Keeping in line with Russia’s ubiquity in current news cycles, this week’s workout comes from a classic Soviet program brought to us by Pavel Tsatsouline, a former Spetnaz PT instructor and the father of modern kettlebells.
This workout is called the Russian Bear, and comes from from the training exercises of Soviet special forces during the Cold War. The Soviets had their Spetnaz forces who moved in the shadows, as well as superficial-yet-functional “Hollywood” units that they wanted to look as intimidating and powerful as possible. These Hollywood units participated in war games and other propaganda, but never actually saw combat. Their training still had real world strength correlations, but they did them at a higher volume than most would ever dream of, thereby creating an ultra-powerful look.
Russian and Eastern European strength methods have always differed from traditional ideals held by the rest of fitness community. In the former Soviet Union, they would train with the big lifts sometimes multiple times a day. The workouts were shorter, but much more intense. Go down to your local Planet Fitness for comparison. What you’ll most likely see is a bunch of bros doing 100 sets of an isolation exercise for a couple of hours a day. And they’re never seeing any progress. They are so afraid of doing big, compound lifts, such as the deadlift, because they’re worried about overtraining. But they actually end up undertrained.
If I could choose one lift to do for the rest of my life, it would be the deadlift. Nothing is more bad-ass than lifting double your bodyweight straight off the floor. Any training program can benefit from including the deadlift. If you are trying to lose weight, the movement uses all major muscle groups, so you are creating a calorie burn even hours after the workout. As you get older, you will especially be glad you included it since it will strengthen your back, build a strong core, and help with joint pain and mobility. The final nail in the debate-coffin between squats and deadlifts is the safety factor. I love heavy squats. But when training solo, I can’t overload the weight because I run the risk of missing the lift. With the deadlift, however, if I fail, I can just drop the weight—no harm, no foul.
For today’s workout you need to know both your max on deadlifts and a pressing movement. I like to use weighted dips, or a strict overhead press. You will start with 90% of your max, then drop down to 80% for the remaining drop sets. How many drop-sets you do is entirely up to you. Some days I do 5, other days when I feel a little better I can work up to over 10. It’s time to stop as soon as you start to lose form. Стоп! Also, I like to superset the movements, taking a 5-minute breaks in between sets at first, then decreasing the rest periods as I decrease weight. Here’s what a sample would look like:
Deadlift- 2×5 @ 90%
Press- 2×5 @ 90%
Drop sets- 5-20 sets @ 80%
You’ll not only build sheer strength with this workout, but you’ll gain the volume required for hypertrophy. Just be sure to eat and sleep like a Russian bear afterwards!
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