How to get big, strong, and lean using training methods inspired by manual labor and the Russian concept of strength-skill.
I first deadlifted 500 pounds on Christmas Eve of my 17th year. It happened in my bedroom of my parent’s house.
My family and relatives were downstairs celebrating the holidays, but I preferred iron to the company of people. With nothing but the murmur of voices coming from downstairs to psyche me up, I pulled 500. I was super proud of myself, so I left the loaded bar on the floor as a testament to my accomplishment.
Moments later, one of my uncles came up to my room to fetch me to open presents. He saw the barbell on the floor and asked how heavy it was. I proudly told him but he didn’t even raise an eyebrow.
“Can I try it?” he said.
Mind you this was a 50-year-old man that I didn’t exactly figure to be a world-class athlete. “Sure,” I said, “but don’t you want to warm-up first?”
“Nah, I’ll just try it like that,” he answered.
And without any warm-up, knowledge of technique, or effort (or so it seemed), he picked up the barbell. He held it up and said, “So that’s what you kids do to have fun?” He put it down gently and went back downstairs.
I later found out that this particular uncle used to work in a quarry and later at a paper mill, carrying big rolls of paper all day long. He was only 5’2" but a solid 200 pounds.
Ever since that moment I’ve been fascinated with the strength of physical laborers. Sure they lift big weights, but rarely (almost never) maximal weights because they need to work non-stop for a long time.
I remember the first time I actually looked lean and muscular. It was when I was 19 and working a summer job at RONA (the Quebec equivalent of Home Depot). I barely trained that summer, but I did work 40+ hours/week carrying cement tiles.
Prior to that I trained every day, but didn’t really look like I worked out. After carrying tiles I was lean and hard.
We all know examples of strong and/or muscular people who got like that through manual labor – doing fairly heavy, but non-maximal labor at a high volume. As such, I believe that lighter, submaximal weights can make you much stronger, bigger, and leaner. And for years I tried to find a way to duplicate this “manual labor strength.”
Then I started to read Russian material about “strength-skill.” I always thought that strength was strictly a physical capacity, but now I was reading that being strong was also a skill. I was intrigued.
People tend to see strength only as a physical capacity. Specifically, strength is seen as the capacity of a muscle or group of muscles to produce a high level of force to overcome a resistance.
And so it stands to reason that in strength training, strength is normally measured by how much weight you can lift. Typically, the stronger your muscles are, the more weight you can lift.
This is mostly true, but not entirely. Someone can have strong muscles, yet not be able to display that strength optimally on some exercises, even if the individual muscles involved in the lift are strong.
For example, I’ve seen plenty of people do more than me on isolated pectoral exercises (pec deck, dumbbell flies, cable crossovers), triceps exercises (dumbbell extensions, cable pressdowns), and front deltoid movements (front raises), yet lift 50-75 pounds less than me on the bench press.
You see the same thing on the squat. There are plenty of people who are strong on the leg extension, leg curl, leg press, and hack squat but can’t squat as much as other lifters who are “weaker” on the isolated movements.
An even better example is how some powerlifters might be super strong on the squat and deadlift, yet are unable to clean or snatch what an average size female weightlifter can lift.
How’s that possible? The answer is skill. Being able to use the strength you have on a specific exercise requires skill, not only the skill to perform the proper technique, but also the skill to apply force during the execution of that movement.
I know plenty of people who are both strong and who can lift with proper technique when the weight is light, but who lose their efficiency when the weights get heavy.
This is what strength-skill is: The ability to make the best use of the strength you have when performing a specific exercise.
People who build their strength and size using relatively higher rep ranges might not be efficient at recruiting a maximal number of muscle fibers when they try to do a single heavy rep.
As a result, they might get much stronger on their higher rep sets without seeing their maximal effort for 1 or 2 reps increase very much.
If most of your training experience has been centered on sets of 6-12 reps, you will not develop the strength-skill to excel at doing single maximal efforts.
If you aren’t able to execute a lift with optimal technique, you’ll never be able to demonstrate your full muscle-strength potential.
If your desire is to be super strong on the big basic lifts, it’s very important to spend a lot of time optimizing your lifting technique. Do not accept incorrect reps and always seek to make your lifting form better.
