After The Wall Came Down…
In 1945, the second world war had ended and the world was forever changed. Europe was now split in two by the iron curtain. Suddenly, the United States and Russia were two superpowers competing for world dominance. They competed in science, technology and athletics. It was here the Russians developed one of the most incredible strength training programs available.
The strength training philosophy of the Russians was far superior to what we had here in the west in every way. While we were focusing on endurance, they focused on getting ridiculously strong.
The main showdown was during the Olympics. Every four years, the Soviet Union would try to blow away the west with gold metals. More often than not they were successful.
Take a look at the chart below to see.
You might say, “but geez Anthony, the United States won over 1,000 gold medals and the Soviets won only a little over 500. Doesn’t that mean the US is better?”
Well, certainly the United States has a higher number of medals. However, lets put this into context.
According to Gilbert McGregor, the US Participated in 3 times as many games as the Soviets. Plus, the Soviets won an average of at least 4 more medals per game than did the United States. Not bad considering they only participated in 62% less Olympic games than the United States.
With those kind of numbers, it is safe to say that they knew something.
The Secret Of Russian Strength Training Programs – Movement
When the Russians were conducting their research, they spent the majority of their time studying the nervous system and the different types of strength potential of their athletes.
After much research, the Russians concluded that what separates and elite high level athlete from a novice is not exactly strength, or endurance per se. It was movement.
Using EMG studies they found that the best athletes actually stimulated and contracted their muscles differently than their novice counterparts. They not only moved differently, but they also moved better.
With that new insight, they developed a system for training athletes using similar movement and velocity. Thus the speed to strength continuum was born.
Speed To Strength Continuum
According to Russian research, their are 4 main types of strength “movements” an athlete must fit into in order to become the best at his or her sport.
If an athlete is a sprinter, or depends mainly on speed to win at their sport, then they need to train for speed.
What is speed? It is the fastest possible contraction of the muscles. But your muscles will never actually contract as fast as possible, if they did they would probably tear. So there is a limit.
However, you can still tap pretty far into your max speed potential with proper training.
Examples of speed exercises are box jumps, sprinting, plyometric pushups and depth jumps.
Now starting to get a little slower, we have speed-strength. This is a fast contraction of the muscles, but not as fast as pure speed/power.
Speed-strength is the fastest possible contraction of your muscles against the heaviest external resistance as possible.
A perfect example of this is classical weightlifting. The clean and jerk is a fast movement that requires you to lift a lot of weight quickly. But it is neither your maximum strength or speed, it is somewhere in between the two but leaning more towards speed than strength.
Speed-strength was made famous by powerlifting guru Louie Simmons of Westside Barbell. He introduced dynamic effort workouts into powerlifting. Dynamic effort work is speed-strength work.
He basically found a way to train the squat, bench and deadlift like the Olympic lifts. By attaching resistance bands around the bar and lowering the weight, you can now train them as fast as possible.
Some exercises include: Clean & Jerk, Snatch, Push Press, Push Jerk, Resistance Band Lifts.
Now you are starting to perform heavier exercises with slower speeds. This type of training is what you typically see in most gyms and athletic training facilities.
Most bodybuilders and powerlifters perform this type of training to add hypertrophy and strength to their working muscles.
Another name for this type of training is called the repetitive effort method. This is due to all of the repetitions you perform.
Strength-speed helps to build your maximal strength and will improve your muscular endurance for sport.
This is the slowest of all the four “strengths”, so you know what that means, it is the heaviest.
Just like before with speed, you will never actually reach your true maximum strength. But you can get pretty damn close to it.
Training for maximum strength requires you to lift 1 single repetition for the heaviest weight possible.
Because research has shown that training above 97% of your 1 rep max actually produces different adaptations on your body than training below it.
Obviously, this is not recommended for a novice. This type of training is much better for experienced and trained athletes.
The best exercises for this type of training are any of the big three powerlifting exercises and their main assistance lifts.
How Movement Influences Reps
With all of the different types of movement, how did the Russians figure out how to design a training program that was appropriate for their lifters.
One Soviet weightlifting coach named Alexander Sergeyevitch Prilepin found a solution to this problem. He designed a table with the appropriate reps, sets and volume relative to intensity. It is called Prilepin’s Chart.
Here it is:
This chart was made for weightlifters originally, but it has found use in many other forms of strength sport.
The first thing you probably notice is how low the reps are for the lower intensities (55-65% 1RM).
