Thursday, March 15, 2012

Employing Russian Training Principles to Become a Lifting Cyborg, Part 1

Klokov: man or machine?

By Andrew McGunagle

If you are a casual Olympic weightlifting fan like me, you have undoubtedly marveled at the strength and the skill of Russian lifters such as Dmitry Klokov and Mikhail Koklyaev. They lift big weights, and they do it with a noticeable elegance and a degree of precision that is truly remarkable.

Because weightlifting is such a specialized activity, I am always interested in learning about the training methodologies that mold great lifters. While genetics certainly play a role in the success of top level competitors, you don't become a world class O-lifter by accident. Natural ability combined with haphazard training can get you into the NFL, the NBA, and the MLB, but you can not casually train your way to an Olympic medal in weightlifting.

Unfortunately, I don't hang out with Klokov and Misha in Russia, so I can't tell you about their training specifically. However, I can consult the Russian-inspired super-text, Supertraining. Yes, I have the book. No, I have not read it cover-to-cover (yet). But, I did come across a section of the text that I believe is particularly enlightening regarding the development of Russian champions.

You see, in Russia they take their athletic development pretty seriously. Sports are used to further their national aims, so creating stellar athletes is of the utmost importance. The development of their world class athletes is guided by 8 principles, which I would like to share with you. These principles form the backbone of the Russians' scientific sports preparation, and it is highly likely that the Russian beasts that we are awed by today were shaped by these same guidelines.

It is important to note that these principles extend beyond the sport of Olympic weightlifting. Powerlifters, throwers, field athletes, and runners can all benefit from thinking about and then creatively employing these broad principles. You may not be snatching and clean and jerking for an Olympic gold medal, but you can certainly use these guidelines to streamline your training. In addition to presenting the principles in this article, I will give you some of my thoughts and ideas as to how you can apply them to your own training in part two of this series. This is going to be fun, so let's get to it.

(Note: The following principles are taken from Supertraining, Sixth Edition - Expanded Version with permission from Natalia Verkhoshansky. Thanks Natalia!)

1. The Principle of Awareness: This first principle stresses the importance of each Russian athlete becoming a student of their respective sport. Not only should each athlete understand "the ideology and the philosophy of Russian sport" (which you are learning about right now), but they should also have a working knowledge of "the processes involved in acquiring sporting proficiency". An understanding of the mental and physical processes that are occurring during training allows these athletes to regulate their own training more effectively.     

2. The Principle of All-around Development: All-around development "entails building a solid physical and mental foundation" that will allow young Russians to excel once they specialize in a particular sport. This general development is not restricted to dragging a sled and circuit training, as it is in the minds of many modern American trainees. Rather, it encompasses a variety of physiological and psychological characteristics that provide these athletes with the skills to meet the challenges of rigorous specialized training. It is worth noting that "exemplary moral and cultural development" are also emphasized.

Misha has snatched 210 kg, clean and jerked 250 kg, totaled 950 kg in powerlifting, and he can play the guitar and sing.

3. The Principle of Consecutiveness (or Consistency): Consecutiveness refers to the general trend of progressing an athlete from lower intensities and volumes to progressively higher ones, as well as moving from simpler to more complex skills. In addition, employing this principle in reverse within individual training sessions and competitive seasons is also advised. This winding down allows athletes to maintain the "harmony of the body", which can be disrupted by sessions and seasons that are ended abruptly.  

4. The Principle of Repetition: Both the repetition of exercises and the "proper sequences of work and rest [sic] fatigue and recovery, injury and rehabilitation are vital in producing the proficient athlete." When considering the repetition of exercises in particular, the Russians acknowledge a three stage process in learning sporting skills. The first stage requires the athlete to fully comprehend the skill they need to learn "before attempting to master it." Next, the athlete has to learn how "to concentrate full attention" on the skill(s) that they are attempting. Finally, the skills are practiced until they become so well conditioned that the athlete "no longer needs to concentrate consciously on the movements to perform them efficiently."

Klokov could be thinking about his hot Russian wife while snatching 3 kilos over the world record from a deficit.

 5. The Principle of Visualization: Visualization, as you surely already know, refers to an athlete's ability to picture the correct movements necessary for mastery of their sport. The Russians take visualization a step further by encouraging athletes to understand movements through a variety of educational venues, including (but not limited to) coaches, lectures, video analysis, and diagrams. Furthermore, this principle also involves being able to teach the movements to others, particularly "to enhance desirable learning by novices." This transfer of knowledge also ensures that younger athletes are exposed to the type of "exemplary behavior" that is expected of them as they advance towards the higher stages of sports mastery.   

6. The Principle of Specialization: This principle refers to both an individual's  specialization in a particular sport and the use of special exercises for perfecting aspects vital to efficient sport performance. Contrary to the ideals of some American parents, the Russians discourage early specialization in certain sports, particularly strength and endurance sports. Early and intense specialization "does not seem to produce an enduring athlete". Therefore, the Russian model provides a timetable with age ranges to begin, specialize in, and perform at the highest levels of each sport.

7. The Principle of Individualization: What works for Klokov might not necessarily work for Misha. Because of this, "Russian experts stress the importance of designing individual programmes to suit each athlete". This emphasis on individualization is especially important when considering the brain and central nervous system of each athlete, as fluctuations in this essential system make peaking for a competition an important training consideration.  

8. The Principle of Structured Training: Lastly, we come to structured training. In a nutshell, this principle refers to periodization. Periodization is planning, and it encompasses everything from long-term programming all the way down the structure of individual training sessions. While long-term programming is certainly an integral component of this system, the sequence of individual sessions is emphasized. The three general phases that constitute a training session include the initial phase, the main phase, and the concluding phase. The initial phase starts with an introduction, "during which the group is organised, is given an explanation of the session's objectives and participates in general educational drills". This is followed by a general warm-up, a specific warm-up, and then the main phase. While these previous phases are common practice all around the world, the subsequent concluding phase is often neglected. The Russians believe the concluding phase is vital, as "the athlete's body is generally destressed to return to its initial condition so as to enhance recovery, growth and retention of motor skills."

Conclude your sessions and go berserk in competition

If only your Pop Warner football coach had been this organized. You coulda been a contenda, eh? Interesting stuff, no doubt. In an effort to keep the length of this article sane, my thoughts, comments, and suggestions to accompany each principle will be featured in part two of this article series. So stay tuned! As always, be sure to leave any questions or comments you may have in the comments section below. Or, email me at Thanks for reading!


Verkhoshansky, Yuri Vitalievitch., and Mel Cunningham. Siff. "A Philosophy of Physical Training." Supertraining. Sixth ed. Rome, Italy: Verkhoshansky, 2009. 24-26. Print. Expanded Version.      

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