20-Rep Squats: An Old-School Program for New School Gains
What if I told you that in just six weeks, by performing a single set of squats, you’d not only blow your quads and glutes up, but you’d also have larger traps, gain some size on your arms, and maybe even lose fat?
If you think it sounds too good to be true, you’d be wrong.
But if you think it’s going to be easy, you’re also wrong.
Oh, so very wrong.
I’m going to tell you everything you need to know before you embark on this journey, but first I’m going to tell you how it went for me.
I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t have great quads.
Before I started working out, my legs always seemed smaller than the rest of the guys in the high school locker room.
Then I started working out and there was some improvement. It’s not that my legs didn’t have some size; it’s that they’re not well developed. No quad sweep. No tear drop.
For someone who was squatting 315lbs., it just seemed like my legs should also look like I can squat 315.
My legs were lagging, and I wasn’t sure why. I was training them at about the same frequency and intensity as I was my upper body.
Then I questioned my genetics; I figured that I just wasn’t cut out to have the kind of legs I had in mind.
But then I realized what the problem was: my workouts.
You see, the body parts that I was happiest about, my traps, shoulders, and arms had all been put through specialization routines. And it dawned on me that I’d never really focused on my legs in the same way.
So I started to do some research. I wanted to make the most amount of progress in the shortest amount of time.
And that’s when I found Super Squats.
42 Days of Pain and Gain
Before we get into what you can expect on this program, I want to talk a little bit about my experience on it.
For starters, I only lasted 4 weeks on it. I felt a really strong pain along the side of my left leg. I figured I would lay off because it got worse.
Notice how the individual heads of the quads are starting to make an appearance. That’s the most visible progress I’ve ever made with my legs since I last put some size on them.
A friend of mine who trained with a similar protocol a few years ago said that it was like going through puberty again. My working theory is the isometric tension of keeping the traps shrugged and shoulders tensed, with heavy weight on them for several minutes at a time, several times a week does wonders for the upper body. Some people also think that this workout also releases a surge of testosterone and growth hormone. The actual reason doesn’t matter; it just works.
I didn’t take any pictures because I didn’t think it would be necessary, but I have to say that it’s the only thing people have noticed when I’m not wearing shorts.
My pants are also a bit looser; despite the scale not moving at all, they fit as if I’d lost 5lbs. This means that I put on about 1lb. of muscle, per week, on average during this program, while losing the same amount of fat.
So, if want to finally bring out your quads and traps, all while losing fat, then keep reading.
Kickin’ It Old School
Written by Randall J. Strossen, Ph.D., Super Squats: How to Gain 30 lbs. Of Muscle in Six Weeks, was published in 1989. Ads for this book could be found in the back of the old-school muscle mags of its day.
The title, which would be equivalent of clickbait today, made some pretty hefty claims. If you’ve been training for a few years, it’s pretty hard to add that much lean muscle in just six weeks, so the thought of gaining 30lbs. in six weeks is downright absurd.
Huge leaps in muscle gain are usually only made during your first few months of serious training. So, while your body will absolutely make unbelievable gains on a program like this when you’re just starting out, you’d have to be crazy to try it.
This was no ordinary squat program, you see.
This was a specialization program, which put all other muscle groups on the backburner in order to focus exclusively on squats.
In a nutshell, the program would have you squatting three times a week. You can’t skip leg day when every day is leg day, after all. That, in and of itself, might scare away the average gym bro.
But that’s just the beginning.
Because this 20-rep set wasn’t being done with your 20-rep max; it was done with your 8-12 rep max. OK, that’s not so easy. In fact, it sounds brutal. But you’d still be wrong.
Just picture what one of these sets might be like:
After you’re done with eight hard reps, instead of racking the bar, you take a few deep breaths, say a prayer to the gods both old and new, and crank out a few more reps. As you move up in reps, the number of reps you can do between breaks goes down, and the length of the rest period goes up. And then you keep doing that until you complete all 20 reps (another name for the 20-rep squat set is “breathing squats,” and once you do a set for yourself you’ll understand how it got that name).
And the next.
For 6 weeks.
