The 20-rep squat routine: Is this still the best way to build whole-body muscle?
If there were a simple but brutal training program that had the potential to help you gain 3 inches around the chest and 15 pounds of bodyweight in one month, would you be interested in learning about this program?
Back in the 1930s, gains of 3 inches around the chest and 15 pounds of bodyweight in one month were not unusual with the so-called 20-rep squat routine.1
The development of the original 20-rep squat routine is ascribed to Joseph Curtis Hise in the early thirties.1 Inspired by Mark Berry, Olympic weightlifting head coach of the 1932 and 1936 Olympic teams, Hise had started to experiment with sets of 20 repetitions of the squat, “performing the first 10 repetitions in a normal way, but taking three deep breaths between each of the last 10 squats”.1 “After one set of 20 repetitions, one should feel like he has just run 2 miles at full speed.”1
The 20-rep squat routine has stood the test of time. In the 1940s and 1950s, legendary lifter and coach Perry Rader used, refined and wrote about this method in The Rader Master Bodybuilding and Weight Gaining System. In the 1980s, Randall Strossen of IronMind, who had used the method himself to gain 30 pounds of muscle in six weeks, published Super Squats, keeping the legacy of the 20-rep squat routine alive.
Why is the 20-rep squat routine so effective?
From a program-design perspective, there are two main reasons for the effectiveness of the 20-rep squat routine.
Reason # 1: Optimal muscle growth may come from maximizing the combination of mechanical and metabolic stimuli via periodization. Mechanical factors emphasize eccentric muscle actions: heavy loading with 2 to 10 repetitions per set (75 to 95% 1RM) and 1 to 2 min of rest between sets. Metabolic stimuli center around moderate loading with 10 to 30 repetitions per set (55 to 75% 1RM) and 30 to 60 seconds of rest between sets.2
With its 20 repetitions per set, the 20-rep squat routine can be expected to work through putting metabolic stress on your body. This metabolic stress is greater than with most other training protocols, because the 20 repetitions are performed with a 10-repetition maximum load – technically speaking, a load that you can lift only 10 times.
The next section will explain how it is possible to perform 20 repetitions with a load that can be lifted only 10 times!
Reason # 2: The first time I heard of this program, my first thought was, “How can you perform 20 reps with a 10 RM load?” The answer lies in the use of hyperventilation between repetitions.
Here is a quote from Perry Rader on what was termed the “puff and pant style” of breathing:3
We generally recommend that the pupil perform about 3–5 squats with one breath between each squat and from there on he will use 3 or more breaths between each squat, gradually increasing the number of breaths between squats as he progresses with squat repetitions, as you require more breathing as you tire from the squat. When you reach 20 repetitions, you may be taking as many as 8–10 breaths. Each breath is made as large as possible and an effort is made to use the entire chest capacity. On the last breath you draw in all the air that you can and then make an extra effort to fill the lungs still fuller. As you make this last effort you hold the breath and perform your squat and then repeat your breathing procedure as before.
Hyperventilation, maximal breath holding and a combination of hyperventilation and breath holding have been shown to cause a 1.5 to 5.56 increase in human growth hormone (HGH) concentrations.4 Growth hormone “enhances almost all facets of amino acid uptake and protein synthesis by cells and at the same time reduces the breakdown of protein.”5
Ideally, the exact growth hormone response to the 20-rep squat routine should be measured scientifically, but in absence of this information it seems fair to assume the combination of the intense metabolic stress, the hyperventilation and the breath holding provide the foundation for the effectiveness of the 20-rep squat routine.
Who is the 20-rep squat routine for?
Due to its intense nature, the 20-rep squat routine is not for everyone. The 20-rep squat routine is for bodybuilders or powerlifters who:
- are looking to significantly increase muscle mass particularly in, but not limited to, the thighs;
- have completed two or more years of systematic strength training, including previous training with high-rep programs like the one found here;
- have normal blood pressure and can tolerate hyperventilation;
- have the flexibility and technique to squat past parallel (the 20-rep squat routine is performed with full-range–of-motion squats (“ass to grass”) or, if you can’t squat with a full range, you should lower your body at least to the point where your hip joint is slightly lower than the knee joint);
- can maintain perfect form, even though you are close to your limits and your legs are shaking;
- have access to a power rack or a training partner (From the 13th to the 20th repetition, you are going very close to the limits of what you can lift. Thus, there is a chance of getting into a situation where you can’t lift the weight. If this happens, the safety pins of the power rack (set to the height of the bar at the bottom of your squat) or your training partner are your rescue. The training partner can help you complete the lift. If you don’t have a training partner, simply lower the bar to the safety pins and step out of the power rack); and
- have the ability to leave the ego at the door and stop a set if you feel that the sense of discomfort is “wrong” (risk of fainting) or you are shaking so severely that you are losing control of the movement.
