Monday, May 15, 2017

The Powerlifter and Flexibility, Part Two - Pavel Tsatsouline (1998)

Originally Published in This Issue - April 1998

The Powerlifter and Flexibility - Part Two
an Interview with Pavel Tsatsouline
by Judd Biasiotto (1998)  
Part One is Here:

Dr. Judd: Why do so many American athletes fail to develop flexibility  optimal for their sport,even if they stretch diligently? What are we doing wrong? 

Pavel: Everything. 

Dr. Judd: Can you be more specific? 

Pavel: Judd, hackers have a saying, "garbage in, garbage out." If the premise is false, the conclusions will be wrong. The American approach to flexibility has failed because it assumed that muscles and connective tissues needed to be physically stretched. Other myths snowballed from there. Your muscles have plenty of length to allow you to do splits, for instance. As long as you have healthy joints, only tension prevents you from going all the way down.

Dr. Judd: I don't know, I have a hard time buying that.

Pavel: Try this test. Can you raise one leg to the side to the top of a waist-high table? You can use your arms if necessary.

Dr. Judd: Doesn't seem too difficult.

Pavel: Your leg that is up on the table is not in the position for a side split. How, Judd, remember your anatomy. Are there any muscles or ligaments which connect both legs?

Dr. Judd: No.

Pavel: That means you should be able to bring the other leg out at the same angle and do a split without stretching a thing.

Dr. Judd: Okay, so why can't I?

Pavel: Your body feels funny about having your legs at an angle they have never been at before. You have to reeducate your nervous system into believing that it is safe. Only then will it allow your muscles to relax into a new position.

Dr. Judd: So stretching is not the best way to develop flexibility?

Pavel: No. Trying to change the mechanical properties of your muscles, tendons and ligaments is a desperate way to become flexible and works only in children. Fortunately, a muscle with pre-depression connective tissues and more scars than a prize fighter is still long enough to display as much flexibility as allowed by its associated joints. Master regulation of muscular length and tension, and you will be as flexible as you want to be at any age.

Dr. Judd: Why do people usually get less flexible with age?

Pavel: Americans lose flexibility as they grow older because they are used to relying on the elasticity of their connective tissues. Ligaments and tendons are made up of collagen and which gives them strength, and elastin, which, as its name implies, provides elasticity. As you age, the elastin/collagen ratio changes in favor of collagen, or scar tissue. If you relied on tissue elasticity for flexibility, you will lose it.

Dr. Judd: So how do we beat the age and develop super-flexibility?  

Pavel: Train the nervous system. Shutdown Threshold Isometrics is the superior method. It was documented to be at least 267% more effective than conventional stretching. I trained Spetsnaz recruits to do suspended side splits in two to six months with this technique.

Dr. Judd: Is Shutdown Threshold Isometrics (STI)  similar to the PNF stretching methods used by US physical therapists?

Pavel: STI is much more effective. A kickboxer who had practiced standard PNF consistently for years came to me as the last resort. He was only three inches off the ground in the side split, yet never got any deeper. "Experts" told him it was not meant to be, he was not built for splits, male, and too old. With STI I put him in a full Chinese split in ten minutes, screams notwithstanding.

Dr. Judd: Can you learn the method without personal instruction?

Pavel: Yes, it is explained in great deal in my book "Beyond Stretching."

Dr. Judd: What type of stretches should powerlifters do before training or competition?

Pavel: You'd be better off doing plyometrics. If you ever watched international track-and-field meets, you may have noticed that while western athletes are wasting their time with slow static stretches, Russians are bouncing around. 

Dr. Judd: What for?

Pavel: There is more to the stretch reflex than its contribution to injuries. The reflex is what puts a 'spring' into your movement. A muscle that has been sharply stretched generates much more force than a static muscle. An evil judge who gives you a l-o-o-n-g pause on the bench will make you appreciate the stretch reflex.

Dr. Judd: Remind us why the pause cuts into our poundages

Pavel: Two reasons. First, a larger number of motor units is recruited and fired at higher frequencies reflexively than voluntarily. And second, like a rubber band, your muscles and tendons are elastic and tend to return to their resting length after they have been stretched. To insure that extra boost, the transition from stretch to shortening, or loading, must be quick, otherwise the stored elastic energy dissipates as heat. This quickness is referred to as the reactive ability. It is developed with plyometrics, a Russian discovery, naturally, although, the name was invented by an American.

Dr. Judd: Plyometrics are various jumps?

Pavel: Yes, and other exercises that condition you to make the quickest 'touch-and-go'. Bouncing stretches are a form of plyometrics.

Dr. Judd: It seems that our Mom and apple pie relaxed stretching is counterproductive.

Pavel: Correct. It 'flattens' your stretch reflex and compromises your explosiveness. Besides, like a rubber band, tissues stretched beyond their point of restitution remain permanently overstretched and lose some of their elasticity. A rag doll cannot act like a spring. Plyometrics, on the other hand, improve your tissues viscoelasticity.     

