What happens when you throw conventional wisdom out the window and start breaking some of the Big Laws of strength training? I decided to find out for myself by radically increasing my squatting frequency and the results were enlightening.
Squatting once a week seems to be industry standard. Squatting twice a week is common too, though more so in strength training than in bodybuilding.
But squatting three times a week is basically unheard of in non-Olympic lifting circles, and squatting four times per week? You know what the experts would say. "That's insane, you'll never recover, and in three weeks you'll be a limping, moaning poster child for self-flagellation through overtraining."
None of that phased me. As a strength coach I have to think outside the lines and experiment because my job is to get my clients bigger, leaner, and stronger in the safest, most time-efficient manner possible. And if there's one thing every seasoned coach in the field agrees with, it's that there's never just one way to reach a goal.
Most germane to this conversation is a simple – albeit profound – mantra that I often repeat to myself as a coach:
I don't program something for an athlete or client that I haven't tried myself.
More to the point, I don't write about something – especially with regards to programming or bashing/praising something – unless I've tried out whatever it is I'm writing about.
Let's go into how I implemented a high-frequency squatting routine into my own training arsenal, why I wanted to do such a thing, how I tweaked the experiment to fit my own needs and goals, and maybe most important of all, the surprising result(s).
As stated, there's a lot to be said about stepping out of your comfort zone and doing things you normally wouldn't do.
This can range from the not-so-obvious things, like going to a Hugh Grant movie to appease the girlfriend, to things that are a little closer to home like taking the time to warm-up properly or even more blasphemous, not bench pressing on Monday.
On a personal level, anyone who knows me knows I have a special place in my heart for the deadlift. For me, the deadlift is king because there's really no way to cheat it – either you're going to lift that sumbitch off the ground, lock it out, and live happily ever after, or you're not.
No disrespect to the squat and bench press, but when you factor in equipment, spotters that may or may not "help you," and judging (depth on the squat), the water gets a little murkier.
I'm not going to say that I know everything about the deadlift, but considering I've pulled 570 pounds (at a bodyweight of a then 190 pounds, which puts me in the elusive 3x bodyweight clubhouse), I don't think it's bragging to say that I know a thing or two.
So what in the heck does this have to do with squatting 4x per week?
Well, a few things.
For starters, I'm woefully slow off the floor when I deadlift. While the deadlift is often thought of as a "hip dominant" movement, we often forget that the quads do play a significant role in the initial pull.
I've tried everything to improve my speed off the floor – from speed pulls to pulling from a deficit to switching up my accessory work – and nothing has really helped in this regard.
Not coincidentally, due to any number of circumstances I won't go into here, I've battled "cranky" knees for the better part of the past decade.
Save for sacrificing a lamb, I've tried everything to help my knees feel better, from soft tissue work (Graston and ART) to following a more anti-inflammatory diet, to more single-leg training. Nothing has really helped.
Now, my knee pain hasn't ever been a huge deterrent and I've still been able to train fairly aggressively, but I'd be lying if I said I didn't miss squatting on a consistent basis.
Which got me thinking, what would happen if I followed a program where I squatted more frequently?
Doing so would serve a few purposes:
- Increase my quad strength, which would in turn (hopefully) translate to a faster initial pull off the ground and therefore a bigger, more badass deadlift.
- Increase my quad size. I don't care what anyone says, we all have a little "meathead bodybuilder" hiding inside. Who wouldn't want a little more size in their legs?
- Maybe, just maybe, if I structured things appropriately, my knees would actually feel better!
Let's look at the actual breakdown, and touch on some advantages and disadvantages of increased squatting frequency.
- Effectiveness: Squats rank as one of the best exercises you can do to help improve strength, power, athletic performance, and overall good looks.
- Systemic Growth: If you want a muscle to grow, the more repeated exposures you give it – within reason, and assuming you're not eating like an Olsen twin – the more it should cooperate. Squats place the entire body under load, so it's not uncommon to see growth everywhere, not just the legs.
