By Eric Trexler, CSCS, CISSN

Former Director of Research and Education, INOV8 Elite Performance

In 2012, I added 95 pounds to my squat in about six months. During this time period, my one-rep max (1RM) jumped from 405 to 500 lbs.

I attribute this progress almost exclusively to the base mesocycle of Smolov, an arduous training program that calls for heavy squatting, four days per week. Aside from giving me unbelievably rapid progress, Smolov also taught me five lessons along the way.

1. The human body is a pretty rugged machine

Some bodybuilders believe that training a particular muscle group too frequently disrupts recovery, which will lead to overtraining of that muscle, and eventually a lack of hypertrophy (or even atrophy). These individuals often train each muscle group once per week, and claim that they need an entire week of rest before feeling recovered enough to train that muscle group again.

I was once the same way. I would train chest on Monday, and it would take me an entire week to recover. Trying to train chest again on Thursday would have seemed crazy.

If you are in this situation, I encourage you to take a leap of faith. I had heard many experienced lifters preach about this lesson before learning it myself: The more frequently you train a muscle group, the quicker it seems to recover. This phenomenon may be attributed to the repeated bout effect, which states that exposure to acute muscle injury (from things like heavy lifting) results in muscle adaptations that serve to protect the muscle from future injury [1]. After a brief adjustment period, high frequency training becomes very tolerable, very quickly.

So don’t be afraid to train a muscle group frequently. Twice a week, three times a week, and even higher if you’d like. As long as your training is periodized in an intelligent manner, there is nothing wrong with high frequency training, and your body will probably surprise you with its resilient ability to adapt. This is not to say that higher frequency is always better, but for power-oriented training, I don’t believe training a major muscle group once per week is sufficient.

2. You can make MAJOR strength gains without major muscle gains

Although strength and muscle mass are related, it is important to realize that you can drastically improve a lift without adding tremendous amounts of muscle mass. A muscle’s ability to produce power is modulated by a few things. One factor is the cross sectional area of the muscle (increase the CSA, increase the potential for force generation). Simply put: When you gain muscle mass, the CSA of the muscle goes up, and you typically see strength gains.

However, there are other neural factors to consider when talking about 1RM power. Aside from muscle CSA, the ability to rapidly generate high levels of force also depends on how efficiently and rapidly you can recruit the motor units involved [2], your ability to synergistically utilize the various muscle groups involved in the movement, and your ability to perform the movement skillfully.

By squatting over and over again, day in and day out, I definitely added some lean mass. However, I also became a more skilled squatter, and increased the speed and efficiency with which I recruited relevant motor units. I was amazed by how quickly my squat increased before any noticeable mass gains had materialized.

3. There is extraordinary benefit to training “calmly”

I was first introduced to the idea of training “calmly” by an article by Matt Perryman [3]. We’ve all seen the guy at the gym who blares heavy metal and pumps himself up before every “big” set— Some do this somewhat discreetly, while others don’t mind making a scene. In the article, Perryman raises a valid question: When “That Guy” complains of burnout, staleness, or symptoms of overtraining syndrome, is it because of his training load, or because of the habitual psychological arousal and stress from getting “pumped up”? Ultimately, Perryman argues that it is likely a combination of both, but that there may be benefit to training in a more calm state, reserving the psychological arousal for special occasions.

Indeed, research demonstrates that we should be mindful of “non-training” stress factors, including psychological and social stress [4]. Although it may occur during the training bout, I consider the five-minute, over-the-top pump up to be an extraneous and unnecessary source of stress that should be considered independently of the training load. Over time, this psychological arousal can be extremely draining and contribute to feelings of staleness and burnout.

I’m not saying you should be yawning as you approach the platform at a powerlifting meet. My point is that there is a time and a place for being amped up, and it should not be before every moderately heavy set you attempt. Smolov is a grueling program, with a ton of volume and heavy loads. Recovery is already hard enough— Why add unnecessary sources of stress?

Throughout Smolov, I challenged myself to train as calmly as possible. Sometimes, toward the end of a tough workout, I would have to pump myself up just to execute the prescribed reps. But, for the most part, I trained in a calm state, and I found it to be extremely effective for preventing burnout and symptoms of overtraining syndrome.

4. Overreaching can be pretty cool

As the title of this post indicates, Smolov taught me quite a bit about overtraining. Unfortunately, overtraining is often subject to misconceptions and blurred definitions, so I want to clear some of that stuff up.

Overtraining is systemic. So, you don’t overtrain your biceps and have completely “fresh” triceps— You are overtrained as a whole. If you train a particular muscle group with too much volume and intensity in a given time period, or you train with improper form, you may develop overuse injuries, but this is distinct from overtraining.