This is the core of the Russian program. They found that performing too many reps would lead to a complete breakdown in form. In the Russian program, quality of movement was key, NOT quantity.
Also Prilepin’s Chart is not for every exercise in your training program, it is ONLY FOR THE MAIN LIFT(S). That’s it.
Since the main lift is the most important, it is imperative that your movement is top quality for this exercise.
Many imitation Russian programs you find online try to apply Prilepin’s Chart to all of the lifts in the workout program. However, this is completely wrong because it ruins the second most important part of the Russian strength training program, GPP.
The Role Of GPP In Russian Strength Training Programs
GPP stands for general physical preparedness and it is an essential part of the Russian strength training program.
GPP is essentially your general base of conditioning. But not just conditioning of the muscles, but the nervous system too.
Whenever you perform a movement, you are moving your body with your muscles and nerves. This doesn’t just take effort, but it takes energy. Therefore, your body’s energy systems are also a part of your overall movement.
The Russians found that after studying elite athletes that their quality of movement was directly related to how much energy potential that each athlete had to repeat the movements of their sport.
In other words, if an athlete was poorly conditioned for their sport, then guess what? Their movements would become sloppier much faster than an athlete with great conditioning.
I don’t want to go into too much detail because I have already written an entire article about GPP that goes into more detail.
But on a final note, GPP is just the starting point. Once an athlete becomes conditioned, then they will need to start becoming more specific with their conditioning. This paves the way for the third and final piece of the Russian strength training program, SPP.
Becoming Elite With SPP
When you look at the Russian program and realize it is all about movement, how could you make this current workout routine even better?
Simple. Make the conditioning even more specific.
This is where SPP comes in. SPP stands for special physical preparedness. This is when you perform more specific conditioning exercises that more closely mimic the movements of your sport.
If you are a powerlifter who is trying to increase your back squat, then this could include Bulgarian split squats, Glute-Ham Developers, Hack Squats, Pistol Squats, etc.
You would perform these exercises for as many sets and reps as possible with nearly perfect form. If you want a specific number, then I would say to aim for anywhere from 6-15 reps. If you can do more with heavy weight, then do more.
But remember, it is all about form and quality of movement, if your form breaks down at all, then stop.
DO NOT follow the sets and reps scheme on Prilepin’s Chart. That is only for the main lift(s).
Putting It All Together
So how does GPP work with SPP?
GPP lays the foundation for your body’s physical conditioning and energy systems and SPP builds more specific conditioning on top of it.
In other words, GPP must be addressed FIRST in order for you to have sufficient SPP.
NO GPP = NO SPP
Simple as that. And if you can’t already tell, the overall goal of all of this conditioning is complete technical mastery of your sport.
This does not mean you just move exceptionally well, but you also move very economically as well.
You will burn much less energy than a novice and will be able to stay in the game longer. You will also be able to recover faster as well. Since you are using less energy you have less recovery time than a novice.
When they say that a great athlete “makes it look easy” that’s because they literally are making it look easy. Throughout many years of training their nervous system produces more efficient movement patterns which break more records and spend less energy.
Truly something worth training for!
Physical Preparedness Exercise Examples
The exercise selection should not be random at all. It should have a logical sequence.
GPP is the least specific, SPP is more specific and Sport Training is the most specific.
Take a look at the charts below and see what different types of exercises fit into each category.
This is an example for a powerlifter:
As you can see, the GPP column looks like a bunch of random unorganized exercises, but you are wrong.
Exercises like sled dragging and sandbag carries may not resemble squats and deadlifts to you, but they are working the same muscle groups. Plus, they are also working the same energy systems.
Thus, you are now properly conditioning your body to perform the lifts.
Looking at the SPP column you can now see the exercises are much more similar to the main sport of powerlifting. Not only are you conditioning the muscles the same way you did with GPP, but you are also conditioning the motor patterns themselves.
The Russians used to refer to this as “neural hypertrophy”. You are strengthening the motor pathways until they become second nature, thus the emphasis on quality movement.
Finally in the last column we have the sport training exercises. Notice they are not the actual squat, bench and deadlift, but variations of them.
Research has shown that if an exercise is too specific to the actual movement, it actually has a negative affect on your performance.
Therefore, you want to train variations of the lift. You will still train the same motor pathways as the regular lift. But now since you are not doing the actual lift, your nervous system will be fresh to adapt to the main lift.
The Birth Of The Conjugate System
The above framework can only work in one way, variety. You cannot train the same lift for too long when it is very heavy. You will burn out.
