Q&A: 21-Day Squat Challenge Explained
I’m really bad at predicting which of my articles are going to become popular. I could have sworn that the recent post I did for Breaking Muscle called, “The 21-Day Squat Challenge” would have just flown right under the radar.
This would have been fine, as the point of putting it up wasn’t to have a “hit”. (Not the I mind.) Rather it was to kick off a series of articles that are designed to explain difference aspects of how I approach a “Bulgarian-ish” style of coaching (heavy emphasis on the “ish”), how I define that term VERY differently than almost everyone else on earth, and the lessons you can take away from it all.
I figured it would be cool to kick that series off with a (very) simple program that pushes just one aspect of training that I find important: frequency.
However, I totally expected it to dud. I mean, while training daily (or near daily, or even twice daily) is rather old-hat to my lifters and other serious competitors in the sport … it isn’t something I would expect anyone else to want to do!
I was wrong. Very very wrong … as usual!
Why I’m Bothering To Write This
The 21-Day Squat Challenge article has become one of my most popular posts on Breaking Muscle as of late. It helped drive over 21,000 views from StumbleUpon to the Sunday Seven top list (it was #1).
Most importantly, I’ve gotten tons of emails, private Facebook messages, tweets, and other communication from people who are trying it out.
Rather than spend a bunch of time answering the same questions over and over, I figured I’d create a little resource where all of these questions can get answers. And if you have more, just put them in the comments section, and I’ll answer those, too!
There are a number of them, so I’m just gonna dive in.
Question: Can you explain the program in more detail … I’m confused?
I love writing for Breaking Muscle, but I’m on a word limit over there of about 1,000 per article. Most bloggers would consider this perfectly normal and have a hard time writing ENOUGH to fill the space. Not me!
I’m a blabber mouth. And sometimes I find myself writing on a topic that I have far too much to say about in the space allotted. I then have to cut out a lot of the details in order to make sure the key points are presented.
That’s totally cool, though, ’cause I’ve got this blog where I can blab on as long as is needed to fill in the gaps!
The main point of the 21-Day Squat Challenge
The idea of the challenge isn’t to have you “max out” or anything silly like that. It’s to get you to break the habit of not squatting on a regular basis.
If you go to the gym every single day for 21 days and squat – something, anything – then you win! That’s the ONLY goal. All the rest is just add-on stuff that can be left out.
It’s best to have a beach-bum attitude about it all. If it ain’t fun, what’s the point?
What’s with the “maxing out” business?
I happen to like for beginners – and other people who are new to serious strength training and Olympic lifting – to get used to the idea of hitting a max weight. Not because I think it is a magic way of making you stronger … but because it teaches your BRAIN something important that it won’t learn in any other way: That you’re not gonna die.
I know that might sound funny – and false if we’re being literal! – but one of the main hurtles that will face you in your Olympic lifting training is the fear of going up to a heavy weight on the snatch, clean, and jerk.
That fear is RATIONAL. It’s a rather strange thing to dive under a heavy snatch or jerk. But, that’s what the sport IS.
Most people are quite fearful of this, and no matter how pretty their technique is with light weights, they choke and lose their form when the bar gets even remotely heavy.
One of my favorite ways to start training a persons brain to handle this situation is to get them maxing out (to the point where you miss your last rep) on Front Squats as soon as possible.
The front squat is a rather safe exercise to max out on.
- You can dump it easily.
- It isn’t as heavy as a back squat.
- And it is FAR less scary than a back squat, snatch, jerk, or clean.
It is also POSSIBLE to max out on it. Honestly, there are few exercises available to us that are safe to do this on – and almost all of them are the ones weightlifters use. That last fact is not an accident.
If you are new to heavy squatting, I advise you stick with front squats for a while. The goal isn’t just strength, here. You’re learning skills. Strength is only ONE of the skills I want you to learn from this.
So … squat up to a max daily, but don’t worry if it’s a REAL max. It just needs to be heavy, with good form. No biggie.
