Somewhere Between Moscow and Columbus

TAGS: roman, reape, moscow, columbus, Siff, westside, strength, powerlifting

“People need to understand the autoregulatory process or what's sometimes called cybernetic periodization. Basically, they need to understand how to train themselves. When that happens and they finally figure it out, they no longer need to use someone else's program. That's the breakthrough factor.” –Dave Tate

In the back of every lifter’s mind, deep behind that realization that you won’t simultaneously hold all of the world records in your weight class in all the federations at once, there is the belief that there is a program out there, somewhere, that just might let you pull it off, a mix of science, voodoo, and obscure training tricks devised by bald men from cold places that you just haven’t found out about yet.

Many of us go from program to program, like a senator bouncing between courtesy suites at a pro sports event, trying to con just a little bit more from those we don’t know and don’t understand. Like our frenzied senator, what we really need to do is stop putting our hands out to others and look at ourselves with total honesty. We need to remember not only what got us to where we are, but also fix what always was or has become our flaw or weakness. I can’t begin to deal with all of Congress’s flaws, but as lifters we can narrow things down to a few areas that we can address with smart training—too slow, too weak, too small, or poor technique.

If you don’t know what your weaknesses are (c’mon…look with your mind’s eye right in front of the non-world record realization), you can ask a critical training partner, video yourself doing heavy training or meet lifts, or do a test, as suggested by the late, great Dr. Mel Siff. Get in either a push-up or standing high jump position. On the first try, lower yourself quickly and then explode up. Measure how high your hands or feet come off the ground. On the second try, lower yourself and pause at least three seconds at the bottom and then spring up. Measure the height off the ground of your hand or feet again. If you can jump higher with the rebound (using the stretch reflex), you need more strength work. If you go higher from the pause, you need to work on your speed. Very simple stuff, huh?

Well, if it was so simple, everybody would be setting those records. If you are like me, you have read everything you can get your hands on and tried most of it to boot. Even what works doesn’t work forever and often contradicts things that worked for others. This is the quandary that I found myself in a year or so ago.

As a heavily Westside Barbell (WSB)-influenced powerlifter, I had been training pretty close to the normal WSB template. I was doing a relatively low volume of the main lifts, a relatively high volume of assistance, max effort (ME), and dynamic effort (DE) focused training, and some extra recovery workouts. At the same time, I started reading the programs advocated by Eastern Bloc coaches like Sheiko, Smolov, Roman, and Tsatsouline. Their ideas were seemingly in total opposition to WSB. They did lots of main lift volume and little assistance work, and they trained very frequently but rarely went much above 90 percent.

While I strongly disagree with the Mentzer/Arthur Jones guys out there who say that there is only one way to train, I was very much confounded by the dominance of the Eastern Bloc methods in the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) and the WSB methods in the World Powerlifting Organization (WPO), since their approaches are so very different. The easy answer was there are huge differences in the WPO and IPF such as the different plys and lifting gear materials, the monolift, rule interpretation and officiating, and even the cash prizes. The use of performance enhancing drugs is arguably an issue, but I would argue that it’s a minimal one with respect to training methods and not germane to my focus in this article.

The Glimpse

Kicking this idea around, I began to get glimpses of a possible answer. Many lifters I know or whose training I follow began to drop or lessen their speed work. Either they were experiencing pec issues or they felt that their speed wasn’t holding them back. Some WSB guys really began to focus on general physical preparedness (GPP) and extra workouts. Some volume guys began to train more in the tighter gear that they use on the platform, increasing the weight on the bar to get lifts to touch or to legal depth. But my glimpses were also accompanied by the knowledge that WSB was doing only one squat workout weekly when doing the circamaximal cycle, and volume guys quickly went back to looser gear, lower bar weights, and more frequent workouts once they got a piece of equipment dialed in.

Both approaches were evolving but not toward each other, and I was starting to experience squat technique problems when switching from box to free squatting. I had similar pec issues, a worsening lockout problem despite my speed in the bench press, and my deadlift was DOA. My grip, start, and lockout all were just getting worse. I had experienced good things from frequent low volume workouts when deployed overseas but really did not want to stick my hand out to a totally new approach when I didn’t understand it. I also knew I couldn’t handle a huge jump in volume without a long transition period.

Around January of 2005, I attended the North Carolina Strength Coach Association seminar at Wake Forest. Pavel Tsatsouline spoke about kettlebells but much more about frequent training, noting that most top deadlifters in the IPF deadlift 3–4 times a week. He was followed by Louie Simmons. To the surprise of many, Mr. Simmons complimented Mr. Tsatsouline on his approach and then remarked that, of the three means of strength improvement (ME, DE, and RE), WSB probably most neglects repeated effort (RE) type training.

