The 20-Rep Squat Routine

The 20 rep Squat is without a doubt one of the most demanding exercises you can do. You will definitely know what pain is all about after one set of these! It also is not all that common anymore. Why? Who knows. Maybe it’s just too tough. Most people don’t like normal squats, let alone some mutant variation for 20 reps! In this article, I’ll touch on the history of this great exercise, give you some examples of early routines and give you a routine to follow based on this exercise.

The 20 rep squat is also known as “breathing squats”, having it’s origin in Mark Berry’s Deep Knee Bend system, dating back to 1930. This was a simple, 4-5 exercise full body routine based around squats – but not yet 20 rep squats. J.C. Hise is perhaps the most dramatic example of Berry’s routine, having great success with it. Peary Rader, founder of Ironman magazine, with the help of people like Hise, is generally credited with coming up with the first 20 rep, breathing style squat routine. Breathing squats for those who don’t know, are squats done for 20 reps with a weight you usually do 10 reps with, each time you hit failure, you take 3-5 deep breaths and continue until you get to 20(a full description will be given later) while I have seen lighter weight 20 and even 25 rep versions, this one is most common.

The original Ironman routine looked like this:

Press Behind Neck – 3 sets of 8
Squats superset with straight arm pullovers – 3 sets of 20 reps
Bench press – 3 sets of 8
Curls – 3 sets of 8

Quite a simple routine that came along with a “formula for growth”.

Now, much of the “formula” to this program, is the idea of doing the breathing squats, eating a lot of food and drinking a lot of whole milk. This is, in fact, how this routine is defined by most proponents, including a book claiming you can gain 30 lbs of muscle following this routine. A big part of this gain is fat weight instead of muscle mass, largely because these early versions pushed high fat whole milk – as in a gallon or so per day – so much.

The routine has evolved over time to more recently one like this:

Press behind the neck – 3 sets of 10
Bent over rows – 3 sets of 12
Curls – 2 sets of 15
Squats – 1 set of 20 supersetted with
Pullovers – 1 set of 20
Dead lifts – 1 set of 20 supersetted with
Pullovers – 1 set of 15 reps
Calf raises – 3 sets of 20 reps

A shorter variation of this routine is:

Bench press – 2 sets of 12
Squat – 1 set of 20 supersetted with
Pullovers – 1 set of 20
Bent rows – 2 sets of 15

So you see how these early routines were set up, very basic full body routines, done three times a week.Most current variations of this exercise include it on leg day as part of a split routine. While I can see value in full body style routines, I think a split routine is the only way to go for a serious bodybuilder. I also believe this exercise, when added to a good split routine, will add considerable muscle. I think modern supplement standards have moved us out of the “whole milk” days, so a good supplement stack will really enhance this exercise’s effectiveness (I’ll suggest one later).

This would be a good time to review the proper performance of this exercise: Pick a weight you would usually fail with at about 10 reps. At failure, pause and take several deep breaths, continue doing as many reps as you can, maybe one, may be two is all you’ll get. Pause again, take 3-5 deep breaths, and go again. Keep doing this until you hit twenty reps. Make no mistake, this ain’t easy, and you will want to quit before you hit twenty, but keep going. This is as much mental as it is anything else. If you’ve done the set correctly, when it’s over you should pretty much hit the floor. If you feel like you can do more, you did something wrong, add weight and work harder next time! Once done with your set, crawl over to a flat bench and do a set of light dumbbell pullovers for twenty reps. This is, really, a variation on rest pause style training, which is enjoying new popularity under a variety of training program monikers. Done in this fashion, this exercise is going to do a lot to promote not only leg growth but also over all growth – it’s been said that squats can increase upper body size by 10-15%. Here’s why: squats are known to promote a lot of natural hormone release (igf-1,gh and testosterone) causing over all growth, they target the legs like no other exercise but also involve most muscles of the body either directly or indirectly, and the deep breathing combined with pullovers promote rib cage expansion, leading to increased chest size, although this has a lot to do with age: the younger you are, the more pliable your rib-cage is and the more you should be able to expand it with this type of superset.

