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My Smolov Squat Experiment

September 11, 2003 05:35 PM

I've always thought that I'm pretty much game for anything as far as my training is concerned. I've tried many different training protocols including HIIT, Dinosaur, traditional bodybuilding (gasp), and most recently Power to the People!, and The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. So when I agreed to join our own Comrade Garm on a little squat specialization phase I had no worries that I would be able to handle it. I had followed conversations of the powerlifters on the discussion site regarding the Smolov squat program, and it seemed that the only thing surpassing its effectiveness was it's severity. They spoke in revered tones of their experiences with the Holy Grail of Squat Specialization. Garm spoke of 11 weeks worth of limping legs, bursting personal records, and hard times. One of the funny things about me is that the more you try to scare me away from something, the more likely I am to put everything else aside and go for it. Such was the case from 3/11/02 to 5/25/02 when I put all other training considerations aside to do the FULL Smolov squat program as listed in the PLUSA June 2001 issue [now posted on our site ?..,- -P.T.]. To further complicate matters we also followed Comrade Garm's 14-week deadlift peaking program (link to Articles section for this gem).

The Program: The first 4 weeks

The first and most essential thing you must do before embarking on this program is to figure out your one rep max in the squat. This is what everything is based on for the next 11 weeks. In the initial phase you will be squatting hard four days a week. This may seem like a lot?and it is. It is as hard as it sounds. You will start your week on Monday with 4 sets of 9 reps with 70% of a 1rep max. For those who are used to the principle of 5 reps or less, you will find these sets to be quite severe. You will probably experience some soreness in the thighs from doing the higher reps, but it is all part of the conditioning that takes place within the first phase. Get back in the gym on Wednesday for 5 sets of 7 reps with 75% of a 1-rep max. I know, I know, again with the high reps? Yes. There needs to be more conditioning with high reps because we didn't get enough of that on Monday. Shut up, go home and rest because it's back in the gym Friday for 7 sets of 5 reps with 80% of a 1 rep max. The first week, these can really make you feel like quitting. You may start thinking, "hmmm, maybe that was really my sixth set," when you know perfectly well that it was only the fifth. Take your medicine, get back in the rack and do all seven because it's back in the gym the very next day to do 10 sets of 3 reps with 85% of a 1 rep max. Yes, this is an awful lot of squatting, but on the plus side it does piss-off the bodybuilders who are waiting to use the squat rack to do curls.

All right, now was that first week really so bad? Yes, it was. But there's no time to complain about it because you've got to get back in the gym on Monday to do it all over again?but wait, this time you add 20 pounds (or 10 kilos) to all working weights. So if I did 4x9 with 246 in week one, I'm doing 266 for 4x9 in week 2. If I did 297 for 10x3 on Saturday of week 1, I do 317 for 10x3 in week 2. The good news is that when you get past week 2, your body really starts adapting to the increased volume and intensity. Looking at my notes from my training log I see words like "brutally hard," and "why am I doing this," but you will adapt. Unfortunately it doesn't get any easier by week 3, because now you have to add another 10 pounds (or 5 kilos) to all of your working weights as you did in week 2.

After you pay some serious dues in the squat rack during week 3, you deserve a rest. Take week 4 off from squatting until Thursday or Friday, then go in, warm up, and hit a new 1-rep max. In my own case, I added 55 pounds to my 1 rep max in these first 4 weeks. I started the program with a max of 350, it was ragged and uneven, it was hard. In week 4 I had a goal of 405. 4 wheels on each side for a good deep squat is something you don't see everyday in most gyms (which is kind of sad I know) so that was my goal for the initial 4 weeks, and I'm happy to say that I achieved it. It was heavy, and it wasn't easy, but it would have passed any PLing meet in the country. Many comrades might want to stop the program after this, after all a 55-pound gain in 4 weeks is pretty awesome. But I was determined to see it through to the bitter end and complete the entire program. I was ready to enter the next phase, which was somewhat confusing and probably was not handled very well by me. One of the purposes of this article is so that others can learn from my experience.

The Switching Phase

I follow instructions pretty well, so I followed the program to the letter during the initial phase and I came out a big winner. However, when left to my own devices, I tend to fall prey to the "tinker" syndrome. I found myself switching exercises around instead of focusing on the task in front of me. Garm's instructions were to work the legs with anything that isn't a barbell squat, and do it with speed. In the switching phase, you perform speed work and you also perform negatives twice a week in the barbell squat with slightly over your new max. This is key, do not attempt negatives with a weight that is heavier than you can control. I would suggest 10-20 pounds over your max and squeeze it all the way down to the pins of the power rack. Absolutely do not let it slam at the bottom, control it. For a much more thorough elaboration, please see Pavel's excellent article on negatives in the Volume 8 number 1 issue of Milo. So, I had a good idea on the negatives, but unfortunately the switching phase is 2 weeks long and it took me a week to figure out what I was going to do for speed work. The moral of the story: Have a plan! I initially tried bottom position squats in the rack with 65% 1rm, but decided later that box squats work even better. If you have never done box squats before, give them an honest try. They do not violate any party principles, simply recruit max tension going onto the box, sit way back, and explode upward and forward. I followed WSB (Westside Barbell Club) principles to the letter for these and did 12 sets of 2. My only other speed work for this phase consisted of star jumps for sets of 10. To perform star jumps, crouch down as in the bottom position of a hindu squat and explode upward jumping as high as possible with arms extended as if you are trying to reach the sky. As soon as you hit the bottom position, explode up immediately, it is a plyometric exercise after all. I did 2 or 3 sets, or until I slowed down enough for the exercise to loose it's value.

