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Popular Training Systems Adapted to Neurotype – Part 2: Smolov

CrossFit did many great things for the world of lifting in general, three of which are the democratization of the deadlift, squat and Olympic lifts. Prior to the advent of CrossFit, I would say that maybe 30% of the gym rats squatted with any kind of intensity and dedication. Even less than that deadlifted and let’s not even talk about Olympic lifting! But CrossFit made it cool to do these lifts. And as such, even when you go to bro gyms, you will see a lot more people squatting and deadlifting than in the previous 20 years.

With the increase in popularity of these lifts came the need to shine in the gym (and mostly, on social media) by putting up big numbers. And who talks about the need to get stronger also talks about the need for a super secret magic program!

Enter the Smolov squat program!

WHAT IS “SMOLOV”

Smolov refers to two specific progression models designed for bringing squat numbers up. You have the full version which is 13 weeks long and the Smolov Junior version, which is more of a blitz and lasts 3 weeks (and we would normally add a 4th week which would be your peak).

In this article, I will be discussing adaptations to the Smolov Jr. model, as it is the most popular out of the two.

It is a program based on frequency (squatting four times a week) and stimulus variation (using a different sets/reps scheme on all four days).

The basic schedule for the Smolov Jr. is as follows:

DAY 1 (Monday) – 6 sets of 6 reps

DAY 2 (Wednesday) – 7 sets of 5 reps

DAY 3 (Friday) – 8 sets of 4

DAY 4 (Saturday) – 10 sets of 3

The progression model is:

DAY 1

Week 1: 70%

Week 2: Add 10lbs

Week 3: Add 10lbs

DAY 2

Week 1: 75%

Week 2: Add 10lbs

Week 3: Add 10lbs

DAY 3

Week 1: 80%

Week 2: Add 10lbs

Week 3: Add 10lbs

DAY 4

Week 1: 85%

Week 2: Add 10lbs

Week 3: Add 10lbs

And if we were to add a peak week to establish a new PR I would suggest:

DAY 1 – 4 x 3 @ 80%

DAY 2 – 3 x 2 @ 90%

DAY 3 – 3 x 1 @ 80%

DAY 4 – Test max

IF YOU WANT TO SQUAT A LOT … YOU NEED TO SQUAT A LOT

The basic premise of the Smolov plan is simple: if you want a lift to go up, train that lift very often. A higher frequency of training is something I’ve always believed in. All the most rapid strength gains I made in my lifting career occurred when I focused on bringing up one lift by training it hard very often (of course, decreasing the amount of work for the other lifts).

– I took my snatch grip high pull from 130kg to 180kg in a little over 3 weeks by doing high pulls and pull variations 6 days a week.

– I took my bench press from 165kg to 190kg in 6 weeks by bench pressing 5 days a week using various methods

– I reached a 225kg front squat and 280kg high bar back squat by squatting 5-6 days a week

– When I decided to hit my squat hard again after 6 years of almost not training legs I took my squat from 180kg to 230kg in 5 weeks training the squat 4-5 days a week

So, to me the Smolov program is nothing “new” or “special”. If anything, to anybody with an Olympic lifting background, it shouldn’t be ground-breaking because Olympic lifters are used to squatting 4-6 days a week.

But for the general population, and mostly for the CrossFit community (in which it became super popular for a while) it was a revolution.

Don’t get me wrong, there is some value to changing the sets/reps scheme on every squatting day but the real key to the success of the Smolov program is the high frequency of squatting: 4 days a week.

It’s the high frequency that will maximize neural adaptations like muscle fiber recruitment, inter and intramuscular coordination muscle fiber firing rate. And these adaptations are what drive strength gains.

Never forget one thing: displaying maximal strength is not just a physical capacity: it’s a motor skill.

And never forget that the most important thing to improve a motor skill is frequency, not quantity, of practice.

A higher frequency of training a muscle group is also a superior way to stimulate muscle growth, especially in the natural trainee who needs to trigger protein synthesis via the training session; which means that more frequent sessions (as long as you can recover) will lead to better growth.

