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"Specificity + frequent practice = success" ĖPavel Tsatsouline
A Small Experiment in Synaptic Facilitation
My friend Pavel Tsatsouline, the Russian trained Master of Sports who invented the Ab Pavelizer (see article No. 47), says the way to do more chin-ups is to "grease the groove" by doing lots of chins every day. According to Pavel, repetitive and reasonably intense stimulation strengthens the nerve impulse to the muscles involved, making them stronger and more enduring. The technical term, says Tsatsouline, is synaptic facilitation.
Constant Repetition Works
Being a low-volume, high-intensity guy, I would normally dismiss such advice as mindless overkill. But I know for a fact that the Eastern Europeans, who have dominated Olympic lifting for many years, train heavy two or three (or more) times a day. For example, Galabin Boevski, the 152-pound Bulgarian lifter who snatched a record 358 and clean & jerked 432 in winning the 1999 world championship, does three workouts a day, using maximum poundages and a limited number of exercises. In the morning, he works up to maximum singles in the snatch, clean and jerk and the front squat. In the afternoon, he does it again, sometimes lifting more than in the morning session. He finishes with an evening session, where he repeats snatches and front squats, again lifting maximum poundages. The next day he does it again! (For further details, see the March 2000 issue of Milo, www.ironmind.com)
Bulgarian lifter Galabin Boevski on the way to a
world record Clean & Jerk
with a massive 432 pounds. (Reproduced with permission from Milo)
Iím convinced this is true, because among other things, I have a copy of Milo publisher Randall Strossenís 1998 Bulgarian-training-hall video, which shows Boevski in several back-to-back training sessions; in one session, he repeatedly attempts to snatch 353; he kept trying the weight until his coach, Ivan Abadjiev, made him stop. This is a huge weight for a man weighing only 152 pounds. As noted above, his snatch the next year with 358 was a new world record. The next morning, he was back in the training hall doing a clean and jerk with 419. Later in the day, he was shown doing a front squat with over 200 kilos or 441 pounds. So, yes, itís true; these guys lift huge weights, several times a day, day after day.
Unappealing as such training may be to people who have a life outside the gym, it obviously works Ė at least for elite athletes such as Boevski, who are willing and able to spend the years necessary to develop the capacity to survive and benefit from this level of training.
Plus, Pavel persuaded his 60-year-old father-in-law, Roger Antonson, to do chins every time he went down into his basement; each day he would do between 25 and 100 chin-ups. After a few months of such training (and a few days of rest), Roger knocked off 20 chins, more than he had been able to do 40 years earlier in the Marine Corps. That did it. I decided to test Pavelís formula: Specificity + frequent practice = success.
I limited the experiment to chin-ups, because I didnít want to disrupt my normal training routine Ė which is both productive and enjoyable (see Challenge Yourself) Ė and I didnít want to overshoot my recovery capacity. Pavel says the key to synaptic facilitation training is to gradually buildup both volume and intensity, but avoid overtraining. He recommends "training as often as possible while being as fresh as possible."
Pavel says each set should be terminated well short of failure, because "pushing to exhaustion will burn out your neuromuscular system and force you to cut back" on volume. He recommends doing multiple sets of as many chins as you can without struggling, spaced out over the course of the day. That makes sense, of course, if the objective is to up the volume as much as possible without causing burnout.
As regular readers know, my heavy training days are Saturday and Sunday; I generally walk Monday through Friday. After a few weeks of adjustment where I tried doing chin-ups Monday through Thursday, I settled down to chins on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. I chose this schedule because it allowed me to rest the day before and the day after my main workouts. It worked surprisingly well. Frankly, I enjoyed the extra effort during the week; it was challenging, but not enough to wear me out. Except for a few aches and pains in my shoulders at first, it felt good.
I usually did three sets of chins each day (morning, noon and late afternoon) and occasionally an additional set in the evening. I start out doing sets of 10 reps, and over the course of four weeks worked up to 12 chins per set. At the end of the fourth week, I rested on Friday, as usual, and tested myself during my regular Saturday workout: I did 16 chins. "No problem," I wrote in my trading dairy.