While I prefer that you go until you have to dump the bar – miss – that isn’t the only way to miss. Anything that isne with horrible form, or where you have to “Grind” it out is also considered a miss.
Maxing out in this way is EASY to do everyday. Don’t believe the hype in your mind.
If all you did was exactly what I explained above, it would be a VERY low volume program. Think about it: you only did about 4 reps that were at all heavy each day. 4 reps … it’s harder to walk for half an hour.
Question: Can/Should I also do your “Squat Nemesis” workouts along with this?
Yes … but only if you’re a bit crazy and really love squatting.
The Squat Nemesis Program isn’t really a program, it’s a workout that we use IN our programs. (It was named this by my friend, Cliff Dyer, who used it to help him hit a new snatch PR – along with some kick-ass coaching from Caleb Ward.)
I’m going to be doing a whole video explaining it, why we’re using it now, and why I believe it to work so well. We’re getting near our 12th week doing some variation of it 5 days per week. And it’s been a HUGE reason behind our current rash of PR’s.
Until then …
The workout is very simple on paper, and very hard in practice. It can be done with either back or front squats. But like I said above, if you’re relatively new, stick with front squats for a while.
The Squat Nemesis Workout
- Work up to a max single (that is, a miss)
- Drop 30% off the bar and work up slowly to a heavy 3 reps (not a miss, just heavy). Don’t take more than 5 to 10k jumps! You WANT the volume in that mid-range.
- Drop to something lightish and do 2 sets of 5 reps. Your only goal is speed out of the hole. These should be rather light for you, like 40% to 65% of max. FAST!
This could easily take between 30 and 60 minutes. If you’re as lazy as we are, it could take longer. I’ve had guys take up to 2 hours!
Clearly if you are in a time-crunch, this workout won’t work for you. However, if you are adventurous, you can do this workout in place of simply maxing out that day on 2 to 5 days in the week.
So far at PDX we’ve done this in two ways:
- Front squat every time
- Alternate back and front squats with a max of 3 back squat sessions per week.
I’m not saying you couldn’t try this on back squats exclusively, we just haven’t done it that way.
Also, we have not done more than 5 Squat Nemesis Workouts in a week.
3 Sample Versions of the 21-Day Squat Challenge
Given the above, you’ve got 3 primary options:
- Squat daily, not caring particularly what you do. Just do it and have some fun.
- Squat to a max/heavy 1 rep daily (preferably on the front squat). Don’t be a maniac, here. Good form still matters!
OR … do one of the following:
3A – Whole Squat Nemesis Meal Deal:
Monday through Friday: Squat Nemesis
Weekends: Front squat to max single
3B – Less insane but still fun
Front Squat to max every day. At least 2 times per week, do the whole Squat Nemesis workout.
Question: Can I do more exercises, or should I just squat? If so, which ones?
Yes. Now is as good a time as any to tell you something that may come as a shock if you’re new to all this crazy stuff – brace yourself:
In my club, we do all of the above as only about 30% of our total workload.
We often snatch and clean and jerk for a full one to two hours before we even get to the squatting. The shear amount of total work my lifters are used to would blow the minds off of most recreational lifters. (What’s amazing is that most of them ARE recreational lifters! They just really love this stuff!)
You can do just about any exercise you want on top of the squatting. The easiest would be an upper body focussed routine. That would leave the legs totally fresh for the squatting.
Another option is to pair it up with some lower body work like Hip Thrusts and pulls or RDL’s. (See my article on my favorite 3 exercises for the lower body.)
QUESTION: Can I do this program along with learning/doing the Olympic lifts? Or is it too much?
As I said above, we do exactly that. But HOW is the question that was begged.
While you know I take seriously the principles of Chaos Theory, don’t let that fool you into thinking that I don’t strongly believe in well planned programs. The way we do our Oly lifting is intimately connected to the kind of strength training we are doing and vice versa.
But, the 21-Day Squat Challenge isn’t a program. It’s just a challenge, mostly for fun.
Given that, I’d say your best bet is to simply work on technique with the Oly lifts going up to a heavy enough weight to be considered “work” but not so heavy as to kick your ass. And do this as often as you have time for.
