The Russian approach to strength training isn’t so different from what the best strength coaches all over the world preach…but it is different from what most people do in the gym. My main lesson drawn from the Russian approach is that more doesn’t make you better, better quality makes you better. I’ll explain.
Let’s say you’re a top end junior athlete, and you and your parents decide that they should invest in your career by hiring a top end coach. Then you pay big money to get a 1on1 session with this coach. And the coach asks you, “how many push ups do you do per day?” You tell the coach, “150 – 3 sets of 50”. The coach replies, “well do 4 sets of 50 now. Thanks for your money.” How happy are you going to be?
Any idiot can tell you to do more. “Oh you’re running 10k per day, shooting 1000 pucks, strength training, and playing road hockey? Well let’s add cognitive training, goal setting, and another 5k per day of running.”
IF an athlete’s body can handle the increased load as prescribed by the trainer, he or she will undoubtedly get better. But the increased volume of training is going to be tough to recover from and may lead to an overreaching athlete.
When you pay the big dollars for a high end coach or trainer, you don’t want them telling you to do MORE, you want them to tell you how to do something better.
Now, I’ve prescribed many people shit kicking workouts with a stupid amount of reps. I went through the phase where my whole goal as a trainer was to make people puke. (If you want me to, I can still do it.) But the more information I receive, and the more I integrate that information into my training approach, the more attention I pay to quality.
This came to a head late 2013 while watching an athlete at my gym complete his 12th, 13th, 14th, and 15th rep of a dumbbell lateral raise. Here were my observations:
- The athlete was grimacing in pain
- It appeared like the athlete was putting a lot of effort into his lift
- His entire core was turned off (evidenced by lordosis indicating his glutes were turned off)
- He was driving his legs to complete his last few reps
- He was not using full range of motion on his last few reps
So first off, what is the benefit of this athlete completing his exercises in this way? Well:
- The athlete can learn mental toughness by pushing through pain
- The athlete can feel good about himself for working hard
- The high rep range will contribute to muscular hypertrophy (increase in muscle size).*
What are my critiques of this approach? First, the asterisk* is there because (from what I know about muscular hypertrophy – and that’s about to change very fast because I’m about to take a 4th year course that is all about muscular hypertrophy) the hypertrophy that the athlete is likely to experience is called sarcoplasmic hypertrophy. This is essentially increasing the size of the muscle fiber by pumping more water into the cell. This is the type of muscle size that body builders seek to attain. While this sort of training will lead to SOME permanent increases in muscle size, it’s likely that it will not remain.
Second, while in our society, people often preach that hard work is important and valued, what is really important is results. No one cares whether player A worked harder than player B if player B scored more goals, had a better plus minus, and was a better teammate. Obviously hard-work was necessary for player B to put himself in that situation, but people want results, not effort. Why then, should we value athletes who are trying really hard, but are putting themselves at risk for injury in the gym? Why should we value athletes that try really hard, but aren’t improving their athleticism? I don’t think we should. I believe that every single lift should be purposeful and easy to accomplish. My view is that hard work is the base. It is accepted that you are extremely hard working if you want to be a successful athlete. So since it is accepted that you are willing to put in the work, we should value quality over hard work.
I do think that the mental toughness aspect of pushing through pain is a necessary part of success in sport. I still remember back to when I competed in track and cross country, that pretty much every step of the race I wanted to give up because my lungs hurt, but I pushed through. It was great for my confidence in my aerobic ability, but let’s not lose sight of why we push ourselves in the gym. Linking back to Progressive Overload, the our goal is to make it easier and easier to lift the same load, thereby making greater loads also easier. Again, if playing hockey well requires less effort from you, then it will be easier for you to play hockey than the next guy. This will in turn allow you to play longer, and also when it comes down to exerting maximal effort…you will be able to exert more effort than the other guy. Why? Because at any given load, you will require less effort than that other player. So then, what is more important in the gym? Constantly pushing yourself to failure? Or doing the same amount of work with less effort? You might say, “well if I push myself, won’t that make lesser loads easier on me? Or won’t they feel easier?” I say, yes to an extent…but if the body learns to always feel tired, and to always fire with poor mechanics, and to always feel like it’s on edge…then that’s probably what you’ll get in performance. If instead, your body is used to easily moving heavy loads (or doing intense work intervals) with excellent mechanics, a calm state of mind, and minimal fatigue…you will likely get that in your performance.
So this is why I have shifted my perspective to quality of movement rather than quantity. This shift has been occurring bit by bit over the last few years, and I notice that payoff when I play hockey. I am now able to take note on what my mechanical breakdown was in a given situation. My mechanical breakouts can often result in a poorly played puck, missed stick handling or poor shot. I can then work on fixing that specific breakdown in my skill training. My point is that if I didn’t have such attention to the quality of my work off the ice, I wouldn’t be in a position to identify my mechanical breakdown on the ice, and subsequently make improvements in that skill.
How does this relate back to Russian strength training? Mostly that a lot of the coaching that lesser trainers in North America are doing is some sort of bastardized version of what was successful in Russia 40, 50, 60 years ago. They may know the term “plyometrics”, but they don’t know what it really is, or how to use it. They’ve heard of PNF, but don’t use it, or don’t know how. They don’t really appreciate quality of lifts, or the technical component of training. They are more likely to tell you to do MORE than to teach you how to do it BETTER. The Russians invented some very successful training practices back in their heyday…and the best strength and conditioning coaches are mostly making sure that it remains undiluted. The lesser ones are throwing together what they THINK is important or what they were taught in their personal training course (junk) and they think that more is better. No-no, better is better.