My Smolov front squat training

Due to a broken finger, I was really limited in what I could do. For the first couple of weeks I focused on back squats. Because my grip was the limiting factor I worked on increasing reps, rather than weight for these. I was not able to front squat at all.

As soon as I felt able (roughly 3.5 weeks after the injury) I began front squatting again. I was worried how I’d cope having not front squatted for about a month and, as expected, I was rusty. I thought, what better way to get back into front squats than by following the Smolov routine for a few weeks?

The way I saw it, it would give me a chance to work on my form (with such high volume of squatting) and gain back some of the strength I had probably lost. I still don’t feel entirely confident in lifting heavy weights using my hands, so upper body work has been limited to high rep presses. I thought that if I did Smolov, I could focus on my legs until I felt fully confident again to use my hands and grip properly.

I’ll eventually get back to heavy Olympic lifting but – in the mean time – I think all I can do is keep my front squats up and work on my technique and speed for the snatch/clean/jerk with the empty bar.

I’ve done Smolov for front squats before so it’s not new to me. As suggested everywhere, I lowered my 1RM by a little (5kg – to accommodate for not only the intense training that was to come(!) but also for the fact I’d suffered an injury and hadn’t front squatted for nearly 4 weeks prior to this).

I’ll use this post to track how each session goes and update it as I do it.

Since I am used to high volume leg training (cleans, snatches, overhead squats, back squats and front squats 6x per week) and had been back squatting frequently before starting Smolov, I didn’t do the introductory phase. I went straight to the Base Mesocycle.

Base Mesocycle – Week 1

Day 1: 4×9 @ 70%

Having not front squatted for nearly a month other than a couple of days to just get back into it/see how they felt a couple of days before I started Smolov, I considered this to be my first ‘real’ day of front squat training since my finger injury.

The squats felt a bit rusty in the upper body/grip as I haven’t been used to racking the bar. Luckily, the high number of repetitions helped me re-learn this position. At 70% of my 1RM, the weight felt manageable, but I’m not really used to doing more than 5 reps for front squats so the 9 reps made it a challenge! I think having spent a month focussing on high rep (11 or 12) back squats had increased my leg endurance. 9 wasn’t too bad on the legs, but my core and hands found it difficult.

I got through the 4×9 day ok. The first set was hardest. Rest was roughly the same between each set (4-5 minutes). I was breathing heavily between sets.

Day 2: 5×7 @ 75%

I did this the next day. I had abs DOMS (probably because I hadn’t front squatted in so long!). The abs DOMS made the first set feel hard but by set two I was used to it. Set one was harder than the others. 5 sets didn’t feel overkill (I am used to doing 5 sets of 5) but I really felt the volume of the 7 reps on this day.  Rest was around 4-5 minutes per set.

This day was slightly harder than day 1. My grip/rack position is good again.

After the squats, I did some Olympic lifting for the first time since my injury – hang power cleans and hang cleans with the empty bar.

Day 3: 7×5 @ 80%

I will say that this day felt easier than the previous two. This was the third consecutive day of front squats. My abs were still sore. Rest between sets ranged from 3-5 minutes. The lower rep range felt more comfortable on my upper body. I didn’t have any problems on this day – squats felt really good! No comment on the 7 sets… you just do what you’ve got to do! I just ticked them off!

Again, I followed the squats with some hang power cleans, hang cleans and hang snatches with the bar.

Day 4: 10×3 @ 85%

Woke up with no soreness today so I was ready to go! First set felt really good. Although 10 sets seemed like a lot, I didn’t need as much rest between sets on this day as I had needed on the other days. Rest between sets was around 2-3 minutes. Took time to strongly re-focus between each rep and take a deep breath.

No problems today at all other than now feeling very worried about the 4×9 of week 2, lol.

Base Mesocycle – Week 2

Day 1: 4×9 @ 70% +5kg

I was wondering whether to add 2.5kg or 5kg. Because I am female, it is advisable to add less than what the standard Smolov calls for (which is 10kg). That 10kg increment would be far too much of a jump for me, as my 1RM is probably a lot less than what it would be for a man of a similar bodyweight.

I felt good today so I added 5kg. Remember 1) at the start I made my 1RM at least 5kg lower than I suspected it truly was and 2) that I’m recovering from an injury, so at this point I feel if I feel like I can then I should push myself as much as I can.

I was worried about doing these because 9 rep front squats are challenging on my core. These lifts were OK though. Set 1 was the hardest – but that was probably because I was daunted at the prospect of having to cope with another 3 sets! Set 2 felt better. All sets looked consistent to my spotter.

