‘Unrealistic’ Athletic Goals: Why and How to Pursue Them

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Human flight in the form of judo. (Photo: Fabiogis50)

Pavel Tsatsouline was punching me in the ass.

It’s not every day that you have a former Soviet Special Forces instructor punch you in the butt cheeks. But it was the second day of Russian Kettlebell Certification (RKC), and we were practicing constant tension, one of several techniques intended to increase strength output. In this case, we spot-checked each other with punches. Pavel, now a U.S. citizen and subject matter expert to the U.S. Secret Service Counter Assault Team, wandered the ranks, contributing jabs where needed.

Two hours earlier, Pavel had asked the attendees for someone stuck at a 1-rep maximum (1RM) in the one-arm overhead press. He then proceeded to take the volunteer from 53 lbs. to 72 lbs. in less than five minutes: a 26% strength increase. Translated into more familiar terms, this would represent a jump in one-repetition max from 106 pounds to 144 pounds in the barbell military press.

There were dozens of such demonstrations throughout the weekend, and each was intended to reinforce a point: strength is a skill.

Not only is strength a skill, but it can be learned quickly.

The following article, authored by Pavel, describes how he helped his father become an American record holder in powerlifting with just one hour of training per week…

Enjoy.

Enter Pavel

“Doing the unrealistic is easier than doing the realistic,” Tim wrote in The 4-Hour Workweek:

“It’s lonely at the top. Ninety-nine percent of people in the world are convinced they are incapable of achieving great things, so they aim for mediocre. The level of competition is thus fiercest for ‘realistic’ goals, paradoxically making them the most time- and energy-consuming… The fishing is best where the fewest go, and the collective insecurity of the world makes it easy for people to hit home runs while everyone else is aiming for base hits. There is just less competition for bigger goals.”

Running is the most democratic of all sports. Because it seems so unthreatening—“anyone can do it”—every local race is packed, and your chances of placing are slim to none.

In contrast, sports like powerlifting, grip sport, or arm wrestling have a remarkably small number of competitors. Showing up already means that you have defeated 99% of the contenders. They were too intimidated to even try.

A couple of years ago, I brought my 70-year old father to a power meet to keep me company. But he was not content to watch; I caught him in the warm-up area deadlifting 225 pounds with bad form. So, you want to compete, Dad? Affirmative.

My father, Vladimir, is a lifetime athlete—swimmer, boxer, judoka, skier, fencer, you name it. But he had not been bitten by the iron bug until then. He started training. A year later, he stood up with 374 pounds—without a belt!—at a body weight of 181 pounds and broke the American record (USPF single lift DL, 70-74 years old). Even if he took to running with the same zeal, he would still be finishing in the second wave of a local 5K race.

Vladimir Tsatsulin deadlifting on Muscle Beach Venice in one of his first meets.

Vladimir Tsatsulin deadlifting on Muscle Beach Venice in one of his first meets. (Photo courtesy of www.venicepaparazzi.com)

Tim was right: “Unreasonable and unrealistic goals are easier to achieve for yet another reason. Having an unusually large goal is an adrenaline infusion that provides the endurance to overcome the inevitable trials and tribulations that go along with any goal. Realistic goals, goals restricted to the average ambition level, are uninspiring and will only fuel you through the first or second problem, at which point you will throw in the towel.”

My father’s training is very 4HWW. It is driven by Pareto’s Law and Parkinson’s Law. The former states that the lion’s share of the output is produced by a small fraction of the input. My old man wants to excel in the deadlift, so he deadlifts. He does no assistance exercises.

The other law, Parkinson’s, decrees that, “Work expands so as to fill the time available for its completion.” Deadlines imposed by regular powerlifting competitions keep my father focused on what strength coach Dan John calls “keeping the goal the goal.” This is why Vladimir competes, typically twice a year.

Would you like to follow my old man and become a successful lifter?

You have a choice of competing in all three powerlifting events (squat, bench press, and deadlift) or becoming a BP or DL specialist.

If doing all three appeals to you, review the article I wrote for Tim’s blog, 80/20 Powerlifting and How to Add 110+ Pounds to Your Lifts.