Sets of 2 reps per set for many sets are classic – going for great lifts each time.
- Snatch 10 x 2
- Clean and Jerk 6 x 2
That’s a simple, but highly effective method of improving your squats and Olympic lifts at the same time. Do the squats daily, and if you have time, do the Oly lifts. If not, screw it. Doesn’t matter. Ebb and flow, my friend.
QUESTION: Can I combine the Challenge with CrossFit?
Maybe. Depends how you do it.
Unlike the Olympic lifts done the way I explained above, or lazy-bodybuilding work, CrossFit is a very CNS intensive way to train. If you are at all serious about your CF workouts, you likely kick your own bootay at every workout. That’s fine, but it leaves little recovery room on the table for much else.
That’s the bad news.
The good news is that if you ONLY max out daily on the squat, you aren’t adding much fuel to the fire. Again, you’ve only done about 4 or 5 total heavy reps that day. That’s easy.
Squat BEFORE your CrossFit workouts – almost like a warm up. Don’t bother with the Squat Nemesis unless you are willing to dial back the CrossFit stuff while you’re at it.
In my experience in training a lot of people who also do CrossFit, you can’t do both with any level of seriousness at the same time. You are either going to focus on your strength training (and/or Oly lifting) OR you are going to kill it on the CrossFit WOD’s.
You can do both, just don’t do both with ultra-intensity.
QUESTION: Is it normal for my squat to go DOWN?!
The short answer is: Yes. The long answer is two-fold:
- We’re trying to “game the system” of your body.
- Progress does not look linear, nor is it a simple step function.
I’ll be getting very detailed about the second part of that in an upcoming article. But let me explain it in simple terms really quick:
The graph of progress doesn’t look the way you want it to!
Most people think of progress like a line that is pointing upward. You push hard and you move up. Done.
That view is naive at best. And it is the reason most people find themselves frustrated in the gym so often. Their expectations are totally out of sync with reality. They need a reality check.
In the real world, two facts come to play that make the graph of your progress look far different than expected.
First, some days you will be strong, some days you won’t. The graph will be jagged.
Second, the human body, like (nearly) all natural systems is best described by the exponential function, “e”. That is, you will go through long periods where not much change is occurring, then BOOM, big gains. Then, you start all over again.
So from a birds eye view, progress is like a series of exponentials, one after another. If you zoom in really close, it looks like a super jagged (sine-like) wave function that is up and down everyday seemingly without reason.
Frustration is easily avoided in training by a simple acceptance of reality.
A frustrated lifter is a shitty lifter.
Gaming the body
The second reason for your squat numbers dropping has to do with us intentionally over-doing it for a while.
I tend to write programs based upon something called, “The Hormone Fluctuation” model which utilizes something called, “2-Factor Training.” I’ll go into more detail in future articles in this series, but let’s see if I can summarize it for you.
Most of the programs you are used to – especially those in Bodybuilding magazines – are based on a Linear Model of progress. You create stress to the body via a workout, you rest until your body has adapted, then you go back to the gym and do it again.
This type of training works great with rank beginners, but it breaks down rather quickly as you progress further. The reason is that it takes more and more stress to force adaptation the more advanced you are. That is, your workouts get rather intense.
Similarly, the time it takes to recover fully from such an insane bout of work will increase until you’re at the point of having to take a full week or more off of training in between each session!
THAT, by the way, is the underlying justification of the old HIT routines.
Quicky explanation of the 2-Factor Model
It turns out that the body can respond faster if you stop thinking about your Stress/Adaptation cycle so acutely: workout, rest, workout, rest …
Our new goal is to increase the stress on your body through a process that is very much like the “compounding interest” on your credit card. You workout, then you come back and workout again – before you are recovered – and then do it again, and then do it again, pushing your body further and further down.
You can do this in little mini cycles of only a few workouts/days, or go for a few weeks, or even a few months!
