The Science of Winning According to Vasili Alexeyev

TAGS: heavyweight class, art of training, Science of Winning, Vasili Alexeyev, Dr. Mel Siff, weightlifter, supertraining, training principles, muscle growth, olympic games, Siff, deadlift, dave tate, Elitefts Info Pages, barbell, training

Note from Dave: This is a repost of what I feel is one of the most educational articles we have ever posted. This was sent to me years ago from Dr. Mel Siff and should be a must read for everyone in the strength game. I think you will also find the material very insightful. Dr. Siff makes a few notes throughout the article that I found to be of great interest. Dr. Siff is the author of the text Supertraining.

 

Notes from Dr. Siff:
I cannot recall if this article on the great OL lifter, Alexeyev, has already been featured. Anyway, it is still worth reading even if it was posted a long time ago. Alexeyev's comments on his great rival, Reding, are especially noteworthy:

"I remember, at the time of the championships in Lima, that Reding in training lifted record weights. He had acquired a terrific strength and huge muscles, but he lost to me, even though he was physically stronger. Why? Serge and I had different ways of training. Others thought for him. He carried out the suggestions of his coach, Dupont. Roughly speaking, Reding took in 'the science of winning' though his ears. And this showed when he was on his own with the barbell. But, as for me, I thought for myself.  Serge also lost because he wanted to beat me. That's all he thought about. He worried constantly and burned himself out before he even got to the platform. . . "

Read the rest of the article and appreciate how much of it applies to many of us.


The main thing in a record holder's life is work. In my opinion, it is particularly a profoundly thought-out creative individual training regimen which allowed Alexeyev to build his fantastically strong and voluminous muscles and to strengthen his will. But, most important, is his character!

When I asked Vasili the reasons for his constant victories, he thought a bit and answered: "If I want something. I will definitely achieve it. No matter what I have to sacrifice. The more complex the situation, the more threatening my rivals, the more I spread my wings in defiance of everything.

You want to know the principles of my training? That, forgive me, is a secret. . . I'm joking, of course! I don't like to speak about this subject
because some people won't understand what I'm talking about while others will say I'm bragging, as if to say, "He's become a champion and he's making it up."

But then I see that many on our team are already working in my way. Theirs, however, is a copy — not the original. Even though the copy may be a good one, it will always be a step away from the original. You see, the question is not one of strength, not one of talent. It's a matter of what's in the head. In the physical sense you should, you need to work very hard, but with the nerves . . ."

At different stages, Alexeyev was helped by trainers and he listened to their opinions . . . but only up to a point, to a limit. There was his first teacher, Simon Mileiko, and then Alexander Chuzhin.  Rudolf Plyukfelder, it's felt, also played a definite part. And Vasili also took something from the trainers of the Soviet team. Especially from Arkady Vorobyev. However, he was not a blind follower of orders given from the sidelines.

All these last years, Alexeyev has been training on his own using his own method which can't be found in any textbook. All the books say that to achieve great results you have to train vigorously, often lifting maximum weights. But Alexeyev considers this a harmful mistake. More than one book could be written about Alexeyev's method of winning and I imagine he will write them.

Here I will quote some excerpts from his words on this subject, taken from our many chats over the years:

"There is much talk about the art of training. But there is nothing concrete. I myself keep searching for a rational method...Constantly....But generally, I train differently from anyone else...

"Here they've put up a lot of mirrors in the gyms. They're good for furniture but not for training. When an athlete looks into the mirror he gets away from himself; instead, he should be totally focused. In the mirror, you'll see nothing but your image. This means that you won't understand and won't pick up the technique of exercise, you won't make sense out of the method. My advice during training is to think, think, think!

"What upsets me is that the method of training used by an overwhelming number of weightlifters, in spite of the amazing growth in records, is still at the same point it was in the fifties. For example, you want to improve your technique on the snatch — you practice the snatch; the jerk — you practice the jerk. I tell them to correct their mistakes differently, to strengthen separate groups of muscles. A simple example: an athlete is having trouble with the snatch. They advise him to start differently, to change his grip on the barbell — wider or narrower. But it turns out that it's enough to build up a group of muscles which 'do the trick' with the maximum effort and he gets better results.