If you want to take the bench press route, you cannot do better than former Coach Powerlifting Team USA Marty Gallagher’s plan on pages 425-430 of The 4-Hour Body.

If you choose to be a deadlift specialist, follow my father’s tested plan.

Vladimir’s Deadlift Regimen

Vladimir competes only in the deadlift for three reasons. First, he has an old shoulder injury that prevents him from serious squatting and benching. Second, competing in only one event allows the athlete to have an ultra-narrow, highly focused goal. Third, the other two lifts demand that one adds a lot of muscle in order to be competitive. The deadlift is an exception, a pure “mind lift” that allows one to get very strong without adding much weight. Consider this video of one of our RKC kettlebell instructors, Melissa Klundby, pulling a record 314.5 pounds at a bodyweight of 128:

(Video courtesy of Melissa Klundby, RKC)

Dad deadlifts twice a week, once heavy and once light.

The light Monday workout never changes: 225 x 5/5. It serves several functions. First, technique pactice. Second, maintaining muscle mass close to a meet, when training volume on the heavy day has been reduced. To give you an idea how well this has been working, Prof. Stuart McGill commented that he had never seen such a muscular back on a seventy year old. And McGill, the world’s leading spine biomechanist and consultant to Olympic teams of several countries, has seen a great many impressive backs. Third, because the load remains the same, the perceived rate of exertion allows Vladimir to monitor his strength gains by paying attention to the Rate of Perceived Exertion (RPE).

Traditionally RPE is logged on a 1 to 10 scale, but I like my father’s method better: percentage of an all-out effort. Throughout the training cycle — before the meet in which he pulled his personal record 380 — his RPE readings for the light day read:

60%, 50%, 49%, 48%, 47%, 46%, 44%, 43%, 42%

You might say, “You have got to be kidding! 42%?! No one can define their perceived effort with such accuracy.”

True. In my father’s system, such increments simply mean that the weight felt a hair lighter than the last time. And I was very pleased to see the pattern as the light workout stayed the same for the duration of the cycle, and apples could be compared to apples. He was obviously getting stronger.

My father’s heavy day is Friday. Saturday would be better, as powerlifting meets are almost always held on this day, but Friday works too.

Following is the plan I had designed for his last competition (warm-ups are performed first):

Vladimir's plan that Pavel designed for his last competition.

Vladimir Tsatsulin’s 380-pound deadlift. The 73-year old athlete has been powerlifting for only a couple of years. (Video courtesy Steve Belanger, RKC)

Let us take the plan apart piece by piece.

First, the ‘warm-up’. It is a skill rehearsal more than anything. Note the low reps; one of the mistakes inexperienced lifters make is wasting their energy in their warm-ups—very un-4HWW.

Second, reps. Fives rule. Proven by decades of powerlifting experience, it is the most productive rep count for building lasting strength. Higher reps do not work as well and lower reps tend to burn the athlete out quickly. Which is why we switch to triples and doubles only for a couple of weeks before the meet to bring the strength to a short term peak.

Third, sets. The given numbers are not writ in stone but the pattern of reducing the total number of reps—in our example from 25 (5/5) in the first workout to 4 (2/2) in the last—as the cycle progresses towards the big day is almost universal. The volume is reduced because the weights have gotten a lot heavier and because the athlete needs extra recovery before competing.

Fourth, progression. Everything in nature is cyclical. It is impossible to add weight or reps indefinitely; you have to back off after achieving a personal best. It is not a matter of choice but of natural law. Whether you like it or not, thou shalt cycle. Master RKC Mark Reifkind, former Coach Powerlifting Team USA, jokes about the “tough guy cycle”: Heavy, heavier, even heavier, injury, light… Since your body will force you to downshift no matter what, you might as well plan for it. “The next step off a peak is always down,” warns Rif, “One should step down rather than fall off.” Which is why powerlifters developed a procedure called ‘cycling,’ which requires that one starts with weights and reps well below one’s ability, gradually goes heavier, posts a PR in competition, and starts over with light weights. He who denies the cyclical nature of adaptation is always punished.

