Written by Keith Enderlein
Recently, I was fortunate enough to partake in the Russian Strength Seminar, a good perk of working for Juggernaut Training Systems. The Russian Strength Seminar was led by Boris Sheiko and Mikhail “Misha” Koklyaev. Sheiko is an extremely decorated powerlifting coach who has coached 39 world champions, including Krill Sarychev who is a surefire record holder of the raw bench title with his current PR at 719 pounds at 23 years old. Misha was honored as being Russians strongest lifter after his storied strength career in Olympic Weightlifting, Strongman and Powerlifting. His best snatch is 210kg and best Clean & Jerk at 252kg. He holds the Russian National deadlift record at 417.5 kilograms (920 pounds).
To say the least, these are guys you want to be learning from.
The seminar took off with Sheiko breaking down his programming methodologies and basic coaching practices. Sheiko’s system has been followed by a ton of Americans via online avenues so it was awesome to hear it from the man himself. His programming logic was very similar to what I heard during my undergrad in Exercise Science. You start high volume with low intensity at the beginning of the mesocycle and as the training plan goes on you reduce the volume and increase the intensity, as the competition gets closer. This is how most programs are structured.
This is how I model my training, my athlete’s training and what most top coaches in the field use that I know of. The one thing that may differ with Sheiko’s programming compared to an American powerlifter’s programs is that the average intensity throughout a preparatory (roughly 10 weeks) and competition cycle (roughly 4 weeks) is only about 70%. This is really low compared to what you would think a powerlifter would need because they are training for maximal effort at or above 100% in competition. Boris does take into account all sets at or above 50% into the training intensity and volume and he says most don’t include these sets which skews data to think the best training intensity is closer to 80-85% on average instead of 71.5% +/-2%. Most would term this submaximal training and is the path I choose with my own lifters.
Advantages of Submaximal Training
When your training revolves around lower intensity and using reps that are submaximal for that given intensity (relative submaximal intensity) you are going to do a number of positive things for your athletes.
1. They will rarely ever miss a rep in training, leading to a huge psychological advantage each week in training and especially when they step on the platform because they aren’t used to missing weights.
2. They will be using weights that they know they can do so they can put more attention on perfect technique. It is hard to think about correct breathing or holding your back arch with 95% of your max but it is rather easy with 65% of your max. Not only is it easy, but you can even make corrections during the set.
3. Spotters won’t be lifting the weight or touching the bar during your reps, leading to more quality reps. Powerlifting is a sport and just like every other sport the greatest athletes are the ones who practice a lot with great technique. Time and time again you can go into a gym and see the spotter is lifting 3 or the 5 reps for the person but don’t worry bro because “It was ALL YOU.”
The concept of lifting weights lighter than you could do was completely foreign to me five years ago. I adhered to a concept that if you could do more reps then you needed to add more weight. I always went to the point where my technique was challenged and would stop only when my technique would change in order to get another rep. Think of curls when you need to use your back for one more rep, I would be the guy to stop right before using my back. This method works but comes at a high cost in terms of fatigue, wear & tear and technique that isn’t perfect. I now see and utilize a system like Sheiko uses where the reps are lower than an individual could do for a set intensity. Let’s say your max squat is 300 pounds and you are doing 5×5@70%. That would only be 210 pounds. A weight that you could easily do for 10 if not 13-14 reps, so why only do 5?
- Perfect technique.
- Reduce soreness.
- Be able to walk the next day.
- Be able to train the squat more frequently within the week, month and year(s) due to less fatigue.
This in tern will lead to better technique due to more practice.
You can do more sets at a weight that is not done to failure. If you do your first set at 70% and barely get 15 reps then how in the world are you going to do another set after that for 15 or more reps?
Within one competition cycle that lasts roughly 14 weeks Sheiko prescribes only two training days (the first Wednesday and Friday of the first of four week competition block) where athletes will go to 100%. International level competitors will only go up to 90% during this time though. Beginner and intermediate lifters will do sets up to 90%, 95% and then 1-2 sets of 1 rep at 100%. During this time Sheiko and the athlete have a good idea what the athlete will be able to do at the upcoming competition. A true 1rm is not found. If the lifter does 100% with ease they do not go up. They know that they are capable of more but don’t need to prove it in the gym.
