Enter the Deadlift

Part 6 in our series “20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline”

Before Pavel came along, we did not deadlift. By “we” I mean young ironheads who wanted big muscles and got our (mis)information from dime store bodybuilding magazines.

“[T]he deadlift is THE exercise of choice for anyone.” In 1999 Pavel sounded so radical to me that I wondered if he was a crackpot.

When I began lifting weights as a teenager, I absorbed the prevailing leeriness about the deadlift. We imitated bodybuilders, and the bodybuilders said deadlifts were risky. 

Perhaps it was natural that they would be wary. Bodybuilders normally train with high reps (10+), and that really is too much for an exercise that demands perfect form like the deadlift, where even five reps is a lot. Also, bodybuilders grow best on very modest poundages, so many of them lack experience with big weights like those involved in deadlifting. After all, even a (male) beginner soon deadlifts a massive-looking three “wheels.”

Nevertheless, mostly we were intimidated by the deadlift because of ingrained superstition. In modern America we are as paranoid about straining our backs as medieval villagers were about vampires or bathing. I do not know how we aspiring bodybuilders supposed that powerlifters got away with pulling triple bodyweight in such a supposedly dangerous lift. In those days, powerlifters seemed like leprechauns, rare and mysterious creatures in a faraway land, and you stood little chance of even meeting one, much less learning his ways.

Bodybuilders also did not know how deadlifts would fit into their peculiar kind of training schedule. Most bodybuilders practice what they call a “split.” They divide the body into two or three areas, such as “chest, back, and legs” or “upper and lower body,” and train a different area each day in isolation. But you cannot cram the deadlift into those pigeon-holes because it is a whole-body lift: the deadlift does not care if today is supposed to be “leg day” or “back day,” it uses both hard.

Bob Peoples, patron saint of deadlifters, pulled more than anyone alive but he still weighed less than my T-ball coach. Not exactly what my teenage self was going for.

Finally, bodybuilders noticed that the deadlift builds little bulk. You can pull well over 800# and still be much too small for even a Division III linebacker.

For all these reasons, bodybuilders much prefer to squat. Squats add far more meat to your bones than the deadlift. They fit easily into a bodybuilding split, since they are unambiguously a lower-body exercise, even though they add muscle to the whole body. (Fun fact: if you want bigger biceps, do squats.) And you can recover much faster from squats than from deadlifts, especially when you squat with the moderate poundages and high reps that bodybuilders favor. 

… But teenagers like me wanted to look like “the quadfather,” Tom Platz, so we squatted til our legs turned to jelly.

So I did as I was taught. I specialized in the squat, which did indeed inflate my legs so much that I looked like I was wearing football thigh pads even if I wasn’t, and I avoided deadlifts in favor of—and this is crazy—stiff-legged deadlifts. That was standard practice at that time. We used the stiff-leg to develop our hamstrings, which it certainly did, and luckily it also taught many of the same important lessons as real, bent-legged deadlifts, like cinching the lats and abs to stiffen the trunk. The mystery is why we thought it was safer than deadlifts. True, you were limited to a lower poundage, but not much lower: I was routinely stiff-legging 275# as a medium-sized teenager. And furthermore we were putting much greater shear forces on our spines, especially with the exaggerated ranges of motion that we practiced for (supposedly) better muscle-building effect.

Stiff-legged deadlifts, an old classic. Do not try these at home. Stick to real (i.e. bent-legged) deadlifts.

We could and should have been doing real deadlifts instead, but we were captive to bodybuilding folklore. 

