Pavel Tsatsouline is the personification of the success of a Soviet person in the world of Western fitness, the “king of weights” in the USA, the founder of the StrongFirst school (want to build strength? turn to them).
The Lion Health publishes a short summary of his text on the basic principles of the development of strength, on which the programs of his school are based.
There are many ways to become strong. Most of them are intermediate, some are quite effective, and only a few give extraordinary results.
One, if not the only, system in the third category is the Soviet Olympic weightlifting technique of the 1960s and 1980s. The names of Vlasov, Alekseev, and many other Soviet champions of that period are carved in stone in the history of weightlifting. Some of their records, such as those of Vardanyan and Zakharevich, have remained unattainable for other athletes for over 30 years.
David Rigert, Olympic champion, and multiple world weightlifting champion, recalls: “I am far from thrilled with the Bulgarian 17-year-old champions. They burn out very quickly. I believe weightlifting is a sport for adult men. Our weightlifting school has stood the test of time. Vasily Alekseev, for example, did not know defeat for almost 10 years. Moreover, he continued to set world records at the age of 36!“
“I definitely have nothing to complain about,” continues Rigert, who has broken 63 world records in 10 years.
A few years after leaving professional sports to become a coach, David decided to motivate one of his men, the world record holder for the heavyweight division at the time, to compete in the clean lifting competition. The much heavier Rigert, who has not been involved in weightlifting for 4 years, with the exception of demonstrating the exercise to his charges, achieved the same results as the young champion.
David Riegert’s coach Rudolf Plyukfelder became an Olympic champion at the age of 36, an achievement that no one can repeat until now. Today, Plyukfelder, who is well into his 80s, does rock bottom jump squats with 200 pounds for reps! This is really solid training to build strength.
The system does not have a single author; it was born as a result of cooperation between Medvedev, Vorobyov, Chernyak, and other specialists, many of whom were champions in the past. Despite the existence of a number of differences in views on certain points, these sports heavyweights shared the following principles on how to build strength:
Want to Build Strength? Learn 3 Principles
A large amount of work with a load of 70-80% of the maximum is the basis to build strength
Yuri Vlasov explains this principle in the following way:
“An increase in load leads to long-term (structural and functional) changes that serve as the basis for the progress of strength skills. Of course, strength grows at the same time, but not too fast. Then, increasing the intensity allows you to quickly achieve new results. However, the high intensity of work in itself does not lead to a deep adaptation of the organism.“
The lion’s share of the adaptive effect occurs when working with moderate weights. Half of their time, Soviet athletes devoted to working with weights at 70-80% of the maximum load at 1RM.
In order to build strength, loads must be constantly changing
In the West, a key term for planning strength development is progression. In the East, the same place is occupied by “variability”.
It may sound reckless to you, but the Soviet system was not designed to improve performance for one rep. Where the American athlete seeks to improve his own performance for one rep, in the Soviet system, the coach developed an amazing set of exercises that did not exactly imply linear growth in load.
And the most popular in the West scheme “three weeks of increase in loads with one week of rest” in the Soviet Union was practiced only by novice athletes. Professional Soviet weightlifters did not increase the load every week in order to be as exhausted as possible in three weeks and to do something completely different in the fourth week. Training intensity changed unexpectedly, but not as dramatically.
Professor Arkady Vorobyov found that unexpected changes in load during training have a greater impact than anything else. A classic experiment of a researcher from his group, A. Ermakov, showed that “jumping” loads were 61% more effective than training programs with a planned gradual increase in load.
Perform 1/3 to 2/3 of the maximum number of repetitions you can perform at a given load
In most cases, Soviet weightlifters performed 1/3 to 2/3 of the RM, be it quick lifts or squats and presses.
Note that the above formula only applies to weights in the 70-90% range of the maximum load per rep. For weights greater than 90%, only single repetitions are performed. For weights lighter than 70%, the number of repetitions is usually 1/3 of the maximum possible.
Tsatsouline’s Method to Build Strength
Although Olympic weightlifting is not an area of my specialization, I follow this area, as the methods developed by Soviet specialists are universal in nature for any strength training. For example, the training system for the famous Russian national powerlifting team was developed by Boris Sheyko, who has worked with weightlifters in the past. If you follow my work, it will be obvious to you that my most effective programs draw heavily on the principles described above and were first discovered by the greatest minds in Olympic weightlifting.
Despite the success of a number of my programs, for a long time, I remained dissatisfied with the result, since I did not see the opportunity to use many of the greatest achievements of Soviet science in the field of weightlifting in addition to preparing weightlifters for competition, especially when it came to load fluctuations. Some load rotation schemes were too complex to be split into their component parts and then assembled for the needs of anyone other than the rare newbies.
Many techniques did not work with dumbbells. But I did not give up hope, trying to develop algorithms that would allow any reasonable person without special knowledge in this area to create a surprisingly effective plan for the development of strength skills, using the weight of dumbbells, kettlebells, my own body, and whatever, which would fully meet the methodology which brought so many gold medals to the SU’s Olympic team.
Tsatsouline’s Program Results
13 athletes started their training with a maximum of 40 kg while doing the military press standing with dumbbells in each hand. After 8 weeks, 11 of the 13 mentees were able to bench press with a weight of 44 kg (two of them achieved even greater results, but one of these two claimed that his initial load level was closer to 44, not 40 kg).
When using the same program for women, a third of them were able to improve the result from 20 to 24 kg, and the rest coped well with the 20 kg weight. Anyone who has ever done a military press and reached a level where subsequent progress is noticeably slowed down will say that this is a very good result. You use small muscle groups with high neurobiological efficiency, which, unlike, for example, the muscles of the legs, are very “reluctant” to increase their strength capabilities.
Many of my students noted how unexpected and almost random the changes in workload seemed to them from day to day and from week to week. To draw an analogy, the American program is like a photograph, and the Soviet one is like a vivid impressionist painting.
A seasoned eye will easily see the logic in a powerlifting program, while the Soviet program if examined more closely, seems like chaos. Remember the museum scene in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Cameron finds himself in front of a painting by George Serre. His gaze is out of focus and the image of the little girl is lost in a sea of colored spots. To see the whole picture, you need to move further away so that an amazing work of art emerges from a set of chaotic spots.
As an illustration, Pavel placed fragments of Serre’s painting and training program in one picture:
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