I’m sitting in an oven. As soon as we wrenched the door away from its sweaty frame and walked in, I could feel the membranes in my nostrils begin to singe, as if I had snorted pure fire. I quickly learn to breathe through my mouth. Paul, my host, guide, and interpreter, has already reminded me to be careful where I place my hands, as the heat of the sauna can actually melt fingernails.
The temperature hovers around 120 degrees with roughly 90% humidity—modest by Russian banya standards, but no small feat for a couple of uninitiated Americans. Paul tells me that soon the banschik—supervisor of the sauna—will come around and, in turn, beat each of us with a whisk made of birch branches. “You’ll lie facedown on the bench,” says Paul, sweat pouring o his face as he tries to speak calmly, “and he’ll hit you with the branches. Then he’ll have you turn over (so cover your privates), and he’ll do the front. Then he’ll hold the leaves over your face—breathe in. “Oh,” he says, “and you go first.”
Into The Red
I’ve been fascinated by Russia from the moment I (as a child) saw Ivan Drago knock Sylvester Stallone around in Rocky IV. (Never mind that the actor who played him was Swedish.) Russia, or, more accurately, the U.S.S.R., had the most badass flag in my Atlas—blood red, with a golden hammer and sickle clashing together. It was the largest country in the world, going neck and neck with the U.S. for the title of “most powerful.” And according to my grade-school buddies, it had “enough H bombs to blow up the world.”
“Cool!” I thought. “How could anyone not want to live there?” Especially someone interested in fitness, in which the country has always seemed to excel. In 1952, the Soviet Union entered its first Olympics, beginning a reign of dominance that saw it finish first in the total number of medals won in seven out of nine appearances. These included 473 gold medals between the Summer and Winter Games until 1991. (Modern-day Russia has continued to do well on its own, winning the third-most gold medals of any nation in the 2004 Summer Games.) As a result of this kind of athletic dominance, questions have always abounded as to how the Russians did it. Were they really a nation of supreme athletes? Was Soviet training superior to that of the West? The questions persist, since few outsiders have ever been allowed to peel back the iron curtain and see for themselves.
So, last November, when I got a call from Gold’s Gym inviting me to Russia—that is, the free, 15-year-old Russian Federation—I knew I had to go. Gold’s Moscow franchise was celebrating its 10th anniversary, and they thought I might like to get some insight into what the Russian method was all those years ago, what it has transformed into today—and maybe drink a little vodka in the process.
“Nostrovia!” I replied. The Russian equivalent of “cheers.”
After a 10-hour flight, Dave and I arrive in Moscow. Dave Reiseman is the director of Gold’s Gym PR, and he’s come along to help me get what I need, look in on the Moscow franchisees, and maybe drink a little vodka of his own. Looking out the window of the plane, I see that it’s not unlike New York—only nothing is written in English. It’s gray and dreary, but thanks to a bizarre warm front (or perhaps global warming), it’s not cold. It’s in the 40s (Fahrenheit), and I later learn that it’s the warmest Russian autumn in eons.
As we step off the plane, Dave asks, “Do you hear Survivor in your head?” It’s a reference to “Burning Heart,” the ’80s band’s ominous rocker that plays in the background in Rocky IV, when Sly steps onto Russian soil for the first time. Russia is not a country you just walk right into. We fill out landing passes that restate our passport numbers and our business there, and we’re led from one attendant to the next—all in military garb—to have them stamped more times than I can count.
We next meet Costas, the driver Gold’s has sent to pick us up. He knows just enough English to realize we’re the two he wants. Moscow is a city of 11 million people, and the highways are packed. It takes nearly an hour to get to the hotel, when, distance-wise, it should have been roughly half that. On the way, Dave practices his limited Russian, written out for him phonetically by friends. He tries a few words on Costas and mispronounces them fantastically. Costas has been stone-faced up to this point, but all of a sudden, he laughs. Has Dave gotten through to him? Have we smashed the language barrier in a matter of minutes? Costas shakes his head in confusion. “Sorry,” he says. “I speak only Russian.”