Pavel changed that in Power to the People (1999). “Call me biased,” he wrote, “but the deadlift is THE exercise of choice for anyone, from a computer geek to an Olympic athlete! It lends itself to tremendous weights [and] teaches you some useful habits for everyday life … Hardcore metal heads usually praise the squat as the numero uno exercise … I disagree. The squat is a very technical lift. A beginner needs a few months of instruction by a powerlifter before he can do a decent squat. 99% of the squats I have witnessed at health clubs, even by seasoned gym rats, were atrocious in form. Besides, you need reliable spotters and/or a safety rack unless you want to get squashed like a bug if you make a wrong move. The deadlift can simply be dropped which makes it a lot more user friendly. And the deadlift works a lot more muscles than the squat because you must hold on to the bar instead of letting it ride on your shoulders. Any way you look at it the deadlift wins hands down! … Squat fans, please send your hate mail directly to the round file.” In later years, when Pavel had made his name, he would be even more blunt: “If you are not deadlifting, you are not training.” (Easy Strength, 2011)

He was absolutely right about the deadlift. Of course, it took a few years for the message to catch on, and students of Pavel’s methods could recognize each other because we were usually the only people in weight room deadlifting. In 2000, I visited a new gym and, as I started to deadlift, I noticed a stranger who kept looking my way. It wasn’t a disconcerting look, just the sort of studying gaze you might give someone who seems oddly familiar. I stripped the bar down after just two sets of five deadlifts—fewer sets and fewer reps than you normally saw in those days—and this was a dead giveaway. I saw the man nod to himself and march over to greet me like strangers who meet in a foreign land and recognize each other as fellow countrymen. “You’ve been reading Power to the People, haven’t you? Me too!”

Why did two sets of five reps alert this man to my membership in “the Party” as surely as a secret Masonic handshake? This will be the subject of our next installment.

20 Years of Pavel Tsatsouline

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This is the first installment in our series on the training doctrines of Pavel Tsatsouline.

Pavel Tsatsouline entered my life through a side door. In 1998, on an internet forum hosted by the first man to squat 1000 lbs., “Dr. Squat” Fred Hatfield, I read a terse post by a polite Russian émigré. He introduced himself as a former competitor in something obscure that he described as “the Russian ethnic strength sport of kettlebell lifting.” I would have forgotten him instantly except that this exotic-sounding background earned him surprising respect from the gruff old powerlifting legend.

A year later I was to run across Tsatsouline again, and had that not happened, I cannot picture what my life would be like now.

Tsatsouline (Цацулин): tsa-TSOO-leen

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Semper fi, Mr. Schubert.

To that point, I had already been lucky in my athletic influences. In high school I did some Olympic weightlifting under John Schubert, who inoculated me against some of the silliness found in bodybuilding magazines, and I escaped the baleful obsession with the bench press that ruins many young men. No, if I had a monomaniacal obsession, it was the squat. And that was a pretty good problem to have, better than drugs or video games.

But it was still a problem. Squats build bodies, and sure enough, I’d grown an extra 45 lbs., all of it seemingly in my neck and thighs. This was all very exciting to a young man, and I could eat cheeseburgers, milkshakes, and chocolate muffins with wild abandon, but it was a terrible drag. Imagine buying 45 one-pound packages of ground beef and molding them аll onto your body. Now get up and walk around. You are like a land blimp. And you’ll soon be tired and sweaty because, in effect, you’re wearing a backpack full of meat. Now sit back down: that’s not so comfortable either. It’s hard to cross your thickly swollen sausage legs, but it’s also hard to point them straight ahead since your huge hams flop outward in “manspreading” fashion. I ate like a pair of teenagers and drank a gallon of milk a day, which cost not just time and money but health. I was inflamed and tubby from eating so much, and with the size of my neck it’s little wonder that I couldn’t sleep well either.

Big, swollen melon that I was, I was ripe for the message of Tsatsouline’s first major publication. In our next installment, we examine that book, Power to the People (1999).

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https://www.dragondoor.com/b10/

 

How to Customize Rogozhnikov’s (Non-) Routine

Rogozhnikov emphasizes that you are allowed to tinker with his plan. He emphasizes that he isn’t teaching a “routine” at all but an approach, and he tolerates much more customizing and fiddling from you, the athlete, than most Eastern European coaches would.

And if you are reading this blog, you will probably need to tailor his basic formula. Why?

First, I presume you aren’t using gear or drugs (NTTAWWT). Rogozhnikov’s team uses lots of both, and that changes a lot of things, especially their recovery abilities. As we’ve said before, clean athletes cannot copy and paste the training routines of drug-assisted lifters.

