Improving my squat using wave cycling

After a week skiing in February 2015, my knees became inflamed and painful and I had trouble walking up and down stairs. I found that deadlifts improved my knee function and started powerlifting training for deadlifts and bench press. For the first months, I avoided the squat completely, and only gradually started to squat with relatively light weights around 50-60 kg. In the last couple of years, I’ve discovered that my knees are fine with squatting with good technique to parallel or below. I still have trouble getting below parallel with heavy weight on the back but am working on improving mobility. In my last pre-pandemic competition in December 2019, I squatted 107.5 kg with depth that was only just below parallel and one of the judges told me afterwards he thought they had been lenient in judging depth. This was substantially behind my deadlift at 190 kg. Most powerlifters have squat somewhat less than they can powerlift, but the difference is on average only around 20% and is narrower at 15% at the elite level (see here for averages based on over 7 million lifts).

So I decided to focus over the last 8 weeks on improving my squat, to do only a minimal amount of deadlifting, and no bench press (instead to rehabilitate an AC joint injury). I had been reading Pavel Tsatsouline’s book Beyond Bodybuilding: Muscle and Strength Training Secrets for The Renaissance Man and decided to do the 8 week wave cycling program that he describes on page 80 of the Kindle edition.  Here is how it worked for my squat:

I assumed my squat one rep max was currently 110 kg and my best working weight for 5-rep sets was 90 kg. For the first week, on Monday I performed 90×5, 92.5×4, 95×3, 97.5×2, 100×1. Following Pavel’s recommendation, I rested for 3 minutes between the sets. On Wednesday, I added 2.5 kg to all my sets: 92.5×5, 95×4, 97.5×3, 100×2, 102.5×1. On Friday, I added another 2.5: 95×5, 97.5×4, 100×3, 102.5×2, 105×1. Each new week, on Monday, I backed up to my last Wednesday numbers and worked back up. So every week, I added 7.5 kg to my sets and then took 5 kg off and built up again. This is why it is called ‘wave cycling’. Looking just at the singles, my weeks looked like this: 100, 102.5, 105; 102.5, 105, 107.5; 105, 107.5, 110, etc.

At the end of the 8th week, my last single was at 117.5 kg.  I then tested my 1 rep max at 120 kg (shown in video below). I felt like I could probably have added a little more, but as my depth was still problematic, decided not to. The video shows that I am getting to parallel or very fractionally below it, and I need to do more work to get consistently below parallel. So that will be my focus for the next weeks.

Strength training in the time of coronavirus

Geneva is about to ease the restrictions associated with the second wave of the pandemic. During this wave, average new cases per day in Geneva peaked at close to 3,000 confirmed cases per 100,000 population in the 14 days to 8 November. This was the highest recorded rate at regional level in western Europe. In other words, 3% of the population were confirmed new cases in that fortnight, and the real incidence would have been higher than that.

As can be seen in the figure above, the social restrictions introduced in most European countries have worked quite rapidly in turning the second wave downwards. The exceptions are Germany where it has plateaued by not yet coming down, though it never reached the levels of nearby countries, and Sweden where it is about to pass Switzerland on the way up. Daily new cases per million population in the USA now exceeds that in Switzerland. The USA now has 12 million confirmed cases, and the CDC estimates that the true number of infections is around 50 million, or 1 in 7 of the total population. Trump of course has gone AWOL and I suspect the USA is in for a bad winter.

My gym closed down again during this second wave. During the first wave it closed down for around 2 months and I tried to continue some light weight work at home. I had borrowed a couple of kettlebells from the gym and was somewhat aimlessly swinging these from time to time. However, my son took up a kettlebell challenge to do 10,000 swings of a 24 kg kettlebell in 4 weeks. He upgraded to 28 kg partway through.  That’s 500 a day, and he broke them up with some kettlebell presses every now and then.

I was inspired, and bought a 16 kg and 28 kg kettlebell and started using them 3 times a week. Initially, I was doing kettlebell swings at 28 kg and various double kettlebell routines with two 16 kg kettlebells (see video), though my favourite routine was the kettlebell snatch (second video). By the end of the lockdown I was doing 100 snatches, 100 clean and press and 100 double handed swings.

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Powerlifting

Approaching retirement from full-time work, the last thing I would have foreseen doing was to take up powerlifting and get involved in competitions. I had plans to spend more time walking and climbing in the Alps, but increasing knee problems (osteoarthritis) around 2014-2015 put that on hold. I stopped doing Crossfit classes in 2015 and instead started to focus on weight training apart from squats.

I had also been reading various books and research relating to exercise and ageing, and became convinced that to maximise my health and functioning into older age I needed to maintain and improve my strength, and that this was probably more important than the endurance cardiovascular training that I had been doing for many years.

I found that I really enjoyed training with heavy weights and low repetitions (usually in range 3-6) and that my knees felt a lot better after a workout. With some coaching on good technique, I was able to substantially increase the weight and volume I was working with and would often leave the gym with an endorphin high and pain-free knees. Occasional lower back pain (related to an old injury during jujutsu training) also became rarer.

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