NOTE: This article is now THREE years old — it no longer represents how I coach people to squat as accurately as it used to. Check out our NEW Squat Nemesis Guide for our updated methods. In short… we make people work WAY harder now 😉
There are no secrets and yet everything always seems so mysterious. It is the irony of the iron sports: We know what to do, and yet we are clueless. We can’t stick to the basics for they are far too complicated to understand.
You want to get stronger, you want to get a lot stronger. And so you have spent years hunting down articles and books and coaching from the smartest people around – and some of the not as smart people! – who all tell you roughly the same thing: stick to the basics and work them hard, and don’t ever stop.
So, you did just that … And yet you are stuck.
Damn. What did you do wrong?
The Not So Basic Basics
The trouble with the aformentioned advice – taken in isolation – is that it presumes that the basics are self-evident, or close to it. Sadly, they are not.
In an article I wrote recently for the online magazine site, Breaking Muscle, I pointed out that there are plenty of grown-assed men who have been working extremely hard at CrossFit for nearly 3 years, and yet can’t even do sets of 5 reps with their bodyweight on the back squat.
That should never happen.
If you work your tail off, you should get results. If you are not getting the results you want, your plan sucks.
“Plan the work, work the plan.” – Dan John
We tend to overemphasize the second part of that Dan John quote, and drastically undervalue the first part. Today, we’re going to talk about your plan.
There are really only three key ideas that you need to wrap your brain around when it comes to strength training.
I’ve talked about each of these before, but I want to discuss them within the context of an example – my Squat Nemesis Program. I think it often helps the learning process to simply work through examples. And this particular one is nice because it encompasses all of them at once.
A Quick Explanation Of The Squat Nemesis “Program”
Let me first outline the “program” for you, then we can discuss why it looks the way it does. It was named by my friend Cliff Dyer (who I also coach through our new online coaching site and who I tag in a few too many of my facebook posts). He was one of my first Guinea pigs when I began experimenting with variations of it.
NOTE: it should be made clear that there is nothing magic – or even unique – about my little squat program, here. It is just something that I stumbled on, partly by accident, partly by hunting around to see what worked – and why – in other programs, and slowly it got pieced together into its current form. I know it will change again.
I put the word “Program” in quotes for a reason.
A workout is NOT the same as a program. A workout is just that, a single thing you do in the gym on any given day. A program is a series of workouts put together in a particular way designed to elicit a physical adaptation of some kind in the body.
Given that, The Squat Nemesis could be easily taken just simply as a workout, not a full-bore program. And you could plug that workout into any number of other programs.
However, I use the term because a program has indeed evolved out of it and is being used on a rotational basis by the members of my gym. In other words, I have both a Squat Nemesis Workout AND a Squat Nemesis Program … sorry for the confusion.
The Squat Nemesis Workout
The workout is simply the sets and reps and weight used. It can be done with either Back or Front Squats.
Here is what I would write on the white board at PDX Weightlifting.
2×5 (for speed at 50%+)
Let me now explain that drivel in more detail!
First, you work up to a 1 rep maximum. That can either be a fullblown miss, or just the heaviest rep you can do with good form.
Second, you drop the weight down to about 70% of what you hit for your 1RM and start working back up in 3 reps at a time. If you get all 3, then you add a little weight. Keep going till the weight gets heavy enough to be your last good set without a miss.
I prefer that you never get less than 3 total sets. And if that means you can’t add weight to the bar to get them all, so be it.
I also prefer that you add weight slowly. Don’t take 20 kilo jumps! I like 5k jumps or less (especially if you are a female or male with a 1RM less than 100 kilos). Your jumps in weight on each successive set shouldn’t be more than 5% of your 1RM. But down to 2% or 3% is even better.
Lastly, you do 2 sets of 5 reps at 50% of your 1RM for the day. You do these for speed. If you do your first set, and you think you can go up in weight a bit, do so. But follow the same rules we used for the 3’s.
The goal here isn’t the weight on the bar (per se) it is the perfection of the lift. Go down under perfect control, and then explode out of the hole like your life depends on it. Go so fast that the bar pops up a bit at the top of the lift. Reset yourself, and do your next rep. Slow(ish) down, fast as hell on the way up. Every rep picture perfect.
You can do more than 2 sets – I won’t stop you! But I have found that 2 sets is usually plenty if you worked hard enough up to this point.
EXAMPLE: You are a female who just hit 75 kilos for your max back squat for the day. So you drop to 70% of that, which is about 56 kilos. You do 3 reps with 56k. Not too bad. Given that 5% of 75k is about 4 kilos, you take 60 kilos for your next set. That was harder, so you go 62k next. You feel fiesty and take 65k but that was a real struggle, so you stop.