Second, you are not nearly as strong as Rogozhnikov’s lifters. Almost no one is. Other things being equal, you might not need as much rest as they do. At first blush you might think I’ve gotten that backwards—“More advanced athletes recover more slowly than regular Janes and Joes?!” But it makes sense: if you deadlift 400# (which is excellent) and Konstantin Konstantinov deadlifts 900#, who has stressed his soft tissue and nervous system more? QED.

But before you start modifying things, first get a baseline. Apply Rogozhnikov’s standard rotation: Light, Heavy #1, Light, Heavy #2, Light, Medium, and repeat. If you do well and can reliably set PRs in your second heavy workout—and I would add, if you can keep your bodyweight up—then keep truckin’.

But if you are not improving or adding muscle mass, it’s time to start tinkering. Rogozhnikov says you should try adding some extra Medium blocks. His rule of thumb is that you depend more on Medium blocks to the extent that you are (1) drug-free, (2) raw, and/or (3) still months away from competition. In your case, you will probably be two or even three of those! So Rogozhnikov suggests you try this:

L-H1-L-M-M-L-H2

See what happened? You’re adding an extra Medium block, and you’re also putting two of those mass-building Medium blocks between your two Heavy blocks. Why is that important? First, if you aren’t lifting in a squat suit and bench shirt, you depend more on plain old muscle size. It will make you stronger and the extra padding around the joints will help protect your shoulders, elbows, hips, and knees. And furthermore, because you aren’t juiced, you’ll have to dedicate more training time specifically to building size than the pros who get their anabolism from a pill bottle.

Rogozhnikov does not say how to join these mesocycles together. Do they repeat just as written above, or do you add those Medium blocks between all Heavy blocks (L-H1-L-M-M-L-H2-L-M-M-L-H1-L-M-M-H1a-L-M-M-H2a, etc. etc.)? My guess is that it’s probably the former.

Rogozhnikov makes a final suggestion for lifters who are both raw and drug-free. You might be able to tolerate more frequent workouts, especially if you are a “lightweight” (which in powerlifting means anything under 200 lbs!) or less advanced. If that is you, you can try this approach.

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In powerlifters’ hyperbaric frame of reference, Bill Ennis is a “lightweight.”

On Monday, do a Heavy or Medium bench workout. (Alternate them each week.) On Wednesday, take a squat/deadlift workout, rotating each week using the familiar formula: L-H1-L-H2-L-M. (Rogozhnikov adds that you need only deadlift heavy once during that cycle. Heavy deadlifts are draining.) And on Friday, do a Light bench workout. LIGHT!! Because benches are less punishing than the other lifts, you can get away with doing them more often. But don’t overdo it.

Rogozhnikov’s Formula

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In Louie Simmons’ Westside method, which is as American as bald eagles and AR-15s, the near-equivalent of Rogozhnikovs medium workouts is “speed day,” where you lift a relatively light weight against  Jumpstretch bands.

We’ve seen that Rogozhnikov divides his training into light, medium, and heavy days, and he alternates bench press workouts with squat/deadlift workouts. He did not invent either of these practices, and we find American lifters using comparable building blocks in the popular Westside method.

But Rogozhnikov is an artiste in how he stacks up the blocks and mixes and matches them for different types of lifters and in different seasons of training.

The Default Formula

If you lifted on Rogozhnikov’s team, your gym life would be organized around this formula:

L – H1 – L – H2 – L – M

That is, you’d have a light block, then a heavy one, then another pair of light and heavy blocks, and finally a light block and a medium block.

Each of these blocks would last six days. It would begin with a bench workout, followed three days later by a squat/deadlift workout. And three days later you would begin your next block.

That means that you would take 36 days (6 blocks of 6 days) to complete this mesocycle.And during that time you would have two blocks of heavy workouts, which Rogozhnikov calls “H1” and “H2,” and your goal is to set a PR in H2.