Fifth, the length of the cycle. Eight to twelve week cycles are the norm among competitive powerlifters. The exact length is determined by the competition calendar, nine weeks in my father’s example. To map out a cycle, work back from the date of the competition. Here is a foolproof way of doing it:

Start with setting a goal for two sets of two reps on your last heavy workout before competition. For a beginner to intermediate lifter, the current 1RM is a realistic goal, but feel free to be more conservative as I am with my father.

Work back in increments of 2-5% of your one-rep max to arrive at your starting training weight. Vladimir jumps 10 pounds a week, which is a little under 3%. For reasons which are outside the scope of this article, I urge you not to take steps smaller than 2% (except when learning technique).

Let us design a sample cycle for a deadlifter with a 275-lb. 1RM. 2% of that weight is 5.5 pounds and 5% is 13.75. 10-pound jumps are what the doctor ordered. If our hypothetical puller has twelve weeks to go before competition, his poundages will be:

Week 1: 165
Week 2: 175
Week 3: 185
Week 4: 195
Week 5: 205
Week 6: 215
Week 7: 225
Week 8: 235
Week 9: 245
Week 10: 255
Week 11: 265
Week 12: 275 (2 x 2) < — start with this number and work backward
Week 13: Meet

Do five sets of five every week. It will feel very easy in the beginning. Don’t fret, it is supposed to be, as you are building ‘momentum’. Do NOT do more reps or sets than prescribed and do not reduce the prescribed rest periods! You will walk out of the gym wanting to do more and this is the way it is supposed to be.

At some point, the weights will get heavy. When you have barely made your 5/5 with good form, next workout switch to 3/3. Note that this sudden drop in sets and reps allows one to have a relatively easy workout in order to unload before the peak. It is one of the secrets behind the given cycle’s effectiveness.

Week 1: 165 x 5/5
Week 2: 175 x 5/5
………………
Week 10: 255 x 3/3
Week 11: 265 x 2/2
Week 12: 275 x 2/2
Week 13: Meet

The last two workouts before the meet are 2/2. And the number of 3/3 sessions will vary depending on how long you will keep on making 5/5 gains. This is the beauty of this cycle: it adjusts to you. In my father’s case, I had no doubt he would put up 305×5/5, was convinced that 325 was too much, and was not sure about 315. Hence the plan read, “315 x 5/5 or 3/3.”

This is how things might work out for our 275-pound puller:

Week 1: 165 x 5/5
Week 2: 175 x 5/5
Week 3: 185 x 5/5
Week 4: 195 x 5/5
Week 5: 205 x 5/5
Week 6: 215 x 5/5
Week 7: 225 x 5/5
Week 8: 235 x 5/5 (PR)
Week 9: 245 x 5/5 (PR)
Week 10: 255 x 3/3 (did not try sets of five because the last workout was very hard)
Week 11: 265 x 2/2
Week 12: 275 x 2/2
Week 13: Meet 300 PR

It is also possible that you will have to switch to triples on week nine or even earlier for stronger lifters. No problem, the flexible cycle accommodates any strength growth dynamics.

To sum up your plan of action:

- Start a cycle eight to twelve weeks before the meet.
- Plan on doing 2/2 with your current max on the week before the meet.
- Work back in 2-5% 1RM weekly increments to arrive at your starting poundage.
- Do 5/5 on your heavy day, preferably Saturday.
- Optional: a light workout of 40-60% 1RM x 5/5 and 5min of rest between sets three days after the heavy one.
- When it appears that you have reached your 5/5 limit, next workout switch to 3/3.
- The last two workouts before the meet are 2/2. The number of 3/3 workouts will vary depending on how long you will keep on making 5/5 gains.

Learn and perfect your technique first.

Find a powerlifter—not a bodybuilder and not a typical personal trainer—to teach you. Then subscribe to Powerlifting USA magazine and find a competition near you that’s three months away. Look for ‘raw’ meets that require you to compete without special squat suits, bench shirts, etc. AAU is one of the federations that hosts raw competitions.

An ‘unrealistic’ goal accomplished: Pavel's father becomes an American record holder—training only one hour per week.

