The legendary Russian powerlifting coach Boris Sheiko once remarked, “he who trains more—lifts more.” For the most part, I agree with that statement, as many of the articles on this blog attest to, but you also have to put things into the proper context in order to understand them. Sheiko’s statement is quite a loaded thing for many lifters when they first hear/read it. This is especially true if you’ve spent the majority of your time—either on the Internet or in the pages of a magazine—reading articles written by Western (particularly American) writers/trainers. And it’s even more true if you’ve gotten great results from heavy, infrequent training using a lot of the Western methods.
First, let’s look at an overview of training in general, then I’ll discuss a little about my own personal success with programs such as Sheiko and similar “Russian-style” programs for those of you interested in actually using this stuff. And if you already do train in such a fashion, perhaps I can also offer a few tips, pointers, and whatnot to make your training just a little bit more effective.
For training in general, in America it has become common among lifters (powerlifters, in particular) to discuss four distinct training “methods.” They are:
- The “maximal effort” method
- The “dynamic effort” method
- The “repetition” method
- The “sub-maximal effort” method
Of the four, the primary ones actually used in the West are the first three methods. This is most likely due to their use by the Westside Barbell Club, in Columbus, Ohio, and—more specifically—what Louie Simmons has written about the methods over the years in powerlifting magazines and various Internet articles. Add to the fact that many American lifters have gotten phenomenal results from such training, and you can understand the fascination with these methods, and the reason why you hear/read about them so much.
(I’m not going to even begin to get into the fact that for the majority of guys and girls at the average gym in America, the only method that is even remotely used and/or understood is the “repetition” method. To be honest, I doubt many—or any—people who read this blog would dare step foot into a Planet Fitness, or some other such den of unholy “fitness” vipers, so I see no reason to get into an entirely counter-productive rant, even if ranting about such things does make me feel relatively good.)
In many countries of the “East”—Russia being the most famous simply because it produces the most lifters—the primary method that is used is actually the “sub-maximal effort” method, with the “repetition” method and “maximal effort” method being used sparingly, and the “dynamic effort” method virtually being non-existent.
If you are going to put Sheiko’s maxim at the start of this article to use—or, better still, if you are going to do what the title of this article claims—then you must learn to effectively use the “sub-maximal” effort method in your training.
Sub-maximal Effort’s Other Name
“There is a difference between lifting more and actually getting stronger,” is what Arthur B. Jones (the powerlifter, not to be confused with the proponent of H.I.T.) once quipped. Jones could bench 563 “raw” in the 242-pound class.
“Getting stronger”, I guess you could argue, is what the training of Westside Barbell and other “Western-minded” strength approaches do via intra-muscular coordination while “lifting more” is what the Russian-minded training does via inter-muscular coordination (“skill” training). The latter has become rather affectionately known in the West as “grease-the-groove” training—which we’ll call GTG training for the remainder of this piece. I have discussed this kind of training in the past when referring to high-volume, high-frequency, low-intensity training—what I usually refer to here at Integral Strength as Russian-style training. (Although I am kind of pitting GTG against the higher-volume, higher-intensity, lower-frequency training so popular in the West, this idea is slightly misleading on my part—as some of you may have already surmised. There is really another style of training that combines high-intensity and high-frequency with low volume. This 3rd form of training is typically referred to as the “Bulgarian method” but I have written enough about it recently to refrain from doing so here. And, besides, you’ll notice that both the Bulgarian method and the GTG method often cross paths and venture into the same training territory as there is a tendency for some lifters to create an amalgam of both that combines high-frequency with moderate volume and moderate intensity. Both of them, however, make use of the “sub-maximal effort” method.)
Skill training—which GTG essentially is—is more effective than most American lifters give it credit for. I think this is because it’s too often seen as something for beginners, but not something that advanced lifters should take part in, but Russian lifters have proved this to be wrong. They have often increased their skill, and, therefore, their strength, not just for years, but for decades.
My Personal Experience
I admit being a fan of all-things Russian. I attend a Russian Orthodox Church every week. The Russians that I know, and that I’ve met, are all wonderful people. And I have been enamored of Russian-style workouts ever since I put one of Boris Sheiko’s programs to the test over a decade ago. I have never been as strong as when I used several of Sheiko’s training programs for a couple of years.
One thing about Russian stuff is this: it’s no-nonsense. Upon rising in the morning, you pray. You don’t get all emotional about it. You just do the prayers each morning, and they eventually begin to do their work on you.
Same thing for evening prayers, and all those prayer services you go to at the Church during the week.
And the same thing with the training. You show up, you do it, and then you go home. You don’t put too much effort into it, otherwise, that would just be counter-productive. And you don’t waste time on exercises that don’t correlate to the lifts you’re trying to get stronger/better at—if you’re a powerlifter, you primarily just do the powerlifts.
When I first started using a Sheiko program, I was also relatively strong. I had been competing in powerlifting for a number of years, and could squat over 500 pounds and deadlift close to 500. My best bench—in the gym, at least—was 405. My best competition bench was around 340. (My bench being worse in competition than in the gym was due to my biomechanics combined with all of the weight I would lose for a competition. I would go from around 190 down to the mid 170s for weigh-in. My squat and deadlift never suffered. If anything, they got stronger as I got lighter. My bench press, however, would plummet.) By the time I had done a couple cycles of Sheiko’s programs, I could squat and deadlift over 600 pounds, and I had added about 20 pounds to my best competition bench press, all the while staying in the 181 pound class.
Based on my personal experience, here are some things I would keep in mind when/if you want to embark on this kind of training:
- At first, don’t try to “wing it.” Start off with a pre-designed program. One of Sheiko’s basic three-days-per-week routines should be plenty. After you do a couple of cycle of these pre-designed routines, feel free to get creative.
- Don’t use much, or any, “dynamic effort” in your training. While this kind of training can certainly be beneficial when used in the correct context—several of my programs on this blog, for instance, take advantage of it—it should be used very sparingly while employing GTG methodology. If unsure about how much effort to put into your repetitions, it’s probably best to use what Stephan Korte called the “energy saving method”: only put in as much energy for your lift as you need.
- The more frequently you can train, the better. In order to train daily—or close to it—this typically means that you should feel better when you end the workout than when you start.
- When designing your own program, keep track of your total workload that you use each week. For three weeks straight, increase the workload steadily. On the fourth week, take a “down” week to let your body recover. On the 5th week, go for your heaviest weights yet, then de-load on the 6th week, but once again start three weeks of “ramping” up with increased workloads.
- How heavy should you go on average? Probably the majority of your sessions should be done in the 70-80% of your 1rep-max range. I think the difference may be with deadlifts. I’ve found I can increase my deadlifts—as long as I’m squatting simultaneously—by using only 50-60% of my 1rep-max range.
 This quote, and Jones’ stats, comes from the book “Power to the People Professional” by Pavel Tsatsouline. The entire book is a virtual treasure trove of information, and I highly recommend it.
 That’s correct, the Bulgarian method makes use of the “sub-maximal effort” method as opposed to the “maximal effort” method because none of the daily so-called “maxes” are true maxes.