Detailed Smolov Squat routine review
This is a review of the famous Smolov squat routine which seperates the boys from the men. You can read how I increased my 1RM for the squat by 20kg, find summaries of others who have done the program and I compare Smolov to other routines which I have done. If you do not know how to do squat negatives and box squats you will also find a quick introduction to these concepts.
Overview of the Russian squat routine
This is based on the fact that Pavel Tsatsouline published this routine in the Powerlifting USA magazine in 2001. You can find a copy of the original at Dragondoor. In addition, the program gets some help by the fact that it is prominently featured on the Stronglifts 5x5 website. Stronglifts 5x5 is the most popular lifting routine out there, so anything that gets discussed in depth on their website automatically gets a boost.
The routine was developed by Sergey Smolov "The Russian master of sports". It breaks down into four phases distributed over thirteen weeks. By name in order:
- Introductory Microcycle
- Base cycle
- Switching Phase
- Intense cycle
The program is highly debated amongst lifters because of its extreme approach. There are little to no other programs out there with same popularity which have you squat at such intensity for this long. Because of this single-minded approach smolov gets scolded or high praise depending on the goals of the lifter or coach. If you should decide for smolov, keep in mind that you are opting for a high risk, high reward program which might leave you injured. This is also a reason why this program is mostly recommended to more advanced lifters who know their limits, already have run programs for longer periods of times and who have experience with stretching, proper maintenance, and warm-ups during a demanding program. I personally ran the program from May 2016 until July starting with a 150kg squat and finishing at 170kg at 88kg bodyweight.
I personally did the program too early. I should have stuck with linear programs for longer, which I now have gone back to. (I did SL 5x5, GVT, Jim Wendler, Smolov and Texas method. If I could redo it I would do SL 5x5, Texas method, Jim Wendler, Smolov and no GVT instead). If you have not done linear programs for two years, probably do something else than smolov.
Smolov Introductory Microcycle
This is the cycle to get you used to squat more in a week. Most programs stop at 25 repetitions a day maximum (Texas method, Madcow 5x5) or lower at percentages of 75%+ of your one repetition maximum, whereas smolov works usually close to or above thirty repetitions a day in this range. This is not for the faint-hearted. There are discussions around skipping the introductory cycle to save time or because you might feel so macho. This is not recommended. Based on your current program your squat volume a week is most likely to be a lot lower or at a way smaller percentage of your one repetition maximum (German Volume Training).
The lunges are also important to get you ready for what is about to come. Especially as these are often dreaded by lifters and skipped wherever possible, do them here. In case you wonder which kind of program is good for warming up, I get quite good results with the Agile 8 routine.
The last week of this cycle is a mini taper. Do not go crazy here. That will come soon enough.
Smolov Base Mesocycle
The Base mesocycle is where the madness starts. I personally found the first week of the Base cycle to be the hardest of the entire program. What helped me most for getting through this was to work on my breathing and split the repetitions within each set. Example:
- Set 1 by 9: 3 reps -----> breath & brace ------> 3 reps ----> breath & brace -----> 3reps
- Set 2 by 9: 3 reps -----> breath & brace ------> 3 reps ----> breath & brace -----> 3reps
- Set 3 by 9: 3 reps -----> breath & brace ------> 3 reps ----> breath & brace -----> 2 reps ----> breath & brace ----> 1 rep
- Set 4 by 9: 3 reps -----> breath & brace ------> 2 reps ----> breath & brace -----> 2 reps ----> breath & brace ----> 2 rep
What is important here is that you already know where you want to breathe before you go under the bar. You decide based on how you felt the set before. Another point of why this is more suited for experienced lifters who have good breathing technique, but also are more realistic about their own limitations. If you are unsure whether you breathe correctly Chris Duffin's squat workshop at supertraining is the best on the topic I have seen so far.
The base cycle itself is also known as Smolov Jr.. It is often used to push the bench press through a plateau. I personally ran Smolov Jr. for bench before doing Smolov and increased my one repetition maximum. As running the Base cycle only takes a month this can be taken as a good shock cycle whenever your bench press or squat do not seem to move anywhere. Only apply that kind of thinking if you already deloaded two times on your current program.
The point in Smolov which seems to separate the boys from the men is after the first six weeks. Based on what I read most people drop out at this point if they do not complete the full 13-week cycle. I got out of this part of the program with a 15kg increase.
Smolov switching cycle
After all of this volume, your body is put into recovery mode for two weeks. Think about this two weeks as dusting off the cobwebs and getting your muscles to fire quickly again. This is all about speed and muscle tension. Many lifters will not have done Squat negatives or box squats before they go into smolov, as they are usually not part of beginner programs.
This is an example of me doing box squats in the very early stages. Depending on how you are doing on your flexibility you adjust the box lower or higher. If you have a good coach ask him to spot your normal squats and analyze where the sticky points are. This helps you to know what a good depth on the box squat is for you personally to address that weakness. The idea is to lower yourself to the box and get all momentum out of the bar to then fire up again. The bands are not necessary, but I found them to be ideal for speed work. Bands are also recommended over chains by Louie Simmons, who is famous for the westside method of lifting. Whatever you do for smolov, make it about speed. Less is more in terms of actual weight on the bar in this phase.
