The 5 Stages of Smolov

So you’ve decided to take the plunge. You’ve heard the stories, you’ve succumbed to the hype, you’ve been seduced. Mother Russia has reeled you in with promises of gains and glory, and now you’ve committed to 13 weeks of torturous tortuous squat volume. What lies ahead as you wander down the path which has felled so many before you?

Stage 1 – Fear

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What have you gotten yourself in to?! Most hopeful lifters don’t finish the programme. We don’t know what happens to them, we don’t know where the bodies are, we just know that few survive. The super high volume and frequency, and the aggressive intensity calculations make this a real widow-maker – even for those accustomed to training with higher volumes. How much should I drop my starting max by? How am I going to fit all of these sessions into my week? Who is my next of kin? 95% for 3 x 4? Good Lord!

Stage 2 – Optimism

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The initial phase or ‘Introductory’ microcycle is designed as a preparatory phase for the rest of the programme. The up to 6x per week, back to back sessions are programmed to condition the athlete ahead of the gruelling weeks to come. For most gym goers, back to back leg days are unheard of; underestimate this programme at your peril. The baptism of fire is real. Cancel all appointments, reschedule all plans, this may well be the end. But wait, Day 3, Day 4, Day 5 all come and go, and yet you are still alive. In fact, you’re starting to enjoy it. Who’d have thought that consecutive squat sessions would be manageable? Why haven’t I been crippled by DOMS? Why am I no longer cowering at the sight of stairs? Maybe I can actually do this. Smolov isn’t that bad, what’s all the fuss about? Lunges? I eat lunges for breakfast.

Stage 3 – Delusions of grandeur

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The ‘Base’ cycle (also known as Smolov Jr) is where the hard graft really starts. A healthy 4 sessions per week follow the 4 x 9, 5 x 7, 7 x 5, 10 x 3 format for 3 weeks. Here is where the first lifters start to fall victim to Smolov’s aggressive programming calculations. If you weren’t conservative with your starting max, your progress will soon grind to a halt as you’re callously ejected from the programme. These rep schemes take no prisoners. 4 x 9 @ 70% is no mean feat. If you don’t give the programme 100%, it will chew you up and spit you out. Your nutrition, rest, and recovery need to be on point. You can’t take a 30 rep session of 85% lightly.

The sets are hard, the waddle out of the rack is painful, but you’re doing it. You’re actually doing it! And you start to tell yourself that you’re going to make it, everything is going to be alright. (It’s not, but you don’t know that yet). The fact that you finished last week’s 5 x 7 lets you know that you can probably deal with this week’s incremental increase. Slowly but surely you get through these 12 sessions and then it’s Max Test day! It’s money time!

What sets Smolov apart from other programmes is its sickening level of volume. The volume is high for good reason – hypertrophy elicits strength gains. So it’s no surprise that old Smol leads to big results. This is shown on test day. Get ready for the biggest confidence boost you’ll ever get. You can realistically expect to see around a 10-15kg increase on your starting max at the end of the Base cycle, and boy does it feel good!

Stage 4 – Confidence

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This is it, you’re going to do this! You’re the Big Boss Dog, you’ve lasted 6 weeks, you’ve outlasted scores of other lifters; confidence is sky high right now. Not only have you dealt with the intense frequency, you’ve also been throwing around some big numbers. You’re proficiency and technique should be the best they’ve ever been, and to cap it all off you’ve just bagged yourself a spicy new squat max. O frabjous day! You’re untouchable. If you’ve made it to the halfway point of the programme you can genuinely feel proud – and you do. Proud is an understatement, you can take on anything.

In weeks 7 and 8 you see that the programme offers up a meagre 3 sessions per week of squat ‘variations’. What is this? Amateur Hour? This is basically a deload. Your brazen arrogance starts to have you question whether Smolov is worthy of you. While it’s fun to break things up and try out different lifts, you’re chomping at the bit to get back to the heavy back squats that you’ve come to depend on. A Fortnite™ without squat volume has left you with Stockholm Syndrome. Can I sneak a few squats in? Maybe a quick deadlift max attempt? But no, you stick to the programme, you ‘Trust the Process’. You’ve become a purist, you don’t want the (literal) blood, sweat, and tears of the Base cycle to be jeopardised. You stroll through weeks 7 and 8 with a cocky arrogance. Little do you know that your best days are over.

Stage 5 – The Grave

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And at last, we’re back to the squats. It’s time to take to the throne once more. Confidence is still sky high. The new numbers from the recalculated max look a little high, but it’s nothing you haven’t dealt with before. Not to worry. You can handle anything that’s put in front of you. The first session was a little spicy; you’d forgotten what it was like to sweat. Week 2 was a bit ‘grindier’ than you’d have hoped for, but you’re still on top. It’s Week 3 and you haven’t felt good about yourself in a while, inside or outside of the gym. You see that this cycle is named the ‘Intense’ cycle. Well what the hell were Weeks 3-5?

You miss a rep. It’s not a big deal, one rep isn’t going to hurt anyone, it’s just a bit of an ego killer. And then it hits you, you’d been increasingly struggling for a while, then probably in session 5 or 6 of the cycle you hit a wall. For the life of you, you just can’t get through the sets. Should I repeat the session? What happened? Why can’t I do it? Who programmed this? You shout at unsuspecting teenagers haplessly curling on the preacher bench. You’re delirious, you need to blame somebody. The rep scheme seems to have been thrown together at random. “1 x 5, 4 x 5, 3 x 5, what are you smoking?” “Nothing”, the young boy sheepishly replies.

The weight is always just enough to push you over the edge. I’ll try again in a couple of days, maybe I could just extend the programme a little. After 3 repeats, 2 skipped sessions, and fist-shaped hole in the wall, it finally sinks in. You’re not special. So many people fail to finish the programme, so many tales of heartbreak, but you were going to be different. The Oracle lied to you. As you rinse your tear sodden singlet, a wave of acceptance washes over you. It’s okay, you whisper; I didn’t really believe the hype anyway, you convince yourself. On your sullen walk home from the gym, above the cold night’s air, you can just about hear a ghostly Russian voice quietly chuckling away.

So what’s the significance of all of this?

If you did fail the programme, don’t feel too disheartened – most people fail, and like it or not, you are most people. What was your plan after Smolov? Were you expecting to keep your new squat gains? Did you have some plan to try to maintain or emulate this crippling level of volume? Thought not. The sieve that is the Smolov programme showed you a glimpse of your future, but that’s all it was, a mere looking glass, young Ebenezer. Your follow-on programme would be a bitter disappointment, just like the current state of your bench press.

Take the lessons you’ve learnt about yourself, capitalise on that time-under-the-bar and cement your squat technique. Re-purpose your new levels of grit and determination, maybe even write a bitter review article. On second thought, avoid that…

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