Into the Rare Air

Part 12 of our series on the physical culture system of Alexey Faleev. If you are just joining us, find previous installments here.

You must compete, in sanctioned powerlifting meets. Faleev insists on it. You will focus much more intently on your training, progress farther faster, and get valuable experience and advice. You will expand your horizons: You will meet more advanced lifters (including major stars, since powerlifting is a pretty small world) and witness people lifting weights that now seem to you superhuman, but with this new frame of reference, you will start rising to their level. “Every last person in this room just squatted at least three wheels,” your subconscious will note. “It must not be a big deal.” Soon you will be squatting three wheels too.

Power Slang: “One wheel,” “two wheels,” “three wheels.” The big plates weighing 45# (or 20kg). When you include the weight of the bar itself (also 45#), these give you the major benchmarks of barbell lifting: 135#, 225#, 315#, 405#, and 495#.

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Under Faleev’s method, you train in sets of 5 because that is the “sweet spot” for growing in strength and muscle size and minimizing injury and fatigue. And in your first few competitions, you can go straight from a whole cycle of 5×5’s to competition and perform your best.

But as you grow stronger, you will need to accustom yourself to heavier weights occasionally. Why? It has less to do with your muscles, which are growing like weeds from the 5×5’s, than arcana having to do with motor learning, “stabilizer muscles,” and the emergency “circuit breakers” in our connective tissue. But suffice it to say, when you lift bigger weights, things that used to be minor details become a big deal, and you shouldn’t wait until game day to experience the shock for the first time.

Imagine a trainee who passed an early milestone and squatted 5×5 with his own bodyweight—well done!—and cycled up to two wheels (225#). In competition, he will launch 250# and, if properly focused, could stand up with 275#. Outstanding!

Thrilled by his success, he then keeps training til he’s using well over three wheels (315#) in his 5×5’s. By this point, he could conceivably get 400# in his next meet.

On game day, he crushes his first two attempts, which were safe and conservative, and he decides to swing for the fences and go all the way up to 400# on his third attempt.

Power Slang: “Attempts.” You get three attempts at each lift, and your score is the best of the three. Powerlifting and Olympic weightlifting both use this system, as do throwing and jumping sports.

His belt and wraps cinched tight, he wedges himself under the bar, lifts it off the uprights and … panics. His eyes, ears, and neck veins are popping—he never confronted such internal pressure in training—and the bar is pressing his trapezius muscles to jelly and mashing skin hard against bone. And he still has to walk the bar out! That is, he must step back from the uprights and make space for himself to squat the bar. He has never done this before either, walked backwards while balancing a 7-foot weight that’s heavier than his two best friends and contending with tunnel vision, shallow breathing, and elevated blood pressure. For a terrifying moment he feels his upper back buckle slightly, but he braces hard, steadies the swaying bar, and shuffles back in two choppy steps. His feet arrive and plant themselves, but the bar has not stopped—it’s still drifting backward! He can’t shuffle back fast enough to get under it because his legs are bound up in mummy wraps, and if the bar floats back past his feet, he’s going down. Frantically, he flexes his abs with the strength of the damned, but he’s never practiced this maneuver before. Behind him the spotters’ eyes grow wide and they make ready to rescue him, one to grab him around the chest and the others to try to catch the bar if it plummets…

Enough catastrophizing. The problem is that our athlete is strong enough to squat the bar, but with just 5×5’s he never got a chance to practice the little details with very heavy weights—the unracking, the walk-out, the panic-inducing effects of compression and intra-thoracic pressure. Early on, under lighter weights, he didn’t notice these little thing—only after he crossed an invisible threshold into Big League Weights. These problems only get more numerous as you climb higher in the sport. (Incidentally, when you practice visualizing yourself handling emergencies with suave sang-froid, scenarios like the above are perfect.) None of these issues is a huge deal, but our athlete learned about them all for the very first time during his competition, which is the very worst time to learn a new skill.

That is what training is for. And that is why Faleev provides a pair of more advanced cycles for seasoned competitors who need extra practice with heavy doubles and singles in the weeks before a major meet.

In our next installment, “Doubles and Singles.”

SNAFU But Not FUBAR: Practicing to Be Unflappable

Part 11 in our series on powerlifting coach Alexey Faleev. If you are just joining us, click here to find our table of contents for the whole series.

