Pavel Tsatsouline: Simple and Sinister



Simple and Sinister, Pavel Tsatsouline’s new book, is eloquent in its simplicity. People try to overcomplicate a position by adding more where it’s unnecessary, but the true artist sculpts, whittles and pares things down to leave something that’s absolutely beautiful—not by adding more but by taking away.

To those of us experienced in kettlebells—if we have a background with Pavel or a background in strength training—in Simple and Sinister he’s telling us things we know, but need to hear again.

If you’d prefer to listen instead of read,
here’s a longer audio version of this article,
Episode 40 of Gray Cook Radio

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And if this is your first introduction to kettlebells, I can’t think of a better starting point than Pavel revisiting some of his most profound philosophical statements about strength training.

Yet here he goes one step further: He writes the entire program for us, and he does an excellent job of building a case for his exercise choices.

docgetsupHe discusses the beauty and simplicity of the Turkish getup, and shows that done right, it’s the slow, posturally correct, proprioceptively rich checking of left and right symmetry in multiple movement patterns and multiple positions—a sort of triplanar functional exercise.

The swing is an exercise that’s often bypassed in kettlebell work. People quickly move to snatches and cleans, bent presses and other complicated lifts, and don’t realize the engine that drives Pavel, Brett Jones, Mark Toomey, Dan John, Mark Cheng and other the folks working with StrongFirst is that they never get away from the foundation.

That simplicity is what we need from our modern palate of exercise. We don’t need more variations and more options. We need a simple linear progression to get us to an exercise that has more benefits at minimal risk.

What Pavel has done is given us a program minimum, and that’s the same philosophical standpoint I’ve gotten to with the Functional Movement Screen. I don’t care how good you are, but please don’t leave a dysfunction or a deficiency. That’s what Pavel is doing, too: This is your minimum.

We know life is going to throw you less training time. Your occupation will add stress. The commitments we have in life outside of our personal fitness will often cause us to pare down our chosen exercise program.

Unfortunately, often turn to a specialty. Runners don’t have time to stretch and lift, but they have time to run. Lifters do the lifts that give them positive feedback and probably avoid those that are their weakest links.

What Pavel says is, ‘I’m going to give you a couple of exercises done a certain way. When in doubt, do that. Get better at it. There are some variations. There are some progressions you can do, but be satisfied with the amazing results.’

That couldn’t be more perfectly stated.

GrayCook-LongBeach2013 When I lecture to young exercise professionals, they want more variety. They want more options, more variations of exercises.

Are you sure? Are you asking me for more deadlift variations? Doing more variations of a deadlift isn’t going to make you a better swinger. It’s just going to give you more functionality in the deadlift.

Yet we love to progress your deadlift into a swing. The deadlift is a beautiful foundation, but for fat loss, metabolic power generation and athletic movements, it’s the swing that’s going to bring everything to the surface. The swing will mutually benefit one person who wants to get stronger and one who wants to have more speed and power.

I have just too many good things to say about Pavel’s new book. I downloaded it as an audio book, and have listened to it twice. Now I’m going to go back and thumb through the pages because I want to see his photographs and explanations.

Naked-Warrior It’s a work I’m going to lay right next to his previous work, The Naked Warrior. Pavel creates a constrictive program, and I’d like to elaborate on that. He’s giving us two contrasting and complementary exercises. These are going to present difficulty. You can control some of that by how much weight you use, but at no time do you have the option of using poor technique.

Pavel has a certain way he likes to train his explosive movements, which he calls hard style. It’s the safest and most well-thought-out way to deal with power moves and moving weight. The steps he gives to build a swing and to build a getup are constrictive. They’re going to run you right up against your problems.

He’s doing that because he can’t be in the room with you. The best coaches in the world can design a program not with restrictions, but with constrictions. These constrictions force you to have better form, force you to do the right amount of work at the right time, and force you to rest on a certain day and work harder on another day.

Constrictions are one of the reasons I designed the Functional Movement Screen, so we’re not putting a bad pattern under load. What Pavel has done is given us a beautiful way to get under load and at the same time to enhance movement quality, precision and progression at all costs.

If you’re already a fan of kettlebells, if you’re a fan of strength culture, in Simple and Sinister you will hear what you’ve heard before…in a refreshing, new and simplified way to reassure you that you’re already on the right path.

If you’re new to kettlebells, there isn’t a better starting point than Pavel’s unbelievably simple. Yet, the workouts and work that can be derived from this is absolutely sinister. It’s a concise read, with so many pearls. I’m on my second pass through and I will definitely do a third.

When an author, a coach, a philosopher or somebody who’s immersed themselves in physical culture like Pavel has with his presentation of the StrongFirst community and some of the previous work he’s done, when he takes the time to simplify his knowledge into clear, concise statements, you better put that on your shelf.

