Most of you have probably heard of the 20 rep squat program by now. It is one of the simplest programs to ever be invented. You do a set of 20 on the back squat, then a few assistance exercises. That’s it! Every workout you just add 5-10 lbs. on your squat. Thus, you must start lower than your true max and build up your work capacity to be able to handle a heavier weight for a set of 20. The program generally calls for a doing the exact same workout (in terms of exercises, not weight) three times per week. The end goal is to be able to do your maximal set of 10 for a set of 20 (by taking more time and breaths between reps).
Many people would also call this type of program the “Breathing Squats” program that was really made famous in the book Super Squats by Randell Strossen. This book is pretty short (only 112 pages) and entirely worth it. It really is one of the first books to say that if you lift big weights for a lot of reps, you will gain muscle and strength! Weird, huh? It seems like the Rocky style of training, but for gaining muscle! He also says it is mandatory to drink at least a gallon of milk per day while trying to train like this. There are some interesting things in there such as that, but there is no doubt the program works. Twenty rep squats were introduced before this, but this book really made them popular. The first time I got introduced to the 20 rep squat program was in wrestling practice way back in high school. I’m embarrassed to say…I puked the very first time I tried a set of 20 squats.
A Few Words of Caution:
The 20 rep squat program is a VERY physically demanding program. You need to make sure you have enough time to recover between training sessions. If not, you can run yourself straight into the ground with this program. You have to make sure you consume MORE calories than what you are expending as well. This is just to make sure you are getting all of the vitamins and minerals (and of course carbs, protein, and fat) that are necessary to complete this program and recover properly. This program isn’t for the recreational lifter. This is only for those who are looking to gain some serious muscle!
So, What is the Program?
The program is based on three principles (Progression, Overload, and Adaptation). You add more weight to the bar, slowly, over time – progression. You place more stress on your body by using more weight than it is accustomed to - overload. You force your body to do your normal set of 10 squat reps for a set of 20 - adaptation. If you force your body to adapt, it will, as long as the stimulus is right, and you are paying attention to recovery as well. You just add more weight each week, focus on recovery and eating, and gain muscle. That is the program.
There are quite a few versions of the 20 rep squat program. Here is the one I have found to be most beneficial, as I have used it both on myself and with a number of my clients as well, with great success and results.
Program Length: 6 Weeks (followed by at least 6 weeks being off the program)
Frequency: 3 Days Per week (at least 1 rest day between sessions)
20 Rep Back Squats – 1x20, starting off at about 40% of your 1 rep max.
Pullovers – 1x20
Stiff Legged Deadlift – 1x20
Pullovers – 1x20
Bench Press – 2x10
Bent Over Row – 3x8
Day Two and Day Three:
Repeat the workout from Day One, but add 5-10 lbs. to your squat weight each day.
Your squat weight will always be something that will be difficult to determine what to start with. The reason why is because it is too difficult to determine your current level of strength, fitness, and conditioning level, and whether or not you are ready for the 20 reps. Also, without knowing if you have done anything similar or how many years you have trained, it is just too tough to decide, so it is better to start low and work your way up.
Rule 1 – Start off 20 lbs….it’s lighter than what you think! This program is all about where you FINISH, not where you start. Be cautious with the first week and get a feeling for what weight you should progress up with.
Rule 2 - You can always add more weight from week to week, but it can halt the program in a hurry if you have to drop the weight back down after the 2nd or 3rd week.
Rule 3 - You have 18 workouts to build up to your max 20 rep set. So, plan ahead of time! What is your target goal? Start off 18 workouts ahead of that and count back. A lot of people will add 10 lbs. for the first 9 workouts, and, 5 lbs. for the last 9 workouts. Thus, as the weight becomes heavier, the shock from workout to workout (in terms of weight) is decreased.
Rule 4 - Do not quit! Even if you have to progress up much slower and don’t get close to your goal, do not quit! You will find out a lot about yourself and your toughness just by finishing this 6-week program.
Rule 5 - If you fail on a weight, don’t panic. You can simply try it again the next workout. If you miss the weight in the range of 10-15 reps, then go back down in weight. If you miss from 16-19 just go ahead and make it the next workout you do it.
Six Weeks of Struggle = Muscle Gain
People will say a lot of things about this program, but nobody really argues that it doesn’t work. If they follow those guidelines, eat properly and get enough rest, they will for surely pack on muscle. Some of the most brutal workouts I have ever seen have been 20 rep squat workouts. I have literally seen people quit lifting all together after doing these. I have also seen numerous people cry during a set. There are also other people who said it takes them to a place mentally where they have never been before (the point of physical and mental fatigue where both just want to break down). However, they become stronger for it!
You are probably wondering what people must call such a workout or program. Well, other names for 20 rep squats that I have heard are: Man Makers, Death In A Set, Rocky Squats, Living Suicides, and Ball Busters. You can name them whatever you want after you do the program. I have also heard them called many other names, but I can’t quite mention them right now in case there are children reading this.
Anyway, do this 6-week program and see what you’re made of!
Strossen, Randall. (February, 1989). Super Squats : How to gain 30 pounds of muscle in 6 weeks.
Starting Strength Wikia. http://startingstrength.wikia.com/wiki/20_Rep_Squats
Max Aita – An accomplished and active Olympic style weightlifter from Montana, Max is a strength coach at the California Strength Academy. After studying under Ivan Abadzhiev, the famous Bulgarian strength coach, Max secured the job at the California Strength Academy and currently runs the athletic training program at the academy working with athletes from prep to pro. Max can be reached at email@example.com.