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Critical Frequency and Soviet Special Forces Strength Training

Great comments get left here on But, lost in the fog of posts, they tend to get ignored and thus effectively die. All-Star Comments is the section where we bring them back to life.

Today’s All-Star Comment is from McSalty, a guy who knows his way around the worlds of health and fitness. He’s noticed similarities between the ideas of critical frequency and certain easy, painless, awesome techniques that were apparently used in Soviet special forces strength training. Here he is in his own words:

The more experience I have with this whole “life” thing, the more and more I find completely unrelated subjects being bound by a common thread.

In the fitness and strength training world, a while back an ex-Soviet special forces trainer named Pavel [Tsatsouline] entered the scene and introduced a lot of concepts no one had heard of, and a lot of people experienced great results from putting them into practice.

Why am I bringing this up? One of his books was called “The Naked Warrior“, and it was about strength training with no equipment. One of the primary themes in this book was a concept he called “greasing the groove.” Basically the notion is, if you want to get good at doing pullups, you shouldn’t train to make yourself stronger — you should just ‘practice’ doing pullups as often as possible, always stopping before fatigue.

So, instead of the traditional “Do three sets of pullups until failure,” Pavels approach was “Do 5 pullups every time you walk past the pullup bar in your house“. (If you can’t easily do 5 pullups, make it 3 pullups, or 1 pullup). The point was, you were always stopping before fatigue set in, so 30 minutes to an hour later you could easily do 5 pullups again. The result was, over the course of the day, you may end up doing 50-100 pullups, whereas if you did them all in one sitting you might only be able to crank out 30, and you’d be exhausted. This way you never even feel tired, and you’re skeptical that you’re even getting a workout.

The theory was, as opposed to breaking down and rebuilding muscle fibers, you’re actually conditioning your nervous system to GET USED TO doing pullups — essentially treating strength as a skill that needs practice, just like playing guitar. Guys who put this theory into practice, a month or two later were reporting amazing results like going from 10 to 20 pullups in a single set despite having never practiced doing more than 5 at any one time.

Ok, that may seem way tangential, but my point is I think you might really be onto something here. I’m actually really excited about this. I’m going to apply this to everything I want to get better at. Want to be a writer? For two minutes every hour, write something — anything. Want to start your own business? For two minutes every hour brainstorm new business ideas and how to flesh them out. Want to improve your public speaking? For two minutes every hour command an audience, even if only one person, or if you’re alone, dictate to an imaginary audience. Want to improve your posture? For two minutes every hour sit up, stand up, or walk with perfect posture. After a while, you get used to thinking of it often enough that it’s always on your mind. Put another way, if you remind yourself of your goals often enough, it keeps you on track to attain them. If your frequency of thought is high enough, your goals become your fixation, and it’s impossible to fall off the wagon. You’re building a house by placing one brick every hour instead of trying to do as much work as possible at one time and doing so inefficiently because you’re wearing yourself out.

But the two minutes thing is beautiful. Timeboxing in its most perfect incarnation. Timeboxing doesn’t work for me, because I know I’m just trying to con myself into working past the timebox. But this two minutes is a real two minutes. It completely alleviates any and all pressure to perform. As you said, it becomes a game. “Ooh, my next two minutes is coming up soon!” It embodies the “just do something – do anything” mindset, and gives a workable formula to fit in into your life. This strategy is absolute brilliance.

I have a book of Aesop’s fables — Korean on one page, and English opposite to it — which is perfect for this game. Each fable is usually under 10 sentences and completely self-contained, so I don’t have to interrupt myself and remember where I left off. It also leaves me feeling, “Oh… I’ll just read one more” — totally addictive. Another great resource I’ve found is signing up for a Twitter account, and ONLY following people who ‘tweet’ exclusively in your target language. Tweets are another example of something that’s self-contained, are entertaining since you’re peaking into the lives of people in your target culture, have that addictive “just one more” quality, and if you follow enough people you have a continuously updated stream of content in your target language.


  14 comments for “Critical Frequency and Soviet Special Forces Strength Training

  1. Ken
    December 1, 2010 at 01:54

    My favorite new timeboxing tool: the microwave oven. You put something in for 3 minutes, and now you’ve got 3 free minutes, and at the end of that it starts beeping loudly and smelling like hot food, so you can’t go over, even by a little.

