Gains rarely exist in your comfort zone. To get bigger and stronger you need to do more than you did the week before. This doesn’t mean you should deadlift until your back gives out (please don’t do this), but every once and a while it’s good to endure the hardest set of your lifting career.
Enter 20-rep squats. The idea is to warm up to a weight you can squat for a set of eight to 12 reps, then squat it for 20 reps instead. If you have to pause at the top of each rep and take a few breaths before dropping back down, then so be it. Legendary bodybuilder Tom Platz, who is known for sporting the best pair of quads ever seen on a stage, was known for his high-rep, heavy weight sets. Once, Platz squatted 525-pounds for 23 reps.
A single 20-rep set will flood your body with anabolic hormones, catalyze insane strength and muscle gains and fry your central nervous system hard (so don’t do them every day). You’ll learn to maintain form and breathe under tension and you’ll positively reinforce your posture and motor patterns. And you’ll build barbell confidence, which is important for mentally pushing past your comfort zone.
The Benefits of 20-Rep Squats
So what are all the benefits of putting yourself through this misery anyways? Below, we’ll give you a reason to drench some extra sweat on your next leg workout.
The more volume you do, the more muscle you’ll build. Of course, doing 20 reps of squats will be a lot more volume than five to 10 reps, and this study proves that. (1) However, it does note that strength wasn’t improved with higher volume. That said, this 2015 study comparing high-volume vs. low-volume training found that high-volume training is superior to low-volume training when it comes to maximizing strength. (2)
More Muscular Endurance
Simultaneously, the more volume you do, the more muscular endurance you’ll have as well. Twenty-rep sets are taxing, and your legs will be more fatigued than you’ve probably ever felt. However, the more your legs adapt your to that rep scheme, the more capacity they’ll have for endurance-related activities involving your legs, including cycling, running, basketball, and soccer.
[Related: The Best Squat Racks for Beginners, Powerlifting, Small Spaces, and More]
That’s because lower weight and higher reps activate your slow-twitch muscle fibers, which are your endurance fibers. (2) The beauty of the 20-rep squat protocol though is that you’ll be tapping into your fast-twitch muscle fibers too since you won’t be using lightweight. It’s a win-win. You’ll build more muscle and endurance with this beastly set.
As stated earlier in this article, performing 20-rep squats will spike your anabolic hormones. Higher-volume training yields more testosterone compared to lower-volume training. This study of obese men partaking in both high-volume training and low-volume training had significantly better testosterone production and sexual health when engaging in high-volume training versus low-volume training. (3)
Develop Mental Toughness
Of course, if you’re putting yourself through the pain of 20-rep squats, there’s no doubt you’ll build David Goggins’s level of mental fortitude. “I think these are great to test and develop mental and physical toughness,” says Chad Vaughn, a BarBend contributor, the owner of Vaughn Strength, and a 9-time U.S. National Weightlifting Champion. “When it comes to strength improvements, reps are necessary and this is a good way to accumulate a lot of them quickly with medium to heavy loads.”
“Bodybuilders love these, but it’s also great for athletes because 20-rep breathing squats are essentially twenty single-rep sets,” says Jon DiFlorio, CSCS, a strength coach and owner of Institute 3E, a facility that focuses on training hockey players. “So you’re recruiting fast-twitch muscle fibers and not tapping into slow-twitch muscle fibers. And it’s a great exercise for building capacity, too.”
Note that this may not be the case if instead of doing breathing squats you’re making your way to 20 with a few mini-sets of two to five reps, which may target both your slow and fast-twitch fibers.
How to Program 20-Rep Squats
They’re generally prescribed as the cornerstone of a 6-week program. Six-week, squat-heavy programs like this are often attributed to Dr. Randall J. Strossen, who helped popularize them in the late 1980s with his book Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks. Di Florio, on the other hand, says he learned about it from his mentor, the late Charles Poliquin.
In any case, the general consensus is to try them for no longer than six weeks. Vaughn says he likes to prepare the week beforehand with two days of three sets of 10 squats at 50-70 percent of his 1-rep max.
[Related: The Best Barbells for CrossFit, Weightlifting, Powerlifting, Deadlifts, and More]
How often you do the squats during the six-week program is debatable. Many trainers like to schedule up to three workouts per week, each containing one set of 20-rep squats, adding five pounds to the bar every time. Others say you should only do them once per week. It depends on your training experience and how you feel you respond to this level of intensity.
“I’ll use them in a primarily all lower body day, then the next day will be all upper body, the third day is a rest day, and the fourth day we’ll come back to the lower body but leave out the 20-rep breathing squats,” DiFlorio says.