An ‘unrealistic’ goal accomplished: my father becomes an American record holder—training only one hour per week. (Photo courtesy of www.venicepaparazzi.com)

I shall wrap up with another quote from The 4-Hour Workweek: “For all of the most important things, the timing always sucks… The universe doesn’t conspire against you but it doesn’t go out of its way to line up all the pins either. Conditions are never perfect. “Someday” is a disease that will take your dreams to grave with you. Pro and con lists are just as bad. If it’s important to you and you want to do it “eventually,” just do it and correct the course along the way.”

Do it now. What do you have to lose, except your weakness?

# # #

ABOUT THE AUTHOR:

Pavel Tsatsouline is a former Soviet Special Forces physical training instructor, currently a subject matter expert to US special operations units. Pavel’s bestselling book Beyond Bodybuilding has been endorsed by Larry Scott, Dave Draper, Marty Gallagher, and Louie Simmons. Subscribe to Pavel’s free e-newsletter and get a free course on building strong abs the Russian way at www.PowerbyPavel.com

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217 comments on “‘Unrealistic’ Athletic Goals: Why and How to Pursue Them

  1. Pavel, your dad is inspiring. I have been following your PTTP program for almost 10 years now – now I am thinking about training DL seriously.

    I noticed your father uses an overhand grip instead of mixed – why is that? He doesn’t mess around with any getting set or ‘psyching up’, he just walks out and picks it up!

    Thanks

    • Bill, he uses the double overhand hook grip. Originally used by weightlifters, it was taken up by Russian and some American powerlifters several years ago. I prefer it myself.

      Psych style is an individual choice.

  2. Comrade Pavel,

    I am a college rower trying to improve his performance in the 2000m distance(approx. 6 minutes of rowing)… would you have any training suggestions?

    Thanks!

  3. I really enjoy the paradigm shifts that you bring up. Frequently when you reevaluate a thing, you come to different conclusions.

    I think there is much deeper issues into fitness, for example strength comes from strength of the muscle itself, then skill of performing the activity (economy of motion), energy in the body which is produced by emotion and also chemicals. Then you also have your thoughts such as belief and the will.

  4. Having unrealistic physical performance goals has served me very well most of my life (30+ yrs). At a young age I was unlucky enough to have an accident which caused me to lose 60% of my blood by the time I reached the hospital, necessitating a 6 unit transfusion asap. The blood was contaminated with hepatitis c and needless to say I’ve never felt that great sense of well- being/ bursting with energy feeling you have when you’re healthy. I have never given up and given in to hepatits c, but it has been an unfair fight for many years. Until recently.
    I read about a group of patients with fibromyalgia( another of my long term health challenges, which often develops with hepc) who were found to be deficient in human growth hormone, and subsequently prescribed injectible HgH. The great majority of patients had very favorable results and improvement with fibro pain, stiffness, etc. I requested that my doc perform several hormone panel tests including tests for my level of HgH. My results showed that I too had very low levels of HgH, way below what should be expected for my age. I started injectible HgH three weeks ago and have had a positive response- decreased stiffness and pain in my arms. I am on a dose of .02mg per day. My doctor says we will increase my dosage and I want to know what the range in safe dosages are. It’s been challenging to get information about this as fear of I suppose legal ramifications is widespread.
    I believe that hormone balance is where our medical professionals should START rather than eventually consider, and it is my great hope that integrative medicine will bring this to the forefront of diagnostic care.

  5. Pavel/Tim,

    I went through with the DeadLift program. 3 months and 6 hours of lifting later, my personal record went up from 100 kg (220 lbs) to 150 kg (331 lbs). I wrote about the results on my blog at harshbatra dot com

    Thank you for the awesome post!

  6. I have followed you and your books for the last three or so years. LOVE everything from you. Thank you for sharing and inspiring each of us.

    My “Unrealistic” Athletic goal is to not only do an ironman but to finish in the top three for my age group (45 years old). I am a mom of 6 that homeschools and has little time to train. I’m following a lot of information in 4 Hour Body. I have lost about 45 lbs but am still at 195 lbs.