LOAD VARIATION TO MAXIMIZE GAINS

While the high frequency is the most important element of the Smolov plan, the daily load variation also plays a role in maximizing the gains.

First, even though the Smolov Jr. plan focuses less on hypertrophy than the original plan (which uses sets of 7 and 9 reps), the sets of 6 and 5 reps will help you increase muscle mass. Especially considering the high number of sets, leading to a higher overall volume. And the last two days target mostly neural adaptations via low reps/heavier loads.

There are also benefits in gradually increasing the load used from day to day; first it gradually ramps up the nervous system, but most of all it allows for a gentler psychological adaptation, getting you gradually prepared for your all-out effort on day four.

As such, we could say that Smolov works for two main reasons:

  1. The high frequency maximizes neural adaptations and helps you become more comfortable and technically efficient in the squat
  2. The different types of stimulation throughout the week allow you to target both muscle mass increase and neural gains, both of which play a big role in getting stronger on a lift

THE LIMITATIONS OF THE SMOLOV PLAN

When I was involved in the CrossFit community, the Smolov plan became super popular at one point. That was around 4-5 years ago, right after the Games. Suddenly, everybody wanted to do the Smolov Jr. plan.

I know tons of CrossFit athletes who did it. I would say that 25-30% got amazing results, 50% had decent results but not to the level they expected, and the rest had unsatisfactory results (ranging from a small increase to even a small decrease in squatting strength).

I believe that the Smolov plan works very well, physiologically. But, it is my experience that people grossly underestimate the importance of the psychological aspect of training. Namely, if a program is not motivating for you, you will get less results because it will affect your training focus and intensity.

The Smolov plan as it is might be good for some neurotypes. Type 2A for example, will be well suited for the traditional Smolov Jr. training plan. First, because they can do both muscular and neural work with equal motivation. Also, with them everything works, but nothing works for a long time (they need the most variation) but type 2A are also natural mimickers: they tend to adapt themselves to the person they are with or take on personality traits from the person that is the most important/influential in their circle. They are the ones who are the most likely to become more motivated by doing a “big name” program or follow a diet based on a specific ideology. They are also often attracted to CrossFit and will be the ones who buy all the expensive Rogue gear even when they are just recreational trainees. So, a Type 2A will be motivated by doing a “well known” program.

However give the Smolov Jr. as is to a neurotype 1A and you will either burn them out or kill their motivation. Type 1A are designed for two things 1) intensity (heavy weights) and 2) competition. They are not designed for volume and have a marked decrease in performance after 9-12 seconds of effort, and prefer when the load is at least 85% of their maximum. They also burn out fast when doing volume work.

Considering these elements, sets of 6 will not be effective for them, they should normally stay at 5 reps or less on big compound movements. The high number of sets with a fixed weight is also not good for them: they normally have a decrease in performance after 3-4 heavy sets and continuing with more volume will make it very hard for them to recover.

Furthermore, only the last day touches weights in the zone that really motivates them and makes them feel satisfied (85%+).

Since they are competitive they must “beat the workout” and as such, using a fixed percentage or sticking to a programmed weight will not be motivating for them.

With that in mind, here are my recommendations for how do a “Smolov-like” approach for each neurotype.

TYPE 1A SQUAT CYCLE

Type 1A are competitive, intense and driven. They are an all-or-nothing personality. They want to win at everything. They are neurologically designed for maximal efforts but cannot tolerate volume. When it comes down to a set, they have a drastic drop in performance after 9-12 seconds making sets of more than 5-6 reps on the big compound lifts (like squats) an inefficient way to train.

The Type 1A do very well on high frequency so they won’t have trouble with the 4 sessions of squats per week. But they can’t do volume and need to be able to “win the workout”, meaning that they don’t do well when they are given a specific weight to lift in a given workout.

When doing a Smolov-like program the Type 1A should not go above 5 reps per set to stay in the right zone. Here is what a weekly schedule should look like:

Option 1 : Ramp up Heavier from day to day

DAY 1 – Work up to a 5RM (maximum weight that can be lifted for 5 reps with good form) using the hanging band technique*. Hang 25-35 lbs per side.

