Pavel: 80/20 Powerlifting and How to Add 110+ Pounds to Your Lifts


Mullet power: John Inzer deadlifts 780 lbs. at 165 lbs. bodyweight. (Photo: Powerlifting USA)

Pavel Tsatsouline, former Soviet Special Forces physical training instructor, has made a name for himself in the world of strength.

He wrote the below article, outlining the simple routine of Russian Master of Sports, Alexander Faleev, for Built magazine, which folded before publication. Pavel contacted me to publish the piece here, and I am pleased to offer it to you as an exclusive.

Though I often suggest training to failure for maximal size gains (see “Geek to Freak: How I Gained 34 lbs. in 4 Weeks”), the pre-failure approach detailed here is excellent for maximal strength development, and the repetitions can be further reduced for relative strength (per-lb. bodyweight) development.

Enter Pavel…

Total read time: 12 minutes.
Read time for routine only: 7 minutes.


I have read a book that has made an impression: The 4-Hour Workweek by Timothy Ferriss.

The 4-Hour Workweek is not a dubious get-rich-quick scheme but a guide to ultimate productivity through ruthless elimination of non-essentials. “Doing less meaningless work, so that you can focus on things of greater personal importance, is NOT laziness,” states the author. “This is hard to accept, because our culture tends to reward personal sacrifice instead of personal productivity. Few people choose to (or are able to) measure the results of their actions and thus measure their contribution in time.”

It is no surprise that Russia has borne a number of Ferriss-type strength and muscle building programs, mercilessly eliminating the non-essentials and delivering extraordinary gains. One is Alexander Faleev’s system that has gained many followers among Russian muscle heads in the last four years.

Comrade Faleev dabbled with powerlifting for seven or eight years, then took a few years off. He poured over years of his training logs looking for what worked and came back to the barbell with a vengeance. In just six months, he reached the coveted Master of Sports level in powerlifting.

Faleev has summed up his approach as “Nothing extra!” In one sentence, it is about doing only four things: the squat, the bench, the deadlift, and competing regularly. That’s it.

The system the Russian had developed for his strength and size breakthrough could have come out of The 4-Hour Workweek. Among Tim Ferriss’ tools for getting the most out of life is Pareto’s law. The essence of the law is that 80% of all results come from 20% of the efforts. Applied to muscle and strength, it means, if most gains will come from the three powerlifts, why waste your time and energy on curls and close-grip benches?

Before I will move on to the nuts and bolts of the training regimen I will address your objections. I can read your mind: “But I am not a powerlifter, and I don’t want to look like one!”

The sport of powerlifting (PL) has an unfair image of refrigerator-sized men whose faces turn red from blood pressure when they bend over to tie their shoes — or rather try to bend over and get stopped by an enormous “uni-ab”. To say that all PLers look like that is akin to stating that all runners are thin and wiry.

Look at photos of powerlifters in lighter weight classes. They are as hard as a rock, and many are ripped — without curls and cable crossovers. Take Texan John Inzer who held the world record in the deadlift for years, 780 pounds at 165 pounds of bodyweight or Ukrainian Oleksandr Kutcher, who recently beat that record with 793 pounds. These guys look more like gymnasts than refrigerators.

Tim: Oleksandr Kutcher pulls a light 694 lbs. and then needs chamomile tea.

Faleev’s 80/20 Routine

5 x 5 Progression:

For beginners, Faleev offers a straightforward progressive overload workout with 5 sets of 8 reps. Eventually you are supposed to advance to 5 x 5. In my opinion, you should go straight to 5 x 5. Sets of five are the meat and potatoes of strength training.

Start with a conservative weight. If you manage five reps in all five sets, next time add 10 pounds and start over. Not 5 pounds, and definitely not 2, but 10. For reasons that are outside of the scope of this article, Malibu Ken and Barbie jumps with tiny plates are a waste of time.

Most likely you will not bag all the fives on your first workout with the new weight. Perhaps you will get 5, 5, 5, 4, 3. No problem, stay with the poundage until you get all 5×5. Your second workout might be 5, 5, 5, 5, 4, and your third of fourth should get you to 5 x 5. Slap on another pair of “nickels” (5-lb. plates) and work your way up to 5 x 5 again. According to Faleev, the above progression will add 110-175 pounds to your max in each of the three powerlifts in one year, provided you are fairly new to the game.