Recovery between sets was fast and I was short of my breath for about 30 seconds after each set. Rest between sets today was 2-3 minutes between sets 1 and 2 and 2 and 3 and 4 minutes between sets 3 and 4. From reading back, it seems like I’m getting fitter/more used to front squats since I was nowhere near as breathless today as I was for the previous day 1/week 1.

Visibly, this session appeared easier than the previous 10×3 session. I am not sure it was. At this point, I am finding no session harder than another. I’ll keep updating.

I did some dumbbell rows (I think dumbbells are really good rehab for my finger/hand!) and some Olympic lifting with the empty bar at the end of the session.

Day 2: 5×7 @ 75% +5kg

Was nervous about this session as the work load psychologically appeared a lot more than the day before. In my head, lifting 5kg more for one more set and just two fewer reps, sounded like a lot of work.

Sets funny enough went very well. Rest between sets one and two and two and three were 3 minutes. I took 5 minutes between sets three and four and four and five (mentally, I felt I needed this time in order to be able to complete the reps). Set four was the easiest of all of them. There was a big nervous psyching and re-focus before I did set five!

I recovered quickly between sets (breathless for around 30 seconds only).

At this point I still can’t tell you which day has been the “hardest.” In truth, they’re all very similar in terms of effort exerted – but very different too. I made a promise to myself that next time I run Smolov I’ll record results in a table with the following data: total time of set, time between sets, feeling during set, feeling after set! That should make for interesting reading. 🙂

Finished this session with strict presses and dumbbell presses (good rehab for my hand) and some bar Oly lifts.

Day 3: 7×5 @ 80% + 5kg

Today is the first time I feel I can say this has been the easiest day so far. And having looked back up this post, I can see that I thought day 3 of week 1 was quite easy too!

The 5 reps is just enough really – I think anything higher than 5 feels harder for me, even if the weight the lighter. Each set lasted the same amount of time (20 seconds) and my breathing took 45 minutes to return to normal after sets one, two, three and four and five and slightly longer after the last two sets. Time between sets was 2.5-3 minutes (so quite short really!) and I took 4-5 minutes of rest before attempting sets six and seven – this was mostly for mental preparation rather than physical. The hardest sets were two and seven.

I felt nervous before set one (as I always do) as the feel of set one is a sure sign of how the rest of the sets are going to feel. Set one was good, so I felt confident going into set two. Set two felt good, so set three felt good… etc.

Finished with pull ups (good rehab) and Olympic lifts.

Day 4: 10×3 @ 85% + 5kg

Went into this session feeling focused. As usual, the 10 sets appears daunting. Just before I racked the bar to begin set one, all I could think about was the marathon number of sets I had to get through!

Weight on the bar felt manageable throughout the workout. No set felt harder than any other, apart from set seven where I think I lost a bit of mental focus. Time of each set was around 10-15 seconds. Rest between sets started at 2 minutes after set one, three minutes for the next five and then 3.5 minutes for the last few. I’ve noticed I tend to take more rest towards the end of the session – this is because 1) I’m quite tired by then and 2) I use the time to mentally psyche to ensure I complete the sets and hence complete the workout!

The total time of this squat session was around half an hour.

Base Mesocycle – Week 3

Day 1: 4×9 @ 70% +7.5kg

I can now say, having been paying a lot more attention to how each workout has felt recently, this was a challenging, hard session. 9 reps is a lot of reps, let alone doing that four times. Three out of the four sets felt “hard”, set two felt “slightly easier.” Lower back felt stiff today.

For these, when I do a set, I am aiming for rep five. When I get to rep five, I tell myself “over half way – only four more to go.” I pause for a bit at the top and psyche myself up again in order to get through the remaining reps. The 4×9 is a mental workout, although my core really feels it too.

I find that I prefer (needed) to take more rest between sets for this session. My rest time was between 3 and 4 minutes and 4.5 minutes for the last set. Although breathing went back to normal quite quickly, I still found every set very hard.

Finished with bent over rows and Olympic lifts.

Strength for front squats means strength for other exercises

Over the past 16 weeks or so, I have been working very hard on front squats = front squatting two times per week. I have used various rep ranges during this time and am currently reaping the results. This is what I have been doing:

Phase 1 (weeks 1-10)

Day 1: 3×8 front squats

Day 4: 8×3 front squats

This phase was actually, looking back, a technique building phase. It is not usually recommended to do front squats for high reps because the back tends to tire before the legs do and you can thoracic flexion (upper back rounding). My problem with cleans has always been that my upper back collapses, causing me to fail to squat the weight up purely because I did not have the core strength to keep my torso very upright. For the first 5 weeks or so, 8 reps of front squats was incredibly difficult for this reason – my upper back tended to round on the last couple of reps. I can happily say however, that by week 6, I had noticed a great improvement in my form. I was able to maintain good posture for the entire 8 reps/3 sets. I put this down to: increased strength, increased frequency of doing the movement and, the high time under tension that the upper body muscles have to be in when front squatting for 8 repetitions.