How to do the 20-rep squat routine
Here are the keys to effectively performing a training cycle using the 20-rep squat routine:
# 1: Schedule a 6- to 9-week period.
It is recommended to schedule nine weeks for this powerful program. Terminate the program after six weeks if you feel that you have reached a plateau, but not before. If you still are making progress after six weeks, then continue the program until all nine weeks are completed.
# 2: Complete 2 to 3 workouts per week.
The 20-rep squat routine is traditionally performed as a part of two or three weekly whole body workouts that include an additional five to seven exercises, each performed for one set of about 15 repetitions.6 Here is an example:
|Deep Back Squat||1 × 20|
|Barbell Pull-Over/td>||1 × 15|
|Stiff-Legged Deadlift||1 × 15|
|Barbell Bench Press||1 × 15|
|Chin-Ups||1 × 15|
|Biceps Curl (any variation)||1 × 15|
Depending on your training capacity and time to train, you might be able to handle a split program with a higher number of weekly sessions. However, here are a few guidelines that you must observe.
- Perform the set of squats first in all workouts.
- Vary the number of workouts that you include the squat on a weekly basis.
|# Squat workouts||1||2||3||2||3||1||2||2||3|
The 20-rep squat routine is obviously not energy systems training. Thus, the logical question is “What kind of energy systems training, if any, should you use while on this program?” Well, traditionally no energy systems training is used while on the 20-rep squat routine. You will be spending most days between the workouts in recovery mode and performing any kind of medium- to high-intensity energy systems training could compromise your progress. Walking on your off days might be a good option to create a light cardio respiratory stimulus and to burn some fat.
# 3: Find the right start load
It is recommended that you dedicate one workout in the week before starting the 20-rep squat routine, to find the right start load. The right start load is the load that you can lift 10 times, but not 11 times, with perfect form. This load is your so-called 10-repetition maximum.
Three or more sets with gradually increasing loads are performed to find the right start load. Rest two to three minutes between each set.
First set: Estimate load so that 10 continuous repetitions result in RPE 1–2 out of 5. This is a judgment call that gets easier with experience. There should be no visible strain during this set.
RPE = Rate of Perceived Exertion. One (1) is low exertion and five (5) is maximal exertion.
Second set: Estimate the load so 10 continuous repetitions result in RPE 2–3 out of 5. To achieve the increase in rate of perceived exertion, the load should most often be increased by 5 to 25 pounds.
Third set: Estimate the load so 10 continuous repetitions result in RPE 4 out of 5. To achieve the increase in rate of perceived exertion, the load should most often be increased by 5 to 25 pounds. There should be visible strain and muscular contraction in your face and body, but the technique should, of course, still be perfect.
This sequence can be extended 1 or 2 sets, or in some cases even more if needed.
The load that results in an RPE of 4 out of 5 for 10 continuous repetitions is the start load for the program.
# 4: How to perform 20 repetitions with a load that you can lift only 10 times
Let’s say that you found your start load, your 10-repetition maximum, to be 200 pounds.
Now you are faced with the seemingly impossible task of performing 20 repetitions with a load that you can lift only 10 times. Here is how you do it:
As stated above, Hise recommends three deep breaths between each of the last 10 squats. Each breath is performed in the top of the squat, the standing position. In the standing position, your legs and core muscles get a partial rest and are able to partially recover. You can take more than three breaths between each repetition, if needed.
To hyperventilate, each breath should be performed by inhaling and exhaling through the mouth. You are still supporting a significant load, so the abdominal wall should not move out on the inhalation, but stay flat throughout. The last inhalation before the next repetition should be performed through the nose. Exhale under pressure as you rise out of the squat.
Note that the quote from Perry Rader listed above indicates a higher number of breaths between each repetition. Both approaches work, yet the set becomes very long when you follow the approach Rader prescribes and you may find that you spend too much energy simply standing with the bar and breathing.
# 5: Progressions
Traditionally, the guideline for the 20-rep squat routine is to add 5 pounds total per workout.
You may last longer on the program, and thus make greater gains, if you add 5 pounds per workout for two consecutive workouts and then reduce the load by 5 pounds in the third workout. This is also called wave loading and is an example of a “two steps forward, one step back" approach.
If you follow the above suggestion for number of workouts per week throughout the nine weeks, the table below shows exactly in which workouts to add load and in which workouts to take load off.
|# Squat Workout/Week||1||2||3||4||5||6||7||8||9|
In the old days, the 20-rep squat routine was called the “milk and honey program,” because milk and honey was the recommended post-workout nutrition. It is worth noting that we are here talking about raw milk and raw honey, with a substantially different nutritional profile compared to their pasteurized versions. As with any other program that you perform with the purpose of inducing muscle hypertrophy, your diet and supplementation must be optimal. While access to raw milk is considerably limited compared to the old days, you have a significant advantage with your access to effective supplements, such as the ones supplied by FUSION.