Deadlift 1x per week; Squat and Bench 2x per week

You will be deadlifting once a week and squatting and benching twice a week, once heavy and once light for the latter two. Your light days are for honing technique, not for burning out your muscles with high reps. Do 5 sets of 4 reps (5 x 4) with weights that are 80% of the heavy day’s. For instance, if you did 5 x 5 with 200 on your heavy day, stay with 160 for 5 x 4 on your light day. That’s it! The key to the program’s success is in doing less.

The Russian recommends the following schedule:

Monday –heavy squat (SQ)
Tuesday –heavy benchpress (BP)
Wednesday –heavy deadlift (DL)
Thursday – light SQ
Friday –light BP
Saturday –off
Sunday –off

If training five days is not an option, four will do:

Monday –heavy SQ
Tuesday –heavy BP
Wednesday –heavy DL
Thursday –off
Friday – light SQ, light BP
Saturday –off
Sunday –off

Not ideal, but if you have to cram your training into three days:

Monday – heavy SQ
Tuesday –off
Wednesday –heavy BP, light SQ
Thursday – off
Friday – heavy DL, light BP
Saturday – off
Sunday – off

Failure and Rest Intervals

Never train to failure! Don’t attempt a rep unless you are 100% sure you will make it. Ideally, keep one extra rep in the bank. “Save your strength for the next set,” insists Faleev.

Don’t get greedy.

Practice one lift per workout, stretch, and get out. Faleev stresses that you must wrap up each strength workout with static stretches. “The benefits of stretching are enormous. Stretching can increase your strength by 10%. It is a lot.” The man explains that “when you lift a weight your muscles contract. And after the workout the muscles remain contracted for some time. The following restoration of the muscles’ length is what recovery is. Until the muscle has restored its length, it has not recovered. Hence he who does not stretch his muscles slows down the recuperation process and retards his gains.” Besides, tension and relaxation are the two sides of the same coin, “if the muscle forgets how to lengthen, it will contract more poorly. And that is stagnation of strength.”

Don’t rush your sets.

Do a couple warm-up sets if you must, then feel free to take 5 min. and even more between your work sets. Top power dogs take longer; 30 min. is not unheard of. Power loves rest and does not tolerate rushing. You may feel that you are completely recovered in 2 min. but take a full 5 anyway. According to Faleev, an hour is a good number to shoot for in your workout length.

Balanced Development: Biceps and Other Decorations

One common objection is: “But I will not get a balanced development if do only three exercises! What about my biceps and my…?!”

Faleev sticks to his guns: “For a sharp increase in muscle mass and [strength] results you must do only three exercises: the bench press, the squat, and the deadlift… when you deadlift a 550-pound barbell think what kind of a huge load is born by your biceps, shoulders, traps, and even neck… When you squat with a 550-pound barbell, think about the high pressure the athlete’s abdomen must withstand. An athlete lifting such weights cannot have weak abs by definition –the midsection is strengthened in the process of training the squat. If you bench 330, the muscles of your arms, chest, and the front delts will be so developed, than any bodybuilder will be envious. One must add an interesting detail–in the bench press it is very important to learn to use the lats when starting the bar off the chest. Perhaps someone will think of this as a paradox but the bench press develops the back as well, especially the lats.” Faleev states than the above numbers, a 550-pound squat and deadlift and a 330-pound bench, are “more than achievable” if you focus on these exercises and practice them for years.

And if you have not felt your abs when squatting, it only means you have not squatted heavy enough. “Bodybuilding is a strength sport. Don’t forget it,” admonishes Faleev.

The only legit reason for additional exercises is correction of a dysfunction or imbalance that puts your health at risk. An example would be a pronounced discrepancy in the hamstrings’ flexibility, your knees caving in when you land after a jump, or the failure to activate your butt muscles or “gluteal amnesia”. But diagnosis and correction of such problems is not something you can do on your own or even under the guidance or a personal trainer; you need a specially trained health professional. I suggest that you find one through Gray Cook’s website. Cook is the country’s premier sports physical therapist; in the last Super Bowl both teams were his clients. Get a tune-up from a professional on his team so you can safely focus on the basics and not do stupid things like extra leg curls “to balance out my quads”.

