No Substitutions

There is a restaurant in California that serves a mean burger and uncompromisingly refuses to change it in any way. No, we will not hold the bacon and no, there is no ketchup. This is how it is and you are going to like it, son.

No Substitutions

There is a particular kind of a whiny customer who never comes back because he wants to have it his way. He is never missed, as the place is always packed to the gills by those who are smart enough to trust the chef.

I venture the spoiled brat who leaves in a huff goes straight to his computer to “improve” some classic strength training program. Because he is smarter than Rif, Dan John, or Geoff Neupert. After all, didn’t his momma tell him he was the number one every day of his life (while daddy powerlessly nodded)?

To make it worse, instead of quietly disfiguring the classic program in the privacy of his parents’ home, he has the audacity to go the Internet and bug the author. “Dan, can I do two lifts per workout on your one-lift-a-day program?”

Over forty years ago, Arkady Vorobyev—Olympic champion in weightlifting, scientist, and coach extraordinaire—quoted a famous Russian proverb in one of his books and it rings even more true today: “Eggs do not teach the chicken.”

Arkady Vorobyev
Arkady Vorobyev: “Eggs do not teach the chicken.”

Ironically, experienced coaches have the sense not to mess with their colleagues’ plans. When Cole Summers, today SFG Team Leader, took up kettlebell training, he did not try to reinvent the wheel. Even though, being Team Canada strength coach for several sports, he was more than qualified to do so. He got started on the ETK Rite of Passage—and within months pressed a kettlebell weighing more than 100 pounds, at 59 years of age and bodyweight in the 180s.

Cole Summers
Cole Summers, SFG Team Leader, Team Canada Strength Coach

I have news for you, son. Being full of yourself for no reason whatsoever is the ticket to wasting your twenties and possibly thirties. In training and in other aspects of your life.

No Substitutions

Day-long StrongFirst Courses are taught by first-rate coaches.

Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.

40 thoughts on “No Substitutions

  • I honestly must respectfully disagree. There is certainly something to be said of trusting your coach and/or instructor, there is a point where you must branch off on your own to truely grow. Honestly, if I went to a burger joint and they pulled that no subtractions/additions crap on me, I’d walk right out. Sorry, burger-flipper, this is America, Jack, and if I am paying my hard earned money for your food, you’ll make it the way I want it made!

    • This is America, Jack. And if you don’t want the service as provided, go elsewhere.

  • It’s definitely a very valid point in general. Usually when someone asks something like “two lifts a day”, or “can I do curls instead of deadlifts in Starting Strength?”

    Still though, we sometimes see this taken too far. For instance, I generally use a training template of ‘power, strength, conditioning’ so perhaps swings, press, complex. However, I have found that if I say I’m doing swings, floor press and the tension complex I get asked why I’m bastardising the tension complex. Yes, I know that am, but if I’d written “a complex of KB clean, squat and press” then there’s no questioning it.

  • Makes a lot of sense. My trainer once told a new kid during dead lift night “before you continue on trying to tell us what you think is wrong with what were doing, the two guys on your right hold state and national records, the female on your left holds a state record. Now let’s hear your expertise”

  • Great article.

    I teach Martial Arts and people always ask me if they can get better without doing certain parts of the training explained to them as being crucial to their development.

  • I’m glad I found your site, Pavel. But to the point: I agree with what you say about staying with the program and not changing it. I trust you with that. But, I do so much more that can be considered exercise in addition to following your programs. Not because I feel I need to add to the program, but because it is what I love to do. You see, I live in a mountain town in Idaho and work in construction. (Some days I get more exercise just at work than most office fruits get in a month even if they do workout) but that’s not all. I live for extreme type sports like off-road motorcycle riding , mt, biking and skiing. Lifting kettle bells is not my passion (sorry), but I like the strength gives me. Most people, have no clue how difficult and physically demanding off-road dirt biking is. They think you just sit there and twist the throttle, but nothing could be further than the truth. Good riders are always standing using their strength to torque the bike or even just to hang on (if you ride a modern 450). I log thousands of miles in steep, mountainous terrain every season even riding up on 4′ rock ledges at age 50. Some days in the winter, I climb and ski more than 8000′ vertical feet in the backcountry or rack up 40k vertical feet (downhill) at a resort. So, I probably don’t progress as fast as somebody who works in an office and lives in suburbia and just follows the program. But I don’t care, they could never do what I do. I do these things every day… Ride after work or even get a ski run in the winter after work since I commute over a mountain pass. These are the things I live for and I will not change. I’m really liking the simple and sinister program these days. A typical week day might be as follows: work 8 hours in construction, then do s and s , then go mt. biking with my dog …. Or I might do a bunch of laps on my enduro cross track on the dirt bike. Either way, I am indeed doing a lot more exercise than those who just follow the program. But what can I do? Doesn’t the body adapt?

  • Would it be forbidden to alternate periods (days or weeks) of the S&S PM with the ETK PM? Pavel (or maybe it was Dan John?) said somewhere (can’t remember where – maybe Easy Strength?) that one could alternate 2 weeks of ETK with 2 weeks of PTP. Alternating S&S with ETK seems less dramatic, so maybe the Party will allow it. The reason I ask is that the S&S PM and the ETK PM seem to train different qualities, particularly with the swing – the ETK 12-minute “Dept. of Energy Man-Maker” seems more cardio-intensive.