The 3×8 session was complemented with the 8×3 session. I went as heavy as I could with good form for 3 reps, and repeated 8 times. It may interest you to understand that, for the first 5 weeks of doing this, the weight difference between that used for the 3×8 and that used for the 8×3 was not much – because I was limited by my upper back strength. My focus on the 8×3 day was technique, not pushing all out 3 RMs. I focused on keeping the whole body tight, keeping my knees out and elbows up, and breathing.

By the time I got to week 8 of training these two sessions, I had plateaued with the 3×8 but my form had improved greatly for both 3×8 and 8×3. I decided to keep in the 3×8 and just carry on with the weights I had been doing (going up as and when I felt I could) but now to focus on strength for the other session. I reduced reps from 8×3 to 8×2 and used the 8×2 session to really get in some heavy weight with good form. I was able to maintain good form for 2 reps, which would have been a bit harder to do with 3 reps. The 3×8 day was focusing on the maintenance of good upper body posture and the 8×2 was focusing on lifting bigger numbers. By week 8, the difference in weight used between the 3×8 day and the 8×2 day was significant.

After a couple more weeks, the 3×8 wasn’t really getting any easier and I wasn’t going up in weight. The plateau wasn’t good for my self esteem so I decided to change the programme and came up with the next phase…

Phase 2 (weeks 11-14)

Day 1: 5×5 front squats

Day 4: 8×1 front squats

As you can see, day 1 is now very different. I have actually never had any success with the 5×5 scheme in all the years I’ve been training but I thought I would give it another try… I started out using the same weight that I had been using for the 3×8 for the 5×5. Doing 3 less reps felt much easier but the 5 sets still felt like a lot of work to get through. Again, I was focusing on good form for a challenging amount of weight. I never deliberately use the same weight for all sets on the 5×5, I base the weight to use on how easy/manageable the previous set was and I always try to do more than I did the week before. I go up very slowly however. I might do 4 sets at X kg and then the last set at X+1 kg. The following week, I will probably do 3 sets at X kg and 2 sets at X+1 kg. This is typically how I like to train and I feel it works very well for me.

The 8×2 was getting hard before, so I dropped it down to 8×1 and focused on getting high quality one repetitions 8 times. I was able to get the weight up fast using the 8×1 method. It was a lot less daunting only having to focus on 1 rep at a time!

It did not take long for the 5×5 weight used to go up. I was going up in weight every week consistently, supported by lifting a much heavier weight once x8 on the other day. I started to think that the 8×1 was an ‘easy way out’ because it was such low volume at this point so I changed the programme once again to something which allowed me to do 1 rep sets but in a different way…

Phase 4 (weeks 15 onwards)

Day 1: 5×5 front squats

Day 4: 54321 front squats

Day 4 was a very interesting programme! If you have not heard of it, it basically means you do 5 sets and in set 1 you do 5 reps, in set 2 you do 4 reps, set 3 is 3 reps, set 4 is 2 reps and set 5 is 1 rep. In a way it is a pyramid style of training. You put the weight up for each set. I have only been doing this for the last 3 weeks so it’s new to me but so far it has been very fun to do! I like it particularly because, there are fewer reps as the sets go on and they seem manageable because I don’t put the weight increment up by very much each time so it almost seems like I am lifting the same weight fewer times, which is very easy psychologically! Since front squats are a very unnatural exercise for me due to my poor posture (hunch back), I always focus primarily on technique and upper back rigidity and uprightness, before anything else. So I choose the right weight to allow me to maintain this form.

I am finding that having two days of 5 set front squats is a lot of volume but I know my body and I work well with lots of volume.

 

The point of this article was to actually explain the carryover from all this front squatting I’ve been doing. Now I’ve read in lots of different places that front squats don’t tend to carryover to back squat strength. For me, I disagree. My back squat weight has gone up significantly after all this work on the front squats. I am back squatting once a week in addition to front squatting twice a week and I definitely feel stronger in the back squat (and the numbers show it!). Not only has my back squat got stronger, my clean and jerk, and my clean and jerk separately, have all got stronger too. I imagine that practising the upright posture of the front squat for lots of reps and lots of sets over a long period of time (several months now), has really carried over to the start position for the jerk, probably due to strong abdominal muscles and a very rigid torso. My rack position has obviously also been getting a lot of practice and I no longer have any issues with elbow position or elbows dropping. My elbows feel tight, up and strong.

