Developing leg strength for Weightlifting

Following a predetermined “squat program” for a number of weeks has always been a popular methodology for developing leg strength and over the decades there have been numerous examples promoted as “Russian Squat Programs” as a means to gain leg strength fast. But such leg strength programs work and they safe? What is the risk of injury? This article aims to provide the advantages and disadvantages of Russian Squat programs and in particular to warn enthusiasts of possible issues that are likely to occur. 10 Principles for developing leg strength is offered at the end of this article.

Russian Squat Program

Here is the infamous “Russian Squat Program” devised in the 1970’s.

Wk1 Wk2 Wk3 Wk4 Wk5 Wk6
Session1 80%/2*6 80%/4*6 80%/2*6 85%/5*5 80%/2*6 100%/2*2
Session2 80%/3*6 80%/2*6 80%/6*6 80%/2*6 95%/3*3 80%/2*6
Session3 80%/2*6 80%/5*6 80%/2*6 90%/4*4 80%/2*6 105%/1*1

In the above program, the approach taken is to use 6 sets of 2 reps at 80% of maximum squat as the base training intensity. There are 9 sessions (half of all sessions) where this intensity applies. Following each of these base intensity sessions, the program user is challenged to push very hard to higher levels of stress. The aim of the program is to increase leg strength by 5% after 18 sessions (6 weeks).

In short, the program is incredibly hard – don’t try it! To survive this program, just about every factor would have to working in favour of the athlete. In reality, striking out to achieve a 5% improvement in just 6 weeks is very inadvisable, crazy even.

Smolov Squat Routine

The Smolov Squat Program is presently in vogue within the Crossfit community. If you Google the phrase “Smolov Squat Routine” you will find any number of websites promising substantial increases in leg strength and warning you that the program is very hard and only for experienced athletes.

The total duration of the Smolov routine is more reasonable at 13 weeks, although there are shorter variations. It is highly structured and includes 5 phases:

  • Introductory Microcycle (2 weeks)
  • Base Mesocycle (4 weeks)
  • Switching (2 weeks)
  • Intense Mesocycle (4 weeks)
  • Taper (1 week)

One of the good aspects of this program is that it recognises the need to include a 2 week period of recovery (the Switching cycle). Even better, that this middle phase focusses on speed and explosive movement. All too often, athletes do not make much effort to accelerate out of squats and are just happy to get past the sticking point and complete the rep.

It is interesting though that many advocates of the Smolov program advise that you start off by subtracting 5-10 kilos below your personal best, so that you can survive the program. If this sounds like the program could be excessively hard to you, it certainly does to me! This seems to fit the Crossfit ethos, where “destroying yourself” is a phrase I regularly hear. But for most athletes, destroying yourself is not an option. Instead training is about careful consistent effort over long periods of time to gradually adapt to increasing levels of stress, and always to be mindful of the need for recovery to avoid injury.

Nevertheless there is something to be said for a highly structured program such as the Smolov routine  The first-time user will likely be very motivated and will expect the program to work, that is they will successfully complete the program. This psychological aspect of the program is very important.

However, the disadvantages significantly outweigh the advantages. The main disadvantage in following squat programs, in general, is that there is no inbuilt flexibility to cater for individual difference. For example, there will differences among athletes in regard to flexibility, control of body position, fitness and experience.

Smolov: Introductory Microcycle (2 weeks)

In all likelihood, the Introductory Microcycle will be relatively easy to accomplish. If you are coming in from a lay off, you might be a bit sore (delayed onset muscle soreness), after 1st two days and if so, it would be inadvisable to push to 90%/1 on Day 3.

Week 1

Day 1: 65%/8*3 70%/5*1 75%/2*2 80%/1*1
Day 2: 65%/8*3 70%/5*1 75%/2*2 80%/1*1
Day 3: 70%/5*4 75%/3*1 80%/2*2 90%/1*1
Day 4-6:   “Scissor” Barbell Squats or Lunges

Week 2

This week is marginally challenging and consists of working up in sets of 5 reps to one set at the stated intensity. Possibly Day 3, performing 85% for 5 reps, may be a little difficult after your efforts on Day 1 and Day 2, but you will probably get through this week.

Day

Sets

Rep

Percentage of 1RM

Day 1 1 5 80%
Day 2 1 5 82.5%
Day 3 1 5 85%

Smolov: Base Mesocycle (4 weeks)

In the 4 week Base Mesocycle, the Smolov routine requires squatting four days a week, except in the final week in which there are only two ultra heavy sessions.

Week

Monday

Wednesday

Friday

Saturday

1 70%/9×4 75%/7×5 80%/5×7 85%/3×10
2 (70%+10Kg)/9×4 (75%+10Kg)/7×5 (80%+10Kg)/5×7 (85%+10Kg)/3×10
3 (70%+15Kg)/9×4 (75%+15Kg)/7×5 (80%+15Kg)/5×7 (85%+15Kg)/3×10
4 Rest Rest work up to a max single work up to a near max single

In each of the first 3 weeks of the Base Mesocyle, there is significant variation in intensity and reps per set on daily basis. Variation of intensity is generally considered to be a useful factor that provides a good stimulus for strength development on heaviest days and an opportunity for recovery on lighter days. The Base Mesocycle is also about high rep sets in the majority of sessions. In principle, high rep sets (Mon -9 reps, Wed – 7 reps, Fri -5 reps) is a recognised way to promote muscle hypertrophy, and as a long-term aim, hypertrophy is a necessary part of developing leg strength.

