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.

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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!

After Faleev: What to Expect

Our fifteenth and final installment on Russian physical culturist Alexey Faleev. Please find links to the whole series here.

If you follow Faleev’s program, you will be a happy camper for quite some time.

First, if you were looking to gain weight, you are probably already doing so. When I followed his 5×5 system, I ate like a lumberjack and over several months I gained about 25#.

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Me on Faleev’s program.

Not that it was all muscle! That does not happen in the real world. In fact, I will assume that your appetite will soar like mine did and caution you that, because you will begin eating so much, you should commit to eating the “cleanest” diet you can. Do not think that you have stoked your metabolic furnace so hot that you will not plump up if you start eating Oreos and milk. (That may, possibly, be a real-life example from my own past.)

Remember, you control how lean you are almost entirely by how you eat. Exercise has little to do with it. This is not a popular truth but anyone in the fitness industry can tell you this IF they are being honest.

Second, you should have plenty of energy. Powerlifting can become a harsh mistress and consume a lot of your time and physical “oomph.” And though Faleev has you working out often–five days a week! I hope you train at home–he keeps your workouts short. Above all, he is a master of recovery and motivation. When I am faithful to his “applied yoga” (my word, not his)–when I stretch after lifting, reinforce myself with little rewards, drink kvass, sleep plentifully, and train not for the sake of exerting myself but enjoying the relaxation of heavy, thick, spent limbs afterward–I LOVE LOVE LOVE to train. It is a truly spiritual joy. (As it had better be, if I have to apply burning horse liniment to my groin!)

Third, you will get strong. According to much better powerlifters than I, on a minimalist program like Faleev’s, with only three exercises, you can reliably progress up to the threshold of advanced powerlifting, where you can bench 1.5 times your bodyweight, squat double your bodyweight, and deadlift 2.5 times your bodyweight. (That fits with my experience also.)

But after that, you might need a different program. (Just keep the recovery techniques!!) Different people are built to excel in different lifts and lag in others. Me, I am a natural deadlifter because I have long arms, but I am also a lousy bencher because I am forced by my long forearms to press farther than guys with short “T-rex arms.” As a rule of thumb, if you are built for a particular lift, you can benefit from a minimalist program in which you practice just that lift with no extras. I built my deadlift just by deadlifting, nothing more. But the opposite is also true: if you were born with bad leverages for a certain lift, then once you are sufficiently advanced, if you want to keep getting stronger you will need to judiciously add certain “assistance” exercises. So for example, to build enough momentum to bench press the bar through my extra-long range of motion, I personally need extra work on my shoulders and triceps.

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Alexey “Nothing Extra” Faleev forbids dumbbell cleans & presses, or anything other than the The Big Three: the squat, bench press, and deadlift. But the farther you advance, the likelier it is that you will need to depart from Faleev’s minimalist program.

Except for a few genetic freaks, most of us will need that more complicated program one day. With his own trainees, Faleev accomplishes this in part by prescribing special isometric exercises. (For example, I would be assigned to press against an immovable stick belted firmly to my own torso, to mimic the “off the chest” phase of the bench press which is my weak point.)

But most American powerlifters today solve this problem by a different strategy, called the “Westside” method, that employs a panoply of assistance exercises. Some might say that, compared with the monotony of Faleev’s system, this is typical of an American temperament that prizes variety. The modern American style also uses much shorter cycles than Faleev’s long, regimented, 10-week plans. For an advanced lifter this is valuable because progress becomes ever more difficult and finicky and you routinely incur small but consequential injuries. And when you do, it can become impossible to adhere to the complex, coordinated plan two-month plan because you have to work around the injuries.

In a future series we will learn about one very successful Russian coach, Konstantin Rogozhnikov, and his own home-grown solution to problems of how to train a powerlifter who has outgrown minimalism like Faleev’s.

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Unless you are pretty advanced, you have not gotten close to outgrowing Faleev’s system. But even if you do one day, KEEP HIS RECOVERY TECHNIQUES! They are priceless.

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.”

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.