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.

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(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.

Assistance

Part 4 in our series on the training methods of Russian powerlifting coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov.

Rogozhnikov prescribes a standard regimen of “assistance” work every day for his athletes. But is it right for you? Probably not.

Powerlifters label “assistance work” any lifting outside of the three “main lifts”: the squat, bench, and deadlift. That includes anything from curls to pressing weights overhead to those silly Nautilus leg thingies to dumbbells to pushing and pulling a tire sled. Powerlifters don’t compete in those lifts, but they use them instrumentally to help build their main lifts. They do their assistance work after the main lifting of the day and in a low-key way. Usually it’s all light weights, high reps, and no psyching up or going for personal records.

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American lifter Ed Coan, the greatest pound-for-pound champion for generations, devoted most of his training to assistance work. (Incidentally, the coolest moment in my own uneventful powerlifting career was to get upbraided at a meet by The Man Himself for giving up on a deadlift attempt too early.)

American powerlifters tend to do a lot of assistance work. Partly they are looking to strengthen whatever muscles they think are their “weak links.” For example, lifters who feel limited in the deadlift by their grip muscles might row a dumbbell for high reps. They also might use assistance work to grow certain muscles larger after the low-rep strength work, which believe it or not does not swell you up very much. With some extra size in well-chosen locations, you can make it easier to press or squat a barbell by using your own body as launching pad or a cushion. For example, you can boost your bench a lot just by growing bigger lats and biceps. At the bottom of the press, when your upper arms are mashed against your sides, you can help bump the bar up a couple of inches just by flexing your arms and flaring your lats. They give you a sort of “hydraulic lift” that helps you start the press.

But like a lot of Eastern European coaches, Rogozhnikov spares his athletes the plentiful assistance work favored by their American counterparts. Above all things, he wants you to rest and recover. Only do as much work as you must! So he prescribes a very limited regimen of assistance, which his athletes use as a sort of cool-down. Their only aim is to pump fresh blood and nutrients through the muscles they have just worked to kick off the recovery process. In this too he is typical of coaches from the former Eastern Bloc: they prize recovery, study it, and use disciplined methods to speed it up.

Rogozhnikov and crew follow the same assistance regimen that scarcely varies.

Unlike you, they compete in maximal supportive “gear,” and therefore they are using somewhat different sets of muscles than you. In their bench shirts, for example, they get a lot of help at the bottom of the lift for their pecs and shoulders. Where they struggle is in the middle of the lift, when the relatively small and weak triceps must extend the arms all alone under a load that nature never intended, from 700# to over a thousand.

In short, Rogozhnikov and his “geared” benchers rely most of all on their triceps. They also need extra strong lats because, owing to their powerful bench shirts, they have to use those big back muscles to pull the bar downward against the resistance of the bench shirt just to be able to touch the bar to their chests!

So would you be surprised to learn that, on bench day, Rogozhnikov tells his lifters to do a little extra work for their triceps and lats? For the triceps they do two sets of 12-15 or one set of 25 or so in an exercise of their choice, the object being to pump the tris through with blood. For lats they do two sets of 12-15 and add very light biceps work in the form of one set of curls or hammer curls and another set of reverse curls for 20-30.

But you are different. You are benching in just an ordinary cotton t-shirt, so you are mainly concerned with the start of the lift and whether you can move the bar off your chest quickly. That means you are really worried about your pecs and shoulders, not your triceps. Those are strong enough.

So maybe you will follow the lead of other raw benchers. For assistance they favor things like close-grip bench presses, dumbbell presses (on a flat bench or straight overhead or in between), or pause-benches, where you lower the bar to your chest and hold it there motionless for 1-3 seconds. But Rogozhnikov would enjoin you not to go crazy with these! These exercises are purely secondary, so don’t blow a lot of precious energy on them. Just pump the muscles up using light weights and high (but leisurely) reps to bring them blood and nutrients. Then stop.

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Reverse-hyper machines are expensive and rare outside of specialized powerlifting gyms, so jerry-rig something in your garage, if you decide to do them at all.