I hate insipid sports psychology, but Faleev has two tricks that really work.

First, I dislike cheesy, bombastic affirmations (“I will be unbeatable!”) because, when I try them, I stress myself out. First, it is objectively false that I am unbeatable or certain to succeed, and I end up reminding myself of how not confident I am by the fact that I awkwardly verbalize these ginned-up affectations. I am patently, clumsily trying brainwash myself, and I’m too smart for that (I hope).

Second, I suck at visualization, and ultimately sports are just a hobby. If I’m going to bust my nut re-landscaping my entire psyche, I need a better goal, something with really loooooong-term value, like enlightenment.

But Faleev does teach one kind of visualization that I’ll deign to do, and he throws a twist on it that is authentically brilliant and once saved my bacon big time.

He starts with a technique for assuaging pre-game jitters. Lying down and relaxing, “a person imagines himself as the protagonist of a movie who has the qualities that he desires to have in real life, such as confidence, courage, and composure.” In the movie, our character enters the arena on the day of the competition. We see the weather outside, the field being set up, the spectators beginning to fill the seats, and the referees milling around the scoring table. [Editor’s note: Just by typing this, I feel the familiar chilly pre-competition jitters rising, like I might barf.] Our character is walking around there with all the qualities we want for ourselves. He’s confident and cool as a cucumber. The movie follows our character into the locker room and the warm-up room, weaving our way among the other competitors. He looks unflappable, like James Bond.

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Faleev’s “mental movie” trick makes me feel as robotically calm as Ivan Drago.

Finally, the movie shows the athletes taking their places and the competition kicking off, with our character showing all the qualities we desire. And if at all possible, on game day we should arrive at the arena well ahead of time so that we can repeat our mental movies in the place itself.

If you ask me, the keys here are that you see yourself modeling the feelings you want to feel. Let me say that again. First, you aren’t just mentally visiting the arena and imagining the pre-game buzz (though you are indeed doing that). Importantly, you are seeing yourself walking around there feeling perfectly at home and ready to rumble. And second, you are seeing yourself feeling the desired feelings. You are not focused on visualizing a physically, outwardly flawless performance. You are imagining yourself with the dispositions that make you perform your best. To me this is important because (a) it is easier for me to imagine that in detail, and (b) I am not distracted by the sense that I am imagining a lie or brainwashing myself. I really am the master of my own dispositions, they are mine to control—that much is not a lie.

SNAFU, Not FUBAR

Speaking of control, Faleev adds something ingenious. Sports psychologists “have found that it is not enough just to imagine yourself in a normal competitive environment. It is also important to include various [adverse] surprises in the movie.” For example, a soccer player might imagine the referee making a clearly bone-headed, possibly even malicious call that costs her team a penalty kick. Such an unjust call “can simply kill players’ morale … and lead them to lose fighting efficiency … and surrender almost without a fight.” So during training, our player imagines these bad calls and her character responding by just playing even harder. She watches these mental movies of herself handling unexpected trouble with aplomb, and she affirms to herself, “Any difficulties just mobilize me!”

Fine, that makes for unidiomatic English, but I still like it! You or I might rather have said “motivate,” but I like Faleev’s “mobilize” (мобилизуют) because to my ear it doesn’t just sound subjective or mental. As we have observed before, Faleev scarcely differentiates between the athlete’s mental and physical thriving, and when he says the athlete is “mobilized,” he means it literally.

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Daniel’s wide-eyed, distracted, fearful, far-off staring dramatizes the near-paralysis of feeling intimidated so well that hearing the song from this sequence can almost make me hurl. In this moment he’s so incapacitated that even Ali in her pink sweater and cheerleader skirt could overpower him and give him a wedgie.

The poster boy for this was Alexander Kirichenko, a Soviet cyclist in the 1988 Seoul Olympics. In a 1000m sprint, Kirichenko got to the 700m mark when he blew out a tire. “An unprepared person could easily have been unsettled by such a failure, but Alexander just ‘mobilized.’ He rode the last 300 meters on one tire and won the gold medal.”

Me, I took the “visualizing ugly surprises” technique to heart. (What could be more Buddhist?) In idle moments, I imagined myself hitting a minor obstacle and shaking it off. For example, I might see myself unracking a weight and accidentally banging it off the uprights, which unbalances you at a vulnerable moment. But then, in my movie, I went ahead and did my job anyway.

