This Guide Teaches You:
- What to expect during the 13 week Smolov cycle.
- Who is ready for Smolov and Smolov Jr.
- About the program layout, and how you will be lifting during each week.
- How to prepare for and recover from a Smolov training session.
- What is needed in terms of diet and training to maximize Smolov.
- How the Smolov Jr. bench press cycle is set up.
- What the pros and cons of Smolov are.
Table of Contents:
- 1. Inroduction to Smolov
- 1.1. A Warning About Smolov Training
- 2. Smolov Program Layout
- 2.1. Introductory Microcycle – Weeks 1-2
- 2.2. Base Mesocycle
- 2.3. Weeks 7 & 8 – Switching
- 2.4. Weeks 9-12 – Intense Mesocycle
- 2.5. Week 13 – Tapering
- 3. Preparing For (and Recovering From) a Smolov Session
- 4. Tips For Smolov Success
- 4.1. Develop A Love For Food & Rest
- 4.2. Minimize Accessory Work
- 4.3. Choose Sensible Weights
- 4.4. Mental Preparation for Physical Pain
- 4.5. Only Do the Base Microcycle & 3 Sessions a Week
- 5. Smolov Bench Routine
- 5.1. The Smolov Bench Press Routine
- 5.2. Smolov Jr. Tips
- 5.3. Assistance Work
- 5.4. Protect Your Shoulders
- 6. Pros & Cons of Smolov Squat Routine & Smolov Jr.
- 6.1. Pros of Smolov Jr.
- 6.2. Cons of Smolov Jr.
- 7. Conclusion
If you’re lamenting your lack of squat progress and are seeking a ‘magic bullet’, you won’t find one here. However, if you’re ready, willing and able to go through 13 weeks of pure hell, we have something that could potentially add 50-100 pounds onto your existing squat 1RM.
You may have already heard of the Smolov squat routine and if you have, the following is a comprehensive guide that will enable you to learn more about the routine as well as mental and physical preparation and believe me, you will need it!
This particular routine was developed by Sergey Smolov (hence the name) but was brought into the popular domain by Pavel ‘The Mad Russian’ Tsatsouline. According to Pavel, either of the 2 x 4 week loading blocks contains more heavy squatting than normally found in a full year of training of the typical ‘Western’ lifter. The entire routine is 13 weeks long and is divided into 5 distinct phases:
- Weeks 1-2 – Introductory ‘light’ microcycle
- Weeks 3-6 – Base Mesocycle
- Weeks 7-8 – The Switching Phase
- Weeks 9-12 – Intense Mesocycle
- Week 13 – Tapering Week
The first 2 weeks helps you acclimatize to the brutal 4 week base mesocycle where you will squat 4 times a week. For most lifters, this is the period that provides the most gains but persevere through the switching phase and the next 4 weeks of pain and you could see even greater rewards not to mention oak trees where your legs once were and a new-found ability to attack heavy training.
A Warning About Smolov Training
If you are a beginner or early intermediate, the Smolov squat routine is not for you for a number of reasons:
Technique: To get through Smolov in one piece, your existing technique needs to be excellent. ‘Decent’ or ‘okay’ technique will almost guarantee injury since you will be squatting with weights you’re simply not used to. On the vast majority of days, you will be at near maximum exertion and those with shoddy or average technique will be hit hard. For those with proficient technique, Smolov will serve to solidify it.
Frequency: If you are a relative newcomer, you have not yet learned how to train at your full capacity and are still in a learning zone. To complete Smolov, you need to be inured to hard training to a certain degree and should be squatting relatively heavy weights twice a week at least. Making the jump from one hard session a week to four is too great a leap.
Mentality: When you get to the real ‘nitty gritty’ of Smolov, your mental strength will be tested to its limit. If you have spent your training life following traditional cookie-cutter programs, the intensity of Smolov will blow you away and reduce you to a weeping wreck about a week into the base mesocycle. You will regularly be in a situation where it feels as if you are about to fail every single rep. Beginners and early intermediates lack the ability to push through such barriers.
