Mind Over Muscle by Pavel

Focus Your Mind To Transform Your Body By Pavel Tsatsouline

Originally published in Muscle Media magazine.

Contrary to the gym mythology, true strength training is not about your muscles but about your mind.

In any endeavor mental focus delivers more than any physical transformation, a concept clearly understood by martial arts masters.

“Focus is the ability to control the muscles of the body in a coordinated effort and then contract them to their maximum degree …” explains Jack Hibbard, a Green Beret vet and a breaking expert. “The deeper the concentration, the tenser the contraction of the muscle; and the tenser the contraction, the stronger the muscle grows.”

Like I said before, it all boils down to tension. Effective “mind over muscle” strength training can be summed up as honing your skill to contract your muscles harder. In Russian sports science there is even a term, skill-strength.


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Some bodybuilders are quick to argue: “But it’s all technique!” So what if it is? “The most important aspect one can learn to improve strength is to learn proper technique,” bench press champion George Halbert says to set the record straight.

“There is a mode of thinking out there that I describe as ‘He’s not strong, he’s just got good technique.’ This is just confused thinking… Have you ever heard anyone say ‘he is not a good shooter, he just has good technique’ or ‘he’s not really fast, he just has good technique’?”


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An important point to drive home: “Technique” does not refer just to the groove of a particular exercise!

There are two generalized strength skills that apply to and fortify all displays of strength:

1. Staying Tight

2. Power Breathing

“Keep every body part tight during the entire movement.” This is one of Ernie Frantz’s famous Commandments of Powerlifting. Frantz, whose book had the rare honor of being translated into Russian, is a legend of powerlifting and a successful bodybuilder with a rugged physique along the lines of Franco Columbu’s. He swears that practicing tightening up his entire body throughout the day has helped his strength. Practice. That loaded word again.

In a nutshell, if you compare your brain to a CD player and your muscles to its speakers, your abdominal cavity is the amplifier-the volume control. The greater the pressure inside your belly, the greater your strength in any effort. Unless you have health restrictions, practice high-pressure breathing. In the context of bodybuilding exercises and by itself, you will get stronger in every lift.

Practice Makes Perfect

Then, of course, there is specific practice of your pet lifts. But all strength practice follows the same laws that govern the practice of any skill. How do you improve your tennis serve?

Do you hit the court once a week and keep on serving until your balls could not knock out a sick mosquito and you can barely lift your arm? No, you come to the court as often as possible, ideally more than once a day, and slam those little yellow balls until you feel that your serves are about to slow down.

Why not do the same for your iron games? It worked for old-timer Arthur Saxon, who put up 400 pounds overhead with one arm.

The basic tenet of motor learning is specificity. Applied to strength, it means heavy weights. But not super heavy! As they say, practice does not make perfect; perfect practice does.

An ugly, shaky, max is not perfect; a 70 percent to 80 percent 1RM controlled lift is. Never train to failure for the same reason, always leave a rep or two in the bank.

Calculate your 1 Rep Max here. Heavy weights imply low reps. The perfect reps for strength are one to six. A narrower four to six range is even better, fives build muscle in addition to strength. Get plenty of rest between your sets and exercises. Long breaks will enable you to keep lifting “perfect” heavy poundages. No pump and burn here!

Here is another axiom of motor learning is: frequent brief practices are superior to infrequent long ones. Russian researchers discovered that breaking up a strength workout into smaller units is very effective.

In other words, one set of five every day is better than five sets of five every five days. Very counterculture in the bodybuilding community, but I presume that you are more interested in making gains than in fitting in.

With all of the above in mind, here is the program.

The 5x5x5 Mind Over Muscle Program

Select five basic exercises for your whole body.

Perform all of them five days a week, Monday through Friday.

Do only one work set of five per exercise, leaving a couple of reps in the bank.

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Focus on staying tight, power breathing and the perfect groove.

After five weeks, test your maxes and switch to a different type of routine.

Select five basic exercises for your whole body, for instance, the three powerlifts, pull-ups, and dumbell side bends. Or try clean-and-presses, deadlifts, dips, barbell curls and Janda situps. You get the idea.

Perform all of them five days a week, Monday through Friday. Do only one work set of five per exercise. It will feel very odd to wrap up a workout when you still feel so good, but that is the way neural training is. Steve Justa, a supremely strong and muscular man, once said, “You should feel stronger at the end of every workout.”

The weight is ideal if you have managed it with a couple of reps to spare. To establish that perfect poundage start every workout with a couple of lighter singles.

For instance, yesterday you squatted 300×5 and felt that you could have done 300×7. Today squat 225×1, 255×1 and 275×1. The feel of 275 should tell you whether you should stay with 300, go up, or go down. And don’t sweat it too hard if you do not hit it right, occasional easier and harder sets will do you good by introducing more variety.

The usual 5x5x5 pattern is a very strong start on Monday, a PR on Tuesday, Wednesday could go either way. Thursday and Friday are downhill as fatigue builds up. By Monday you will be rested and ready to smash new records.

After five weeks, test your maxes and switch to a different type of routine. You will be strong, confident, and raring to pump and burn. You may never admit it in public, but you know that the number one reason you are bodybuilding is to improve your self-esteem. Face the music: no amount of meat will give you true confidence.

The following Internet post caught my eye: “I’ve found something remarkable about my [strength] training. I’m a lot more confident than I was as [just] a bodybuilder. When all I cared about was getting my muscles bigger and bigger, I still had horrible self-esteem problems. With strength training… I feel myself getting stronger, and it’s had a profound impact on how I see myself.” Strength gives confidence that does not go away when your muscles shrink after a missed meal.

About The Author

Pavel Tsatsouline, Master of Sports is the author of Power to the People!: Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American. Get a free catalogue of Pavel’s products from (800) 899-5111 or dragondoor.com.

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QUESTION: Coach, what do you like to add to your workout shakes?

ANSWER: I use Athletic Greens in our shakes. It’s got tons of great nutrition—vitamins and minerals. Plus it mixes up easy in milk or water.