At the end of six weeks, you’ll be doing 20 reps with an additional 90 lbs. on top of your current 8-12 rep max.
All of this while training to squat with the best form possible, despite the physical and mental fatigue.
Beginners will want to look elsewhere.
So, will the program add an extra 30lbs. to your frame in six weeks? Probably not. But will it spur new growth in your quads and build mental toughness? You’re damn right.
Why it Works
There’s some decent science behind why this program works. Without getting too much into the weeds, muscles are made up of different fiber types, with type I (slow-twitch) fibers handling strength work and type II (fast twitch) handling endurance work respectively.
If you’re having trouble with that, just think of this: slow and powerful animals, like cows, contain red meat (mostly slow-twitch) and smaller animals, like chickens, built for endurance, consist of white or lighter colored meat (mostly fast-twitch).
The distribution of muscle fiber types (what each muscle consists of) varies from muscle to muscle and from individual to individual. Some cows will have a larger distribution of slow-twitch fibers in their muscles compared to other cows, and some chickens will have a larger distribution of fast-twitch than other chickens. Similarly, muscle fiber distribution differs person to person.
And in a given individual, each individual muscle will also vary in muscle fiber distribution. Some muscles consist mainly of type I fibers and others mostly of type II fibers. The quadriceps muscle, for example, having four different heads, consist of different muscle fiber compositions depending on which head we’re talking about.
All this means is that some people will respond better to heavy training. Others with lighter, high-volume training. Some muscles and heads of muscles respond better to heavier weights, while others respond better to high volume training.
Trying to figure out which type of training works best for you and for each body part can take years.
Well, 20 rep squats ain’t got no time for jibber-jabber.
And this is exactly why this program works well.
The first few reps will target the endurance fibers. Then, as you start doing 2 and 3 rep mini-sets, catching your breath between rounds, you’ll be hitting the strength fibers. By the time you’re done, your legs will be toast; no fiber of your legs will be left unscathed.
Put Up or Shut Up
Training legs, hard, is an endeavor many a gym rat avoid like the plague.
Just about anyone can grow a decent pair of arms; curls and triceps extensions are fun and easy. The same can arguably be said for the chest and back exercises, and pretty much the entire upper body to a lesser extent.
Doing what’s necessary to build an impressive set of legs? Not so much.
A well-developed pair of legs are a Rubicon, of sorts; they are the line that separates the curl bro who only hits the mirror muscles from the person who’s paid their dues with some time under the bar.
And it’s not just the physical pain, either during the workout or from DOMS (delayed-onset muscle soreness) the next day; it’s the mental toughness you’re going to need to complete each set. You know it’s going to be tough, you know you’re going to be sore the next day, but you’re going to show up and do the thing you dread most: squat, again, this time being heavier than the last.
Very few workouts require as much mental toughness as breathing squats. The first workout will be hard. After your first 8 reps, you’ll have to dig deep and continue. And you’ll probably experience a good bit of DOMS for the next few days.
And as the weights start to get much heavier, especially around week four, you’re going to have to talk yourself into completing the set.
Your legs will be weak.
Your arms will be heavy.
There might even be vomit on your sweater already…mom’s spaghetti.
And then two days later, you have to do it all over again, with slightly heavier weights. And then 16 more times, with each workout being a little harder than the last.
Don’t be surprised if the set takes 2-3 minutes, and if it takes upwards of five minutes to catch your breath before you can proceed to the rest of the workout.
Oh, did you think you were just coming into the gym to squat?
Think again, Sunshine.
While this is a specialization program, you’ll still have more work to do. But after that set of squats, almost anything else is a cakewalk by comparison.
But what about the trap and arm gains?
No worries, I didn’t forget.
When you get yourself under the bar properly, the bar will rest right around your traps and rear delts, give or take. In order to do that, you’ll have to shrug to flex the traps, and then place a heavy barbell on them for several minutes. The isometric tension alone will spur new growth around the traps and maybe even in the shoulders.
So long as you can stick to the program and recover, you’ll make noticeable gains in your quads and upper back.