At the start of a new mesocycle, you choose one of Rogozhnikov’s approved bench press variations, like the floor press. On your first heavy bench day, you work up to a weight that you can barely handle for 3 sets of 5. And three days later, you do likewise for your heavy squat and deadlift day. That’s block “H1.”

A week or so later, when you come to block H2, you try to beat your record from H1. Ideally, you’ll take the weight you handled for 3×5 and manage 3x6. If you nail it, that is quite something: a 20% rep PR. Normally that would be a strain on your recovery capabilities, but that is why Rogozhnikov has packed your schedule with recovery-oriented light and medium workouts, like sandbags around a foxhole.

And even if you only manage to improve on your numbers on one or two sets, that is not nothing. If you get a PR, you have made progress.

You finish out your mesocycle with light and medium days, which will give you enough hypertrophy (muscle growth) to keep up your size and weight and prime the pump for future gains.

In your next mesocycle, you repeat this process but use a different exercise in the heavy workouts.You have milked a lot out of that exercise in a short time. Don’t stress your central nervous system (CNS) by going back to that well right away. Change to a different exercise.

Of Boxes and Blocks: Heavy Squat/Dead Days

I once heard Mark Bell say that advanced lifters have figured out the handful of exercises that work best for them, but intermediate lifters have to try everything under the sun so they can figure out what works for them.

But Rogozhnikov does not permit that much variety. Except for assistance work (of which he allows little), on heavy day Rogozhnikov restricts you to versions of the three main lifts that do not stray very far from competition conditions. This is another of those ways in which he is typical of the Eastern European approach to lifting: he emphasizes specificity.

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Rogozhnikov likes squatting to boxes of various heights too. But do not sit onto the box, as in the American “Westside” method…

Assuming that you lift raw, then on heavy leg and back days, you’re pretty much just squatting. You can put a box underneath you that will tell you when you’ve gotten deep enough, but you aren’t supposed to sit on it. In Rogozhnikov’s system, whenever you squat to a box, you always “touch and go.” You can also do pause squats: just squat down to hole and stay there for 1-3 seconds.

 

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 Instead, “touch and go.” As soon as you feel the box touch your tail feathers, blast off.

As with the bench press, you squat for 3 sets of 5-6 reps.

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Rogozhnikov prefers sumo deadlifts because they are easier on the spine and therefore on the central nervous system. But Rogozhnikov’s best-known champion, Konstantin Konstantinov, “pulls conventional.” You should compete that way too if you are stronger in that position. But Rogozhnikov still wants you to train sumo on half of your light and medium days.

After that, deadlifts. If you have been paying attention, you know that Rogozhnikov abhors anything that compromises his lifters’ recovery ability, and so he seldom lets them do heavy deadlifts from the floor. Any powerlifter can tell you, the deadlift is the most taxing lift, and it drains you more if you lift with a full range of motion. So on heavy days, Rogozhnikov usually has his athletes pull off 4-6” blocks.

POWER SLANG: “Pulling off blocks.” A “pull,” you’ll remember, means a deadlift. And you have the choice of pulling all the way from the floor or from elevated blocks, with just a partial range of motion.

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Pulling off blocks is much less stressful for your central nervous system.

You pull for just 2 sets of 6-8 reps. When in doubt, aim for a slightly lighter weight for 8 reps. Especially on those rare days when you pull heavy from the floor!

*       *      *      *

So far we have seen in Rogozhnikov a cautious, conservative coach who keeps his lifters fresh most of the time so that, on rare occasions, they can throw away all inhibitions and go to Crazytown. And we now know his three basic building blocks: the light “massage” days, the medium “bodybuilding” days, and the heavy powerlifting days. In our next installment, we learn what makes Rogozhnikov’s system truly distinctive,  the formulae by which he lines up those blocks and in the right order to build big meet totals.

(Not Too) Heavy Days


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The floor press. Good when you have an injured shoulder, and it forces you to press without the fancy body English that is possible when bridging on top of a bench.

Part 6 of our series on Konstantin Rogozhnikov.