I am extremely happy with all the work I’ve been doing and the results are really showing. At the moment, I have no issues with my front squat – I am getting stronger every week, form is excellent at the moment, and other exercises have improved as a consequence of all the front squatting. I think I finally understand and agree with what lots of sporting experts say when they say that the front squat is a great athletic exercise and can make you a good all round athlete.

The ultimate fix for knee valgus

It has taken me around 6 or 7 years of squatting multiple times per week to find this out. I have tried and tested lots of different things. I had given up hope that knee valgus was just my anatomy and it was something that could never be fixed. But I believe I have finally found the remedy. Spotters who watch me squat have noticed a massive improvement in the behaviour and movement of my knees.

Here is what has worked for me, better than any other method I have tried…

Increased squatting

I don’t believe there’s any such thing as too much squatting, if you know what you’re doing. In the last three months I have been squatting five times per week (a combination of back, front and overhead) and my body has adapted to this.

I have also changed my programming. Since I am a strength athlete, I have spent the last couple of years prioritising heavy squats such as in the 5×5 programme. I hadn’t gone over 5 reps until three months ago. I stopped 5 rep squatting and instead, I have changed things around and now I’m doing 4×8-10 twice a week. The weight is less but the overall volume is more (5×5 is 25 reps compared to 4×10 which is 40 or 4×8 which is 32) and the total  amount of weight lifted per session is about the same. Not only has this increased rep and set training improved my mental toughness and cardiovascular endurance, it has given me enough chances to really focus on my form and my knees.

Glute medius activation

I always knew my glute medius was responsible for the knee valgus, to some extent, however until three months ago I had not worked out the optimal way to activate it. I had tried a lot of things – clam shells, monster mini band walks, side raises, etc. You want to know what has finally made a difference? Weighted side leg raises. Before squatting, I always lie on the floor, hold a heavy weight plate on my outside thigh, and lift my leg up slowly and then down until I feel my glute medius burning. I repeat on the other leg. I vary how I do them – some days I’ll do 2 or 3 sets of say 20 lifts per leg (just before they fatigue) and other days I’ll just go all out max until I can’t do any more. Sometimes I’ll hold at the top for 10 seconds as well. 

image from http://www.pinterest.com/pin/280138039296841010/

image from http://www.pinterest.com/pin/280138039296841010/

The image above illustrates how to do this exercise but, if you want to do what I do, hold a weight plate just above your knee to stress the glute medius even more.

These two things have helped me more than anything else ever has in reducing my knee valgus. I’ve also done some other things but I can’t tell you whether they’ve done much, these two listed here are the only two I’ve carried on doing consistently.

Other things I have done:

  • Squat with ‘duck feet’, i.e. point toes out very wide. Some people disagree with this but if your hips are internally rotated too much then you need to compensate with toes out extremely wide. This position makes it much harder for the knees to move in. You can try it yourself – squat with normal feet vs toes very wide and make your knees cave each time. Do you notice a difference?
  • Squat with knees together. You can do some warm up sets like this. If you squat with your thighs together then your knees have nowhere to collapse to since they are already touching. It’ll feel weird at first but this is a good exercise that hit the inner quads.

I really hope these tips help you. I would love to know. The key is however, consistency. You have to maintain these exercises over a period of time (ideally, months). I am still doing them and I plan to continue doing them until the time comes (if it ever does!!!) when I can trust my knees to behave themselves on their own!

Breaking down the front squat into its quarters

I go through phases of finding one out of the three classic movements (the snatch and the clean and jerk separately) most difficult. I am going to talk a bit about the clean today – or more specifically – the front squat part of the clean.

If you have been following the blog, I have previously talked about having a relatively weak front squat that was holding back my clean progress, which led me to do the Smolov squat routine. I had some gains briefly during and after Smolov but they didn’t last and two months later I was still struggling with the front squat, although not all was lost because my technique had improved massively. It was only after Smolov that I realised how ‘un-optimal’ my front squat form had previously been, whereas I used to think it rocked. Lol

So anyway, I have been playing with my front squats a bit more and the last few weeks I have been training its “quarter” movements. Some people have a problem with quarter squatting but, if you are an advanced lifter, the quarter squat has its place. Only when you exclusively quarter squat is there a real problem. Continue reading

Throwing the bar up in the jerk

I’m going through a time where the jerks are hard, hence this post. I wonder if you have been watching the Commonwealth Games weightlifting? If so, you will notice that the majority of athletes who fail their clean and jerk execute a successful clean but then lose the jerk. How frustrating for them.

As a beginner to Olympic lifting, I always thought the jerk was some sort of “shoulder press with the legs splitting like a lunge” lol. It is not this – at all. One thing I’ve learned about Olympic lifting over the years is that the terminology you use to describe the actions has a big impact on how you execute those actions. Continue reading

The proper way to Snatch High Pull

alis snatch high pull

Anyone who Olympic lifts knows that it is a continuous learning process and that there is always something you can do to get better at it. I also do believe that if you don’t practice a lift enough, you won’t get better at it.