DAY 2 – Work up to a 5RM with a slow eccentric (4-5 seconds)

DAY 3 – Work up to a 3RM (normal reps)

DAY 4 – Work up to a technically solid 1RM (normal reps)

NOTE: “Work up” or “Ramping” means that you do sets of the target reps (5, 3 or 1) while gradually adding weight on every set. You start with around 60% and work up from there. Type 1A need the fewest sets when doing a ramp up. I normally want them to reach their top weight in around 5 sets. Of course, if dealing with the 600lbs+ squatter it might take a few more sets to get there.

There is no need for a week to week progression model, since each training day is a ramp up to a daily RM.

Option 2: Range of motion reduction to increase load

DAY 1 – Squat from pins below parallel work up to 3 RM

DAY 2 – Squat from pins parallel work up to 3 RM

DAY 3 – Box squat parallel work up to 2 RM

DAY 4 – Box squat above the parallel work up to 1 RM

NOTE: The 1A profile has a specificity: it can gain strength over the full amplitude of a movement even if it they are only partial movements, the only condition being that the nervous system is strongly activated.

TYPE 1B SQUAT CYCLE

Type 1B are also confident and somewhat competitive. In training, 1B show this competitiveness in the form of impatience. They judge their training by how much more weight they can lift and they want to progress NOW! They are naturally explosive, they are wired to use the stretch reflex (because of the higher level of acetylcholine. Acetylcholine increases the sensitivity of the muscle spindle/stretch reflex). They also need more variation; mostly in the motor tasks not so much in the style of repetition/method.

NOTE: The training tools used (speciality bar, chains, bands, weight releasers) are not “methods”, they are “means” which are seen by the brain as a different motor task because the movement feels completely different.

Type 1B should thus vary either the squat variation or the tool used on each of the four workouts, but always going from the smaller to the greater load (to respect the original Smolov progression).

Just like a Type 1A, they don’t do well where there are too many work sets for each exercise. As such the original model will not fit them well.

Here are two options:

Option 1. Squat variation

DAY 1 – Front squat / Ramp to a 5RM

DAY 2 – Safety bar squat / Ramp to a 4RM

DAY 3 – Zercher squat / Ramp to a 3RM

DAY 4 – Back squat / Ramp to a 2RM

You can reverse the day 2 and day 3 exercises depending on your weakness. If your Zercher squat is lighter than your safety bar squat, do the Zercher on day 2.

Option 2. Tool variation

DAY 1 – Hanging band technique1 / Ramp to 5RM

DAY 2 – Reverse band squat2 / Ramp to 4RM

DAY 3 – Squat with chains3 / Ramp to 3RM

DAY 4 – Squat with bands4 / Ramp to 2RM

NOTE: If you have access to a set of weight releasers you can replace the bands on DAY 4, by weight releasers adding around 10% per side. Do not do the eccentric super slow, do a normal eccentric and use the extra load during the eccentric to trigger and even bigger stretch reflex.

Information about the tools

* For the bands, I will use the Elite FTS models but I will also list the width of the band if you are using a different brand.

  1. With the hanging band technique I recommend handing 25-35lbs per side. You hang them using a pro light band (1 and 1/8th of an inch wide)
  2. With the reverse band squat you can use either a pro light band (1 and 1/8th of an inch) or a pro average band (1.75 inches wide). Of course, with the former you will use less barbell weight because it will not help you as much. With a type 1B, I prefer to use less band assistance (so the pro light would be better) because we don’t want an excessive overload at the top.
  3. For the chains, it is important to set them up properly. When you are at the top, there should be 1-2 links on the floor, no more (and it should not hang freely in the air either) and when it’s on the floor the totality of the chains should be on the floor. This provides the greatest load contrast throughout the exercise. You will need either a smaller chain or a nylon belt (I’ve even used a very thick resistance band) to hang the chains. And the chains should be “folded” in half to allow for the total deload at the bottom.

chains

 

Each set of chains should weigh 20-25lbs. You can get some here: https://www.elitefts.com/eliteftstm-pair-of-5-8-chains.html

If your squat is less than 405lbs, use only one set of chains. If it’s between 405 and 500, use two sets and if it is above 500, use three sets per side.