Found In Translation
At 7 a.m. the next day, we’re off to visit Gold’s Gym Moscow. Though it’s owned collectively by a number of investors, the primary directors are two American businessmen, Paul Kuebler and Jake Weinstock, plus a local Russian, Vladimir Grumlik. Kuebler and Weinstock both arrived in the early ’90s for finance jobs, and they have become thoroughly Russified. They’re fluent in the language, and Kuebler is even married to a beautiful Russian woman—a former competitive gymnast.
“When we first opened,” says Kuebler, “the word fitness didn’t exist in the Russian language.” Literally. In 1996, the concept of exercise for one’s own self-improvement, aesthetically or mentally, was as foreign to Russians as democracy or blue jeans had been 10 years earlier. For decades, workouts were done strictly to improve sports skills. A strong, well-conditioned body was only useful for bringing glory and honor to the team (if not the entire nation), and the consequences of poor performance were severe. “The Soviet Union felt that the way they could show how strong they were in the world was through their performance in sports,” says Igor Krasnov (speaking through Kuebler’s translations), a trainer in the gym. Krasnov’s father spent his life training Soviet athletes from a variety of sports. “Unfortunately, what that meant is the country forgot about people. In focusing on the best 1%, they forgot the other 99, who may have gotten injured or were not strong enough, and no one felt bad for them. The attitude was that no one was irreplaceable,” and training in general was not for everybody.
Bodybuilding—considered a decadent, Western expression of individual ego over the state—was strongly discouraged. While some factories and universities provided weight rooms and sports facilities, they were usually no better than a basement home gym. If you were an athlete being groomed for, or playing on, a school or amateur sports team, you had better options. Massive, state-run facilities catered to elite sportsmen. The current Gold’s occupies one of these buildings, a 55,000-square-foot expanse that formerly serviced the Young Pioneers—a Soviet youth group designed to recruit young Communists. Complete with a weight room, lap pool, tennis court, salon, and juice bar, to name just a few of its amenities, the Moscow Gold’s boasts everything any American gym can, and then some.
“What happened is that after the Soviet Union fell, farming collapsed,” says Weinstock. “People started moving o farms and into the major cities,” chiefly Moscow, “and using the open market to acquire wealth.” As the people had more to spend, they spent it on themselves, and appearance became more important—for both social life and business.
At the same time, the whole country, like the United States, was becoming more health conscious. Gorbachev, the last Soviet premier, had instituted the Þrst government initiatives to curb the notorious Russian drinking problem. By the time Vladimir Putin was elected president in 1999, “the whole country had begun to see fitness as a necessity,” says Weinstock. Putin’s rigorous, well-publicized judo regimen vanquished the image of his predecessor, Boris Yeltsin, whose bleary-eyed public addresses and alcoholism had been considered an embarrassment by many. “We had to sort of create the market as we went,” says Kuebler, whose lifelong passion for fitness and eagerness to get in on the burgeoning Russian free market made him reach out to Gold’s initially. “We had to explain to Russians what fitness was for.” Since national pride no longer hinged on Soviet dominance in the sports arena, newly democratic Russians were free to work out wherever and in whatever way they wanted, but they weren’t always sure how.
“When we first began, going to the gym was viewed as more of a trendy thing to do,” says Weinstock. When the gym opened its doors in 1996, 2,000 people flooded the entrance—mainly just to be there. Just as McDonald’s had made a splash years earlier as an American treat to “ooh” and “ah” at, Gold’s was recognized as a Western brand with an incredible “cool” factor. Brand-name equipment in the pro shop sold out almost immediately. “The free publicity we got was unbelievable,” says Weinstock. “People came out looking like they had been dipped in Gold’s gear.”
Having a gym membership also became a sign of status. While clubs opening elsewhere around the country offered varying rates, Moscow, like any major city, had a higher cost of living. Membership to the Moscow Gold’s runs about $1,600 U.S. dollars monthly, more than what most ordinary folks could ever afford—making the gym part fitness center, part social club for Russia’s upper-middle class. Businessmen come there to network as much as to work out, and to socialize with like-minded people. “There were limited social venues at the time we opened,” says Kuebler (in fact, nightclubs as we know them were nonexistent in the U.S.S.R.), “so Gold’s quickly became a place to be seen, meet your friends and colleagues, and unwind.”
