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Smolov for beginners [Article]

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Nov 28, 2017 10:00:00 AM

 Smolov for beginners

Smolov for beginners

This is an article which outlines whether the Smolov squat routine is suitable for beginners in lifting. For this the basic principles of strength development are being outlined, measuring of one repetition maximums and their relation to body weight is explained and the knowledge is applied to the question of the article. If you want to save time I do not think the program is for beginners and skip to the conclusion to see why. If you want to know more about how strength is developed and find additional sources please read on.

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Strength Development

When it comes to strength development the basic concepts are consistency and overload. Whenever you are researching programs which are focused on strength development look for templates which let you progress for strength and increase the workload over time. Structures which are handed out in gyms usually miss out on the overload part and some gym members just keep doing the same thing for years without ever getting better. 
Improvement can happen on various performance metrics. The most common for resistance training are:
  • Number of repetitions
  • Number of sets
  • Rest time between sets
  • Sessions per week
Depending on where you want to put the emphasis in your training you will either work with very low rest times and high amounts of sets and repetitions for greater muscle development or lower repetition ranges with higher weight and longer rest for strength development

Which level are you 

If you want to decide for a lifting program the first step is to determine which level you currently are. This depends on size, age, training history, the record of injuries, genetic foundation and coaching factors. I personally find the easiest way to determine whether you are a beginner, intermediate or advanced lifter without making it too simplistic or complex is to do ask yourself the following questions:
  • How much do you weigh
  • What is your one repetition maximum
  • How long have you been training
  • How fast do you improve
Best way to determine easily where you are at is testing your one repetition maximum. As a beginner please refrain from testing your real one repetition maximum as it bears a high risk of injury for you. This is based on being new to the movement and lacking mobility. When you do a test, use a five repetition maximum to then calculate your one repetition maximum from. Keep a full range of motion when testing and as soon as form breaks down stop and take the last set as your base for further calculations. You can take the result and put it into following calculators.
If you do this for 5x100kg (225 pounds) you will get these results: = 115kg
Exrx= 113
Miniwebtools = 113kg
Hamiltonfitness = 117kg
Strengthlevel = 112.5kg
Once you have determined your one repetition maximum you also have to look at how much you weigh. The more you weigh the bigger is your advantage based on physics to move a heavy object. Therefore, the bigger you are, the less impressive your one repetition maximum becomes. To get your head around this phenomenon think of ants. Some ants are able to lift ten times their own bodyweight. For me at 80 - 85 kg depending on the day this would mean that I could lift a fiat seicento over my head and walk around with it. So let's take the one repetition maximum of 112.5kg for the bench press from strengthlevel and apply different bodyweights to it:
at 60kg bodyweight: Elite
at 70kg: Advanced
at 80kg: Higher intermediate
at 90kg: Intermediate
at 110kg: Novice
As you can see you will drop in level the heavier you become. If we take most recent examples out of my training for further clarification of the bench press:
15 x 85kg = One rep Max of 127.5kg at 80kg = Advanced
3x 130kg = 137.7kg one rep max = Advanced
These are two examples out of the same month (August 2017) in which I was training on the Juggernaut method. Write a comment if you want to know more details how I progressed to these numbers which are not NFL level, but decent without taking steroids. 
I am personally a big fan of strengthlevel as to my tastes it is usually the most skeptic tool of all and has the most detail in the results of the aforementioned. Being a bit more careful than aggressive about your one repetition maximum will lead to saver and longer progression as your risk of injury gets minimized. Especially if you do not compete in the Olympics or in powerlifting there is no need to approach your one repetition overly agressively/greedily.
Bodyweight and one repetition maximum are quantifiable factors to determine whether you are a beginner. Training experience and rate of improvement are qualitative factors which also have to be considered to form a complete picture whether you are a beginner or not. These factors are often overlooked in programming as they take a bit more brain power and effort to be applied.
The time you have been training and how you have been training will put you somewhere between beginner and intermediate level for lifting. If you were lucky enough to get good coaching you might start at higher proficiency and mobility than others to perform the three big lifts, the squat, the deadlift and the bench press. This depends on how you have been training. Be honest with yourself whether the regime you did in the past is relevant to strength training with a barbell. Relevant exercises which provide mobility and movement pattern for weight training are
  • Goblet Squats
  • Cossack Squats
  • Pull-ups
  • Dips 
  • Flies
  • Cable work 
  • Yoga for the different body parts

Other factors to consider are general spatial awareness, flexibility, willpower & discipline, pragmatism and other factors you can think which are beneficial to progress to a certain fitness goal which has been formed in the past. IN my example I did Judo for 12 years ending in a black belt and ran three marathons before I seriously considered powerlifting. This puts me at an advantage on many levels compared to someone who just got up from the couch to enjoy training and perform the movements without putting myself at risk. 

