For no particularly good reason I want to write about something that has already had endless words written about it and that I probably won’t contribute much meaningfully “new” to the topic on. But so it goes. That topic is the 20 rep squat (sometimes called more specifically the 20 rep breathing squat). This is kind of the original rest-pause training, an entire book has been written about it although if you gain 30 lbs in 6 weeks, it’s not gonna be mostly muscle, and I imagine most have at least heard of it.
But I’m hoping not to make this just the same old generic article that everyone has seen. Yes, I want to look at the 20 rep squat in a general sense, in terms of how it is done but I also want to look at variations and a couple of things about it that many may not be aware of. I’m sure, as is my wont (what the hell does that even mean), I’ll tangent into some other random stuff too.
What is The 20 Rep Squat?
So what is the 20 rep squat, anyhow? Based on the name you’d think it was just some generic set of 20 repetitions but that’s not an accurate description. As stated above, it’s really the first rest-pause approach (that I know of anyhow) and you will typically see something to the effect of “Take your best 10 repetition maximum weight and grind out 20 reps” with it to describe that set. Let’s look at that first.
By definition, you can’t do 20 repetitions with a 10 repetition maximum (RM) weight. If you could, it would be your 20 RM. And this would be true if you were using that 10RM weight in a relatively continuous, no major rest between repetitions way. But again this is rest-pause training and that’s not how the set is meant to be done. But even here there are two traditional ways that the set has been done.
The 20 Rep “Breathing” Squat
The first was to take 3 big breaths between every repetition starting with the first. Rep 1, 3 big breaths, rep 2, 3 big breaths, rep 3, 3 big breaths; you get it. I think in premise this is meant to give you enough rest to get to 20 without needing to take more than three. I tend to doubt that’s the case and that more breaths were needed later in the set; to be honest I never did it this way so I can’t say. But the idea here was big deep breaths on every rep. This was usually followed by light breathing pullovers to “expand the ribcage” but I’m not even getting into that. This is typically called the 20 rep breathing squat to differentiate it at least somewhat from what I think is the more common (at least in modern times) approach which is described next.
The More Traditional 20 Rep Squat
Perhaps the more common approach, and the one I am most familiar with is to do the first 8-10 repetitions or so fairly continuously. Like you’d do a normal set of reps. And when it starts to slow down, now is when you start taking more breaths between repetitions. Take a few breaths, grind out a repetition. Take a few breaths, grind out a repetition. Each rep becomes nearly a maximum single and you have to make a judgement call how many breaths to take before starting the next rep.
Towards the end it may be 10 big breaths between repetitions. You have to keep your head and chest up, if you drop either you may never get it back into position. You’re standing there with this heavy bar on your back just gasping for air, breathing like a freight train at the end.
This makes for a LOOOONG set and you may have the bar on your back for a few minutes. Your shoulder girdle will be wrecked, your arms get tired and when you get done you tend to fall on the ground to have a little rest for 5-15 minutes. If you can even consider a second set, you did it wrong. I’ll talk more about programming below but traditionally the 20 rep squat was part of a full body workout and some minimal upper body stuff was done after the primary set.
To break up the boring text, here is a video of Jesse Marunde showing how it’s done, using a heavier weight for 20 than most people max. Notice how he does the first handful of reps relatively quickly but around 10-11 the breathing starts. Note how he takes a little lie down after the set is done. You’ll have to jump to about 1:18 since the embed didn’t do it right.
20 Rep Squat Variation 1
The above really isn’t anything new anyone who is familiar with the 20 rep squat probably knows it. So maybe here’s something you didn’t know: the 20 rep squat was originally used as a finisher after heavy work (or at least these two were put together at some point in the history of the weight game). It only became a stand-alone thing later.
This was a fairly common approach for many years and still has validity: do your heavy tension work, follow it with volume or pump work. McCallum would recommend 3 heavy sets of 5 followed by 8 sets of 8 on 30 seconds rest. And that’s how the 20 rep squat was used. First you would do 5 sets of 5 and this was typically done as 3 progressive warm ups and 2 all out grinder sets or perhaps 2 warm-ups and 3 maximum sets. Then you stripped the weight back and ground out your 20’s. Then you laid down for a little bit. Generally, the weights were progressed separately although the goal was always to add weight at almost every workout.
I did this routine once for months on end. I’d work up to the heavy sets of 5 and just grind it out. I was much more enamored with low-volume training ala Hardgainer and John Christy (RIP) at the time but that’s what it was: warm ups, 2 heavy sets of 5 with about a 5 minute rest and then I’d strip the weight and grind out a set of 20. And then I’d lay down before doing the rest of my upper body work.
I think this was when I started to have the anxiety attacks walking from my car to the gym. After the run-in, every workout is literally maximum and my old propensity was to continue cycles for way too long. And this was one of those. And I remember the day vividly, I did my 5’s, stripped back the weight, looked at the bar, unracked it and that was it. I never did 20’s again.
20 Rep Squat Variation 2
Let me finish up with a variation on the 20 rep squat that I doubt anybody knows about since it was imposed upon me by my mentor (you don’t know him, he goes to another school in Canada). I did it exactly once and am not sure I would or could ever do it again. I consider it the Worst 20 Rep Squat Workout I Have Ever Done.