DiFlorio’s plan is a smart way to approach this if you’re training three times a week. That said, a lot of people, even experienced athletes, do best with just two workouts per week the first time they tackle this challenge, starting each workout with 20-rep squats and training the rest of the body at relatively low volume as well.
Make sure to fit in two or three thirty-minute sessions of active recovery on your rest days. Walking will probably do it.
With that said, how you program 20-rep squats into your training regimen will vary depending on your experience level. Here are some general guidelines we recommend you follow below based on your experience level.
20-Rep Squat Guidelines
- Beginner: Once per week with a few reps left in your tank after completing all 20 reps. Generally, this will put you around 40% of your one-rep max.
- Intermediate: Twice per week while barely capable of completing the 20 reps with the weight you use. Start off around 55% of your one-rep max.
- Advanced: Three times per week while pushing yourself past what you thought you were capable of — normally, you would perform this weight for only eight to 12 reps. Attempt 60% of your one-rep max and go from there if you can add more.
You should do 20-rep squats at the beginning of your workout, not after. If you do them after your workout, your muscles will already be fatigued from the rest of your exercises, which means you won’t be able to push yourself as much on weight, or worse, injure yourself.
Also, make sure your recovery is on point. You should rest for at least 48 hours between leg sessions.
[Related: Everything You Need to Know to Build Your First Workout Program]
How to Progress With 20-Rep Squats
To progress your 20-rep squat workout, you have a couple of different options.
- You can increase the intensity you do them by increasing the percentage of your one-rep squat max you’re using on them. For example, if you were able to do 20 reps with 40% of your one-rep max the workout before, attempt 45% of your one-rep max your next workout.
- You can add weight to each workout in increments of two and a half pounds to five pounds instead.
In general, you’ll be increasing the weight you’re doing as often as possible. Once you can do 20 reps with a particular weight, that means it’s time to increase the weight of you’re next workout.
What Not to Do
You’ll need to attack these with all-out effort, but only using a weight you can handle. It’s recommended to do the 20-rep squats with what would normally be your max for a set of eight to 12 reps.
“Make sure first and foremost that you aren’t starting too aggressively in the load and that you’re not making too big of a jump from one day to the next,” suggests Vaughn. “I always recommend starting at about 55 percent of your 1-rep max. It won’t be easy — is anything for twenty reps? — but it should leave you with confidence that you can do a lot more.”
In any case, make sure you’re doing these in a rack with safety pins in case you need to bail, and if you have a casual workout buddy who doesn’t mind spotting you, now is the time to bring him or her in.
Also, note that these programs are designed for back squats. Not Smith machine squats, not front squats, not lunges, and not Bulgarian split squats.
“Definitely don’t do this with front squats,” warns DiFlorio. “The rhomboids will fatigue too quickly, it’s too much work for them. Anyone in the strength game knows that if you’re a good front squatter, you don’t do more than five or six reps.”
Example Intermediate Workout
The lifter’s max in this example is 250 pounds, and the starting weight is 55% of that. At the intermediate level, you can perform 20-rep squats twice a week with at least 48 hours between doing them. Make sure you do them at the beginning of your workout before completing the rest of your exercises.
You may also want to consider toning down your accessory work. Say you perform 12 sets of legs normally (three sets of four different leg exercises), you may want to lose three sets. You may be thinking, “this is just one extra set,” but you truly don’t know how grueling this challenge is until you try it.
- Week 1: Squat 1 x 20 x 135 pounds
- Week 2: Squat 1 x 20 x 140 pounds
- Week 3: Squat 1 x 20 x 145 pounds
- Week 4: Squat 1 x 20 x 150 pounds
- Week 5: Squat 1 x 20 x 155 pounds
- Week 6: Squat 1 x 20 x 160 pounds
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Contreras, B., Krieger, J., Grgic, J., Delcastillo, K., Belliard, R., & Alto, A. (2019). Resistance Training Volume Enhances Muscle Hypertrophy but Not Strength in Trained Men. Medicine and science in sports and exercise, 51(1), 94–103. https://doi.org/10.1249/MSS.0000000000001764
- Schoenfeld, B. J., Peterson, M. D., Ogborn, D., Contreras, B., & Sonmez, G. T. (2015). Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 29(10), 2954–2963. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000000958
- Khoo, J., Tian, H. H., Tan, B., Chew, K., Ng, C. S., Leong, D., Teo, R. C., & Chen, R. Y. (2013). Comparing effects of low- and high-volume moderate-intensity exercise on sexual function and testosterone in obese men. The journal of sexual medicine, 10(7), 1823–1832. https://doi.org/10.1111/jsm.12154
Featured Image: Dusan Petkovic/Shutterstock