Simple & Sinister, Pavel Tsatsouline’s new book, is eloquent in its simplicity. People try to overcomplicate a position by adding more where it’s unnecessary, but the true artist sculpts, whittles, and pares things down to leave something that’s absolutely beautiful—not by adding more but by taking away.
To those of us experienced in kettlebells—if we have a background with Pavel or a background in strength training—in Simple and Sinister he’s telling us things we know, but need to hear again. (If you’d prefer to listen instead of read, here’s a longer audio version of this article, Episode 40 of Gray Cook Radio )
And if this is your first introduction to kettlebells, I can’t think of a better starting point than Pavel revisiting some of his most profound philosophical statements about strength training. Yet, here he goes one step further: he writes the entire program for us, and he does an excellent job of building a case for his exercise choices.
Pavel discusses the beauty and simplicity of the get-up, and shows that done right, it’s the slow, posturally correct, proprioceptively rich checking of left and right symmetry in multiple movement patterns and multiple positions—a sort of triplanar functional exercise.
The swing is an exercise that’s often bypassed in kettlebell work. People quickly move to snatches and cleans, bent presses and other complicated lifts, and don’t realize the engine that drives Pavel, Brett Jones, and the folks working with StrongFirst is that they never get away from the foundation.
That simplicity is what we need from our modern palate of exercise. We don’t need more variations and more options. We need a simple linear progression to get us to an exercise that has more benefits at minimal risk.
What Pavel has done is given us a program minimum, and that’s the same philosophical standpoint I’ve gotten to with the Functional Movement Screen. I don’t care how good you are, but please don’t leave a dysfunction or a deficiency. That’s what Pavel is doing, too: This is your minimum.
We know life is going to throw you less training time. Your occupation will add stress. The commitments we have in life outside of our personal fitness will often cause us to pare down our chosen exercise program. Unfortunately, we often turn to a specialty. Runners don’t have time to stretch and lift, but they have time to run. Lifters do the lifts that give them positive feedback and probably avoid those that are their weakest links.
What Pavel says is, “I’m going to give you a couple of exercises done a certain way. When in doubt, do that. Get better at it. There are some variations. There are some progressions you can do, but be satisfied with the amazing results.”
That couldn’t be more perfectly stated.
When I lecture to young exercise professionals, they want more variety. They want more options, more variations of exercises. Are you sure? Are you asking me for more deadlift variations? Doing more variations of a deadlift isn’t going to make you a better swinger. It’s just going to give you more functionality in the deadlift.
Yet, we love to progress your deadlift into a swing. The deadlift is a beautiful foundation, but for fat loss, metabolic power generation and athletic movements, it’s the swing that’s going to bring everything to the surface. The swing will mutually benefit one person who wants to get stronger and one who wants to have more speed and power.
I have just too many good things to say about Pavel’s new book. I downloaded it as an audio book, and have listened to it twice. Now I’m going to go back and thumb through the pages because I want to see his photographs and explanations.
It’s a work I’m going to lay right next to his previous work, The Naked Warrior. Pavel creates a constrictive program, and I’d like to elaborate on that. He’s giving us two contrasting and complementary exercises. These are going to present difficulty. You can control some of that by how much weight you use, but at no time do you have the option of using poor technique.
Pavel has a certain way he likes to train his explosive movements, which he calls hard style. It’s the safest and most well-thought-out way to deal with power moves and moving weight. The steps he gives to build a swing and to build a getup are constrictive. They’re going to run you right up against your problems.
He’s doing that because he can’t be in the room with you. The best coaches in the world can design a program not with restrictions, but with constrictions. These constrictions force you to have better form, force you to do the right amount of work at the right time, and force you to rest on a certain day and work harder on another day.
Constrictions are one of the reasons I designed the Functional Movement Screen, so we’re not putting a bad pattern under load. What Pavel has done is given us a beautiful way to get under load and at the same time to enhance movement quality, precision and progression at all costs.
If you’re already a fan of kettlebells, if you’re a fan of strength culture, in Simple & Sinister you will hear what you’ve heard before—in a refreshing, new and simplified way to reassure you that you’re already on the right path.
If you’re new to kettlebells, there isn’t a better starting point than Pavel’s. Unbelievably simple, yet the workouts and work that can be derived from this is absolutely sinister. It’s a concise read, with so many pearls. I’m on my second pass through and I will definitely do a third.
When an author, a coach, a philosopher or somebody who’s immersed themselves in physical culture like Pavel has, with his presentation of the StrongFirst community and some of the previous work he’s done, takes the time to simplify his knowledge into clear, concise statements, you better put that on your shelf.
Don’t just read it and then run out to sell this information to your clients, because you’re just renting it. Do what he’s telling us. Embrace it. Just pick up the kettlebell, follow the rules, and let it teach you. I can’t think of a better gift for some of my closest friends and the people in my family who like to train than for me to pick up a copy of this and get it over to them.
I would encourage you to do this read. It requires a lot of work to take something that produces significant results and turn its application into something so simple.
Well done, brother!