A Case Against Squat Every Day (From Someone Who Loved It)
Squat every day programs have become more popular than Margot Robbie dressed as Harley Quinn at Comic Con, with tons of weightlifting and general strength coaches marketing their version of the training plan. For those of you who have been living under a rock without access to Instagram, all the squat every day programs have (duh!) one thing in common. As the name would suggest, they have you squatting every day (the details of which we will get into later). That’s right, every day. Like 7 days a week. For months or years at a time.
A Bit of Squat History
It’s unclear who the actual originator of the squat every day program is but most credit Ivan Abadjiev, coach of the Bulgarian National weightlifting teams in the late 1970s and 1980s. Abadjiev believed that other weightlifting systems (which is another way of saying “The Russians”) relied too much on assistance exercises that were not directly relevant to improving the snatch, clean and jerk. So he had his athletes perform those movements to near or actual maximum multiple times per day. The only assistance exercise used was the front squat which was also trained to maximum multiple times per day. The Bulgarians applied this system and were very successful with it, winning multiple World and Olympic titles.
Back in the US this system was adopted by coaches who either trained with or were heavily influenced by the Bulgarians such as John Broz of Average Broz Gym, Dave Spitz of California Strength, Max Aita of Juggernaut Training Systems and countless other weightlifting and power lifting coaches. More recently this system of squatting every day has been marketed by Travis Mash of Mash Elite Performance and Corey Gregory of Muscle Pharm. It’s important to note that some of the coaches mentioned no longer advocate the squat every day system.
OK, history lesson over.
What exactly is squat every day? There are seemingly two schools of thought. The first is, like Abadjiev proposed, to take either your front or back squat to maximum every day and, depending on which system you follow, perform back off sets for doubles or triples at a percentage of that max. The second school is very unlike the Bulgarian System. Many of the current squat every day programs involve more than just the front squat and do not require or even recommend going to maximum weights every day. Quite the opposite, actually. Many SED programs promote a lot of variety; variety of movements (back squat, front squat, overhead squat), variety of implements (barbell, safety bar, cambered bar), variety of accessories (box, belt, chains, bands) and variety of volume (though most have you performing high intensity/low volume work the majority of the time). So Monday may be “back squat to a box without a belt for 4 sets of 3 reps at 85%” while Tuesday is “front squats with chains for 6 sets of 2 working up to 90%”. You get the picture.
Confessions of a Frequent Squatter
Admission number 1: While I did legitimately squat every day, I have never purchased the program from any of the above coaches. Firstly, I’ve spent A LOT of time immersing myself in the principles and practicalities of programming and a vast amount of my non-training floor time is spent writing the program for all our clients. So, I feel I’d earned the right to program this for myself. Secondly, I’m not paying $30 for a program whose entire contents are pretty much in the title. But that’s just me.
During my experiment with Squat Every Day I held a bit closer to the Bulgarian philosophy. I would usually work up to a heavy single in either the front or back squat. And when I say “heavy” I mean as heavy as I could go on that day without grinding the rep. It didn’t have to be fast but it also had to be clear that I wouldn’t fail the rep. When you are squatting every day you can get very good at figuring out where this threshold is. After the heavy single I would do anywhere from 2 to 5 back off sets of anything from doubles to 5s at between 80-90% of whatever my heavy single was for that day. That’s it. Most sessions, not including warm-ups, had me hitting a volume of 8 to 15 reps per session. From the time I put on my shoes until I unracked the last plate off the bar was about 25 minutes total.
The Good, The Bad, The Ugly
Let’s start off with the positives. I loved this program. It allowed me to squat every day which I felt was important. Personally I am not a very good squatter from either a biomechanical standpoint (I have the femurs of a giraffe) nor a strength standpoint. I am a big believer of working on weaknesses so I liked that I got to practice squatting very frequently. Plus I was able to load up big (for me) weights every time I touched the bar which, again, suited the type of training I enjoy and was most relevant to my sport (I compete in Olympic Weightlifting a handful of times per year as a Masters athlete).
The other piece of good news: it worked. I was able to add about 20kg to my back squat and 10kg to my front squat in pretty short order. And I’m not a noob, I’d been squatting for quite some time so to make that kind of progress at my training age was impressive. Insert several thumbs up emojis here!
Practicing the king of all lifts. Loading up the bar. Gains. What’s not to like on this program? Well, a few things.
First, even though the volume was fairly low, the daily squatting meant that the main lifts of my sport (snatch, clean and jerk) had to take a little bit of a back seat. I just could not train them with that much intensity. That’s not necessarily a bad thing but when you are not a master technician in -as Rich Froning would say - the “oly lifts” my time may have been better served hitting those when a bit more fresh.
Also worth mentioning is that most of the aforementioned increases in squat strength happened within the first 6-8 weeks. Just like nearly any program, once the adaptation phase is over maintaining strength becomes more of the focus. Thinking you are just going to continually add kilos to lifts in a linear fashion is just not realistic. This is not a small point, so I'll repeat it: Squat Every Day, just like any other program, has a phase of adaptation where progress occurs and then those gains level off. And I found with squatting every day that adaptation phase was about the same length as a more traditional strength program.
Finally, there was some fall out from squatting heavy every day. A little patellar tendonitis here. Some ITB syndrome there. By the time I gave it up my legs did not feel great. But I’m old, and a bit crazy, so, again, maybe that’s just me.
Should You Be Squatting Daily?
Who would be served well by squatting every day? Nearly anyone who wants to get their squat strength up or could use the repetition to improve technique,really. As long as you have a general base of strength, have decent squatting mechanics and you keep the volume to a realistic level that you can recover from. But just like any other program, you need to know when to get out of it and I think that is 4 to 8 weeks for most people. Not for years upon end as some have done. Do it for a couple of months and then move on to the more traditional 1 to 4 times per week squatting that many, many athletes and casual lifters have succeeded on.
Finally, if you are a higher level weightlifter or powerlifter, this type of plan is probably not for you at all. As strong as powerlifters are, going anywhere near a maximal squat on a daily basis is just suicide for your nervous and structural systems. It’s just too heavy. And while the Bulgarians have performed very well, there are many, many weightlifters – Kendrick Farris, Matt Bruce jump to mind immediately – that have developed incredible leg strength squatting much less frequently. They’ve also had long careers that remained mostly injury free.
Finally, finally, if you do want to give squatting every day a whirl, save yourself the money and just program it for yourself. I’m not looking to take cash out of a coaches pocket but, c’mon, how much value are you providing when the parameters are this simple. Even if you want to go with the higher variety approach you can easily assess what equipment you have available to you and devise a plan to progress in either a linear or undulating fashion. And if you cannot see yourself doing so probably means you aren't ready for a squat every day program anyway.
I miss squatting every day. I don’t miss getting out of bed looking like a question mark. And I’ve managed to maintain the strength I developed squatting every day with a more sane program. But play around with it. You may be the next Zlatan Vanev (one of the great Bulgarian weightlifters – but you knew that) or you may be the subject of a viral gym meme when you get crushed under a heavy bar.
Win-win, I think.