It starts with a standard 20 rep squat. However, my mentor was a stickler for certain things. A slow descent and ascent, you must hit depth, breathing correctly. Because after you finished the 20 repetitions, now he would assign penalty repetitions. This meant redoing any repetition that he did not consider properly done. It could be zero, I suppose in premise it could be 20. I seem to recall getting a few penalty reps assigned; cut me slack this was nearly 20 years ago.
After the penalty reps, you had a final goal: do 5 more repetitions OR descend, get stuck on the way up, grind and grind until it’s clear you’re not going to make it and then slowly lower the bar to the pins.
Then you lay down for a long bit.
At the shortest, this would be a set of 25 reps if you did them all correctly with no penalty reps and then got the final 5 without failing. Or it could be a lot more reps if you messed it up very badly. I’m not even necessarily recommending this, to be honest, I just needed something to write about today.
Programming the 20 Rep Squat
Let me finish up by talking about how not to do the 20 rep squat routine. As I stated above, the 20 rep squat is often described as taking your 10 rep max and grinding out 20. And while this is semi-true, do not ever ever ever try to start with a true 10RM the first few times you do the 20 rep squat workout.
If you’re not conditioned for higher repetitions, this is a recipe for absolute destruction and disaster. Your upper or lower back may give out, your form may break very badly you may simply die (ok, maybe not) and you will have a very bad time. You’ll at least wish you were dead.
Take at least a few break-in workouts with weights far below your 10RM. Assuming that’s about 75% of 1RM, go 60-65% (or just reduce your best 10RM by 10-20%) and bring it up gradually over a few workouts. Certainly some of this depends on how long you intend to run the cycle but just trust me to never jump straight into a truly max set without at least a few workout build-up to prepare both physically and mentally.
Beyond that warning, the 20 rep squat is easy to program. Do the set, when you get to 20 reps, add 5 lbs at the next workout. And the goal is really to add weight at every workout (if you fail to get 20, don’t do this of course). I’d note that occasionally the 20 rep squat was recommended to be done with a fairly light or moderate weight with no progression and some folks swear this still works for growth.
While I’m sure some maniac recommended 20 rep squats three times per week, most won’t survive it mentally or physically more than twice per week and only then if they have great recovery. This is an ass-kicker. Once every 5 days (i.e. Monday/Friday/Wednesday/Monday/Friday) may work better for some.
Since many don’t like that kind of rotating schedule, doing 20’s one day per week (perhaps on Monday when you’re fully recovered from the weekend) and a more traditional leg workout (or a light workout) on Friday may work best. The low back takes a real beating, especially if you squat lower bar or sit back a lot (it’s a lot less like this if you squat high-bar and stay more upright).
So far as cycle length, in hindsight mine were way too long and those kinds of long cycles would grind most down. A 4-6 week cycle, or at most 8 weeks (makes it two months) with a 2-3 week break-in may be better. That gives you 5-6 weeks of really pushing yourself and the weights up before taking a 4-5 day break of light training and then going to more traditional strength or hypertrophy training
In the original days, the 20 rep squat was typically done as part of a full body workout. Do your 20 rep squat, the high-rep pullover (meh) and some basic upper body. I doubt most trainees will be happy with this so put upper body (yes, all of it) on another training day. Monday/Thursday for legs with 20’s on Monday and upper body (YES, ALL OF IT) on Tuesday/Thursday would be a logical split.
I guess I should mention gender issues. I can’t really recall the 20 rep squat being recommended to women but they weren’t involved in the weight game for a lot of the time it was very popular. On the one hand, women do have better endurance when working in submaximal repetition ranges (this WILL be in the book and I will eventually write an article about it since there is a lot of contextual nonsense being written on the topic) and it doesn’t hurt them as much. On the other, their upper bodies are often relatively more limiting for compound work and that would be the biggest potential problem.
Other 20 Rep Variations
Every so often another type of 20 rep/breathing variation has been suggested. In one issue of Milo (sorry but I’m not bothering to look up the issue in my collection), a 20 rep breathing good morning was recommended. Be careful with this. It’s bad enough when squat technique falls apart from an injury standpoint but good mornings can go very wrong very fast and low back injuries are not fun.
I’ve occasionally seen a 20 rep bench press recommended but for some reason this is far more rare to use on upper body (thought some of the rest-pause approaches such as Dante Trudell’s Doggcrapp or Blades Myo-Reps are not much different)
Finally, here’s something else I don’t recommend. At one point in the run of Hardgainer, the 20 rep deadlift was recommended. The author reported doing it, completed the set and then sort of failed to mention that it wrecked him completely (I seem to recall an injury).
Like the good morning, the deadlift runs into technical problems very quickly with higher repetitions even under the best of conditions. I’ll be honest, I did this once. Once. I’m also decently built to DL in terms of relative ratios (biomechanical and strength) in torso and legs. Most aren’t and when something fails like lower back or upper back and you round out on the pull, it’s not good. This is likely to be disastrous for most women due to the limiting factor of their upper body on a lot of movements like this.
That’s the 20 Rep Squat
So that’s an article, I guess. As miserable as they are, most trainees could probably benefit from doing at least one cycle of this nonsense. Trust me that it will teach you not only the meaning of pain but that your limits are a lot further away than you probably think. And this will teach you where they are, or aren’t. By the time you are doing a grinder set of 20 with your previous 10RM you may realize that you’ve been sandbagging. I wouldn’t recommend it for extended cycles, not like the months on end I used to do, since it will grind you down and destroy your soul over time. Use it occasionally for short periods and then move on.