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20 Rep Squats: The Definitely Not Secret Secret to Building Huge Legs That No One Does Because Its Really Hard

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20 rep squats

I’ll be the first one to admit that I don’t have great quads.

It’s not that my legs don’t have size, it’s that they have no shape or definition. When I started working out, there was some improvement, but still no quad sweep, no tear drop. Nothing.

For someone who was back squatting 315 pounds, it just seemed like my legs should also look like I could squat 315 pounds, right? 

My legs were lagging. Training them at the same frequency and intensity as my upper body, I began to question my genetics, figuring I just wasn’t cut out to have the kind of legs I craved.

But that wasn’t true. Genetics weren’t the problem, and everything changed when I discovered the old school 20 Rep Squat routine. 

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 because my legs weren’t the only body part to see results: my back and shoulders got swole, even for a bodybuilder’s standards.(Here are some more articles on how to make your back and shoulders stand out).

In fact, it’s the only thing anyone noticed when I wasn’t wearing shorts.

My pants were also a bit looser, despite the scale not moving at all, they fit as if I’d lost 5 pounds. I ended up putting on about a pound of muscle per week while losing the same amount of fat. 

So, if want to finally bring out your quads, get yoked, and lose fat, keep reading.

What Are 20 Rep Squats? 

Back in the late 80s, Dr. Ronald J. Strossen made some extraordinary claims in his book, Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks.

In a nutshell, the program has you squatting three times a week, doing a single set for 20 reps.

Sounds easy enough, right? Wrong.  

You see, this 20 rep set isn’t going to be done with your 20-rep max, it’s going to be done with your 8-12 rep max.

See? Not so easy, after all.

In fact, it brutal.

Just picture what one of these sets might be like: 

After you’re done with eight hard reps, instead of racking the bar, you’ll 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 (to be clear, this means instead of taking two or three labored breaths, you might take three to five).

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 the name).

Even though you’re already doing 20 reps with your 8-12 rep max, you’re then going to add 5 pounds to the bar on your next workout.

And the next.

For 6 weeks.

That’s right.

At the end of six weeks, you’ll be doing 20 reps with an additional 90 pounds on top of your current 8-12 rep max.

Beginner lifters may want to look elsewhere.

While it can and will work for beginners, you can get results with standard rep schemes first. Then, turn to the 20 rep squat method once you hit a plateau.

Why 20 Rep Squats Work

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 (1).

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 from person to person.

And in a given individual, each individual muscle will also vary in muscle fiber distribution. 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 each of your body parts can take years…for most people.

Fortunately, 20 Rep Squats don’t have time for that.

And that’s 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.

What Squat Variation Works Best?

You may have noticed I haven’t specified whether you should do back squats, front squats, or single-leg squats (like rear-foot elevated split squats).

That’s because 20 rep squats will work for all of them. While each of these main squat variations have their pros and cons, which you can read out in each of those linked articles, I’d suggest doing 20 rep squats with the variation you’re most comfortable with.

Heavy single-leg training

Safety Bar RFE Split Squat

Rear-foot elevated split squats are possibly the most brutal leg exercise, so if you really want to embrace the suck, do these for 20 rep squats.

Put Up or Shut Up

A well-developed pair of legs is a Rubicon, of sorts; they are the line that separates the people who just work the mirror muscles from the ones who’ve paid their dues with some time under the bar.

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.

Your legs will be weak.

Your arms will be heavy.

Palms? Sweaty.

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.

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.

You 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?

I didn’t forget.

There’s a full workout below. And 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 shoulders.

Don’t Be Stupid, OK?

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.

Even with all of these precautions, make sure you 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; that’s your body telling you that something’s up with your form. This is yet another reason to lower the frequency to two days per week while continuing to monitor and improve your form if necessary.

Lastly, please squat in a cage or a power rack. If you have to bail, you want to do it as safely as possible.

The 20 Rep Squat Program

Workout A – Upper Body Focus

A – Squats w/unloaded bar – 1 x 10

B1 – Squat – 1 x 20 ***This is your 20 Rep Squat and should be done with your 8-12 rep max

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 Calf 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  ***This is your 20 Rep Squat and should be done with your 8-12 rep max

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

D1 – Romanian Deadlift – 2 x 6-8

D2 – Overhead Barbell Triceps Extension – 2 x 12-15

E1 – Reverse Crunch – 2 x failure

E2 – Standing Calf 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, and every week, add 5 more pounds every workout to the weight you’re squatting in your 20 Rep Squat.

Here’s a sample schedule. Feel free to alter it as needed: 

Week 1:

– Monday: Workout A
– Wednesday: Workout B
– Friday: Workout A
– All Other Days: Rest

Week 2:

– Monday: Workout B
– Wednesday: Workout A
– Friday: Workout B 
– All Other Days: Rest

Suggested (Mandatory) Recovery

Make sure 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. And they can be done in or out of the gym. Take your dog for a walk. Walk to the grocery store. Park farther 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. But what waits for 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.

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 and no longer will you dread wearing shorts.

Best of all, no one will turn you into a meme about skipping leg day.

Bonus: Further Resources For Tree Trunks

This 20 rep squat program will turn your legs into tree trunks, but it will mostly develop your quads and glutes. But, maybe your calves are lagging behind, or your hamstrings.

And, doing this many squats at such intensity and frequency, you’re going to have to be extra careful with your low back. If you have a history of low back pain, work on correcting your posture. In the meantime, you might want to avoid heavy axiol-loaded squats like back squats and opt for a single-leg squat variation like split squats or lunges.

Also, because this will make you sore, make sure you’re implementing recovery strategies on your rest days.

What About For Other Training Goals?

For powerlifting and pure strength training, 20 rep squats may fit into a hypertrophy phase of your program. But, you’ll want to stick with much lower rep schemes.

For athletes, this can also fit into certain offseason phases, but because of how taxing and sore it will make you, do not follow a 20 rep squat program if you have upcoming competitions. 

About the Author

Claudio Espinoza is a lover of all things 90s, especially 90s hip-hop. When not working at his corporate job, he picks things up and puts them down, goes for long romantic walks with his French bulldog, and helps kids who can’t read good and want to do other stuff good, too.

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