On leg and back day, Rogozhnikov follow their squats and deadlifts with 20-25 reps of the “hyper” and “reverse-hyper” to move blood through their low backs and hamstrings, followed by a little something for abs and calves. Listen, I’m nobody, but unless you are a seasoned powerlifter and you know your recovery capacities well, I’d say you should maybe skip the low back and hamstring stuff. Why? You’ve just put those muscles through a lot and, in my humble experience, it’s easy to get carried away on hypers and reverse-hypers and tire yourself out on them. That’s just the opposite effect of what Rogozhnikov wants here. Just go for a brisk walk instead.

In our next installment, Rogozhnikov turns up the heat with his “medium” workouts.

The Raw and the Geared

Part 4 in our series on the system of Russian powerlifting coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov.

Imagine that you had a high-tech superhero suit that boosted your strength, a little like Iron Man. Where you are weaker, it would do some of the lifting for you. You would be a sort of cyborg athlete.

Powerlifters evolved stuff like this long ago. Their suits aren’t as slick as Tony Stark’s—no armor-piercing tasers—but the latest ones can add hundreds of pounds to your lifts.

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http://www.gometal.com

They say it started with tight cutoff jeans, to help boost lifters out of the bottom of the squat, which is the hardest part. From there, they began a decades-long arms race (or rather, a “legs race”) of designing special, super-tight squat suits, first out of polyester, than multiple layers of same, then one or more layers of denim, and then canvas, and then two such garments layered on top of each other. And lifters are still pushing the technology forward.

We have the same thing in the bench press: “bench shirts” that are more than skin-tight. Even with a low-grade bench shirt, typically you cannot squeeze into it without a helper and some baby powder. The most advanced shirts do not even fit over your head. They are more like denim aprons that have an open back or Velcro straps.

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Scoop necks are in. They are easier to squeeze into and give you incredible leverage. They are not allowed in more conservative federations.

Powerlifters who use this equipment are called “geared” lifters, and they are playing a different kind of game than the “raw” lifters. Since they are like cyborgs—half muscle, half armor—they can move differently under load than raw lifters. Notably, with the heavier suits you can squat with a super-wide stance that would tear your hips apart without the protection of your artificial “glutes.” You also bench very differently in a shirt that gives you what are, in effect, bionic super-pecs.

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You’re very strong in this outrageously wide stance, but without the suit your hips couldn’t take it.       http://www.muscleandbrawn.com

So “geared” lifters have to train differently too. Like NASCAR drivers, they spend a lot of time experimenting with new equipment, in new combinations, and fine-tuning their movement patterns to take fullest advantage. They also have to condition their bodies to the truly brutal loads—not just their muscles but their connective tissues and central nervous systems.

Most importantly for us, the geared lifters–and this includes Rogozhnikov and his crew–must emphasize different muscle groups. When you or I do a bench press, we struggle most at the bottom of the lift, where we have little leverage and must do most of the work with our pecs and shoulders. But a geared lifter is different. He is helped off the chest by his artificial pecs. He reaches the “sticking point” halfway up, where he gets no more help from the shirt and must lock out his arms with just his own tricep strength. Therefore, where “raw” lifters like you or I must pay special attention to our pecs and shoulders, the geared lifter must do extra work for his triceps, since for him those are the weak link.

In our next installment, on assistance work, we will see that this means you might need to part company from Rogozhnikov and his up-armored lifters.

 

 

“Like a Massage”: Rogozhnikov’s Light Days

The third installment in our series on Russian coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov.

“Bodybuilding.” Use that word carefully around ironheads, who can get every bit as prideful and pedantic about nomenclature as any hipster subculture. In particular, if you should chance to call a powerlifter a “bodybuilder,” you commit a faux pas like speaking Japanese to a stranger who turns out to be Korean.

Yet Konstantin Rogozhnikov has his powerlifters spending over half their time bodybuilding! These are his famous “light workouts.” In their main lifts, the athletes rep out for 3 sets of 10-15, which is a paradigmatic bodybuilding pattern. You increase the size of the muscle but don’t stress the central nervous system, and you can recover quickly and leave the gym feeling refreshed. Rogozhnikov says one of his light workouts should feel “like a massage.”

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Competitive bodybuilders are also territorial about the title “bodybuilder.” You can’t earn it until you have 3% body fat, shaved legs, and another Adonis  rubbing your lower trapezius with tanning lotion.

But why do it all? Aren’t powerlifters the ones who pride themselves purely on strength, not their appearance, and pooh-pooh bodybuilders as oiled narcissists with spray tans? If you have hung around powerlifters, you have endured this sermon before, and you have probably heard that powerlifters mostly train in sets of between 1 and 6 reps. Everything over that is muscle-pumping.