Conversely if the athlete looks like they are struggling with 90%, or for some odd reason miss at 95% they will not go to 100% and instead do 2×2@80% so the athlete leaves with some confidence and is able to end the day using proper technique. They always want to end the day on a positive note even if something unfortunate happened like not getting up to 100% on testing day. I am a huge advocate of never missing a weight when I have my athletes test at Juggernaut. If they do 410 pounds for a squat when their old PR was 405 and then jump to 425 and get it with ease they will often want to go for another attempt but I will cut the day there, knowing that they could do more. They also know they can do more but increasing the weight more lends itself to one of three options 99% of the time.
They either miss the weight, which takes the day from being awesome and filled with positively to doubt and misery. The second option is they barely grind out the weight, often with improper technique and lends itself to the athlete knowing their true max. This may sound better but I’d rather have an athlete not know because then their potential isn’t capped. The third option is injury, which we never want to see. The fourth potential option that is rarely seen is they smoke their next attempt and is so rare that I rarely take the risk. Even if the athlete was capable of doing this it doesn’t happen because doubt creeps in. Lets say we let them go up to 455. They think in their head “I don’t know if I can do this, 455 is big weight, before today I’ve only done 405, maybe coach made a mistaken, I hope I can do this weight.” These are not thoughts we want in our mind and therefore we do not let them creep in by not taking the weight that day.
Sheiko recommends younger lifters to compete 4-6 times per year to gain experience and get a psychological advantage by making all 9 lifts during the competition. I agree on this note, as lifters should only be lifting for themselves at this stage and getting silver making 9/9 lifts is more important than missing weights going for gold and taking home bronze. I do think athletes should build a base level of strength before stepping onto the competition platform and have proficient technique in all three lifts.
Intermediate and national level lifters should compete 3-4 competitions per year.
International level competitors should compete 2-4 times per year.
When selecting attempts Sheiko prescribes what I have been taught and that is pick your first attempt at around 90% so that you know for sure you will make the lift with great technique that the judges will give you white lights for. Athletes and coaches should sit down before the competition to discuss what weights they want to do for the competition. Sheiko said he does this not to adjust the weights upward as he already knows what the athletes are capable of but maybe drop the opener down or convince the athlete to be on the same page as him.
Far too many athletes attempt do their old max for their first attempt, miss or barely get it and then are screwed for the rest of the competition. By going for an easy opener you are setting yourself up for success on your second or third attempt. I know that some athletes get so aroused for anything above 90% that they have already blown their wad if they do 100% on their first and 105% on their second. Now continue that trend to bench and they have no energy left for a deadlift, let alone 3 at the end of the day. I personally consider my athletes PR’s, arousal states and prior training blocks when making attempt selections.
A recovery week of active rest can be used after longer mesocycles to allow the athlete to rest physically and mentally. Active rest is better than passive rest as it allows the athlete to flush out metabolic waste and keep them active. Swimming and sports games or walking with your favorite girl are Sheiko’s recommendations for active rest.
For a 4 week competition phase the first week is done for testing as described above. The second week is done at around 75%. The third week is done at around 70% and the fourth week they only train on Monday (Deadlift and Bench) and Wednesday (Squat) at around 60% for a few sets of low reps. Lifting the week of the meet helps keep the athlete from overthinking the meet too much by not just taking the last week or two completely off. The weights for the last week are similar to warm-up weights, so it is not fatiguing. Sheiko referenced a study (probably conducted by the Anti-Gains Society) where individuals were given a leg cast for 3 weeks and lost 45-50% strength (hard to believe it was ethically approved right?) during this time. Periods of rest are important as they allow fatigue levels to drop but too long of a rest will also see a reduction in strength as well.