  • Some days, I can’t even comprehend how one would truly focus and add anything extra BUT the required single drill of the day… just completed the last heavy day of a program with 100% compliance on the required drill, which, as of the last 3-4 “heavy days” could ONLY be done properly with the single drill focus with variables of volume, density, RPE, work capacity and let’s not forget it, good form.

  • Outstanding observations , Chief! You’re always leading the way from the tip of the spear. How’s your father been?

    • Thanks for asking, Mark, he is great. Training for another meet, gained more muscle, fully filling the 198 class.

  • I think looking for changes in given program is sometimes justified. It is one thing when you try to improve it on your own because you lack the humility to trust the expert; but it is another thing if you realize you can’t change it for better, but you need to adjust the program for certain circumstances. For instance, you’re injured in a way which does not allow you to do given excersise – so you look for substitute, to cut losses. Same if you don’t have the complete set of tools.

    • Adam, if you are injured—yes.

      If you do not have the tools, you should have picked a different program.

  • Translated into Czech and published (with permission and all proper credits of course), faster than light.

    From now on, I will just forward all the clever questions to this blog post – it will save A LOT of time. Thank you Chief, awesome piece of iron fundamentalism.

  • Hi Pavel

    Is there any specific reason the S&S programme prescribes the swings to be done before the get-ups?

    I understand the principal of simplifying things by removing the variable of the order in which the exercises are performed. And I get the no substitutions / changes message. I just keep thinking about this and cannot seem to find the answer in the book?

    • hey anton,

      i’m just an krill in a large ocean but i’m guessing it is b/c each swing rep show max. explosiveness. GU are time under tension so doing them first may take away form your power production in the swing. but what do i know? i’m about to be eaten by a whale anyway.

    • Chief,

      You’re saying what some don’t want to hear and what the rest of us are thinking. Thank you for this.

      p.s. Can I substitute a double bacon cheese burger for my salad tonight?

    • Anton, the S&S swing protocol is alactic with aerobic recovery. Alactic power training is best done first.

      Most snatch and swing protocols are glycolytic; they are best after strength work.

      • Forgive any confusion on my part, but I seem to recall a training order where snatches needed to be done first because of the “safety” factor: snatches under fatigue being more likely to potentially go awry, whereas a heavy grind would simply, well, not budge and at worst be a supra maximal hold? Where does my confusion stem from on this concept?

        • I am not discounting a true “worst” of injury, just “technical” worst in the above…

      • Pavel

        Thank you very much.

        Believe it or not but that makes a light bulb go on for me in respect of the S&S programme.

        And by the way – the S&S programme dovetails very nicely with a family life and demanding office job that wreaks havoc on my compliance to any other programme!

  • The Jackwagon who decides to add or modify the programs laid out by Master Girevik’s hasn’t fully understood the mindset or methodology of Kettlebell training. Train – leave some in the tank….this isn’t decimation training! Think I read that somewhere – “Simple and Sinister”. 100 swings in five minutes with strict form at the appropriate Man/Woman weight standard is challenging – do your TGU’s and you are DONE! Need something different – total tension matrix – tactical strength challenge!
    I’m thankful for your teachings, they have changed my life and those around me – Power To You!

  • I think a major reason why people change someone else’s program is that they still haven’t figured out who to trust, and they don’t realize you can only serve one goal/ master at a time (even when you are trying to figure it out). I trust Pavel, among many of the other Masters, because I read constantly, and practice consistently. Finding the discipline to stick to a plan is easier to do once you know who to trust, but how do you know who to trust with so many fraudulent coaches out there? How does a normal person cut through the bullshit? Certainly, it can’t be simply be number of diners in a restaurant, or else we would be working out to DVDs of Jillian Michaels swing with super rounded backs, or watching Bob Harper do get ups with the wrong plant foot.

  • This article is great. It has always irritated me when people ask if they can do this, or do that, in addition to the programs prescribed by the kettlebell community. If you are adding something to a program, it is no longer that program, plain and simple. Why people fail to understand that is beyond me.

    Every program I have done of Pavel’s has been by the book, and has proven to deliver results. I’ll stick with what works!

  • Faith; what has worked for others will produce results for you.
    Patience; it’s taken you x number of years to create your current results (which often we’re trying to rectify).
    Practice; do as prescribed, without changing, maintaining at least 90-95% adherence to a program for the duration given, which is often 6-12 months if not longer. YES…. it is possible to define “trying.”

  • I really liked today’s blog post. These guys are the pros for a reason…

  • Define a goal. Select a program that gets you there. Perform the program. Why is this so hard for some?

  • Strength training takes wisdom and humility.

    Wisdom to just follow the program, and humility to know you’re not qualified to change it (in my case anyway).

    I like it. Brilliant article.

  • This article is simply awesome and should be quoted each time people want to change any programs.

    On that note, Can I add deadlifts to the total tension complex program please?

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