Cycling, Part 1: The Salad Days of the Powerlifter

Find the table of contents to our whole 15-part series on the system of Alexey Faleev here.

When you start out in strength training, it is exhilarating because you can add muscle weight and bar weight very quickly. After all, it is easy to improve on zero!

Faleev prescribes five short, refreshing workouts per week. If you haven’t yet read Pavel Tsatsouline’s short article on Faleev, do so now and familiarize yourself with the basic set-up. I will not repeat that material here but will assume that you have already absorbed it.

Ready? Follow Faleev’s advice and begin by attempting sets of 8 reps. When you complete all 8 reps in good form for all 5 sets, the following week add 5# (for the bench press) or 10# (for the squat or deadlift). These 8-reps sets will start inflating your muscles quickly.

As a rule of thumb, sets of 8+ reps build bigger muscles, sets of 1-3 reps make you stronger but not bigger, and sets of 4-6 reps do both. With these eight-rep sets, Faleev is going to pack some muscle onto your frame to prepare you for the big weights to come, and he is also taking advantage of the lighter weights you are using right now to give you practice in the subtleties of squat, bench, and deadlift technique.

In your first few months of serious training, it’s a lot of fun to see your muscles swell up like sausages. To enjoy it fully, I would invest now in something that everyone should own anyway, a Tanita scale (Tanita BF680W Duo Scale Plus Body Fat Monitor with Athletic Mode and Body Water). Aside from measuring your total bodyweight, it also uses your skin conductivity to estimate your bodyfat percentage and, with simple arithmetic, you can calculate your lean body mass. In other words, you can track exactly how much muscle you’ve gained.

Jason lockout 2
Before Faleev. A long-time gym rat and kettlebell fanatic, but no background in powerlifting. Compare this to…

As you add weight to the bar over successive weeks, at some point you’ll find it hard to complete 5 sets of 8. When that happens, change to 5 sets of 7. And remember, this is not a defeat, this is a good thing! You are gradually starting to use some serious weight! After yet more time, you will need to drop down to sets of 6, and finally to sets of 5. When that day comes, celebrate! You’re no longer a total newb; you are now officially a beginning powerlifter! And you are definitely thicker and stronger than before.

WABDL meet in Chico 2010
…Less than six weeks into the Faleev program but already 10 or 15 pounds heavier. For perspective, compare the necks in the two photos.

Welcome to what are about to be the greatest months of your powerlifting career, the “easy gains.” Long may they last! You will train 5×5’s (five sets of five) in the manner described in Pavel’s article, adding 5# or 10# to your bench or squat and deadlift weights (respectively) whenever you complete all 25 reps. Being new to the game, you will be able to add weight to the bar (and to your frame) regularly and don’t need any fancy strategizing. During this phase, I was already a 20-year iron rat, and nevertheless in five or six months I gained 30#. You will also be buying new clothes, so set some money aside. Seriously, you won’t fit into your old stuff.

Eventually, though, the strength gains will slow. You will add weight to the bar and find that you are struggling to complete all 25 reps even after three consecutive weeks. For me, it happened in the bench press first. My squat and dead were still humming along, but my bench was stalling.

If this happens to you—two lifts are still progressing well but one lift holds out against you for three weeks—I have a fix for you. Leave everything unchanged with those first two lifts—we want to milk them for all the easy gains we can—but in the stubborn lift we will drop you down to 3 sets of 3.

For example, your squat and pull are still progressing but your bench is stalling at 205#. Maybe you can get to five reps on the first set or two but not all five. Very well, next week we will keep the bar weight at 205# but you will only attempt 3×3! (BTW, this is not a bad thing or a failure. In fact, you should treat this as a milestone and an honor. “Triples” are for real strength athletes only! Normal people have no business attempting them, and even dedicated strength athletes have to work up to this level and earn the privilege. You are now there!)

Power Slang: “Triples,” “doubles,” and “singles” are sets of 3, 2, or 1 reps. These are very powerful medicine and generally have no place in a normal person’s routine. Now that you are powerlifting, I regret to tell you that you are no longer normal. However, you are still not authorized to fool around with these unless specifically directed to do so. Your bread and butter is 5×5’s.

Chances are that you will nail the 3×3 at the very next workout. Great! The following week, add 5# to the bar as usual and attempt 3×3 again. Stay with that 3×3 scheme in the bench for as long as the other two lifts are still cruising.

Finally, when your progress also stalls in one or both of those other lifts, then stop there. It is now time for us to award you your Official No-Longer-a-Beginner Powerlifter patch and induct you into the greatest of powerlifting mysteries: CYCLES!

(To be continued)

3 thoughts on “Cycling, Part 1: The Salad Days of the Powerlifter

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