  2. Amelia
    December 1, 2010 at 04:49

    This is great–thanks for the post (and re-post). I love the concept and expanding it to other skills…particularly the weight training book, which I seem to have missed and am checking out now.

    But I don’t think we should assume this is the way to go for everything. Deep focus and (the flow state) is also key to productivity. I don’t know if writers would do better to write for one long or many short periods of time, but clearly some things are going to take a long time to do (my dissertation requires a lot of reading and thinking) and some things are done better with a long time (complex thought comes from sustained focus, even spread out over the course of many hours with interruption).

    I know the Talent Code talked about leaps in skill acquition in only a few minutes, so this focus thing may be less necessary than I think. It would be interesting to know when it really is important and when it isn’t. (CAN I write my dissertation in bits throughout the day rather than in giant chunks?)

    • あんど
      December 1, 2010 at 07:23

      You raise a great point. I think that perhaps the issue might already have been mentioned in the original comment, though. This one line in particular:
      “Guys who put this theory into practice, a month or two later were reporting amazing results like going from 10 to 20 pullups in a single set despite having never practiced doing more than 5 at any one time.”
      suggests to me that perhaps working on something a little bit at a time will build your ability to work on it in greater chunks. So if, like me, you can’t sit down and write a paper for any longer than five minutes, maybe that’s fine. Maybe working on it just the five minutes that you can every so often will eventually cause you to grown into such a work flow that you can work for longer periods of time.

      How this might apply to language acquisition: I know that in the first few months of immersion, I used to have a horrendous time of trying to read or do much of anything in my target language, since I couldn’t understand hardly any of it. So I’d end up reading something for two minutes here, two minutes there, never really reading anything for any “respectable” length of time. But eventually, I had done so many of those two-minute bursts that I’d gained such an understanding of the language that allowed me to focus on what I was reading for longer periods of time. Now I can sit with a Wikipedia article and struggle through the whole thing. 😛

      Again, whether this can apply to everything or not, I don’t know. 😛 I certainly wouldn’t consider myself qualified enough to make that call. But I can say that if given the choice between writing a paper for five minutes here and there and not writing the paper at all, I’m definitely gonna take the five-minute writing sessions. And who knows? Maybe at some point I’ll get into such a groove that I can’t stop. 😀

    • December 2, 2010 at 03:26

      I’ve never had to write a dissertation, but I’ve done essays like this. I’ll spend a few moments to write out the outline, a few minutes to write out my theme, a few minutes to think about exactly topic points for each paragraph, a few minutes to write out supporting data/references for those points, ect.

      Little segments throughout the day. Then actually writing out the thing literally takes only 15 mins (for a standard 5 paragraph essay, 5-6 sentences each paragraph). It seems because I was gradually thinking about it all day my ideas just swelled up and burst out with the guidance I already set up.

      Then coming back later I edit for a few minutes. Come back later edit for a few minutes. Till its tweaked exactly the way I wanted. I find coming back later actually improves the quality of the papers by hundred-folds, because it almost gave me a new way of seeing the paper as if I were a different person (not really sure how to explain this, but artists often get into their work so much that if they step back for a few days they realize shaping mistakes much more).

      I got really great grades this way with all my papers. Good luck on your dissertation though. What’s the worse that could happen trying this out for a portion of it anyhow?

    • kk
      December 4, 2010 at 05:54

      On the contrary, it does work for dissertations and longer theses. Usually, the advice is to work one chapter at a time anyway, i.e. break the huge dissertation down into more manageable chunks.

      The challenge is more with organization than with timeboxing it. For example, the original post mentions starting a business. But, starting a business takes more than just brainstorming ideas. Eventually those ideas have to take form and additional work needs to happen if the business is going to be successful.

      Ultimately, timeboxing gets you to the table, rather than procrastinating starting on the dissertation until you have a short time left and go nuts trying to get it done. If you hit it in short spurts repeatedly, the short spurts add up.