Dr. Judd: You also mentioned the increased contractility of the muscles.

Pavel: Yes, it is another benefit of plyometrics in general, and plyometric stretching specifically. Your nervous system is very efficient and recruits only as much muscle as it takes to get the job done. Curiously, a given level of neurological activity will bee maintained for some time after the demand has been imposed. The involuntary raising of your arms after your push against a doorway is an example of this phenomenon. A reflexive muscular contraction uses more muscle than a voluntary one. For a short time after the stretch reflex has been employed your body maintains the ability to contract the target muscle harder than usual even at will.

Dr. Judd: So Fred Hatfield was on mark when he jumped before his squats?

Pavel: Right on. Besides, jumping makes your heart pump faster stimulating the adrenal response you need to lift the big weight.

Dr. Judd: What exercises do you recommend to sharpen the stretch reflex for the Big Three?

Pavel: Dr. Hatfield pioneered powerlifting specific drills. He preceded his squat attempts with either vertical jumps, or depth jumps.

Dr. Judd: What are the 'depth jumps'?

Pavel: An advanced form of plyometrics. Step off a 30- to 40-degree elevation and drop straight down. The moment you hit the ground, forcefully rebound straight up, spending as little time as possible in transition. A useful image is jumping on a hot stove. Land on the balls of your feet, followed by the whole feet. Don't bend your legs more than necessary. Use a resilient surface, such as a gymnastic mat, or grass.

Dr. Judd: What about the other two powerlifts? 

Pavel: Dr. Squat recommended violently throwing your elbows back a few times right before the bench hand-off. Don't screw around with the hand-off and descent, or the effect will be lost. For the deadlift Hatfield suggested doing one or two explosive vertical jumps right before the attempt. He warned that the effect is lost if the lifter spends too much time adjusting his grip. Since the hips and back, rather than the thighs, do most work in the deadlift, I believe that the jump is not the best exercise for increasing your immediate deadlift performance.

Dr. Judd: What would you do? 

Pavel: The one arm snatch. This exercise is part of the kettlebell lifting competition, a popular ethnic Russian strength sport. Since you cannot buy a 'kettlebell', a big metal ball with a handle, in the U.S. (does that seem weird, looking back, or what!) a dumbbell will do. Use a light dumbbell. It will not feel light because of the momentum it is going to build up. Clean and press the dumbbell over your head and spread your feet slightly wider than your shoulders. Inhale, arch your back, and let the dumbbell free fall between your legs, at the same time pushing your hips back. Make sure the weight falls as close to your body as possible. Stay on your heels. Once the dumbbell reaches the bottom position, without hesitation explosively lift it overhead. Don't try to lift it with your arm and shoulder, rather drive your hips through. You might get airborne. It's okay. It is a fun drill. Try it. 

Dr. Judd: Let's talk about injury prevention. Many athletes believe that injuries occur when a muscle is stretched beyond its limit. Is it so? And can you prevent injuries by elongating the muscles and connective tissues? 

Pavel: Wrong on both accounts. Muscle tears are the result of a special combination of a sudden stretch and contraction. Say you lose balance coming out of the hole in the squat. The weight pulls you forward shifting your center of gravity towards your toes. Your hamstrings are sharply stretched as you are diving head first. Your nervous system panics and tries to prevent you from falling forward.

Dr. Judd: What happens? 

Pavel: The stretch reflex fires. The hamstrings suddenly contract, stronger than when the squat was under control, trying to counteract the fall. Only they are not going to pull it off. You would have to do a good morning with your max squat weight. Here you have it. A stretch from one side, a contraction from the other. The tissue tears.

Dr. Judd: In addition to proper technique and conservative attempts, can anything be done to prevent that? 

Pavel: 'Prevent' is a strong word ask your lawyer. 'Improve the odds' is more like it. You already know that 'elongating' the tissues is a dumb idea. Instead, reset the sensitivity of the stretch reflex so it would not fire too soon. The hamstrings will not resist the fall and hopefully you will dump the bar over your head without getting hurt. 

Dr. Judd: How do you desensitize the stretch reflex? 

Pavel: By gradually increasing the range and speed of your stretches.

Dr. Judd: Speed? We were under the impression that ballistic stretching is dangerous and ineffective.

Pavel: Note that the stretch reflex clicks in when the muscle is stretched either too far or too fast. There are two types of receptors, or muscle spindles, that trigger the stretch reflex: One sensitive to the magnitude or the stretch, and the other, to the magnitude and speed of stretch. Static stretching will reset the former receptors, but not the latter.

Dr. Judd; So, flexibility is speed specific? 

