‘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

Posted on: March 17, 2011.

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

  1. Great post.and very inspiring. My next goal is to go from spending 3yrs away from basketball (last game played in college 3yrs ago) to signing with a professional team. I’ve spent the last three yrs as a CPA and part caged animal. Currently I’m in Costa Rica training. Should be interesting!

    Thanks for this!

    Like

  2. All so impressive!! Both videos were amazing. Did your dad lose body fat just following this program as well? I know he gained strength and some size.

    What’s his next goal?

    Like

  3. Indeed, “Doing the unrealistic is easier than doing the realistic”. This statement is so true for anything you can imagine. It’s actually one of the core principles I use when coaching clients, helping them to to shift from “fear of white page”, to a state of being creative on demand. Effortlessly, no matter the field. I use sculpture and yoga as a metaphors. Every single time someone sets for average, it just fails. Thing is, nowadays you don’t have the choice, it looks like society (at a global level) is rewarding unrealistic passionate people. That’s great news.
    Pavel’s father is most certainly “unrealistic” in many other areas as well.
    Inspirational. Merci.

    Like

  4. A great post. I’m currently doing Greyskull barbell’s linear progression programme, so I’m going to stick with that (all strength/ powerlifting programmes are pretty similar – the devil is in the detail).

    Having a proper powerlifter as a trainer is extremely important. I’m currently working out in a gym run by a cricket club in London (!), they way the personal trainers are teaching to power clean and squat is really bad.

    Like

  5. You can’t imagine how glad I am to read this. After so many years of hearing from everyone else about how we should be setting “realistic” goals, it was time someone actually pushed us a bit outside our comfort zone.
    Don’t get me wrong though — realistic goals are great for a start, or if you don’t mind being average in a particular domain. But for everything else, they often prevent you from achieving your full potential.

    Like

    • Claudie Wrote:

      You can’t imagine how glad I am to read this. After so many years of hearing from everyone else about how we should be setting “realistic” goals, it was time someone actually pushed us a bit outside our comfort zone.

      Don’t get me wrong though — realistic goals are great for a start, or if you don’t mind being average in a particular domain. But for everything else, they often prevent you from achieving your full potential.

      Claudie its so true. Often we her meme’s that tell us to stay in the safe harbor. That’s what I like about Tim’s blog. Here you get people who want to see you step outside of the comfort zone.

      Realistic goals are great if that’s what you want from life. Such thinking will only get people mundane and same old same old results. Going oberboard as they say and stepping out of the comfort zone leads to fulfilling a persons life potential.

      Cheers
      Leonard

      Like

  6. Hi Tim, love your stuff!

    I have set up a quite unrealistic goal for myself, completing a specific long distance bike race this summer, and with a good race finish time.

    Been training a few weeks now, following a program I set up, and started to notice improvements. Now I’ve got a cold and can’t follow my training program.

    I hate when this happens, all the progress that I’ve made so far will almost be lost.

    Would love to hear your thoughts about this: dealing with illness during training and how to fight a cold in the best possible and most efficient way.

    If this is covered in your new book I’ll buy it instanly! Otherwise, a blog post covering it would be most appreciated!

    Thanks,
    Ross

    Like

    • Hi Ross,

      Here’s what I do, but keep in mind that I’m not a doctor and not giving medical advice. My personal protocol, upon onset of cold symptoms:

      6 grams l-lysine per day
      14-20 grams of vitamin C in 2 gram doses throughout day (typically “Lite” Emergen-C)
      5-10,000 iu of vitamin D for first 3-4 days only
      TONS of water

      Hope that helps. I do NOT train while sick, besides 15 min brisk walking in the mornings.

      Feel better!

      Tim

      Like

      • Hi Tim.

        Your “high dosage Vitamin C” strategy for fighting a cold virus appears to be based on the Linus Pauling method.

        I thought your recent book would have included a reference to this.

        Many “old school” athletes from the 50-60’s also used to dose-up on Vitamin C when training, and crank the dosage up when their bodies were fighting a virus.

        Like

      • I achieved a very unrealistic athletic goal recently. There is a video of it on youtube called challenge to all humans. I figure someone like you Tim ferriss may recognize how difficult this feat is and may help us get some kind of exposure which we have been trying to get for a while. Thanks!

        Like

  7. Considering Vladimir “is a lifetime athlete” and looks like he must’ve kept himself in pretty good shape, my take from this post was less about “unrealistic goals” and more about finding your athletic niche. In this case; a niche focus (the deadlift) of a niche sport in a niche age range.

    It also reminds me of a similarly inspiring article, also supporting the topic of niche athleticism and unrealistic athletic goals, on 90+ year old Olga Kotelko’s athletic achievement:

    http://www.staplenews.com/home/2010/11/29/the-incredible-flying-nonagenarian.html

    Like

  8. Another great example of this is creating and breaking Guinness World Records. Tim, I’d recommend researching Ashrita Furman and Alastair Galpin, the two greatest record breakers in the world. Their attitude is very similar and their methods incredibly innovative. I can put you in touch with them if you’d like an interview.