The squat negatives were completely new to me. For this, you need to set up the safety pins at a height that you can lower the bar to the pins in a controlled way. The negatives are done at a higher weight than your 1RM. Be careful with these as you are working in territory you have never been in before. They are over quick and therefore i found them not to be as bad as the 4x9 days out of the base cycle. Below you find an example of a squat negative.
The intense mesocycle is the part of the program most lifters do not get to because of injuries or other commitments beforehand. It is quite unforgiving as you will be squatting for repetitions in a range which are very close to the new maximum that you established in the base cycle. I personally found the 5x5 days to be the toughest. Basically, anything in here that goes up to five repetitions has you in for a very hard day.
The rest, for me personally, was easier than expected because of the shock you get in the base cycle. If you have knee and wrist wraps this is the time to use them. Do not be a hero and injure yourself. Also be sure to have a spotter around for the last set of each day.
When you finish this part of the program you get a week of taper to finally test your gains after a long journey. Congrats comrades, you finished one of the hardest squatting programs around.
What equipment do I need to do Smolov
Here is list of things I would recommend for doing Smolov:
- Squat rack
- Safety pins
- Good barbell
- Lifting Belt
- Lifting shoes
- Knee wraps
- Wrist wraps
- Ice packs
- Foam roller
- Jump Rope
- Chalk or A7 shirt
Squat rack: This is straight forward. Check the facilities that you will be doing smolov in. You will move a considerable amount of weight so make sure you are safe. J Cups should be in good order, if the gym is quite crowded, make sure that they have proper racks. If your local gym does not provide racks but squat stands, make sure that there is enough room around them in case you have to drop the weight. All of this does not mean that everything in your gym has to be new and shiny, but it should still be functional. It is your neck on the line. It also does not hurt to go to a gym that has multiple racks. Smolov will take time and you do not want a row of people breathing down your neck and rushing, when you have to focus. Unless, of course, you are already the alpha in your local gym moving the most weight ;).
Safety pins: Make sure there safety pins around and that them up properly before you start. Especially when you enter the Intense cycle. Every lift in this one can be a nasty fail as you are moving in unknown territory pushing your limits. Therefore have a safety net in place.
Good barbell: What i mean by this is a straight one that still has grip. In some gyms, you find equipment of all ages and uses. Pick the barbells which are in best shape before starting your daily routine. As you are working with some weight which is heavy for you, you want to minimize any imbalances by picking the best in your local gym.
Lifting belt: Some lifters try to stay all raw. If you are of this opinion be more conservative about your one repetition maximum going into the program. I personally use a Rogue Ohio Lifting belt, which is good quality and is long lasting. Other options which are also quite common are Inzer lifting belts. Because of the volume and intensity of the program, your lower back will thank you, if you use a lifting belt.
Knee wraps: Once you get into the Intense cycle you might want to use warps in some sets depending on how beaten up you are. Some people never experience pain around the knees, others are prone to it. With knee wraps you have the option to "Protect yourself before you wreck yourself" (Mark Bell quote). I personally use the Rehband Rich Froning knee wraps.
Wrist wraps: Not an essential item and still can help to keep your wrists in place on heavy lifts. Especially if a squat goes a bit wobbly and the barbell moves during the repetition on your back I found wrist wraps to be helpful. I personally use the Gangsta wraps from Mark Bell.
Ice packs: If you bruise up easily or are a very advanced lifter (200kg+ for repetitions on Smolov) Ice packs help with recovery and to ease the pain. Some people also like to use them during a session, which I would personally not recommend. If the pain is so bad that you have to numb it with an ice pack during a session it is better to rest up and stop for the day. A healthy weaker muscle which can be trained for the next two months is better than a ripped stronger muscle that has to heal for two months.
Foam roller: Absolutely essential item for doing Smolov. Foam roll before and after each session to survive this program unharmed. At least that was what I did.
Jump Rope: You want to do a proper warm up before you start your session. I personally like to do 100 double unders with the Rogue Ballistic rope. Whatever suits your needs and preferences to work up a sweat before you start foam rolling.
Chalk or A7 shirt: Not an essential and still to be mentioned. Again if you are really advanced moving 400 pounds+ for repetitions you might want to get some chalk so that the bar sticks better to your back and stays in the same place. If you have a gym that does not allow the use of chalk or you find the setup of chalk to be inconvenient and messy an A7 shirt might be an alternative.
How does the routine stack up to other programs
Here is a quick overview how I think Smolov stacks up to other programs which I have done and others that I have read about.
Smolov vs German Volume training: If you want more muscles and you are more interested in bodybuilding German Volume training might be the better choice for you. If you do some research you will usually find that the ideal repetition range per set for hypertrophy is somewhere between 8 - 12 repetitions. In the entire 13 weeks of the program you only work in this range for three days in the Introductory cycle.
