By C.S. Sloan
For years, the countries of Russia and others from the former Soviet Republic have dominated international powerlifting and Olympic lifting competitions. And for years, there has also been an aura of mystique surrounding the methods they use to produce such phenomenal athletes, not to mention a lot of misconceptions about those methods.
In this article, I’m going to clear up those misconceptions by laying out the methods they utilize, plus I’m going to outline a couple of routines based on these methods. In fact, I think many lifters (including bodybuilders) in the Western world would achieve better results by incorporating these routines at least part of the year. (These routines are also excellent for any MMA fighters that might reading this, as these workouts build a lot of strength and power—functional muscle mass, not just bulk.)
Without further ado, let’s get down to the Russian principles that could make you a bigger, stronger athlete than you had previously thought was possible.
Method #1—Synaptic Facilitation. This is what the Russians base a large part of their training around. Some western coaches have called it “greasing the groove.” Synaptic facilitation refers to the body’s ability to improve strength on an exercise by performing the movement more frequently. As one Russian axiom goes: “If you want to bench more, you have to bench more.” In other words, the more you bench press, the better and stronger you will get at it. Frequent performance of lifts, in essence, teaches your body to do the lift more efficiently, thus making you stronger.
Method #2—Train More Than One Lift At Each Session. I believe one of the worst mistakes a lot of American lifters make is to perform only one lift (and the assistance exercises associated with that lift) at each session. It’s not uncommon to find American lifters squatting at one session, bench pressing at the next, and deadlifting at the third. The lifters who do this mistakenly believe that this will lead to improved recovery and, therefore, more strength on the lifts.
The problem with this type of training is two-fold. One, you never get in very good shape by performing only one lift per session. Two, you never allow your body to increase its rate of recovery by training so infrequently. Sure, you’re sore and tired when you first attempt to increase your workload so dramatically, but your body will adapt. And when it does, you will be a bigger, stronger bodybuilder, powerlifter, strength athlete, or MMA fighter.
Every time the Russian powerlifters train, they do some type of deadlifting or squatting with some type of bench press work. Doing this consistently makes a powerlifting contest an absolute breeze. If you will train so that your workout sessions are harder, more demanding than any contest you enter, you can be sure to dominate.
Method #3—Train Smaller Muscle Groups More Frequently And With More Volume. Another mistake many American bodybuilders make is to train their larger muscle groups with more volume than their smaller muscles. But a lot of Russian and Eastern-bloc lifters believe that the smaller the muscle, the more volume it can handle. This is the reason they train the muscles that are used in the bench press more frequently than their squats or deadlifts. While many Russians train their squats and deadlifts two to three times a week, many of them also train their bench press up to eight times per week.
Method #4—Perform A Limited Number Of Exercises At Each Workout. One method that Russians use (and one that goes against what is currently used by many Western lifters) is to rarely do more than bench, squat, or deadlift at each session. Sure, they do some slight variations of the exercises—like deadlifts off boxes or deadlifts in the rack, incline bench presses or close-grip bench presses—but they do little else in they way of assistance exercises. About the only assistance work they do are good mornings, dumbbell presses, or some type of abdominal exercise.
Method #5—Keep the Reps Low No Matter the Amount of Weight Being Lifted. Rarely will you see Russian lifters using high reps, especially on their core lifts. Most Russian programs are based around keeping reps between one and five on the three major lifts (or the two Olympic lifts). Lifters who keep their reps this low, even on warm-up sets, are able to recover from their workouts quicker. This allows the lifter to make better use of frequent workouts and synaptic facilitation.
Method #6—As You Increase Weight, Decrease Reps and Increase Sets. Most pyramid schemes used in the West involve increasing weight and decreasing reps on each subsequent set. There’s nothing necessarily wrong with this, as long as it’s performed properly. A lot of bodybuilders, however, make two major mistakes. First, they start out using reps that are too high. And, second, they decrease the number of sets that are used as the weights get heavier. Here’s what a typical set/rep scheme on the bench press looks like for the majority of bodybuilders:
Now, let’s take a look at what a pyramid scheme on the bench press for Russian lifters might look like:
The Russian scheme works better because it allows the lifter to warm-up properly plus reserve strength for the heavier sets. Also, it allows more sets to be performed which helps synaptic facilitation and allows the lifter to recover quicker.
Now that we’ve looked at the major principles the Russians use in their training, it’s time to design a couple of programs based on these methods. What follows are two workouts—a beginning and advanced—which are very close to the routines used by the majority of Russian powerlifters. The first program is a three-days-a-week regimen. The second is a four-days-a-week program.