Two people can execute a lift with seemingly similar technique, have similar strength levels, and display very different results. What you see from the outside isn’t the whole story.
How efficient you are at a movement is a matter of how well your body coordinates the motor units in a muscle involved in the lift, making them work together so that the muscle can produce at its highest level (intramuscular coordination).
It’s also dependant on how well the muscles involved in the lift work together. Synergists need to unite their efforts to overcome the resistance and antagonists must relax at the right time to facilitate the action of the prime movers (intermuscular coordination).
A normal human being will be able to use 30-40% of his strength potential. A trained individual might reach 70% and elite weightlifters, powerlifters, and strongmen might reach 90-95%.
Why is it so low for most people? The answer lies in the protective mechanisms we possess that prevent our muscles from tearing themselves. When the body senses that you’re producing too much force for your own good, it’ll put the brakes on.
It’s like putting a speed limit on your car. This mechanism is super conservative, though. The more heavy lifting you do, asking your muscles to produce a high level of force in a specific pattern, the more permissive your protective mechanisms become. Having a higher protection threshold will thus allow you to demonstrate a higher level of strength.
So, if someone wants to reach his strength potential, he must not only make his muscles stronger, he must maximize his strength-skill.
If you train “on the nerve” too often, you risk burning out. I believe in training hard and heavy, but only to the point where you can still do it without any stress. Once in a while, though, you turn up the intensity a bit to see where you are.
Old-time strongmen saw training as “practice.” Their goal was more to make big weights feel easier and easier, not to make hard weights feel heavier and heavier. If lifting 400 pounds was almost life draining two months ago but it’s easy today, aren’t you much stronger?
I recently trained a young CrossFit athlete. At a bodyweight of 180 pounds, his best clean was 285. In training we never went above 275 and most of the work was between 240-255 pounds, only going up in weight if it didn’t represent a mental stress and if we both knew that it would be done easily.
When we decided to see how his strength-skill was progressing, he cleaned an easy 315 – a 30-pound personal record, with room to spare!
The exact same thing happened with a female I was training. She went from a 130-pound snatch to a 150-pound easy max, and from a 160-pound clean & jerk to a 190-pound easy clean & jerk. She never trained on the nerve, instead making hard weights feel gradually easier then learning to apply that strength on maximal efforts.
Yes, you’ll need to work to maximal weights once in a while if you want to learn how to display strength, but working on strength-skill is the fastest and safest way to get strong – manual-labor strong.
To improve the factors involved in maximizing strength-skill, you must follow the following principles, all of which comprise the Russian Strength-Skill Workout:
- Use low reps (1-3) to become efficient at maximizing recruitment during a short effort. No need to use maximal weights; 80-90% will be enough to maximize motor-unit recruitment.
- Focus on a small number of exercises and learn to do them extremely well. Become a technical master of a few key exercises instead of trying to do a little bit of everything.
- Train your focus lifts frequently. Motor learning (technique, inter and intramuscular coordination) is best done through frequency, not volume or intensity. The key lifts should be done at least three times a week for maximum motor learning.
- Use partial lifts or holds done in the strongest part of the lift to get your body used to handling very heavy weights. Overtime this will “convince” your body to allow you to use a greater percentage of your strength potential.
I will assume 5 days a week of training. The first thing to do is to pick the basic lifts you want to practice/train. They should cover the whole body, but you should pick the fewest number of exercises possible to do the job.
Ideally you want:
- 1 squat variation (front, back, Zercher, overhead, low-bar)
- 1 hip hinge variation (deadlift, sumo deadlift, snatch deadlift, snatch high pull, snatch, clean)
- 1 overhead press (military press, push press, power jerk, behind the neck press)
- 1 bench press (bench press, decline bench press, incline bench press, floor press)
You could add a vertical pulling or a rowing movement (chin-up, pull-up, barbell row), but I prefer to count these as additional work done for hypertrophy at the end of the sessions.
