We go back for another round, and Paul reminds me about the beating. A banya attendant called a banschik uses a venik (a bundle of birch branches with the leaves still attached) to lightly swat the body to get the blood circulating. I go first, and it doesn’t hurt after all. It does, however, turn me lobster red and leave me craving another cold dip.
Refreshed, we all go out to tour the many bars and nightspots that have sprouted in the city in the last 15 years. Paul teaches me more Russian terminology, including crasivaya dayvushka (“beautiful woman”), and it makes a surprisingly good icebreaker. My follow-up line, “So . . . who was your favorite czar?” is less effective. Amid the gorgeous women and the smoothest vodka any of us have ever tasted, I find myself in awe of this country that I was raised to be wary of. Despite a tumultuous past in which individual politics and opinions were strictly forbidden, things are finally changing. Looking around at the club, I see guys striking poses for ladies and wearing shirts cut off at the sleeves. In the U.S., that kind of bravado is commonplace—sometimes offensive. In Russia, it’s a sign of true progress.
The Iron Curtain: Employ these old-school Russian training tools and techniques in order to build a world-class body
“Russian sports-science innovations were low-tech and high-concept,” says Pavel Tsatsouline, former strength and conditioning coach for the Soviet military’s special-forces division, and now owner of powerbypavel.com. Though their methods may have been simple, their results were indisputable and are just now becoming the norm in American training camps. Below are three of the many ways Russia made great athletes.
Kettlebells. They’ve become a trend in the U.S. over the past 10 years, but these cast-iron weights that look like a cannonball with a handle have been used for roughly three centuries in Russia to develop all-around fitness. They offer all the benefits of dumbbells, with a host of extras, says Tsatsouline. For one, the weight hangs a few inches below the handle, making it trickier to balance when doing any kind of lift, thereby activating more muscle. And get this: Soviet scientists repeatedly found a strong correlation between an athlete’s kettlebell proficiency and his overall strength and conditioning. One study, says Tsatsouline, showed that kettlebell users performed better at pullups, the standing broad jump, 100-meter sprint, and 1K run—without training specifically in any of them—than subjects who hadn’t used kettlebells but did practice the events.
Periodization. Anybody can get results from their training. But making consistent improvements over long periods of time while avoiding overtraining is an exact science—and the Russians developed it first. Called periodization, it’s a system of planned variations in the intensity and volume of a training program over a prolonged period that culminates in peak performance at chosen times. It’s changed the way athletes all over the world train, and it can do wonders for your workouts. To get a sense of it, try doing heavy, light, and moderate days in your training—called undulating periodization. By changing the loads you lift each session, you’ll prevent the burnout that occurs from training heavy all the time and stimulate the muscles in a different way every workout.
Greasing the Groove. Practice makes perfect. It’s that simple. “If you want to get good at an exercise,” says Tsatsouline, “practice it every day, throughout the day, and do only half the number of reps you’re capable of.” For example, if you can only do 20 pushups, hit the deck every few hours and knock out 10. The repetition will improve the synapses in your central nervous system that allow for the pushup movement—in other words, you improve your skill, or “grease the groove,” for more seamless repetitions. In no time, you’ll be able to do many times the number of reps in one shot than you could when you started.