- Hormone Output: The effect squats have on powerful endogenous hormones – increased growth hormone, IGF, Testosterone, etc. – has been well documented and is certainly worth noting.
- Improved Conditioning: If anyone ever looks at your program and asks, "Yeah but, where's the cardio? What about heart health?" just have him or her perform a set of high-rep squats while wearing a heart rate monitor. Enough said.
- Structural Balance: Squats help offset many of the postural imbalances and dysfunctions we acquire from sitting on our asses all day.
- Fun: Squats are fun, and they work.
- Squats Are Highly Technical: If you're not careful, or are performing them poorly, they can hurt you. There are plenty of articles on this website that discuss squatting technique. Either be an adult and use the T Nation search button above (type in "squat technique") or read everything you can on here by Dave Tate and Jim Wendler.
- CNS Fatigue: If not structured appropriately your nervous system will hate you after one week.
- Population Explosion: Because you're squatting so frequently, every woman within a two-mile radius will spontaneously conceive. Get ready for some serious baby mama drama that would make Terrell Owens proud.
While there are many high-volume squat programs available (like the Smolov squat program), I wanted this program to be less "aggressive" and something that could be followed for a longer duration of time if I wanted to – and I probably will.
Here's the weekly squat breakdown:
Monday: Low Rep, Heavy Squat – 5 x 3
This workout consists of my heaviest squat of the week. For simplicity, I generally kept to my 5RM here, and I wouldn't increase the weight until I hit every rep, of every set. Some weeks, depending on how I felt, I actually worked up to a heavy single and then dropped the weight back down for the rest of my allotted sets. For most, sticking with heavy triples would be ideal, but for the more advanced trainees it wouldn't hurt to work up to a heavy single once every two weeks, or possibly even pushing that to once a month.
Tuesday: Upper Body Maintenance/Squat Technique – 3 x 5
I used this as more of a "technique" day or easy day than anything else. Having squatted heavy the day before, I wasn't going to push the envelope. Here's the thing: you don't have to load the squat (heavy) every single time to reap its benefits. That's where many people screw up. There's a lot to be said for backing off on certain days and just getting some quality reps in. To give you an idea, in the first week, I only worked up to 135 pounds on this day. Towards the tail end, though, as I got stronger and more accustomed to the workload, I was using 225 pounds or more, while still making sure the reps were easy.
Thursday: High(er) Rep Squat – 2-3 x 8
There's something about higher-rep squat work. Some, like Dan John, would argue that it separates the men from the boys. There were a handful of times where I upped the ante and went for a 10-rep set, but I made sure I was using a weight that I could easily get all my reps in. Maybe I'd grind it out on the on the last rep. For most, a great starting point would be to use what amounts to your 10-12RM here.
Friday: Upper Body Maintenance
Saturday: Movement/GPP Day (Goblet Squat) – 3 x 10
I wanted to make sure that I had one day where all I did was head into the facility and just "move around" a bit – nothing hard-core or strenuous, but something that would allow me to break a sweat and get my blood pumping.
I usually would end up pushing the Prowler a bit, performing some light farmer carries, a mobility circuit, as well as tossing in a few sets of Bulgarian split squats or light goblet squats, which I feel everyone should make a point of doing at least once a week (if not more).
- If I was going to squat four times per week, and place most of my training energy in that direction, something had to be dropped. One fatal mistake many trainees make is adding more and more to their program without taking something out. Most lifters will have a hard time making any progress if they take on too many tasks/goals at once. As it happened, I ended up taking out roughly 90% of my single-leg training. The only single-leg training I performed was pushing/dragging the Prowler as well as the occasional Bulgarian split squat or one-legged Romanian deadlift. But even these were fairly limited, and I gravitated more towards bilateral accessory work like glute-ham raises, barbell bridges, etc.
