The 21-Day Squat Challenge
There's research that suggests it takes about three weeks to break a bad habit. Today I'm going to help you break the bad habit of squatting like a wimp.
About a month ago we'd just gotten through a nice squat cycle at my gym that lasted for a full four weeks. My lifter Chris was disappointed that nearly everyone else in the club was hitting big squat PRs (personal records) but him. To be fair, he'd just gotten over a hamstring injury that took almost three months to heal. And during that time he'd improved all of his other lifts. (For example, he hit his first bodyweight snatch during this period.)
But, you know how it is - you don't want to be the only person in the room not improving their squat. How embarrassing!
To fix this issue, Chris decided to go back to something that worked really well for him (for all of us) in the past. He decided to start squatting every day, no days off, and even squat twice a day if he could swing it.
Why More Is Not Always Better, But It Usually Is
Chris is one of what I could (lovingly) term my lab rats group. I have a small crew of lifters who I do a remarkable amount of - borderline cruel - experimentation on. Sometimes the experiments fail horribly, and they don't see any progress during that time. Worse, the progress can go DOWN.
But more often than not, this group of lab rats sees faster than normal rates of progress. They hit more PRs than anyone else in my gym. And they have become the drivers of positive change from which everyone else I coach benefits.
One of really cruel - and hyper-successful - experiments I ran involved us training seven days per week, multiple times per day (on at least three of those days), for over two months straight. During this time everyone who participated saw rapid improvements and hit big PRs on all the important lifts we track data on.
The only exercise we did every single day was the squat. No matter what, every single day, we squatted. Monday through Saturday we'd start with the Olympic lifts. In the mornings on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday we did power versions and front squats. And on Sunday we back squatted to a max.
Every squat session was to a max. And nearly all of them had back-off sets in the two to three rep ranges for multiple sets. (Oddly, we'd sometimes squat a double with our daily max. Figure that one out!)
As I like to say, "More isn't always better, but it usually is." This philosophy applies to squats more than almost any other exercise in the gym. The more you do it, the better you get. Period.
Details of the 21-Day Squat Challenge
Given that history of everyday squatting, Chris figured if his squat wasn't going up, then he'd just have to do more squatting until it did. (Can you see why we get along?)
For 21 days during the month of March, Chris squatted every day. No days off. And on some of those days he squatted in the morning, before coming into our club in the evenings for our normal workouts.
We were all busy doing what my friend Cliff dubbed, "The Squat Nemesis Program" - which is basically this:
- Squat to a max.
- Drop about 20 to 30% off the bar and squat up to a heavy three ("heavy three" means the heaviest weight you can do without missing) - go up by no more than 5 to 10k at a time!
- Drop about 20 to 30% off of that and do two sets of five with the best form you can muster, trying to come up as fast out of the hole as you possibly can.
That was what he did five days a week in the evenings. Monday, Wednesday, and Friday he did it for back squats. Tuesday/Thursday he did it for front squats. On weekends and mornings he'd front squat (or back squat) to a max, then if he felt like it, he'd do some back-off sets. The back-off sets weren't done very hard as we were getting in plenty of volume (volume = sets x reps) in the evening sessions.
This means he squatted to a max AT LEAST seven times per week.
There are two common complaints I get when I discuss the high-frequency training some of my lifters engage in:
- It is impractical for people who have jobs to do such things.
- It will kill anyone who isn't 20 years old.
Both of these are only partly true and Chris is a great test case for them. Chris is 32-years old and is a substitute high school math teacher. That puts him in what I'd consider the lower end of the median age group for recreational weightlifters.
Most recreational lifters are somewhere between 25 and 55. Of those, the vast majority are in their 30s and 40s. In other words, people who are in their career-prime.
- People who are starting families.
- People who are busy.
- People who don't have the luxury of sleeping all day to recover easily from hard workouts.
And yet, this is exactly the age group of the lifters I put on the hardest routines I have (at 34 years old, I'm one of them). I've found by forcing "older" people to work at the upper limits of their capacity, they make progress we usually only see in "younger" people.
Not every lifter of mine squats every day. Not all of them go to a true max on every lift every day. We're smart, and we play a lot of things by ear. But every lifter attempts to train at the absolute upper limits of what they are capable of given their time schedule and recovery ability.
Anything less than your best and you aren't doing one of my programs at all, but a pale imitation of one.
Take The Challenge
If your own squat numbers haven't moved up in a while and you aren't happy with that, here's what I want you to do:
- Pick either the front squat, the back squat, or both.
- Lift up to a max single at least once every day.
- Try to add in some back-off sets if you can on a few of those days.
If you've never tried this, you might find it surprising to hear that lifting up to a maximum single rep is not particularly taxing. What gets you is all the extra volume from the back off sets.
Females and younger lifters often need more volume, more back-off sets to see great gains. Older male lifters can do better cutting back on that stuff and sticking with the maxing out.
The only way to know is to play with it. Give yourself three weeks, 21 days, to test this out for yourself. If nothing else, you'll have something cool to tell your grandchildren about.