Soviet Training System for Powerlifting: Is It Really Optimal?

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If a training system is perfect or not, is a question that shouldn’t be asked in the first place. If the training system matches a certain athlete or a particular case, is a much wiser question to ask. Some people though, chase perfection and in their never-ending journey, they encounter training methods that resemble the Holy Grail at first but after several months of testing, they turn to be not as perfect as one might have believed in the beginning. As many believe, the Russian training system is one of the most efficient and successful training systems. It allowed numerous athletes to achieve ridiculously strong results. Let’s take a look at Kirill Sarychev, Andrei Sapozhonkov, Andrei Malanichev or Yuri Belkin. Those athletes are crazy strong and there are not many people in the world that could compete with them. All thanks to the Soviet training system, Boris Sheiko, and Russian squat routines like Smolov, right?

Soviet training system effectiveness

Before I move on, I must say that not so long ago, I was a fan of this training system and I’ve achieved great results from using its simplified version with my athletes. I skipped counting every single repetition above 50% and using maths to calculate the relative intensity, INOL, total number of lifts etc. I just went by feel and have experienced very good results with it. Many of the athletes I worked with have finally started to surpass their previous strength levels and make progress. I do not at all believe that this system is bad or ineffective, I simply realised that some of its principles can be tweaked and adjusted to match the athlete, that is individualised. Simply going by feel is not an unwise training method at all. You can use autoregulation to increase the efficacy of a workout by adjusting the routine based on how the athletes react to it.

Training volume

Russian training system relies on adjusting the athlete to the programme, not vice-versa. It determines, from the beginning, that a typical athlete with a specified training status should perform a certain number of repetitions during a specified period. It also determines how many of those repetitions should go towards the squat, bench or deadlift. My point of view is that you could achieve significantly better results if you worked with an athlete for some time and used your coaching experience to determine if the athlete does better on low, medium or high volume training routines. I would not have any particular number in mind but would rather work with the athlete and observe their energy levels to judge if their body has had enough or not. Another flaw is that when you stick with a given 1RM for 12 or 14 weeks and all your calculations are based on that then it’s not as effective as using RPE or RIR to guess where you’re at now. You can’t foretell how strong your athletes are going to get in 6, 8 or 14 weeks so using the same 1RM for calculating the percentages for 3 or 4 months straight might turn to be pernicious at the end.

Training specificity

When I started working with Josh Bryant, I became aware of an important flaw of the Russian training style. One of the biggest features of the Russian training system is so-called high specificity. Some of the coaches praise it for being so specific that you end up doing almost only the competition lifts and that obviously comes with a price. If you are to perform 20 sets of sole bench press plus a couple of accessory movements, you have to reduce the intensity. If the maximum weight you use during your workouts is 85-90% once every couple of weeks, this style of training is not actually that specific, is it? What’s missing then? High-intensity work! I personally believe that going heavier more frequently and using a bit more weight, especially with beginner and intermediate athletes, could allow them to get a better outcome by teaching them how to push themselves 100% and commit to the lift. Let me mention a simple analogy that Josh used to make me realise the mistake I was making in my training programming. Adding pauses in any lift halfway up or down allows you to accumulate more TUT (Time Under Tension) in a particular ROM (Range of Motion), right? Correct but if you’re sticking point is halfway through then a better approach would be to use isometrics to attack it with maximal force, that is with high specificity! Just holding the bar at your sticking point for 3 seconds is not enough to get you maximally strong in this range of motion as you need to be able to generate maximal force there!

Training frequency

High training frequency is another feature of Russian routines. You are usually told to bench 3-4x a week. Even when I was trained by Andrei Sapozhonkov who told me that benching 3x a week is enough, it’s still 3x a week. By doing so, I am unable to completely annihilate my pecs and triceps and go heavy enough to fully recruit the biggest motor units during any of these sessions and that is a flaw. The powerlifts are not as technically complex as the Olympics lifts and do not require such frequent practice. Powerlifters such as Stan Efferding, Scot Mendelson and Eric Lilliebridge alternate their heavy deads with the heavy squats weekly, meaning that they squat or pull heavy once every 2 weeks and some powerlifters even go as far as not doing light squat or deadlift sessions at all. They simply squat on week A and deadlift on week B and gives them great results. I consulted this with Josh Bryant, Stan Efferding and Scot Mendelson and it turned that the stronger and heavier the athlete is, the less training frequency they need. I myself trained a couple of very strong athletes this way and it worked brilliantly so if once every 2 weeks is enough, then why the hell would you deadlift two times a week when you’re already technically proficient?

Overhead press

In a nutshell, there isn’t enough heavy shoulder pressing and I believe some of the athletes might be missing out on that. I know that powerlifting consists of 3 movements and these movements are squat, bench and deadlift but in some cases, movements like Push Jerk, OHP, Dead Seated Shoulder Press from the pins or Isometric Shoulder Press against the pins can really help people with weak shoulders. I also know that going overly heavy in overhead movements is not really beneficial for bench press but there have been many cases of Olympic lifters not benching at all and only overhead pressing that ended having up a decent bench in their weight class despite not doing it. This means that heavy overhead pressing in some way does transfer to the bench and it can be a powerful tool to increase your bench press, especially if shoulder strength is the limiter. Please remember that if you strengthen your weakest link, you strengthen the whole chain. If shoulders are too weak, they will limit the bench and the same goes for every other muscle group so why neglect shoulder presses?

Exercise order

The Russian training system focuses on working in various intensity zones and it’s more beneficial to your nervous system as it’s getting a varied range of stimuli and makes the process of adapting easier but the order of the work that athletes perform could be structured in a different way to prime the CNS at the beginning of the workout. It would allow for better strength gains. By performing heavy sets first and then dropping down to the lower intensity zones you ensure that your athletes go for the top sets fresh and for the back-off work primed and this is the way I roll now. I know that doing 5 sets of 3 reps of bench or squat at the beginning of the workout will give you extra 15 repetitions total and will allow you to properly warm up but it will also get you tired. Why not do the heavy work first and back-off sets afterwards? As it goes for the warm-ups, just moving the weight explosively during the concentric phase is enough to prime and wake up your CNS and that’s one of the reasons I use wake-up sets instead of warm-up sets.

Soviet training system summary

To sum up, the Russian training system is definitely not a bad training system but it’s also not perfect. There are pros and cons of this system and if you plan to incorporate it into your toolbox, first make sure that it actually matches your athlete. Don’t throw in random routines assuming that it will make everyone stronger because of high training volume and frequency. Be specific (remember SAID principle, right?), adjust the programmes accordingly and if you realise that your athlete might actually benefit from such training style, then I can honestly recommend you to go for it but if technical efficiency, skill mastery and movement automatisation are not the issues, then I simply reckon that such a high-volume and frequency routine is not necessary to achieve optimal results.

P.S. If you want to learn how to optimise your training system, read this text.

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2 Comments. Leave new

  • Carlton Sieler
    23/03/2022 12:27 am

    Nice post. I be taught one thing more challenging on different blogs everyday. It is going to all the time be stimulating to read content material from different writers and practice just a little something from their store. I’d want to use some with the content material on my blog whether you don’t mind. Natually I’ll offer you a link on your web blog. Thanks for sharing.

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