The Origins of StrongFirst Programming: The Soviet System

There are many ways to get strong.

Most are mediocre, some are effective, a handful are extraordinary.

One—if not the only—system in the third category is the Soviet Olympic weightlifting methodology of the 1960s-1980s. Names of Vlasov, Rigert, Alexeev, and many other Soviet champions of that era were written in stone in the history of strength. Some of their records, e.g. Vardanyan’s and Zakharevich’s, are still untouched thirty years later.

Yes, drugs are a part of that story—but let us not kid ourselves that the opponents were clean and that steroids were an exclusive domain of the Soviets. Everything else being equal—with everyone juicing—the best method still prevails.

The Soviet System Built Strength to Last

Recalls David Rigert:

“I am not crazy about Bulgarian seventeen-year-old world champions. They are gone too quickly. I am convinced that weightlifting is an occupation for men… Our weightlifting school is most reliable. For instance, Vasily Alexeev lost to no one for almost ten years.  And more than that—he kept setting world records until he was 36 years old!”

“I should not complain either,” continues Rigert who broke 63 world records over a decade. Several years after he hung up his lifting belt to became a coach, David decided to challenge one of his students, the super-heavyweight world record holder of the day, to a clean pull contest. The much lighter Rigert who had done no lifting apart from coaching demos for four years matched the young gun’s best deadlift.

David Rigert, a product of the Soviet system
David Rigert, a product of the Soviet system

David Rigert’s coach Rudolph Plyukfelder won the Olympics at a tender age of 36—a feat never repeated in the sport of weightlifting. Today eighty-some-year-old Plyukfelder casually does rock bottom jump squats with 200 pounds for reps.

Strength to last indeed.

The System did not have a single author; it grew out of corroboration between Medvedev, Vorobyev, Chernyak, and other scientists, many former champions themselves. While all these giants had their own take on details, in principle they agreed on the following:

1. A High Volume of Lifts With 70-80% 1RM as the Foundation

Yuri Vlasov explained:

“An increase in the volume of training loads leads to long term [structural and functional] changes in the organism… builds a foundation for increasing strength… Of course, strength grows at the same time, but not too much. [Then] an increase in intensity assures a quick conquest of new results. But by itself intensity does not produce deep adaptive responses.”

The lion’s share of this foundation volume must come from moderately heavy weights. Half of the Soviets’ lifts were with 70-80% 1RM.

Yuri Vlasov
Yuri Vlasov, decades after his Olympic glory days

2. Training Loads Must Be Highly Variable

In the West, the key word in strength planning is “progression.” In the East, it is “variability.”

You might find it crazy, but the Soviet system did not chase rep PRs. Where an American powerlifting cycle is carefully laid out to set personal bests—the best set of five, the best triple—a Soviet coach just put the reps under the lifter’s belt in a sophisticated loading pattern that was anything but linear.

Did you know that the popular-in-the-West scheme of three weeks up and one down was used only by low-level Russian athletes? It was not unusual for the elite to have their tonnage double from one week to the next—only to fall like a rock again in week three and do something equally unexpected in week four. Although not as sharply, intensity also changed suddenly.

Prof. Arkady Vorobyev discovered that sharp changes in training loads pack a punch like nothing else. A classic experiment by a researcher from his team, A. Ermakov, demonstrated that a training plan with load “jumps” was 61% more effective that a plan with traditional smooth waves.

3.  1/3 to 2/3 of the Max Reps You Could Do Fresh

In most cases, Soviet weightlifters would do only 1/3-2/3 of his RM, be it in quick lifts or squats and presses. For example, if 70% is your 10RM, you should keep your reps with this weight in the 3-6 range. If 80% is your 6RM, 2-4 reps per set are what the doctor ordered.

Note that the above formula applies only to weights in the 70-90% 1RM range. Heavier than 90% weights are all lifted for singles. For weights below 70% the rep count is typically around 1/3 of the maximum possible.

Although the Olympic lifts are not my specialty, I pay attention because the programming principles discovered by Soviet specialists in this field are universal for all strength training. A case in point, the training system of today’s victorious Russian National Powerlifting Team was designed by Boris Sheyko, formerly a weightlifting coach. If you are familiar with my work, it will be obvious to you that my most effective programs like “Grease the Groove” and the “Rite of Passage” are also firmly rooted in the above principles discovered by the great minds of Olympic weightlifting.

Although “Grease the Groove” and “Rite of Passage” have been remarkably successful, for a long time I have been unsatisfied, unable to apply many gems of the Soviet weightlifting science to strength training outside of competitive weightlifting, especially when it came to waviness of the load. Some of the weightlifting periodization schemes were too sophisticated to disassemble and reassemble to benefit anyone but rare strength nerds. Many tactics refused to be translated into use with kettlebells due to large jumps in sizes. But I kept at it, trying to develop algorithms that would enable any reasonably intelligent person without a specialized background to design exceptionally powerful strength training plans—kettlebell, barbell, or bodyweight—fully in compliance with the methodology that won Mother Russia so much gold.

I believe I have succeeded.

Thirteen SFGs with a starting max of a 40kg strict single-arm kettlebell military press followed one particular plan. After eight weeks, eleven out of the thirteen—85% of the subjects—were able to press 44kg. (Two of them put up the Beast, but one admitted his starting max was closer to 44kg than 40kg.) On a similar plan for the ladies with a 20kg max, a third of the subjects advanced to 24kg and the rest repped out with the 20. Anyone who tried to push up his or her military press once they have reached the point of diminishing returns will tell you that this is some serious progress. You are dealing with small muscle groups with high neurological efficiency and, unlike the squatting muscles, they are very reluctant to get stronger.

