Why 20-Rep Squats Are the Best and Worst Thing Ever

Suffering brings growth. It’s one of the immutable rules of life: staying in your comfort zone doesn’t get you anywhere.

It’s a rule that works for life, works for business, and goes double in the gym.

We’re not about to tell you that deadlifting until your back snaps is the right way to get strong and healthy, but we are saying that now and then, no matter your sport, every athlete needs to embrace intensity if they want to progress.

Enter that mythical beast, the gut-wrenching set of 20-rep squats. The idea is to warm up to a weight you could squat for a tough set of 8-12 reps, then squat it for 20 reps instead. Some people say to simply take a few breaths if you need to, but don’t rerack. Others call them 20-rep breathing squats and recommend you squat once every ten seconds all the way to twenty without stopping.


Either way, that one set will flood your body with anabolic hormones, catalyze godlike 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 will get strong — the idea is you add 5 to 10 pounds every time you tackle a set of these bad boys.

“I think these are great to test and develop mental and physical toughness,” says Chad Vaughn, 9-time U.S. National Weightlifting Champion, owner of Vaughn Strength, and BarBend Contributor. “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 Do I Incorporate 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. (OK, buddy.) Di Florio, on the other hand, says he learned about it from his mentor 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 ten squats at 50-70 percent of his 1-rep max.

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 lower body but leave out the 20-rep breathing squats,” he 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.

What Not to Do

You’ll need to attack these with all out effort, but we can’t recommend that you do so with a weight you’ll be unable to handle. All we’ll say is that it’s generally recommended to do the 20-rep squats with what would normally be your max for a set of 8 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 to start 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, not Bulgarian split squats.

“Definitely don’t do this with front squats,” warns DiFlorio. “The rhomboids would 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.”

Wrapping Up

This is the kind of six weeks that will test you from your head to your toes, in your mental and physical strength. That said, squats are beneficial for just about any kind of athlete and if you’re stuck in a rut, have plateaued in size or strength gains, or if you feel like a new challenge… we can pretty much guarantee this will challenge you.

It’ll be tough. But after all, suffering brings growth.

Featured image via @wodpixnyc