Additionally, the DOMS (muscle soreness) you get will test your desire to train.
Smolov Program Layout
Before beginning the program, you will need to choose your 1RM as everything is based on a percentage of this figure. It is advisable to choose approximately 90% of your existing 1RM for reasons that are outlined later on. The purpose of the introductory microcycle is to prime your body for the assault that lies ahead. You will work up to 90% of the 1RM you have plugged in for this program before tackling the 4 week base mesocycle which could boost your existing 1RM by 30-60 pounds.
Two weeks of ‘switching’ changes things up and involves dynamic effort squatting. The intense mesocycle will yet again test your mettle and could give you another 20-40 pound boost. Finally, you conclude the program which a one week tapering off period and a final max attempt to discover how many pounds Smolov has added to your squat.
(In the following cycles, sets are written before reps and the percentage is added at the end. 3 x 8 @ 65% means 3 sets of 8 reps at 65% of the 1RM you are using for the program while 10 x 3 @ 85% means 10 sets of 3 reps at 85% and so on. If you use 400 pounds as your 1RM, 65% is 260 pounds so you would be squatting 3 set of 8 reps at 260 pounds. It is best to round figures down rather than up.)
Introductory Microcycle – Weeks 1-2
Get ready for pain! This microcycle is used as preparation and really should not feel too heavy. You’ll squat 3 days on both weeks and the program is as follows:
- Day 1 – 3 x 8 @ 65%, 1 x 5 @ 70%, 2 x 2 @ 75%, 1 x 1 @80%
- Day 2 – Exactly the same as day 1
- Day 3 – 4 x 5 @ 70%, 1 x 3 @ 75%, 2 x 2 @ 80%, 1 x 1 @90%
- Day 1 – 1 x 5 @ 80%
- Day 2 – 1 x 5 @ 82.5%
- Day 3 – 1 x 5 @ 85%
It is important to note that during week one, you are to squat three days in a row. The next three days are dedicated to stretching your legs to speed up your recovery with lunges a good choice of exercise. During week 2, you can elect to have a rest day between sessions if you wish and Smolov also encourages explosive drills such as jumps that are to be performed after the squat session.
Hopefully, you will have increased your calorie intake accordingly during the previous two weeks and be fuelled up and ready for action. After successfully completing the first base mesocycle week, you will be asked to add 20 pounds (or 10kg if your gym uses plates in kilos rather than pounds) for the following week. If you get through this, you will be asked to add another 10 pounds for the third base mesocycle week and the whole thing looks something like this:
- Monday – 4 x 9@ 70%
- Wednesday - 5 x 7@ 75%
- Friday – 7 x 5@80%
- Saturday – 10 x 3@ 85%
- Monday – 4 x 9@70 + 20 pound increase from Week 3
- Wednesday - 5 x 7@ 75% + 20 pound increase from Week 3
- Friday – 7 x 5@80% + 20 pound increase from Week 3
- Saturday – 10 x 3@ 85% + 20 pound increase from Week 3
- Monday – 4 x 9@70 + 30 pound increase from Week 3
- Wednesday - 5 x 7@ 75% + 30 pound increase from Week 3
- Friday – 7 x 5@80% + 30 pound increase from Week 3
- Saturday – 10 x 3@ 85% + 30 pound increase from Week 3
- Monday & Wednesday – Rest
- Friday – Work up to max single
- Saturday – Work up to max single
Hopefully, you will understand why it is best to use a conservative 1RM. By week 5 of Smolov, you will be hitting several PRs a session so you need to be ready. For example, if you use a 1RM of 400 pounds, you will squat 10 x 3 @ 340 pounds in week 3 and 10 x 3 @ 370 pounds in week 5! If you start failing sets in weeks 4 and 5, you’re well on your way to failing the program. Provided you follow the tips outlined later on in the article, you have an excellent chance of success.
