After posting the guide How To Get Your Deadlift From 95lbs to 405lbs, I received a couple of e-mails from readers who want to know how often a natural lifter should squat, bench press and deadlift. Here’s my take on the subject.
Out of the ”big three”, the back squat can be trained the most frequently. Unlike the deadlift and the pause squat, the regular barbell back squat has a negative portion with a strong stretch reflex at the bottom which makes the movement easier on the body and the CNS (central nervous system).
Squatting heavy weights often is possible. Deadlifting is not because the lift drains your mind and body. Moreover, the deadlift truly fatigues the lower back, which is the muscle group with the slowest recovery.
The bench press is not nearly as stressful as the deadlift, but it places a significant stress on small structures like the rotator cuff, the pectoral tie-ins, the wrists and the elbows – areas that could easily be overworked.
Notice that in this case, we are talking about the back squat and not the front squat. The front squat cannot be done as often as the back squat because it places more stress on the knees and drains the upper back very quickly because the barbell is in front of you all the time.
If you are natural, squatting more than 4 times a week seems truly excessive. Technically, if you are using low volume and low intensity, you can squat every single day…maybe even twice a day. However, easy doesn’t count. If you can squat 250lbs, squatting 100lbs will not make you stronger. It’s an endurance/mobility workout.
If you squat challenging weights more often than 4 times a week, you will burn out mentally and eventually quit. Furthermore, there is zero need to squat more than 4 times a week to get results.
For a natural, the ultimate way to squat is two times a week. One day with heavy weights and another day with more volume just to practice form and promote active recovery.
For example, on Day 1 you can work up to one heavy set of 5-8 reps and follow it with a couple of lighter back-off sets. A few days later you can pick up a weight and do 5×5, 3×10…whatever. The goal is to simply practice form and add some volume to your overall workload. It’s not uncommon to keep the weight on the light day the same for months.
Let’s say that on your heavy day you have worked up to 300lbs x 6 + 2 back-off sets with 250 lbs. On your light day, you can do 200lbs for 5×5 just to practice form. You can continue adding weight to your heavy day while keeping your light day at 200lbs for months.
Beginners Can Squat More Often
If you are a total beginner, you can squat very often. We’re familiar with Rippetoe’s Starting Strength progression. The method works well for your first two months in the gym, but once you start squatting your bodyweight, the progression slows down quickly. Most people who maintain a linear progression for more than 2-3 months are often gaining 2 pounds of fat for each pound added to the bar.
I wouldn’t recommend crazy routines like Smolov to natural lifters. While some naturals can survive Smolov, it’s not worth the trouble in the long run.
So, you’ve added 50 pounds to your squat in 3 months instead of 5 or 6. Who cares, really? At the end of the day, you are not saving the world with your squat numbers anyway. Don’t risk injuries in order to satisfy your ego.
But John Broz said that you can squat every day!
”The day when you won’t be able to squat the bar will never come.” John Broz
Let me tell you something really important. All of John Broz lifters are as natty as the Bulgarians lifters winning medals 20-40 years ago.
The methods of John Broz are a variation of what the Bulgarians did under the commandment of Ivan Abadjiev.
Unfortunately, many lifters who trained under the orders of Abadjiev ended with wrecked knees, shoulders, elbows, backs and other injuries. Only the strongest survived and won medals. The rest trained just as hard but were destroyed by the regime.
Squatting heavy every day only works for juiced lifters who do nothing but lifting and have really good genetics.
THE BENCH PRESS
The bench involves mainly the chest, the front delts and the triceps. They are all weak muscles connected to fragile joints. Usually, people complain mostly of shoulder pain but all points can be damaged easily. That’s why bench pressing more than 3 times a week as a natural seems pointless. To tell you the truth, 2 times a week would be more than enough. You can follow the same plan as for the squat – one heavy day and one light volume day.
While the main bench press muscles are tiny and recover fast, the small joints of the upper body recuperate slowly and cannot take as much beating. If you are not built for the bench press, you will find it particularly difficult to sustain any type or crazy programs such as Sheiko and Smolov, which are, once again, used mainly by drugged lifters with a lot of time dedicated to moving iron.
Natty brahs can benefit from similar training, but only if they have the structure allowing them to recover fast.
What is that structure?
The best build for excelling at the bench press consists of short T-rex arms and naturally wide shoulders.
The deadlift is brutal. One heavy set can pin you to the ground and make you feel like you’ve worked construction for 16 hours straight without having access to water and food. Why is the lift so merciless? Well, it’s dead, that’s why.
The deadlift does not rely on a stretch reflex. The weight is dead on the floor, and you have to brute force it all the way up. Also, you can’t really shorten the range of motion compared to a squat, for example. You can squat high, but you can’t really deadlift high and call it a deadlift. It’s either locked out or not. Of course, you can do other sexy activities such as hitching, but similar cheating is too obvious. The brahs will be talking. Do you really want that?
That’s why it’s not recommended to do more than 1 or 2 sets of heavy deadlifts once you are an advanced lifter. To be on the safe side stick with one. When you are first starting out you can deadlift more frequently, but as soon as the weight gets heavy – it’s game over.
There are programs such as Pavel Tsatousline’s Power To The People that make you deadlift 5 times a week, but the intensity is carefully cycled, and you are never supposed to go all out. However, even in that case deadlifing 5 times a week seems crazy, especially if you are also squatting and doing other back exercises.
If you plan on specializing in the deadlift, you can use the same plan as for the squat – one really heavy day and then a light day to practice form.
Note: Never do back-off sets for the deadlift. After your heavy set is completed, you’re done.