Russian vs American Training Systems

Written by: Kevin Cann

There are many different methods to get strong.  Most lifters and coaches are aware of a few different models.  Block periodization is probably the most popular.  This is when the coach prescribes each block to focus on one particular aspect of development while maintaining the others.

An example would be a hypertrophy block followed by a strength block and finishing up with a power block. Another popular model is linear progressive overload.  The lifter takes their previous max, starts lighter, and works up to something heavier each week until a new maximum is attempted and hopefully achieved.

The most common one that seems to be utilized in the world of drug free powerlifting is daily undulated periodization (DUP).  DUP is a non-linear program designed to mitigate the effects of repeating the same thing over and over.

The law of accommodation states that we adapt to a stimulus very quickly and there needs to be variation in a training program.  In this model you change the loading schemes from day to day.  In the research performed on not so strong people for up to 3-4 months, it shows that DUP may be a better option than linear periodization.  There was a study that showed that block periodization was better than DUP.

At the end of the day, who cares?  I am not sure how much weight one can put in a short term study of not so strong people.  To be honest, I think American strength research is absolute trash.  We care about popular sports, not the niche barbell sports.  If our methods are so great, why do we do well in powerlifting, but not weightlifting?

For one, America is huge.  We just have more people to choose from, which leads to more freaks.  We dominate the IPF raw divisions, but we are not as dominant in the equipped side of things.  The other countries have different routes that they take in the strength sports.

Yuri Belkin competed in the IPF from 2012 to 2014.  He won 3 IPF world championships during that time.  2 of those wins were raw and one was single ply.  He also finished 2nd at worlds another time in single ply. Malanichev competed in the IPF from 1998 to 2005.  He won 2 world championships and had quite a few 2ndplace finishes at worlds.  These contests were all single ply.  He did not do a raw meet until 2014 when he won the GPA world championships.

Nikulin, a 181lbs Russian lifter that squats 760lbs and totaled 1835lbs has never even competed in the IPF. This total matches that of Russ Orhi, the 83kg national champion in the USA.  You interject these names into the IPF mix and there is probably a lot more competition for the American side of things.

I would say that the American training science is decades behind that of the Russians.  Young coaches that spend too much time on the internet will tell me that that research is not peer-reviewed, and the American science is the “gold standard” of research.  If your gold standard is 200lb men squatting 360lbs, then we strongly disagree with each other.

The Russians collected an extraordinary amount of data over decades from thousands of athletes of all levels.  They analyzed training programs and techniques that allowed a dominance at the Olympic level.  

When you compare the Russian lifter to the American lifter there are some big differences.  The American tends to win by brute strength, with very little technical mastery.  The Russians tend to look like they never break a sweat on the platform.  Each attempt looks the same as the last one with a mastery of technical efficiency.

Which is better?  In a competition, the one that lifts more weight is definitely better, but what about a career?  The Russians have a system in place to teach their athletes at young ages and build a strong foundation to build long term success off of.  They also exhibit lots of patience in training and competition.  Those easy 3rds could definitely be pushed more at times, but they see the bigger picture.

The Americans seem to come and go in less than 5 years in large groups.  Some come in very strong, probably due to playing sports their whole childhood.  Developing large amounts of power and strength, but never learning to lift.  This is displayed on the platform with poor technique, but monstrous numbers at times.

This lack of technical mastery by American lifters leads to coaches and athletes alike not putting an importance on technique.  This leads to inefficient training methods for the majority of the population.  The only ones that may benefit from coaching like this are those outliers that have natural abilities to compete at the world level.  Hitting moderately, or even strong, numbers with poor technique does not make sense if you can’t compete at a world level.

Even if you do compete at the international level, how are you going to continue to hold off the competition?  At some point technique matters for growth.  I think in some cases we see these lifters pushed hard by competition into injuries and frustration.  Why not spend time working on maximizing leverages?

Getting back to the planning of training discussion.  The Russians have patience and better research.  Sheiko had told me that load variability is the most important aspect of planning training.  He organized training into high, medium, and low stress training days and weeks.  You repeated the same weights over and over with different variations.  Before a competition you would test your lifts, but only increasing 2.5-5% at a time.  Then you would go back to training the same way with the new maxes.

This style of planning came from the weightlifting side of things and was developed by Arkady Vorobyev.  He was an interesting figure.  He won 2 gold medals, also coached, and was also a sports scientist.  He found that sharp changes in training loads, like Sheiko utilized, had a greater impact on overall athlete performance.  According to the Russian research this was 61% more effective than typical loading strategies.

This was not per-reviewed in an English speaking journal.  This was described to me by Sheiko.  You can disregard that if you would like and tell me “Not to cite studies I have not read.”  I choose to take his word on this.  I also would choose to take his interpretation of it over mine because he knows far more than I do about this sport.  

The rep ranges were selected to be 1/3 to 1/2 of a rep maximum at a given weight.  For example, if you could complete 10 reps at 75% the rep range was determined to be about 3-5 reps.  You will see this throughout Russian programs.  The RPEs seem very low compared to the traditional American style of training.

Why do they use such low rep ranges at given weights?  They don’t know why it works; it just does.  The theory is that it keeps the athlete fresh while allowing them to work on technique.  Sheiko found that if they perform more reps than tis their technique begins to breakdown.  He also believed that when the execution of a lift changes that the lifter begins to change a different movement pattern and it is not optimal.

Well, doesn’t everyone have variability in their movements from rep to rep?  Yes, when you look at a lifter under lab equipment you will see the execution have variability from rep to rep.  This is not an argument for technique not mattering.  This is proof of the Principle of Dynamic Organization.  The body is always trying to learn more efficient ways to execute the lift.  It is the coach’s job to nudge that process to the right direction.

Americans seem to only be interested in volumes and intensities.  In American strength training they have an inverse relationship.  As one goes up, the other comes down.  This is not true in Russian programs.  The volumes and average intensities stay pretty consistent over the bigger picture, with spikes here and there.  For a competition, the volumes will drop to the minimum effective dose to maintain strength, but the average intensities remain the same as they would be in a prep cycle.  

This is why I am not a fan of using RPEs to dictate training load.  Sometimes training should be hard, sometimes it is moderately difficult, and sometimes it is easy.  The coach with an understanding of load variability in planning training and with a relationship with the athlete, is the best to make this decision.  

Of course I am biased as this is how I learned about planning training and executing the plan.  Your feelings do not matter.  As Sheiko said, “After seeing a hard workout you may want to complain and want others to pity you for the work you have to do.  Your mom will pity you.  Your girl will pity you.  I may pity you, but your competition will not pity you.  They will step on you, walk over you, and spit on you.”

This does not mean that you just grit through every training day.  There are ranges from high to low stress days.  The coach knows what is best in terms of organizing planning, and the feelings of the lifter should not dictate that.  Of course, there are times that adjustments need to be made, but follow the program and be patient.  I will leave you with this quote:

“Strategy without patience can be caustic.  Patience without strategy can become anemic.  Having both strategy and patience is a rare gift.”

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