Mullet power: John Inzer deadlifts 780 lbs. at 165 lbs. bodyweight. (Photo: Powerlifting USA)
Pavel Tsatsouline, former Soviet Special Forces physical training instructor, has made a name for himself in the world of strength.
He wrote the below article, outlining the simple routine of Russian Master of Sports, Alexander Faleev, for Built magazine, which folded before publication. Pavel contacted me to publish the piece here, and I am pleased to offer it to you as an exclusive.
Though I often suggest training to failure for maximal size gains (see “Geek to Freak: How I Gained 34 lbs. in 4 Weeks”), the pre-failure approach detailed here is excellent for maximal strength development, and the repetitions can be further reduced for relative strength (per-lb. bodyweight) development.
Total read time: 12 minutes.
Read time for routine only: 7 minutes.
I have read a book that has made an impression: The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss.
The 4-Hour Workweek is not a dubious get-rich-quick scheme but a guide to ultimate productivity through ruthless elimination of non-essentials. “Doing less meaningless work, so that you can focus on things of greater personal importance, is NOT laziness,” states the author. “This is hard to accept, because our culture tends to reward personal sacrifice instead of personal productivity. Few people choose to (or are able to) measure the results of their actions and thus measure their contribution in time.”
It is no surprise that Russia has borne a number of Ferriss-type strength and muscle building programs, mercilessly eliminating the non-essentials and delivering extraordinary gains. One is Alexander Faleev’s system that has gained many followers among Russian muscle heads in the last four years.
Comrade Faleev dabbled with powerlifting for seven or eight years, then took a few years off. He poured over years of his training logs looking for what worked and came back to the barbell with a vengeance. In just six months, he reached the coveted Master of Sports level in powerlifting.
Faleev has summed up his approach as “Nothing extra!” In one sentence, it is about doing only four things: the squat, the bench, the deadlift, and competing regularly. That’s it.
The system the Russian had developed for his strength and size breakthrough could have come out of The 4-Hour Workweek. Among Tim Ferriss’ tools for getting the most out of life is Pareto’s law. The essence of the law is that 80% of all results come from 20% of the efforts. Applied to muscle and strength, it means, if most gains will come from the three powerlifts, why waste your time and energy on curls and close-grip benches?
Before I will move on to the nuts and bolts of the training regimen I will address your objections. I can read your mind: “But I am not a powerlifter, and I don’t want to look like one!”
The sport of powerlifting (PL) has an unfair image of refrigerator-sized men whose faces turn red from blood pressure when they bend over to tie their shoes — or rather try to bend over and get stopped by an enormous “uni-ab”. To say that all PLers look like that is akin to stating that all runners are thin and wiry.
Look at photos of powerlifters in lighter weight classes. They are as hard as a rock, and many are ripped — without curls and cable crossovers. Take Texan John Inzer who held the world record in the deadlift for years, 780 pounds at 165 pounds of bodyweight or Ukrainian Oleksandr Kutcher, who recently beat that record with 793 pounds. These guys look more like gymnasts than refrigerators.
Tim: Oleksandr Kutcher pulls a light 694 lbs. and then needs chamomile tea.
Faleev’s 80/20 Routine
5 x 5 Progression:
For beginners, Faleev offers a straightforward progressive overload workout with 5 sets of 8 reps. Eventually you are supposed to advance to 5 x 5. In my opinion, you should go straight to 5 x 5. Sets of five are the meat and potatoes of strength training.
Start with a conservative weight. If you manage five reps in all five sets, next time add 10 pounds and start over. Not 5 pounds, and definitely not 2, but 10. For reasons that are outside of the scope of this article, Malibu Ken and Barbie jumps with tiny plates are a waste of time.
Most likely you will not bag all the fives on your first workout with the new weight. Perhaps you will get 5, 5, 5, 4, 3. No problem, stay with the poundage until you get all 5×5. Your second workout might be 5, 5, 5, 5, 4, and your third of fourth should get you to 5 x 5. Slap on another pair of “nickels” (5-lb. plates) and work your way up to 5 x 5 again. According to Faleev, the above progression will add 110-175 pounds to your max in each of the three powerlifts in one year, provided you are fairly new to the game.
