Sprinting coach Barry Ross once sent me a picture of an ab exercise he calls “the torture twist.” The model was a seemingly average high school student who weighed about 130 pounds (60kg). He nonchalantly added on the phone, “Oh, and she deadlifts 400-plus pounds (180kg+) for repetitions.” That, my friends, is my kind of strength: relative strength.
The student was not a powerlifter. She lifted once or twice a week for less than five minutes of total time under tension. She’s also not an exception. Nearly all of Ross’s athletes can pull three times their body weight. He manufactures mutants on demand.
I met Ross through Pavel Tsatsouline (Twitter/Facebook), chairman of StrongFirst, Inc., a worldwide school of strength. Tsatsouline is a former physical training instructor for Spetsnaz, the Soviet special forces, and is currently a subject matter expert to the Marine Corps, the Secret Service, and the Navy SEALs. Here are three of Tsatsouline’s foundational beliefs and guidelines.
“Strength is the mother quality of all physical qualities.”
“Strength is a skill, and as such it must be practiced.”
“Lift heavy, not hard.”
All are important, but the last particularly so. For maximal strength (not simply size), I believe that you want to feel better after your workout than before. There should be no burn, no panting, no racing the clock.
Based partly on Tsatsouline’s research, Ross developed a deadlift-based program to create world-class sprinters. (One of his early prodigies was Olympic gold medalist Allyson Felix.) His deadlift-based protocol utilizes partial range of motion and no negative/eccentric (lowering) phase, which may decrease the likelihood of hamstring and lower-back injuries. After all, strength training should be used to achieve two primary goals: injury prevention and performance enhancement.
The basic technique: Deadlift to your knees and then drop the bar. Regrab and repeat for target reps. Use a sumo-style stance to keep your back as straight as possible. Do 2 or 3 sets of 2 or 3 reps each (85-plus percent of your 1-rep max), and then follow each set with plyometric exercises—for example, 10- to 20-meter sprints, 6 to 8 box jumps with minimal ground contact time, and so on. Then rest for at least 5 minutes. Do this twice a week. The total time under tension during sets should be less than 5 minutes a week.
When I followed this plan, I added more than 120 pounds (55kg) to my max deadlift in 8 weeks (up to 475 [215kg] for reps without straps) and gained less than 10 pounds (5kg) of mass. For relative strength, I’ve never experienced anything like it.
Think you’re too old for deadlifts? Tsatsouline’s father took up this lift in his 70s. He pulled more than 400 pounds (180kg) without a belt a few years later, setting several records.
In a world of “more is better,” sometimes it’s the minimalists who produce miracles.
When in doubt—in strength and in all things—remember the maxim of Henk Kraaijenhof, coach of Merlene Joyce Ottey, who won 20 combined medals at the Olympic Games and World Championships: “Do as little as needed, not as much as possible.”
By Tim Ferriss