Lessons From Pavel: Strength As a Skill and the Value of Practice

To make your best progress with your physical goals, all you may need is a shift in how you view your training sessions.

As I sat on my bed in my crowded room, I could hear Pavel Tsatsouline’s voice in my head as I read through The Naked Warrior. This book was the first time I was introduced to the idea of strength being about more than just muscle. And before long, I found out just how true that was.

According to Pavel, “Strength is a skill. Training must be approached as a practice, not a workout. You will practice everyday, throughout the day; you will focus on max tension; and you will totally avoid muscle fatigue and failure.” With that in mind, I read about a technique in the book and applied it. All of a sudden, I was stronger than I before. I could do an exercise better in less than a minute because of the skill hack I had been taught. That was many years ago. And over the years I’ve kept coming back to this idea that strength is a skill.

When learning how to do a back flip in a gymnastics class and juggling kettlebells (not at the same time), it was pretty obvious to me that skill was involved. But what about when lifting something heavy? How much skill is in that? It turns out there is still a lot. So I’ve worked to explore this idea of practicing strength much further.

My Own Lessons in Mental Training

In a previous article, I told the story of how I went from being stuck at a single repetition in freestanding handstand push ups for a long time. That is, until I did a simple mental drill and could then immediately do three reps right afterward. It’s those kind of boosts in my ability I’d like to get more often. And that’s why I’ve focused on the idea of practicing strength.

It’s a shift in paradigm. We’re told from the first time we exercise that it’s all about putting in the hard work. Your gains come from one workout to the next. You must be content with slow progress over the long haul, besides the initial quick gains of a beginner.

People tell you that you have to force your body to adapt. It’s that force that triggers the body to recover and come back stronger. But the truth is you don’t have to force anything. And whether you try hard or not doesn’t really matter when it comes to whether you get better or not. The body adapts one way or another. I’m not saying there isn’t a time for hard work and effort. There certainly is. But it’s not every workout.

“Practicing is about technique, but that’s not all. In essence, practice is more focused on quality of movement, rather than quantity.” 

In Pavel’s quotation above, you see the idea of practicing rather than working out. The idea implicit within the word “workout” is that you’re attempting to work yourself out – that is work until you’re spent. But just because you’re gasping for air and lying in a puddle of sweat on the floor does not necessarily mean you’re going to come back better or stronger next time.

On the other hand, when we treat strength and movement as a skill, we become capable of big jumps in skill level within a single session. It doesn’t always happen, but you can make it happen much more frequently. My workouts are often marked with a new personal best, follow later by another new best in the same exercise. PR after PR.

The 3 Types of Training

More recently, I’ve found it’s even more useful to think in terms of three different kinds of “training.”

  1. Practicing
  2. Training
  3. Testing

Testing is the most obvious form of training. This is when you pull out all the stops and go balls to the wall. Whether it’s an actual competition or you’re just competing against yourself or the clock, this is where mental and physical toughness come in. The typical CrossFit workout is done like this. And by itself, it’s not bad. But when every workout contains this level of effort, you’re setting yourself up for hormonal issues and/or injury. Testing is great, but it should be done sporadically.

Training is the middle category. This is where you’re working to achieve a certain training effect, like trying to build muscle or lose weight. Lots of movement, or volume, is a key trait. The training approach can also apply to other goals like strength or flexibility. It’s about the time spent working in order to force or coax your body to physically change. Some muscular or nervous fatigue is common with training.

To me, training and testing are about the muscular system. But practice is a bit different. Here, I think more in terms of the nervous system. Practicing is about technique, but that’s not all. In essence, practice is more focused on quality of movement, rather than quantity. And it’s marked by more rest between sets. As Pavel said, the idea is to avoid fatigue, not acquire it.

Practice is also where various mental tactics like visualization really come into play. This is a fun area where many skills from my neuro-linguistic programming training can be applied, which is often what allows me to make progress multiple times with an exercise during a single session.

“People tell you that you have to force your body to adapt. It’s that force that triggers the body to recover and come back stronger. But the truth is you don’t have to force anything.”

How to Make Your Best Progress

The three aspects of “training” aren’t black and white categories, but thinking in these terms has helped me achieve better progress. With each exercise in each session I ask myself whether I’m practicing, training, or testing.

  • With practicing, I can get lost in the zone focusing on that move and what I can do to improve it.
  • With training, I often have a clock running and do the move for many repetitions.
  • With testing, I’m going all out with a specific goal in mind.

With any exercise you can take all three different approaches. Let’s take the example of something like lifting a stone.

  • A practice session may involve a focus on technique. It might involve trying to clean or put something overhead that you haven’t done before. Or, if you have, doing the movement for more reps.
  • A training session can involve one or more exercises. These are done for more reps. After this, you’ll feel somewhat tired.
  • A test could involve a competition like the one shown below, which clinched my win in a strongman competition.

Explore this idea of practicing strength and movement on your own and I know it can help you to become better.

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1. Tsatsouline, P., The Naked Warrior (Dragondoor, 2003), 11-12.

2. Christopher, L., Practicing Strength and Movement (Legendary Strength, 2015), 10-11.

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