I backed off a bit in week 5, doing three sets of 10, and 11 sets of 11 for a weekly total of 151 chins. I did the same routine in week 6, and then moved the reps per set back up to 12 in week 7. I tested myself again at the end of week 7: 18 chins this time. Dairy notation: "Good job. The best Iíve done in a long time. Seventeen chins is the best I can remember doing in recent years Ė and today was easier." Synaptic facilitation seemed to be working.
In weeks 8, 9 and 10, most of the sets I did were 12 and 13, with a few sets of 14 chins in the third week. Then, I tested myself for the third time: 19 chins. "Good effort," I recorded. "The best in a long time."
I took a week off at that point, which didnít seem to help. As Pavel probably would have predicted, I felt rusty when I started doing chin-ups again the next week. "I believe the week of rest hurt my performance," I wrote in my dairy.
Blasting the Groove
When I got going again Ė it didnít take long; only a few days Ė I added a new wrinkle to increase intensity: I lowered myself very slowly on the last rep of each set. Pavel says emphasizing the negative "blasts the groove" or, technically speaking, it stimulates "synaptic potentiation." Pretty fancy, huh? Whatever, thereís no doubt that doing a slow negative on the final chin produces a very intense contraction. Pavel warns against doing more than one negative-emphasis rep; doing more would unnecessarily extend recovery time and reduce the volume that can be done without overtraining. Thatís why I kept the reps to 13 and 14 for the most part and only did 15 a few times in the final three weeks of the experiment. I thought doing a slow negative on the final rep of each set would be enough added stimulation to move me up to 20 chins, which would be the most Iíve done since I won the state pentathlon championship in high school.
Success! I did 20
the best Iíve done in years. (Photo by Carol Bass)
It worked! I replicated the experience of Pavelís father-in-law. The last couple of reps were hard, but I did 20 good chin-ups. The experiment was successful.
So, whatís to be learned here? What's the take-away message? Personally, I found my little experiment quite instructive. As explained in Challenge Yourself, both volume and high-intensity training (HIT) work, but for different reasons. Synaptic facilitation is probably one of the mechanisms at work in the volume approach.
Does that mean I plan to pile on the volume in my own training? No way. In my view, training like the Bulgarians would be a big mistake, for me and for most people. It would take the joy out of training. If one could survive the volume (a very big if), you probably wouldnít have the time or energy to do anything else. But the idea of narrowly-targeted synaptic facilitation training, using carefully selected individual exercises, has definite appeal. The key, it seems to me, is to derive the benefits without overwhelming your recovery capacity and turning your life topsy-turvy.
In addition to chin-ups, parallel-bar dips seem like a good candidate for synaptic facilitation training. Almost any exercise, of course, should work. For example, Paul Anderson years ago applied a form of synaptic facilitation training to the barbell squat Ė with spectacular results. (See article No. 38, "Paul Anderson, King of the Squat.")
If you try it, be careful. Donít bite off more than you can chew.
Boevski update: I hope you saw Galabin Boevski lifting at the Sydney Olympics. It was on CNBC. It was great to actually see him lifting in competition. Heís not as heavily muscled as some of his Bulgarian teammates, but boy can he put up the big weights. He made all six of his attempts, tying his world record in the snatch with 162.5 kilos (358 pounds) and making 195 kilos (430 pounds) in the clean & jerk, for a gold-medal-winning the total of 357.5 kilos. His countrymen Georgi Markov broke Boetskiís world record with a snatch of 165 kilos or 364 pounds and took the silver medal with a total of 352.5 kilos. Remember that these guys only weigh 152 pounds!
You may have also noticed that two Bulgarian lifters, a woman and a man (not Boevski or Markov), tested positive for a banned diuretic and were ordered to return their medals. It was the second time in 12 years that Bulgarian weightlifters had been ejected from the Olympics for using furosemide, a diuretic known for masking steroid use. The last I heard, the entire Bulgarian weightlifting team was in danger of being thrown out of the Olympics and suspended from international competition for 12 months. That's unfortunate because, drugs or no drugs, they are fantastic athletes. It takes a real lifting aficionado to appreciate just how good they are. The average man or woman on the street simply cannot comprehend the poundages they are able to put overhead.
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