So instead you have to rotate the main lift every two weeks when lifting heavy. This is know as the conjugate system.
However, be forewarned, this system is not for beginners or semi-experienced intermediates. It is for seasoned pros who really know what they are doing. Plus, to do a workout like this you will need access too a lot of specialty equipment that most gyms do not have. So you will have to choose the right gym.
You may ask yourself, with all of these different things to train for how do I organize it into a single program. This is where the conjugate method comes in.
With the conjugate method you will perform maximal strength training, speed-strength, GPP and SPP all in a weekly workout ALL YEAR.
Why Linear Periodization Is Making You Lose Gains
Most lifting programs that you see online or in standard fitness books have you performing a linear periodization program.
The word linear is derived from the Latin word “linearis”, which means resembling a line. So a linear program progresses from one specialty to the next in a straight line.
The classic linear model for a strength athlete is a yearly cycle with 3 month cycles of a certain trainable quality.
Here’s a better look:
- January-March = Endurance Phase
- April-June = Hypertrophy
- July-September = Strength
- October-December = Power
Normally you would adjust this to your competition schedule, but I just started in January to make it easier to understand.
The good thing is these programs are very simple to implement. The bad news is they are not anywhere near as effective as the Russian strength training program.
The human body adapts relatively quickly to whatever you throw at it. If you are training endurance in a concentrated effort for a period of three months, your body will adapt to it but it will not keep those adaptations by the end of December.
In fact, you will not be able to keep those adaptations by the end of the Summer.
Because you stopped training for it. So your body will stop adapting to endurance by the beginning of the summer because you stopped training for endurance in March.
When April came, you started giving your body a new stimulus. Hypertrophy. Therefore, your body stopped adapting to endurance and started to adapt to hypertrophy.
How The Long Term Training Lag Can Lead To Huge Wins
The Russians understood the faults of linear periodization and instead found a way to get the same sporting results in a fraction of the time.
The method they used took advantage of your body own adaptation mechanisms. It is called the long term training lag effect (LTTE).
Here’s how it works.
- You train for a specific sporting quality (speed-strength) for a duration of 4 weeks.
- During this short 4 week cycle, you change your training to focus exclusively and intensely on speed-strength.
- Once the 4 week cycle is over, you slowly taper down the weights for an additional 4 weeks AFTER the initial 4 weeks of high volume.
- By the end of the taper, your body responds with a massive super-adaptation that blows away your old records.
The length of this super-adaptation lasts as long as the initial number of weeks. In the example above, I used 4 weeks. Therefore, the duration of the adaptation will be 4 weeks.
This phenomenon led to the discovery of Soviet Block Periodization. Which is essentially the exact same thing that I just described.
Block periodization is very similar to the conjugate method. But it is not the same thing. Block periodization is best used leading up to a competition.
So if you are a powerlifter and you were trying to develop your speed-strength before your meet, then you would use block periodization in the 8 weeks before your meet.
On the 8th week, which should be the end of your taper, you will lift light weights all week. On the day of your meet, you will smash your old records to pieces and walk out with victory after smashing the competition.
How The Conjugate Method Gets You Results All Year
The conjugate method makes up where linear and block periodization leave off. Linear periodization was originally designed to be an all year training program. Block periodization was designed to be a short adaptation cycle before competition.
The conjugate method is designed to last all year.
Because it is very specific to the types of sport you are training for and it trains endurance, hypertrophy, strength and power every week.
It doesn’t train these different skills in different three week cycles. It trains them ever single week. Thus you are making and maintaining all the necessary adaptations necessary that you need to excel at your sport all year long.
How You Structure Your Conjugate Method Workouts
The conjugate method is broken down into 4 main lifting days during the week. Two of the days require lifting maximum weights and the other two days are for speed work.
Here is a simple breakdown:
- Monday – Max Effort Lower Body
- Wednesday – Max Effort Upper Body
- Friday – Dynamic Effort Lower Body
- Sunday – Dynamic Effort Upper Body
By using a 4 week split you will completely avoid any issues with overtraining. Plus, during your “off days” you can perform any kind of mobility work and even conditioning work necessary.
The max effort day starts with a main lift of some kind and you gradually work your way up to a max single for one solid repetition. (Remember Prilepin’s Chart)
On the dynamic effort day, you will still have a main lift, but it will be about 50-65% of the weight you had on Monday or Wednesday. The lighter weight will allow you to focus on building maximum explosive force. No more than 24 TOTAL reps are performed.
For both days the amount of reps on the main lifts are kept very low and the number of sets is very high. This is to develop optimal movement and technical mastery.
