Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Pavel Tsatsouline Gave Me A Six Pack At Fifty

When we were getting ready to invade Afghanistan, I saw a guy I'd taken some classes from on Fox News. Pretty neat, because I've watched Fox News half a dozen times in my life. What are the odds there?

Pavel Tsatsouline is a personal trainer that ran some pretty intelligent fitness classes at the local Open U., back at the turn of the millennium. He was Russia-born in 1969, and served as a fitness instructor for the Spetsnaz, the Soviet special forces, 

In a Klingon-Federation reversal, Pavel's interview on Fox was to promote the Marine Corps. (Gotta ask, though, who was the Klingon and who was Captain Piccard in the deal?)

Pavel had contracted with the gyrines to turn recruits into supermen. He talked about the Marine program and described the benefits of his system. Then the interviewer asked him where somebody could get trained like that. That's why I don't watch Fox: agree, don't agree, either way they're dumber'n dirt. Pavel suggested that folks enlist. 

And it really does make you stronger. So how's it work?

Warning, Will Robinson: Don't try this at home. 1) I'm not a teacher; I hurt myself doing this stuff. 2) I'm leaving parts out.

There were three classes: deadlifts and bench presses using a barbell, four or five abdominal exercises that you rotate two weeks each, and stretches.

It's not bodybuilding; the point isn't to add muscle mass, but to train what you have to contract further. Pavel talked about women who lift cars to save their kids, Russian doctors who leap onto airplane wings to escape polar bears, and electrocution victims who break their own bones. You're not conditioning your muscles so much as your nervous system, teaching it to squeeze those cells just a little further each day.

There's a Greek myth about Heracles or Alexander or somebody's lifting a newly foaled horse, and then picking it up every day, until he was lifting one of the Budweiser Clydesdales. It's not exactly like that.

Take bench presses: Start out at some arbitrary weight -- say a hundred pounds because that's where I started. You do five sets of five, five timed minutes apart. Pavel stressed posture, which I won't describe; I don't understand the kinesiological reasons for it, and we've already established that you can hurt yourself.

Inhale as deeply as you can and hold it. Do a full-body isometric, squeezing every muscle in your body as hard as you can. Take five seconds to lower the bar to your chest, maintaining the body squeeze. Exhale. Inhale, squeeze, and lift. That's one repetition.

There's a similar deadlift drill. Holding your breath and squeezing really does train you to lift more. I was gonna start playing round ball above the rim, but I dropped the deadlifts because they were irritating my damaged left knee.

Next workout, add five pounds to the bar, then another five pounds the time after that, and so on. One day you won't be able to finish your fifth set. Next workout, add five pounds, and do four sets. When you can't do four, add five pounds and do three.

Eventually you can't finish your first set. Take a week off. When you start again, start at 105.

Similar routine with the abs. I'm a tall guy with a very light frame and a tendency carry a little flab. In certain light I began to have a six pack.

The stretching used the same hold-your-breath-and-squeeze technique. According to Pavel, the isometric was convincing my nervous system that it was safe to stretch. It worked. In the class he had a very tight guy do a (pitiful) forward bend. When the guy's fingers were as close to his toes as he could manage, Pavel had him inhale and squeeze for a count of five. When the guy exhaled, his hands dropped closer to his toes. I hung from a bar in the garage and did the hold and squeeze, to stretch my back, going from six-two-and-a-quarter to six-three.

When I got to the point that I was benching about fifteen pounds shy of my weight, I pulled something in my back, and got out of the habit. I was around fifty then.

When I started exercising again, it was because I got interested in yoga. Lately, a dozen or so years later, my workout has become a cobbled-together routine that includes asana, physical therapy assignments, and weights (either super slow or low-weight/high-rep).

I feel like a coiled spring. I'm great at unscrewing pickle jars; my muscles just don't give up. When I'm slowly lifting these little weights, I can tell that I'm enlisting my trunk, hips, even my thighs to move the weights in just the right way. Everything in my body seems to seat right, and I don't mind having a little definition in my arms.

So I figured, "Why not try the Pavel stuff again?" I expected to surpass what I'd done when I was fifty, because of how good I felt. I started out at 100, just like before, knowing it to be well within my abilities.

After three reps, I had to call Barbara to help me get the bar off my chest.

"You know it scares me when you do this."

"Yeah, yeah. We'll talk about it later. This thing is bruising me."

"Are you going to do this again?"

"I don't know. This is killing..."

"I said are you?"

"Promises made under duress don't count."

"Are you?"

"Okay. This was dumb. I thought I was stronger."

"Are you?"

"I'll drop the weight back down."

So, between the two of us, we got the barbell back on the rack, and I did drop the weight down to seventy pounds. Two workouts, and I feel like I could let my tovariches break flaming 2x4s on my chest.

I think I have discovered a marker for age, though. Still, Pavel's old man seems to be doing okay at seventy-something. I went out at 140 back when I Pavelcized. It'll be interesting to see if I make it to 140 again.

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