Common “weaknesses” of my snatch have always been the tendency for the barbell to swing out in front of my body and a failure to complete triple extension. These are different problems but they are very much linked. After all, the perfect snatch is one smooth lift and not the individual components that make up that single lift. This means that every component will have an impact on the rest. You know the drill, a poor snatch set up position will almost guarantee a failed – or very messy – lift.

In this post I want to focus on the second pull, how that links to the failure to complete triple extension, and the proper way to snatch high pull (which is, in essence, the second pull in the snatch). Continue reading

Zercher squats for Olympic lifting?

For a good clean, you need a strong core (read about core muscles here). In the clean, once the barbell has been pulled from the floor (first pull) to shoulders (second pull) and is caught in the deep squat position (third pull), you will not be able to ascend unless your core can handle it.

The primary “core” muscles I am talking about for this blog post are abdominals, erector spinae and the latissimus dorsi, although of course all of them come into play.

If you’ve been following this blog, you will know that I have a tendency to round my upper back when coming up out of the deep front squat position. It feels like my abdominals are folding and my back caves with it. In a failed clean, I will lose the bar because of this. I just won’t have the strength to come up from the squat or, the bar will just fall forward off my shoulders.

What are Zercher squats?

Coach and me decided to incorporate Zercher squats (link to video demonstration) into my programme to help with this core strength. More specifically, the core strength required dynamically when coming up out of the deep squat position. There are lots of exercises you can do to improve your core strength, but the Zercher seems perfect because a) it is a squat and b) the weight is held in front of your body just like in a clean and c) it’s less taxing on the legs due to the weight being lighter. The Zercher basically allows us to train explosiveness with our legs because the weight is lighter so we can focus on our speed and glute power (Zerchers also allow us to squat deep with more ease) and allows us to train our core muscles with a weight heavy enough to really tax them.

How do the benefits transfer across to the clean in Olympic weightlifting?

Because the weight is held at your stomach, your centre of gravity is lower, so Zercher squats force you to keep a very, very stable core. Your upper back, mid back and abs must be braced throughout the movement. They also encourage you to better manage, or optimise, your breathing. For example, the only way I can complete a good rep for a Zercher squat is by inhaling at the start of the movement and not exhaling until I am back up again. By holding your breath* you are keeping a solid, stable structure to lift the weight efficiently.

*Although some people advise against holding your breath whilst lifting, I enforce it.

A strong, stable core is imperative to help you get out of that bottom squat position in the clean. I’ve also read that Zerchers are one of the best ways of improving your deadlift, which, in my mind, will also transfer across to the first pull in the clean.

Try it and let me know how you get on. One thing I will say is to use a heavy duty barbell pad (!!) to wrap around the bar because when the weight gets heavy, Zercher squats can really hurt your biceps! 

york heavy duty barbell pad

How weightlifting complements my autism

snatch bottom

Weightlifting has become my favourite thing in the world. It is the best sport for “an autistic” person. I like it because it is solitary. It is not really a team sport, although it can be if you choose it to be, the contribution from other people are not necessary. When I am lifting weights, it is just me and the barbell. The whole world disappears. Because it is not dependent on other people, it is totally within my control when I want to do it. I can do it at any time of the day, which suits my routine-driven lifestyle. If I have an unusually busy day I can easily reschedule weightlifting in order to fit it in. For example, once I even did weightlifting at 3am because I was going to be out the whole day.

Weightlifting is an inexpensive sport. You can do it in a gym (a 24 hour gym would be ideal for those who want to do it at a time to suit them with no restrictions) but I like to train at home. Once you have bought the barbell and the weight plates, in theory you are good to go. You can buy a barbell and set of weight plates for as little as £700 and they will last you a lifetime.

I like weightlifting because it is my way of meditating. It has become as essential for my daily wellbeing as someone else might prioritise meditation or going to church. The movements are very specific and controlled and breathing is carried out carefully so you could say it was relaxing.

Weightlifting is as technical as it is strength-based, which is good for someone like me or the many autistic people who have technical and mathematical minds. Even if you are very strong, you might not be able to do a Snatch or a Clean and Jerk, simply because you haven’t got the technique. You are limited or challenged as much by your ability to focus and learn the movements, as you are by your strength, if not more so.

For someone with autism who enjoys repetitive behaviours and movements, weightlifting is ideal. There are only two movements. You can study endlessly on the internet how to improve your technique. Even the Olympic athletes are continually working on their technique. Technique is never perfect.