    Like

  9. I love this article! One thing that many will miss is the discipline it takes to focus for eight weeks (for some eight hours) on one task. I often argue that cycling or periodization doesn’t work…but not because it “doesn’t work,” but because most of the people I work with can’t focus for eight days, much less eight weeks. They will see a shiny new penny at the gym or on late night TV and go from training for the Olympics to getting “ripped.”

    A great article here and the information is so crisp and clean most trainees will miss the amount of knowledge compressed here for them…

    Like

  10. Strength is most definitely a skill. These results are not unrealistic at all. People are often surprised at how fast they can increase strength.

    A year ago I couldn’t deadlift 225, I had chronic hip and shoulder pain. I spent about 8 months purely corrective work with Mike Robertson and Bill Hartman to build a base of core stability, unimpinge my shoulders, etc. then started deadlifting in October. Even with a relatively haphazard deadlift schedule I was able to pull 405 a couple weeks ago with no pain. This coming from a guy who didn’t believe he’d be walking 5 years from now due to pain.

    Finding a legit trainer is key. Technique alone will add 100-200 lbs to a deadlift. Not to mention having someone design a program that will fix your problems. I also highly recommend taping your lifts. Just set an iphone on a table and get a shot of your form will help you see and understand what’s going on. You can see position on a failed lift and compare it to a good lift. It’s also nice to have a log of what you’ve lifted and see how your form and progress changes over time.

    We use fairly similar principles in our training as pavel has suggested above. Many guys run 4 week blocks with a deaload week on week 4, sometimes this is made into an 8 week block. Intensity varies from week to week as may rep schemes. Wendler’s 5/3/1 is also a great program that a ton of powerlifters use. I tend to train pretty unregimented and go by feel (which my trainers hate). So when I feel strong I pull heavy singles. When I feel a little more beat up I pull 3-5’s. I like high frequency on deadlifts. So 2x per week or more. Emphasis is on big lifts so I go all out on those and tend to do less accessory work.

    Most guys will also run a taper 10 days to 2 weeks with little to know volume before a meat. Just some light warm-up type work. Detraining like this increases your 1RM by converting slow twitch to fast twitch fibers.

    There are really very few powerlifters out there. It’s a pretty tight knit group. One of the guys from my gym just competed at the Arnold Classic, so I helped out a little back stage. It’s seems like everyone knows everyone else. Thanks for spreading the word. Hopefully we’ll get more people to try it.

    Like

    • Allen, indeed, you get more Type IIB fibers from long breaks between sessions—one of the reasons classic American periodization by Gallagher-Coan-Karwoski calls for one session per lift a week.

      Wendler’s is a solid plan.

      Unloading every fourth week is a good call if you go hard all three weeks.

      Congrats on your four wheels!

      Like

  11. Best post I have read yet on this blog! At 47 I am going to start to set some unrealistic goals. Last year I set what some would consider as an unrealistic goal (at my age) of attending Columbia University’s Doctorate of Physical Therapy Prorgam, I start this Fall!

    I had the honor of meeting Pavel for lunch almost 13 years ago and always wanted to do the RKC training but every year life seemed get in the way. I have most of his training books and I really do love the deadlift and squat so maybe this will be my niche!

    Like

      • 100% agreed with Pavel. Work up to RKC and then crush it with serious preparation. It’s a great rite of passage and a wonderful group of trainers (and trainees).

        Like

      • Dear Pavel,
        I’m a 21 physiology and sports science student. I have just been introduced to kettlebells and I’m fascinated. I see there’s a RKC workshop in Italy in june, next to my place. I was wandering if it could be possible to watch some sessions, to get some inspiration, with your permission.

        Thank you very much

        Like

  12. Wow, just realized that this is the same guy who wrote the book I used when I started to learn contortion and acrobatics (Relax into Stretch : Instant Flexibility Through Mastering Muscle Tension). I can’t see myself getting into powerlifting, but the tips on becoming more flexible were fantastic. I had been taking classes at the San Francisco School of Circus Arts, but I wasn’t crazy about their “just push harder” approach to things and I wanted someone who had deconstructed the process a bit more – and his book was perfect (not to mention, far less painful).

    Like

  13. “You will walk out of the gym wanting to do more and this is the way it is supposed to be.”

    That’s such a great line.

    All in all, very cool article. That video of 128-pound Melissa pulling 314.5 pounds is incredible!

    Like

  14. I love this.
    I am 19 years old and my brother is 15 and we are trying to change the world through “unrealistic” athletic goals. We are trying to represent what is possible and every once in a while I stumble upon something like this where someone in their later years are still performing so well, it gives me hope that although I may be performing and representing what is possible now at a young age that I can still participate in my vision in later years. Thanks for the inspiration.

    Like