Deadlift 1x per week; Squat and Bench 2x per week
You will be deadlifting once a week and squatting and benching twice a week, once heavy and once light for the latter two. Your light days are for honing technique, not for burning out your muscles with high reps. Do 5 sets of 4 reps (5 x 4) with weights that are 80% of the heavy day’s. For instance, if you did 5 x 5 with 200 on your heavy day, stay with 160 for 5 x 4 on your light day. That’s it! The key to the program’s success is in doing less.
The Russian recommends the following schedule:
Monday –heavy squat (SQ)
Tuesday –heavy benchpress (BP)
Wednesday –heavy deadlift (DL)
Thursday – light SQ
Friday –light BP
If training five days is not an option, four will do:
Monday –heavy SQ
Tuesday –heavy BP
Wednesday –heavy DL
Friday – light SQ, light BP
Not ideal, but if you have to cram your training into three days:
Monday – heavy SQ
Wednesday –heavy BP, light SQ
Thursday – off
Friday – heavy DL, light BP
Saturday – off
Sunday – off
Failure and Rest Intervals
Never train to failure! Don’t attempt a rep unless you are 100% sure you will make it. Ideally, keep one extra rep in the bank. “Save your strength for the next set,” insists Faleev.
Don’t get greedy.
Practice one lift per workout, stretch, and get out. Faleev stresses that you must wrap up each strength workout with static stretches. “The benefits of stretching are enormous. Stretching can increase your strength by 10%. It is a lot.” The man explains that “when you lift a weight your muscles contract. And after the workout the muscles remain contracted for some time. The following restoration of the muscles’ length is what recovery is. Until the muscle has restored its length, it has not recovered. Hence he who does not stretch his muscles slows down the recuperation process and retards his gains.” Besides, tension and relaxation are the two sides of the same coin, “if the muscle forgets how to lengthen, it will contract more poorly. And that is stagnation of strength.”
Don’t rush your sets.
Do a couple warm-up sets if you must, then feel free to take 5 min. and even more between your work sets. Top power dogs take longer; 30 min. is not unheard of. Power loves rest and does not tolerate rushing. You may feel that you are completely recovered in 2 min. but take a full 5 anyway. According to Faleev, an hour is a good number to shoot for in your workout length.
Balanced Development: Biceps and Other Decorations
One common objection is: “But I will not get a balanced development if do only three exercises! What about my biceps and my…?!”
Faleev sticks to his guns: “For a sharp increase in muscle mass and [strength] results you must do only three exercises: the bench press, the squat, and the deadlift… when you deadlift a 550-pound barbell think what kind of a huge load is born by your biceps, shoulders, traps, and even neck… When you squat with a 550-pound barbell, think about the high pressure the athlete’s abdomen must withstand. An athlete lifting such weights cannot have weak abs by definition –the midsection is strengthened in the process of training the squat. If you bench 330, the muscles of your arms, chest, and the front delts will be so developed, than any bodybuilder will be envious. One must add an interesting detail–in the bench press it is very important to learn to use the lats when starting the bar off the chest. Perhaps someone will think of this as a paradox but the bench press develops the back as well, especially the lats.” Faleev states than the above numbers, a 550-pound squat and deadlift and a 330-pound bench, are “more than achievable” if you focus on these exercises and practice them for years.
And if you have not felt your abs when squatting, it only means you have not squatted heavy enough. “Bodybuilding is a strength sport. Don’t forget it,” admonishes Faleev.
