This article also assumes that you are already familiar with heavy-light-medium training. If you're not familiar with this form of lifting, then the first thing I suggest is reading my article on H-L-M training that I wrote for Dragon Door. You can find it here:
More than just being familiar with this sort of training, it's best to actually do it for an extended period of time. If you've never done full-body workouts, much less H-L-M training, then you definitely need to perform the basic workout listed in my Dragon Door article for at least 8 weeks, minimum. Twelve to 16 weeks would be even better. After you have done that, then you're ready to start specializing. Which is where an article such as this one comes in handy.
When writing articles like this, the best way to often get your point across is through "tips" or "keys," so I guess that an alternate title of this article could have been something such as "4 Tips For Building A Massive Squat Using the Heavy-Light-Medium System." That's a little more catchy. I kind of like it.
Tip #1: Know How Frequently You Need to Squat
When you first begin the H-L-M method of training, you typically want to squat 3 days each week. Every lifter that I have worked with has gotten good results at the beginning of their H-L-M training by training the squat on each day.
The squat, in this regard, is different than the bench press or the deadlift. Even when starting out, I typically have my lifters deadlift only once a week, and bench press twice each week. It's harder to overtrain the movement pattern in the squat compared to the other lifts.
Some lifters can get away with training the squat on all 3 days throughout their training careers. (Of course, some—even if they could get away with this—would rather do other exercises just for the sake of variety.) If you are built for squatting, then this would be you. How do you know if you're built for the squat? First off, if you haven't done squats for an extended period of time in order to increase your strength, you don't know. If, however, you have rarely done anything other than squats to increase your squatting strength, then you're probably built for this exercise.
When you decide to add some exercise variety to your squats, I would start by substituting a different exercise on your light day. I like the reverse lunge on this day. I say the reverse lunge for a couple of reasons. One, you can do it in the squat rack in the same place that you perform your squats. Two, it seems to have a better carryover to your squats—for whatever reason—than do forward lunges. This probably has something to do with the fact that the movement of stepping back, instead of forward, is more natural. Perhaps it also has something to do with the fact that a reverse lunge more closely resembles a step-up. And step-ups are a great exercise for increasing your squat. (It also more closely resembles a one-legged squat, since your "squatting" leg stays put in the reverse lunge.)
The reverse lunge is a natural exercise for your light day because of the weights used. Reverse lunges just don't allow you to use very much weight. If you squat 400 on your heavy day and 350 on your medium day, you will have a tough time achieving 275 on your reverse lunges on the light day. This also helps to take a lot of the guesswork out of the light day. With reverse lunges, you can train as "heavy" as you are capable of training, and it will still be "light".
As you get more advanced, and as you discover that you really do need more variety than just lunges, you should substitute another exercise for squats on the medium day. I think the best exercise to start with on medium day is the front squat. If you perform 5 sets of 5 for squats on Heavy Day, 5 sets of 5 for reverse lunges on Light Day, and 5 sets of 5 for front squats on Medium Day, the front squats will be a natural medium exercise without even trying.
As you progress even further, it could be that you will want to start rotating to some different exercises other than just these three. First things first when doing this: Stick with squats as your core exercise on the heavy day. In other words, never deviate from Heavy Day squats. However, feel free to rotate to other exercises as you see fit on the light and medium days. Although, when first doing this, I would be hesitant about rotating exercises on every light day or on every single medium day. It's probably best to stick with an exercise for 2 to 3 weeks before rotating to something new. For instance, here's an example of what 9 weeks of training might look like:
Heavy Day: squats
Light Day: reverse lunges
Medium Day: front squats
Heavy Day: squats
Light Day: walking lunges
Medium Day: barbell hack squats
Heavy Day: squats
Light Day: overhead squats
Medium Day: bottom-position squats
One thing that I hope you're beginning to understand at this point is that variety is important. You always need to use a system of training—which is H-L-M training in this case—but you need plenty of variety built within that system. Which brings us to our next tip.
Tip #2: Vary Your Repetition Ranges on a Regular Basis
The more advanced you become, the more variety you need. This is true even for those of you who can get away with—and enjoy—squatting 3 days each week.
As a rule of thumb, I would advise to vary your repetition ranges, on each training day, once every three weeks. If you use the above 9 week example for changing exercises, this would mean that you would change your repetition ranges each time that you varied your exercises.
Here is the repetition scheme that I most prefer (and it's also the one favored by Bill Starr, which is where I learned it, although his method is slightly different, but we'll get to that in a little bit): Weeks 1-3: 5 sets of 5 scheme; Weeks 4-6: 2 sets of 5, 3 sets of 3 scheme; Weeks 7-9: 4 sets of 8 scheme; Weeks 10-12: progressively heavier singles scheme. (Note: When performing the singles, you will probably want to perform 5s, then 3s, as you work up to a heavy, near-max weight. Take your time to work up to your maximum single, but DO NOT fatigue yourself as you do so.)
