A Conversation with Pavel Tsatsouline About Improving Calisthenic Performance and Failure

Pavel Tsatsouline (StrongFirst.com)

If you are not familiar with Pavel Tsatsouline, chairman of StrongFirst.com, you should expand your fitness horizons. Listen and learn from this master of strength and fitness training whose workouts are used worldwide and especially within the tactical professions.

Tsatsouline was instrumental in bringing and building a revolutionary fitness programming method from Russia into the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s. His program builds a foundation by using a variety of strength training methods.

He specifically focuses on using the kettlebell, but he also teaches other modalities like power and Olympic lifting, suspension training and calisthenics. Tsatsouline's methods emphasize being well-rounded with mobility, flexibility, strength and power, speed and agility, endurance and muscle stamina, and an intense focus on core and grip strength.

His process allows the tactical athlete to develop the ability to be good at all of these skills.

Since one of the toughest exercises for most people is the pull-up, we focused on this calisthenic strength exercise in our conversation, and I learned some interesting science about the process from Tsatsouline.

Specifically speaking, we need to define failure more thoroughly. "Pavel's Five Stop Signs" create an opportunity for trainers and athletes to self-assess when they should stop a particular set of calisthenics or other high-repetition (muscle stamina) events.

Tsatsouline recommends that trainers and athletes understand the following signs when performing workouts like PT pyramids (or ladders, as he and his folks at StrongFirst.com like to refer to them):

StrongFirst's 'Stop Signs' for Strength Endurance Exercises

1. The rep speed slows down. This does not imply that your reps must be maximally explosive -- choose a comfortable speed optimal for hitting max reps --but that the last rep may not be any slower than the first one.

A slowdown, compared to the first rep, indicates that the target fibers responsible are about to exceed the optimal concentration of lactic acid.

2. The tempo slows down (pauses between reps increase). Any rhythmical exercise, be it pull-ups, push-ups or running, has an optimal cadence that the body finds naturally. If you no longer can sustain this cadence, the unwanted "burn" is coming.

3. The breathing rhythm changes. Like movement, breathing has a cadence optimal for the task at hand. When it changes, the wheels are about to come off.

4. The technique changes in any way. Kipping is out of the question for military testing.

5. The rate of perceived exertion (RPE) exceeds eight on the 1-10 scale. Eight is for normal people. Special operators and others capable to dig deeper within need to aim for six or seven.

The above "stop signs" that StrongFirst has developed -- heavily influenced by our former master instructor, Geoff Neupert, and by Russian coach Andrey Kozhurkin - -will help you hit the sweet spot of fatigue.

Driving through these stop signs leads to what Tsatsouline is trying to avoid. Perceived muscle failure and fatigue are different from each other. Once you no longer can move yourself through a pull-up repetition, you may experience immediate grip loss, as well as uncontrollable shaking.

You may have seen this type of muscle failure during two-minute push-up tests in the military when someone is failing to do that last repetition. Instead of moving upward, they are stuck somewhere in the half-rep range, then start to shake uncontrollably until they fall to the floor.

That is giving everything you have on the test, but you just wasted your muscles and massive amounts of energy. This was a central nervous system breakdown that will affect how you perform on the following events -- maybe pull-ups, sit-ups and especially the timed run.

By paying attention to the signs listed above, you will avoid this occurrence altogether and save your normal training routine as well as your testing performance.

Exceeding this RPE threshold not only pushes the acid levels too high; it heavily drains the nervous and the endocrine systems.

Kozhurkin insists that "... it is undesirable to improve the numbers through excessive willpower," and that one must "limit the motivation level" during pull-up training (as opposed to testing or competition).

Before you scoff at these "sissy" recommendations, consider Kozhurkin's own pull-up numbers. He competes in a uniquely Russian sport called the "winter polyathlon."

Pull-ups are added to the traditional biathlon of cross-country skiing and rifle marksmanship. The pull-ups must be strict (no kipping) and done within a four-minute time limit without letting go of the bar. You may not shake out your pumped forearm while hanging on one arm like a rock climber. Kozhurkin has done 60.

The Five Stop Signs guidelines from StrongFirst are an excellent way that all athletes can engage more internal awareness of every rep and set into their training, whether training for strength or strength-endurance.

Pyramid and Ladders

Tsatsouline also had another option to the pyramid where you start at one and go up to 10 and return back to one as mentioned in the PT pyramid article. Tsatsouline recommends that instead of a reverse pyramid, try a double ladder of 1-10.

You would start at one and go to 10, then start over again and go up to 10 (or until you hit one of the five stop signs). This prevents one of the common sticking points of the pyramid phase of sets 7, 8, 9, 10, 9, 8, 7 where a majority of the total reps of the workout are done in 6-7 consecutive sets (out of 19 sets). The double ladder (1-10 x 2) approach builds in a recovery section but still allows for the same volume to be accumulated in the same amount of sets.

More Reasoning Behind the 5 Stop Signs/Ladder Option

“The most ineffective way to train strength endurance is by putting the muscles through a lactic acid bath. This approach, although it brings fast initial gains, can lead to plateaus and overtraining. The best way to develop strength endurance is by training your fast and intermediate fibers aerobically. For instance, if you are an experienced runner, you want to focus on staying just below your anaerobic threshold. When the slow fibers in your legs spend a lot of time in this state of mild acidosis in runs below the threshold, the aerobic "power plants" within them, the mitochondria, adapt to become more numerous, bigger and more powerful. Exceed it by pushing the "burn" and the "suck." Remember the energy systems.

The same happens in the mitochondria of the upper body muscles exposed to professionally designed high volume pull-up loads that fatigue the "pulling" muscles without killing them, such as Stew Smith's pyramids and StrongFirst's ladders.

For more information about Tsatsouline, check out his website and training and certification programs, as well as recent interviews on the Joe Rogan Experience Podcast (#1399) and the Tim Ferris Show.

Tsatsouline is a former Spetsnaz PT instructor and S.M.E. to the USMC Force Recon, the U.S. Navy SEALs and the U.S. Secret Service counter assault team. He is the chairman of StrongFirst.com, which offers instructor certifications and user courses in kettlebell, barbell and bodyweight strength training.

Stew Smith is a former Navy SEAL and fitness author certified as a Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) with the National Strength and Conditioning Association. Visit his Fitness eBook store if you're looking to start a workout program to create a healthy lifestyle. Send your fitness questions to stew@stewsmith.com.

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