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.

Before the Russian Revolution: The Ancien Régime of 1999

Pavel Tsatsouline changed strength training so much—and so relatively quietly—that unless you are a middle-aged meathead, you probably cannot remember what it was like before “the Evil Russian” subverted our country’s established order with his 1999 book Power to the People.

It was the apogee of the Clinton years and strength training, like the broader world, was at the historical peak of its American-ness. Most lifters were reading the glossy bodybuilding magazines sold at the corner store by impresario Joe Weider, trying to follow their routines, and failing. We understood that the magazines were platforms to sell dubious nutritional supplements. (Only years later did most of us understand that they’d also doubled as plausibly deniable gay erotica that could be sold where gay porn couldn’t). And we knew that success with these programs was entirely hit-or-miss if you weren’t on steroids. But most ironheads had no alternative—as far as they understood, bodybuilding was all that existed, outside of the tiny, restricted communities of Olympic weightlifting and powerlifting.

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Before Tsatsouline, the high water mark of popular strength training in the U.S. was Louisville lawyer Brooks Kubik’s revalorization of old-time strongman training.

By the 90s, some of us had gone back to “old-school strength training.” We pored over texts from before the steroid era and imitated the training of pre-war weightlifters and circus strongmen. There were lots of squats, deadlifts, pullups, presses and overhead lifts and we got much more interested in low reps with very heavy weights. I remember many, many walks around the neighborhood bear-hugging a 150-lb. bag of sand, and I recruited patient friends and relatives to shift my car into neutral and steer it around an empty parking lot while I pushed from behind. Other guys got into “farmer’s walks,” where you would walk carrying a heavy dumbbell or a bucket of cement in each hand.

We were now getting MUCH farther than we had on the Muscle Beach routines, and I daresay we felt quite pleased with ourselves and very macho. Humans love their tribes and cliques and identities, and we were very pleased to distinguish ourselves from the pencil-necks and narcissists doing sets of 20 curls in front of a mirror with tiny colored dumbbells. Bah!!

But we still had two problems in the pre-Tsatsouline era.

First, we did not know when to stop. We had figured out what worked—heavy weights in “the basic movements”—but we thought we should work ourselves to complete exhaustion. Without knowing it, we were uncritically following the bodybuilding trend of the day, which was to “bomb and blitz” the muscles to “force them to grow.” Thus it was that two or three times a week I would squat until my legs were too rubbery to walk, then rest half an hour and drink a putrid-tasting protein concoction, and then repeat that process. We would end an already-demanding session with what we called a “finisher,” a grueling strength-endurance torture event like a farmer’s walk til the weights dropped from your hands or several (!!) eye-bulging sandbag carries. Workouts were something very much to be feared as well as loved.

Second, we still worshipped size. Even though we’d re-identified ourselves as “strongmen” instead of “bodybuilders” and sneered haughtily at pumped-up but weak druggies who were “all show and no go,” we had little concept that it could be desirable or possible to get strong but stay wiry.

hqdefault-6That changed when Tsatsouline appeared, a hard, spindly flexibility coach living in Minnesota who matched few of our expectations of a “strongman” in those days, looking more like a middle-distance runner who had toughened up in a gulag.

In retrospect, it is fortunate but surprising that so many of us “emptied our cups” and gave Tsatsouline a shot.

In our next installment, “What made us listen to him?”

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).

b10
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.

(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.

deep-squat-2
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.

taylor-atwood
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.

“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.