Last week, I set a new personal record by squatting 405 pounds (184 kilograms).
I have plenty of friends who can squat more weight—and a few who regularly squat over 500 pounds—but this was my first time passing the 400-pound mark so I'd like to share a few lessons I learned along the way.
10 Lessons Learned
1. Live in the arena instead of judging from the crowd. Every Monday and Thursday, I publish a new article on JamesClear.com with my ideas on habits, performance, and improvement. I enjoy writing and I try to make each article a great one. That said, anyone can share an opinion. It is easy to sit in the crowd and offer suggestions (or point fingers). It is much harder to step into the arena and do the work. This is one of the reasons why I lift: I don't merely want to share ideas, I want to live them out.
2. Don't miss workouts. Here's the recipe for squatting 400 pounds:
- Squat two or three times per week.
- Increase by about 5 pounds every week or two.
- Don't miss a workout for two years.
I would wager to say that most young, healthy men could squat double bodyweight if they followed that simple program. That said, the exact numbers aren't the point. The point is that it doesn't matter what program you do, how smart you think you are, or what genes you were or weren't born with. Unless you fall in love with boredom and do the work consistently, everything else is irrelevant.
3. When in doubt, go slower. The name of the game is to not miss workouts and make small improvements and that means one simple thing: don't get hurt. For the last 18 months, I have been training on a basic 5×5 program, but in recent weeks I switched to the more intense Smolov squat program. During the fifth week of Smolov, most people add 10 pounds from the previous week. I decided to only increase by 5 pounds. It was still an improvement, but a slightly smaller, safer, and more sustainable one. The best program in the world is useless if you're injured.
4. You are a reflection of your daily average. Your results in nearly any area of life are often a reflection of what you do on an average day. Increase your average speed and you'll increase your results. Previously, I was averaging about 25 reps per squat workout (typically 5 sets of 5 reps). During the past two months, my squat volume increased to about 35 reps per workout (and often with heavier weights). Guess what? My average went up and my maximum strength went with it.
5. Self-care is crucial. Stress is cumulative and recovery is not negotiable. I knew the intensity of my workouts would increase with the Smolov squat program and so I made sure to learn how to get better sleep. There were multiple days when I slept for 10 hours. I also did something I almost never do: I stretched my legs and used a foam roller nearly every day. Despite the intensity of the program, my increased focus on recovery balanced things out. There were even a few days when my legs felt fresh.
6. Push yourself past the point of comparison. There is something magical about physical struggle that can remove mental fear. It can be easy to walk into a gym and fear what others around you are thinking.
- “Does that guy think I'm weak?”
- “Do I look stupid?”
- “Am I doing this right?”
- “Are other people comparing themselves to me?”
If you push yourself far enough, these questions fade away. When the weight gets big enough, it commands all of your attention. You don't care what the girl across the room thinks. You don't care if people watch you or ignore you. You don't care if it's raining outside or if your shorts and shoes don't match or if the guy in the checkout line this morning was rude to you. The only thing you care about in that moment is surviving. I think there is something powerful about that. If you can learn to ignore what the world thinks for a few seconds when you're holding onto the bar, maybe you can learn to do it in other areas of life. Keep your eyes on your own paper.
7. Focus on volume before intensity. I have been lifting weights for over a decade, but many of those years were spent training for other sports. It really wasn't until the last 18 months that I dedicated time to focusing solely on weightlifting and particularly on squatting. I started slow and with easy weight. Then, I built a foundation of strength over the next year by focusing on doing a lot of repetitions. Not only did I avoid testing my one rep max, I didn't do less than a set of five for almost a year. Only after handling a lot of volume did I decide to dial up the intensity. The Smolov squat program has a reputation for being particularly intense, but because I prepared with so much volume, I was ready to handle the intensity. This method requires patience, but it works.
8. Measure something. We spend most of our days living in a gray area. Are you a better person today than you were yesterday? Are you a better parent? A better leader? A better friend? It can be hard to tell on most days. This is why I believe that we should test ourselves and measure our progress.
Seven weeks ago, I tried to squat 405 pounds and failed. Last week, I succeeded. I can tell you without hesitation that I am better today than I was seven weeks ago. No debate. No ego. No fluff. Black and white proof. Perhaps more importantly, I know who I am and who I am not.
When you measure your results, you cannot hide from yourself. You cannot lie to yourself. You cannot pretend to be something else. Best of all, there is no reason to fear failure because no matter what the outcome, you understand yourself better. What are you measuring in your life?
9. Short-term results are only useful when considered through a long-term context. History is filled with examples of people who have sacrificed their values, morals, friends, and families to achieve short-term results of some kind. If you're obsessed with a particular goal, then it can be surprisingly easy to find yourself making exceptions and just-this-once choices you may regret later. If, however, you view your short-term choices within the context of your long-term values, then it becomes much easier to celebrate in the moment without losing sight of what really matters.
I was proud and happy when I squatted 405 pounds. I celebrated the feat. But I also know that the process is more important than the goal. I'm going to enjoy this one, but I'll be back in the gym on Monday.
10. 500, I'm coming for you.