    Any suggestions for an old, fat woman that wants to qualify for Kona and win in my age group?

  7. Great article! I’ve loved all of your writings, Pavel.
    I was wondering if you’d approve of using the same kind of progression but with four days…. a day for deadlifts, a day for bench press, a day for overhead press, and a day for squats?

  8. Hi Tim,
    Through your journey of experiments, who has been the most help for devolping pure overall strength and conditioning?

  9. Tim,
    I’d like to challenge you to an unrealistic athletic feat. It’s a triathlon for sprinters, that I created because of my sprinting background and that fact that after 10 years of racing triathlon, I still suck at endurance racing. I know in your first book you said you weren’t great at swimming, but it sounds like with total immersion you’ve gotten a handle on it. My challenge is this:
    The Triple Sprint
    50 Meter Pool Swim
    300 Meter Bike (From a dead stop)
    150 Meter Track Run
    Each Event is run and timed separately (like a decathlon)
    Try to get cumulative time under 1 minute. My world record with no training at all is 1 minute 14.57 seconds. Are you fast enough?

  10. Pavel, I’ve been following your PTP program for two years. My dead is currently 1*5*410. I’ve stalled a bit at this level for a while. I do Gracie jiu-jitsu three times a week. After reading this article I’ve raised my goal and would like to get my dead to 1*5*495 and set a new state record for the dead at 1*550+ in the masters division. Any suggestions on progressing using the PTP program to this goal and getting unstuck? I do like your father’s plan and will follow it if necessary but would rather follow PTP and what Comrade Stalin recommends for wirey strength.

    • Brent, 410×5 is nice. You are probably good for a 200kg (441) single.

      it is time for a change. Do try my father’s plan—but make sure that you plan it to come into the heavy day a fresh.

      Power to you!

      • Thank you Pavel for your kind advice.
        My life has dramatically improved by following PTP.
        I will change today to your father’s program today and am excited to do it.
        I’m glad you became a capitalist dog.
        Brent.

  11. Pav, any thoughts on daily vs. 2-3/wk DL training when doing concurrent KRAV Maga? I’d been doing daily DLs for about 2 months leading up to he Eyal seminar, then started Krav…and pulled a calf muscle doing Thai knees into a pad. Too much explosiveness, perhaps :)

    • Peter, go for it, just keep it low rep and low set (no more than 5 reps per set and 10 total). Occasionally, on easy KM weeks, push the weights up to 80% plus on one day; most of the time stay in the 50-70% zone.

  12. Great article, thanks!

    How would you apply it if you are training for a powerlifting competition with all 3 lifts?

    Would you still do 5×5 for each exercise? Would you still use a light day where you do all exercises to monitor overtraining?

    I’ve decided to join a competition in 23 weeks from now. I was thinking about doing 2 cycles of the template suggested here.

    Thanks!

  13. Great stuff here. I’m doing the 80/20 routine now and I love it. I like the way this program explains when to drop from 5s to 3s and the finally two weeks at doubles.

    I’m following the 80/20 right into my meet in March but may follow this plan going into my meet in July.

    Thanks again Pavel, really like the simplicity.

  14. Hi

    I’ve bought and read the 4HB recently. Great book that fired up my enthusiasm to work out seriously. Like, really seriously

    However. Three months ago I had my second surgery in 5 years on my left shoulder, an arthroscopic Bankart’s Repair. The rehab has been slow and I still feel aches and instability in the shoulder. But it’s meant I’ve been off the gym for three months too, and I’ve shrunk.

    Time to get back. However, wanted to ask your advice for re-introduction. Your recommendation in the book of low-rep, 5/5 cadence to fatigue seems like too much to shoot for initially, until I can get say 3 months of training under my belt. Too much stress on the shoulder, I think?

    I was considering starting with kettleball swings, two handed, and instead of low-rep, substitute for high-rep, low-weight 5/5 cadence to fatigue. I know it won’t be as effective, but it won’t stress my shoulders.

    Any recommendations/suggestions as to how to setup a routine? I’d really appreciate your input as someone who has also had shoulder injuries.

