An `evil Russian’ trains the U.S. Marines: Pavel Tsatsouline helps train troops in the U.S. Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, now 18 months old. In the 1980s he was a physical-training instructor for Spetsnaz, the elite Soviet Special Forces units, where among, other duties he helped prepare Soviet soldiers to fight in Afghanistan.
Now an American citizen, Tsatsouline has his own physical-fitness and conditioning business, Advanced Fitness Solutions Inc., in Santa Monica, Calif. Marine officers he works with in the martial-arts program jokingly call him “the evil Russian.” But it is easy to see the respect that the men and women in the martial-arts program have for him as they avidly seek his advice and follow his suggestions.
INSIGHT watched Tsatsouline work with the Marines one October morning at the Quantico [Va.] U.S. Marine Corps Reservation 30 miles south of Washington. “The evil Russian” explained the exercise he wanted them to perform, then gave the command, “Enjoy!” The splendidly fit young Marines, both men and women, carried out his orders with precision, some of them turning red in the face through exertion but all of them responding by asking for more.
Tsatsouline’s approach comes entirely from his training in the Soviet Union and from his own experience. He is the author of several physical-fitness books and videos, and he’s a splendid advertisement for the success of the physical-training program he advocates. At 6 feet 2 inches tall and a lean 187 pounds, he moves with the grace he may have learned or inherited from his ballerina mother.
Tsatsouline is a very polite man, an example of what used to be called “old-world manners” or “good breeding.” A natural modesty and friendliness rein in but don’t conceal his obvious strength and vitality. And certainly “the evil Russian” is a genuinely enthusiastic American: “I really do like it that you can come here, start from scratch and be successful,” he tells INSIGHT.
Insight: You’ve trained both Soviet and U.S. troops for special operations. Have you noticed any difference?
Pavel Tsatsouline: No, none at all. Such troops are the same everywhere.
Insight: You worked training the Spetsnaz, the elite special-forces units that were trained in the techniques of infiltration and assassination, among other things. The United States was the Soviet Union’s enemy then. Did you foresee fighting Americans someday?
PT: Not really. The Soviet Union had to have an enemy, so they declared America the enemy. But the Russian people have a very long memory, and they remember very well that the United States and the Soviets fought together against the Nazis — which means the two countries had something going together that other countries did not; so we weren’t really planning on fighting Americans, ever.
Insight: Do you get homesick for your native land?
PT: I’m very much proud of my heritage, but I am not proud of the values the Soviet Union established. My father was an army officer, but my family suffered greatly at the hands of the government, and I really do like what America stands for.
It goes back a long way. I’m not really interested in architecture, but when I was young there was an American architecture expo and my parents brought home a brochure. I remember it was during Gerald Ford’s presidency. It contained pictures of Chicago with its “corn towers” and its buildings. Somehow that brochure fascinated me and I think that’s when I first began to think about America.
Insight: This morning, when you were training with the men and women in the Marine Martial Arts Program, you kept emphasizing that “tension and power are the same thing.” What did you mean?
PT: It is the muscle that produces force, and the more tension there is the more force you exert. There are two ways of getting stronger. One is to build a bigger “engine” — that is, build a bigger muscle. Another way is to learn how to contract the muscle that you have harder — much harder. By that I mean to learn how to tap into the reserve that you already have rather than simply build more muscle.
Here is something you can do at home. Find a friend and squeeze your friend’s hand as hard as possible. Of course first make sure your friend is strong enough to handle it. Then I want you to flex your abs as hard as you can. Flexing them doesn’t mean sucking them in or sticking them out; it just means bracing them for a punch. Then contract them as hard as you can [here he sighs, releasing his breath].
Do those two things, then crush your friend’s hand. Your friend is going to notice that you’re stronger.
Yesterday we focused on another exercise that employs the same principle. In a matter of minutes you can add about a palm’s length to your toe-touch [exercise]. Once again, it is muscle tension. You learn how to increase muscle tension and that’s what makes you flexible.
Insight: So one result of the kind of training you provide is greater strength and ability in a relatively short time?
PT: The techniques that I teach to the Marines right now are designed to produce rapid gains. Why? In traditional martial arts, people spend 10 and 20 years achieving mastery. This is not an option in the Marine Corps. Indeed, it’s not an option for any special force of any kind. You need to prepare a company of fighters in a matter of months and you need to get them in top condition at the same time. The techniques I teach work to deliver the instant gain that we need.
Insight: What about diet? Do you have any recommendations?
PT: Under military conditions, whether you drink protein shakes or eat squirrel steaks, these techniques are supposed to work.