He then went on to explain how he trained almost every day. He did bodyweight squats, regular squats, timed dumbbell/barbell work, band only work, assistance work, and main lifts with lighter weight the day before and day after he did ME/DE work, even right before his workouts! In his question and answer segment, among many things, he recommended more frequent workouts, doing the RE in looser gear and raw full range of motion, training max effort raw, and deadlifting off a plate for sets of three to build grip. This didn’t seem to be all that different from what Mr. Tsatsouline had said. I had a long car drive home afterward, and the glimpse became an idea.

The Plan

Doing a hard self assessment, I considered my areas of weakness. I was injury prone due to a technique flaw in the squat, fast but unstable at the bottom of the squat, and fast but with poor lockout in the bench. I had real discomfort with deadlifting and a grip issue. I was also 10–12 pounds under the class limit. After the obvious “eat more” answer, I decided to drop many isolation assistance-like extensions for more partial work. I quit doing good mornings for max effort but kept them in as assistance for sets of five and started doing the main lifts at least three times a week to slowly and carefully push up the main lift volume.

Twice a week, I did specific grip work by performing farmers walks, hex holds, and one-arm hangs, and I used a clean grip while deadlifting on every set where I could hold that way. This evolved into doing each main lift four times a week over the cycle, which I even applied to the deadlift. Taking from Bill Starr’s heavy, medium, light approach, I came up with heavy, light, ME/DE, light as my template. I resolved to get as comfortable in my squat suit as I was in my bench shirt and much stronger and more solid coming out of the hole. I attempted to get more volume and a full range of motion on my raw days, and I aimed for a pause and low groove in the bench press. For the deadlift, tighter was my key goal, and I attempted to get deep and explosive in the squat.

I was inspired by Ian King’s “Wave Loading Manifesto” article and decided that I would  never do consecutive sets using the same weight or reps. I also broke down my squat  and discovered why I was having injury problems. The eye opener was finding out how weak my supposed dominant right leg was and how challenging free weight Bulgarian squats were on that side during extra workouts. Then I got to work.

The Cycle Plan

Monday Tuesday Thursday Friday
Week1 RM BP
SQ 50-65X3
BP(57/77X3)X3-4 sets
2–4-board close grip x3
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
RM SQ/DL
SQ 55/75x3x2-3 sets
REV BP 50-70X5
Plate DL 75X3X2  Upper back
Grip work
Rev hyper/GHR
ME/DE BP
SQ 50-65X3
ME BP raw
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
ME/DE SQ/DL
DE SQ 55%+bands
GM 3-5x3 sets
REV BP 50-75x5
Speed DL 60-70x1x6
Grip
Week2 SQ 50-65X3
BP(63/83X3)X3-4 sets
2–4-board close grip x7
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
SQ 60/80x3x2-3 sets
REV BP 50-70X5
Plate DL 80X3X2
Grip work
Rev hyper/GHR
SQ 50-65X3
DE BP bands or chains
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
DE SQ 60%+bands
REV BP 50-75x5
ME Rack DL
Grip
Week3 SQ 50-65X3
BP(68/88X3)X2-3 sets
2–4-board close grip x3
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
SQ 65/85x3x2 sets
REV BP 50-70X5
Plate DL 85X3X2
Grip work
Rev hyper/GHR
SQ 50-65X3
ME BP shirt
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
ME full gear squat
GM 3-5x3 sets
REV BP 50-75x5
Speed DL 60-70x1x6
Grip
Week4 Back off week DE BP straight weight
Or
RM BP NFL combine
Or
RM DB floor press
Or
One-arm DB bench press
DE SQ chains or straight
Or
RM Bulgarian squats
Or
RM KB front squat/swing