"We often see the effect but not the cause of what's lacking. If an athlete doesn't know how to jerk, he's not going to learn this only by jerking. But if he were to do some necessary exercises in order to strengthen a group of muscles (those necessary for the jerk) then he will get results. No one seems to understand that, even though an exercise does not 'lie' [functionally] right alongside the jerk, it influences, it gives you the jerk.

"Everyone supposes that my method is good for heavyweights alone. It's good for anyone who wants to build up the strength of their muscles.

Here they've put up a lot of mirrors in the gyms. They're good for furniture but not for training. 

 

"My method is aimed at increasing the two lift total. We have many
outstanding weightlifters in the gyms, but very few at the competitions. Why? Well, because one must know how to 'deliver' one's strength on the competing platform. The object of today's trainers is not to teach an athlete the correct way to lift a barbell. Most important, he must teach him to reason and make important decisions independently. Without thought, there's no creation. And without creation, progress in our difficult work is impossible.

"It seems to me that some of the talented athletes lack one thing: they haven't had an injury. That's right!  An injury that will put them out of commission for a year during which time they'll have a chance to weigh everything.  I, too, would not be where I am if I had not injured my back.  I suffered for a year and a half thinking everything over. After a misfortune, people pull through and become, if possible, great people — and sportsmen, in particular. Those who are stronger find their way out and to the top.

"Do I worry? Well, of course.  If you don't worry, you'll never succeed at anything.  In sports, without the excitement of daring, you don't win victory or records. When I'm too calm before a competition, I rouse myself with hot coffee. The pulse must be beating, no fewer than 18 times in ten seconds.

"Excitement before competition is very dangerous.  I, of course, have felt it. Sometimes I calm myself. Everything happens as it must, and so what happens will happen. I must win, because I have a solid supply of strength.

"Waiting causes the most anxiety. The heavyweights wait the longest, they put the final touch on the championships. Usually, I do this. And while the others are competing, I can barely stand the noise of the barbells, the monotonous voice of the judge. Everything irritates me and annoys me. In addition to this, I worry about the team. This puts a lot of strain on my will.

"They say that the strongest wins. But the strongest in what way? I remember, at the time of the championships in Lima, that Reding in training lifted record weights. He had acquired a terrific strength and huge muscles, but he lost to me, even though he was physically stronger. Why? Serge and I had different ways of training. Others thought for him. He carried out the suggestions of his coach, Dupont. Roughly speaking, Reding took in 'the science of winning' though his ears. And this showed when he was on his own with the barbell. But, as for me, I thought for myself. Serge also lost because he wanted to beat me. That's all he thought about. He worried constantly and burned himself out before he even got to the platform.

"For me the most important thing is to beat myself, to lift the barbell that up to this point I have not yet lifted. My rivals don't worry me very much. It's good when your competitors are strong and bad when they are weak. The same Reding, now dead, when he appeared without me, beat the records every time. And I treated him respectfully because he always kept me in shape. Now Enaldiev, Rachmanov, Plachkov, and Bonk do the same.

"There was a time when I was overcome with anxiety, when I rarely competed so that I was losing a sense of the platform. But when I started appearing often and with a lot of gusto, my self-confidence returned, and with that records and victories. Now, with a solid backlog of experience, I appear on the platform less frequently. But for the time being I've not lost my fighting qualities. Any competition is a holiday for me. During my training sessions, I get up an enormous appetite to lift the heaviest barbell and to set a record. Other times, honest, I think to myself: train with weights of 150 to 200 kilograms, how will I push 250?  But I firmly believe in success and know exactly how much I am going to pick up in my second turn — the first I do for the team.

But, as for me, I thought for myself.  Serge also lost because he wanted to beat me. That's all he thought about. He worried constantly and burned himself out before he even got to the platform. . . 

 

"At the championship, I am in a proper fighting mood. When I put on my outfit and my shoes, this very process transforms me. I become more energetic, more excited. It's here that it's important not to lose your head, you should compete as much as possible with sense.

"What advice can I give to the young ones who come out onto the platform with their teeth chattering from nerves? First, you must enter a competition well prepared. And for this you must train sensibly; you must work on yourself physically but save your nerves. It doesn't pay to get excited over nothing while training, to show off your courage, to swagger. Save this charge for the contest. And then be alert when you go up to the barbell. And, to be frank, even with all my experience, I am sometimes very nervous — you cannot imagine.