The gym did incredibly well its first year and has since tripled its membership. Competitors have popped up, including 10 Planet Fitness locations in Moscow, and eight more in St. Petersburg. At the same time, the country has seen its average life expectancy finally begin a gradual increase to the mid-60s (not long by American standards, but a marked improvement).
Inside, Russian gyms are virtually indistinguishable from an American club. The aerobics studio offers the same classes taught by midriff-bearing beauties, and the same thumping tunes blast from the stereo. And the training that made the Russians such fierce Olympic competitors? It’s not a priority anymore. “The members are regular people of all ages,” says Kuebler, “only now, they’re working out for themselves.”
The Russian Workout
As fascinating as my tour was, I was still desperate to see an old-school Russian workout in action. To appease my curiosity, Paul calls Igor over and whispers a few words to him in Russian. Then he announces that Igor will take us through the kind of workout his father did to condition athletes. Igor then leads us to a secluded area of the gym, grabbing a couple of broomsticks along the way. “That’s it?” I think. “Piece of cake.”
Igor has us take off our shoes and begin making fists with our feet to move across the floor. Despite writing about hundreds of workouts, I have never heard of such a warmup, and by the time I reach the opposite wall, the bottoms of my feet are aching. We reverse the motion, unclenching our toes to move back to the starting position. “This must be a good exercise for runners,” I tell him, since it reinforces the arches of the feet. Igor’s English is limited, but he nods and throws me the broomstick. Next, he has us swing the sticks from our bellies, over our heads, and down to our lower backs, back and forth, with arms kept straight. It’s painful at first, but within seconds, I feel my shoulders and chest start to open up. After years of benching without flexibility work, the front side of my upper body is like a Gordion knot—but it feels better with every rep.
Next, we throw the sticks up into the air, rotating our torsos, almost as if throwing a punch, to catch them in one hand before letting go and catching them with the other hand. Paul and I drop our sticks several times. “Russian children can do this,” Igor says with a laugh. The exercises aren’t as macho as going for a max squat or bench press, but it’s immediately obvious that they work. Each one gives special emphasis on stretching the muscles that are typically tight—the pecs, shoulders, and hips—while strengthening those that are often weak, such as the glutes and upper back. I ask Igor how the Russians arrived at this routine. “They found it was a way to make their bodies proficient,” says Paul, translating. “Not just strong or flexible—everything at once.”
The following day, Paul, Jake, Dave, and I make for the banya. All I know thus far is that I’ll soon be sitting naked in a hot room and beaten with sticks, and this is supposed to be relaxing. An age-old Russian tradition, banyas served as communal bathhouses in the days before indoor plumbing. Whole families would go there to wash, and even treat their illnesses. Nowadays, they’re viewed as more of a health spa. The banya process involves sitting in a sweltering sauna—not unlike a Roman bath, but it’s humid, not dry—and then immediately plunging into an ice-cold pool. Originally, the contrast was believed to be not only invigorating but ideal for clearing the head of colds and ridding the body of toxins (and, you guessed it, curing hangovers). In recent years, the process has also been found to boost metabolism and improve recovery post-workout (by increasing blood flow).
We change into towels and nothing else, except for pointy wool hats fit for elves, meant to keep your head from overheating in the sauna. Paul opens the door, and we’re immediately blasted with a rush of escaping hot air. “Close the door quickly once you’re in,” he barks. Inside the sauna—a wooden lodge of a room with two levels—we climb the stairs (where it is supposedly 10 to 15 degrees hotter) and sit down on benches. Twenty or so naked Russian men surround us, making it as hard to see as it is to breathe. It’s too hot to talk, and I try to control my heartbeat, which is telling me to panic. We last about 10 minutes and then burst through the doors, where we run down a tiled hallway to the cold pool. The relief is instant, and temperatures that would otherwise be considered freezing feel like a refreshing cool breeze.
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.