Insight: What about your own diet?
PT: I want to make it clear that what I say about diet doesn’t count as the advice of an expert. But I cannot see structuring my life around meals, so I eat once or twice a day only. I try to get a high content of protein, because it does help you to recover faster from your training, and I try to eat green vegetables. Otherwise, I am very flexible.
Insight: In one of your physical-training books there is this quotation from German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche at the head of a chapter: “To make the individual uncomfortable, that is my task.” Is it true that the more exercise hurts, the better for you it is?
PT: Definitely you should put your body under stress; you should train hard. But training hard does not mean training to muscle failure. All too often someone will go to a health club and perform sets of 10 repetitions until they can’t do another. A top power-lifter and strength athlete, on the other hand, will do three repetitions with a weight he or she could have lifted five times. What happens then is that when you stop you still have a couple of repetitions in the bank and that type [of exercise] has been proved to be a lot more effective and safer.
Probably the most streamlined approach would be the Russian kettlebell, which I teach to the Marines, SWAT teams and the nuclear-security teams of the Department of Energy. Kettlebells are like cannonballs with handles. They come in different sizes — 36 pounds, 54, 72 — and there will be smaller ones soon. They have been around for decades, used by the Soviet Union since the 1960s. They help you acquire body skills for doing a lot of things. If you do kettlebells, then you can improve whatever physical abilities you need.
Insight: You helped train Russian forces to fight in Afghanistan. Are the men and women you’ve been working with here at Quantico ready for combat in the mountains of Afghanistan?
PT: The Marines that I’ve worked with are definitely up to it.
Insight: The Soviet Union lost its war in Afghanistan. Do you think the United States risks the same fate?
PT: No, sir, and the reason is very simple. America is waging a just war and that’s a big difference. Look at history. Britain waged three wars in Afghanistan; the Soviet Union waged war there for 10 years. But those two countries were empires and they literally tried to hold the place down to gain complete control. When you have a very tough, very proud people who are widely scattered over an unfriendly territory, that’s unsuitable for conventional warfare. And you definitely are going to have a problem if you’re trying to hold that country and take total control.
The difference between the United States and those two imperial powers is that we have a very specific, very limited objective. If you look back at the history of guerrilla warfare — and this is a war fought by guerrillas; it’s what we call a “mud war” — then it is essential to have a part of the population on your side. A mud war is exactly the kind of war for which the U.S. Marines are well-prepared.
Pavel Tsatsouline Personal Bio
Pavel Tsatsouline: The fitness guru, right, with Lt. Col. George Bristol, USMC.
Career: Former physical trainer and drill instructor with the Spetsnaz, the Soviet special forces. Now a civilian trainer and consultant with the U.S. Marine Corps Martial Arts Program, nuclear-security units of the U.S. Department of Energy and elite units of U.S. Marshals and SWAT teams.
Born: Aug. 23, 1969, in Minsk, then Union of Soviet Socialist Republics; now Belarus.
Family: Wife, Julie.
Education: Degree in physiology and coaching from the Physical Culture Institute, Minsk.
Author: Author of five books, including
Relax Into Stretch: Instant Flexibility Through Mastering Muscle Tension The Russian Kettleball Challenge: Xtreme Fitness for Hard-Living Comrades (with accompanying video), both published in 2001. Contributing editor with Muscle Media Magazine.
Question: What is Pavel’s take on CrossFit? A lot of what Pavel does is his own style of CrossFit. He has his own mobility workout (wod) that he does. He obviously does a lot of kettle bell and strength workouts that blend together into a larger CrossFit workout.
Question: With all of this talk about Pavel, what are the Spetnaz physical conditioning program? The Russian Spetnaz (Special Forces) train like most other forces with running, bodyweight calisthenics and martial arts like Sambo.
Question: Where can I find old T Nation article from Pavel Tsatsouline? We believe that T-nation still has the articles archived there.
Question: Where can I find a Spetsnaz fitness app or Spetsnaz workouts online. We have Spetsnaz fitness workouts on our website.
Question: What is Pavel Tsatsouline spetsnaz training credibility? You would need to check with Russian officials to see records of his Spetnaz training.
Question: Where can I find out more info on Spetsnaz strength training?
Answer: Check out the interview above as there is some really good info on Spetsnaz workouts.
Pavels Pull up ladder
Mind Over Muscle by Pavel
Russian Pull up program
Bench to Military press more by Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline Naked Warrior Box Pistols
CrossFit Kettlebell Workouts and Tips