Sergey Smolov was a Russian Master of Sport, active as a coach through the 70s and 80s. He developed a program for boosting the squat of Olympic lifters in an extraordinarily short period of time. The Smolov program, which is now Infamous and lifting circles, used an insane amount of frequency and a very aggressive linear progression approach to shock even the most seasoned lifters into experiencing growth that they previously thought was not possible.
Author and kettlebell aficionado Pavel Tsatsouline made the West aware of the Smolov squat program in the early 2000s. The appeal of leveraging ‘Soviet secrets’ to put 100 lbs or more on your squat In as little as 13 weeks was too tempting a possibility for recreational lifters to pass up. What happened after that was a veritable Gold Rush of Gains; numerous lifters fell victim to shiny object syndrome and opted to test their mettle against the radical squat program.
Results, as you can still find on the internet, were mixed. Some lifters who survived cite that it was every bit as good as it claimed to be. If you we’re durable enough to last through the program you found that the results were quite astonishing. However, that was a big ‘IF’. Many lifters experience what you would expect with such a radical introduction to such an amount of work. Overuse issues abounded. The repeated stress that did not let up for months on end invariably led big chunks of the population to develop inflammation, bursitis or, worse, an acute injury like a sprain or a tear. The most common complaint was that the knee joints just could not hold up. It turns out that not every run-of-the-mill lifter has the joint density and durability to hang with high effort squatting 4 days a week for three months or more.
The program threw it’s victims into the uncharted waters of high frequency, volume and intensity. Where, normally, all of these qualities would be isolated during different phases of a longer training routine, Smolov smashed them all together to create the biggest possible shock to the body’s baseline. Now, here’s the rub; the inclusion of all of these training variables together is not what made the program ineffective. It’s the fact that all of these together would increase the likelihood of issues that would side-line the lifter. The success of Smolov hinged entirely on whether or not the lifter could make it through the program in the first place. If the lifter did possess enough durability, their numbers would soar. If not, they would find themselves set back further from where they started.
This is the point of extreme methods of training that few people are aware of. We talk about genetic predisposition all the time; what is their muscle fiber profile like or what leverages do they possess or what is their natural psychology like. We will analyze everything from their physiology to the way that their brain responds to stress but the one thing that we don’t talk about is durability. We can measure things like bone and tendon density but given all the variables that determine exactly when ‘over-use’ occurs, it is extremely difficult to predict when a body has had enough. It could entirely be possible that the superpower that many Elite lifters have isn’t some special anthropomorphy that makes them excellent at a given lift or some special arrangement of muscle fiber types but rather that they can handle a very high volume with ample effort and simply not fall apart.
Now I religiously warn lifters that it is silly to assume that you are one of these super durable types. In fact I’m reasonably sure that they represent a very very small percentage of the population. If you are not one of these lifters and you attempt to train as if you were, you are going to get frustrated with the results. Even if you manage to squeeze out of strength and avoid injury all together, you will experience achiness and inflammation that makes the simplest daily tasks a burden. Even if you are one of these durable types you can train with a more deliberate manipulation of frequency and effort and get stronger while being all the more healthy and capable for it.
The fact is that these methods worked because they were applied to a pre-selected talent pool of lifters out of which only a few needed to claim a medal at the Olympics for the system to be called a success. In that sense the rest of the lifters were disposable. So if an Olympic lifting team started with 30 lifters and 10% of them earned an Olympic medal it was of no consequence if 15 didn’t make it through the program to begin with. You as an individual, however are on the hook for finding what works best for you and that means avoiding approaches to training that are obviously excessive and likely to have side effects.
Similar to smolov is the Bulgarian system which featured daily maxes multiple times a day, virtually every day of the week. Articles have been written at length about who these methods were applied to and what their success with these methods were like. These were Elite lifters who had already gone through the preselection process and spent their years moving through the novice and intermediate phases of training. They spent the time perfecting technique. They spent the years training exclusively in the 70 to 80% range. It was only once they started to become competitive and became candidates for the highest competitive platform that they were put in the group that were expected to submit and sacrifice completely to the system. It was known that the limiting factor was durability, so success of the method hinged on how good the restorative methods were. In addition to a state-sponsored drug regimen they were also treated to regular massages and frequent visits to doctors and physical therapists. Their eating, sleep and daily energy expenditure were all accounted for. And even then, many of the athletes deteriorated.
The moral of the story is that the best way to train for anything is with as much frequency and effort as your body can physically handle. But recovery is not infinite and it is really in the downtime that our brains adjust and our tissues remold. Just like if a college student never got tired they would study all night, every night. But they do get tired so this becomes a useless observation. If I had titanium joints and tendons made out of unobtainium I would have set a world record by now from squatting and deadlifting everyday of the week. But the fact is that they are not so I don’t.
I do find it interesting some of the methods Smolov I’ve used in putting this program together. The Smolov base phase (different use of the term “Base phase” than I use) iis a straightforward and simple daily undulating periodization approach that simply progresses linearly every week for the duration of the block. 9s, 7s, 5s and 3s, arranged to total around 30 reps for each day, are all progressed by a set amount of weight every week for the duration of the block. It does not have the subtle elegance of varied workloads and calculated tonnages that we typically associate with Soviet-style programming. We’ve always known how effective simple Western progression schemes are when it comes to building strength predictably. But the fact that these simple types of progressions were used by the most successful and most educated Olympic lifting coaches in the world reinforces that fact. You simply don’t have to have a program that needs to be interpreted through an advanced AI algorithm to see success. As long as you set a baseline of work and include enough variation, recovery and progressive overload, you will respond.
For those of you who can’t help yourselves but to give a crack to the infamous Smolov program, I strongly recommend that you dedicate the entire time to squatting and only squatting. Pressing in lower volume and frequency might be doable but there’s no doubt the stress on the elbows and shoulders from squatting will make this tricky. And you will simply be light on the amount of resources that the squatting will put in high demand. Deadlifting and other upper back, midsection or lower body accessory work is absolutely out of the question. If you look at this program and you think that you have room to add more work, then I might refer you to a social worker to be conserved; you clearly are not in a good enough space to make life choices that are in your own best interest.
Yeah the efforts are hard and you’ll be sore and you should eat a lot and you should get plenty of sleep. Most importantly don’t go into this if you have a history of low back hip or knee problems. Even if you feel kind of okay right now, 2 weeks in you simply won’t. I would only recommend this for somebody that is completely healthy and identifies in some way as ‘durable’.