Smolov vs Stronglifts 5x5: While both programs are more suited to the needs of individuals who are focused on strength, Stronglifts is a more rounded program for beginners. Smolov biggest strength is also its biggest weakness which is to focus on only one lift. If you are a beginner travel down the road of Stronglifts 5x5 or Starting strength to revisit the russian madness at a later stage.
Smolov vs Texas method / Madcow / Wendler: I did Smolov too early. If you are an intermediate lifter who is considering the program, my personal recommendation would be to try all of the more commonly known intermediate programs which work with linear progression first and get all you can out of them before doing Smolov. So if you are done with Stronglifts, go for Texas method, madcow 5x5 and Jim Wendler 531 before you start a smolov cycle.
Always remember that Smolov is aoptimizedoptimised to increase your squat and your squat only.
Examples and opinions about the smolov squat routine
There is already a wide variety of tests and opinions about the smolov routine out there. Here you will find a summary to save you some time. You can follow the links to see the details of each review if you want to dig deeper.
Powerliftingtowin: Powerliftingtowin is a website which I personally highly recommend to get an opinion on whwther a routine is suitable for the purpose of powerlifting or not. Overall it is acknowledged that smolov is an iconic, "sexy" program, but not good for the purpose of powerlifting due to its limitation to the squat. Linear programs which incorporate all three lifts are put forward as better alternatives to smolov and that Smolov should only be run as a shock cycle.
Reddit: This review of an intermediate level lifter reports a 60lbs increase on the squat from 270lbs to 330lbs for a 32 year old male. The reason for running the program was an injury in the upper body. The description of the experience is "brutal, but effective". This reviewer also recommends using a weightlifting belt like an Inzer Lever belt and knee sleeves from Rehband to get through the toughest days of Smolov.
Dragondoor.com: Ken James, a former Navy Corpsman, reports a 75 pounds increase on his squat doing smolov in this review. This write up points out that anyone who is not used to sets with more than 5 repetitions will definetly suffer in the first phases of the 13 week journey. The comments Ken put in his diary while on smolov are "Brutally hard" and "Why am I doing this". The Navy Corpsman recommends kettlebell swings and a 54321 style program for bench presses to accompany the program, if acessory and upper body work is done.
Strength defined with honesty: A short write up of a 60kg gain while being on Smolov. In this lifters opinion smolov is not recommended for bulking.
Forum discussion Bodybuilding.com: This thread recommends doing the intro cycle to stay injury free. This User dropped out of the program after six weeks (Introduction + Base) finishing with a 400lbs raw squat. He reports 10 minutes of rest between sets.
Forum discussion on Strongfirst: This discussion is one of the better ones I found based on my opinion and expericne with the program. It points out that a 2x bodyweight squat can also be reached using linear programs (Stronglifts 5x5, Texas method, Madcow 5x5). Any leg work apart from the squat is strongly discouraged and the program is only recommended for advanced lifters. There are also interesting mentions of the Nick Horton Squat Nemesis program and discussions of strength by Greg Nuckols.
Smolov review by a competing lifter: This is a review for advanced lifters who want to compete. After doing sheiko with minimal gains of 5kg this lifter entered smolov with a suqat of 185kg to peak at the Auckland Novice competition with a score of 240kg. He also recommends doing the introduction and deloaded 5% after the switching phase.
Russian squat routine as alternative on breaking muscle: This breaking muscle article discusses the russian squat routine as an alternative to the smolov program. RSR is a bit less extreme only squatting three times instead of four times a week. According to this article there is more room for recovery in RSR while there is more variety in smolov. Overall the gains for this lifter on RSR have been 15kg while putting on 25kg on smolov.
General overview at lift.net: The general overview at lift.net describes 50lbs to 130lbs increases on the squat using smolov. It points out that the routine is only suitable for experienced lifters. Caution is advised for picking a conservative 1RM when entering the program. Whilst doing it enough sleep, regular foam rolling and high calorie intake are recommended.
Extreme review at Jawustraininglog: While there is still a gain from 365lbs to 405lbs marked in this review, it is the most extreme one i found. Vomiting, nausea and falling asleep from exhaustion in the gym are reported. There is also an anecdotal reference to a friend who skipped the intro cycle and got injured three days into the program.
Crosfitter smolov review: This crossfitter only completed the first six weeks of the program and progressed from a 65kg to a 78kg squat at 38 years of age. In this example the preparation for a crossfit competition clashed with smolov as there was not enough time to fit in the needed conditioning to compete successfully.
My personal results
To close the analyses here by my personal results with Smolov. The two videos show the One repetition maximum test in the middle of the program and at the end. I personally think I might have been able to squeeze out a 175kg squat instead of attempting the 180kg and to fail, but that is also "what, if, when" talk. In the end I increased my 1RM from 150kg to 170kg during the program.
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