But back to our basics.

Faleev stresses that additional exercises are worse than worthless –- they are harmful because they drain valuable energy that your body could have directed towards spectacular gains in the big three. “…get rid of the excesses and just do what is necessary… When you give up the secondary exercises, you will feel that you are not training enough. You will be leaving the gym totally fresh. This is it, the energy for an increase in the load in the basic lifts. This reserve is what will enable you to ‘shoot out of the gate’!”

The above point cannot be emphasized enough; curls, calf raises, and other miscellaneous non-sense may not feel hard but they drain your adaptive energy!

The Fourth Element: Competition and Parkinson’s Law

Focus on the lifts that matter is half of Faleev’s power and muscle equation. Regularly competing in sanctioned power meets is the other half. Faleev observes that with a powerlifting meet date looming on the calendar, many an athlete have accomplished more in six months than others have in many years.

In The 4-Hour Workweek, Tim Ferriss echoes him when he makes use of the Parkinson’s law to get results faster.

According to this law, a task will take as much time as you will allot for it. In other words, you will shine under the pressure of an ambitious deadline. Applied to iron, it means compete, and often! You will be forced to focus on what matters — your squat, your bench, your deadlift –– rather than fool around with what former Coach Powerlifting Team USA Mark Reifkind calls “random acts of variety”. Subscribe to Powerlifting USA magazine on Amazon. Find a meet near you three months away, and go for it! Look for “raw” meets that require that you compete without special squat suits, bench shirts, etc. AAU is one of the federations that hosts raw meets.

As the meet approaches, cut back from 5 x 5 to 4 x 4, 3 x 3, and finally, a couple of weeks before the competition, 2 x 2. Up the poundages accordingly. After the meet, take a week off, then start over with 5 x 5.

Faleev stresses that maxing in the gym is dangerous. Maxing out tests your strength but does not build it. A max workout in the gym amounts to missing a productive 5 x 5 day that you will never get back.

Tim: 5 x 5 isn’t just for beginners: Johnnie Jackson, one of the few champions in both powerlifting and bodybuilding, demonstrates the deadlift. I suggest not slamming the plates. Touch the plates to the floor as if a baby were sleeping in the room.

Faleev offers a formula that will help you estimate your max from your 5 x 5: multiply that weight by 1.2. This is not exact science, but it is much better than those ridiculous charts that claim to calculate your 1 rep max (1RM) from your 10RM.

Just decide what you want: The process of enjoying the pump, the burn, and the variety of exercises? Or muscles and power?

Faleev’s secret of success is so simple, it is easy to ignore: practice nothing but the powerlifts and compete regularly. Period. The Russian muscle man walks into the gym, trains one lift, spends a few minutes stretching, and hits the showers. Done!

Since he dropped all the assistance exercises his progress has been nothing but spectacular. Ironically, his gym buddies who sweat for hours wasting time on meaningless exercises consider him a slacker. He does not care, the wily Russkie has the last laugh with his strength and his mass.

# # #

About the author:

Pavel Tsatsouline is a former Soviet Special Forces physical training instructor, currently a subject matter expert to the US Secret Service, the US Marine Corps, and the US Navy SEALs. Pavel’s bestselling book Power to the People!: Russian Strength Training Secrets has been published in the US and Russia.

In real-time: Follow Tim and his experimentation with Pavel’s methods here.

Posted on: December 18, 2008.

Watch The Tim Ferriss Experiment, the new #1-rated TV show with "the world's best human guinea pig" (Newsweek), Tim Ferriss. It's Mythbusters meets Jackass. Shot and edited by the Emmy-award winning team behind Anthony Bourdain's No Reservations and Parts Unknown. Here's the trailer.

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873 comments on “Pavel: 80/20 Powerlifting and How to Add 110+ Pounds to Your Lifts

  1. Hey Tim,

    It makes total sense to me that he could apply this principle to powerlifting so effectively. I was able to use the 80/20 principle for both the creation of my muse and in applying the same principle to P90x (my current experiment). Great article.