Many of the subjects commented how unexpected and seemingly random were the load jumps from day to day and week to week. Yet they were anything but random. American program design may be compared to a photograph, and Russian to an impressionist painting. An experienced eye can easily see the logic behind an American powerlifting plan. A Russian plan, when you look at it up close, is just noise. Remember the scene at the museum in Ferris Bueller’s Day Off? Cameron zones out in front of George Seurat’s spectacular painting. His eyes unfocus and the image of a little girl washes out into a blur of colorful dots.

You have to step a lot farther back to see the pattern in what appears to be chaos.

The Soviet training system

Pavel Tsatsouline
Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.

48 thoughts on “The Origins of StrongFirst Programming: The Soviet System

  • Pavel,

    Any update on whether this will be available again, either through additional seminars or products for purchase?


  • This is awesome info Pavel thank you so much for your contribution to the world of weightlifting.
    I am an aspiring Olympic weightlifter and I love reading things like this. I really hope you introduce us to more articles about this in the future. Until then could you steer me in the right direction as far as programing they would use to produce a strong squat?

  • Hello

    I have found the 1/2-2/3 “rule” to be the most unpracticed by Americans.
    And we are talking bodybuilders,pro and college football players as well as Joe the gym rat.
    I have been a college football player,attempted some Oly lifting and been Joe the gym rat
    and in all these arenas what i see and continue to see is a continuous state of low grade over training.
    Going to rep max,getting burned out or injured and starting anew again and again.

  • Is there any way this seminar may be video taped for future purchase? I would love to attend, but cannot.

  • I’m very much looking forward to this for myself and my clients! I signed up for the seminar but was hoping to get some info on lodging. Is there a group rate available at a hotel near the location of this seminar? I contacted Marriott at McDowell which appears to be the only lodging near the location and the room rate is more than $200/night. Can you help? Thanks and I’ll see you in November yo!

  • Pavel,

    How does this article fall in line with Easy Strength? I ask because Easy Strength is the standard for strength training for sports and a major rule, if you will, is no more than 10 reps.

  • From the time i first read Roman’s “Training of the Weightlifter”, there was the idea of something was going on behind the charts and graphs. Looking forward to seeing this since i could never figure it all out.

  • This is why Pavel is still at the front of serious training. Always researching, polishing, and refining his methods to produce the best results. Not to mention his character, generosity, and integrity. Anxiously awaiting your next book, dvd, etc.etc….Continued success to you!!!!!

  • I would not miss this event and I am extremely excited to soak in the information. I went through the 40KG program and the results were great. I am very appreciative of being offered such a great event. Thanks Pavel.

  • It seems master Pavel is also versed in art. It is the second time he mention (in this blog) the impressionist school of oil painting. Glad to see a person with passion for iron but also with the sensibility to appreciate art. I am an impressionist painter myself and also love iron… the strong first way!

  • I was also on the 40 kg program. I had the flu for two whole weeks in the middle (not Pavel’s fault), and a Highland Games end of week 7. I still went from 40 to 44. I hit the left and the right on separate days though, right first. Also, I double pressed the 40s, my wife as a witness. At the end, I said to her “that seemed like it took a LONG time.” She said, “It did, but it never stopped moving, and it looked good!”

    Also, after the flu, I was 6-7 lbs lighter, but still got the 44 at the end of it all.

    • Great to hear, Sam, but you did not get back to me with the results. Please do.

  • This sounds really great! Though, is it a good idea for beginner / intermediate gireviks to attend? I do not train or coach other people, but I have helped friends get into kettlebells after seeing my results. I just do it for my own health and enjoyment.

    • Arryn, if you plan on going far in your training or if you do train others, do come. If lifting is just an activity for you, then do not.

  • Pavel, Gday from Australia.
    Any chance that you’ll write a book on the subject?

    • Darren, some of this material (far from all) will eventually end up in a book.

  • Pavel, truly understandable. I realy enjoy reading your books and articles. Strongfirst is a wealth of knowledge! Thank you for sharing!

  • Big respect to you,Pavel!
    Just saying that the fondation of the Russian system is the Bulgarian,discovered by Abadjiev.Untill he discovered it, the best system was the German system.When Bulgarians started to win medals, the best russian scientist came to Bulgaria to study it.Later they modified it and applyed it to their weightlifters. Correct me if i’m wrong.

    • Ivan, the Bulgarian system has produced some great champions but your history is wrong. Please look up elsewhere.

    • No, Bobby, we decided to make it a special event for those attending.

        • Daniel, some of this material (far from all) will eventually end up in a book.

  • this sounds EPIC Chief! Who else but you could de code the complexity of the most sophisticated strength system in the world? Back to the roots indeed!

  • Great Read. Pavel, I wish a lot of this would make it into a book applied to the powerlifts.

  • Просто очень сильно хотел Вас поблагодарить, за гири, за мотивацию, за те сложности и победы, которые появились в моей жизни, благодаря Вам и гирям. Вот. Удачии Силы всем нам)

    • John, some of this information will eventually make it into a book but most will not. This is something you need to learn hands on.

  • This article was like a breath of fresh air and I’ve already nabbed some key insights to tweak my current program. And that Plan Strong seminar looks so amazing I can’t even think of other things – time to start saving my pennies. Hope to see you there, Chief!

  • Very intriguing article, by the way. I had filled the form of your mail, but unfortunately did not get the program (I was a bit late).

  • Pavel, do these random jumps in intensity or volume have a place in the Easy Strength/ 40 Day template? Should one experiment with this?

    • Ram, yes, they can be applied to that template—but they are anything but random.

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