Don’t just read it and then run out to sell this information to your clients, because you’re just renting it. Do what he’s telling us. Embrace it. Just pick up the kettlebell, follow the rules and let it teach you. I can’t think of a better Christmas gift for some of my closest friends and the people in  my family who like to train than for me to pick up a copy of this and get it over to them.

I would encourage you to do this read. It requires a lot of work to take something that produces significant results and turn its application into something so simple.

Well done, brother!

Audio Lectures for Your Continuing Education

It’s been over a year since we went live with the site, and we couldn’t be happier with the results. There are currently 194 audio and video learning opportunities on the site, 16 of which are mine. If you haven’t heard these yet, here’s the list (some free), with a few more in the hopper.


Revisiting Athletic Body In Balance
What’s The Big Deal About The Toe Touch?
The Three Rs
Isolation, It’s Totally Natural
Duke University Student Q&A
Movement Principles Talk, CK-FMS
IFOMPT Keynote Address
Hat Tip to Professor Janda, with Craig Liebenson
Schooling Vs Education
VCU School of Physical Therapy
Developing A Movement Philosophy
Self-Limiting Exercise
Gray Cook with Craig Liebenson
Gray Cook with Joe Heiler
Myths & Misunderstandings About The FMS & SFMA
Dry Needling With Edo Zylstra

Fit to Serve

As often occurs in the fall, I fly in late on a Saturday night after teaching a workshop with Lee. It’s a scramble, but Sunday morning, I’m sitting in church because the rest of my family’s there, but also because my dad’s the guy standing at the front of the church. My dad’s a preacher, if you didn’t know.

photoThis Sunday there was a responsive reading at the beginning of the service because it was Veteran’s Sunday. A very powerful reading was in our church bulletin, and the service was wrapped around that. I want to share that with you.

It was very timely for me to see Dr. Ed Thomas’s new video this morning. The video, entitled Fit to Serve, is something I think everyone needs to watch, and then simply think about. If it compels you to take action in some way, that’s fine, but at least just think about it. We owe our veterans and we owe our wounded warriors that much consideration.

ed-thomasIt never ceases to amaze me when I talk with Ed Thomas, or get to hear him narrate some unbelievably profound visual images. He’s a wordsmith in the way he communicates a message. What we have in Dr. Thomas is a physical educator, someone who took physical education to the doctoral level.

This is not a guy who chose physical education, teaching and coaching so he could take summers off. This is someone who realized his way to better humanity is in physical culture, in the physical arts, and in physical development.

I think about how our country would take action if we saw the illiteracy all of the sudden just stay on an decline. What would we’d do if we had children who couldn’t do simple math in their heads? The actions our government would take if we couldn’t read or intelligently work with numbers would be immediate, and all-encompassing.

military squatYet we’ve had a physical decline in our fitness and culture for quite some time.

obstacle-climbEd captures this by looking in the petri dish of the US military. Everything that’s happening in our military—or was happening in our military—is literally a sign of the times, and is just a picture of our overall population.

When we post fitness articles and interviews and videos on the internet, let’s be honest: Most people are interested in those because of a physical aesthetic they’re trying to achieve or an athletic goal they’re trying to bring about.

But when we talk about fitness, when we talk about fire fighters or the military, the police or some other public service like first responders, these are people who sacrifice their lives, their health and sometimes their fitness to perform  a service.

Those of us who get the opportunity to train those people should feel an extra degree of connection to this. Every one of us can do something to foster the integrity of physical culture, not just in the military or first responders, but all the way to the school system.

As you watch Ed’s video, and as you review other fitness or athletic development articles, consider this: How much of this information is making it into the military, or into our 7th grade PE classes?

This is where I think our true physical fitness model must be present and demonstrate effectiveness in the way we prepare people to defend our values, and in the way we decide to grow our children. I think Ed Thomas speaks intelligently to both those.

Now I’m going to embed some other videos from this brilliant man, who has served us both as a veteran and continues to serve us with his insight today.

Click here if using iPhone, iPad, or you cannot see the video player

Isolation vs Movement Patterns

I have no real animosity toward isolation exercises, but in my past I found many people tried to use an isolation exercise to enhance a movement pattern. When I investigated why they picked a particular muscle group, let’s say the quads to address a fault where the trunk is wavering back and forth in the lunge, people often make a few assumptions. They automatically think it’s the front quad, that there’s no strength there.

gray-half-kneel We could do some other assessments or some other movements and show that it could be trunk control. It could be an ankle awareness problem. Maybe the person had multiple sprained ankles and just doesn’t have a lot of sensory information. We might need to train that first. Isolation in many cases follows an assumption of what we think is kinesiology.