  1. In the squat with added band resistance (band attached to the bottom of the rack) use either a pro light band (1 1/8th of an inch), a pro average band (1.75″) or pro strong band (2.5″ wide) depending on your strength level. Up to 315, use the light band, up to 405, use the average band and if you squat more use the strong band. A Type 1A could use more band resistance, but Type 1B are better off using more barbell weight and less band weight.

TYPE 2A SQUAT CYCLE

Type 2A are normally extroverted and fun to be around. However, deep down they have a lower level of confidence and the reason why they are fun to be around is that they need everybody to like them. They are great at adapting to the person they are talking to. They can handle a lot of physical work, they are hard to overtrain, BUT they get easily bored from training if it becomes repetitive. If they repeat the same training for too long, they will show signs of mental fatigue that are similar to overtraining.  As I always say, with them everything works but nothing works for long. They do better when they have a wide variety of stimuli in their training.

For this reason, they can do the Smolov Jr. as it was designed. The change in rep ranges throughout the week will keep them motivated, at least for a while. And the program being 3-4 weeks in length is about the limit of what they can do.

Even though the traditional Smolov Jr. program will work for them, I still prefer an approach that includes more variation, especially in the methods used (Type 2A love methods variation).

Option 1. Method variation

DAY 1 – Speed squats with 60-67.5% of 1RM for sets of 3 (see progression model after the schedule)

DAY 2 – Slow eccentrics (5 seconds) squats 4 sets of 6

DAY 3 – Paused squats (3 second just short of the bottom position) 6 sets of 4

DAY 4 – Regular squats ramp up to 3RM

NOTE ON PROGRESSION

For DAY 1 the progression over 4 weeks is as follow:

Week 1: 12 x 3 @ 60%

Week 2: 10 x 3 @ 62.5%

Week 3: 8 x 3 @ 65%

Week 4: 6 x 3 @ 67.5%

For DAY 2 the progression over 4 weeks is as follow:

Week 1: 4 x 6 @ 70%

Week 2: 4 x 6 with 10lbs more

Week 3: 4 x 6 with 10lbs more

Week 4: 4 x 6 with 10lbs more

For DAY 3 the progression over 4 weeks would look like:

Week 1: 6 x 4 @ 75%

Week 2: 6 x 4 with 10lbs more

Week 3: 6 x 4 with 10lbs more

Week 4: 6 x 4 with 10lbs more

On DAY 4 you work up to a 3RM so there is no specific progression scheme.

Option 2. mechanical advantage progression

* In this option I give you three exercises but you only do one depending on the week. See the progression model at the bottom for more info.

DAY 1 – Frankenstein squat – Front squat – Front squat heels elevated 

DAY 2 – Front squat – Zercher squat – High bar back squat

DAY 3 – Zercher squat – High bar back squat – Powerlifting/low bar back squat 

DAY 4 – High bar back squat – Powerlifting/low bar back squat – Sumo deadlift

Week 1 = Work up to 5 RM for the first movement

Week 2 = Work up to 4 RM for the second movement

Week 3 = Work up to 3 RM for the third movement

Week 4 = Only to the back squat (your style of choice) on all 4 day, 4 x 3 @ 80% on day 1, 3 x 1 @ 90% on day 2, 3 x 2 @ 80% on day 3, and test your max on day 4

TYPE 2B SQUAT CYCLE

 

Type 2B place a lot of importance on the mind-muscle connection, they do well on a high level of lactic acid, in fact they like it… the burn and the pump are two things that make them feel good about the workout. They don’t do as well on very low reps with near-maximal weight. I like to describe their training as such: “They become stronger by becoming bigger”, meaning that even when training for strength they should focus on adding more muscle amass.

