lifts. Incidentally, this is what Lance Armstrong has been doing for years, while the competition kept going for the “burn” with baby weights.
Q. Do you think there’s a minimum level of fitness people should aspire to — and if so, what is it?
A. Ladies: a one and a half times bodyweight dead lift without a belt and at least one strict pull-up. Gents: a double bodyweight dead lift without a belt and ten strict pull-ups. Both: being able to comfortably hike for several hours in the mountains.
Q. Why are you called the “Evil Russian”?
A. Beats me.
Q. What’s the specific wisdom that makes you a resource for special forces and law enforcement, including the Spetsnaz, Marines, SWAT, etc.?
A. Our “low-tech/high-concept” methods deliver high performance without tearing the body down.
Just this week I got a letter from a lady, a Marine officer, who built up to 25 strict pull-ups using my methods and who has taught many Marines to excel at pull-ups.
Q. America is your adopted home country. As a Russian, do you think there’s anything fundamentally different about the way Americans and Russians see the world or approach life?
A. Different as they are, I admire the traditional Soviet and American cultures of decades ago. Both had strong convictions and unique characters. Today’s world is becoming too homogenized for my taste. Is that scrawny kid hunched over his cell phone Russian or American?