Secrets to Soviet Strength Training
In the world of strength and conditioning, one of the areas where there is a ton of mystique and discussion around genius applications being applied is the Soviet strength system of sports performance.
At the time of the Soviet Union, it is believable the system tested everything under the sun. We need to start by trying to understand the system and look at what coaches might fall under the umbrella of the Soviet Union system from around 1965 until the late ’80s. I also want to go into the exact Soviet principles and talk about my training under an incredibly successful Soviet coach, who was able to answer every single question I was able to provide him.
The Soviet Union, especially during the Cold War, was seen as the archnemesis of the United States from a historical perspective. The nationalism behind the Soviet Union was directly reflected in the nationalism of the United States. We were basically in this war of all fronts: who could get to space the fastest, get to the moon the fastest, and who could win the most gold medals. The idea was to not have direct military conflict, though we still had military conflicts, that is for another blog.
Understanding that the Soviet Union and the USA were in this battle of making everything as competitive as possible is important. Then, from my personal experience with my strength and throws coach, Dr. Anatoly Bundarchuk, who is arguably one of the greatest Soviet coaches of all time, taught me that every single state of the Soviet Union had coaches. All the coaches would get together once or twice a year to meet with coaches like Dr. B. Dr. B might get all the little Soviet or state coaches who were coaching throws (hammer, discus, shot) to meet at a conference and share information with Dr. B. He would then take all that information to create a system based upon all the experiences and contributions of the coaches. He would weigh and value the coaches based on their athletes’ performances at the national and international levels. Ironically, the Soviet system of sports performance was incredibly democratic. We have to start with this backstory to understand how things worked.
Similar things were done for wrestlers, runners, and every other sport under the sun. The information was sent throughout the year to a central information hub. Coaches would contribute information about athletes’ eating habits, lifts, and other information of that nature. The deciphering of the information of specific athletes helped the Soviet system utilize the top results to provide a framework for other Soviet coaches.
Current Situation For Learning
In the current situation, we can look at some of the coaches who talked about Soviet training, contributed around Soviet training, were Soviet trainers, or were/are internet frauds that claim they were in specific systems but never were.
Let’s start with Verkoshansky. Verkoshansky wrote SuperTraining. When I took SuperTraining to Dr. B, he called Verkoshansky a white coat. To Dr. B, a white coat is always in a lab and is never training athletes, never learning the application of the research. In chapter 4, Verkoshansky mis-cites Dr. B. In my copy of SuperTraining, Dr. B scribbles all over chapter 4 to correct the errors.
Verkoshansky wrote the book with Mel Siff.
Then there is R.A. Roman, who was essentially one of the main coaches in their weightlifting system. A lot of the information we can pull from now is from the weightlifting world because the Soviets shared quite a bit of information. There are people in Michigan, I believe it is Sportivity Press, who has translated a lot of the texts so that we can dive in and learn a lot. R.A. Roman has a great quote that goes something like this: “There is a difference between moving heavy weight and moving heavy weight quickly.” That is essentially the whole premise behind weightlifting.
Yessis is a person who focuses on translations, a classically educated American who spent a lot of time in the Soviet Union learning. He helped translate at least one of Dr. B’s books if memory serves me correctly.
That brings us to Dr. B. I think he is the one who has brought the most information to the west. Ironically, Vladimir Zacciorski is another very large influence on strength and conditioning who taught at PSU. Zacciorski was a gymnast from the Soviet Union. So when I came back to PA from training with Dr. B, Dr. B gave me a script that he wanted me to deliver to Zacciorski. After emailing Zacciorski, I was able to get his address and give Vladimir the script. Zacciorski has the best book as an intro to strength and conditioning.
Finally, my favorite, Vorobyev, came out with a weightlifting book from the late ‘60s. I believe the book is very applicable to today’s training that leads to creating strength freaks in power-based sports. I think he might be the most underrated influence as well. Vorobyev had a huge influence on all the previously mentioned coaches. A lot of his work was with Yuri Gagarin, the first person who flew into space.
The Soviet system is really unique in how they utilized all these different scientists to arrive at what they arrived at. But now there is a massive amount of confusion behind the Soviet system of training. So my whole goal now is to go into what I learned directly from Dr. B and then how I applied that in today’s world of training athletes to get to the Olympics, play in the NFL, and make world teams.
