Our friendly neighbourhood Gentleman Adventurer had some very interesting points to make about the need, or lack thereof, to do squats every single workout in his regular Sunday lifting thread:
Now my initial reaction to this was a hearty rebuttal with moderate amounts of disdain. Doesn’t this berk know that I follow the Starting Strength program which advocates squatting at all times, including but not limited to taking a dump, praying to God Almighty, meeting the Queen, pushing all in, and initiating a sexual encounter which is only ever going to end with a big #Metoo stamp all over it?
But the comment lingered in my hind brain going into the week and on Wednesday I made an important decision:
I skipped the squat on my workout.
Instead of the usual squat destruction I strode in and headed straight to the rack for the shoulder press. I knocked 45kg out of the park into the bargain so tomorrow the 47.5kg is on the block; path back to full strength well on its way.
After that I hit the deadlift and nailed the 120kg. My best is 132.5 so once again I’m heading in the right direction.
And so with that information I am now officially on the search for another program. I want something that I can do three days a week which focuses on strength training but also a bit of cutting in it as well. Got to look sharp, you know.
So come at me with some suggestions, (I’m looking at you, Didact). I’ve been following first Stronglifts and then Starting Strength for over two years so it’s time for a switch up. And yes, Purge – you were right.
Well, seeing as Adam Piggott is a true Man of the West and an all-around righteous dude, what can I possibly do other than oblige?
The thing is that Adam is absolutely right. After a certain point, you simply do not need to be doing squats for every single workout.
Anyone who has ever done either high reps of light squats, or low reps of heavy squats, knows full well that these exercises burn you out like nothing short of a full Tabata workout. The reason is very simple. Squats engage the entire body, the full posterior chain, in both concentric and eccentric movements.
Seriously, the only compound exercise that works out more muscle groups than this one is, as far as I am aware, the deadlift – and as exhausting (and awesome) as deadlifting is, it only works out the concentric phase.
It is for precisely this reason that squatting three times per week eventually burns out your legs and leaves you with very little energy to do other things.
I started out on the same StrongLifts 5×5 programme that Adam did, and I still use a lot of the same concepts from that programme in my own training routines. As I noted in a three-part series of posts that I wrote a few years ago for another reader’s request – you can find that series, along with all of my other multi-part posts, here when you look for “A Beginner’s Guide to Lifting” – the SL5x5 programme is, in my personal opinion, THE most effective way for novice lifters to pack on hard muscle mass, lose fat, and gain strength.
However, it needs to be very clearly understood that the SL5x5 programme is a beginner’s training method. It is extremely effective, because it uses time-tested and rigourously proven principles of strength engineering.
But, like most problems in engineering, there is actually more than one possible way of approaching the question of how you add strength over short periods of time.
I will answer Adam’s request for suggestions based on my personal experience, and will offer two possible alternative training methods to doing squats 3x per week. Both involve squatting only twice per week, not three times.
Before we proceed, I want to point out a few things.
I am not a certified personal trainer. If you are going to train with the iron, I would recommend getting a PT’s opinion – and, in keeping with Adam’s 20th Trait of the Modern Man, getting a second opinion as well.
I am only noting what I do in the gym. This keeps me strong and fit, but I do not for a moment pretend that this is sensible for everyone. Nor do I pretend to have created a particularly efficient programme; this is merely what I do, and I don’t think that the sheer number of sets that I put myself through is necessarily a good idea for anyone else. I also strongly recommend tailoring what you see below for yourself, based on your goals, body, any injuries that you might have, and so on.
Also, please note – I’m not actually all that strong. My bench press is especially weak, and I freely admit this. I suspect that there are several readers of my blog who are stronger than me. And that is great. I have nothing but respect for real lifters and will never, ever disparage anyone who takes up the iron, no matter how weak or strong he is.
With that out of the way, let’s proceed to what I do, and what I recommend.
The first suggestion involves a sort of “switch” method. Basically, I switch between a “volume” day, and a “max” day. The idea is that on one day of squats I just do a ridiculous number of squats, while keeping my deadlift to a relatively low number of reps, and then on the second day of squats I keep the number of reps very low but focus entirely on squatting as deep and heavy as I possibly can.
I combine this switch with a pyramid method in which I add 10lbs to the bar and then proceed.
To give you an idea of what this looks like, here is a breakdown of what I do in the gym for all three major lifts. The numbers here are ALL IN POUNDS, not kilograms, just in case anyone thinks that I’m some sort of crazed strongman, which I very plainly am not.
One thing that I must stress here is: don’t focus on the weights that I do. That is not the important part. The point here is not to brag about how strong I am, since I objectively am not. Nor is it to intimidate anyone. I simply present the numbers below to provide a possible example for someone else’s training program.
These numbers represent what I lift when I am at or close to peak strength – which, admittedly, hasn’t happened in quite a while for various reasons. (To get the weights in kilograms – i.e. PROPER units – just divide all the nonsense imperial numbers by 2.2.)
