The Raw and the Geared

Part 4 in our series on the system of Russian powerlifting coach Konstantin Rogozhnikov.

Imagine that you had a high-tech superhero suit that boosted your strength, a little like Iron Man. Where you are weaker, it would do some of the lifting for you. You would be a sort of cyborg athlete.

Powerlifters evolved stuff like this long ago. Their suits aren’t as slick as Tony Stark’s—no armor-piercing tasers—but the latest ones can add hundreds of pounds to your lifts.

chic-metal-jack-canvas-squat-suit
http://www.gometal.com

They say it started with tight cutoff jeans, to help boost lifters out of the bottom of the squat, which is the hardest part. From there, they began a decades-long arms race (or rather, a “legs race”) of designing special, super-tight squat suits, first out of polyester, than multiple layers of same, then one or more layers of denim, and then canvas, and then two such garments layered on top of each other. And lifters are still pushing the technology forward.

We have the same thing in the bench press: “bench shirts” that are more than skin-tight. Even with a low-grade bench shirt, typically you cannot squeeze into it without a helper and some baby powder. The most advanced shirts do not even fit over your head. They are more like denim aprons that have an open back or Velcro straps.

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Scoop necks are in. They are easier to squeeze into and give you incredible leverage. They are not allowed in more conservative federations.

Powerlifters who use this equipment are called “geared” lifters, and they are playing a different kind of game than the “raw” lifters. Since they are like cyborgs—half muscle, half armor—they can move differently under load than raw lifters. Notably, with the heavier suits you can squat with a super-wide stance that would tear your hips apart without the protection of your artificial “glutes.” You also bench very differently in a shirt that gives you what are, in effect, bionic super-pecs.

wide-stance-squats-2
You’re very strong in this outrageously wide stance, but without the suit your hips couldn’t take it.       http://www.muscleandbrawn.com

So “geared” lifters have to train differently too. Like NASCAR drivers, they spend a lot of time experimenting with new equipment, in new combinations, and fine-tuning their movement patterns to take fullest advantage. They also have to condition their bodies to the truly brutal loads—not just their muscles but their connective tissues and central nervous systems.

Most importantly for us, the geared lifters–and this includes Rogozhnikov and his crew–must emphasize different muscle groups. When you or I do a bench press, we struggle most at the bottom of the lift, where we have little leverage and must do most of the work with our pecs and shoulders. But a geared lifter is different. He is helped off the chest by his artificial pecs. He reaches the “sticking point” halfway up, where he gets no more help from the shirt and must lock out his arms with just his own tricep strength. Therefore, where “raw” lifters like you or I must pay special attention to our pecs and shoulders, the geared lifter must do extra work for his triceps, since for him those are the weak link.

In our next installment, on assistance work, we will see that this means you might need to part company from Rogozhnikov and his up-armored lifters.

 

 

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“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.”

Tanning-cream-3
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.

Old-school-powerlifters
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.

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.

poster-glorifying-the-model-soviet-worker-stakhanov-movement-B923T5-2
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.

dumbbell-clean
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.

Cycling, Part 4: Two-stage Cycles

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.

Stage 1
      Week 1 210 x 5 x 5
      Week 2 215 x 5 x 5
      Week 3 220 x 5 x 5
      Week 4 225 x 5 x 5
      Week 5 230 x 5 x 5
Stage 2 add 15#
      Week 6 210 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.)
      Week 7 220 x 6; 230 x 4; 240 x 2; 255 x 1
      Week 8 230 x 6; 240 x 4; 250 x 2; 265 x 1
      Week 9 240 x 6; 250 x 4; 260 x 2; 275 x 1
      Week 10 (Meet day) 285 x 1

 

Doubles and Singles (Cycling, Part 3)

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#.

Three-Stage Cycle

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.)

Scapula-Retraction-300x300
With these doubles and singles, you will find out whether you are paying enough attention to the little things, like scrunching your upper back up super-tight. It’s with details like this that you make your body a stable platform off which to press.

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!

Stage 1
      Week 1 170 x 5 x 5
      Week 2 175 x 5 x 5
      Week 3 180 x 5 x 5
      Week 4 185 x 5 x 5
Stage 2 Add 10#
      Week 5 195 x 4 x 4
      Week 6 200 x 4 x 4
      Week 7 205 x 4 x 4
Stage 3 Add 15#. Work up to that in several jumps, as shown below.
      Week 8 185 x 6; 195 x 4; 210 x 2; 220 x 1
      Week 9 195 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.