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.
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.
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!
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#.
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 LOVELOVE 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.
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.
This is the 14th (and most technical) installment in our series on powerlifter and physical culturist Alexey Faleev. Find links to previous installments here.
This is Faleev’s most advanced cycle. You design it much as you would a three-stage cycle, except that you omit the second stage and instead spend five weeks on 5×5’s and then transition immediately to five weeks of 6-4-2-1.
Let us imagine a lifter who bench pressed 280# in his last competition. At this advanced stage, progress comes slowly, so he will only aim to add 5 lbs. to that in his next cycle. So starting from a goal of 285#, he backs off 75 lbs. and comes up with something like this plan.
210 x 5 x 5
215 x 5 x 5
220 x 5 x 5
225 x 5 x 5
230 x 5 x 5
210 x 6; 220 x 4; 230 x 2; 245 x 1 (The lifter decides his own weights for the first three sets–these are just arbitrary examples. They should not be all-out efforts. My advice is to stay at least 2 reps away from what feels like your limit.)
Part 13 in our series on physical culturist Alexey Faleev, where we get deep into the weeds. If you are just joining us, welcome! Please find links to previous installments here.
For a lifter at your stage, Faleev estimates that you can take your best weight in the 5×5 and aim to lift 120% of that in competition. So if you have pressed 200# for five sets of five, we will put you on a cycle to peak on contest day with a max lift of 240#.
If you are new to peaking cycles, Faleev starts you with a three-stage cycle. In the first stage, you will subtract 70lbs. from the target weight. For the first four weeks, you will do 5×5’s as usual, adding 5lbs. per week. Then you will add 10lbs. and graduate to the second stage, in which you will do three weeks of 4×4’s. (In this stage, as usual, you will add 5# to the bar in succeeding weeks.)
In the third stage comes the exotic part, the 6-4-2-1 workouts. You are about to get a real treat befitting your status as an experienced powerlifting competitor.
Take the weight you handled the previous week and add 15# to it. You are going to work up to a single with that weight today. First you will do 6 reps with a comfortably heavy weight. (Faleev lets you choose it on your own. I suggest something 30 to 40# lighter than your top weight for the day.) After 5 minutes’ rest, add some weight to the bar—not too much! 10# is plenty—and do four reps. Then add some more weight and do a double. Finally, jump all the way up to your planned weight for the day and “single” it.
Remember, this is not a max single!! Save that for game day! Today you are just practicing with a sub-maximal weight to build you up gradually up so that you peak on meet day—and not before!
The following week you will add 10# and repeat this process.
And the week after that, in place of a tenth workout, you will hit your planned weight of 240# in competition. Hooah!
170 x 5 x 5
175 x 5 x 5
180 x 5 x 5
185 x 5 x 5
195 x 4 x 4
200 x 4 x 4
205 x 4 x 4
Add 15#. Work up to that in several jumps, as shown below.
185 x 6; 195 x 4; 210 x 2; 220 x 1
195 x 6; 205 x 4; 220 x 2; 230 x 1
Week 10 (Meet day)
240 x 1 (Suggested attempts: 215; 230; 240)
In our next installment, the even more advanced two-stage cycle.
Part 9 in our series on physical culturist Alexey Faleev. You can find our first installment here, and you can review our most recent ones here and 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.
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#.
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.
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.
When you start out in strength training, it is exhilarating because you can add muscle weight and bar weight very quickly. After all, it is easy to improve on zero!
Faleev prescribes five short, refreshing workouts per week. If you haven’t yet read Pavel Tsatsouline’s short article on Faleev, do so now and familiarize yourself with the basic set-up. I will not repeat that material here but will assume that you have already absorbed it.
Ready? Follow Faleev’s advice and begin by attempting sets of 8 reps. When you complete all 8 reps in good form for all 5 sets, the following week add 5# (for the bench press) or 10# (for the squat or deadlift). These 8-reps sets will start inflating your muscles quickly.
As a rule of thumb, sets of 8+ reps build bigger muscles, sets of 1-3 reps make you stronger but not bigger, and sets of 4-6 reps do both. With these eight-rep sets, Faleev is going to pack some muscle onto your frame to prepare you for the big weights to come, and he is also taking advantage of the lighter weights you are using right now to give you practice in the subtleties of squat, bench, and deadlift technique.
In your first few months of serious training, it’s a lot of fun to see your muscles swell up like sausages. To enjoy it fully, I would invest now in something that everyone should own anyway, a Tanita scale (Tanita BF680W Duo Scale Plus Body Fat Monitor with Athletic Mode and Body Water). Aside from measuring your total bodyweight, it also uses your skin conductivity to estimate your bodyfat percentage and, with simple arithmetic, you can calculate your lean body mass. In other words, you can track exactly how much muscle you’ve gained.
As you add weight to the bar over successive weeks, at some point you’ll find it hard to complete 5 sets of 8. When that happens, change to 5 sets of 7. And remember, this is not a defeat, this is a good thing! You are gradually starting to use some serious weight! After yet more time, you will need to drop down to sets of 6, and finally to sets of 5. When that day comes, celebrate! You’re no longer a total newb; you are now officially a beginning powerlifter! And you are definitely thicker and stronger than before.
Welcome to what are about to be the greatest months of your powerlifting career, the “easy gains.” Long may they last! You will train 5×5’s (five sets of five) in the manner described in Pavel’s article, adding 5# or 10# to your bench or squat and deadlift weights (respectively) whenever you complete all 25 reps. Being new to the game, you will be able to add weight to the bar (and to your frame) regularly and don’t need any fancy strategizing. During this phase, I was already a 20-year iron rat, and nevertheless in five or six months I gained 30#. You will also be buying new clothes, so set some money aside. Seriously, you won’t fit into your old stuff.
Eventually, though, the strength gains will slow. You will add weight to the bar and find that you are struggling to complete all 25 reps even after three consecutive weeks. For me, it happened in the bench press first. My squat and dead were still humming along, but my bench was stalling.
If this happens to you—two lifts are still progressing well but one lift holds out against you for three weeks—I have a fix for you. Leave everything unchanged with those first two lifts—we want to milk them for all the easy gains we can—but in the stubborn lift we will drop you down to 3 sets of 3.
For example, your squat and pull are still progressing but your bench is stalling at 205#. Maybe you can get to five reps on the first set or two but not all five. Very well, next week we will keep the bar weight at 205# but you will only attempt 3×3! (BTW, this is not a bad thing or a failure. In fact, you should treat this as a milestone and an honor. “Triples” are for real strength athletes only! Normal people have no business attempting them, and even dedicated strength athletes have to work up to this level and earn the privilege. You are now there!)
Power Slang: “Triples,” “doubles,” and “singles” are sets of 3, 2, or 1 reps. These are very powerful medicine and generally have no place in a normal person’s routine. Now that you are powerlifting, I regret to tell you that you are no longer normal. However, you are still not authorized to fool around with these unless specifically directed to do so. Your bread and butter is 5×5’s.
Chances are that you will nail the 3×3 at the very next workout. Great! The following week, add 5# to the bar as usual and attempt 3×3 again. Stay with that 3×3 scheme in the bench for as long as the other two lifts are still cruising.
Finally, when your progress also stalls in one or both of those other lifts, then stop there. It is now time for us to award you your Official No-Longer-a-Beginner Powerlifter patch and induct you into the greatest of powerlifting mysteries: CYCLES!