Weightlifting is my way of relieving anxiety. I can let go of all my inhibitions and stress when I am with my barbell. It is a way of releasing excess energy, which for me is often manifested as anxiety. It’s exercise which means you get a rush of endorphins during and after, which makes you feel wonderful for the rest of the day (one reason why I like exercising in the morning!). As somebody who lives in a constant state of anxiety, it is very important for me that I have found a way to get rid of some of that. Weightlifting definitely does that.

I like how easy it is to monitor and track progress with weightlifting. Because it’s mostly numbers based, it is easy to observe how the weight on the bar changes as the days pass. Like anything, practise makes perfect, so if I’m struggling on a particular lift I will train it over and over and sure enough, if you compare the weights lifted before and after, you’d see an increase. That’s really motivating. The creative part of lifting lies not only in the execution of the lifts, but also the tailoring of the programme to meet individual goals. It is very creative deciding which exercises are to go on each day and why.

Weightlifting is typically performed in sets and reps. So, for those who enjoy repetitive movements, it is ideal. For example, if you’re performing a 5 repetition set, that means you get to do the same movement five times. And this happens day in and day out. For this reason weightlifting is not for everybody. I have even heard professional lifters say that sessions can sometimes be “same-y” and “boring.” But I like it. It’s never boring for me. And seeing progress over time makes it the most exciting thing in the world.

Having strength or a fit appearance can also do wonders for an individual’s self esteem. Not only have I got some nice muscles, it’s also pretty cool to be able to do daring things such as squat whilst holding a barbell with straight arms above my head. And not many adults I know can do handstands. Weightlifting is impressive and good for self-esteem.

I track my progress on a whiteboard. I have a long list of exercises and each has a “1 rep max” “5 rep max” and “3 rep max.” Because there is such a long list of exercises and each exercise has three potential opportunities for maxing, it is likely that every session gets a record. This is very rewarding and motivating and is good for people who are goal-orientated. You can come out of the gym feeling as though you have accomplished something every single time.

Although weightlifting is technical, I’d be inclined to say that it is both a creative art and a science. The scientist is drawn to it as though it were an experiment. It has a beginning, middle and end and it is the middle that is the experiment. The middle can be manipulated in order to achieve the end (the goals). The artist is enthralled by its elegance. If you ever watch an Olympic weightlifter move, you will see how elegantly smooth it looks.

In summary, weightlifting is my special interest. It keeps me relaxed and helps keep structure to the day. It keeps me healthy. “A healthy body is a healthy mind.” It keeps burning that fire within me to achieve by focussing on that whiteboard and getting records every session. It is a good sport to train discipline and consistency. For someone like me who likes doing the same things every day, it is the perfect opportunity to get really good at something. And to be really good at something, just one thing, gives me so much more confidence when I go outside into the big wide world.

When your elbows and upper back collapse in the clean

Last year I wrote about the importance of keeping your elbows up during front squats. Reading this article back now makes me realise how far I’ve come in my technique! As well as strength getting better for front squats, technique has also improved enormously. I like to put this technique improvement down to the Smolov squat routine making me front squat high volume, high weight four times a week!

I do however, still have a tendency to drop my elbows, often in the front squat and all the time in the very bottom position of the clean. This is terribly frustrating for me because when my elbows drop, my upper back collapses, the bar falls forward and I miss the lift.

Having spoken to Neil Dougan, an experienced weightlifting coach, he has suggested that this particular problem can usually be attributed to two things:

  1. Glute medius activation
  2. Tight lats at the connection to the humerus

Let’s look at each of these in more detail:

Gluteus medius activation

In the bottom position of the front squat, the purpose of the gluteus medius is external hip rotation and the gluteal group does not fire until the athlete is in the bottom position of the squat. Proper activation of the glutes abducts the hips and allows the athlete to ascend out of the squat with good form. When this muscle is inhibited, the ascent becomes more difficult – knees can collapse inward, the pelvis can lose stability, elbows drop and the back ends up collapsing.

There are some good ways to activate this muscle group before weightlifting. Glute-ham raises (GDRs) and squats with a mini band just below the knees are two of the best. The squats are demonstrated here in this video:

Tight lats

People who front squat the first time often find themselves with back DOMS! This is because the lats are used intensely during front squats in order to stabilise the body and keep the torso as upright as possible. For someone to keep their elbows up during a set of front squats, requires intense activation of the latissimus dorsi muscles, particularly at their insertion to the humerus bone. You can feel this part of the lats by putting your arms out in the clean-grip front squat position and feeling just underneath your underarm on the side of your back. When your arms are in this position, your lats need to be tight and solid in order to keep the barbell stable and the torso vertical.