Following is a great routine based around 20 rep squats. I also added two variations to the basic routine. In these variations, the exercises are the same, but the rest days and body part split changes. This gives people with different schedules and lifestyle obligations something to work with and provides different recovery options.Since 20 rep squats are really a lot like rest pause type training, and are certainly a high intensity technique, we’ll make this routine high intensity. After several weeks we’ll follow it with a power type routine.


Day 1 – Legs, abs
Squats – 2-3 warm up sets, start with a light weight for 15 easy reps, add weight and drop the reps to 12, add a little more weight and drop the reps to 10.
1 working set – breathing squats – 10rm for 20 breathing style reps, super set with1 set – dumbbell pullovers – use a moderate weight, get a good stretch on these.
Rest 2-3 minutes
Leg curls – 1-2 working sets, 8-10 reps
Calf raises – 1-2 warm up sets, 3-4 working sets, alternating slow, full range reps with faster explosive reps, done over 3/4 range of motion.
Crunch – 3 sets of 50

Day 2 – rest

Day 3 – Chest, delts, tris, abs
Bench press – 3 warm up sets, done the same way as your warm ups for squats.
3 working sets, each set to failure, r/p after a 10 count, rep out, r/p after a 10 count, rep out
3 working sets incline press, same as bench press.
2 working sets incline flys, drop set style ( 3 drops) by going to a lighter set of dumb bells each drop.
Military press – 3 working sets, r/p style as in bench press
Side/rear laterals – superset and use r/p as in bench press
Close grip bench press – 2 working sets, use the same r/p technique
Triceps press downs – 1-2 working sets, using the same rest pause technique
Crunch – 3 sets of 50

Day 4 – off

Day 5 – Back, biceps, forearms, abs
Dead lifts, 2-3 warm up sets done the same way as with squats
3 working sets, each set to failure, r/p as with bench presses – keep an eye on your form, if it breaks down, stop the set.
Also watch your grip, that’ll likely give out before your back does.
Bent rows – 3 working sets, same r/p style
Chins to failure, then go right into negative only chins
EZ curls – 3 working sets, using r/p
Hammer curls – 2 working sets, use r/p
Crunch – 3 sets of 50

I don’t usually talk about rest time between sets but I’ve been getting questions about it from readers of my past articles ( on other sites)- I usually rest no more than one minute, even when lifting heavy, but you have to be able to recover fast enough to warrant this. Some extreme power lifting routines call for up to 5 minutes rest between sets. I feel this is a somewhat individual thing, as you have to be recovered enough to do your next set justice, and the time needed to do that can vary depending on your conditioning level among other factors but you also don’t want to start losing your pump and focus.

So I suggest no more than 1- 3 minutes.

Day 6 – off
Day 7 – off

If you are new to this type of training, you may want to ease into it by only using rest pause on 1 set of each exercise, and then gradually work up to the recommended sets. Remember to use a tough weight on every working set, don’t make it easy. Rep performance: I tend to prefer explosive up and slow and controlled down. However, I alternate this style with more of a continuous tension, non-lockout style. One workout, do it explosively, the next, change it to more of a continuous tension approach.

Routine variation # 1
Day 1 – legs, abs
Days 2 and 3- rest
Day 4 – chest, delts, tris, abs
Day 5 – rest
Day 6 – back, bis, forearms, abs
Day 7 – rest

Routine variation # 2
Day 1 – legs, abs
Day 2 – rest
Day 3 – chest, tris, abs
Day 4 – rest
Day 5 – back, bi’s, forearms, abs
Day 6 – rest
Day 7 – delts, abs

This is my favorite because I’ve always felt putting both delts and tris with back compromises intensity. Many people, however, just don’t have time for four workouts in one week.

