Squat Like a Russian?

by coachdanbell

Pisarenko squat

If you’ve been around weightlifting for a little while, or even if you’ve just weight trained for other sports, you’ve probably heard of the famous (infamous?) “Russian Squat Routine.” This usually refers to the squat routine found in the 1976 USSR Weightlifting Yearbook. (per Artie Drechsler in The Weightlifting Encyclopedia—belongs on every coach’s bookshelf)

The original 1976 Yearbook squatting program is six weeks long, back squatting three times each week, with constant intensity and rising volume through the first three weeks, then increasing intensity and decreasing volume through the last three weeks. All percentages are of your best one rep max back squat.

1976 Russian pic

If you were a fairly advanced lifter and tried this, you know that 6×6 workout SUCKED. But at least now the reps go down from there. If you have pretty good squat technique and are decently strong to begin with, this can be a brutal program. While the light days do offer a reprieve, it doesn’t last long, especially if you’re not in your teens or early twenties. There are not many experienced, drug-free lifters who can get through this without modifying the program. After all, it was written for Soviet lifters when PEDs were used extensively and there was no drug testing.

Slightly modified, this program can be productive for most lifters. Two of its shortcomings, as commonly used, are the lack of adequate recovery time and no front squats for six weeks. So I make the light day–(80% x 2)6–even lighter by making it an 80% front squat. That reduces training load about 20% more on the light day, aiding in recovery, and keeps front squats in the program. It is also helpful to underestimate your PR back squat a little. Be sure your PR is recent. If you are currently back squatting 150kg, but your all time PR is 155, use the 150. Make sure it was a solid looking 150, too, not a PR cut high and ground through the sticking point.

An important detail often missed when this program is passed around: it is not rigidly held to the the six weeks written. If you miss reps in a week, the entire week is repeated. So while written for six weeks, it could be stretched out to seven, eight, or even nine weeks.

With the front Squat modification and the ability to repeat weeks of missed reps, this program has proven effective for my lifters. It can be done a couple times per year if the lifter is in the earlier stages of a career. The program suffers from the law of diminishing returns, however, as a lifter’s career progresses. For an older lifter in the last few years of a career it may do more harm than good. Volume programs are not friendly to well used joints.

I have found that keeping the modified version of the program to six weeks is very helpful for beginning lifters with decent squat technique but limited time under the bar. What they often lack is the feeling of straining hard to make a weight and pushing through to the next rep when the last one made it feel like the next rep was impossible. This ‘76 Soviet Program teaches them what the real work of a competitive weightlifter is like and what I’ll be expecting of them for the next several years.