"I have observed that many train without sense. They do a great deal of work for nothing. For example, Falev, an athlete on the Soviet team weighing 110 kilograms, does squats with a barbell weighing 320 kilograms. I don't use one weighing more than 270kg. There is a difference of 50 kilograms in his favor. But he jerks 220kg, while I jerk 256kg. Thus, it turns out that the result in the classical exercise is not determined by the strength of the legs.

"In order to avoid noise, I used to train alone. Now, I go out among the people. I show the youngsters the whys and wherefores. I tell them how to polish up their technique. Naturally, this is more tiring, since I also train myself.

"Usually the great champions, while they are still active, hide their methods of training. Alexeyev is not like that. It would seem that it would not be to his advantage to share his experiences with young heavyweights, potential rivals, with those who are already striving to replace him. However, Vasili doesn't refuse anyone his help.

"I can't do otherwise. What kind of team captain would I be if I watched the methods and technical mistakes of my teammates with indifference?"

My conviction that Alexeyev's priceless experience will not be lost was strengthened when I saw that at the end of 1976 he conducted a trial get-together at the Podolsk sports base to train the young heavyweights. I won't try to describe in depth Alexevev's method (he has written about it in his dissertation as a science degree candidate) but I'll explain the reason for its great effectiveness.

Usually, the athletes lift barbells and then immediately drop them. This takes several seconds. According to Alexeyev's method, the sportsman finds himself under the weight for a period of two or three minutes. The entire body must sustain this prolonged effort, as the athlete completes several consecutive exercises without letting go of the equipment.

[Note that this would refer to various hybrid exercises, as described in my "Supertraining"2000 book, p397, 436. — Mel Siff].

The weight of the barbell is relatively light, but the
varied work with it affects every muscle cell. By the end of the two-week session, all Alexeyev's students had increased their bodyweights as a result of muscle growth and at the same time, they'd increased their abilities.

Here is what Sultan Rachmanov said: "At first I trained in my own way. I didn't believe that Alexeyev's advice would help me. Now I believe. My shoulders, my back, everything is filling up with strength. There is this to consider. Not everything will come my way, but I'll take the most important!"

At the USSR championships in Karaganda, Rachmanov, who up until then had not been a 400kg man, became the third prize
winner with the distinguished sum of 420 kg. In the fall this athlete took the USSR record in the snatch. And who is to know, perhaps he will be the successor to the glory of the hero of the Munich and Montreal Olympic Games!

Each of Alexeyev's students noted that thanks to this unusual system of working they have acquired a good amount of self-confidence in their own strength. Yes, and I too have noticed with what incredible ease the athletes picked up the 160-kilo barbell in the snatch at the end of the training session.

The 1976 annual "Heavy Athletics" ['Tyezhelaya Atletika' in Russian or "Weightlifting" in English  Mel Siff]  ran a detailed article which Alexeyev called "The Experience of My Training." In this first scientific publication of the strongest athlete, the author refutes some unsound (although they've existed for ten years) methodological concepts about how to develop strength in athletes of the heavyweight class.

He writes: "In the first years I trained according to the accepted methods. But then, from 1966, I decided to significantly increase the size of my training weight. This immediately brought results. By the end of 1967, I had gained 32.5 kilograms in my triple sum total and by the end of 1968, 42.5 kilograms. For athletes of the superheavyweight class, the average rate of growth had by this time significantly increased."

Vasili includes a great variety of exercises in his training. "Besides exercises in the snatch, jerk, or press, pull and squats, I have used many other exercises with the barbell and weights. Bends with the barbell on the shoulders; bends with the barbell on the shoulders while lying on the 'horse' bracing one's hips, with the legs secured; jumps with the barbell on your shoulders; press on crossbars with weights; bending and unbending the arms in the elbow joints; squats on one leg; throwing the bar upward and behind; and other exercises. In addition, in the first year of the time span analyzed, these exercises consisted of, on the average, 360 lifts in the preparatory period and 158 lifts during the competition period. In the second year, correspondingly 841 and 506 lifts, and in the third 880 lifts a month."

