I always knew the squat was a whole body exercise but I never truly realized just how much it works EVERYTHING until I tried a 20-rep set of heavy squats.

The 20-rep Squat program is an intense 6-week program centered around a 20-rep set of squats done at 60% of your 1 rep max (1RM), increasing the weight by 5 lbs each workout. It’s a whole body workout done 3 times a week starting with a 20-rep set of squats, immediately followed by a set of barbell or dumbbell pullovers, then continuing on to include multi-joint exercises like the bench press, dips, bent over rows and the overhead press. In my research on the 20-rep squat program, I never saw any 2 routines that were the same, but they all had that one thing in common, 1 set of squats for 20-reps.

Out of all the articles I came across, this one seemed to have the clearest information and some good sample routines: http://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/irontamer5.htm

I have never attempted the 20-rep squat program as a 6-week training program done 3 times a week, although I hope to do it someday soon. I’ll be posting all about here if I survive it. What I have done is I have added the 20-rep squat to my training routine as a “20-Rep Challenge”. Every 10 days or so I’ll do a 20-rep set and hope it doesn’t kill me.  I started with approximately 60% of my 1 RM and each time I do it, I add 5 lbs.

It’s honestly the most brutal thing I have ever done in the gym and it gives my whole body a workout like I have never experienced before. For days after my nervous system is in a state of shock and it feels like my body had been hit by a truck.   The results are amazing, and everything else I do at the gym seems like a walk in the park in comparison.

If you are interested in giving this 20-rep challenge a try, or if you are brave enough to try the full 6 week program, there are a few ways to determine your starting squatting weight. The most basic formula is to take a weight you would normally only do for 10-reps and do them for 20-reps.   This can be a hit or miss formula and you may end up either starting with a weight that is too light, or worse, a weight that is too heavy and risk injury. The formula I have used and one that seems to work for me is to use 60% of my 1RM. Another method (used by those planning to do this 3 times a week for 6 weeks) is to take your 5 Rep Max and subtract 90 lbs (90 lbs = 5 lbs x 18 workouts).

A few things about the 20-rep set:

  • BREATHING – Once you get up to around 10 reps, the repetitions should slow down dramatically. This is OK, you will need time at the top of every rep to breathe and get ready for the next body-crushing squat. These high-rep/heavy squats are sometimes called “breathing squats” because a good amount of time will be spent gasping for air in between reps.
  • NO BELT – Try doing your 20-rep set WITHOUT your lifting belt. I always lift heavy with a belt, but when trying a 20-rep set of squats the biggest challenge to finishing your set will be breathing.   A belt restricts how much air you can draw in, and by the time you get to rep 15 you’re going to need every bit of air you can get. In addition to allowing you more air, doing sub-maximal squats without your belt gives you an opportunity to strengthen your core.
  • JOINTS – High reps plus heavy weight will undoubtedly put more stress on your joints. If you have knee pain or back pain, the 20-rep challenge might not be for you. But that doesn’t mean you can’t experiment with higher rep sets. Maybe do 2 x 10 reps sets with little rest between sets. And if anything hurts, STOP!
  • MILK – This program is sometimes called the “Squats & Milk” program because its old school and old school power lifters who did insane programs like this drank a gallon of milk a day. Milk is packed with protein for your muscles, calcium for your bones and joints and calories for energy. It’s a nutrient packed wonder fluid – so drink it!  Of course some people can’t handle milk at all, or not a whole gallon a day.  If you can tolerate milk, always have it in your fridge and choke down a bunch of it every time you go in there.
  • ADDING 5 LBS – Each time you successfully complete the 20-rep set of squats, go up 5 lbs the next time. If you fail to get all 20-reps, stay at the same weight for the next time and try it again.  Any additional reps you perform more than the previous attempt will be progress.
  • SAFETY – Always do your squats in a cage or squat rack with safety pins.  Set the pins at a height that allows you to lower the weight onto the pins and then get out from underneath.

Needless to say, the 20-rep program or the 20-rep challenge is not for everyone. I’d only advise it for experienced squatters who are in good physical health and looking for something to push themselves to the next level.   Not everyone can squat due to injury or medical condition, and for those starting out, squatting with good form and depth can be very challenging. Beginners may want to use machines to build leg strength (Hack Squat) but there is just no substitute for the full body workout and the benefits that come from doing barbell squats.  I suggest getting in a squat rack and doing barbell squats as soon as you can, even if its with light weights.  Better yet, hire an experienced trainer who can teach you how.

If you have questions about the 20-rep set or just about squatting in general, please contact me or leave a message in the comments. I’m happy to share my experience with anyone looking for guidance or encouragement.

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