  3. December 2, 2010 at 23:57

    That sounds awesome. I’ve been doing the whole “20 pushups a day” thing, and I can tell you it’s a real chore both physically and mentally. I’ll try doing just one pushup, or just two whenever I step into my room. It sounds like that will work a million times better.

  4. Amelia
    December 3, 2010 at 04:53

    OK, so it won’t work for dissertations. They require massive amounts of time (reading, notetaking, writing) but if you had all day you could probably do it in bits here or there. The problem is having all your stuff around you.

    The other problem is deep thinking, focus, and the flow state. These are clearly critical in some situations, but the question is when are they important? You wouldn’t play a video game like “Fable” or “Assassin’s Creed” in tiny bits because you wouldn’t enjoy it. The whole point is flow. So when else is it necessary? I like the theory about doing things tiny bits over flow for languages and exercise because clearly here it is appropriate. And “The Talent Code” suggests it’s also appropriate for music. I guess I’m trying to figure out when we need to focus for longer than a few minutes to build skills and when we don’t. I think endurance is the key: I’m training for an ultra-marathon, so tiny bits of running aren’t going to be as helpful (though they’re part of my training). But it’s not the only factor: logical thinking and puzzle-solving require deep thought. So I think different tasks will need different approaches.

    After my comment I realized I have been adopting this idea to meditation. It occurred to me that meditating for a long time is too hard, but it may not be necessary anyway–I want to bring clear thinking and mindfulness into my daily life, so why not practice it several times a day for just a few minutes? So I keep a timer on me that goes off at set times during the day so I can clear my head and center myself before going on with what I was doing. I was thinking of transitioning from this into longer meditation, but really why bother? I am less interested in endurance than I am in building a certain mindset. And it’s been surprisingly effective. The only caveat is I absolutely must keep it up or I lose the effects.

  5. Amelia
    December 5, 2010 at 01:08

    Sorry, what I meant about it not working for dissertations is the literal thing (1-2 minutes several times a day), not timeboxing. Duh. I use timeboxing (the pomodoro method) in my dissertation. But that’s, like, a half an hour at a time, not the equivalent of a few pushups whenever I walk by my stack of books.

  6. Jake
    October 24, 2011 at 16:05

    Although I wasn’t aware of this technique at the time, I think it is what is to credit for me losing my (borderline full-on) lisp back when I was younger.

  7. January 13, 2012 at 00:13

    I love this idea.  I used to be quite a runner, and this is exactly how I got good at it.  I just ran everywhere.  You know, anywhere you can walk, you can run.  And the more you run, the better you get at it.
    I’ve done this with Japanese ever since Anki developed an iPod app.  Now, anytime I go anywhere–the kitchen, to check my mail, the bathroom–I grab my iPod and learn 30 seconds worth of Japanese.  If I have to wait for even an instant, in line or for a light to change, I learn a sentence or two.  Over the course of a day, it adds up to a solid hour, plus I’m never bored waiting anywhere.  

  8. January 11, 2013 at 13:24

    Interesting article. If anyone else is interested in this related to musical development there is an important book called, “Effortless Mastery” by Kenny Werner (well known in jazz education circles). Same principle, the author after completely burning himself out started practicing a single note.

    I experienced a period of massive development where I worked almost exclusively with timers and time limits (set to 5minutes max) and cycled through printe materials and exercises. Granted, I was already working in music professionally and had developed abilities to concentrate for longer periods of time on practice. But I worked my way through so much material. Success became addictive. I think tis is the same concept as ‘timeboxing’ and the ‘crack’ I’ve heard about here.

    Anyway, I’m finding this site/blog very inspirational as it parallels my own excursions into the Korean language. Thanks for the top-notch content.

  9. May 31, 2013 at 06:32

    Great comment/post indeed! This, to me, is the trick to a LOT of skills.

    I recently started aikidou classes, in which you sit on the mats in 正座 for quite some time. To beginners, this can hurt. So during the week after the first class, I went and sat in 正座 at random moments throughout the day. Dinner? Why not practice sitting. Folding my clothes? Why not do this sitting thing. Most of the times it wasn’t for more than 5 mins.

    ‘Lo and behold, the next class I definitely held out longer than other students.

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