Peaking Variation

Week1 SQ 50-65X3
BP(57/77X3)X3 sets
2–4-board close grip x3
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
SQ 55/75x3x2
REV BP 50-70X5
Plate DL 75X3X2
Grip work
Rev hyper/GHR
SQ 50-65X3
ME BP shirt
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
Straps down ME SQ
REV BP 50-75x5
DE DL 65-75x1x8
Grip
Week2 SQ 50-65X3
BP(57/77X3)X2 sets
2–4-board close grip x7
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
SQ 57/77x3x2
REV BP 50-70X5
Plate DL 80X3X2
Grip work
Rev hyper/GHR
SQ 50-65X3
DE BP chains
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
Straps Up ME SQ
REV BP 50-75x5
ME Rack DL
Grip
Week3 SQ 50-65X3
BP(65/85X3)X2 sets
2–4-board close grip x3
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
SQ 60/80x3
REV BP 50-70X5
Plate DL 85X3
Grip work
SQ 50-65X3
ME BP shirt
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
DE SQ w/chains
REV BP 50-75x5
DE DL 60-70x1x6
Grip
Week4 Meet week
SQ 70x3
DE BP 50-55x3x6
Grip
Off (Wednesday too!) SQ 50x1
BP 50x1
SQ 60x1
BP 60x1

Saturday meet warm-ups: SQ 40x3x2, 50x1, 60x1, suit on/belt 70x1, add wraps 80-85 x1; BP 20x5, 40x3, 50x1, 60x1, shirt on 2 board 70x1, 80-85x1; DL 50x1, 60x1, 70x1, suit on/belt 80x1

Real Workouts

Going from an article to a real workout is the challenge of going from theory to reality. The notation “SQ50–65X3” denotes a percent range for your top set of three reps. Light days on an exercise require only 3–4 sets and are great days to play with various stances, shoes, grips, or variations of an exercise or lift. For example, reverse grip benches are a favorite for me on light bench days. On light squat days, I liked to squat barefoot or in a flat shoe (my squat shoes have a slight heel).

On light days, deadlifts are done off the floor, not off the plate or in the rack as on heavy days. They are also done with a dual overhand grip. The notation “(57/77 X3)X2” denotes approximately a 20 percent lighter weight for a lighter set and then a heavier weight. Round off the numbers so that you are just throwing on and taking off a few twenty-fives or a few tens for each set. If you’re feeling strong on the heavy sets, maybe do the next heavy set with a bit more weight. No two and a half’s, please. If the lighter set isn’t fast and explosive, either push harder or use less weight.

Hints

The numbers and percents on the cycle were adjusted over the year. The percents are guidelines, and raw days are based on estimated raw maxes. In actuality, the weights that I used on raw days were influenced more by ease of loading than by a calculator. Nothing builds fearlessness with heavy weights like practicing in gear. Disregarding the use of five and two and a half pound plates except for PRs is pretty close.

A bench press raw cycle might be 275/325 for week 1, 295/345 for week 2, and 315/365 for week 3 due to ease of loading based on a 405 lb raw max bench press. A cycle of 315/405, 405/455, and 405/495 would apply for a raw squat cycle based off a 605 lb raw squat. The 275/325 “series” were done by working to be faster on the lighter set and more comfortable on the heavier set. Repeat the series until the heavier set begins to feel heavy and then you are done.

If you can do more than 2–3 of these series in a workout, then you are ready to go up in weight and should plan to so over the cycle. You will generally do more benching than squatting and more squatting than deadlifting in a week. Raw work is just that, raw. Don’t even use a belt. This will pay off when you put on your gear, believe me. Neopreme compression shorts, knee sleeves, and elbow sleeves are highly encouraged.

In the base cycles, you are focusing on the raw work and assistance work. Use your gear infrequently and only to build comfort and groove. You will hit PRs, but getting your gear groove perfect is the higher payoff in the long run. In the peaking cycle, you use your gear much more aggressively, and the raw work is backed off but not dropped. After some heavy ME work, your raw work will be impacted the following week. Adjust accordingly. When you do ME or DE work, it is pure WSB template work—three reps for 8–9 sets for the bench press, two reps for 6–8 sets for squats, and single reps for 6–8 sets for the speed deadlift. Bands work well in the squat with the loose suit and belt, but chains are better for the bench press because you’re not wearing any protective gear.

Lessons Learned

This cycle evolved over the year 2005. Some of the evolution was due to experience, some to necessity, and some to accidental discoveries. For example, through experience, I found that week 1 was normally not a week that I felt very strong. Even light weight felt hard on the raw days. I learned not to worry but to just focus on being a technician about the groove. Bury the squats and hold the pauses on the benches. You’re really only at the top of your game about one week a month, usually week 3.

I had to make changes in the late summer after evacuating my home from Hurricane Katrina. I was in a strange town and gym, and the equipment wasn’t the same. There was no glute ham raise and no reverse hyper. So, I just did more double kettlebell swings as an extra workout each night after training. I had been doing small plate deadlifts with the slightly fatter bar made by TKO but had to switch to pulling off a plate. I had no lifting gear with me initially except a pair of wrist wraps and my Adidas Superstars. But you can make progress if you adapt and don’t accept any excuses to fail.