Weeks 7 & 8 – Switching
You will be grateful for the opportunity to rest those weary legs as this is a two week period with no regulated set and rep pattern. Smolov recommends dynamic effort squatting and it is best not to go above 60% of your new 1RM. In fact, you may prefer to stay closer to 50% and don’t go above 3 reps during a dynamic effort day. Some lifters like to follow Westside Barbell principles and box squat 12 sets of 2 but it’s really up to you.
Smolov also advocates negative squats which involve using a weight greater than your 1RM but only concentrating on the descent. In other words, you unrack the bar, squat down slowly until the bar rests on preset safety bars and leave it. Other explosive exercises that can be performed include box jumps and deep squat jumps. This period should be little more than an active rest so listen to your body and don’t go overboard.
Weeks 9-12 – Intense Mesocycle
As if the base mesocycle wasn’t intense enough! This is 4 weeks of grinding difficulty and Smolov took it from I. M. Feduleyev, a Russian weightlifting coach who originally designed it as a loading block on its own. The intense mesocycle grinds people into dust and many lifters elect to focus solely on the base mesocycle for this reason. However, if you’re ready for it, an extra 20+ pounds could be your reward.
44% of all reps used in the next 4 weeks will be in the 81-90% range with some 95% work thrown in for good measure though on the plus side, you’re only squatting 3 days a week now instead of 4. Due to the extraordinarily difficult nature of this section, you should once again take 10% off your new 1RM or else you will almost certainly fail.
Simply put, 5 sets of 5 reps @ 90% of your true 1RM just isn’t happening! If you get stuck, reduce the weights by 5% or more while keeping the same set/rep scheme. As Pavel said, ‘there will be days when you wish you had stuck to stamp collecting!
- Monday – 1 x 3@ 65%, 1 x 4@ 75%, 3 x 4@ 85%, 1 x 5@ 90%
- Wednesday – 1 x 3@ 60%, 1 x 3@ 70%, 1 x 4@ 80%, 1 x 3@ 90%, 2 x 5@ 85%
- Saturday – 1 x 4@ 65%, 1 x 4@ 70%, 5 x 4@ 80%
- Monday – 1 x 4@ 60%, 1 x 4@70%, 1 x 4@ 80%, 1 x 3@90%, 2 x 4@ 90%
- Wednesday – 1 x 3@ 65%, 1 x 3@ 75%, 1 x 3@ 85%, 3 x 3@ 90%, 1 x 3@ 95%
- Saturday – 1 x 3@ 65%, 1 x 3@ 75%, 1 x 4@ 85%, 4 x 5@ 90%
- Monday – 1 x 3@ 60%, 1 x 3@ 70%, 1 x 3@ 80%, 5 x 5@ 90%
- Wednesday - 1 x 3@ 60%, 1 x 3@ 70%, 1 x 3@ 80%, 2 x 3@ 95%
- Saturday - 1 x 3@ 65%, 1 x 3@ 75%, 1 x 3@ 85%, 4 x 3@ 95%
- Monday – 1 x 3@ 70%, 1 x 4@ 80%, 5 x 5@ 90%
- Wednesday – 1 x 3@ 70%, 1 x 3@ 80%, 4 x 3@ 95%
- Saturday – 1 x 3@ 75%, 1 x 4@ 90%, 3 x 4@ 80%
Week 13 – Tapering
By now, you will be completely fed up with squatting but if you have made all the reps so far, it is certain that you’ll be smashing a 1RM very soon. You will spend Monday-Saturday resting with a light session thrown in before you attempt your 1RM on Sunday. If you are an experienced lifter with great recovery powers and a penchant for masochism, you could follow the Smolov final week plan:
- Monday – 1 x 3@ 70%, 1 x 3@ 80%, 2 x 5@ 90%, 3 x 4@ 95%
- Wednesday – 1 x 4@ 75%, 4 x 4@ 85%
- Sunday – Max attempt
However, it really is best if you rest up since you have pushed your body to its very limit in the previous 4 weeks. This means week 13 should be as follows:
- Wednesday – 1 x 4@ 75%, 1 x 5@ 85%
- Sunday – Max attempt
Preparing For (and Recovering From) a Smolov Session
It is common sense to warm up properly before any training session so if you’re one of those people that does a half-assed job, you need to stop what you’re doing and pay attention! A poor warm up means you greatly increase your chances of sustaining an injury given the intensity of Smolov.