Once you get past the initial hump, assuming your recovery is up to par, your body will start to get used to the workload. So, it does get easier, in some ways, as it gets harder in others.
First and foremost, you do not want to do this program on a caloric deficit. When I did this program I was eating maintenance calories and I lost fat. This program is very taxing, so if you eat at a deficit you just won’t have the energy you need to complete the workouts, let alone recover from them.
To calculate for maintenance calories, multiply your bodyweight by 13. Protein should be at least your body weight in grams. Fats should be no less than 60 grams but could be a bit higher depending on your preferences. Personally, I suggest you keep your carbohydrate intake high, which will really help with your performance and recovery.
For example, a person weighing 180 lbs. could set up their calories and macronutrient breakdown as follows:
180 x 13 = 2340 calories
Protein = 180 grams (720 calories)
Fats = 60 grams (540 calories)
Carbohydrates = 270 grams (1080 calories)
If you’re already fairly lean (if you can at least see the outline of your abs in the mirror), you can try adding an extra 500 calories, all from carbs, on training days.
If you’d like to know more about macronutrients and macronutrient breakdowns, we wrote a whole article about it. Check that out right here.
Make sure you’re getting adequate sleep while on this program, and try to sneak in naps whenever possible.
I also highly recommend active recovery cardio sessions for the duration of this program. “What’s active recovery?” you ask. Well, I’ll tell you.
Passive recovery, what most people think about when they think about recovery mainly consists of getting enough high-quality sleep. However, as the name implies, active recovery, is, well, active.
At least three days a week, I want you to take a brisk 30-minute walk, either outdoors or on a treadmill. Aside from a moderate fat loss effect, engaging in any form of light activity (but especially walking, since this program focuses so heavily on your legs), will help reduce soreness.
Believe me, you’re going to need it.
The added cardio–and the program itself–will also decrease your resting heart rate, which will reduce the time it takes to catch your breath after each set of squats.
This might not sound like much, but a 5-minute rest after the squat set isn’t unusual. The sooner you can recover, the sooner you can finish the other exercises, and get out of the gym. Not to mention that when you’re done with the program, you’ll also have improved work capacity on top of all of the other benefits we mentioned. You’ll be able to do more work in less time, increasing your training density, and your results.
Thoughts on Warming Up
Even though the squat is a movement that everyone can do (sitting down), the barbell back squat is a pretty technical movement, and as the weights get heavier workout after workout, the amount of care that needs to be placed on ensuring that your body is ready also increases.
If you’re the kind of person who skips their warm-ups, you’re going to want to not do that. You’re not going to be 20 forever and it’s going to eventually catch up with you.
When you least expect it, you will inevitably feel something you’re not supposed to feel, or hear something you’re not supposed to hear: a pop from inside your body.
I’m not trying to scare you, but you need to understand that sprains, strains, and tears are mostly avoidable; if you’re skipping your warm-ups, you’re asking for it.
As for what kind of warm-ups you should be doing, Julio and I are a huge fan of dynamic warm-ups. In fact, Julio wrote a whole article on it right, which contains a routine you do before your squat workouts.
Additionally, you’ll note a set of unloaded bar squats at the beginning of the workout so that you can get your legs ready;” I don’t know about you, but my first few reps of a barbell squat aren’t usually as clean as the ones to follow, so doing this gets the crappy ones out of the way.
Speaking of form…
Function Follows Form
As I mentioned earlier, new trainees will want to look elsewhere. Yes, anyone can and should squat. But only those who are confident about their squat form should even attempt this program.
However, even if you have a few years of squatting under your belt, you’ll notice that the frequency and volume of this program will allow you to learn a few new things about your own personal form and will really dial in the movement pattern.
If you think you’re going to do this program and quarter squat or cheap the reps in any other way, you’re not going to get the most out of it. Worse yet, you may pay an even heavier cost than lost gains; this program will hurt you, and not in a good way if you aren’t squatting with good form.
Your best form might allow you to squat to full depth, where your hamstrings touch your calves. Or you can only hit parallel. This program won’t be the time to reinvent the wheel; just come in with what you have. I promise it will improve as you go along.
