I was looking for a program which would challenge me while targeting the weakness in my quads. I am not an ‘advanced’ lifter competing on the world stage, but I felt that I was better than the grind and numbers I was seeing on squat days.
As someone who spends their time engrossed in Crossfit, weightlifting and powerlifting resources, I had read about Randall J. Strossen’s Super Squats (1989). It was based on an ‘old school’ routine which promised up to 30lbs of muscle gains, sending strength skyrocketing as well as being for the tough minded. All had great appeal.
The program lasts for 6 weeks, and is structured around a day on/day off protocol. You can change which days of the week you train but try to keep to the day on/day off timetable to allow maximum time for recovery and growth. The original program recommends beginning with military presses to warm the body, but you may find it helpful to do a warmup and start each session with 1 set of 20 light squats, followed by the additional exercises as follows:
Monday, Wednesday, Friday:
- 1 x 20 squats
- 1 x 20 barbell pullovers
- 3 x 15 bent over rows
- 3 x 15 bench press
- 3 x 15 military press
- 1 x 15 stiff leg deadlifts
Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday, Sunday:
The main aim of the 20 squats program is to gain size and strength across the entire body, triggering hypertrophy (growth) through progressive overload.
Every session that you squat, you will add 2.5kg to the bar, which amounts to a 7.5kg a week increase. More weight over time means increased stimulus, forcing your body to adapt and develop. Try to avoid going to failure. If you do hit failure at any point, start with the same weight for the next session and continue to progress from there. If you are hitting failure regularly then you may want to cut the sessions down to twice a week.
To find the starting weight for the squats, take your 5 rep max and subtract 2.5kg for every workout that you are planning to do over the 6 weeks. If you plan to do the recommended 3 workouts a week for 6 weeks, this would be 18 workouts. 18 x 2.5 = 45kg. So if you squat 150kg for 5 reps, your starting weight would be 105kg. After 18 workouts adding 2.5kg a time, you will squat your previous 5 rep max for 20 reps.
As Mark Rippetoe, the founder of Starting Strength stated, ‘if you do an honest 20 rep program, at some point God will talk to you. On the last day of the program, he asked if he could work in’.
The first few weeks of the program may be relatively easy, but they are necessary for what is to come. Take time to practice your walkout, decent and ascent. This might include practicing bracing, foot position, posture and lat activation. You will also need to make sure you are performing a good warmup that is squat specific such as Bryce Lewis’ Big Skwaat and Deadlift warmup:
The program will soon deliver on its promise of being hard. You will need to pause between reps to take three to five deep breaths at a minimum. This is why they are often known as ‘breathing squats’, and why a single set of squats can last up to 3 minutes. You will want to put that bar down, sometimes after only 5 reps, but DO NOT RACK THE WEIGHT! Stay tight while breathing. Do not cheat yourself. Do not use belts or straps. Squat to depth and concentrate on form.
You will need to eat a lot! The program is also known as the ’20 squats program’ or ‘Squats and Milk Program’ as it recommends GOMAD (a gallon of milk a day) in combination with the squats. I did not drink the gallon of milk a day, but I consumed a vast number of calories and protein to make up for it. Be prepared to eat enough clean food to support your muscles, to generate growth and replace protein and glycogen used in training. A good recommendation is to get 0.8-1g of protein per lb of bodyweight every day.
The 20 rep squats program does a great job of forcing the lifter to maintain form and breathe under tension. Because the sets are so long, it is essential to maintain good posture, form and tension under load, while breathing deep into the belly. As the positions and mechanics are very important it should positively reinforce motor patterns.
The 20 rep squat routine will help you to gain weight and build muscle. The combination of metabolic stress, muscular damage and mechanical tension caused by the progressive overload (adding weight each session) will trigger a growth response from the muscles. It will also increase work capacity while teaching durability, hard work and consistent progress. This can be hugely beneficial as the added psychological stress and reinforced motor patterns required to complete each workout can have a positive transfer for future training.
I would recommend using a high bar back squat as opposed to a low bar squat or a front squat. This will depend on your goals, but the high bar builds the strength and size of the quads, back and arms and tolerates a higher frequency and volume of training. Gains made on the high bar squat will also transfer well to the low bar squat and the Olympic lifts which is why it is often included in the hypertrophy phase of powerlifting or Olympic lifting programs.
You can change the additional exercises to meet your specific goals and ability. This might include circuits, WODs, gymnastic exercises, Olympic lifting, strongman etc., However you program this part, bear in mind that the 20 squats program is intended for hypertrophy. Whatever additional exercises you choose, you will need to consistently add more volume. This means more weight, reps or time each session to force the body to respond to the training. Exercise variance and higher rep ranges are important at this stage to increase work capacity, trigger growth, gain overall strength and to work imbalances. This will lay the foundations for subsequent strength training.
Who is the 20 Rep Squat Program for?
The 20 squats program is best suited for those that have some knowledge of lifting or have hit a plateau. It may also be useful for relative newbies (within the first few years of training), as it teaches lifters to handle heavy weight and builds a lot of muscle. For absolute beginners, without proper guidance, the monotony and strain may lead to injury, discouragement, or reinforce bad habits.
Ensure that you are playing an active part in your recovery. Get enough sleep and use your rest days to perform recovery sets, do band work, stretch, roll and move. If you spend your days off in a sedentary manner you can prolong recovery time and impede your progress. Take them seriously. They will help.
This program may not be best suited for certain goals or other body parts. The legs respond particularly well to 20rep training, but different muscles respond to different stimulus. This means different rep ranges, frequency and variance. Whether 20 rep training is optimal for other body parts, such as the chest (which has proven to respond better to lower rep ranges), or strength goals, will depend on the specific ambitions, needs and experience of the lifter. George Leeman often incorporates 20rep training in his search for an ever-more monstrous deadlift (over 900lbs), as does Stan Efferding who has an equally impressive squat (also over 900lbs), but they do it as part of their own programs which are not strictly 20 rep based.
Time Duration and Program Variations
This is a 6 week program. Many resources suggest that the body adapts to stimulus after 6 weeks so it can be important to vary the program at this point. If you are still seeing considerable gains and want to continue then please do so. Personally, I noticed my best gains after the program, when using my newfound higher work capacity as part of an extended hypertrophy block. Reducing the squat reps to 10 but increasing sets to 4 meant that I could continue to increase the weight, adding more volume. This was brutal, but very effective.
If you are unsure how to squat or brace properly then try to find a good trainer who can show you how and use the following resources.
There are other great online resources too. Some examples that you might want to look at are Chris Duffin, owner of several squat world records or Max Aita who has a 700lb Raw Squat and a 600lb front squat and currently coaches world class Olympic and Power lifters as part of Juggernaut Training Systems.