Read this if: You want to add a little novelty to your training while getting a potent dose of strength and conditioning in a smaller window of time
Sergey Litvinov, the front squatting machine
There’s something borderline mythological about Russians and strength and conditioning. Whether you’re talking about early eastern bloc weightlifiting, Pavel Tsatsouline, Dmitry Klokov, or even the fictional Ivan Drago (sporting an all time epic flat top), an image comes to mind of a stoic, hardened beast training away in the snowy tundra using secretive methods.
Well add to the list a former Russian gold medalist in the hammer throw, Sergey Litvinov. Dan John has a great article with some background on Litvinov and the origin story of his unique workout. At the track and field world championships in Helsinki in 1983, U.S. discuss thrower John Powell noticed a guy (Litvinov) who was leaner, faster, and more muscular than just about anyone there and a gold medalist to boot. Powell quickly realized one of the reasons Litvinov was such a beast when he heard of him doing this workout on a regular basis:
Front Squat, 405×8 immediately followed by a 75 second 400m sprint. Rest adequately for 4-5 minutes then repeat two more times through. Then go home.
Of course it’s crazy to draw a straight line between a workout like this and a gold medal when you have things like genetics and potential PED’s in the mix. It’s kind of like saying sprinting is what causes sprinters to be totally and utterly jacked…or is it that guys prone to getting super jacked end up being the best sprinters? Eh, a discussion for another day.
Breaking down Litvinov’s workout, it’s essentially a potent strength set followed immediately by sustained power/metabolic conditioning then rest and repeat. Dan John extends this framework of front squat/sprint to using any sufficiently challenging barbell lift like back squat, power clean, power snatch, or overhead squat followed by a sprint effort of 15-90 seconds.
If we bastardize it further, we can make it a little more applicable to the average trainee. Because let’s face it, 99% of people don’t have the time or inclination to drag a squat rack and plates out to a local track. Essentially you’re hunting for two things:
- The first exercise should be multi-joint and challenging from a strength perspective
- The second exercise should be metabolically challenging and not so technical that fatigue will expose you to injury
In the end, you really need to throw spaghetti at the wall with this type of workout and see what sticks. Below are good options for each exercise:
Exercise 1: Back Squat, Power Clean, Tire Flip, Weighted Pullup, Weighted Pushup, Push Press, Goblet Squat, Heavy KB Swing, KB Deadlift, Power Curl
Exercise 2: Run Sprint, Row Sprint, Farmer’s Walk, Sandbag Carry, Overhead Carry, KB Swing, KB Snatch, Double Unders, Sled Drag, Sled Push, Bounding
I’ve even played around with adding a third exercise and mixing in gymnastics elements. Here are a few examples below of Litvinov style workouts I’ve done with pretty good effect.
- Back Squat, 8 Reps / 250m Row / 4 Rounds Total
- Power Clean, 3 Reps / 250m Row / Ab Wheel Rollouts, 5 Reps / 4 Rounds Total
- Box Squat, 8 Reps / Max Ring Pushups / Kettlebell Swings, 25 Reps / 4 Rounds Total
- Front Squat, 8 Reps / Max Pullups / Kettlebell Swings, 20 Reps / 4 Rounds Total
- Push Press, 5 Reps / Farmer’s Walk, 75 yards / 4 Rounds Total
The big keys here are to go hard on the metabolic elements and then take a full 3-4 minutes rest between each set. The goal is to get nearly to full recovery before doing each successive set.
What are the Benefits?
First off, the degree to which you play around with this type of workout all comes down to your goals. If you’re on a strict bodybuilding split or linear periodization program like Starting Strength or 5/3/1, it doesn’t really fit in. But if you like to mix up your workouts and enjoy autoregulation like Keith Norris, it’s a fun variation to throw in once in a while.
So what exactly are we getting from a workout like this?