[Note how different his highly varied training was from the training of elite Bulgarian lifters.  — Mel Siff]

And here is the conclusion that Alexeyev drew at the end of his studies: "The method of training I have used can be recommended to athletes of the heavyweight class, and also to those athletes whose bodyweight does not correspond to the height specifications. Young athletes should not inhibit the growth of their bodyweight. They should be more courageous about entering their proper weight class.

"One of the conditions for fast growth in the scores of future athletes of heavyweight classes is the completion of large amounts of exercises with the barbell and other weights. The problem is that beginning athletes of the light or middle weight, in order to become first-class athletes, must increase their muscle mass by approximately 25 percent. For heavyweights, it's 50 percent and more. The growth of the muscle mass is directly dependent on the amount of the training loads.

"It is also important to note that you can achieve high scores at
competitions by decreasing to a minimum the lifting of barbells of maximum weight in the snatch and jerk exercises, by significantly decreasing the number of lifts of the barbell with big weights."

I don't doubt that in the near future the mining engineer Vasili Alexeyev will successfully conclude his graduate study as a correspondence student in the Institute of Physical Culture and will become a graduate in pedagogical studies.

He will probably change his qualifications because he already considers himself outside weightlifting. He will become a coach. A good one! But for the moment, Alexeyev is thinking about his third victory at the Olympic Games.

I asked the champion how he was able in 18 years of training to "grow" more than 70 kilograms of muscle, "Earlier I didn't lift less than 20 tons. More often the daily load was 25 to 30 tons. What's more, these aren't the same tons that our 'boys' lift today. You have to multiply their tons by two or three; that's the factor of difficulty which I applied in my exercises. If necessary, I would even now be ready to lift 40 tons in one training session.

"Besides, speaking about the physical make-up of heavyweights, some experts feel that the ability to get high scores should be combined with the development of a trim figure. I have departed from this quite a bit. What is the weakest part of a person's constitution? You don't know? In my opinion, the part of the spine at the waist. And I constantly reinforce it by growing a 'corset' with my muscles [If this sounds familiar, then think of Louie Simmons and his powerlifters who advocate much the same. — Mel Siff]. Yes, we
superheavyweights are not too pretty to look at, but our body makeup is expedient for picking up record barbells."

"I'll have time to work on my figure when I retire from weightlifting,"
Vasili said, smiling. "For the moment, I do and will continue to do only that which makes me stronger. I notice some talented athletes spend more time building their muscles for the sake of form and that this muscular development impedes their ability to lift maximum weights. They aren't too concerned with their ability to defend the honor of Soviet sports abroad. What is the sense of their beautiful figures?!"

"My task for the future is quite clear," explains Alexeyev. "It is to create in Ryazan, where I have settled, a center for weightlifting. To get some coaches and help them. I'll develop a method for each different age group — from the beginning to maturity. I've tried out everything on myself. Maybe I'll invite some boys with potential to Ryazan, boys who don't have coaches or suitable conditions for training. I don't mean this would be to lure them away. We are still behind in many weight classes. I would like to work, and I have no profit motive.

"For the time being, I still want to win and set records. I love this
occupation. I respect weightlifting. It teaches you to master the art and at the necessary moment to organize yourself. It's because I feel so 'in love' with the barbell that I gave it the best years of my life. For me, sport is life. Hemingway put it well when he wrote, 'Sport teaches you to win honestly. Sport teaches you to lose with dignity. In a word, sport teaches you life'.

"There is no point in denying that for the athlete, as for the artist, recognition is a necessity. A good artist controls his public. The athlete first causes his public to be amazed, then to worry about their idol, and finally to love him for his skill, his strength, and his courage. One wants to startle the world with something incredible. Then they recognize you. For this, it is worth working like a dog. Especially since in our time, it becomes more and more difficult to surprise anybody.

"When I joined the weightlifting section, there were no sharp definitions between the methods of training. I was not used to training mechanically and I didn't like this. I began to think for myself, how to organize an effective system of training. I knew from my own experience that, with stubborn effort, one can do anything. I didn't spare myself. I worked with maximum weights, analyzed my situation, and again began training. I invented many things myself. For example, I began to work a great deal with the barbell in water.
I searched and experimented and here is the result. I made my way from 500 to 600 kilograms in three years. From then on I wanted to be first.

