This should be a quick post. I noticed this interesting video on allthingsgym.com today (an excellent resource for weightlifters and anyone who is a fan of athleticism, by the way). In this video (around the 10:00 min mark), current national-level lifters debate the merits of “pre-programmed” squat routines such as smolov, Hatch, etc. It sparked my interest b/c this is a topic I’ve thought about posting on for a couple of months now.
Full disclosure- I used to be a fan of squat routines. Key word is USED to. I still think they have their place, in limited fashion, for certain athletes with certain goals. However, my opinion is that they are WAY too widely applied these days, to athletes who stand to gain little or nothing from them in the context of their goals, by coaches who are, quite frankly, either too lazy or lack the ability to program for themselves. I’ve done a smolov Jr cycle twice in my life, and I did a Russian 6-week front squat cycle about a year and a half ago, so I can also speak from personal experience. Here are my issues with the overly-broad application of squat cycles-
1. Most people can’t handle the volume
It’d be one thing if these people were just training to become a better squatter. However, most of us either want to be better olympic lifters, CrossFitters, or athletes in general. In that sense, the squat is an assistance exercise, no more. So what you end up seeing is people try to jam a squat routine INTO an already existing program, and yet somehow expect results in EVERYTHING to continue. This is simply not physiologically possible for most of us, especially without the miracle of PEDs. What you usually end up seeing is people who continue to do other forms of training or lifting, and they get suboptimal results with both.
Additionally, I’ve also seen people who actually do follow and do ONLY the routine to the letter, and they STILL can’t handle the volume. I suspect this is because most commonly known programs out there were designed for elite level lifters (some of them, for powerlifters, completely different squat mechanics) and not your average person. One of my gym’s elite athletes tried, and failed, to complete a full smolov cycle. I watched him during many of his squat sessions, and you could see as the weeks progressed the mounting and insurmountable fatigue that was setting in. He started to miss sets he should/could have made, and in the end (IMO) ended up wasting months of training.
2. Most people try to do too much
This is closely related to the point above. I think part of the reason this happens is, again, b/c the squat is not the primary goal for most of us. We want a stronger squat SO THAT WE CAN DO X BETTER (X is snatch/clean/run etc). It’s pretty hard to tell a CrossFitter not to practice butterfly pull ups when they’re on a “squat only” cycle. It’s pretty hard to tell someone who primarily wants their clean or snatch to improve to do a “squat only” cycle. When I did a Russian front squat routine, it was with the full blessing of my coach, who carefully incorporated it into my program. We knew the lifts were going to take a back seat in the interests of getting my front squat up. In my case, the front squat was the prime component holding my clean back (I could clean as much as I could front squat). So, I basically didn’t do anything else but front squat, and it was under the supervision of an international-level coach, WITH THE PRIME GOAL being to make the front squat go up.
I’m on a squat cycle bro!
3. Most people won’t get the gainz they think they’ll get
I’ve heard/seen this many times. Someone goes through a 6/12/100,000 week long squat program. And their squat numbers go up, maybe. Usually not as much as they’d hoped. This may be a function of them not recovering optimally/not using PEDs/doing too much as described above, and it’s hard to tease that out, but that is REALITY. You have to know as a coach that most athletes will not have optimal recovery. Most athletes will not be using PEDs. Therefore, “ideal” results, under optimal conditions, probably won’t be the reality.
On top of that, the gainz don’t last. Sad but true. I have personally lived this- every time I’ve done a squat routine, my squat goes up. Then, it goes down- not all the way, mind you, but a fair amount. I can’t front squat now nearly what I was able to at the end of my front squat cycle. The sad truth is, for most of us, your “baseline” squat will never be as high as it is at the end of a squat cycle.
4. A bigger squat is not really the main goal, most of the time
I touched on this above. For most of us, the primary goal is going to be something OTHER than a bigger squat. Don’t get me wrong- I love squats, and consider them the single most useful assistance exercise for pretty much any athlete. However, the key word is “assistance”. An aspiring CrossFitter should still be focusing most of their work on generalized fitness. An aspiring lifter should still be focusing work on technique/positions/the classic lifts themselves. I find it kind of laughable when a person who can’t perform a positionally-solid front squat is on yet-another back squat routine, yet their main goal is to become a better olympic lifter.
I don’t think this guy’s goal was a bigger squat. While we may not be aspiring to Olympic gold like Lu Xiaojun, most of us want to get better at something OTHER than the squat itself.
5. It’s a sign of lazy or inept coaching
This one is probably my biggest pet peeve, and can be said about any cookie cutter program. I consider one of a coaches’ main jobs to a) understand the principles of intelligent programming, and b) be able to tailor and apply them to their individual athletes. Anyone with an internet connection and knowledge of google can go and download a program someone else wrote (for someone else). That’s not coaching, and in fact in my mind cheapens the notion of being someone’s coach.
I will be the first to admit that when I first started coaching, I didn’t know very much. However, I think what separates me from a lot of people is that I am willing to learn and adapt, and I’m always trying to better myself. I don’t take anything as a given but will analyze information critically, using my knowledge of physiology/anatomy and combining it with the good ‘ol fashioned “bullshit test” and the experience of other, better coaches. In other words, I may not be the best coach, but I’m definitely not lazy. At this point, I think I’m a much better coach than when I first started. My point is, every opportunity to program for an athlete or learn for yourself is an opportunity to improve. When we as coaches take that opportunity, and instead give someone a cookie-cutter program that any monkey could download from the internet, we do ourselves a disservice.
Hope this stimulated some thought. Happy Training!