1. Squats—50% of one-rep maximumx5repsx1set, 60%x4repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx2sets, 80%x3repsx3sets, 90%x1repx4sets
2. Bench Presses—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x4repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx2sets, 80%x3repsx3sets, 85%x1repx4sets
3. Squats—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x5repsx1set, 70%x5repsx1set
4. Flat Dumbbell Bench Presses—10repsx5sets
5. Standing Good Mornings—10repsx3sets
1. Deadlifts— 50%x5repsx1set, 60%x4repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx2sets, 80%x3repsx5sets
2. Bench Presses—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x5repsx1set, 70%x4repsx2sets, 80%x3repsx3sets, 70%x5repsx2sets, 60%x8repsx1set, 50%x10repsx1set
3. Flat Dumbbell Bench Presses—10repsx5sets
4. Deadlift Off Boxes—60%x5repsx1set, 70%x3repsx3sets, 80%x2repsx4sets
5. Weighted Sit-Ups—10repsx3sets
1. Squats—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x4repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx4sets
2. Bench Presses—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x4repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx3sets, 80%x1repx3sets
4. Seated Good Mornings—10repsx3sets
Here are some tips to help you get the most out of this program:
—Make sure you lift on three non-consecutive days each week. Most people thrive best on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays.
—Each percentage of your one-rep maximum should be based on your best lifts in either your workouts or your last competition (if you’re a competitive powerlifter).
—On the sets that aren’t based on percentages, pick a weight where you take each set a couple reps shy of failure.
—Make sure that you change the reps each week on the core lifts. Work up to fives, threes, twos, or singles.
—The Day Three workout should always have the lowest volume. This will help you to recover better for your Day One workout the next week.
—Test your one-rep maximum at least every five weeks. This will cause you to constantly increase the weight used for your percentages.
1. Squats—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x5repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx2sets, 80%x3repsx3sets, 90%x2repsx4sets, 80%x5repsx1set, 70%x6repsx1set
2. Bench Presses—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x5repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx2sets, 80%x3repsx3sets, 90%x2repsx4sets
Standing Good Mornings—5repsx5sets
1. Deadlifts Off Box—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x4repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx3sets, 80%x3repsx3sets, 90%x1repx5sets
2. Incline Bench Presses—60%x5repsx6sets
3. Sumo Deadlifts—60%x3repsx5sets
4. Weighted Sit-ups—5repsx5sets
1. Squats—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x5repsx1set, 70%x3repsx2sets, 80%x3repsx2sets, 90%x2repsx2sets
2. Close Grip Bench Presses—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x5repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx3sets, 80%x3repsx3sets, 90%x1repx4sets, 80%x5repsx1set, 70%x7repsx1set, 60%x9repsx1set
3. Squats—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x5repsx2sets
4. Weighted Push Ups—10repsx5sets
5. Seated Good Mornings—8repsx4sets
1. Conventional Deadlifts—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x4repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx5sets
2. Bench Presses—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x5repsx2sets, 70%x3repsx4sets
1. Rack Deadlifts (pins set at knee level)—50%x5repsx1set, 60%x5repsx1set, 70%x5repsx3sets
2. Lying Triceps Extensions—10repsx3sets
3. Hanging Leg Raises—15repsx4sets
All of the tips from the first program can be applied to this one. Here are a few more, however, so you can get the most out of this routine:
—Train four days a week. You can use one of two splits. Either use a two-on, one-off, two-on, two-off split (training on, say, Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday) or use a one-on, one-off, one-on, one-off, two-on, one-off split (training on, say, Monday, Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday). I prefer the former, though most Russians have traditionally used the latter version.
—The first couple of weeks you might want to decrease the volume used on the last two workouts. After that, however, make sure you stick with the program.
—This is a taxing workout program. Don’t attempt it until you’ve spent several months training on the first routine, or one very similar to it.
I hope this article has helped to clear up some of the misconceptions regarding how a lot of Russian lifters train. In addition, you now have two very good programs for packing on mass and strength, or for building a lot of strength and power. Give the routines an honest try and you might be surprised by the results these workouts will give you, especially since they probably go against the grain of many things you might be currently doing.
About The Author
C.S. Sloan is freelance writer, contributing editor for Iron Man magazine, strength athlete, martial artist, and Integral mystic. For more great information on training, check out his blog at: http://cssloanstrength.blogspot.com/