And hallelujah for that, because it helped me recover from a huge mistake. At a powerlifting meet, I’d misheard my start time and thought I had hours before I needed to warm up. So I was sitting in the audience wearing my street clothes, drinking tea and eating a snack, when the announcer called my name over the PA and said that I would make my first squat attempt in just a few minutes!! That left little time to change into a singlet and sneakers, barely time to chalk up and cinch my belt, and ZERO time to warm up.

I’d forked up big time, and as I scrambled to get my gear on and find my shoes, I should have been a basket case of catastrophizing and self-reproach. But instead I distinctly remember laughing a little bit as I mounted the platform for that first, ill-starred squat attempt that seemed destined to be a sh**show. And I must tell you, it really was a lousy squat and it got red-lighted. But I was still smiling and didn’t fall apart mentally,which surprises me to this day, and that afternoon I went on to PRs in the bench and deadlift.

Power Slang: “Red lights” – Rejection of a lift by the judges. In the squat, this is almost always because the lifter did not squat deeply enough.

In fact, it’s a measure of how little upset I was that I forgot about it right away. The whole circus happened so fast that my girlfriend was still outside parking the car and missed all the comedy, and I don’t think I even remembered to tell her that night!

In other words, Faleev trains you to respond to calamity as just a snafu, something you can bounce back from straightaway and maybe laugh about, not a FUBAR nightmare that poisons your morale and craters your equanimity.

Cycling, Part 2: The Training Wheels Come Off

Part 9 in our series on physical culturist Alexey Faleev. If you are just joining us, welcome! You can find our table of contents here.

Nobody can get stronger continuously forever. At some point, you plateau and you have to drop your working weights down and build them back up over a period of weeks. If you plan correctly, you will then surpass your old limit and hit a couple of new personal records (PRs). Then you will repeat the cycle: lower the working weights, build back up, hit new PRs, and then “back-cycle” again.

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Powerlifting is like a super-friendly cult without the social isolation or group suicide. When you show up at your first meet, people love-bomb you because they’re so proud and excited that you showed up. They’re just glad to have you there and will go out of their way to encourage you and help you.

Once you’ve milked the last of your easy beginner’s gains and plateaued, it is time for you to make like a real powerlifter and start a cycle. Assuming you have already competed in a powerlifting meet–you have done that already, haven’t you? Haven’t you?!–then in my mind, the moment you finally resort to a classic training cycle is the moment that you remove the last of your “training wheels” and claim your place as an intermediate-level powerlifter. Congratulations!!

How to Plan Your Cycle

I will make this easy for you. Take out a piece of paper. Add 10# to the highest working weight you achieved in the squat, bench, and dead. Write that down. That is the personal record (PR) you are going to achieve at the end of your new cycle. Now subtract 45# from that number. That is the weight where you will begin your new cycle. You will do 5×5 with that weight next week, and will add 5# to the bar every week til you complete your cycle, ten weeks from now.

For example, if you plateaued in the squat at 250# for 5×5, in your new cycle you will begin in Week 1 with 215#, add 5 lbs. each week, and end with 260# in Week 10. With luck, you will complete all 25 reps at that weight, but even if you do not, this is nothing to fret over. You have completed your first powerlifting cycle. What a stud!

You will include all three lifts in this cycle. That is, when you “back-cycle” (i.e. reduce working weights) in the squat, you back-cycle in the bench and deadlift at the same time. You will begin your new 10-week squat cycle in the same week as you begin a new cycle in the bench and deadlift. Some powerlifters follow a different philosophy, but Faleev is absolutely adamant on this point. The reason we back-cycle is to give the body a rest and prepare it for its next great campaign, and Faleev insists that you back-cycle all the lifts together so that we give you a very thorough rest. (After all, it would not be resting very effectively if, when you rolled back your bench press poundages, you were still killing yourself on Wednesday nights to hit PRs in the infamously taxing deadlift!)

Power Slang: “Back-cycle” means to reduce your working weights and begin a new cycle.

I don’t want to leave questions unanswered, so at the risk of beating this to death, I am writing out the whole cycle below, week by week, for a lifter who has just plateaued at the following weights in the 5×5:  SQUAT 250# ; BENCH 185# ; DEADLIFT 275#.

