The underlying basic principle to exercise is the concept that in order to force your body to get stronger, you have to demand more from your body than you have in the past. This same principle is at work whether you are a beginner or very advanced. When the body adapts to the increased demands, it does so with a little room to spare. This is called supercompensation. The following chart provides a visual and helps with the understanding:
You'll note that there is no timeline on this curve, because that changes as you get stronger. As a beginner, those changes happened daily or every other day. As you progress those changes can be weekly, biweekly, monthly, or over the span of multiple months. However, the basic mechanisms are the same:
- You have to provide enough training stimulus to force adaptation
- If you overdo the training stimulus, you get into overtraining and end up weaker
- The training stimulus is the overall volume of work you do
- You have to provide enough time/nutrition/rest to recover from that training stimulus to realize the strength gains
The Smolov squat program is a peaking program, which means it's goal is to help you demonstrate strength, not build strength. If you are not used to the volume of this program, I don't recommend it. Mehdi overhypes the program, but some people do respond well to it. When I attempted it my squat was 405 lbs--and no I did not squat 500 when it was done. That said, let's break down the program a little bit to help you understand how it works:
This is essentially work capacity training. The goal is to get the volume in, and slowly increase the volume by adding weight each week. The volume for the first 3 days (every other day) is fairly constant (35-36 reps). The last day is the heaviest, but it is lower volume (30 reps). This provides a little rest as your body gets used to heavier and heavier weights.
For me, the base microcycle worked very well. You gain a lot of confidence in your squat by doing it so much. Just make sure you don't cheat yourself on depth--particularly if you compete in powerlifting. While the last day was hard, I didn't feel as beat up as the earlier days. When the next week starts, the weight is much lighter than the 10x3 day, but a little heavier than last week. By the end of 3 weeks of this I was pretty beat up and enjoyed the week off afterword.
That week off of no squatting until you test your max is very important. Don't do anything that week. Essentially you've been working yourself deeper into the fatigue part of the supercompensation curve, and a week of nothing allows your body to finally catch up and do it's recovery work.
While I did squat 440 lb (twice) at the end of this stage, the reps were high and I didn't have the humility to use a lower number to plug in for the the remainder. Don't make that same mistake. Use the strongest legal squat you can. This program rewards humility and punishes the proud.
The name of the game during this short stretch is speed. You are working with lighter weights, and allowing your body some more relative rest. However, you are also training yourself to perform movements more quickly. In the real write-up on Smolov, there aren't any set exercises for this 2 week period. Power cleans are great, as are any Olympic lifts if you can do them. Speed squats are also a decent choice.
You might feel like this is too easy, particularly after the first part. Just resist the urge to overdo it and work too heavy. This microcycle is about recovery.
This is where things fell apart for me. The intensity phase is all about peaking. You will be putting in a lot of work, and if you aren't careful you'll fall into the "training too hard" curve like I did. Just as a sanity check, if the 5x5 assigned during the last two weeks is the same as your current 1RM, you were way too aggressive for the numbers you put in for this phase. I managed to get through 5x5 at 405 lbs (my previous max before starting the program), and then couldn't finish the program. I had to dump the bar anytime I got close to 405 lbs. This is why I recommend being very conservative with this program.
That said, as you are building up the volume earlier in the week, you are working towards higher intensities with lower volume later in the week. The idea is to help you get used to heavier weights and demonstrate strength later on. The same thing happens at the end of this microcycle as it did in the base microcycle. You have a week off, and then you compete (or test your new 1RM). If you were smart and played it very conservative, you should be presented with a new 1RM. If not, you might have your squat fall apart and you'll need some time to regain confidence in it as happened for me. That said, don't expect to hit that squat every day.
Understanding Training in the Broader Sense
There are several training protocols where you squat every day (for example the Bulgarian method). The problem isn't so much the frequency, but managing fatigue and allowing for supercompensation to happen.
There are several components to fatigue, but training too heavy all the time or burying yourself in volume does make you more prone to injury. You'll find that a lot of standard strength building programs either incorporate a planned recovery week (like Wendler 5-3-1) or they have light weight with many reps ramping up to relatively heavy weight with a few reps, and starting over a little heavier.
The article on increasing work capacity also helps understand a lot of the basics of training theory in a way that makes sense.
My final parting thoughts are good luck, and be humble with Smolov.