After performing the main lifts, what do you do? Assistance work.
A large variety of smaller exercises are to be performed which add volume and SPP to your program. These exercises will help to build strength potential for the main lift.
Pick at least 3-4 exercises and perform as many sets and reps as possible with top quality form.
This will build the specific energy pathways necessary to keep breaking records.
Example Conjugate Method Weekly Workout
Monday (Max Effort Lower Body)
Wednesday (Max Effort Upper Body)
Friday (Dynamic Effort Lower Body)
Sunday (Dynamic Effort Upper Body)
One question you may be asking yourself is “how do I know which core exercise to pick for my workouts?”
The core exercise can be any exercise you want, as long as it closely mimics the sporting activity.
For lower body exercises, you should rotate one squatting movement, one deadlifting movement and one hip hinging movement every two weeks for max effort day.
For upper body movements, you should be rotating between a bench press variation every two weeks.
Dynamic effort work should be as explosive as possible. The best way to do this is to add small resistance bands to the ends of the barbell for your sets.
The band tension should not exceed more than 25% band tension at the top of the movement.
Adding bands onto the bar is a type of resistance called accommodating resistance.
Why Accommodating Resistance Makes You Lightening Fast
There is a reason why you want to use resistance bands, they make you move incredibly fast. You cannot accelerate a barbell as fast as possible without them.
Normally when you try to move an external weight, your body will accelerate the weight a fast as possible in the most difficult positions and then it will naturally decelerate in the easier positions.
If you take a look at the squat, or the bench press, your body will naturally start to slow down towards the top of both movements. Obviously this is not going to develop speed-strength in an optimal way.
So how do bands help?
By placing bands around the outside of the barbell you will now force your body to accelerate the bar all the way through the lockout.
Because the tension of the bands reaches it’s peak at the top of the movement. The bands will actively be trying to pull you down. So how is your body going to respond? By accelerating.
Otherwise the weight and inertia of the bar will bury you.
Do I Ever Need To De-load?
The short answer is yes. But not as often as you would think. Since you are rotating a different core lift every two weeks, you will give your nervous system a new stimulus while allowing it to recover from the previous two weeks.
However, the volume of the main lift combined with all of the resistance lifts will lead to eventual exhaustion.
Therefore, you will eventually need to de-load from this type of training.
There are several ways you could go about doing this. You could:
- Perform the same training routine, but with 30-40% less weight and volume.
- Perform small mini workouts (~20 min) with light weight to maintain GPP and SPP.
- Take the week off.
You could choose any of these options. My personal favorite is option 2. I usually like to do different workouts on my weeks “off” just because it add variety and doesn’t bore me to death.
The first option is a good choice when you are close to a competition. By working the motions of the exercises with lighter weight and better technique you are strengthening the neural motor pathways that carry out those movements.
This will make your nervous system like superconductors for carrying out those movements.
But again, be sure to use it in context. If you really need a break from the exercises, then choose either options 2 or 3.
If you really feel run down, or life outside the gym is getting in the way, then option 3 may work best for you.
There is no shame in taking a week off.
Order DOES Matter – Learn Where To Place Your Most Important Exercises
If you really want to get the most out of the Russian strength training program, then listen carefully because this last section may just be the most important section you read!
During your phases before a competition when you are doing concentrated loading (Block Periodization), you want to perform your most important exercise second.
That’s right, second, not first.
Soviet research has shown that athletes has a better training effect from placing the main exercise second.
Let’s look at an example:
If you are training for speed-strength, then you would perform barbell squats first and then depth jumps second.
The movement of the barbell will activate the fast twitch motor fibers that are necessary for explosiveness. Think of it as an extended warm up.
If you were training for strength-speed it would be the opposite. You would perform depth jumps first and then barbell squats second.
This produces a huge training effect and greatly increases SPP.
If you truly want to destroy your competition, then this is how you do it. The Russian strength training program is one of the most sophisticated training programs available on the planet.
The programs we had here in the west didn’t even come close to the Russian programs. In fact, we didn’t know too much about the Russian research until the Soviet Union collapsed in the early 90’s.
But be forewarned, as I have said before this workout routine is NOT for a beginner, or a weekend warrior.
This workout routine is for the serious lifter and athlete. This is for the top 5% of all lifters and athletes out there.
If you truly want to win and dominate your competition, then the Russian strength training program will take you there.
If you want to be in the top 5%, then you have to be willing to do what the remaining 95% are not willing to do.
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