What is worrying about the Base Mesocycle is the expectation that all intensities can be raised in week 2 and then again in week 3. It is fair enough to aim for a high intensity on the heaviest day of the week but not every day. An important principle to bear in mind is that as one pushes on to higher intensity, greater fatigue will result. Therefore, it becomes increasingly important not to raise the intensity of the lightest days of the week so as to allow for recovery.

Smolov: Switching Phase (2 weeks)

This phase, in which intensity is reduced to 60%, is worthy of merit. The phase serves as a 2 week recovery cycle and the routine encourages the athlete to focus on dynamic, fast, explosive movement out of the bottom of the squat. Furthermore, the program also recommends doing other dynamic leg exercises such as box jumps and other plyometric exercises. Most of the commentary on the internet about the Smolov program does not quantify any volume of work for each session. Therefore, readers might consider that 30 lifts (6 sets of 5 reps) is a sufficient critical mass. This number of sets also includes all warm-up sets i.e. 6 sets in total.

This phase raises two important questions:

  1. What about performing squats with a dynamic/fast movement out of the squat in other weeks of the program when performing warm-up sets up to 60%? Particularly for athletes engaging in Olympic Weightlifting training, it would be useful to work on speed of the concentric (movement up) phase in most sessions. One of my constant worries about the majority of Weightlifters is that they really don’t think about speed of movement often enough.
  2. Would it be beneficial to include box jumps and/or other explosive plyometric exercises into the training regimen during other weeks of the program? In fact, is it beneficial to include plyometric exercises in training most of the year round? For athletes engaging in Olympic Weightlifting, this is certainly worthy of consideration.

Smolov: Intense Mesocycle

The Intense Mesocycle is a 3-days per week hard slog schedule with 10 out of 12 sessions requiring an intensity of 90% or greater. If you bear in mind that 85% for 5 reps is a very hard set, then the ridiculousness of this phase and this routine may become apparent. Possibly this routine was devised in the expectation that users would also be doping with anabolic steroids or other anabolic agents and this is, of course, totally out of the question. The consequences to the individual of being caught are devastating and life long.

So take a look a close look at this “Intense Mesocyle” and realise that 90%/5*5 or 95%/3×4 is really fantasy land and just like the Russian Squat program above – don’t try it! Instead read the advice below on what it takes to develop stronger legs.

Week

Day

1 Day 1 65%/3 75%/4 85%/4×3 85%/5
Day 2 60%/3 70%/3 80%/4 90%/3 85%/5×2
Day 3 65%/4 70%/4 80%/4×5
2 Day 1 60%/4 70%/4 80%/4 90%/4×2
Day 2 65%/3 75%/3 85%/3 90%/3×3 95%/3
Day 3 65%/3 75%/3 85%/4 90%/5×4
3 Day 1 60%/3 70%/3 80%/3 90%/5×5
Day 2 60%/3 70%/3 80%/3 95%/3×2
Day 3 65%/3 75%/3 85%/3 95%/3×4
4 Day 1 70%/3 80%/4 90%/5×5
Day 2 70%/3 80%/3 95%/3×4
Day 3 75%/3 90%/4 80%/4×3

Smolov: Taper Cycle

The taper cycle is really a period or rest before the day on which you attempt to reap all the rewards of the Smolov routine and max out on your squat. At least the Smolov routine does recognise the need for periods of recovery (Switching Cycle and Taper Cycle)!

Leg Strength Development in the Real World

Hopefully you now have some understanding that predetermined squat programs are just figures on a piece of paper and more dangerous than you can imagine.

What athletes need instead of a “secret formula for success” is a set of principles by which they can make sensible decisions about their training whenever needed. So here goes!

  1. Accept that excellence is only achieved after many years of training with high levels of motivation and constant learning. There are no shortcuts, no secret formulas.
  2. Improvement requires consistent training to be achieved. Consistency will be lost if you suffer injury. Learn why injuries occur and learn to listen to what your body is telling you. Don’t try to ignore the tell-tale signs of injury.
  3. Injuries will occur far more frequently if your technique and form is poor. Work constantly to improve flexibility, control and body position at all stages of the movement. When athletes crash at the bottom of their squats or persist with a heavy bounce style, the likelihood of patella tendonitis increases significantly.
  4. If you think you may just have injured yourself -STOP! Don’t do a few more sets to confirm your suspicions. If you stop straightaway and the next day it proves to be a false alarm, you have lost only one session. If your suspicions were correct, by stopping straight away you may save days/weeks of lost training time with improved injury recovery.
  5. Recovery is a key aspect of training. Think of strength training as including two processes – a breakdown and a build-up. Heavy training causes a breakdown of protein in muscle tissue, and rebuilding occurs during sleep and periods of rest. Frequent heavy training with inadequate rest and recovery may cause your form to go backwards.
  6. Learn about good nutrition as this will assist your recovery from training.
  7. Your training program should include a variety of intensities. You need high intensity work as a stimulus to provoke adaptation but you also need light intensity (70% or lighter) work to help the recovery process. Training programs that pile on pressure such as the Smolov Squat Routine with successive 90% intensity sessions, will take a major toll on recovery.
  8. Keep a log and monitor you training. The more you can learn about yourself, your strengths and weaknesses, the further you will go. From the observations of yourself, as recorded in your training log, try to piece together knowledge about your own training processes.
  9. Try to find ways to push the boundaries of what you can achieve in training but don’t think just about the weight on the bar. Can you be more productive in your training sessions? Can you learn to focus on your training instead of the environment around you? Can you slowly increment the volume of work done in a session? Can you improve your technique?
  10. If you can, find an experienced coach who can provide you with feedback. As much as it is important to develop self-knowledge, it is also good to obtain objective feedback. Athletes need to be imbued with optimism about what they can achieve, but an experienced coach will help you set realistic goals.