Sometimes we see somebody who has a quad that’s two inches smaller on one side than the other. The hamstring seems to have adequate strength. There’s nothing wrong with the calf, but there had been an injury. The person learned how to move around without that quadriceps, and now when trying to do some form of squatting or lunging, it’s done without the quad.

There’s an actual medical term for this called ‘quad avoidance syndrome.’ But there are many other areas in the body we can selectively stop using if things haven’t been correctly managed after an injury.

In the instance above, there’s nothing else in the lunge pattern that needs to be trained. The person needs to reconnect the quad with the body map in the brain. We may actually start with some good ol’ knee extension exercises. Those knee extension machines are becoming more and more rare, but in this instance it would have a place.

The problem is that you have to be in a position to really test muscle weakness if you’re going to isolate. In this situation, isolating the quad would probably benefit the whole movement pattern. If you’ve had surgery, there’s a good chance if you’re my patient I may have to isolate something in your rehabilitation process.

We may also see a particular muscle group is deficient. When we look at function, everything else looks good. In that instance, it would be okay to isolate, but don’t assume isolation alone will make a movement pattern good.

long-beach-alwyn-cosgrove Remember, you have an excellent way to check it—just do some type of movement screening or look at the pattern after you’ve done a cycle of strengthening on that body part. You may have made it stronger, but that doesn’t mean it’s reintegrated into the map. Alwyn Cosgrove covers this well in our new Exercise Program DVD.

Now let’s talk about body sculpting for a minute. Maybe we have areas we’d like to see develop, and we have other areas that don’t seem to need a lot of work. For a lot of people, that means wanting to sculpt the body in a different way.

Here’s an interesting point: About 75% of the time, the worst movement patterns run right in line with the deficiencies we see in symmetry and development.

I worked with a lot of bodybuilders early in my career and it used to blow me away to discover the muscles they had the hardest time developing were also prime movers of patterns they didn’t do well.

I can spend time helping you re-pattern, and you can actually do something a little more functional and hit more muscle groups. Unless you’re at the elite level of bodybuilding, there’s a good chance we’re going to have greater gains working this movement-pattern deficiency.

Even in the extreme circumstances of wanting to develop a body part, the only way I’m going to agree with only doing isolation is if your movement screen is fairly clean and you have no movement deficiency.

We should still follow that movement map, and only after it’s clean would we attack a deficiency with specific isolation.

When we take a functional approach and really attack movement deficiencies with movement corrections, I would expect all kinds of new soreness you’ve never had because certain movement patterns were sort of turned off. They have the parking brake on a movement pattern.

Opening up movement patterns first changes everything. Once that muscle is activated, let’s go ahead and put it on isolation.

If you’re really intense on physique development, having somebody run a movement screen every two or three months when you’re training hard is not just this nice little test. It’s a GPS. It’ll point you in your next direction.

My big problem with isolation is not isolation. It’s the assumption that isolation will change movement without adequately checking strength to see if it’s only a single group problem, and without revisiting some type of movement map to see if it really did change something.

Isolation is an excellent tool to have. We just can’t lay assumptions on it.
For more on Gray’s thoughts about the pros and cons of isolation,
check out his talk,
Isolation: It’s Totally Natural.

The Future of Exercise Program Design

I’m a big stickler when it comes to laying out a program.

Let’s discuss the overall concept of programming and planning. In the back of the book Athletic Body in Balance, which is taking its 10-year anniversary lap, I talked about my dad’s most-used quote: Make your plan. Work your plan. I went into an explanation of that statement, because it doesn’t mean make a plan and then make your plan work.

The battle plan most generals come up with isn’t the one they finish with, but they have to start with a plan. A plan needs to be based on some metrics you can reproduce, and if somebody put you on the witness stand, the metrics would be strong enough to make you look credible. You don’t just follow a plan because it’s the plan you used yesterday. You make a plan based on science and based on the art and technology of the impact you’re trying to make.

Make your plan; work your plan means massaging that plan, making modifications, looking at your GPS and realizing if you’re a little off course. The way you work your plan is to not be obsessive-compulsive about every minor detail, and micro-manage the process.

It’s simply saying, ‘My goal is to be here by a certain time.’

If you’re not even close at the halfway point, you probably wouldn’t stay on the same program. That’s what my dad meant. Make your plan. Go forward. Pay attention. Watch what’s happening.

Are you ahead of schedule? Are you behind schedule? Are you heading in the wrong direction? Are you delivering what you said you could deliver through this plan?

abbNow let me tell you another story. I referenced a lot of John Wooden’s thoughts in Athletic Body in Balance, and also some of Bruce Lee’s material.