[Note that lifting weights against various opposing media such as elastic bands and chains, a la Westside—and, in this case, lifting against water resistance (which is variable)—can be a useful supplementary form of training. — Mel Siff]

"At 28 I set my first record, having had a solid physical preparation. I ran, jumped, played volleyball — with first-class sports strength. At the age of 12, I began to train with homemade barbells. They are still to be found in my mother's yard. All of them weigh more than two tons. I didn't think of any records. I always respected strength in people and I wanted to have it myself. What boy doesn't want to be strong and skillful? I'm sure there isn't one."

"Isn't the cultivation of one's physical abilities detrimental to the
development of the mind?", I once asked Alexeyev and showed him a quotation from the magazine "Bicyclist", which was published in St Petersburg in the last century.

"To make a man an athlete and at the same time a man of
learning is simply impossible. In order to regulate the body in accordance with physiological law it is necessary for the physical work to be in reverse proportion to the intellectual work. Only in view of these circumstances, instead of opposition, can one achieve the desired balance."

"There is some truth in this," agreed Vasili, "I have known from my own experience how difficult it is to read even entertaining literature after a hard training session. I can never sit too long in one place. It's torture for me. I absolutely must move. Therefore it`s not easy for us to study. And yet all Soviet athletes get a higher education. But they lay certain claims on us. Some would like to see the big sportsman as a well-rounded intellectual. But this doesn't happen in reality. Take any scholar, dig a bit and you will find that in many things he is an ignoramus."

"Do you think about leaving sports?"

"I clearly understand that I won't be around forever. But I still have the desire to compete and compete. Even though I soon will be 36 and age in sports is critical, I have outlasted and I think I will still outlast some of the younger 'old men' who don't know how to compete. I've outlived Patera, Dube, Reding, and Mang."

"Our youth is now coming up."

"Whom do you have in mind?"

"Enaldiev, Rachmanov . . . "

"What kind of youth is this? They are about 30. It's me who is young and coming up. But you can't make comparisons with me. I am no worse now than I was in 1970, when I was 28 years old."

"And yet is there a reason to remain on the competing platform? After all, your remaining in sports keeps you from making progress in the industrial field."

"Sometimes I worry about this. When I was just a Master of Sports, they offered me a choice — rather, they advised me to 'drop' my barbells because my absences from work (while at the contests) interfered with my job. At the factory, I worked with zeal and at the Kotlas paper works, they appreciated me. They wanted me to become a technical expert. But I wanted to achieve great things in sports and I refused the tempting offer. I found work which allowed me to spend more time with the barbells. I was not wrong in my choice. I don't regret anything. Even though, of course, I've missed some things. I imagine that if I had not gotten so passionately involved in sports, I might have had more success at the factory where they also appreciated me. My principle is to work honestly.''

It is difficult to approach Alexeyev. But in rare moments of frankness, it's a real pleasure to chat with him and listen to him. He has a tendency to be too stern and at times he is somewhat unfair to our friend, the journalist. But it seems he can't be any other way.

Once a famous pilot and hero of the Soviet Union, Georgi Mosolov, talking about heroic deeds, wrote: "The strength of the muscles, as if blending with the strength of the will, makes for a third strength, the strength that helps sportsmen set phenomenal world records. That is the very strength people find in themselves, people who have crossed a limit that until then had been considered impossible."

The Russian giant has passed that boundary 80 times! Sometimes he fought for victory (in spite of himself) and won. In these moments Vasili Alexeyev was saved by the main component — the third strength, the indomitable will.

William O. Johnson

He went on. "There are two categories of performer in my sport.
First: those who view competitions as tortures. Second: those who see competitions as great celebrations. I am in the middle of those two. For some performers, there is a psychological problem. As the weight is greater, the more the mind makes the weight seem to be. But we are from the U.S.S.R., and such a psychological situation is no problem. During Shakespeare's times, it was said, 'What must be cannot be avoided.' That is how it is when I lift. To successfully lift the weight cannot be avoided. I experience the tortures and the celebration. But I lift as well as I lift because it cannot be avoided.