By necessity, I had to drop a mainstay of my training—upper back work. I had strained my rotator cuff by throwing too much during batting practice in the summer, and lat work twinged it badly. I just added in infrequent reverse bench rows and deadlifted more often. I discovered that I lost zero muscle in my upper back and arms. Over the year, I gained 10 lbs on the scale, my abs didn’t go into hiding, and my lifting gear got tighter but not my waistband. Works for me!

Almost a Tragic Ending

This cycle produced a cornucopia of personal records (PR). In October 2005, I did a tune-up, push-pull meet. Having done 525 lbs for three reps in the bench press off of a 2-board, I went and made a 523 lb opener for the bench and then blew my shirt on a 551 lb PR. I had pulled 495 lbs for three reps raw off of plates, which led to a second attempt at 618 lbs PR for the deadlift.

Before going into the USAPL state meet in mid-January 2006, I had squatted 675 lbs for two reps, benched 545 lbs for three reps off of the 2-board, and pulled 545 lbs for three reps raw off the plates. I felt that I was dialed in, but I moved back into my damaged house that week and was a bit stressed. Still, at the meet, I made three strong squats, finishing with a 722 lbs squat, a PR. Not sharp, but I had not squatted in a meet for over a year. For the bench press, or lack thereof, I was turned down twice (2-1) in a 523 lb attempt. On my third attempt, I changed technique and dumped it, bombing from the meet and losing credit for my PR squat.

While it might be easy to blame outside factors like stress or a cold, the truth was revealed right in my training log. I had had to break in the bench shirt that the manufacturer had replaced and sent to me very late in my training cycle. So nine days out, I went very heavy. I had also tried a different shirt 16 days out, going very heavy again. I know I bench best with a longer break from the shirt, but I gambled. I also did very little full range work in any shirt, and my technique faltered badly. I was forced to do a quick cycle around my kids’ spring break to make the national qualifying total at a meet in mid-March. Far from a peak, I hit a PR of an 1806 lb total on five of eight attempts.

In May, with my bodyweight at an all time high of 240 lbs, I hit a 575 lb bench press with a near miss at 600 lbs in my single ply poly shirt. My training partner pointed out that both of our bench press lockouts suffered when we went to a lower board instead of a 4-board for assistance work. So, in addition to putting full range down sets in a loose bench shirt into my ME days and doing mainly 4-board work for assistance, I changed my peaking plan to add more rest and swapped ME/DE to Mondays.

Week3 SQ 50-65X3
ME BP shirt
4-board close grip x3
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
SQ 60/80x3
REV BP 50-70X5
Plate DL 80X3
Grip work
SQ 50-65X3
BP (65/85X3)X2 SETS
Upper back
DL 60-70x3
DE SQ w/chains
REV BP 50-75x5
Speed DL 50x1x5
Grip
Week4 Meet week
SQ 70x3
DE BP 50-55x3x6
Off (Wednesday too!) SQ 50x1
BP 50x1
SQ 60x1
BP 60x1

While my technique flaws in the bench press were magnified by a bad decision to play with the shirts way too close to the state meet in January 2006, it was the best training year I have ever had. By training more frequently, I enhanced my recovery, honed my groove, added some muscle, and got much stronger. I hoped to make this pay off at the USAPL Nationals in July.

Two, 2–1 reds on smoked 728 lb squats left me with an opener of 678 lbs. Then, I opened with only a 524 lb bench press after a close miss at 562 lbs (my bodyweight was 234 lbs), and a 622 lb deadlift left me with a PR but a very disappointing 1824 lb total. Still, having done only one DE workout monthly, I was able to maintain my speed easily in the bench press. The squat took two speed workouts on week 1 and week 2, with a full gear ME day on week 3. My pecs and shoulders were protected very well from pausing on the wider benches and catching and throwing all the closer grips. The speed squats were done with a wider than normal stance but not monolift wide.

For a USAPL lifter, I recommend using a box below parallel and wearing Chucks, even if you use a different shoe for free squatting. I will never drop the specific ME work, both in and out of lifting gear, because that is the key to building the ability to display maximum strength via neuromuscular efficiency. However, you’re cheating yourself out of building maximum strength through enhanced muscle unit recruitment if you neglect the benefits of simply doing the lifts more often and only somewhat heavy half of the time. The more often you train, the more muscle you involve. The combination of more muscle firing more quickly and in the proper sequence is hard to beat, and it’s the way to get to elite.

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