While you’re at it, it might be a good time to revisit our post on squat form. While everything in the post matters, I would emphasize above all to make sure you’re pressing from your heels.
Thoughts on Footwear
Furthermore, squat shoes, such as the adidas adipower or Nike Romaleos, are highly recommended. The high, solid heel on these shoes will reduce the amount of dorsiflexion your ankles need to do, allowing for a deeper squat.
If that’s not possible or ideal, Converse Chuck Taylors or other flat-soled sneakers will work fine. If you only own regular cross-trainers with a soft rubber heel, either get some Chuck’s or squat barefoot. will make it easier to press from your heels, and keep you from a few nasty injuries, but they will require a bit more ankle mobility to hit depth.
Regardless of what is or isn’t on your feet, the point is that you be in the best position to squat with your best form.
Don’t Be Stupid
I’m not sure if I said this yet, but this program is going to be hard.
That being said, it can be done. Just make sure that you’ve got all your bases covered: a proper warm up, making sure that your form is on point, and that you’re taking care of your recovery and nutrition.
Listen to your body.
Even if you’re doing all of these things right, running this program three times per week might feel like it’s crushing you, especially towards the end.
If that happens, instead of training every other day, take two days to recover from a particularly tough session. As the weights get heavier, you may notice that you can only recover from two workouts per week.
You might also start to feel twinges in parts of your legs like your knees or the side of your quad; that’s your body telling you that something’s up with your form.
Don’t ignore that.
Pay attention to each rep as much as you can. This is also another good reason to lower the frequency to two days per week while continuing to monitor and improve your form if necessary.
Lastly, even though I don’t think it needs to be said, please squat in a cage or a power rack. If you have to bail, you want to do it as safely as possible.
Ok, you’ve waited long enough. Here’s the workout.
Workout A – Upper body focus
A – Squats w/unloaded bar – 1 x 10
B1 – Squat – 1 x 20
B2 – Dumbbell Pullover – 1 x 20
C1 – Barbell Bench Press – 2 x 6-8
C2 – Barbell Row – 2 x 6-8
D1 – Overhead Press – 2 x 6-8
D2 – Dumbbell Curl – 2 x 12-15
E1 – Crunch – 2 x failure
E2 – Standing Calve Raises – 2 x 10 (1-second hold at the top, 2 seconds down, 1-second hold at the bottom, then explode out of the bottom).
Workout B – Lower body focus
A – Squats w/unloaded bar – 1 x 10
B1 – Squat – 1 x 20
B2 – Dumbbell Pullover – 1 x 20
C1 – Chin-ups – 2 x 1 rep short of failure
C2 – Chest Dips – 2 x 1 rep short of failure
C1 – Romanian Deadlift – 2 x 6-8
C2 – Overhead Barbell Triceps Extension – 2 x 12-15
D1 – Reverse Crunch – 2 x failure
D2 – Standing Calve Raises – 2 x 10 (1-second hold at the top, 2 seconds down, 1-second hold at the bottom, then explode out of the bottom).
Cycle through workouts A and B, hitting three workouts per week, for 6 weeks.
Here’s a sample schedule of how you’d run the program:
Remember to get at least three, 30-minute active recovery sessions during the week. You can do it whenever you want, but doing it right after the workout is preferable in terms of minimizing soreness.
These sessions should only consist of light to moderate intensity. Aside from walking on a treadmill or doing something else in the gym, you can find other ways of the making the active recovery more engaging.
Take your dog for a walk. Walk to the grocery store. Park further away from the store when you go shopping.
Get creative, but most of all, get moving.
Putting It All together
Getting through this program isn’t for the faint of heart. It starts out innocent enough, but soon enough, every workout, even every rep, is going to challenge you.
But what awaits you on the other side will make it all worth it.
If you want to take on a challenge and find out what you’re really made of, this program will show you. And if you don’t like what you see, completing this program will fix that.
If you take all the precautions we discussed, get plenty of food and rest, you’ll grow quickly. You’ll be filling out those jeans in no time. No longer will you dread wearing shorts. And best of all, no one will turn you into a meme about skipping leg day.
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