Breaking Down Famous Back Squat Programs for Weightlifters

The back squat needs no formal introduction. By now, we have all heard it introduced as the king of all exercises, and personally, I wouldn’t label it any other way. The squat uses muscles including the quadriceps, gluteus maximus, adductor magnus, soleus, hamstrings, gastrocnemius, erector spinae, rectus abdominis, obliques, and if done correctly, can also stimulate growth in the upper body as well. (Don’t skip leg day, bro.)

The question then becomes; which squat program is the best? The answer: whatever one works for you. The following will take a look at some of the most famous squat programs floating around the internet today. (Keep in mind that I have not personally tested all of these programs, but I’ll do my best to break them down as I read through the programs on paper.)

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Hatch Program

For starters, let’s break down one that I happen to know very well. I used the Hatch Squat Program for the first 10 years of my lifting career and it guided me to a 210 kg back squat at 75 kg body weight. But guess what? This isn’t it. I’ve never done a set of 10 in the back squats ever.

I asked Coach Gayle Hatch, Head Coach for the men’s 2004 Olympic Team, what he thought about this program, and he said, “Only real Hatch lifters and coaches will know the real program, but this isn’t bad, and it will work so I won’t tell them to take it down.” That being said, I can’t give you the real Hatch Squat Program because it’s a secret, but I can tell you that this one does have some similarities, it’s still a good program, and I’ve known athletes to use it with tremendous results.

First, the 2 day a week program combines back and front squats not just in the same day, but in the same session. I’ve worked with other coaches that have used both squats in the same day, but no one else that has combined them to directly follow each other. I will tell you that the original program alternates between starting with the front and back squats while this one always begins with the back squat, and I would generally only back/front squat once a week. Coach Hatch would add in other variations of the squat depending on the day and phase we were in. Alternating the front and back squats will obviously fatigue you before moving into the next. The different undulating pattern is used to manipulate the tonnage as well as the volume as you move through the program.

It’s science, or magic, I’m not really sure.

In addition, the program posted online also gives you percentages to follow. When you work with Coach Hatch in person he will use percentages as a guideline, but would always make adjustments throughout the session depending on how the athlete looks for feels on that particular day. If you do try this program, I would keep that in mind as it’s nearly impossible to expect your body to do what you ask of it every single day without a hiccup every now and then. In a true Hatch Squat Program you are also not allowed to “dump” a squat. We use spotters (sometimes up to three with them on both sides). The theory behind this being that you will still gain strength through the eccentric portion of the movement.

Smolov Senior

The Smolov Senior is a 13 week squat program that has become very widely used among the local CrossFit® community in Tuscaloosa, Alabama (and I assume everywhere else as well, because I see posts about it all the time). The athletes using it tell me that it is brutal but shows guaranteed results.

I’ll start by stating the most obvious difference between this program and the Hatch Program being that it only uses the back squat. It also writes in areas for lunges, plyometrics, and pause squats depending on the phase you are in. I’ve personally known people to substitute this program for the bench press, so I imagine you could use the same program for your front squat using your 1 rep max front squat for the percentages.

This is also a 3-4 day a week squat program depending on the phase you are in. The program is broken down into 5 different phases; phase in, base phase, switching phase, intense phase, and taper. This will allow the body to have time to adjust to the additional volume and tonnage being placed on it. (The Hatch Program follows a similar adjustment period, although not specifically labeled).

For CrossFit® athletes, it looks like it could work as a great addition to the workouts you already do in your gym, but for a competitive CrossFit athlete or Olympic Weightlifter, I would suggest consulting with your coach before trying this (or any additional squat program really), as it will take a toll on your other lifts while making the adjustment. What I find really interesting is that it gives you both percentages and poundage to use while moving through these weeks. For example, week 4 day 2 calls for 5 x 7 @ 75% + 20lbs from week 3. A 20lbs increase can be fairly significant depending on your squat max, so I would say that any  improvement week to week as a positive. This will  give you the ability to work with what your body has that day rather than feeling tied into a certain percentage.

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Smolov Junior

I’m again going to start by stating the obvious here, but this is a shorter version of the original Smolov Program. This is a 3 week program squatting 4 times/week that could also be substituted for the bench press. Just like the original version, it only uses the single variation of the back squat, but also gives both percentages and additional weight additions that could allow for more flexibility to lift based on how you feel that day. For example, week 2 day 4 calls for 10 x 3 @ 85% + 5-10 lbs allowing you the ability to adjust as necessary.  If you want an easy way to calculate your weights for the Smolov and Smolov Junior Squat Programs, use the BarBend Squat Calculator here.

Russian Squat Program

The Russian Squat Program, also known in some circles as the “Soviet Squat Routine,” incorporates Squat, Bench, Deadlift, and Back Extension, however, you could choose to complete the squats separate from the rest of the program if you choose. It is 3 days a week for 6 weeks totaling 18 training sessions. The first 9 sessions of the program keep you at 80% of your 1 rep maximum while increasing the volume. The last 9 sessions reduce the volume while increasing the intensity towards a new one rep max.

