Put two or more weightlifting or strength coaches in the same room and the discussion will quickly turn to shoptalk. Likewise, whenever I get a chance to meet a successful colleague, I always seize the opportunity to exchange training philosophies.
In July I attended Hans Blomberg’s wedding. Hans is the son of Eleiko owners Lennart and Gunnila Blomberg – all wonderful people who run a successful business characterized by the highest-quality products and unparalleled customer service. While there I had dinner with Eleiko’s Russian representative, Maxim Agapitov, a man who has definitely walked the talk in the iron game.
Agapitov is the 1997 World Weightlifting Champion, a title he won by snatching 175 kilos and clean and jerking 205 kilos in the 91-kilo bodyweight division. Eight years later Agapitov set a masters world record in the snatch with 155 kilos in the 94-kilo (207) bodyweight class in the 35-39 age category, a lift that has yet to be surpassed. In addition to being highly skilled in the classical lifts, Agapitov is no slouch in the back squat, having done 300 kilos for a double at a bodyweight of only 94 kilos. When you do the math, that translates into a full squat of 351 percent of bodyweight for a single!
Because squat work is so critical for success in Olympic lifting and other sports, my colleagues and I are always exchanging thoughts on how to achieve maximal results in the squat. Here are some talking points from those discussions.
Singles – Yes or No?
Most weightlifting experts have evolved their thinking into abstaining from doing maximum singles on the back squats. Frank Mantek, who is Germany’s national weightlifting coach, won a bronze medal in the 1980 Olympics and coached many Olympic medalists, including 2008 super heavyweight gold medalist Matthias Steiner, 1988 gold medalist Ronny Weller and two-time Olympic silver medalist Marc Huster. Mantek is opposed to performing maximum singles in the squat.
I met Mantek last August during a seminar in Colorado Springs, and he stressed the idea that performing maximum singles in the back squat presents too great a risk of injury. While he had no problem going for broke in the front squat, where you can safely drop the bar in front if you get in trouble, Mantek was opposed to max singles in the back squat. Agapitov also endorsed this training philosophy when I met him. This begs the question “How do you determine your max squat?”
I believe the best approach, and the most practical, is to go for a max double. This is the type where your spleen touches the back of your left eyeball in the concentric range of the second rep. Take that result, add five percent, and you’ve got your max single.
How much and how often?
For most sportsmen a double bodyweight squat, ass to the grass, is plenty to compete at the Olympics in most power sports. You can achieve that norm by squatting once every 5 days. That being said, such results won’t do much for you if you want to step on the podium in a weightlifting event!
The top eight weightlifters in the world often full squat between 350 and 380 percent of their bodyweight, with the higher percentages being seen in the lighter weight classes. For example, Stefan Botev back squatted 370 kg at 110 kilos bodyweight, while his Bulgarian teammate did 404 percent of bodyweight in the 67.5 kg weight class.
Agapitov squatted seven days a week to become World Champion. But in order to get to that level of proficiency, weightlifters will often squat 9 to 15 times a week. The following chart illustrates this relationship.
Number of monthly squat workouts in relation to relative strength scores in back squats (Poliquin©, 1997)
6 28 36 60
Before going any further in this discussion, consider that I am talking about a raw FULL squat. Not a powerlifting squat with the lower thighs at parallel and with various support gear – not that I’m knocking the sport of powerlifting, but their basic approach to squatting is to use techniques that enable them to lift the most weight within the shortest distance possible. Comparing the squats performed by weightlifters to those performed by powerlifters is like comparing apples to oranges…or perhaps Frank Sinatra to Eminem.
What are the best sets and reps to increase the back squat?
This is one of my favorite questions to ask my successful colleagues, as there are many training protocols that will improve your back squat. The following are set-rep protocols recommended by weightlifting coaches of multiple Olympic medalists. (To avoid confusion, recognize that sets always come before reps, so that 2 x 5 means 2 sets of 5 reps, not 5 sets of 2 reps.)
Wave-Like Pattern 1
With this protocol, the trainee should be able to use more weight during each successive “wave” as the nervous system adapts to the workout. For example, a lifter might squat 150 kilos for 3 on the first wave, 160 kilos for 3 on the second, and 170 kilos for 3 on the third.
1 x 7, 1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 7 , 1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 7 , 1 x 5, 1 x 3
Wave-Like Pattern 2
This is simply a variation of the previous workout, but it’s designed for a more advanced athlete who is striving for maximal strength, especially relative strength.
1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 2, 1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 2, 1 x 5, 1 x 3, 1 x 2
Patient System 1
Choose a weight that is very challenging (but possible) to lift for 8 sets of 2. In every workout try to get to 8 sets of 3. Once you can do 8 sets of 3, increase the weight.
Max Double, Max Sets of 3 Method
Go for a max double, take off about 7 percent of the load, and perform as many sets of 3 as possible with that new load within a 50-minute time frame. The time frame starts as soon as the heavy double has been completed.
This protocol consists of performing 4 sets of 4, followed by 4 sets of 5. None of the sets are taken to full muscular failure – you get the strength training effect from the sheer volume of high-quality work.
What are the best plateau busters?
I have asked the following question to every single expert: “If the squat is not up to par, what do you recommend?” Here are some of the answers:
Squat more often (most common answer)
Lower the training intensity, doing more sets of 4 to 5 (also a very common answer)
Dead stops in bottom position
Eccentric snatch deadlifts on podium (do these when a lifter’s lower back strength is the limiting factor)
More hamstrings work as hip extensors, using exercises such as hypers, 45-degree back extensions, and various forms of semi-stiff-legged deadlifts.
Loaded drop jumps
Super imposed method
Increase regeneration: Depending of country of origin, my colleagues’ approaches differed: Increase Yin herbs, anti-inflammatory herbs, acupuncture (Chinese), laser to break down scar tissue, use methods such as frequency specific micro-current, manual therapies, and applied kinesiology.
It’s been said that the squat is the king of exercises, but to achieve maximal results in this great lift you have to think carefully about the pros and cons of each training method you could use. I hope you’ll try the ideas presented in this article because they are proven winners.