But that is why Rogozhnikov likes these high-rep workouts. He says you are “priming the pump” for heavy triples, doubles, and singles later on by flushing the muscles through with fresh blood and nutrients. You can think of this is a kind of active recovery, a way of recovering from your really tough workouts faster than just lying around by doing something active but easy.

There is another reason too. Powerlifters are looking to get stronger by every means possible, and one of the many techniques is to grow a bigger muscle. Yes, there are ways you can improve your strength with just the muscle mass you already have—namely through better motor learning, improved technique, and good nutrition and recovery—but you can also just add mass.

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American powerlifters of the 70s trained a surprising amount in high-rep, “bodybuilding” mode, and Greg Nuckols argues we should follow suit today. https://www.strongerbyscience.com/powerlifters-should-train-more-like-bodybuilders/

In fact, to get stronger you do not even have to add muscle mass. That would be ideal, but it also helps just to get fatter. You get better intra-muscular leverages, I am told, and just get better padding. You can bounce out of the bottom of a squat with more weight on the bar if you have big calves and hamstrings and a belly to rebound off of. As the heavyweights like to say while laying waste to nachos and beer, “The bigger the pot, the bigger the squat.” And something similar also happens in the bench press, which is the most sensitive to weight gain or weight loss.

So in their training cycles, Rogozhnikov’s athletes get one of these light workouts with high-rep “beach work” before and after every heavy or medium session. On squat/deadlift day, they start with 3 sets of 10-15 in the squat and then repeat with the deadlift. On bench pressing days they repeat that set-rep scheme in the bench. They are told to lift “with a reserve,” meaning that they leave a couple of reps in the tank on every set, instead of squeezing out every rep possible. There will be time enough for that on heavy day.

After the main lift(s), they follow with just a little “assistance work,” supplemental exercises targeted to the possible weak links in their recovery and musculature. Rogozhnikov has very precise ideas about what kind of assistance work is right for his lifters. We will address them in a separate installment, because in this department what Rogozhnikov’s lifters need is almost certainly not what you do.

Rogozhnikov: Post-Soviet Hero of Anti-Labor

Why do I like Russian coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov so much? One reason is that his name looks cool in Russian italics: “Константин Витальевич Рогожников.”

But more importantly, I like him because I am lazy. If you visit us regularly here at Lean, Solid Dogs, then (1) I weep for you, and (2) you know that I prize happiness, good cheer, pleasure, and rest, so I gravitate toward forms of training that are more fun and relaxing than stoic and Stakhanovite.

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Sure, in Stalin’s Russia, Com. Stakhanov could get his name on a poster by exceeding his coal shoveling quotas. Hurray! But in powerlifting, no one cares if you busted your hump in the gym. Save yourself for competition. Throttle back and exert yourself as little as you can get away with.

Rogozhnikov is my kind of guy. He accomplishes great things as coach of one of Russia’s national teams but he obsessively reins his lifters in, rests them, rests them some more, and allows them only the bare minimum of exertion needed to do freakish feats like squat 1000 pounds. When his athletes feel beat up or lack enthusiasm for training, he sends them for a 10-day vacation from the gym. “Go on nature hikes,” he recommends, writes Pavel, “take a Russian steam bath, get a massage, even physical therapy. He stops short of recommending manicures, thankfully.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

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Make no mistake: despite their moderation, Konstantin Vitalyevich and his crew clean up big in competition. The old goat himself still benches over 450, deadlifts 600, and squats an eye-popping 770.

Rogozhnikov is also honest. His athletes use drugs and he says so. And in his writings, he distinguishes clearly between how drug-assisted athletes should train and how “clean” lifters should. This is wonderful, because the correct answer is “very differently.” In countries where juiced lifters need to be coy about their “restorative measures,” many unsuspecting clean athletes waste years of training trying naively to ape the training methods of the drug-using elite. Rogozhnikov tells it straight: if you use “Russian supplements,” he gives you one plan, and if you don’t take “Vitamin S,” he gives you a different one.

In this series, we will tell you about Rogozhnikov’s “clean” plan–and also enough about the “dirty” plan to show how the two differ and give you a peek at the crazier corners of the powerlifting world.

So put on your “power pants” and buckle up your lifting belts. We’re on our way!