Lift Less to Lift More: The Joyful Magic of Light Workouts

Back in the 80s, most of us were taught that you had to lift all out, every time. Boy, was that stupid. Not only were we courting injury, we were making exercise, which should be joyful, into a grim discipline. It’s a wonder that any of us still likes to train.

Everybody has to “cycle” their training by easing up regularly. No one improves in an unbroken straight line forever. And athletes cannot be at their strongest and fastest at every workout. If they try, they burn out or get injured. This is called overtraining.

That is why strength athletes “cycle”: They push toward a personal record (PR) and then ease up, and then push and ease up again, in a planned cycle.

Traditionally, powerlifters practiced long cycles of two to three months. (Our awesome friend and mentor Alexey Faleev uses 10-week cycles, which traditionally would have been considered a little short.) However, the farther you advance in your training, the harder it is to commit to a multi-month cycle confident that you will not be thrown off schedule by some minor injury or recovery problem.

Then lifters discovered they could get away with shorter cycles lasting just a few weeks. Pavel Tsatsouline, the groundbreaking teacher of “skinny strength,” even suggests cycles just two weeks long.

Clarence Bass at 78 by Carol Bass Abs and Hat
Seen here at age 78, bodybuilder Clarence Bass has stayed big, ripped, and pretty injury-free for sixty years through the simplest of cycles: he just alternates heavy workouts with light workouts.

In the simplest form, you can accomplish the purpose of cycling—scheduled periods of “deloading”—if you just alternate heavy workouts with lighter workouts (or heavy weeks with lighter weeks) where you cut the workload down to 60% of what you did the last time. For example, if you squat 250# for 5 sets of five on a heavy day, then squat the same weight for just five sets of three on your light day. (This is a trick taken almost directly from Faleev.) Or you could keep the reps the same but reduce the bar weight to 60%. Or reduce both in sufficient proportions so that you lift just 60% of the total tonnage (bar weight times total number of reps for the day).

Or you can get slightly more complex and divide workouts into three types: heavy, light, and medium.

You can even link them together into longer chains. Konstantin Rogozhnikov likes to give his athletes a light week followed by a heavy week, then another light week and heavy week, and finally a light week followed by a medium week: L-H, L-H, L-M. After that he repeats the sequence (sometimes called a “mesocycle” or mid-length cycle).

In our next installment, Rogozhnikov’s light workouts (легки тренировки), which are the bread and butter of his system of training. You will like doing them, and you will like what they do to you!

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.

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.

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!