They will do quite well on a Smolov-like approach (they don’t need much variation as long as they feel a good mind-muscle connection and pump), but the Smolov Jr. might be a bit too low on reps to really target maximal hypertrophy. And when they go heavy, they can’t do too many sets because neural work is a lot more traumatic/stressful for them and they can’t do a lot of it. However, they can do a high volume of hypertrophy work and recover more easily.

For them I would recommend the following structure:

DAY 1 – 6 sets of 10

DAY 2 – 5 sets of 8

DAY 3 – 4 sets of 5

DAY 4 – 3 sets of 3

And I would use the following progression model:

DAY 1

Week 1: 65%

Week 2: Add 10lbs

Week 3: Add 10lbs

Week 4: Add 10lbs

DAY 2

Week 1: 70%

Week 2: Add 10lbs

Week 3: Add 10lbs

Week 4: Add 10lbs

DAY 3

Week 1: 75%

Week 2: Add 10lbs

Week 3: Add 10lbs

Week 4: Add 10lbs

DAY 4

Week 1: 80%, 82.5%, 85%

Week 2: 82.5%, 85%, 87.5%

Week 3: 85%, 87.5%, 90%

Week 4: 87.5%, 90%, 92.5%

Type 2B should use a fairly slow eccentric (around 4 seconds) on pretty much all their reps. This will give them a better mind-muscle connection, movement control and pump while helping them build more muscle (they get stronger by becoming bigger).

TYPE 3 SQUATTING CYCLE 

Type 3 are more naturally anxious and prefer to follow a specific plan. They also don’t need much variation, which makes a high frequency plan like Smolov appealing to them. However, they don’t do well on heavy weights and are often intimidated when it comes to putting more weight on the bar: they must feel like that have mastered a certain weight before being able to accept putting more on the bar. They are very patient and not number-driven, but rather put a big emphasis on technical mastery and precision.

The original Smolov Jr. plan is good in structure but the weights are too high and the daily variation in load might not be optimal for them.

With them, I prefer a fixed-load during the week, but increasing the demand of the sessions by changing the style of reps using methods like slow eccentrics and pauses. This also allows them to improve technique and gives them the feeling of being in control of the weight, which is key for them to be able to progress.

NOTE: Type 3 do much better if they repeat the same program for longer. So even though I am giving a 4-week plan, they will get the best results from repeating the plan 2 or even 3 times in a row.

IMPORTANT THING FOR TYPE 3: WARM-UP SETS:

Here is the structure they should follow:

DAY 1 – 5 x 10 regular reps

DAY 2 – 5 x 8 with a slow eccentric (5 seconds)

DAY 3 – 5 x 6 with a slow eccentric & a 2 sec pause at the mid-range position during the eccentric (going down)

DAY 4 – 5 x 4 with a slow eccentric & a 2 sec pause at the mid-range during the concentric (going up)

And the progression model would be as such:

Start with a weight of 65% (you use the same weight for all 4 sessions) and add 5-10lbs per week. Remember that Type 3 are patient, and don’t like big weight increases. That’s why I prefer that they do 2 or 3 cycles in a row for maximum progress. If they decide only to do one, they can likely increase by 10lbs per week but it will take its toll mentally since they are built more for slow, gradual progression.

CONCLUSION

Don’t get me wrong, the original Smolov Jr. plan will work for pretty much all the neurotypes, at least to some extent. After all, it’s only 3-4 weeks long, not really enough to cause a dramatic decrease in motivation. But as with all the general plans, there is always a way to optimize it when you understand the particularities of each neurotype. It is my belief that the future of training is not in creating new methods or systems, but rather in adapting the great systems we already have for the needs and particularities of each neurotype to ensure the best long term results.

As with most of the neurotype material, I want to thank my friend Matthieu Jeandel for providing his valuable input, but mostly for being a great guy to brainstorm with. Every time we talk about the subject, great new ideas come up.

Christian Thibaudeau

Written by Christian Thibaudeau

Christian Thibaudeau has been involved in the business of training for over the last 16 years. During this period, he worked with athletes from 28 different sports. He has been “Head Strength Coach” for the Central Institute for Human Performance (of…