Today I want to discuss the classic 20 rep squat program that people have been using for decades to gain size and strength. The reason it’s been around so long is that it works. It’s a brutal workout, but if you have the toughness to get through it, you’ll gain some serious muscle throughout your body and particularly in the thighs, glutes, and back.
The heart of the program involves taking a weight that you can deep squat 10 times and forcing yourself to squat it 20 times. Yes, you read that right. After the first 10 reps, instead of re-racking the weight, stand there supporting the barbell, take a few deep breaths, and pump out another rep or two. The mini “break” is known as a rest pause. Continue with several more rest pauses until you make it all the way to 20 reps. When done in that fashion, reps 11-14 are extremely hard work, reps 15-17 are unbelievably tough, and reps 18-20 may result in an out of body experience. On those last several reps, most people’s legs are shaking, lower back is burning, and lungs are gasping for air, but if you have the right mindset and don’t quit, you can and will get all 20.
After the squats, rest for 5 to 10 minutes and finish up with some light hamstring and calf work to finish your leg workout. Next time, repeat the workout with 5 to 10 more pounds on the squat. The success of the program depends on gutting out all 20 reps and adding a little weight each time, so give it everything you’ve got and make it happen.
The classic 20 rep squat routine involves full body workouts, for example 3 sets of 8 reps on bench presses, bent over rows, and overhead presses before you do the squats, but I recommend training your upper body on a separate day of the week.
A few notes on the squats. First, keep yourself honest and squat down below parallel (i.e. top of upper thigh below the top of the knee) on each rep. Second, keep your back flat and relatively upright when you squat. Third, always squat in a power rack/cage with the safety bars in place or have reliable spotters nearby in case you get stuck or pass out during your herculean struggle to do 20 reps. Lastly, make sure you’re thoroughly warmed up before attempting the killer set.
The squat workout should be done 1 to 3 times per week depending on your recovery ability and how fast you want to grow. If you’re under 30 years old and focused on building your lower body, then 2-3 times per week is ideal. If you’re over 30 and/or doing the squats as part of a more balanced program, then once per week is plenty.
Why does it work so well?
For starters, squats are considered by many to be the single best exercise for putting on muscle mass. It’s a compound exercise that works nearly the entire body including the largest and strongest muscles of the body, creating a massive growth stimulus.
Second, you’ll be lifting and supporting a heavy weight for up to 2 to 3 minutes before setting it down. The amount of weight combined with the time under tension is a huge stressor on the body and will stimulate growth.
Third, the most result producing reps of a normal set are the last couple of reps when you’re struggling and exerting maximum effort. On 20 rep squats with rest pauses, there are roughly 10 of those result producing reps in a single set. A major growth shock to the body.
Here are a couple of examples to show how the squats are done and to inspire you to greater heights.
- Relatively unknown guy squatting 462 x 20 in the rest pause style described above. Phenomenal effort!
- Legendary bodybuilder Tom Platz squatting 500 x 23 with barely any pauses. The man was a beast and had the legs to show for it!
Don’t forget to get sufficient sleep and eat plenty of wholesome healthy food to support your hard work in the gym. You’ll kick yourself if you put forth soul crushing effort on the squats and fail to make gains due to slacking in the kitchen or staying up too late. After 6-10 weeks on the squat program, switch to something less intense to give your mind and body a break. Good luck!