When I write “Hvy” (Heavy), I don’t mean “max”. I just mean that I need you to need to go up the a weight that is heavy enough that you aren’t convinced you can add any more without it going badly.
Finally, you drop down to 40 kilos to do your two sets of 5 reps. 40 kilos felt very easy. So you go 45k. Not too bad. You go 50k and stop there.
The Squat Nemesis Program
I will now explain the basic squat program I am calling the Squat Nemesis Program that is based upon the workout above. I am still playing with this, so don’t take it as written in stone. But this should give you a rough idea.
I particularly like to use small month-long blocks where we go heavy for about 2 or 3 weeks (like my 21-day Squat Challenge ) and then unload for 1 week. I might extend that to more loading weeks followed by a 2 week taper leading into a contest. But most of the time I keep it simple.
Loading Weeks (Do 2 or 3 of these)
- Monday/Wednesday/Friday = Back Squat Nemesis
- Tuesday/Thursday = Front Squat Nemesis
Unloading Week (only 1 unless you are truly in the throws of Hell)
- Monday/Wednesday/Friday = Back Squats: 1RM
- Tuesday/Thursday = Front Squat: 1RM
Wow! Simple, eh?
The point of this program – most of my programs – is to accumulate fatigue for a few weeks until you start to feel like crap. Then you back off a bit to allow for your body to adapt. Repeat.
In other words, you don’t just do an endless stream of Squat Nemesis workouts forever!
Doing workouts like this upwards of 5 days a week – like we do – will slowly pound you into the ground. But, then, that is the point! I am TRYING to pound you into the ground so that I can build you back up again into a better, stronger, and significantly more awesome version of yourself.
Why Does It Work? Or, The Stress/Adaptation Cycle
Programs like the above that incorporate a TON of volume and high loads work because the body only adapts when it has been given no choice. You need to give it an ultimatum. It has no interest in putting in all the work it takes to become stronger if it doesn’t absolutely have to. Becoming stronger is metabolically taxing, and should be avoided if it can be … or so the body is going to think about it.
Most lifters hit a platuau and end up staying there for years primarily because of this basic reality. You have to force the issue. If you don’t, it won’t happen.
“More is not always better, but it usually is.” — Nick Horton (Yes, I just quoted myself!)
The more you force it, the better the results … the only caveat to that statement is that you need to give yourself the chance to adapt after you have beaten it down into submission.
Here is the recipe I like:
- Force the issue with a ridiculous amount of work
- Pull back and allow for adaptation
There is some anecdotal evidence that if you stay in the overstressed state for long enough your body will start adapting anyway, and you don’t really need to taper off completely. Guys like Ivan Abadjiev, John Broz, and Jim Moser, as well as others have discussed this at length.
I MOSTLY agree with this, but I want to be very careful about how I approach my explanation. What I don’t want you to do is avoid deload weeks altogether in your effort to reach maximum adaptation! Most people will mess this up, do it wrong, and end up hurt. With a good coach watching you it is far easier to do such things safely.
One method I have found is to have my lifters only partially deload, then go right back onto a stress cycle. I will do this for a few months on end, compounding the fatigue, then do a full 2 week taper that leads into a contest.
In other words, you have created a giant 3 layered cake out of your Stress/Adaptation cycles.
The first layer is just the single workout and the 24-hours (or so) rest until the next workout. The second layer is the base program above. The third layer is a series of those mini cycles back to back leading to a big taper at the end.
Going Deeper: Volume, Load, and Intensity Explained
That was the more general explanation of why programs like The Squat Nemesis work. I’m now going to go one level deeper and explain HOW to stress yourself properly to gain the strength you are after.
As I said at the beginning of this (increasingly long) article, hard work by itself is not enough. You can run a marathon every single day – and that is undeniably hard – but it won’t help you squat double bodyweight or more.
First I will quickly explain the basics of Volume, Load, and Intensity. Then I’ll jump into the concept of Intensity Zone training and why I think that is a big key to the success of most good programs.
The two main ones are:
- Volume = Sets x Reps
- Load = Sets x Reps x Weight lifted
Intensity when used in the context of strength training is usually just another name for weight lifted relative to your 1RM. So if your max squat is 100 kilos, and you lift 90 kilos, that is 90% “intense” … bro.
None of that is complicated, and we’ve looked at it plenty of times before – like in my Pump Up The Volume article.
What we have NOT covered yet is the idea of Intensity Zones.
Every coach, every sports scientist, every weightlifting program seems to have their own variation of how to split up their “zones” that they like to have their lifters do work in. Why would I be any different!