I’ve never personally tried this program or known anyone else to use it, but most sources say it is commonly used as a six week peaking program and is less harsh than the Smolov cycle, but still a challenge for most athletes. They also recommend using this program raw (without knee wraps) as the volume is high, but the percentages are medium. BarBend has made it easy to calculate your percentages for this program with this calculator.

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Texas Method

The Texas Method Periodization was for experienced athletes that have mastered their form. It is not recommended for beginners. It is also recommended that you set aside 3 days dedicated to it as each day is a full workout and requires 100% of your effort for that given day. It uses Monday’s as a volume day, Wednesday’s for recovery, and Friday reserved for finding a new rep maximum with the goal being 5% higher than before. Mark Rippetoe explains that, “The Texas Method balances the stress of increased weight and varied volume with adequate recovery time so that intermediate lifters will progress for an extended period of time.”

The program is directed as gaining absolute strength, but doesn’t really specify how long to use it. It does state that novice lifters will see faster progress, as they will in all programs. Either way, it looks like a challenge. The tips say the program is simple, but the execution is the hard part.

Westside Barbell

From my perspective, the Westside Barbell Program is a combination of the Soviet and Bulgarian headed up by Louie Simmons. Although this is strictly a powerlifting program, the ideas can be extremely useful for weightlifters. I wasn’t able to find a program on the Westside website itself as Simmons programs specifically for the strengths and weaknesses of each individual athlete, however I did find a sample program that gives some good ideas of what a program would look like. Day one is a maximum effort lower body day including box squats, bent knee good mornings, reverse hyperextensions, weighted incline sit ups and sled pulls. Day two maximum effort upper body including bench press, close grip incline bench press, barbell lying triceps extension, cable pulldown, lever reverse fly and barbell upright row. Day three a dynamic lower body including box squat (with bands), Deadlift (with bands), box jumps, machine assisted inverse leg curl, and standing cable crunches. Day four a dynamic upper body day of bench press (with bands), dumbbell bench press, JM press, lever seated row, dumbbell shoulder press and hammer curls.

Westside is a conjugate program uses a variety of different exercises and rep ranges including maximum, dynamic, and repetition effort (another way to explain high volume or hypertrophy). His maximum efforts are described as sets or 8-12 with lower reps of 1-3 and percentages ranging from 90-100% of 1 rep maximum. Dynamic efforts are sets of 9-12 with reps of 1-3 at percentages ranging from 40-60% of 1RM or 25-30% with additional accommodating resistances including resistance anchored bands or chains. The article explains that following both maximum and dynamic efforts, Simmons will use repetition efforts of 2-4 sets of 6-10 repetitions and every fourth weeks Repetition efforts are used for restoration (unloading weeks). In addition to varying loads and exercises, Simmons will also use a variety of different stances and depths to train his athletes. They use examples of narrow, wide and ultra wide stances, and depths ranging from deep, parallel, racks, boards and elevations.

Westside alternates between maximum strength and dynamic days and also lower body and upper body. The sample program shows Monday as a maximal lower body day, Wednesday a maximum effort upper body, Friday a dynamic lower body day and Saturday a dynamic upper body day. They suggest that maximum effort days be performed 72 hours after a dynamic effort day and give examples of progressions used on those days while working into your maximal effort for that given day. The Westside Program is designed for experienced powerlifters and it is suggested that you build your foundation before attempting to perform these workouts. It is similar to the Hatch Squat Program that I know so well as it is designed to allow the athlete the ability to compete with very little notice in as little time as it takes the athlete to taper.

Additional Programs

While these programs are probably the most commonly recognizable in the strength world (at least online), I wanted to mention a few others I’ve used in the past without spilling their secrets as I don’t have permission to share them.

Tim Swords of Houston Weightlifting — and personal coach for Olympic Bronze Medalist Sarah Robles — has an amazing squat program I used for period of time. Anyone that knows me knows how I LOVE a good squat, as this was one that I actually had to lower my percentages for to allow myself time to adjust to the program. The one he suggested for me was 3-4 days a week for 12 weeks and alternated between the back and front squat. (I actually used it for 13 weeks doing a repeat of week 1 because the adjustment for me was brutal after taking time off). Again, I can’t give you too many details as I don’t have permission to share, but I did PR my back squat using this program after the 13 weeks.

Another squat program I used was by Coach Zygmunt Smalcerz, former resident coach at the Olympic Training Center. His was very different and changed constantly based on the needs of the individual athlete, but he would use everything from dead stop squats to waves, to max rep efforts. The squat was never an area of concern for him while training me so I would squat roughly 3-4 days a week with lower volume and medium-high intensity. Again, without permission I’m not comfortable giving specific details of these programs, but they are programs I felt needed mentioning in an article on squats. If you’d like the actual programs, I would try contacting this coaches directly as both are amazing coaches and always willing to help.

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Featured image: @martseim