Competition Phases Frequency
During competition phase training frequency is four times for the first week, four times for the second week, three times for the third week and only two times for the week of competition.
During the preparatory cycle, his highest-level athletes will train 4-8 times per week.
Overview of Sheiko’s Presentation
No secret weapons of mass destruction are used in the creation of the beasts Sheiko creates. The process just takes time and a lot of effort. Even though on paper his workouts may not seem too challenging, they really are. High frequency training can be very daunting and is not easy. It was nice to see that a lot of the things I do for my athletes in the short term and long term match up with his methodologies. I wish he would’ve went deeper into his rationale and reasoning for choosing high frequency training and long term planning, but being that it was just a one day seminar and basics are more important to the masses, he did not. If people could apply the basic tenants he outlined in his talk they would be far more successful and wouldn’t be spinning their wheels hitting plateaus all the time.
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. –Boris Sheiko
Russian Seminar Practical Portion
We went over the squat first. About 7 participants paid the extra money to be part of the practical portion while the others just sat and watched. They coached the squat similar to how I teach it. They focus on:
1. The set-up.
Start by grabbing the bar tightly with your hands and then ducking under the barbell. Pinch your shoulder blades together and down to create a place for the bar to rest. Surprisingly Sheiko only prescribes low bar squats for his lifters unless they are brand new. Then they do high bar for the first four weeks and low bar thereafter. This is something I don’t do with my athletes. All my low bar squatters do both low bar and high bar squats and my high bar squatters don’t do low bar even though that is the goal eventually. My rationale is that high bar squats are better at building strength while low bar squats are better for expressing the strength you have built. High bar squats put more strain on the torso to keep you erect and strengthen the quads more. Considering I work with mostly high school and college athletes they need a very strong torso so high bar serves a great purpose.
2. Walk out
Walk out the bar with only a couple small steps with feet outside the shoulders. Toes should not be pointed straight forward, they should be slightly turned out.
Take a big breath into the belly and do not let it out until you complete the rep. They corrected a few athletes who had their shoulders rise when they took their breath. The air should go into the belly to create intra-abdominal pressure and not into the upper chest cavity only.
4. Initiating the Squat
Start by pushing the hips back slightly and then squat straight down.
It looked like most everyone squatting was breaking simultaneously and they weren’t correcting them. Sheiko does want the hips back to created a better back angle and so the knees don’t travel so far forward. I am an advocate of the knees go where they may but also understand that prescribing drills like wall squats and box squats helps to create more stability and control in the descent.
Common Problems from the Attendees:
This was a pretty good group of athletes who had experience lifting so no one was lifting with terrible technique.
- Raising the shoulders while taking the breath.
- Lack of tightness in the upper back.
- Stance width either too wide or too narrow. I think this occurs from athletes watching too many videos of people telling them where their feet should go instead of doing what is comfortable. As a coach it is easy to spot those who would look better if they just brought in their stance in a little or widened it a little.
- Torso leaning too far forward and losing their lumbar arch. Sheiko’s correction for this problem was wall squats with or without a box.
- Hands placed too wide on the barbell.
- Descending too fast or too slow.
The bench press starts out by setting the feet and the arch in the upper back. Too many people don’t arch their upper back first and let that arch transcend globally throughout the spine. They only arch their lumbar spine, which creates undo stress on the vertebrae. Get your arch by pinching your shoulder blades and pulling them down.
Grip Width and Bar Placement
Grip width is determined by arm length and benching style. Sheiko describes two lifting styles-elbows in (triceps emphasized bench) and chest emphasized bench with elbows just barely in about 45 degrees to the body. Bring the bar down low enough on your chest so the bar, your wrist and elbow are all in a straight line. Those with a narrower grip who tuck in their elbows will be touching very low on their sternums to keep the bar/wrist/elbow relationship. Upon pressing the lifter needs to use their legs to drive the bar off their chest.
*** Note this only works for paused benches where the bar sinks into the chest. Those who hold all the weight in their hands will not benefit much at all from leg drive and may never use it at all.