Wednesday – Legs Day, Squats & Deadlifts:
Warm-up sets: 3 pause reps @95lbs, 135lbs, 185lbs, 225lbs
- 5 reps @225
- 5 reps @235
- 5 reps @245
- 5 reps @255
- 5 reps @265
- 5 reps @275 w/belt
- 3 reps @285 w/belt
- 2 reps @295 w/belt
- 1 rep @305 w/belt
- 1 rep @315 w/belt – static hold at the top for 30sec
Straight into work sets:
- 5 reps @225
- 5 reps @275
- 5 reps @315
- 3 reps @365 w/belt
- 1 rep @405 w/belt and possibly chalk if I feel my grip slipping
Friday – Upper Body Day, Bench Press & Chin-ups:
Warm-up sets: 5 pause reps @45, 95, 135
- 3 sets of 5 reps @185
- 3 sets of 5 reps @195
- 2 sets of 2 reps @205
- 1 set of 1 rep @215
- 1 set of 1 rep @225
Chin-ups: 1 set of bodyweight chin-ups for as many reps as possible, usually between 15 and 20
Sunday – Max Lifts Day, Squats/Deadlifts/Bench Press:
Warm-up sets: Identical to Legs Day
Work Sets (all with belt):
- 3 reps @275
- 2 reps @295
- 3-5 sets of 1 rep @315
After I hit my minimum of 3 sets at 315, I try to add 5lbs until I feel like I really cannot squat any more. My 1RM is 365lbs, but that was several years ago and I think I probably could have gone deeper on that rep. These days, at peak condition, my 1RM is more like 350lbs to full depth.
Identical to Legs Day, then once I get to 405 I start adding weight until I max out my deadlifts.
I usually try to finish by doing 10 reps @315. My 1RM, with good form, is about 450lbs. (I once deadlifted 475lbs, but that was with a rounded back. I avoided injury but I swore I’d never lift that kind of weight again with such bad form.)
- 5 reps @135
- 5 reps @185
- 3 reps @195
- 2 reps @205
- 1 rep @215
- 1 rep @225
So that gives you a complete breakdown of how I train every week, at least when I have my ‘druthers.
The observant reader will notice the clear trends in this setup. As noted above, I switch between high-rep and low-rep days. And on high-rep days, I do pyramids.
The second suggestion I can make, follows on from the ideas presented above.
Basically, instead of doing one day of high reps and one day of low reps of squats, with pyramids on both days, try doing this:
Do the same 5 sets of squats on both days – and then, on the second day of squats, do ONE really really difficult set of 20 reps, with good form, at 50% of your one-rep max weight.
This is not my original idea. I got it from powerlifter and bodybuilder George “The Babyslayer” Leeman, who recommends doing 20 reps of squats at 50% of 1RM in order to engage serious muscle hypertrophy.
Be under no illusions: 20 reps of squats is extremely unpleasant – but you only have to do it one day a week. But it will help you increase your strength and power over the course of a training programme. I have tried this and can personally report that it does work.
As for any other advice or suggestions that I can give with respect to squats – I can offer up three more points.
First – squat as deep as you possibly can. Arse-to-grass or go home, basically. I started out seven years ago trying to squat to parallel. I didn’t do a very good job of it, even though I was doing a 5×5 programme, and ended up with very painful quads when I hit 275lbs. So I checked my ego, started all over again at 225lbs, and tried to hit proper depth, which really helped my numbers rocket up; within three months I was hitting 315lbs for 1RM.
But I realised a couple of years ago that I wasn’t satisfied with just hitting parallel. I wanted to challenge myself. So nowadays I genuinely try to squat as deep as I possibly can, on every rep.
This makes the already extremely masochistic squat even more painful and miserable. But that’s kind of the point. You WILL get stronger by doing this.
Second – use pause reps. Simply put, you squat down and HOLD at the bottom for a second or two during the very last rep of your set. And then you power back up out of the hole. Again, this causes massive muscle contraction and extension, which is exactly what you need; muscles grow based on time under tension and work done, and this is a highly effective way of getting both.
Adam already does this, as he pointed out in one of his previous lifting posts. If you are not doing this now, then start it next time you are in the gym. You will see significant benefits from it.
I recommend doing this not just for squats, by the way. If you observe the judging standards in powerlifting meets, the bench press rules in USAPL and IPF require you to bench down to the chest, then hold the bar for a moment, then press up again.
This is HARD to do, especially given the psychologically crippling fear that most people (legitimately) have about the weight on the bar slamming down on their chests and pinning them.
I won’t lie: benching is scary, especially if you have been pinned hard under a machine in the past (as I was). The only way to get over it, is to do it. These days, I know perfectly well that if I get pinned under a 225 lift, I can just slip the weights off on either side.
Yeah, it makes me look like a weakling and a douchebag, but I can live with that.
And third – if your knees bother you, like my left knee does (due to an injury caused by martial arts, by the way, not lifting), then do not use knee wraps. They will make your injuries worse. Use knee sleeves instead. I use knee sleeves for all of my work sets with squats, and I just leave them there for the rest of my workout. Good knee sleeves cost about $40-$60, and last for years. I use these from Nordic Lifting and trust them like I do my own right arm.
To be clear: doing squats is not bad for your knees, no matter what gym bros will tell you. The exact opposite is true. Doing squats – PROPERLY, with good form, all the way down to at least parallel if not lower – is a great way to rehabilitate a damaged knee.
Oh, and if you’re serious about lifting – get yourself a proper lifting belt, not one of those stupid cheap piece-of-shit Valeo ones. Contrary to gym-n00b wisdom, these do NOT help you keep your back straight. You can f*** up your back while wearing a Rogue belt just as badly as you will if you do horseshoe-back deadlifts without one. A lifting belt will, however, make it easier for you to lift heavier weights if you have good form. I recommend using one for your max lifts on squats and deadlifts.
So that’s what I’ve got for now – if you have anything to add, further thoughts, criticisms, etc., please feel free to write ’em down in the comments section below. I hope this is of use to Adam and his readers and provides some decent tips and perspective on lifting.