With 4 total exercises you can easily create 2 groups of exercises:
- Group 1: Squat & hip hinge
- Group 2: Overhead & bench press
Each of these groups is trained twice per week. For example:
- Monday: Group 1
- Tuesday: Group 2
- Wednesday: OFF
- Thursday: Group 1
- Friday: Group 2
- Saturday: Manual labor workout (explained below)
- Sunday: OFF
The basic setup for each of the lifts you’ll use is as follows:
- Workout 1: 5 x 1 (85%), 1 X 3 (75%)
- Workout 2: 6 x 1 (85%), 1 x 3 (75%)
- Workout 3: 7 x 1 (85%), 1 x 3 (75%)
- Workout 4: 8 x 1 (85%), 1 x 3 (75%)
- Workout 5: 9 x 1 (85%), 1 x 3 (75%)
- Workout 6: 10 x 1 (85%)
You’d then increase the weight by 5 to 15 pounds, depending on the exercise and start from workout 1 again.
The weights should not be based on your personal record on a lift. They should be based on a weight that you can hit on a weekly basis without any specific preparation – the maximum weight that you can do in perfect form.
That should all be fairly simple. Then there’s the matter of the 5th training day, the manual labor workout.
This workout emphasizes strength-skill even more. The parameters are as follows:
- 3 basic exercises (3 of your strength-skill lifts) covering the whole body
- 65-70% of your maximum
- Do only sets of 1 rep
- 20-30 singles per exercise
- Do them as a continuous circuit (rotate through the exercises, resting as needed but trying to keep the pace up)
- Do them once a week as the last workout of the week
- Start off at 20 singles per exercise for the first session. Go up to 25 singles for the second week and up to 30 singles for the third week. The weight remains the same for these three weeks. After 3 weeks you add 5-15 pounds to the bar and start over at 20.
- Faster progression in strength-skill.
- Improvement in work capacity.
- Getting leaner.
- Adding muscle mass due to the high volume of work.
- High technical mastery of the lifts and becoming super comfortable doing them.
Generally, shooting for the following duration ranges ensures proper execution of the sessions:
- 3 exercises for 20 sets of 1: 35-40 minutes
- 3 exercises for 25 sets of 1: 45-50 minutes
- 3 exercises for 30 sets of 1: 55-60 minutes
Don’t worry if you fall a bit under or over this recommendation, but if you fall too far from it you aren’t doing it right.
I also understand that it might require more time for some lifters because they’re in a crowded gym where they might need to walk to the next station.
If you don’t have the luxury of having your own garage gym, or have access to a lifter-friendly CrossFit gym, you might have to make a few sacrifices to be able to do these workouts.
The best solution is to use dumbbells for some lifts. For example, if you want to do bench press, back squats, and chin-ups, you could substitute dumbbell bench presses for the bench press, or even better, dumbbell floor presses as they don’t require a bench.
Just set up near a power rack, and since there’s a chin-up bar on the power rack, you only need one station.
The basic structure is simple. Make sure every workout includes the following:
- One press (overhead or bench, not both)
- One hip hinge
- One squat variation
Here are some sample exercise choices:
- Military Press
- Power Clean
- Back Squat
- Bench Press
- Power Snatch
- Back Squat
- Push Press
- Front Squat
- Military Press
- Sumo Deadlift
- Zercher Squat
Yes, but ideally you would stick with the same ones for a fairly long period of time. You’ll continue to gain muscle and lose fat if you change exercises often, but you won’t reap the most of what these workouts can give you.
Stick with the same exercises for at least 6 weeks. And it’s perfectly acceptable (probably even better) to keep the same 3 movements for 3 months or even longer.
No! You’re using progressively heavier weights. And most importantly, those heavier weights will actually begin to feel more and more easy. In no time you’ll be hitting weights in the 90-95% range as if they were warm-ups!
However, it’s true that you could lose the feeling of maximal weights, which is why I like to include supra-maximal partials or holds to supplement the strength-skill work.
At the end of each of the first four workouts (every workout except the Day 5 manual labor workout), perform heavy partials for one of the lifts trained that day.
For example, if your group 1 exercises are the front squat and deadlift, do heavy partial front squats (going down until the knees are about 100 degrees) at the end of the workout. Use a weight that’s 100-105% of your maximum and do one set of as many partial reps as you can.
When that group comes up a second time during the week (Tuesday in our template) you’d do the same but with partial deadlifts (deadlifts from pins just below the knees). The goal of these partials is to keep the feeling of heavy weights while you’re using strength-skill work to increase your strength.
The partials will also desensitize (over time) the Golgi tendon organs, which will allow you to use a greater proportion of your strength potential.