- Lack of an upper back arch.
- Lack of stability on the bench due to lack of tightness in the torso and not planting the feet in the ground with the foot behind the knee and the knee lower than the hip.
- Dropping the chest and losing tightness as the bar approached the chest.
- Unracking the weight too far down the bench so that they lost their arch upon unracking the weight (happens to a lot of lifters who don’t get a liftoff).
- Losing the bar/wrist/elbow relationship.
Overall this was a great benching group. I see a lot of mistakes in the bench due to poor programming that then leads to poor technique. People need to be ok with not being the best in the gym for a couple months to actually get stronger. Too many people are taking each set to technique failure and end up having their spotter do the last rep(s) for them. If they would lower the weight they could focus on technique and not just focusing on impressing their instagram followers with their 225-pound bench for 5 reps.
The deadlift was really cool as Misha is one of the best deadlifters on the planet right now having pulled 920 pounds. The key to success in the deadlift is the set-up.
Your shin angle for the conventional deadlift needs to be pretty much vertical upon pulling according to Misha. From here your limb lengths will determine where your hips and shoulders are. Some may have their hips higher and shoulders further in front of the bar while others have their hips lower and shoulders not in front of the bar so much. Once in the correct position you need to get the bar close to your shins, lock your lats in place, arch your back and pick a focal point on the wall. Sheiko is not an advocate of looking down to create a neutral spine and wants people to pick a spot in front to look at so their head is in the same position from start to finish.
2. The pull/push
When you go to lift the bar you need to use your legs and back together to keep your hips from shooting up or your back rounding. The deadlift is a push from your lower body and a pull from your upper body done simultaneously
3. Lowering the bar
Misha and Sheiko advocate bringing the bar down in control as this strengthens the small stabilizing muscles and builds torso strength. Bringing the bar down in control will help with technique especially when doing multiple reps.
Mistakes in the deadlift:
- Feet too narrow to not allow the belly to fit inside the knees (some smaller lifters put their feet too wide as well).
- Bar too far away from the shins.
- Not locking the lats in place, which causes the bar to drift from the start and keeps the bar away past the knees.
- Not locking the upper back in place.
- Yanking the weight off the floor.
- Forgetting to push and pull off the floor, you have to do both.
- Not getting the shoulders back at lockout.
- Excessive violent lumbar extension at the top of the deadlift which can lead to a missed lift or injury if the weight pulls you back down.
Sheiko says he basically knows what style (conventional or sumo) beginners will use but will have them do both in training in various special exercises (deficit deads, block deads, pause deads, etc.). He was giving special exercises for individuals during all three lifts to correct their mistakes. He had some do wall squats for squats and double pause deadlifts for deadlifts as an example. One exercise I have never done but want to try in my next off-season training is pulling the bar up and then lowering it down to 1 inch above the ground before doing another rep. He also suggested doing this same variation but only go to just below the knee on the first pull.
Overview on Squat, Bench and Deadlift
I thought that my current education and training methodology lines up with what Sheiko and Misha were preaching. I emphasize the same core things on all the lifts. It was good to see one of the most decorated powerlifting coaches harping on technique above all else. He was super sharp and quick to point out mistakes and immediately follow that with special exercises to help correct those mistakes. I think sometimes people do too many special exercises or not enough. Both can be done and both with help out the other in developing technique. If you only try and correct technique with the competition lift you may be fighting an uphill battle because you don’t have the requisite strength to hold the positions required to fix the technique. Conversely relying too heavily on special exercises can lead to a lack of motor refinement of the competition lift itself. Both need to be used in conjunction with one another.
I’m very happy and pleased to have been part of this seminar and am very motivated to create a better training environment for my current athletes and grow my powerlifting team in numbers and status in years to come. It is awesome that the sport has grown so much that amazing athletes like Klokov, Illya and Misha are now coming over to America to help athletes progress in the sports we all love so much. If you have an opportunity to attend a seminar hosted by top-level lifters make sure you take full advantage of this opportunity, you will not regret it.