SquatBenchDeadlift
Week 1215  (5×5)150  (5×5)240  (5×5)
Week 2220  (5×5)155  (5×5)245  (5×5)
Week 3225  (5×5)160  (5×5)250  (5×5)
Week 4230  (5×5)165  (5×5)255  (5×5)
Week 5235  (5×5)170  (5×5)260  (5×5)
Week 6240  (5×5)175  (5×5)265  (5×5)
Week 7245  (5×5)180  (5×5)270  (5×5)
Week 8250  (5×5)185  (5×5)275  (5×5)
Week 9255  (5×4-5)190  (5×5)280  (5×4-5)
Week 10260  (5×3-5)195  (5×5)285  (5×3-5)

Notice that, in Week 9 in the squat and deadlift, our athlete couldn’t complete all 25 reps in good form. That’s OK! He still followed the plan, added weight to the bar as scheduled, and hit some good reps with that higher weight. OORAH!!

Now he draws up a new 10-week cycle, just like the one above, but the weights will all be 10# heavier this time.

“Isn’t it discouraging when you have to begin a whole new cycle with weights that now feel so easy to you?” NO!! That is the voice of a newb talking, and you are no longer a newb! You are a real-deal powerlifter, so we need to make you understand this: When you start over with those “easy” weights, you are accomplishing something very important, and I do not just mean recovering.

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If you’re interested in these “complicated reasons” that I’m being so evasive about, read this.

To grow bigger and stronger, you must accumulate a LOT of reps over months and years. As I’ve mentioned briefly in the past, the magic ingredient in getting stronger and bigger is volume, the total number of reps in a given period of time, regardless of the exact poundage. In other words, for complicated reasons I won’t try to explain, you are actively improving in those early weeks of the cycle despite using submaximal poundages. (In fact, for other complicated reasons, you’re progressing much faster and farther precisely because you are varying your poundages.)

One last thing: During those easy, early weeks of the cycle, you have some leisure to reflect and enjoy the success you have created for yourself so far. Flip back a few months in your training journal: Look how far you have come! You now toy with weights that would have flattened you when you started. You are probably closing in on some classic milestones of the early-career strength athlete, like squatting and bench pressing your own bodyweight for reps or deadlifting twice your bodyweight. Or maybe you have already passed those benchmarks. This is the time to pat yourself on the back. Don’t worry, you will struggle soon enough! In a few weeks, the bar will be heavy and you will need to concentrate hard. By the end of the cycle, as workout time approaches, you will have butterflies in your stomach about the ordeal ahead.

In our next installment, we will talk about how Faleev teaches you to handle dread and fear. But now, early in your cycle, this is the time for you to revel in your accomplishments.

Push-Pull: The Bench and Deadlift

Part 8 in our series on Russian physical culturist and powerlifting coach Alexey Faleev. If you are just joining us, click here for the table of contents linking to all 15 installments.

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http://www.jtsstrength.com

In the bench, Faleev wants you to learn to arch as high as you can. Your powerlifting friend(s) will help you with this. He definitely wants you wearing a belt for the bench press because it cues you to hold the tension in your lats and upper back needed for a heavy bench press, and he suggests you try wearing the wide part over your belly to prevent it from interfering with your arch. (Here in gear-crazy Murica, you could just buy a purpose-made benching belt.) Also, wrap your wrists: you will press more and protect the joints.

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On deadlifts, Faleev is radical: he insists that you always train with straps.

Rarely seen in powerlifting gyms, straps are a way to bind your wrists to the bar to relieve much of the burden on your grip strength. In my experience, they are frowned upon by most serious powerlifters. I for one would feel a little embarrassed if someone I respected found them in my garage. No, they’re not child porn, but they are a crutch. Instead of looking for the easy way out of a notoriously demanding lift–so say the purists–it’s better to train the deadlift under competition conditions, no?