There are some good exercises to activate and strengthen the lats. Upright rows with a very narrow grip help strengthen trapezius and the rotator cuff muscles. The rotator cuff is a group of four tendons that covers the humeral head which is the area of muscle we are interested in (where the lat inserts to the humerus bone). Another superb exercise would be the snatch-grip deadlift. This exercise is a good technique for teaching athletes how to activate their lats during the snatch/clean pull – and this “feeling” of lat activation will carry over nicely to the “elbows up” position in the front squat/clean.

Neil Dougan recommends this lat stretch:

To activate your lats before lifting, another trick is to use a resistance band or mini band. Put the band on a chin up bar and stand beneath it. Raise your left arm overhead and place your right foot forward for stability. Now pull very slightly but firmly on the band and you should feel your lat working. Change arms/legs. It’s a very slight movement but very effective. Be sure not to use your arms or anything else to fight the resistance, this is a specific lat exercise.

Hope these tips help.

My first go at the Smolov squat routine for front squats

What is the Smolov squat routine?

It is a routine which places emphasis on squatting and aims to increase squat strength in a period of 4-8 weeks. There is a good article on StrongLifts that explains it.

It is an intense workout routine not suitable for beginners. It should not be used all the same, maybe a few times per year as needed.

Traditionally this routine is done with back squats, but for Olympic lifters, it makes more sense to do it with front squats. To decide, just ask yourself what is your overall goal? Always question what you are doing and why. If you want to be a great Olympic lifter, use this routine with front squats.

While doing this routine, it is advised against doing any other heavy leg training as well as no deadlifting. If you do too much additional training the Smolov routine won’t work as well as it should and you won’t make the gains – which is counterproductive since the primary aim of this routine is to make huge gains on your squat!

Why I decided to do it

I am primarily an Olympic lifter. This means the focal points in my training are Snatches and Clean & Jerks. I have recently somewhat plateaued on my cleans and it is due to a weak front squat (I can’t get up out of the bottom position in the clean and have to drop the bar forward). I’ve also stopped making progress on my front squats. This routine seemed a perfect way to accelerate my front squat strength which, I am hoping, in turn will accelerate my clean strength. Right now, it is my front squat that is the limiting factor in how much I can clean.

“Base Mesocycle” Week 1

Because I am an experienced and regular squatter, I skipped the introductory microcycle and went straight into what is called the Base Mesocycle.

You base the front squat weights on your current 1 rep max of good form and this is how week 1 looks:

Monday: 70%x4x9**

Wednesday: 75%x5x7

Friday: 80%x7x5

Saturday: 85%x10x3

**weight x sets x reps

So basically I have done all these front squats (four times this week), as well as other work, leaning more toward higher rep upper body work. For example, today I did my front squats, followed by 3×12 overhand bent over rows, 3×12 underhand bent over rows and 3×10 renegade rows.

How was week 1?

Found it easy. All front squat workouts were very manageable. I had excellent form for every rep on every set. Looking forward to week 2. Week 2 is looking a lot harder! Bring it on!

Week 2

Monday: (70%+5kg)x4x9

Wednesday: (75%+5kg)x5x7

Friday: (80%+5kg)x7x5

Saturday: (85%+5kg)x10x3

I’ll write next week. 🙂

“Base Mesocycle” Week 2

I’m back having just finished week 2. Let me tell you, week 2 was a lot harder than week 1. The hardest day was probably the 7×5. It was a lot of weight, just 2.5kg away from my 1RM, and a lot of volume.  The 9 reps 4 sets of day 1 was also very hard but purely because of the number of reps! I can imagine that day 1 of week 3 is going to be near impossible.

By day 3, 7×5, form started to go. Knee began caving towards the end of each set.  I imagine if I’d taken more time between sets form would’ve been better. I took around 3-4 minutes. 5 minutes would’ve been better. I learned this lesson in time for day 4 and was sure to take my time and not rush the workout.

All the people I’ve read about, who have done Smolov, explain that they take as much time as needed between sets (10 minutes not unusual!). The point of this programme is to just make the reps. I paced myself – some reps consisted of a pause at the top to take a deep breath and then descend. You can think of each rep being like a 1 rep max so take your time and breathe!

In all honesty, the last day, the 10×3 day was the easiest day for me. Probably because I seem to be better at low rep/high load work, rather than high reps that require more endurance. Form was acceptable on this day.

A lot of people say that you should keep reps low for front squats due to the mechanics and positioning of the body, in particular the upper back, which fatigues holding the bar in this frontal position. Week 3 day 1 is going to be brutal, I just know it is!

P.S. Been foam rolling and stretching the whole body EVERY day and I think it’s helped loads. I’m sleeping really well too.