From a philosophical standpoint, I love the approach Bruce Lee brought back to martial arts. He re-energized the beauty, precision, technology and art of martial arts. He did it from a philosophical base by reminding us that many of the things we do are not as efficient or as practical as they could be, and if we continually work the plan, we can continue to make things better. We want to honor the history and to honor the classic teaching style, but when we can improve with new technology, new approaches and new paradigms, we should.

John Wooden was the basketball coach at UCLA, and many refer to him as one of the winning-est coaches of all time. But John Wooden didn’t consider himself just a coach. He was also a teacher. Even when he was coaching, he was continuously teaching. He had a method for doing everything, even something as simple as the way his players put on their socks. His ‘why’ statement—his rationale—was, ‘If you get a blister, you can’t practice tomorrow. Let’s pay attention to all the things other teams aren’t paying attention to.’

At the time, what struck me as a young coach, teacher, lecturer and therapist is that with all the prestige John Wooden had, he was essentially his own strength coach. He was the head coach of the basketball team, but he didn’t sub out the conditioning.

Here’s what he did. He created skill drills on the basketball court that put a spotlight on each of the very important movement parameters involved in a complete basketball game—a defending drill, a rebounding drill, a shooting drill, a stalling-the-clock time drill and others.

Small pods of athletes who had similar problems or similar responsibilities were grouped together. The competition drill was a microscopic aspect of a sport skill. They would go to a station, execute the sport skill and move to another station. The execution of the drill created some degree of fatigue. Moving to a new station offered very little rest breaks. What these drills taught was not only a higher skill rate within the drill, but the athletes had to recover from that energy expenditure on the fly. They had a very small rest break from which to regain composure, center their breathing, stabilize their focus and take action.

What do we do with the rest breaks when we work out? Do we really try to recover quicker? Do we focus on that?

ingridmarcumropesOne of the reasons I love battling ropes, jump rope and kettlebell swings and snatches is because there’s a huge metabolic demand. We’re going to get smoked—some people earlier and some people later—but we’re all going to get smoked.

But smoking you with one of these devices is not my goal. I want to find out how quick you can be ready to step up again. The point is to zero in on what you do in that rest break—regaining your composure, maybe working on a corrective area that tenses up really quickly with exertion, refocusing your breathing, doing something with your eyes or your posture to reset yourself.

How many of us can accelerate recovery? That’s a very important concept; it’s a great sidebar to consider.

John Wooden used basketball skill drills to create a metabolic demand to execute speed, agility, quickness, shot precision and more. Then, just like in a game with limited time to recover and rest, he moved the athletes to the next stations.

The beauty of this is that those 40 minutes didn’t just all happen by accident.

As accomplished as he was, John Wooden often spent two hours designing a 40-minute practice. That’s very, very important. He made a plan.

He knew exactly what was going to happen every second of the practice. By doing that, he kept people at or near the edge of ability, constantly digging, learning and refining patterns of movement.

Long Beach 1As technology and science continue to offer us more information about the people we train and rehabilitate, we have to realize that every time we introduce a new metric, we don’t have to completely gut the system. We just ask, What does this metric affect? Does it find a bottleneck we weren’t finding? Does it find an area of inefficiency?

I’m very excited about the newest DVD we just released called The Future of Exercise Program Design. I laid the groundwork in this DVD for how to think through what you already know, and then add the new information offered by movement screening. Movement screening wasn’t even an issue 15 years ago. It wasn’t something we considered. If we had an appreciation of movement patterns, it was because of our intuition or experience, not because of a formal metric or system. We now have that, but it sometimes creates just as much confusion for some people as it does success for others.

Long Beach 12Lee and I worked on this DVD to show people they don’t have to throw away their programs. They just have to listen to what the movement metric and the movement information is saying about the success or lack of success in training movement patterns, as well as metabolism, sport skill, body symmetry, muscle development, endurance, stamina, speed and quickness.

Long Beach 5But star of this show is Alwyn Cosgrove. He comes up like a true coach with his dry-erase board and starts talking program design. I appreciate listening to Alwyn lecture because as part of the audience, we realize he’s not just a professional lecturer. He’s deeply involved in program design in his facility. He’s thought about it. He’s the kind of guy who spends two hours figuring out a 40-minute workout.

Once you do that a few times, your brain gains a precision in finding wasted time in a workout. By doing these program designs, by listening to the things on this DVD and by studying coaches like John Wooden, you become an economist. You manage a scarce resource… and that scarce resource is training time for you and your clients. You want the maximum benefit from that scare resource.

Most of us want to be fit, not simply so we can say we’re fit, but also so we can participate in every opportunity of adventure, activity, movement, exercise or competition. I want you to look at this programming DVD as a way to get a competitive advantage. People sometimes feel the movement screen is constrictive to their programs. It’s not; instead, it shows you where your program is constrictive.

It’s giving you a competitive advantage.

Click here to order the Future of Exercise Programming DVD.