The other qualitative factor is the rate of improvement on a certain lift. Beginners improve workout to workout, intermediates week over week and advanced to elite athletes month over month to year over year depending on how extreme their schedule is. 
It is important to look at the quantifiable and qualitative factors to make sure that you are not under- or overtraining and make the most use of your valuable time. As an example, you might have an athlete who has trained the shot put for all of his teenage years into his early twenties where he or she stalled progression. Strength training with a barbell is now being introduced for the first time in the schedule. It is very likely that this individual scores high on the quantifiable metrics of Power output per kilogram as they are already explosive by nature. If you then follow the book you would put this athlete on an intermediate training program like Wendler 531 or Madcow which you individualize further to tackle weaknesses. However, you would not have looked at the rate of improvement and would have done this strength novice a disservice as a coach as better rates of improvement could have been achieved with a novice program for the first six months to a year in the lifting room. 


This excursion into strength levels was to help you to determine better whether you are really a beginner, intermediate, advanced or elite lifter. Smolov as a program splits into three phases, each a month long. The first month will use an intensity as a percentage of your one repetition maximum which is very high at 80 - 90% of your max for more repetitions than that you are used to. The second month gives you a bit of rest and further testing to prepare for month three. Month three than realizes the gains you have been prepared for in month 1 and 2 by heavily overloading your system to adapt. The original Smolov program focuses on only the squat and the overload you will be exposed to is extreme. In fact, one of the most extreme of all standardized programs out there. Formore details of the program please refer to my Smolov review.

Smolov for beginners

The main characteristics of beginners are that they are early in the learning curve and recover quickly. Programs like Stronglifts 5x5 and Starting strength accommodate for that with increased loads workout by workout. Smolov increases the load workout by workout, week by week and month by month. This is already too complex and is also spread out over three months. Not ideal for beginners whose growth in strength and size can be stimulated a lot easier and should be brought forward with simpler methods. If you consider Smolov as a beginner, look at other programs first until you are ready for this beast. Further reasons Smolov is not suitable for beginners:
  • Operates near exhaustion several times a week 
  • Has negatives programmed in (squatting in a controlled manner to pins)
  • Needs a spotter
  • Needs an extreme diet to support needs
  • Needs knowledge of growing pains and how to manage them
  • Designed in waves and not linear
The most professional and measurable factors of the design of Smolov are its layout for three months and the waviness of it. Common consensus in the strength world is to keep it simple until you do not get any stronger. Linear programs are therefore by nature more suitable for beginners than programs based on waves. A simple look at the calculations for Stronglifts 5x5 and Smolov should also enlighten you on this point. Another advanced component is the negative squat in the middle of the program. This has you load up 110% of your one repetition maximum to squat down to a pin. Partially controlled movements are usually more challenging to perform than entire movements. Additionally overloading it with 110% is asking for a disaster to happen with beginners.
Apart from these hard facts, there are also some soft factors which beginners should get accustomed to before going on Smolov. Asking for a spotter, as simple as it may sound, is one of them. Usually, the more experienced a lifter gets, the more time they have spent in their local gym. Therefore it becomes easier to ask for a spot. You will need a spot for every single set of Smolov. Diet is another aspect. It is recommended to be on a 3000 to 4000 calorie a day diet when doing Smolov (i did not do this myself). This is a lot of food to deal with and not for the faint-hearted. Beginners simply do not have the habits and routines yet to support such a high intake. The last point is managing fatigue and knowing how to listen to your body. Smolov will push you to the limits three to four times a week if done right. It takes some experience under the bar to know where to push through the pain and where to call it a day to avoid a muscle tear or worse. Beginners are usually not equipped for this constant "walking the fine line" approach. 


In total Smolov is a program which I would not recommend to beginners whatsoever. I am also not a fan of the fact that it is prominently advertised on the Stronglifts 5x5 website alongside a beginner program. Novices are exposed too early to the information on how this unsuitable program works. It is enticing and thrilling to do and I also did it at least two years too early in my development. Apart from this, it is a solid program for serious lifters who want to focus on their squat to break a world record in this specific lift. The last thing to mention is that you should not be fooled by the statements of "some people gained 100 pounds in one Smolov cycle". These claims are not necessarily made up, but most likely come from an individual who already squats more than 200kg and decided to drop the deadlift and bench press in favor of the squat for three months. This is the equivalent of Wayne Rooney focusing only on penalties in his training for three months and then saying his rate of success went up from 8 out of 10 to nine out of ten penalties scored while all of his other stats plummeted. 

Further reading

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Topics: Lift stronger, Smolov, Squat, Powerlifting, Bodybuilding, Strongman