The only legit reason for additional exercises is correction of a dysfunction or imbalance that puts your health at risk. An example would be a pronounced discrepancy in the hamstrings’ flexibility, your knees caving in when you land after a jump, or the failure to activate your butt muscles or “gluteal amnesia”. But diagnosis and correction of such problems is not something you can do on your own or even under the guidance or a personal trainer; you need a specially trained health professional. I suggest that you find one through Gray Cook’s website. Cook is the country’s premier sports physical therapist; in the last Super Bowl both teams were his clients. Get a tune-up from a professional on his team so you can safely focus on the basics and not do stupid things like extra leg curls “to balance out my quads”.
But back to our basics.
Faleev stresses that additional exercises are worse than worthless –- they are harmful because they drain valuable energy that your body could have directed towards spectacular gains in the big three. “…get rid of the excesses and just do what is necessary… When you give up the secondary exercises, you will feel that you are not training enough. You will be leaving the gym totally fresh. This is it, the energy for an increase in the load in the basic lifts. This reserve is what will enable you to ‘shoot out of the gate’!”
The above point cannot be emphasized enough; curls, calf raises, and other miscellaneous non-sense may not feel hard but they drain your adaptive energy!
The Fourth Element: Competition and Parkinson’s Law
Focus on the lifts that matter is half of Faleev’s power and muscle equation. Regularly competing in sanctioned power meets is the other half. Faleev observes that with a powerlifting meet date looming on the calendar, many an athlete have accomplished more in six months than others have in many years.
In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss echoes him when he makes use of the Parkinson’s law to get results faster.
According to this law, a task will take as much time as you will allot for it. In other words, you will shine under the pressure of an ambitious deadline. Applied to iron, it means compete, and often! You will be forced to focus on what matters — your squat, your bench, your deadlift –– rather than fool around with what former Coach Powerlifting Team USA Mark Reifkind calls “random acts of variety”. Subscribe to Powerlifting USA magazine on Amazon. Find a meet near you three months away, and go for it! Look for “raw” meets that require that you compete without special squat suits, bench shirts, etc. AAU is one of the federations that hosts raw meets.
As the meet approaches, cut back from 5 x 5 to 4 x 4, 3 x 3, and finally, a couple of weeks before the competition, 2 x 2. Up the poundages accordingly. After the meet, take a week off, then start over with 5 x 5.
Faleev stresses that maxing in the gym is dangerous. Maxing out tests your strength but does not build it. A max workout in the gym amounts to missing a productive 5 x 5 day that you will never get back.
Tim: 5 x 5 isn’t just for beginners: Johnnie Jackson, one of the few champions in both powerlifting and bodybuilding, demonstrates the deadlift. I suggest not slamming the plates. Touch the plates to the floor as if a baby were sleeping in the room.
Faleev offers a formula that will help you estimate your max from your 5 x 5: multiply that weight by 1.2. This is not exact science, but it is much better than those ridiculous charts that claim to calculate your 1 rep max (1RM) from your 10RM.
Just decide what you want: The process of enjoying the pump, the burn, and the variety of exercises? Or muscles and power?
Faleev’s secret of success is so simple, it is easy to ignore: practice nothing but the powerlifts and compete regularly. Period. The Russian muscle man walks into the gym, trains one lift, spends a few minutes stretching, and hits the showers. Done!
Since he dropped all the assistance exercises his progress has been nothing but spectacular. Ironically, his gym buddies who sweat for hours wasting time on meaningless exercises consider him a slacker. He does not care, the wily Russkie has the last laugh with his strength and his mass.
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About the author:
Pavel Tsatsouline is a former Soviet Special Forces physical training instructor, currently a subject matter expert to the US Secret Service, the US Marine Corps, and the US Navy SEALs. Pavel’s bestselling book Power to the People!: Russian Strength Training Secrets has been published in the US and Russia.
In real-time: Follow Tim and his experimentation with Pavel’s methods here.
The Tim Ferriss Show is one of the most popular podcasts in the world with more than 800 million downloads. It has been selected for "Best of Apple Podcasts" three times, it is often the #1 interview podcast across all of Apple Podcasts, and it's been ranked #1 out of 400,000+ podcasts on many occasions. To listen to any of the past episodes for free, check out this page.