From about 60 minutes before your session, it’s time to get into training mode so consume whey protein, creatine, peanut butter and caffeine. The most effective way to do this is of course through a protein shake. Consuming this food gives you amino acids and oils which help you power through the demanding sessions. Obviously, the caffeine gives you that extra kick you need.
You can do 5 minutes on the treadmill or else you can jump rope before engaging in a dynamic warm up consisting of leg swings, high knees, shoulder cyclones, bodyweight squats and any other warm up exercise you want. Foam rolling is also an excellent idea following by some stretching for all areas of the body since the squat is the ultimate full body workout.
During & After Training
Do not be afraid to have sugar during training and snack on small sugary items like M&M’s during sets. This is not a necessity of course and you can avoid if you hate the idea of eating too much junk food but Smolov survivors claim it helps! After the session, immediately get some protein and trashy carbs before you even shower and have a proper meal within 60 minutes of your session ending. Never neglect to warm down so this means more light cardio, foam rolling and stretching. If you forget to do this, the intense pain you feel the following day will serve as a reminder not to do so again!
Tips For Smolov Success
You can’t approach Smolov in a haphazard manner. Regardless of your physical conditioning and training experience, you are about to go to war with the squat rack for 13 weeks so be ready for success with these tips.
Develop A Love For Food & Rest
If you’ve been training for a considerable length of time and have brought your squat up to a respectable level, you will hopefully have some idea of how to eat big to bring up your numbers. Generally, I would not recommend increasing calories to any major degree during a routine unless the weights stall.
Anyone can simply ‘eat’ and pile weight on the bar (and around their waist) but this often happens at the expense of proper training technique and progression. Normally, it is best to gradually increase calories as you get stronger to avoid unnecessary fat gain but Smolov is an exception.
If you’re scared of losing your abs or don’t want to gain weight, forget about Smolov. You will fail miserably on this program if you don’t drastically increase your calorie intake. This is one of those rare periods where eating ‘dirty’ food is actually encouraged. Obviously, you need to continue eating good quality food but now, you can add pizza, chocolate cake, candy, peanut butter and other forms of assorted ‘junk’ food that you shouldn’t normally indulge in.
You will need caffeine, sugar, BCAAs, creatine and other items in order to speed up your recovery because your body will be under immense strain. Forget your 6-pack for the time being and besides, this routine will strengthen your whole body, abs included so you’ll actually look like someone who lifts.
It should go without saying that sleep is a priority if you wish to succeed so tape those late night shows and go to bed! If you can manage 8 hours of good quality sleep a night, you greatly increase your chances of making it through Smolov in one piece. Cardio should consist of fast walking only and leave jogging/sprinting etc. on the back burner until the program is completed. Remember, a strength increase is the goal here so anything that potentially interferes with the mission must be ruthlessly cut out.
Minimize Accessory Work
In this case, all exercises aside from the squat fall into the ‘accessory’ category. Frankly, a couple of sessions will be enough to convince you to abandon accessory work but just in case you’re tempted, remember that it can impede recovery. Deadlifts are an absolute no-no and if you’re worried about that lift falling apart don’t be, because most lifters report an INCREASE in their deadlift despite not training it for months.