Eventually, you pull yourself back and slowly allow the body to recover, or “peak”. What happens is rather amazing. Over the same length of time, this 2-Factor approach out performs the 1-Factor approach for intermediate and advanced athletes. (This conclusion is based on some science, and a lot of experience by coaches like myself and many others around the world and in many sports.)
Why does the 2-factor approach seem to outperform the 1-factor model? (At least once you are no longer a beginner.)
Well … I’m not sure we have enough accurate data to answer that conclusively. But we do know a few things. One of which has to do with your hormones.
When you push your body down, your hormones (like Testosterone) are suppressed. Eegads! Who wants that?
You do. Because when you then go into a Taper or Peaking phase, your body will respond by raising Testosterone up to levels higher than they were to start with.
The Key Bit: The deeper into the red you push yourself, the greater the response at the end.
A single workout, no matter how hard you make it, can only push you down so far. But if you stack workout on top of workout on top of workout way before you have recovered at all, then your body gets pushed deeper and deeper into the hole.
The downside is that you’ll feel kinda crummy when you are at the lowest low.
The upside is that the gains will be that much greater.
Interesting Side Note #1: There is some evidence – and I’ve seen in many times in my gym – that athletes can make remarkably great gains even when they are still in the depressed state! They are deep down in the hole and yet gains keep coming … weird. I don’t have all the answers on this, and I’d love to see more research on it. But, I CAN say that it works.
Interesting Side Note #2: I’m reviewing Matt Perryman’s excellent upcoming book on the subject of high-frequency training right now, and it goes into some of this and MUCH more. Once it’s released, I’ll post a formal review and link so that you can check it out if this stuff interests you.
The point …
For some of you, even the simplest squat program like this can cause you to start “dipping down” a bit into your recovery capacity. That’s OK. This is only three weeks, for heavens sake. You ain’t gonna die.
Ride it out, then taper down for two weeks and reap the rewards.
Combining the 21-Day Squat Challenge with a two week taper at the end brings this closer to being a real “program” and not just a “challenge”.
I’ll be adding some tapering programs to Samurai Strength Nation this month, by the way.
But suffice it to say that a taper is just a phase where you take it easier on your training.
QUESTION: How heavy should the back off sets be? (Assuming you do them.)
Something most people miss about Bulgarian-inspired training programs is just how important the back-off sets are.
In my discussion with Michael Hartman on Bulgarian Training Basics, we brought up the idea that the “max” was just a gauge for us to see where the athlete is that day.
- Are you fatigued?
- Are you really technical today, but not very strong?
- Are you really strong, but not technical?
In other words, the number you hit for your max isn’t really important. It is simply part of the “data set” that I’m going to look at and use as the basis for what I’ll have you do for the rest of the workout.
Just as important as the number that you hit for your max, is HOW you hit that number. Sometimes, you miss a front squat simply because you got it out of position. Other times, it was a massive grind out of the bottom.
Those details matter.
If you are super grindy on the way up with a number you normally are not grindy with …then I know you are fatigued, and I’ll have your drop pretty low for your back off sets.
If you take a big lift, but barely miss it for technical reasons, then you may end up hitting some very heavy back off sets.
All of this implies that doing things the way we are is VERY coaching intensive. But that doesn’t mean I have to be there.
You are your first coach.
Only you can say for sure what you are capable of. Unfortunately, you also have to know yourself very well to accurately tell if what you are feeling is at all true! (See my article, How You Feel Is A Lie, for more on this.)
Much of what I’m trying to teach you – in my articles, videos, and in this challenge – is how to auto-regulate.
Auto-regulation is simply the act of adjusting what you are doing based on how capable you feel in that moment.
No easy task!
It takes practice to learn that connection between how you feel and what you are actually capable of.
The back-off set variations don’t really matter as much as your ability to decide what to do based on what you CAN do that day.
So … when you go down in weight after your “max” just do what seems reasonable! Don’t have some preconceived notion in your mind about what you SHOULD be able to do. Who cares. Just do something. If you feel good, go for it. No? Don’t.
Got More Questions? Put Them In The Comments Section Below
Don’t be shy …