"I am asked to make many speeches in the Soviet Union. I am very much at ease and I say to crowds, 'Okay, what topic do you like me to talk about?' They ask me to tell my biography, how I got to be a great sportsman, and they ask my impression of my last competition. Of course, I have nearly always won the last competition, so my impressions are always happy, proud. I say I have become a great champion because of my love of hard work and my great striving
to reach the target of winning."

When I asked whether he considered his victories some sort of proof of the U.S.S.R.'s superiority over the U.S., Alexeyev replied, "I have always had to win because I respect my people and I display my country's success by winning. As to whether we would prove the Soviet way better than the American in the competitions of weightlifting, such a target was never put before us."

It was about 11:45 in the morning, another translucent autumn day in Alexeyev's courtyard. Young Dmitri was kicking his soccer ball, the Doberman puppy scrambling wildly after it. The boy's school hours were in the afternoon. His brother attended morning classes — there are double sessions in Shakhty. Suddenly the door of Alexeyev's house banged open and the great man
stepped out. He was dressed in electric-blue sweatpants, Adidas sneakers, a thin apple-green T-shirt. In his right hand, he carried a bulging Adidas bag and looked not unlike a gigantic commuter bound for his train. And Vasili Alexeyev was indeed on his way to work. He strode about 25 mighty paces, and there he was at his office, chairman of the board, to say nothing of king of the mountain.

In those 25 paces from his back door to the bar, the weights, and the rubber mats laid by the brick wall, everything in Alexeyev's existence as premier sports hero of the Soviet Union and strongest man in the world was on display. He moved with a powerful swagger across the courtyard bricks. His massive arms kept rhythm with the steady pump of his great thighs and his head swayed—gently, arrogantly—with each stride. He radiated absolute peace and self-assurance. His face was composed in the benign, even saintly, self-confident expression of an old-fashioned king absolutely certain of his
divine right to reign. There might have been music, The Hallelujah Chorus perhaps, but it was not necessary.

At the weightlifting area, he unzipped the bag to take out a package of talcum powder and a white leather girdle which he strapped beneath his belly to diminish the immense strain on his stomach muscles when he hoists the weights. The weights, the great discs of iron, were stacked along the garden wall. He studied them, then picked up one weighing 25 kilos (55 pounds) and fitted it on one end of the bar. He got a similar disc on the other end and began to work. Next, he progressed to 65 kilos (143 pounds). He dusted his hands with talcum, spat into his palms, bent and gripped the bar. With a horrible gasp and grunt he yanked it to shoulder level, paused, then raised it, in triumph, it seemed, above his head. He held it there for a moment, then let it fall to the mats with an explosive crash. In the soft morning, with his Shakhtinka roses budding nearby and the leaves of the grapevines rustling on the garden wall, with the chirping of the birds in his trees and the civilized sound of trolley cars in the distance, the savage clangor of the falling weight was as unnerving as a grenade blast at one's feet.

Alexeyev lifted the 65 kilos three or four times as a warmup. He rested for a moment, leaning on a padded gymnastic horse. He said nothing. He seemed to be concentrating very hard, as though slipping into some kind of trance necessary to the superhuman feats he performed so regularly. Dmitri and the puppy scampered by his feet. and Alexeyev emerged from his trance to inquire, "Have you done all your lessons?" Offended, the boy replied that of course he
had. Alexeyev added more weight and lifted something over 250 pounds. He seemed about to burst when he hoisted the bar above his head. His belly strained against the leather girdle. He dropped the weight with the same hideous crash. He lifted it again and let it fall. Then, panting, he leaned again against the horse. Once more he seemed to be entering a quasi-mystical state of concentration, which it seemed wise not to interrupt. But then he looked at me and said, "Ask me something."

Well, all right. Could he explain his training technique? He said, "The
difference between my methodics and others is great. What is mainly different is that I train more often and I lift more weights than others. I never know when I will train. Sometimes deep in the night, sometimes in the morning. Sometimes several times a day, sometimes not at all. I never repeat myself. Only I understand what is right for me. I have never had a coach. I know my own possibilities bestly. No coach knows them. Coaches grow old and they have old ideas."

power-racks-home2

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