If you must, add a bench session a week but keep it relatively light. Chin ups or pull ups can stay as your back workout staple while grip work is also okay but as we already said, you’ll probably just want to warm down and go home after most squat sessions.
Choose Sensible Weights
As you can see, Smolov is based off a % of your 1RM. Those who have swallowed their pride and reduced their existing 1RM by around 10% (in other words, they used their training max) had a far greater level of success. ‘Hardcore’ lifters will tell you not to be yellow and go all-out but the secret to Smolov success is not to miss a single rep.
It is worth remembering that the original users of this program were on ‘special supplements’ which you probably don’t have access to. By the final week of the base mesocycle when you are seeing imaginary people during the seventh of your ten sets, you’ll be happy you made the decision to drop your 1RM by 10%.
Mental Preparation for Physical Pain
Just to clarify, this is almost certain to be the most demanding training period of your life to date. Think of the most difficult squat sets you’ve ever performed and imagine going through that set 26 times a week because that is what you face. Once you’re in the gym, it’s time for stony focus.
This is not the time to talk to bros nor is it the time to contemplate failure. Each and every time you go under the bar to squat, you must adopt a ‘do or die’ mentality and recognize that you are not leaving the rack until each rep is completed.
The Smolov squat routine will turn you into a squat rack hog so clearly, you’ll need to attend the gym during off-peak hours. The last thing you need is someone asking you ‘how many sets left?’ as they eagerly wait to curl in the rack.
You will need several minutes between sets and towards the end of the base mesocycle; the 10x3 could take an hour or so. You can pause between reps near the end of sets if you feel as if you could miss a rep. You don’t want the bar on your back for eternity but as long as your technique holds up and you hit depth, pausing between reps is perfectly acceptable.
Only Do the Base Microcycle & 3 Sessions a Week
For the majority of lifters, doing the full 13 week Smolov squat routine is mentally and physically too great a burden. As the base mesocycle is capable of providing you with significant gains, perhaps you could forego the intense mesocycle and focus on the first loading block instead.
If you go down this path, you still need to go through the two week introductory phase or else you’ll probably fail. If squatting 4 times a week is too daunting, revert to a three day: Monday, Wednesday, Friday split and extend the base mesocycle by a week:
Weeks 1-2 – Intro Phase
- Monday – 4 x 9@ 70%
- Wednesday - 5 x 7@ 75%
- Friday – 7 x 5@80%
- Monday – 10 x 3@ 85%
- Wednesday – 4 x 9@ 70% + 20 pounds from first session
- Friday – 5 x 7@ 75% + 20 pounds from first session
- Monday – 7 x 5@ 80% + 20 pounds from first session
- Wednesday – 10 x 3@ 85% + 20 pounds from first session
- Friday – 4 x 9@ 70% + 30 pounds from first session
- Monday – 5 x 7 @ 75% + 30 pounds from first session
- Wednesday – 7 x 5@ 80% + 30 pounds from first session
- Friday – 10 x 3@ 85% + 30 pounds from first session
- 1-2 light sessions and work up to maximum attempt on Friday.
Smolov Bench Routine
If you survive the Smolov squat routine and fancy bringing up your lagging bench, you can return to the trenches for another 4 weeks of war with the iron. This is essentially an adaptation of the squat routine’s base mesocycle and is known as Smolov Jr. It involves benching 4 times a week for 3 weeks followed by a final week where you test your max.
As was the case with the squat routine, Smolov Jr. should only be attempted by those with 2+ years of lifting experience and you must have rock solid form. Additionally, get yourself a spotter or else things may get ugly!
The Smolov Bench Press Routine
Once again, you need to find your 1RM and sensible lifters will subtract 10% off it and work from that figure. During the following guide, sets are written first followed by the reps and % of your chosen 1RM. So 7 x 5@ 75% means 7 sets of 5 reps at 75% of your 1RM.
