Physical Culture

Russian Bear Program: Foolproof Path to Explosive Strength and Muscle Gain

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I know, I know…the super secret Russian Special Forces Workout Program is a terribly cliched mainstay in fitness marketing.  Here me out though, this program is straightforward and very very effective.

Early on in my fitness journey, I stumbled on Pavel Tsatsouline and his book “Power to The People.”  This was a super stripped down approach to strength and fitness revolving around two lifts, the barbell deadlift, and the bent press.  While the book focused mostly on developing strength without much muscle mass, or “wiry strength,” there was a chapter focused on building lots of muscle using a program affectionately titled, “The Russian Bear.”

Here are the basics:

  • Perform one set near (but not reaching) failure for 5 reps
  • Perform a second set with 90% of the first weight for another 5 reps
  • Lower the weight to 80% of the first sets weight and continue to do 5 rep sets for as many sets as you can until you fail to reach 5 reps with good form

This workout provides the heavy lifting that will make you very strong, while providing the volume necessary for hypertrophy (increases in muscle size).  Pavel suggests using only the Deadlift and the Press for this program, but I’ve had good success using this program with less frequency per muscle group but with a barbell exercise for each muscle group.  For rest periods, I used a full five minutes after my first set, three minutes after my second, and then one minute after the third and all subsequent sets.  For example, we’ll use a 100 lbs lift for nice even numbers.  The workout would look like:

  • Set 1:  100 x 5 reps
  • 5 minutes rest
  • Set 2:  90 x 5 reps
  • 3 minutes rest
  • Set 3+:  80 x 5 reps
  • 1 minute rest

Note that there is no set number of sets.  You will continue to repeat the 80 lbs lift after a minute rest for as many sets as it takes for you to fail to reach 5 reps.  You will find that the number of sets you achieve will depend on what muscle group is being worked, and even how you’re feeling on any given day.  This is the beauty of this program, it is nearly impossible to over or under train because the entire workout is auto-regulated.  By this, I mean that you are performing the maximum volume of work that you are capable of on that given day.  Some day you may find you wind up doing 10 total sets on a given exercise, on another day you might accomplish only 4.  This is different from going into the gym with a pre-planned set of reps and sets that you intend to accomplish no matter what.  With this method you only ever truly thrash yourself when you’re truly up to it.

In order to keep the auto-regulation principle intact, I suggest the first set should be done for a RANGE of 3-5 reps.  This gives you a margin for error on the first set when increasing the weight you’re using.  When you can manage five reps on the first set, add 5-10 lbs to the lift.  When you can’t increase the poundage or reps on the first set, a reset is in order.  We’ll cover that later.  Since we’re doing 3-5 reps on the first set, do 1 rep more than the first set on the second set, to a maximum of 5reps then move up to 5 reps for the third and subsequent sets.  This might look like:

  • Set 1 – 3 reps, Set 2 – 4 reps, Set 3+ – 5 reps  OR
  • Set 1 – 4 reps, Set 2 – 5 reps, Set 3+ – 5 reps  OR
  • Set 1 – 5 reps, Set 2 – 5 reps, Set 3+ – 5 reps and add 5-10 lbs next week

Here is a sample workout to try using the Russian Bear concept.  Except where otherwise stated, ALL exercises are Russian Bear style as described above.

Monday – Horizontal Push/Pull

  • Heavy Rack Pull Static Hold – 2 sets of 5-15 seconds
  • Barbell Bench Press
  • Dumbbell Row

Wednesday – Vertical Push/Pull

  • Weighted Chinup (or Cable Pulldown)
  • Standing Barbell Shoulder Press

Friday – Legs

  • Barbell Squat
  • Romanian Deadlift – 3 x 8-12 reps
  • Standing Calf Raise – 3 x 15-20

If these workouts seem short, trust me they aren’t.  If you’re feeling like a beast, you could wind up with 10+ sets on the Russian Bear exercise.  On the days when you’re more middle of the road, you’ll wind up with a much shorter, but intense, workout.  Add to this program at your own risk.  The beauty of this program is its simplicity.  Nothing but the basics, done heavy and often.  Enjoy!!

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