Bill Starr advises—and here's the difference—that advanced lifters vary their repetition schemes on a weekly basis. So, the first week would be 5s, the second week would be triples, the third week would be 8s, and the fourth week would be singles.
Learn what method of variation works best for you. Do you get the most out of weekly variation? Or do you do better by waiting 2 to 3 weeks before changing reps? I think that the more advanced you are, the more variation you need. For instance, if you've been lifting hard and heavy for over ten years, you could probably use the weekly variation. If you've been training hard for just over a year, then you will probably do better by waiting 3 weeks before changing to a new scheme.
Keep in mind, as well, that you can use different repetition schemes than what I've recommended here. You might want to perform a 10 sets of 3 scheme, where you take minimum rest between each set but you use the same weight on each set (as opposed to the progressively heavier sets that H-L-M training usually entails). Or you might want to use another one of my favorites: the 5 sets of 1 method. For this method, use a weight that you can only get 2 or 3 singles with. Stick with this weight until you get 5 singles with it. At the next workout, add weight and repeat the process.
Tip #3: Increase Your Workload Via Back-Off Sets and Assistance Exercises
As you get more advanced—and as you really focus on bringing up the numbers on your squat—you will need more than just 5 sets of 5 reps, or 4 sets of 8 reps, or whatever it is that you are using for the training week. You will need both back-off sets to increase your workload for that exercise and assistance exercises to work on any weak points that you have.
When first performing back-off sets, I would stick with a 2 sets of 8 scheme on days where you do sets of 5, triples, or singles. Let's say that you work up to 400 pounds for your final set of 5 reps. Rest a few minutes, strip the weight down to around 275 to 300 lbs and perform 2 sets of 8 with this weight. On days where you might use a 4 sets of 8 scheme, I would only perform 1 back-off set of 15 to 20 reps.
At first, only add back-off sets to your heavy days. After a few weeks of this, add back-off sets to your medium days. You can probably stick with doing the back-offs on both the heavy and medium days throughout your training. The exception is for those of you who are really advanced. If you are squatting close to triple your bodyweight, then you will want to also add some back-off sets to your light days.
After you start performing back-off sets, you will want to begin adding some assistance work for your squats at some point. Some of the stuff you are already doing should naturally be assistance work. For instance, deadlifts definitely improve your squats, as does abdominal work. And for some of you, this will be enough to keep your squats moving upward for a long time. For others, it won't be.
The assistance work shouldn't be done in a haphazard manner. It should be done knowing what your weak points are. Now, weak points can be complex things, but we'll try to keep it simple here.
If you are having problems coming out of the "hole" in your squats, then you need some specific work for your glute-hamstring tie-in muscles. I like good mornings and stiff-legged deadlifts in this instance. A couple of sets at the end of the workout—but before abdominal work—should do the trick. I would advise using the same repetition schemes as on your back-off sets. So, 2 sets of 8 should work just fine. But make sure that the 2 sets are hard. Easy stuff just won't cut it.
If your lower back is giving you problems—for instance, do you tend to "bend over" when coming out of the hole?—then good-morning squats are probably the best thing in your arsenal. Once again, 2 sets of 8 should be sufficient.
Assistance exercises are something you need to experiment with. Try some different ones, and try them for several weeks. If your squat starts moving upward again, then you're probably on the right track. Keep in mind that you don't need them, however, if your squats are increasing steadily without them. But you do need the back-off sets.
Tip #4: Add an Extra Light Day
The more advanced you become, the more total workload that you need. There's just no getting around it. However, at some point, you will not be able to train just 3 days each week. Not unless you want your heavy and medium days to start going over 2 hours in length. (I must say, at this point, that I have—in the past—trained in excess of 2 hours on both my heavy and medium days and I was strong as hell while doing so. So, the idea that your sessions should never last longer than 45 minutes—or an hour at the most—is a bunch of hogwash. However, most people don't want to—nor do they have the time—to train this long.)
The best thing you can do at this point is add an extra light day to your program. If you train on Monday (heavy), Wednesday (light), and Friday (medium), then your extra light day should fall on Tuesday. Don't worry about the fact that you are training three days in a row. The extra light day should be a little "lighter" than the light day on Wednesday. Also, this will—because you will now be advanced before attempting this—aid in your recovery from the heavy day of training.
If you are still squatting 3 days each week at this point, don't squat on this extra light day. Perform reverse lunges instead. If you are, say, squatting on Monday, doing lunges on Wednesday, and performing front squats on Friday, then it's time to change things. You will do better by squatting on Monday, doing reverse lunges on Tuesday, front squats on Wednesday, and bottom-position squats on Friday.
Summing Things Up
I hope I have covered most of the things that followers of H-L-M training have been pondering when it comes to their squat training. If not, then please feel free to e-mail me with any specific questions you might have.