- Monday – 6 x 6 @70%
- Wednesday – 7 x 5 @ 75%
- Friday – 8 x 4@80%
- Saturday – 10 x 3@ 85%
- Monday – 6 x 6 @70% + 20 pounds from week 1
- Wednesday – 7 x 5 @ 75% + 20 pounds from week 1
- Friday – 8 x 4@80% + 20 pounds from week 1
- Saturday – 10 x 3@ 85% + 20 pounds from week 1
- Monday – 6 x 6 @70% + 30 pounds from week 1
- Wednesday – 7 x 5 @ 75% + 30 pounds from week 1
- Friday – 8 x 4@80% + 30 pounds from week 1
- Saturday – 10 x 3@ 85% + 30 pounds from week 1
- Monday – Saturday – Rest
- Sunday – Attempt new maximum with spotter
Smolov Jr. Tips
Most of the tips from the squat routine are applicable here. You may need to eat some dirty calories for a few weeks and it is best if you use a conservative 1RM. It is also possible to stretch the program out by an extra week through the process of benching 3 times a week instead of 4.
As the bench press is not quite as physically demanding as the squat and the program is relatively short, you can get away with doing a little more accessory work. However, since this program is less than a month long, putting squats and deadlifts on maintenance mode is no bad thing.
Chin ups, pull ups, ab work and rowing exercises are the best choices. Weaknesses in the muscles involved in the bench will become painfully apparent during the four weeks so you’re better off doing as little as possible after benching besides some rowing work for balance.
Protect Your Shoulders
If your technique is poor, your shoulders will get battered during this program. As well as focusing on decent form and avoiding flared elbows, stretch and foam roll as much as possible before and after each session. Triceps, rhomboids and traps in particular will be extremely stiff and sore so pay attention to these areas.
Occasionally, you will be forced to really push and this may involve your butt coming off the bench. While it is better if this doesn’t happen, it is okay if it’s on set 10 of a 10 x 3 session during week 3 and the alternative is getting pinned beneath the bar.
Pros & Cons of Smolov Squat Routine & Smolov Jr.
Pros of Smolov Jr.
- Frequent squatting and benching forces you to hone your technique or else you will suffer serious consequences.
- If you’re prepared to do the work, you could enjoy a 30-60+ pound increase for 6 weeks (15-25 pounds in bench) of hard graft (including the intro cycle). This constitutes a serious return on investment.
- As long as you eat the calories and make the reps, your legs and body will grow and you’ll put on some decent mass.
- The level of intensity is such that once you return to a ‘regular’ routine, it will seem easy in comparison because you will be physically and mentally much stronger.
Cons of Smolov Jr.
- Few people are able to last the full 13 weeks because of the brutal nature of the training.
- The intense mesocycle does not constitute a large enough return on investment for the effort that is put into it. Most trainees would be better off sticking with the base mesocycle.
- If you’re unused to such heavy training, injuries can quickly occur.
- Both routines are best when used as a tool to peak for competition. We are all subject to the law of super-compensation which means that once we peak, a fall-off in strength will soon follow. Therefore, you may discover that your 1RM falls in the weeks after Smolov. Going through such a grinding program only to lose much of the gains will be frustrating to say the least. After completing a Smolov program, it may be a good idea to engage in a base building program and build your strength that way.
For those that make it through the Smolov squat routine, it is the ultimate strength and mass gaining program. Successful completion guarantees a new personal best squat and it will ensure your body becomes used to hard training. While the Smolov Jr. program is shorter and less taxing for your bench, it can have a profound positive effect in a short period of time.
It is worth noting that few people attempt the Smolov squat routine a second time which speaks volumes about its difficulty. If you are ready for the pain and prepared to make a few sacrifices during the next 6-13 weeks, the Smolov squat routine is a worthy program.
If you’re not yet prepared for the most difficult training regime of your life to date, focus on other programs such as Sheiko or Korte 3x3 and revisit the idea later on down the line.