The Intense Phase

This is what the program is all about. Squatting at absurd levels of volume and intensity. It lasts 4 weeks, followed by a one week taper cycle, and it makes those 4 sets of 9 from the first phase seem like a warm-up. You squat 3 days per week, and all of the percentages are based not on the max you started with, but with your new max that you just worked so hard to achieve.

Here's how the next five weeks play out:

Intense phase week 1:
Monday - 65% x3, 75%x4, 85%x 3 sets of 4, then 1 set of 5
Wednesday - 60%x3, 70%x3, 80%x4, 90%x3, 85%x 2 sets of 5
Saturday - 65%x4, 70%x4, 80%x 5 sets of 4

Intense phase week 2:
Monday - 60%x4, 70%x4, 80% x4, 90%x3, 90%x 2sets of 4
Wednesday - 65%x3, 75%x3, 85%x3, 90%x3 sets of 3, 95% x3
Saturday - 65%x3, 75%x3, 85%x4, 90%x4 sets of 5

Intense phase week 3:
Monday - 60%x3, 70%x3, 80%x3, 90% 5x5
Wednesday - 60%x3, 70%x3, 80%x3, 95% 2 sets of 3
Saturday - 65%x3, 75%x3, 85%x3, 95% 4 sets of 3

Intense phase week 4:
Monday - 70%x3, 80%x4, 90%5x5
Wednesday - 70%x3, 80%x3, 90% 4x3
Saturday - 75%x3, 90%x4, 95%x 3 sets of 4

Taper cycle:
Monday - 70%x3, 80%x3, 90% 2 sets of 5, 95% 3 sets of 4
Wednesday - 75%x4, 85% 4x4
Sunday - test new max

So, just to put it in perspective, When I started the program on the 11th of March of this year, my squat max was 350, and it was a hard single. 10 weeks later, I was doing 385 for 3 sets of 4. Monday's workout of the taper cycle is by far the hardest on paper, but by the time you get there, your sets are going up easier and easier. The first time I did 5x5 with 90% of the new max I thought I was going to die. You simply cannot get through this unless you use the high-tension techniques from PTP. At least that was my experience. When you are squatting the 25th rep with 90% of your new squat max, you have got to squeeze the bar as if your life depended on it, tighten the abs before you go down, and flex every muscle in your back. Trust me, this stuff really works.

Unfortunately for me, there is no pre-arranged plan to warm up for your new max once the whole thing is over with, so I did not hit what I had expected to. I ramped up with 135x5, 225x2, 315x1, 365x1, 405x2, and planned to hit 465 but was absolutely crushed at the bottom and never even had a chance with it. In retrospect it wasn't smart to double with 405, but I thought it would give me the confidence to hit 465. So I did not find a new max, but feel very comfortable in saying that with a better warm up scheme 425 would have been in the bag. So I can conservatively say that I put 75 pounds on my squat in 11 weeks.

Final Thoughts

Is this The Holy Grail of squat routines? Yes. Would I ever do it again? No.

Like everything else, you have to determine what your goals are and act accordingly. I did this routine because I had a weak squat and wanted to make it stronger to someday compete in powerlifting. To that end, the program worked very well. The problem for a 3-lift competitor is fitting in other work around the squatting hell. Garm and I started his deadlift peaking routine at the same time as we started Smolov, so that addressed any deadlift work. We also did PTP style benching 5 days a week (2 sets of 5, 1 work set, 1 at 90%). I also added overhead pressing, pull-ups, and some KB work as well. In hindsight, I was in an unbelievably overtrained state. To understand just how overtrained I was, go to the articles section and match up the deadlift peaking routine with this routine.

If I were to advise the average trainee as to what to do in addition to the Smolov Squat program, I would say the answer is kettlebells. 2 or 3 sets of KB presses, snatches twice a week, and finish your squat sessions with some 2 hand swings to introduce the blood flow back in to the lower back and hips. KB swings have an incredible recuperative effect that I cannot explain. I believe the KB work I did during the routine helped me get through it. If you are a powerlifter, I would say to do 54321 style benching twice a week, and one or two deadlift singles a week at about 80-85%. This should keep you in the groove for heavy pulls without bombing away needlessly on the lower back, trust me, it will get enough work squatting. You can expect some weight gain from this program because you will be hungry from the time you get up to the time you go to bed. Feed the hunger, you will need the calories.

If you want to increase your squat, increase your pain tolerance, and increase your mental toughness, this is a good way to go. You cannot underestimate the effect of training brutally hard for short periods of time. It has great carry-over to the rest of your training and your general physical preparedness.

Ken James is a former Navy Corpsman who served in the Marine Corps
Reconnaissance Community for 4 years. He holds a B.S. in Criminal Justice
Studies from the University of North Dakota where he also worked as an
instructor in grappling and submission fighting. He is a state champion
in both powerlifting and kettlebell lifting.