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. ๐Ÿ™‚

“Base Mesocycle” Week 2

I’m back having just finished week 2. Let me tell you, week 2 was aย lotย harder than week 1. The hardest day was probably the 7×5. It was a lot of weight and a lot of volume. ย 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. ย 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. ๐Ÿ™‚

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 ย – 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! ๐Ÿ˜€

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 ๐Ÿ™‚
  • 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. ๐Ÿ™

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…