Training Under Dr. B
First, training under Dr. B, I was a shot putter. I was mediocre at best but got to train with Olympic medalists. A workout with Dr. B was unlike any experience I ever had. I first had to take my throws. Typically it was 24-30 throws. Then we would go into the weight room. I thought we were going to go into the weight room and just get really strong. One thing that was crazy is that we might go into the weight room and have to do 2x5 power cleans at 120k. After we might do a V-up for a trunk movement of 2x15. Then he might have us do a ¼ back squat for 2x5 at 130k. The fourth exercise and this workout isn’t an exact replica but very similar, would be a pad bench of 2x5 at 145k. The fifth exercise would be a reverse hyper for 2x12. And then the sixth and final exercise would be 2x5 dips.
The interesting part is we would throw every day then do the above workout in the morning. Then we would come back in the afternoon and do the exact same workout. We would come back the next day and do the exact same workout in the morning and the afternoon. And then we would do it again the next day as well! Occasionally we would have a different workout in the afternoon and alternate back and forth for long periods of time. There were other sequences we would follow as well. The whole point was to have the loading lower with intensity.
The Soviet system is notorious for doing triples and quads. That is where the volume tends to be higher under the Soviet system but the intensity isn’t as high as it could be. So the example above, the workout can get done pretty quickly. But over the span of three to five weeks, the tonnage really builds up over time.
Some interesting factors that occurred under Dr. B are that we would do our throws, go into the weight room and lift, but then we would come back and have special strength movements to complete. We would do things like dumbbell throws for 3x10. We also would do shot throws for height as 4x15 and then finish with specificity.
Dr. B talks about in one of his books that the body remembers the last thing that you do. In Dr. B’s mind, if you didn’t finish with a movement specific to your sport, the body could only remember the last thing done in training. In theory, the last piece of training if the intensity was too high could override some of the work done on the movement patterns, negating the work done for the sport. That too much lifting could have a negative impact on the specificity. That is why we always did throws, lifts, and then a special strength movement that directly related to throwing.
This is why wrestlers in the Soviet system do a lot of band work, kettlebell work, sandbag work, with some weightlifting movements in there, but there is a lot of application of life-like movements. The point being, that not only does the Soviet system have high volume, it also has a lot of specificities related to the sport. The high volume helps develop the technique as well.
With periodization, we have to remember that everyone in the Soviet system was pushing information to the training centers. They were all using different models. I would label Dr. B’s periodization model as what is currently referred to as the complex method. I also think the discussion of periodization is so annoying. In theory, there is no periodization but there is periodization, like Daoist philosophy.
Adaptation in the Soviet system is one area I think it struggles with. The system didn’t factor in outside life enough. Like how work can impact life and training. Dr. B did monitor adaptation by tracking how far we were throwing. This has impacted me tremendously with the athlete reaction curve that is used in Parabolic Periodization. We do this at Garage Strength through the athlete reactive analysis.
The biggest focus, in my opinion, from the Soviet system is specificity and technique. Everything always came back to technical movement. Soviet athletes have always been very technically focused. Dr. B was the same way. The technical influence from Dr. B was so different from what the United States technical model was at the time. The training of technique is paramount to success in the Soviet system. So with Dr. B, he’d have us come in and train, focusing on technique. Then every now and then he would say, “You can do better,” and we would try to throw as far as we could.
The application for Dr. B’s system is that over time required noticing and analyzing the implements being used, sequence of lifts, what special strength movements, and how we would react from each period of change. The reaction with how we reacted is how he set up peaks. So where the volume is high in the Soviet system, fives, fours, threes (a lot of triples), it would be cut down to singles and doubles when peaking. The application was always focused on technique and sport specificity.
One of my big critiques of Dr. B is that his system had no focus on absolute strength. I also recognize he was training elite-level athletes who had already developed that absolute strength. He wasn’t working with middle school and high school athletes who benefit greatly from absolute strength.
A lot of people will say that Dr. B didn’t have athletes lift heavy so we should just do functional type movements or reflexive strength training. NO! We need to do all of it! We need to do absolute strength work, especially when going against large opponents who produce a lot of force. There is a big difference between a load of a 16 lbs shot and a 300 lbs human opponent. It is important to look through the lens of the specific sport to figure out the loading, specificity, periodization, but ultimately everything comes back to the adaptation needed for athletes to be successful in their specific sport.
Dane Miller is the owner and founder of Garage Strength Sports Performance. He works with a select handful of clients on building comprehensive programs for fitness and nutrition. Several times a year he leads a workshop for coaches, trainers, and fitness enthusiasts.