Strength Basics

Getting stronger, fitter, and healthier by sticking to the basics. It's not rocket science, it's doing the simple stuff the right way. Strength-Basics updates every Monday, plus extra posts during the week.

Wednesday, February 25, 2009

Book Review: Power to the People

Power to the People!
by Pavel Tsatsouline
116 pages, published December 1999

This book is a call for change from a complex, many-exercise workout at medium-to-high reps to a simple, two-exercise, 2 sets x 5 reps workout. It's written by Pavel Tsatsouline, a former powerlifter and Russian special forces trainer.

The tone of the book is light and easy to follow. It's not a hard read - I got through mine in a couple of hours of dedicated reading, even counting the time to take notes for this review. The book opens with a lot of discussion of the strength of lower-weight powerlifters, old-time strongmen, and the hows and whys of getting stronger. In order to keep it light, there is a lot of references to Russia as if it was the old-style Communist empire of the 80s. "Trust the Party" and referring to folks as "comrades" and so on, or the odd statements about how Lenin and Stalin would have wanted you to train. It was somewhat painfully odd to me, because when I hear "Stalin" I think "mass-murdering tyrant" and not "lifting weights and getting stronger." It felt as odd as a book explaining vegetarianism and mentioning that Adolph Hitler guy didn't eat meat, either.

The program is simple: You do two exercises - the barbell side press (a standing press done with one hand) and the deadlift. Each is done for 2 sets of 5 reps, one at 100% of your working weight followed by one at 90%. No more, but if less works for you, do less. You lift 5 times a week. Written out, it's just this:

Deadlift 1 x 5 x 100% (of your goal weight), rest 3-5 minutes, 1 x 5 x 90% (of your first set's weight).
Side Press 1 x 5 x 100% (of your goal weight), rest 3-5 minutes, 1 x 5 x 90% (of your first set's weight).

That's it. Each workout you try to add about 5 pounds to your working weight.

It's a nice tonic from the "8-10 exercises, 3 sets of 10 reps for upper body 3 sets of 15 reps for lower body" machine workouts that get tossed around for beginners. He has you go right into two very solid lifts and work them in low reps and get steadily stronger. The only equipment you need is an Olympic 7' barbell and 255# pounds of weight plates, also known as the common 300# Olympic weight set. He gives an explanation on how to build a lifting platform if you need that, but otherwise you only need the bar and a place to lift. It's refreshingly simple after workouts that require a bench, squat rack, chinup bar, cable setup with adjustable cables and various grips, etc. It shows how far you can go with a simple piece of equipment and a pair of good, hard lifts.

One thing not addressed are warmup sets. This is probably okay when you're deadlifting 5 x 145 and 5 x 130 like in the examples. but if you get to 5 x 245 and 5 x 220 or even higher, or even the 300+ pounds in the examples, you need to work into it. You just can't leave the bar loaded with your previous working weight and grab another 5 reps next time.

The book also covers periodization - cycling workout loads. He presents a few options - linear progression, wave cycling, and step cycling. All three are explained well, including tables showing sample weights (none so heavy to discourage a newcomer, either) and how and when to reset. It also covers missed reps and missed workouts, and really does a good job making it easy to follow. You won't walk away understanding periodization well at all, just that varying your workout loading is important...and a practical set of tables to follow.

There is a short, two-page discussion of stretching. Basically, do it, but not before workouts, and buy the author's book on stretching to find out how and why.

He emphasizes form over speed. So much so that you're admonished to lift slowly. Not as slow as the 10-second up/5-seconds down SuperSlow method, but to pull steadily. This isn't bad advice for a weekend warrior, but for an athlete or would-be powerlifter, speed is important. Lifting fast is different from jerking on the bar, but the author doesn't differentiate. It's somewhat ironic since Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell is quoted several times in the book - Louie Simmons is the originator of the dynamic method, or lifting weights fast.

The deadlift and a lot of variations (snatch grip, clean grip, sumo stance, from knee height, duck stance, etc.) are described in detail, and the technique explanation is good and easy to follow. It's a bit different than Mark Rippetoe's Starting Strength explanation, but it seems fine. The side press is next, but no variations are covered. To be fair, I don't think there are so many variations. Oddly, after making the case that the Deadlift and Side Press are all you need to learn, he spends a few pages on the Floor Press. It seems like it's there as a change of pace from the Side Press, but that isn't clearly stated, and the difference between floor pressing and side pressing is pretty huge, unlike the differences between deadlifts and snatch-grip deadlifts. He's also got two pages on barbell curls, on the theory that you'll do them anyway, so you may as well do them correctly. It's also an exercise he has you do frequently in the book to try out his theories for yourself.

The pictures in the book for the exercises are very good and very useful. They clearly show good form, or intentionally show bad form and why it is bad form. They follow the text and the pictures are placed on the same page as the relevant text.

I can't help but say the book is overpriced. The information is great, but it's a very costly book for what you get. Starting Strength is densely packed with information on many more pages and it's only $30. This book has lots of big pictures, huge tracks of whitespace, wide margins, big fonts, tables, and even a few blank pages. My copy had 116 pages (including the title sheet and table of contents) plus 28 pages of of advertisements for the author's kettlebells and other books. That includes 8 pages of order forms.

It's got pull-quotes and joking asides that make it easier to read, but further reduce the density of information and inflate the page count. It's good information, explained well, but it's overpriced for what you get. This book could have been. probably should have been, about 40% of its cover price. You get very good stuff, but you pay for more than you get.

Content: 4 out of 5. Everything in the book is good, and well explained, but some sections are merely call-outs to buy the author's other books.
Presentation: 3 out of 5. White space everywhere (2" outer margins!) and lots of pull-quotes and pictures help, but it makes to surprisingly difficult to use. The "comrade" and "evil Soviet Empire" stuff seemed painfully out of date in 2000, never mind 2009.

Overall: Well worth reading, but pricey for what you get. I read a library copy, and although I'd like to have a copy to reference, I can't get past the sticker-shock for such a thin book. My advice is to find it, borrow it, and read it. Then decide if the money is worth it to you.


  1. Now available in Kindle format for about 5-6 bucks from Amazon. Still full of ads for the author's other stuff, but at this price it's probably worth it!

    1. Yes, that would be a much better deal. Here is a Kindle link:

      Power to the People (Kindle)


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