    Also, Horacio Goday at La Viruta in Buenos Aires says hello. It was a fantastic Tango Lesson (and great mini retirement)! He wound up doing the opening of the BsAs video that we shot at La Viruta. Lots of fun had by all.

    Merry Xmas,

    Jet Set Life

    Liked by 1 person

    • Powerlifting can be thought of similarly to any sport in which there are weight classes. You should be able to redistribute your weight without increasing significantly using powerlifting as your strength training. Your body weight is regulated by your diet. When I started powerbuilding, I put on 20 lbs gaster than I wanted to because I wasn’t paying attention to my diet. I won’t do any bulking/cutting cycles because my only concern is performance/not looks. I do feel my healthiest at 200 lbs so my diet will be focused on staying close to that weight. If you looks at the powerlifting totals for even your average competitive 200 lbs powerlifter, you will see that smaller lifters are significantly stronger than your average 250 lbs gym rat.


  2. Wow, 2 of my favorite influences come together! By the way, Tsatsouline is probably even more known for his work with “kettlebell” training. Kettlebells are also very FHWW-ish in the fact that they take very little time for maximum results.

    I’ve been into them for years, and my website was inspired by reading FHWW… so, two of my favorites really have come together!


  3. Great Post Tim!

    I only can say that this may not be for everyone. It’s great for PLer’s who only compete in these exercises, but that is a very limited population. I know many clients of mine who are PLer’s and cannot do a single chin up. Pavel mentioned that lats are used in the bench press, however, it is only used in a limited range of motion, not the best training method for trying to pull-up your own weight.

    I think that a variety of full-body exercises should be employed, not just the PLers core 3. Pull-ups, rows, and overhead movements are 3 exercises I would include to achieve full-body strength. But I have to say, I agree with Pavel, throw out the leg extensions and bicep curls. You will never see me throw a client on a machine like that. Great application of 80/20.

    Stay tuned when I use the approach of 80/20 and take my first mini-retirement to Greece and run my first marathon, the Classic Marathon from Marathon to Athens on an extremely low mileage training plan, inspired by Pareto.

    Your Digital Trainer,



    • He wasn’t saying to use bench presses to work your lats, he said bench presses use your lats as a springboard to help ease the weight down and to help push the weight back up. Obviously Deadlifts work your lats for that. besides, you speak of how this routine isn’t efficient enough for actual functional total body strength and suggest pullups are necessary, but I can’t remember a single time in my 34 years of life where I’ve ever had to replicate the pullup motion in real life. I CAN, however, name countless times when I’ve had to squat down, bend over and pick something up, or push something away from me. ‘Functional total body strength’ is relative to the person. I don’t do pullups because I’m not a professional/recreational rock climber, as I assume most people who read this article aren’t either. And i think THAT’S one of the main points of this article: If you want to get better at something then do it often. You don’t do a lot of sit-ups to get good at bench presses, you get good at bench presses by doing a lot of bench presses :-)

      Liked by 1 person

      • Being a rock climber myself for part of my life, I had to replicate the pull ups for years. Being able to do a decent amount of pullups will allow you to pull everything you need much better. If you need to climb, if you need to carry heavy stuff, if you need to row, you are basically pulling.

        It seems that both authors are “pushing human beings” and therefore prioritise this kind of training. I can’t remember having to push something away from me that is so heavy as the kind of weight I can benchpress.

        On the other hand, now that I am doing standup paddling seriously, I am a more “pulling human being”. Any heavy push exercises will add extra bulk to my body that will be counterproductive at the things I like doing.

        Also, I like the concept of being strong at different angles. That is VERY important for climbing. That’s why we don’t just du pullups but we do very weird pulling exercises at very different angles.

        I wouldn’t say that being very strong at benchpressing will help you press efficiently at different angles, like in the military press.

        So, I agree with Jeremiah when he says this is not for everyone. It really depends on what you want to do with your body and what kind of specific strenght you would like to have.

        Just my 2 cents but in general, this article is great and today I spent just 15 minutes at the gym doing JUST the dead lift. I have to say I feel fresh and awesome. I will track this and definitely use the concept (not the same exercises) in my weight training.