- I still performed deadlifts during this time. After heavy squats on Monday, I'd perform some "speed" pulls, setting a timer for 15-20 minutes and performing as many singles as I could using 50-70% of my 1RM. This was awesome, and something I'd highly recommend. I'd also perform a handful of sets of lower-rep deadlifts (1-3 reps) on Thursday before my high rep squats.
- Upper body was kept at maintenance. With squatting four times per week, I couldn't be too concerned with my bench press numbers. Considering I like benching about as much as I like getting hoofed in the tackle, this wasn't a huge deal for me. To that end, I benched heavy once per week (3 x 5), and the rest of my upper body training consisted of DB presses, pull-ups, push-up variations, and lots of horizontal rowing.
- I had to keep up with my tissue quality while doing this experiment. While I'm typically pretty good at keeping up with it, I made a point to foam roll every training day, placing a priority on my quads, adductors, external rotators, IT band, and ego. Trust me: Do not skip your foam rolling.
- Because I had access to specialty bars (cambered bar, safety squat bar, etc.), I'd perform a different squat variation each day. I realize that not everyone has this luxury, so feel free to back squat heavy on one day, and revert to front squats on your high(er) rep day. Or vice versa. Maybe even throw in some dead-start Anderson squats or barbell split squats? It really doesn't matter.
As you can see, I kept things pretty simple and didn't bog myself down with too many rules or parameters to follow. It's funny, we often feel that the more complicated and extravagant a program is, the more effective it will be. This couldn't be further from the truth, as some of the programs that deliver the best results are the ones that are stripped down and seemingly devoid of any fluff or extraneous BS.
I followed this experiment for just a shade over five weeks. Here are some candid thoughts and observations:
- My quads (and ass) definitely got bigger – which wasn't surprising considering I squatted 20 times in a span of 35 days. I didn't take any before/after pictures of my caboose so you're just going to have to take my word for it. If it's any consolation, my girlfriend had to take me shopping for a new pair of jeans, which was about as fun as lighting my face on fire.
- I saw marked improvement in my squat numbers – again, not really surprising. As a frame of reference, I started off my "heavy" squat days performing sets of 3 reps with 245-265 pounds. By week five, I was using 335 pounds for multiple sets, and even hit a set of 10 (deep) reps with 300 pounds. And while I realize that's really nothing to brag about, it ain't too shabby either – especially considering I hadn't been squatting regularly for an extended period of time.
- What is surprising is how amazing my knees feel. They haven't felt this good in a very long time, and part of me feels it's because I've omitted the bulk of my single-leg training. More specifically, I've omitted the bulk of my lunging (both forward and reverse). The fitness industry flips flops more than a shady politician. One week single-leg training is the shit and everyone and their mother is singing its praises, and the next it wrecks the knees, overstretches the hip flexors, and leaves the toilet seat up. I'm not against single-leg training – I understand its efficacy, and still use it with my athletes and clients – but the reality is nothing is perfect for everyone. What works for one person won't necessarily work for the next. Does this mean I'm going to omit single-leg training from my own programming long-term? Absolutely not. However, for the time being I'm nixing most of it (lunges, step-ups, etc.) and I'm okay with that.
- And finally, you're probably wondering if I saw an improvement in my deadlift. Unfortunately, no I didn't. But it also didn't get worse! I can't complain – I increased muscle mass over my entire body, and my squats have gone up significantly. I'll need to tinker with a few things moving forward, but I have no doubt that the fruits of my labor will pay off and I'll hit that 600-pound pull soon enough.
Wrapping things up, I had a blast with this program. It's something I'll likely play around with for a longer period of time as squats seem to lend themselves very well to a higher frequency format as there are so many variations and loading parameters that can be used.
I'd love to see others try this "system" out and let me know if it works for them. However, if you do decide to jump in, implement the suggestions above and don't try to tackle too many things at once. Remember, if you're going to squat upwards of four times per week, something has to come out of your current program.
The payoff is you may be rewarded with a bigger squat, bigger quads, and possibly a bigger jean collection.
Now go have some fun!