Safe and Well Organized
If you’ve been around CrossFit for any length of time, you’re aware of the classic ‘couplet’ workouts, things like Fran (Barbell Thruster/Pullup) or Diane (Deadlift/Handstand Pushup). Litvinovs appear similar in nature but what I love about them is the ability to prioritize the safety and efficacy of the strength exercise through a near full rest period after each set. Most CrossFit workouts would have you just do the whole couplet or triplet straight through as fast as possible, which would likely require a lighter weight for exercise 1 and expose you to a lot of technique breakdown in the later rounds. With the Litvinov, you can do working sets at a high % of your rep maxes for each exercise and maintain throughout the workout. Similarly, EMOM’s (every minute on the minute) and E2MOM’s (every two minutes), etc… have started to pop up in CrossFit where you bake a certain amount of work and rest into a timeframe to allow for recovery rather than blowing straight through a workout.
Fun and Effective
Though these workouts can definitely be painful, I’ve found them to be extremely fun especially if you’re working out with a partner. The work/rest intervals tend to be such that you can alternate with someone else and push each other. Also for some strange reason, the strength sets can somehow feel easier in the later sets. I think it has something to do with the numbing effects of dosing yourself hard with metabolic work like sprints, swings, carries, etc. As long as these second exercise efforts are powerful and don’t last more than about a minute, it somehow charges you up serves as a bit of innoculation to the later strength sets. I’m not sure exactly why. Maybe it’s like getting punched in the face. The second time doesn’t seem to hurt as bad. This allows you to get in a really solid amount of volume at a quality weight.
One of my favorites aspects of this protocol is the inverse relationship between fatigue and the difficulty of the exercise. You’re always most fresh when you’re hitting the heavy, skill-intensive barbell lift and more fatigued when you get to the less skill-dependent metabolic work like farmer’s walks or kettlebell swings. Not only can you see the finish line during each set when you’re doing the metabolic work which makes you push harder to get to the rest period, but you also have that mental break to reset for the subsequent set. Most people relatively new to training have difficulty with barbell exercises when they’re fully rested, much less in the middle of a workout when they can barely stand up, so providing a full recovery between sets is hugely helpful mentally and from a safety perspective.
Get Out of the Gym Quicker
For someone strapped for time, these workouts are extremely efficient and flexible too. If you only have 30 minutes to train, you can pick something like: 4 Rounds – 8 Back Squats, 25 Pushups, Sprint 200m (or 25KB swings if you can’t run), Rest 3 minutes. The work sets will likely take you about 3 minutes each, so the whole workout takes 15 minutes to complete. Then foam roll, a quick cool down, and you’re done. If you go heavy enough on the squat, you’ll be toast by the end of it and will have gotten in 4 strong sets of 8 reps at around 65-70% of your 1RM (depending on how you’re feeling that day) which will go a long ways towards building strength and muscle as well as switching on testosterone and growth hormone. Not only are you doing 4 sets of 8 squats in 15 minutes, but you’re packing in some solid metabolic conditioning and general physical preparedness in the pushups and sprints. Not too bad of a day in the gym.
Loading & Progression
If you’re playing around with workouts like this, you need to be comfortable going by feel. You should know your body, training history, and recent activity well enough to pick weights intelligently. You’re certainly not going to run a marathon on Saturday and then do an 8 rep back squat Litvinov with the weight cranked all the way up to your all time 8 rep max. In general, you should be able to do 85-90% of your all time rep max for sets across. So if your 8 rep back squat max on a good day is 250, you’ll want to load up anywhere from 215-225 for the Litvinov and try to maintain sets across for all four sets. Good old fashioned volume and general physical preparedness training.
In terms of progression, it all depends on how many variables you play with. If you were simply doing a lift and then a sprint for distance, you could measure your improvement over time by adding weight to the bar and keeping sprint times the same or adding a rep or two and keeping the weight the same.
In summary, the concept of the Litvinov provides an interesting springboard to start playing with new workouts. Sets across, metabolic conditioning, and combined circuit training is as old as strength and conditioning itself, so there’s nothing astonishingly new here. However if you’re looking for a way to get in and out of the gym quicker and get in a good dose of strength and GPP at the same time, it’s a winner.