  4. I wonder… Since neither squats nor bench presses are safe to perform without a spotter: Could you switch the bench press for dumbell bench presses? And is there a safer version of the squats that is OK to do on your own?


    • They make a step rack for performing squats without a spotter. An adjustable height one is best so that you can do a full squat (breaking parallel) if you are training for competition.


  5. Great stuff. Still, for most folks the Super Slow Exercise Protocol (originally from Author Jones/Nautilus) would be more effective,efficient, and safe…1 set @ creepy-slow speed to failure, 8 or less exercises, 20 – 30 minutes a week! Guaranteed to outperform all other programs.

    Google: Super Slow Exercise Protocol




    • If you want to get good at moving light weight very slowly, then super slow training is for you. You you want to develop significant overall, practical strength, powerlifting may be the answer.


  6. An article by Pavel, but not one mention of a kettlebell?

    Everyone needs to do some weight training for overall health and performance. Powerlifting gets a bad wrap, but the principles are sound. Nothing more basic than picking up weight. I do think most folks would benefit more from a standing press than a bench press.

    For more brutally simple and effective workouts check out Dan John.

    Dan knows his stuff and isn’t afraid to put himself to the test to prove it.


      • I alternate standing press with bench press. Seems to get balanced pressing development and practical strength. Also prepares the shoulders and core for heavier weights when I start doing olympic lifts such as jerk and snatch.


  7. OK, I’m a girl, so maybe I just don’t “get it,” but 5 1hr workouts a week – just for strength training, mind you – doesn’t seem very efficient to me. Add in a reasonable amount of cardio, like 3 20 minute interval sessions each week, and you’re up to at least 6 hours of gym time, plus the travel/changing/showering time per week.

    Got anything more efficient, Tim?


    • cardio…..

      try doing olympic squats ..5×5…..

      you wont get a better mix of anaerobic / aerobic….ive seen rugby and afl players at elite level breathless and almost spewing after a 5×5 session ……add in some run throughs….thats not full sprinting but 50-60-70-80% of max speed…over 100m then 200m…..

      you want a lean sexy body mam’…do the above.


    • I have been a similar strength program at only 4 days a week for a few months now, and I have never been stronger. At age 35 I thought I was already over the hill but now I have reason to believe I will be my strongest when I approach age 40 based on linear progression.


  8. Hi Tim,

    Very interesting article. I’m currently doing 2 days a week for lifting (upper body one day, lower body the other day), 8 exercises per workout, 8-12 reps (1 set) to failure as per one of your previous blog posts. This seems to be working pretty well. My fiancée and I have seen the best results in the gym using this routine than anything else we’ve tried, but we’re always looking to improve.

    What are your thoughts in comparing our current routine to this 5×5, never to failure, routine of 3 key exercises?

    Thanks a lot,


  9. I am interested, whether the system as described helps with endurance as well I know a strong muscle will fatigue less but straight weight training for strength I don’t believe will help an endurance athlete. As was pointed out in a earlier comment, if you are training for cardio is well, it ends up being quite a long time spent training


    • I think it depends on how specific you need your cardio to be. If you are training for a marathon, then maybe powerlifting isn’t the best approach. I am looking for balanced strength gains but wish to maintain a decent cardio base, so I incorporate a medium intensity cardio warmup of 5-10 minutes such as jump rope. Following a powerlifting session, I may do intervals on the rowing machine for an additional 10 minutes. This combined with a reasonable diet can control my body weight and keep me ready for just about any task life throws at me.


  10. Tim,

    As a Titleist Performance Institute Instructor, this sort of stuff is right in my wheel house. I think it very important that before anyone does these types of workouts, they need to be physically screened to determine if their body has the stability/mobility to perform correct squats, dead lifts, etc.

    For example, we would never start anyone with a dead lift until they can prove they can handle a bridge with leg extension. Dead lifts require proper glute function. Another example would be the squat…we would make sure that they can perform a deep squat, heels on the ground, and their butt past their knees before adding weight.

    If they don’t pass our screens we put them through a progression of corrections with the goal of performing a dead lift, squat etc.