Pavel: Correct. To be flexible in motion, you have to train in motion, eventually at the velocity of your sport, which for a powerlifter is not that fast. Besides, when I day 'dynamic stretching' I do not mean 'ballistic'. The idea of such training is not to force a muscle into a new range by building up momentum. Performed as described it will set off the stretch reflex and the muscle will tear as in the squat bomb-out I described. A properly performed dynamic stretch is terminated RIGHT BEFORE the stretch reflex fires and the muscle tightens up. As a result, the reflex threshold will move up and next time you will be able to move farther and faster.

Dr. Judd: How do we perform dynamic stretches? 

Pavel: Technically, they are not even stretches. Neither are the rest of the drills I described. I prefer calling them 'dynamic flexibility exercises' because their training effect is in the nervous system. Start with complete control, no bounce and a limited range of motion. Gradually increase the range and speed, both in the context of one workout and the entire training cycle. You will make most of your progress in two to three months.

Dr Judd: It's confusing: on one hand you desensitize the stretch reflex to increase flexibility, on the other hand, you stimulate it with plyometrics. 

Pavel: You desensitize it not to fire in positions of potential injuries, for example when you trip forward in the squat or dead. You sensitize the reflex to fire more intensely at the points where you switch from lowering the weight to lifting: the hole in the squat, the bar on the chest position in the bench, the start in the deadlift if you use a dynamic start, such as the dive. 

Dr. Judd: Would you cover some dynamic flexibility exercises? 

Pavel: My book and tape describe some awesome commando drills for the hamstrings and groin, unlike anything you've seen. You'll also find exercises for the back, the shoulder girdle and a precise training protocol: When, how much, how often, etc.

Dr. Judd: How safe are dynamic stretches? 

Pavel" As with any physical activity, you could get hurt. But the benefits of reducing muscle pulls under weight outweigh the risks. 

Judd: What about serious injuries?    

Pavel: A drill instructor in the Soviet Special Ops used to say, "I don't care how flexible you are. I'll tie your ankles to two jeeps, floor 'em and you are history." 

Judd: Well, but this could happen to you no matter how flexible or inflexible you are.

Pavel: True, but the degree of damage may vary. In hyper-flexible people the reflexive muscular contraction does not occur until an extreme range of motion is achieved and the limb has gained considerable momentum. This leads to injuries far more severe than those suffered by less flexible people. I'll tell you about such an accident that involved a national level aerobics competitor. The woman was water skiing and her leg got caught by a tow cable. Her hip forcefully abducted, or pulled out. the lady's de-conditioned stretch reflex did not turn on while it still could save the connective tissue at the price of a muscle tear. When it did, it was too late. The momentum was too great and the hip was in a vulnerable position of full abduction. Besides, the muscles were very weak in that range of motion. What could have been a hip adductor, or inner thigh muscle strain in an inflexible person became a joint and ligament whiplash injury in the hyper-flexible aerobic junky. The young woman's leg was literally hanging on a few shreds of tissue when it was over.

Judd: Ouch! 

Pavel: Don't give up your stretching yet but you must realize its limitations. Flexibility is not a panacea from injuries as fitness glossies are trying to make you believe. In high force accidents we are not talking about 'injury prevention' but about 'damage control'. Something will have to give, but hopefully muscle, rather than a tendon or ligament. Muscles have a good blood supply and heal fast. The connective tissues don't.

Judd: How do you train to improve your 'damage control'? 

Pavel: Develop strength in the extreme range of motion. If the water skier's hip adductors, or inner thighs, were strong, she would have been able to contract them even without the help from the stretch reflex. The muscles would still probably have been torn, but her leg would not have been twisted out like a fried chicken's. 

Judd: Our readers are as strong as they come.

Pavel: The big three will not cut it. I'm talking about strength in the position of extreme stretch. Strength is range specific. I stretched an 800-pound squatter whose hamstrings were weaker in the stretch position than some of the 10 year old ballerinas I worked with. 

Dr. Judd: How can we develop such strength? 

Pavel: Shutdown Threshold Isometrics (STI) is one way.

Dr. Judd: This technique seems to have many benefits.

Pavel: That's not all. STI will increase your strength by disinhibiting the Golgi tendon reflex (GTR). This reflex is what makes your muscle give out when the load gets too high. If your readers are familiar with the writings of Dr. Fred Hatfield and they should be, they will know what I am talking about. 

Judd: Dr. Hatfield believes that desensitizing this reflex is the key to super-strength. 

Pavel: Yes, scientists speculate that some life threatening situations flip the off-switch on your GTR. That gives you superhuman strength because your muscles don't shut down no matter how hard they pull. Have you heard about people performing feats of strength in extreme situations? Mothers lifting cars off their children, a Readers Digest sort of thing? [Note: little if anything is ever said about the injuries sustained by these superhuman mothers in distress. Of course they are injured, but the strength to perform the feat was there.] 

Dr. Judd: Is that kind of strength possible with STI? 

Pavel: Don't you wish? No, but you will increase your total, guaranteed. 


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