Here is how I do it, many do it similarly. But even those who have different numbers, are running on the same underlying principles – it is underlying principles we care about here.
- Zone 1 – 90% of max to 100% of your 1 rep max
- Zone 2 – 70% to 89% of max
- Zone 3 – 50% to 69% of max
- Zone 4 – 49% and lower
The way your body adapts partly depended on the total work done – was it hard enough? – and just as dependent on the TYPE of work done.
If all you do is rep after rep in Zone 4 (like many CrossFit WOD’s have you do, for instance), then you are not going to increase your 1RM much at all.
Because your body will be trying to make itself better at working in Zone 4 … not Zone 1.
“You get good at what you do” – Chris Extine (lifter at PDX Weightlifting, math teacher, cool cat)
When I was in “Bulgaria” (read: California, at the gym of Ivan Abadjiev and Alex Krychev) a few weeks ago, in addition to having the time of my life in the sun with great people and weightlifting, Ivan Abadjiev gave us a private lecture about just this concept. The primary point of which was that if you want to get good at maxing out, you need to max out.
In future articles I will discuss the details of how this works in the body – the details he was explaining – but the essence is that the body will only adapt to meet the stresses you put on it… no more.
Improving your heavy 1 rep maximum on the squat requires certain – and very specific – kinds of adaptations. You must attack each and every one of them if you want to get stronger at the fastest rate possible.
Among the stresses your body needs to deal with in order to be bothered are:
- A CNS adaptation to feeling heavy loads on the body. This can’t be understated. Your central nervous system must learn how to squat/lift heavy. It isn’t just about being stronger.
- Get generally stronger – duh.
- Improve explosive power.
- Perfect technique generally
- Perfect your ability to MAINTAIN technique when the weights get heavy enough to scare you.
There are more, of course. But these are the big ones I am always worried about with any lifter I coach.
Not all of these are capable of being trained at the same time or in the same way. That is where the concept of working in different intensity zones comes in, and makes sense.
To understand all of this, lets use my Squat Nemesis workout as the example again.
You go to a 1RM. That puts you in Zone 1. Working above 90% is imperative for gaining strength at the high end. This zone is great at working the CNS and causing general strength gains.
This is also the place were you work your brain. By that I mean your brains ability to shut down the fear response. It isn’t as bad in squatting as it is on the Olympic lifts, but it still exists.
If your form breaks, you will miss your heaviest weights. When you freak out, your form breaks. When the weights are heavy, you freak out.
See that chain of events?
You gotta attack the last part of it. It is the driver of the entire domino effect.
The weights being heavy and feeling heavy is not a reason to freak out. But that is easier to say than actually put into practice.
And that is the point. You must PRACTICE the act of chilling out with heavy weights.
Back off set time! You go down to the low end of Zone 2, 70%, and you start working back up in sets of 3 reps (some other programs might have you doing 2’s, others up to 5’s … the point is: do work, son/daughter).
This is the zone where I want the majority of your reps to be. That is because you are again working the CNS some (though not to the same level), you are improving general strength, and you are causing substantial fatigue to the body – which as I said above is the point.
These are also reps you can use very good technique on. They should NOT be ugly. You might have had to grind out a few of your heavy singles leading to your max. But that should not be happening here.
You drop to 50% of your 1RM and start doing sets of 5 reps for speed and technical perfection. You are improving explosive power, you are making technique more ingrained. You are adding fuel to the fire of your overall stress that is pushing your recovery capacity down = good.
You see what I did there?
With just one workout, we covered all your bases.
Variation for the Olympic Weightlifter
What I wrote above as the Squat Nemesis Program works great, and I wouldn’t change it up too much unless you are already doing a ton of work already.
Sometimes I have lifters do what we call Mini-Nemesis which is the same, but you drop the 5’s at the end.
That kind of variation makes sense when they have already done 2 hours of work on the Olympic lifts, and will be doing heavy clean/snatch pulls as well after they squat.
The olympic lifts cover much of what the 5’s are there for – except better.
That said, the 5’s still show up a lot.
In short …
Other famous squat programs work because they have very high volume and loads, and they spend their training time in the most important intensity zones. My own program is only different in that it is highly autoregulated (daily), and that allows for it to be used by anyone with the exception of true rank beginners who have no business maxing.
Almost pointless side note
It is funny how I have become LESS timid as I learn more, have coached far more people, and progressed as a coach. When I first started, I avoided maxes like the plague, I kept the overall volume down, the load was even lower, and we did all kinds of “pre-hab” and “corrective” exercises.
I now push people to the brink of death.
- Results are up.
- Injuries are down.
- And everyone is having more fun.
Crazy how some things work out …
Now go lift something heavy,