The Russians Are Coming

Are you ready for this? It’s a new secret plan from Russia for building ridiculous levels of muscle mass. The inception of this program was a mere fluke: Russian scientists were looking for a way to build steel-ripping strength without muscle mass in the 1950’s. What they found was a program to build insane amounts of muscle without the normal increase in strength—in essence, they discovered a way to make muscle grow rapidly and continuously, as if they had permanently turned off all the negative regulators of hypertrophy and permanently turned on the positive ones.

This program was scrapped and for a simple reason. After six weeks on the program, several lifters had grown such extra-ordinary quantities of new mass, their muscles impeded their motion and they could no longer perform their assigned Olympic lift with proper technique. Turns out size isn’t always ideal for strength events.

In 1999, I entered into the equation, also the result of sheer happenstance. Graduate school for physics is not known for its muscle-draped geeks and hot-bod equation divas, but I had the luck of going to graduate school in physics at the University of Florida where I met a fellow grad student, a Russian, named Dmitri Tschebyshev. Dmitri was the true Russian Bear, shaved down and carved into the visage of a man. He was huge.

As the only two serious lifters in the department, Dmitri and I became fast friends and one day he told me about his fiancée back in Russia and the trouble he was having with the Russian government with his attempts to bring her over. He pulled out a picture. When he showed it to me, what I saw was a beautiful blonde Russian girl and a scrawny pipsqueak with Dmitri’s head affixed at the shoulders. “Is that your little brother standing with her?” I asked. “No,” he began, “that’s me.”

Okay, now I could see the resemblance, but that picture must have been six years old. So I prodded a little on the sly, “You two made a cute high-school couple.” Again, he began with “No,” which always sounded like the angry exhalation of a rhino through his thick Russian accent. “No, that was four months before coming here.”

Dmitri and his fiancée, spring 1999.

That’s when I was handed the most cutting edge hypertrophy program in the world and when I did the dumbest thing in the world, ignored it. Dmitri had gone on to explain how his uncle, Dmitri Hvorostovsky, his namesake, was then in charge of the Russian national lifting team and he was determined to make Russia number one in the world. He poured over all the archives and found this program. Hvorostovsky knew he couldn’t use it on his athletes, but he understood the value all the same. When his nephew asked about putting on a few pounds, Hvorostovsky made the hand-off to Tschebyshev who had just made the hand off to Kiefer.

I looked at the program. It seemed ridiculous, training three times a day, employing a highly regimented schedule of sets and reps, laid out precisely for 12 weeks, along with the cycling of poundages. Included were special nervous-system-specific exercises, which I had never seen, and cardio routines that needed to be done every-other-day at exactly 1:30 am. The dietary portion demanded exact adherence, requiring what was then an exotic mix of plant extracts and proteins be drank every hour and 45 minutes, on top of eating 9 meals per day, two of them in the middle of the night. The plan seemed like the imaginings of an insane person, so I filed it away without another thought. I was always suspicious of Dmitri from that day forth, thinking, “Okay, let the bastard laugh at the stupid American who almost fell for his torture-routine.” You can’t be suspicious of someone and be good friends.

The program jumbled with countless research of mine from box to box, city to city. Last year, after a little hiccup in my life, my wife—at the time fiancée—and I decided to move and I decided to pare down my old papers. That’s when I saw the old secret Russian program and gave myself a chuckle as I read it. Insane, I still thought, that someone would even have enough time in the day to attempt this program. You’d have to give up your personal life and your professional life. That’s when it hit me.

Dmitri when I met him in the fall of 1999 at the University of Florida, only 8 months after the other picture was taken.

I don’t want to name names, since I still know him, but this twerp at my old gym kept bugging me for a program to make him huuuuuge. After laughing, I realized this was the perfect joke to pass on. The twerp had lost his job, had no friends and lived to workout. This program could give him something to fill his days, so I gave him a photocopy of it.

I moved and two months passed before I went back to my old gym to train with some friends and there he was, the twerp. Except now, I was the twerp. This guy had gained at least 40 lbs of muscle, but he was so ripped and defined, that in reality he probably lost 20 lbs of fat and gained a full 50 lbs of muscle. It was insane—the program—insanely powerful. Here I’d been sitting on the greatest muscle-building strategy ever discovered and I passed it on as a joke and turned the twerp into the Terminator.

And so now, I’m going to share the program with you…

Okay, you got me, there’s no program. This is a retelling of the classic gym fairytale and one I see come through about every couple of months (check the site that this blog was originally dedicated to). There’s always some Russian or Bulgarian secret that no one anywhere in the world has seen for decades, then, suddenly a random person from America discovers it, or is invited to be privy to this top-secret training. After all the world travel, and after modifying it for even more powerful results, they’re ready to share it with you for $59.99. Sometimes they’re generous and they’re willing to share it for free.

Come on. These programs are always the same in substance if not exactly the same in detail. They plan out every moment of your day, your training, your dieting for eight to 12 months, explain in eye-bleeding detail why 11 reps and 4 sets is exactly what needs to be accomplished on all the prime-numbered days, 6.4 reps and 12 sets on all the perfect-numbered days, and from there on, they follow an exact, scientifically proven Fibonocci sequence known since the time of the Egyptians but forgotten for millennia. Just like here, it’s all a bunch of garbage, whether it’s written with esoteric mathematical phrases or the smooth sales-speak of the snake-oil salesman.

These programs appeal to the scientist within us, the reductionist who believes that the road to success can always be broken down into smaller and smaller pieces and then built back up to perfection. Before being burned several times, I was probably more susceptible to this type of sciency crap because I have the mind of a scientist and the desperation of a leper. I wanted to be cured of my fat torso and scrawny extremities so badly, that I would believe anything that sounded in the least way scientific. What I’ve since learned is that the worst way to train is tied to a strict, rep-set-load (include any other factors you want here like volume, density, tempo…) regimen. Generalized, precision-tuned programs don’t deliver precision-tuned results

I’m not saying that reasonable prescriptions don’t have value, and won’t garner results, just not the results you could be getting by training intuitively. Regimens keep us in the gym, keep us on a daily and weekly schedule and save us time by having everything planned out before we even step foot through the doors of personal-torture some of us call home, but most of us call the gym. Let’s be honest, most of the time they have our day planned out before we even step foot out of bed. But if you think that any super-strict routine followed exactly guarantees maximum results, think again. Your body does know exactly what you should be doing, and tells you every day. Are you listening?

Some days, you’re not on top. It’s okay not to shoot for that extra rep on bench press with 365. Lower back feels off; legs feel a little weak: hit legs tomorrow or take a lighter day with exercises that remove stress on the lower back and keep it on the quads. What if it’s a light day after coming back from a two week hiatus and you feel really strong? Then you go heavy.

It’s okay to shift a workout by a day—it’s never okay to miss a workout unless you’re sick or injured—it’s okay to take it light; it’s okay to do one less set or two less reps. Listen to your body. Your muscles take 36 hours to recover—if you’re stressed it takes longer, listen to them. Your nervous system can take 10 days to fully recover and it will let you know. Not only does your body tell you when to back-off, it tells you when to go all-out. Why miss the best training session of your life because a piece of paper written by someone you don’t even know says you should “take it easy”?

The best growth I’ve seen in myself, and the best growth I’ve produced in others for strength, size and endurance, is by training intuitively with every rep of every set at every workout. A precision-tuned workout is not the key to success. A precision-tuned intuition is.

Author’s note: Although some of the names in this article are of real people, the events and descriptions are a work of fiction. No similarities to persons, living or dead, should be assumed, nor is implied. And I have no idea who the people in the pictures are.