“Base Mesocycle” Week 3

I MADE IT! I’ve just finished day 4 of week 3. This week was tough. I do have some comments on the week. 🙂

Monday: (70%+5kg)x4x9

Wednesday: (75%+5kg)x5x7

Friday: (80%+5kg)x7x5

Saturday: (85%+5kg)x10x3

To start with, Monday’s session was at first extremely daunting purely at the thought of doing such a high number of repetitions. I have never, ever front squatted that many reps at that heavy a weight before. I did not believe I could do it. Fortunately, with mum standing behind me encouraging me and shouting cues, I managed this session with relative ease. Having someone beside you REALLY helps. Rest between sets was about 5 minutes.

Wednesday’s session was probably the toughest one I’ve had throughout this Smolov cycle. Just the sort of “in between” of being light/heavy and high/low reps made it the best (or worst lol) of both worlds. It was extremely difficult and I gave up after only getting six reps on set two. I was just not feeling it. It felt heavy. It felt hard. Psychologically I lacked confidence. I was on my own. I’d had a busy morning. Had to repeat the following day.

The repeat of the session was better, but still very tough. I had my coach behind me, spotting me, and giving me confidence, and as we approached set 5 I began to feel uplifted. Form wasn’t as good as usual – upper back totally caved beyond rep 3 (so 4, 5, 6, 7) and knee collapsed – but still we muddled through.

On Friday, the 7×5 was hard but not as hard as the 5×7 despite being a higher weight. I must have more fast twitch muscles, sometimes I feel my body is better accustomed to taking low rep/heavy weight work. Had someone spotting me, again, it made a huge difference. In fact, it was the make or break of the session. The biggest thing I’ve learned over this Mesocycle is the difference a good spotter can make. I don’t think I would’ve been able to do this workout alone.

The final day, the 10×3, again I had to attempt it twice. The first time I tried it I was just knackered (probably from having done the 7×5 the day before). I was unable to lift 3 times what I had lifted 5 times yesterday. I came out of the gym feeling demotivated but my coach said, “failure is fine, it’s how you deal with failure that makes success.” That made me feel a lot better and the next day, I excelled in the 10×3 workout. My mum held her palms underneath my elbows which was a great cue to keep the elbows up  – which stopped my upper back caving as well as stopping my knees caving. Today’s form was the best, despite being the heaviest weight. I was very vertical and very tight. Started off with caution at a light-tish weight for 3 reps and for the remaining 9 sets I just rocketed up the weight. On the last set, I went ALL OUT and carried on for 5 reps instead of 3, so I got a new 5RM without intending to. That felt good! 😀

BTW, depth has never been an issue with me. Depth did not suffer at all on this programme. Every rep was as deep as the first.

I’m finished with the Base Mesocycle now. I’m really pleased to have made it! We will be testing the 1RM in a few days, so I’ll update the blog again then. I’ve learned a lot from the past 3 weeks:

  • Spotters are invaluable. They can get you to lift more than you think you can
  • Do as little activity as possible outside of the gym. Physically and mentally. The Smolov is exhausting and requires all the energy for the lifting. Try not to do things that are even mentally taxing because you need a lot of mental commitment to complete this routine
  • Foam roll and stretch daily – not only does it help the muscles, it also relaxes you and helps you sleep
  • Don’t stop eating. Squats burn a huge number of calories. If you don’t eat enough or if you eat the wrong things you will find the workouts a lot harder than they could be
  • Get quality sleep. It’s self-explanatory
  • Get massaged

And with regards to front squat technique, I have learned a few things on this journey:

  • My pre-Smolov front squat technique sucked 🙂
  • I am now a lot tighter in the lats and abs
  • I have learned the importance of high elbows
  • My spotter placed their palms under my elbows which seems to fix all the problems!
  • A strong resistance band around the knees can help with knee collapse
  • Treat each rep as a 1RM – that means take your time between reps. Pause and breathe at the top if necessary
  • Take a deep breathe before the descent

1 RM testing post-Smolov

We decided to test the 1 rep max on the third day after the last day of Smolov. The two days before I trained upper body but nothing strenuous.

I’m not sure what I was expecting on testing day. I was anxious. I felt as if I was about to take a university exam! I was realistically thinking that I might achieve 5kg more than the 1 RM pre-Smolov, but I didn’t want to put a number on it in case I disappointed myself. After all, everyone says Smolov works, so if it ended up not working for me, I’d feel a total failure. 🙁

Needless to say I had NO REASON AT ALL TO WORRY! I gained a MASSIVE TWENTY TWO POINT FIVE (22.5) kg on my pre-Smolov 1 RM! That’s INSANE! A day later, I am still in total disbelief. It has not quite sunken in yet. I am on a high…