    Also, diet and supps recommendations would be great too. Am planning on some of your diets in the book, and supplements was looking of course at protein shakes, as well as NO, creatine, branched aminos etc. But any direction would be great.

    Thanks
    Ben

  15. Pavel,
    The weight, form, grip and no belt were already impressive! What sticks with me most is your father’s demeanor: quiet confidence. He owned that weight! and then no screaming, no victory dance, just a nod to the judge and walked off the stage. That small act speaks volumes.

  16. Unrealistic goals rock! Last year at age 50 I returned to pole vaulting for the first time since high school. My goal was to return to my high school height of 12′. My 60-year old coach (an 8’6″ vaulter) told me I should be happy getting to 9′ or 9’6″. 9 months later I cleared 11′ in practice and 12′ should be realistic by next year’s meets. It’s been life-changing and I get out of bed every morning thinking about what I can do to be a better vaulter. True to Tim’s notion, there are millions of runners, but I’m 1 of only 3 masters 50-54 vaulters in my state that I’m aware of (masters track & field events are bracketed in 5-year increments, so you compete against others in your bracket).

  17. Tim! Have hit every rep so far in Marty Gallagher’s bench press program. I’m on week three.

    Slightly concerned about the 200grams of protein per day, so I’m making sure to do my 120 second air squats and wall presses.

    Very cool to see the air squats have improved. I can get 60 in two minutes. Yesterday, I psuhed it and got 70! Also, I’m walking a mile before and after my biggest meal, so that should get those Glut-4 receptors a-going…right?

  18. Hey pavel i read in your interview with tnation, you said people should not squat with out “expert hands-on instruction”. i’m not going to be able to get that, i’am using your 8020 routine right now, so should i do deadlifts twice a week to replace my squats?.

  19. Dear Tim,
    I am an athlete trying to become the strongest and best at my sports. I am 17 years old and I have been reading your 4 hour body book. In it, you have a workout that consists of deadlifts and benchpress, Barry Ross’s workout, to gain major strength gains. I was wondering if, using this same concept, I could add power clean and squat to the workouts as well, or even replace the deadlifts with them? I have heard that squats and powercleans are the king of all athletic lifts and in my own personal opinion, they do help greatly in many of the aspects of sports. If I can, would I still see great results? Thanks for the great info! Hope you reply back!

    • Hi Michael,

      Stick with the deadlift. Once you change the program (Barry Ross’s), it’s no longer the program. Cleans have higher injury potential, and the squats can cause issues for some athletes.

      In this case, at age 17, I’d suggest you use Barry’s program as described. It a GREAT program that will give you outstanding results.

      Good luck!

      Tim

  20. Hi Tim,
    Unrealistic goal 2013 to “hack” crossfit and participate at the games in 2014.

    I have been following you for a while and been a bit half assed about it to be honest but have spent 2 months getting few things in order. One of my first major targets (4WWW aside) is Crossfit. Have been going to great gym, awesome trainers but want to apply the 8020 etc to this. I am not having much luck finding outliers in Crossfit…..any ideas?

  21. Dear Tim,
    Alright thanks again! I’ll try and post somewhere and let you know of my results. Keep up the experimenting and finding new ways to improve our bodies!

  22. Hi there Tim!
    Ive read almost your entire blog
    Am a regular weight lifter but have never really used %’s or charts
    Have reached a sticking Point in my 2 main lifts- Military press and Deadlifts

    I did not understand your charts as you said one heavy day, one light day, but you only put a chart with one coloumn( I.e not a chart for heavy days, and a chart for light days)

    I want to focus on these two lifts and have done so for awhile and drastically improved (i.e followed your 80/20 approach for lifting and its nothing short of awesome

    but im at a sticking point now

    can you give me some pointers as to how i can design the above like your dad did but for deadlifts AND military press(or dumbell incline press)

    Many thanks Tim!

  23. Tim- your blog is a constant source of education and inspiration. I recently saw a short documentary of a 5’5″ guy that taught himself to dunk. It didn’t discuss his training regimine in detail but looks like determination, weights, and Russian plyometric training were part of his 3 year journey. It’s a short 6 min doc here…http://goo.gl/1zCR12