Why should (or shouldn’t) you run the Smolov Routine?
Over the past few years I’ve encountered a number of lifters who have either done Smolov, or are thinking about doing it. And of the former category I can genuinely count on two fingers the number of lifters who got through it without some kind of injury (be it acute or over-use). I’ve personally done only the base cycle (higher volume phase) and I even found I got niggles from that.
So what’s going wrong here? Are we squatting wrong? Is there some kind of Russian secret to finishing Smolov?
What is Smolov?
Smolov is a squat routine/programme that was created in Russia by Sergey Smolov and popularised in the West by Pavel Tsatsouline. It’s effectively a 13-week ‘peaking’ programme to increase your squat – which is said to increase by over 20kg if you do the programme properly (and don’t get hurt).
It consists of an introduction cycle, base cycle, switching cycle, and intensity cycle (each phase is a different length and carries different instructions in terms of frequency, volume, and intensity). The programme requires regular squatting at varying (generally high) percentages of your 1RM. For example during the base cycle you’ll be squatting 4x/week for 3 weeks. 4 sets of 9 reps Monday, 5×7 Wednesday, 7×5 Friday, and 10×3 reps Saturday.
To see the programme, visit http://stronglifts.com/how-to-add-100-pounds-to-your-squat-smolov/ – there’s information on a lot of different programmes on there, great resource.
Should I try it?
As far as I’m concerned there’s only a small population who can realistically justify use of the Smolov routine.
First off – do you have excellent squat technique?
If your squat resembles a good morning, you’ve never felt what ‘breaking parallel’ feels like, or you’ve got the biggest butt wink anyones ever seen, then I’m afraid you should NOT be trying to build up your squat. Fix your technique and get mobile first – maybe hire a qualified coach to teach you, or see my post about the technical model for the back squat here.
Secondly – are you an intermediate or advanced lifter?
If you’re brand new to training (beginner) then improvements in strength/power within the first (supposedly up to) 20 weeks are largely due to neuromuscular adaptations –i.e. you may get stronger without seeing any noticeable increases in muscle mass. These adaptations include improved motor unit firing frequency, synchronisation, and recruitment. I’d be lying if I said beginners would see no improvements…but they’d see improvements following something like 5×5 for 13 weeks as well, which is incidentally far less taxing and carries much less risk of injury (particularly in this lesser trained population).
If you’ve been training regularly a little longer (i.e. six months or so) your squats looking good and you’ve added a few kilos/pounds to it, then I’m sorry, but you’re still basically a beginner. At this stage progressive overload (consistent training with gradually increasing loads) will enable you to get stronger and bigger – think 5×5, 5,3,1, or starting strength.
How do you know if/when you’re an intermediate/advanced lifter? Well I’d personally suggest (along with having excellent technique) that being able to squat at least 2x your bodyweight is a good determinant of this (more to be classed as advanced). If you fall into this category it may be time to consider use of the programme.
Finally, does your sport require you to have a big squat?
This is my final criteria – is it worth even doing the programme? Do you NEED to get a bigger squat?
If you’re a not a weightlifter/powerlifter/strongman/(maybe) bodybuilder then you probably don’t (or at least I’m sure you can get a little stronger using less intense, drawn out, single minded methods).
My reason for this – realistically how much extra direct transfer does it actually have to the sport itself? If you’re a rugby player and can squat 200kg/440lb, how much better a rugby player will you actually be if you can squat 210kg (and spend weeks and weeks doing it)?. That strength may not transfer to the sport. A lot of the best rugby players I’ve worked with have been in the middle group in their club when it comes to squatting, it’s not worth wasting the time and risking injury to get them a tiny bit stronger.
So what’s going wrong here? Nothing, besides being weak and not requiring the kind of intense stimulus that the Smolov routine provides. When I last ran Smolov (the base cycle only) I saw improvements (more so to my deadlift as opposed to my squat) and found I gained a fair bit of mass, I was squatting a little over 2x bodyweight at this time. I’d recommend trying the base cycle first, or even Smolov Jr (an adapted version of the routine).
If you’re going to do the full Smolov:
– EAT…A LOT. You probably won’t be eating cleanly, you’ll need the calories for recovery.
– Get at least eight hours sleep each night, consider supplementing ZMA to help.
– Recover – foam roll, stretch, regular baths, sports massage if you can get it – you’ll break otherwise.
– Minimise other training, particularly lower body, you just won’t be able to tolerate the load. Don’t worry though, your legs are getting more than enough training. Train upper body, but don’t go crazy – maybe just bench and a rowing variant.
– Get out of the gym – don’t spend long in there, short and sharp workouts. You’ll begin to hate it otherwise.
– Warm up properly. Enough said.
– Supplement – creatine, fish oil, glutamine, additional protein, etc. Give yourself a fighting chance.