On heavy bench day, Rogozhnikov has you choose an exercise that is very competition-specific. You could pick a straightforward competition-style bench press, but you also have a few other options. You could try floor presses or a slight incline press, and if you have experience with chains, you could also try that. Experienced powerlifters will be familiar with “board presses,” which limit the range of motion by placing a stack of 2×4’s on your chest. In America, geared lifters do a lot of these to strengthen their triceps, and if that’s your thing, Rogozhnikov recommends a 3-4” board height.

IMG_20110826_114810But surprisingly, Rogozhnikov also likes board presses for raw benchers. And for them, he advises a board height of a whopping 4-6”. That is huge and restricts your range of motion greatly, but Rogozhnikov wants you to gain the experience of pressing your competition max for reps. It will help accustom your nervous system to very heavy weights by teaching it, in effect, “I’ve supported this weight before and it didn’t tear up my joints, so I guess it’s safe. I’ll let him continue and won’t hit the emergency shutdown switch.” Rogozhnikov also likes these board presses because they spare you from benching heavy weights off the chest too often. He thinks that you strain the ligaments in the chest with that full stretch and overtax your recovery abilities.

Just how heavy are these weights? That’s what is surprising about Rogozhnikov’s heavy days: They are pretty tame compared to what many other barbell athletes would do. Rogozhnikov’s counterpart in America, “mad monk” of powerlifting Louie Simmons, would have his lifters doing maximally heavy triples, doubles, and singles on days like this. (And as we will see next time, he prescribes these workouts more than twice as often as the Russian.) And Russia’s other powerlifting mastermind, Boris Sheyko, assigns his lifters relatively moderate poundages, but they lift almost every day of the week in punishingly high volume.

By comparison, Rogozhnikov’s usual set-rep scheme on heavy days looks like it belongs in a high school weight room: just 3 sets of 5-6 reps. On this day he wants you to stomp the gas pedal all the way to the floor. But to most advanced powerlifters, a six-rep set is so much that it seems like bodybuilding. And you are supposed to choose your working weight just conservatively enough that you can handle it for all three sets. They should be hard sets, and the last one should take all that you’ve got. But this is still a more cautious and modulated approach than, say, an American lifter who plans to work up to a max single or double or one of Boris Sheyko’s lifter who squats for ten sets a few times a week.

As always, Rogozhnikov prizes recovery and shelters and nurtures his lifters’ recuperative energies as tenderly as if they were muscly bonsai trees.

Tomorrow, Rogozhnikov’s heavy days for the squat and deadlift.

Medium Days: Get Your Bodybuilder On

Part 5 in our series on the methods of Russian powerlifting coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov.

Rogozhnikov designs his medium days as “bodybuilding” days. You “pump the muscles up with blood” with 3 sets of 8 using “a weight that you couldn’t just easily cruise through 8 reps with.” Timur Andreev, a former champion from Rogozhnikov’s stables, makes this more concrete: On medium day, you pick a weight that you could do nine reps with and do just 8, leaving one rep “in the tank.” Experienced powerlifters, you can choose to do eight speed triples instead if you wish. (Note: Rogozhnikov uses triples for speed squats.)

On medium days you get a lot of choice. On medium bench days, you are not just limited to competition benches. You can try dumbbell benches or pause benches or close-grip benches too. On leg and back day, you can squat to boxes of various heights if you like, or maybe do pause squats (where you pause for a couple of seconds in “the hole”).

Power Slang: “The hole.” In the squat, the very bottom part of the lift, where your hips are sunk lower than the tops of your knees.

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Anatoly Pisarenko down in the hole.

For your deadlifts, do them after your squats, with 2 sets of 6-8 from the floor. (Eight reps would best, since the recovery-conscious Rogozhnikov is worried about taxing the body with too much weight when it comes to pulls from the floor). And if you deadlift sumo, Rogozhnikov suggests that you alternate conventional and sumo stances on your light and medium days.

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A “sumo” deadlift, where the feet are wider than the hands.

In our next installment, Rogozhnikov’s unique “heavy days,” which can be all-in death marches but are also strangely conservative.