Overreaching occurs when you train with high enough volume and intensity that recovery is compromised, resulting in temporary performance decrements. This compromised recovery puts you in what can be considered a “recovery deficit.” In functional overreaching, this decrement in performance is often reversed with a week or two of rest or light training [5]. Not only does performance return to baseline, but it often rebounds above baseline [6]— In essence, the gains you earned from that strenuous training program finally materialize.

Non-functional overreaching is a different story. While some might argue that there is a slight distinction between non-functional overreaching and overtraining, the terms are often used interchangeably (I will do so in this article). In this case, you train with high enough volume and intensity to compromise recovery, but you keep that volume and intensity up for far too long. This is accompanied by a number of neural and hormonal changes that hurt performance, attenuate progress, and come with feelings of “burnout,” fatigue, and a number of other negative symptoms [5]. My personal belief is that neural aspects of overtraining are especially detrimental— As the neural components of power output start to decline, training suffers, and a long stretch of bad training bouts (coupled with insufficient recovery) is obviously not conducive to muscle or strength gains.

Further, in this scenario, a week or two off may not be sufficient for recovery— To bring performance back to baseline, this period of rest or light training may need to last over a month [5].

Based on the information covered in this section, a few conclusions should be drawn:

  • 1) Overtraining is systemic, not local 
  • 2) Overreaching is not necessarily bad, as long as it is planned intelligently 
  • 3) Overtraining is an issue of improper periodization over time- not training biceps two days in a row

At the end of Smolov, I was pretty freaked out. My goal was to squat 500, my meet was in less than two weeks, and I could barely get 445 up. Despite my concern, I went ahead and tapered my training down and tried to hold onto some faith.

During my 1.5 weeks of tapered training, I “rebounded” out of my recovery deficit. I started to feel much better. My light sets were beginning to feel much lighter than normal, and I felt more explosive. It may not have been easy, but by the day of the meet, I finally got the 500-pound squat I had been seeking.

5. Sometimes, you need to pump the brakes

Last year, I felt fantastic about the results of my training. My squat kept creeping higher and higher, and I refused to let my progress slow down. I started with a 405 lb squat, and Smolov brought me up to 455. Directly after that, I jumped right into Sheiko (another strenuous, high-volume program), and right into another round of Smolov, leading right up to my powerlifting meet. For each program, I used very aggressive “starting maxes,” meaning my daily training loads were just about as heavy as I could possibly manage.

This was all great. But two days after that competition, I jumped right back into Sheiko. I decided to skip a deload and dive right in, and I programmed my upcoming round of Sheiko based on a 500 lb max.

A couple days into the program, my knee gave out. I was squatting 405, and in the middle of a rep, it caved in on me. Though I managed to escape the injury without any major tears, it provided me with my final “lesson.”

Every lifter walks a very fine line. To get optimal results from your training, you need to push beyond your comfort zone. However, pushing a bit too far can lead to injuries, which severely inhibit progress. Following periods of drastic improvement (e.g., adding 95 lbs to your squat in <6 months), it may be prudent to program in a brief period of “maintenance.” This is not to say you shouldn’t train hard, but maybe you do a 4-6 week training block programmed more conservatively, allowing you to acclimate to bearing such heavy loads. In my case, it may have helped to enter Sheiko with a starting max of 450-470, even though my “true max” was 500.

So ends my Smolov story. Weight moved, goals achieved, and lessons learned. Hopefully you learned a thing or two by reading along.

Cliffs:

  • The human body is very rugged and remarkably capable of adaptation
  • Don’t be afraid of high-frequency training
  • Power is heavily influenced by neural adaptations, as well as muscular
  • It can be beneficial to train in a calm state of mind
  • Overtraining is systemic, not local
  • In a properly designed program, overreaching can be a helpful tool
  • Sometimes you need to slow yourself down. Don’t let overly ambitious goals set you up for injuries
  • Squatting a lot will make you a better squatter— What a surprise.

References

1. Dipasquale, D.M., R.J. Bloch, and R.M. Lovering, Determinants of the repeated-bout effect after lengthening contractions. Am J Phys Med Rehabil, 2011. 90(10): p. 816-24.

2. Folland, J.P. and A.G. Williams, The adaptations to strength training : morphological and neurological contributions to increased strength. Sports Med, 2007. 37(2): p. 145-68.

3. Perryman, M. How much can the CNS Handle? [Stress]. 31 March 2011; Available from: http://www.myosynthesis.com/cns-handle-stress.

4. Kentta, G. and P. Hassmen, Overtraining and recovery. A conceptual model. Sports Med, 1998. 26(1): p. 1-16.

5. Kreher, J.B. and J.B. Schwartz, Overtraining syndrome: a practical guide. Sports Health, 2012. 4(2): p. 128-38.

6. Meeusen, R., et al., Prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of the overtraining syndrome: joint consensus statement of the European College of Sport Science and the American College of Sports Medicine. Med Sci Sports Exerc, 2013. 45(1): p. 186-205.