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The Plateau-Buster Workout
How to shake up your training with a few secrets from the Russian Underground
By Pavel Tsatsouline
It was the mid-1980s, the euphoric years of Gorbachev’s perestroyka and glastnost, when bodybuilding exploded in the Soviet Union. And exploded it did. Under the direction of retired weightlifters scrawny kids from the rough part of town filled out into he-men worthy of a Charles Atlas ad. All that on a porridge- and potato-based diet often supplemented with soy animal feed for extra protein. Where there is a will, there is a way. Hard and ingenious training overcame the cards clearly dealt not in their favor.
Russian Bodybuilding Underground “Fatigue Cycling” Program
The following routine born in the basements of tough town Lyubertsi is unique, yet very simple, as all things that impress. It scored a “two thumbs up” from Sergey Zaytsev, the USSR champion in BOTH bodybuilding and powerlifting. Two workouts were alternated, usually three times a week::
1. Wide-grip pull-ups –4xRM
2. Bent-over rows –1x12 (easy), 4x8
3. Overhead presses –1x12, 4x8
4. Squats –1x15, 3x12
5. Bench presses –1x12, 4x8
6. Lateral raises –4x10
7. Seated dumbbell cursl –1x12, 4x8
8. Hanging leg raises –4x12-15
1. Bench presses –1x12, 4x8
2. Lateral raises –4x10
3. Seated dumbbell curls –1x12, 4x8
4. Squats–1x15, 3x12
5. Wide-grip pull-ups –4xRM
6. Bent-over rows –1x12 (easy), 4x8
7. Overhead presses –1x12, 4x8
8. Hanging leg raises –4x12-15
The exercises listed are nothing special and neither are the loading parameters. If you look at the routine carefully, you will notice that both workouts are made up of identical exercises, sets and reps. The only difference is the order of the drills. Explains a veteran Soviet bodybuilder who loves this program, “As a rule, you can lift more weight in a given exercise in the beginning, rather than the middle or the end of your workout. However, if you have already conquered that weight fresh in the past and have no psychological barriers about it, you should be able to work yourself up and make the numbers late in the workout. The next workout, when you are scheduled to do the same exercise fresh, the old weight will be too light and you will definitely add more.”
Are you making gains or fooling yourself?
What is the point? In a perfect world you could add five pounds to all your lifts every workout and grow stronger ever after. Before you know it, you would be benching a grand. Nice try. It is too bad, but in this galaxy the physiological law of accommodation spoils all the fun in just a few short weeks. The law states that an organism gets desensitized and stops adapting to a training stimulus after a period of time. Your body figures, "Hey, it hasn’t killed me, why bother to adapt?" At this point a change in the program is called for.
This is where most people screw up. The easiest thing to do is to simply overhaul your workout completely, new exercises, sets, reps, new everything. The day after you are sore to the bone and happy as a clam. But are you making gains or just fooling yourself?
Scientists who study complex systems—the human body is one of them—know that in order to thrive these systems must teeter “on the edge of chaos.” To use a political analogy, a country with no structure—anarchy—is doomed. And a totalitarian state with too much structure, such as the Soviet Union, is bound to stagnate eventually.
If the training schedule is totally erratic, there is no structure or direction. You get very sore but you are not building much muscle and even less strength. If, on the other hand, your training hardly changes at all, you will hit the wall and stay there for years. What is required is enough change to stimulate gains but not too much, so your training does not lose its focus.
Until now the only surefire way of doing this was powerlifting-style cycling. You stick pretty much to the same exercises but after reaching a PR you back off to very light weights to make your muscles get somewhat out of shape and become responsive to training again. Stuart McRobert, the author of Brawn, aptly named this process “softening up.” Although hard to handle psychologically, cycling is the only training structure that is reliable over a long haul. Not any more. The Russian “fatigue cycling” technique is another dependable plateau buster in your muscle- and strength-building toolbox. The routine maintains the structure (the same exercises, sets and reps) but jolts the system with a fresh stimulus of a new exercise order.
Fatigue Cycling Powerlift-Based Program
Here is a powerlift-based routine structured according to the fatigue cycling principle. Train twice a week, for instance Mondays and Thursdays, rotating the three listed workouts. Wrap up each workout with some low-rep ab work. If you wish, you can do some light beach work, such as curls, on Saturdays.
1. Bench presses –6x4
2. Squats –3x4
3. Deadlifts –3x4
1. Squats –3x4
2. Bench presses –6x4
3. Deadlifts –3x4
1. Deadlifts –3x4
2. Squats –3x4
3. Bench presses –6x4
But wait, there’s more!
Here’s one more routine for you to choose from. Rotate the two workouts and train three times a week.
Fatigue Cycling “Never Lie Down to Train” Program
1. Deadlifts – 3x3
2. Weighted dips –5x5
3. Clean and presses –5x5
4. Weighted pull-ups –5x5
1. Clean and presses –5x5
2. Weighted pull-ups –5x5
3. Deadlifts –3x3
4. Weighted dips –5x5
Follow any of the above routines for as long as you make gains, then switch to a basic powerlifting cycle without changing the exercise. If you have a couple of years of training under your belt, do not feel the pressure to up the poundage for each “fresh” lift in every workout. Staying with the same numbers for two or three sessions is legit for an experienced trainer.
Her is an arm specialization routine that is built around the fatigue cycling principle. Do Workout A on Mondays and B on Thursdays. On Tuesdays and Friday perform the infamous 20-rep squat routine plus five sets of give reps of your favorite ab exercise.
Fatigue Cycling Arm Specialization Program
1. EZ bar French presses –3x6
2. Incline dumbbell curls –3x6
3. Close-grip bench presses –3x6
4. Barbell curls – 3x6
1. Barbell curls – 3x6
2. Close-grip bench presses –3x6
3. Incline dumbell curls –3x6
4. EZ bar French presses –3x6
In the Soviet Special Forces we successfully applied the fatigue cycling principle to a number of exercises we were tested on, especially pull-ups and snatches with a 53-pound kettlebell. In fact, we did a lot of strength training once fatigued from a ruck march, a run or an obstacle course. You can apply this setup to your sport conditioning as well. For instance, a fighter could alternate strength training before and after his martial arts practice. In addition to cutting back on plateaus, this training builds guts.
In order to get good at something you must practice it specifically. On the other hand, if you keep doing the same thing you will eventually plateau. This is the conflict between the laws of specificity and accommodation. So effective training must be “same but different”! A puzzle for a Zen master. Solved.