With this routine, after 3 weeks, it’s time for something new. A nice variation to a routine of this type is to switch to a power type routine, lower reps (5), straight sets, heavy weights and basic movements. Also, we’ll bring in a new exercise: power cleans, one of the great forgotten exercises. Regarding rest time between sets, some people like to rest 2-3 minutes on a power routine to enhance between set recovery for more strength on their next set.

Here is an example of a good routine along these lines:

Day 1 Legs, abs
Squats – 3 warm up sets done as in the routine above
5 working sets, reverse pyramid style – your first set is your heaviest for 5 reps, drop weight with each sets but stay at 5 reps, drop only enough weight to allow 5 reps.
Stiff legged dead lifts – 3 sets, 5 reps
Calf raises – 4-5 sets, 20-25 reps
Crunch – 5 sets of 50 reps

Day 2 – rest

Day 3 – Chest, tris, abs
Bench press – 2-3 warm up sets, 5 sets of 5 reps as with squats
Close grip bench press – 3 sets of 5 reps
EZ ext. – 3 sets of 5 reps
Reverse crunch – 5 sets of 25 reps

Day 4 – rest

Day 5 – Back, bis, abs
Dead lifts ( always do deads!) 3 warm up sets, 4 sets of 5 reps
Low cable rows – 3 sets of 5 reps
Chins – 50 reps, then do 5 negative reps
EZ curls – 3 sets of 5 reps
Incline dumb bell curls – 3 sets of 5 reps
Reverse crunch – 3 sets of 25 reps
Twisting crunch – 3 sets of 25 reps

Day 6 – rest

Day 7 – Delts, traps, abs
Power Clean and Press – 3 warm up sets, 3 sets of 5-6 reps
Wide grip Upright Rows – 3 sets of 6 reps
Heavy partial side laterals – 2 sets of 8 reps, you should use a weight that allows for a range of motion of only an inch or two.
Haney Shrugs – 3 sets of 6-8 reps, these are done behind the back, it’s important to pull as high as you can on these.Crunch – 2 sets of 50

I have always set my split routines up this way – legs on their own day since they require a lot of energy and are very taxing to train, “pushing” muscles on their own day and “pulling” muscles on their own day. This is logical as these muscles naturally work together. However, to mix things up, it’s not a bad idea to change up the order of body parts – training chest and back together on their own day is common, for example. If you want to add a fourth training day, training delts on their own day is another good option.

Spend 6-8 weeks on this type of routine to build some meaningful strength before switching back to something else. It’s a good idea to have 3-5 good but different routines to use in an on going cycle like this, rotating each one, in most cases, after 3 weeks but when going after strength, take longer. This helps keep variety in your training and promotes continued progress. Variety is one of the main keys to progress but you have to keep it progressive. While this can be done in a number of ways, continual work on core movements like squats make a lot of sense.

Supplement and Nutrition:

First off, keep your protein intake high, at least 1 gram of protein per lb. of body weight, evenly divided through out the day. Don’t be afraid of carbs, they are essential for energy for this type of routine. Choose complex carbs, such as oatmeal, brown rice, sweet potatoes and whole grain products, and shoot for 1 1/2 to 2 grams per lb. of body weight. Some simple carbs are good as part of your pre and post workout shakes however: 60 grams simple carbs (fruit and/or fruit juice) to 40 grams protein make a good pre and post workout shake. You can, as part of your supplement stack, use a pre workout drink with caffeine, in which case you have to time it’s use correctly with your carb/protein drink.

Here’s a great stack for use with the 20 rep squat routine:

Multi vitamin
a pre workout drink, e.g. No-Explode by BSN, or SuperPump250 by Gaspari NutritionCreatine Monohydrate
Nitric oxide
A good testosterone booster or prohormone, e.g. Anabolic-Matrix Rx or 1-Andro Rx by IronMagLabs

Lee Hayward demonstrating proper squat form:

Jim Brewster has over 30 years experience in bodybuilding and
is known internationally as an authority in the fitness field.
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