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But Faleev’s answer is cogent: you are already not training under competition conditions. During a powerlifting meet, you only pull singles, whereas in training you crank out five reps at a time. In competition, grip endurance will not be a problem.  So why make a big deal of it in training? When you insist stubbornly on pulling five-rep sets without straps, you get preoccupied with your hands and their struggle to keep hold of a slipping bar. So now, instead of working your back like you are supposed to, you are spending huge personal resources–deadlifts being the most draining of the three lifts–to develop grip endurance, which is not even part of powerlifting! “As a result,” he says, “the back is left underdeveloped.” Don’t fret: in case your grip really does start to lag behind for some reason, there is an easy fix. Faleev will approve specialized grip work for you—problem solved. So when you deadlift, use the exercise for its actual purpose: pushing the envelope with your back muscles. Don’t waste this opportunity by turning it into a petty grip endurance event. (Shameless plug: Use IronMind Strong-Enough Lifting Straps)

Power Slang: “Pull” here just means “deadlift.” You deadlift using the “posterior chain,” the same set of muscles you’d use to do a tug-of-war. So even though superficially it looks like someone grabbing a barbell and standing up with it, what it feels like is pulling something up and backward. In the photo you can see that, even before Valeriya Shcheglova has started the lift, already she is leaning back so hard that she would somersault if she weren’t counterbalanced by a barbell that’s more than twice her weight.

I have found straps nice for stretching, too. I use Jumpstretch bands to stretch the upper body, but it tires my grip to grab the bands and suspend a lot of bodyweight from them when my hands are sweaty and fatigued. So I strap my hands to the bands, and then stretching is once again the relaxing, gooey-melting-chocolate-chip treat that Faleev intends.

If you are truly a rank beginner, Faleev orders you to wait for a month before you deadlift. During that time, you will strengthen your back, glutes, and hams and learn to use them together by squatting. Within a month you will be up to speed and ready to deadlift.

In our next installment, cycling. Not the kind with lycra and velodromes but varying your working weights over weeks and months, from lighter to heavier to lighter again, to keep yourself progressing instead of plateauing.

“Nothing Extra!”

Part 7 in our 15-part series on physical culturist Alexey Faleev. If you’re behind, catch up by visiting the table of contents.

Not afraid of a little nationalism, Faleev says that former Eastern Bloc countries dominate strength sports largely because they concentrate on doing the few important things well, whereas Western trainees are influenced by bodybuilding, physique magazines, and exercise machines. He does not actually say words like “narcissism” or “effeminacy,” but I’d guess he’s thinking them.

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Nyet.

When you enter a gym, if you see anything covered in chrome, that is a bad sign. So are Nautilus-like machines. Faleev acknowledges almost no legitimate use for them except so that gym owners can gull misguided people into paying monthly gym dues. What you want to see in a proper gym is “an unpretentious room where serious people are working” like burly, menthol-scented medieval monks on squats, deadlifts, and benches. “Nothing extra.” Indeed, this could be Faleev’s mantra or his epitaph. “Nothing extra!”

“This idea is so unusual for many athletes, that I will repeat it again,” he writes. “For rapid muscle growth and results you have to do only three exercises: the bench press, squat, and deadlift.” Do one lift well (meaning, according to a predetermined plan), then stretch, and leave. “Anything more is detrimental. … You will feel like you are not doing enough. You will leave the gym feeling completely fresh. This reserve of energy is what lets you add weight next time and shoot beyond your past performance.”

Squat

Faleev gives basic cues for the three lifts, and I will not recapitulate them here. You can learn them better and more easily from any powerlifter. And I repeat, powerlifter. Not a bodybuilder! (Bodybuilders—peace and blessings upon them—are wonderful people, but they do things differently and it could cost you some joints. You are now a baby powerlifter.)

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Knee wraps aren’t comfortable, but they’ll let you use higher working weights.    https://www.elitefts.com/education/the-ins-and-outs-of-knee-wraps/

But Faleev does hold some unorthodox opinions that I’ll record here. On your heavy squat days, Faleev wants you to wear knee wraps. For all sets, even warm-ups. They protect the knee, he says, and boost your working weights, making you stronger faster. Knee sleeves are OK, but he seems to prefer real powerlifting wraps. Wrap them loose or wrap them tight, but wrap them.

I hate squatting in wraps. They cut off circulation, jack up your blood pressure, and at the bottom of the squat they crush the back of your calf so hard they feel like bear traps. But Faleev retorts, “The pain has a positive value – it motivates. The athlete gets angry, thinks less about the weight of the bar, wants to execute the set more quickly, and eventually lifts more.” Sheesh, fine, but only because I get to reward myself with cookies afterward.

Next time, Faleev on the bench press and deadlift.