Home / Workouts & Reviews / The 20 Rep Squat Routine: Workout Review
The 20 Rep Squat Routine: Workout Review15/08/2018
One of life’s finest movements – the quintessential test of mental strength, physical prowess and complete savagery.
An exercise so simple and sophisticated, even the average gym noob can safely attempt it and acquire bountiful gains rather than waste their time on useless exercises.
As far as training programmes are concerned, they arguably don’t come as straightforward, brutal or painstakingly effective than the notorious 20 Rep Squat Routine.
Let’s get into it.
The 20 Rep Squat: Historical Context
The 20 Rep Squat workout dates back to the early 1930’s when Mark Berry, a highly successful Olympic weightlifting champion, began preaching high rep squats for putting on muscular bulk and additional size in numerous strength-training articles at the time.
Using this ‘new’ training protocol, Mark Berry began training several athletes who all saw muscular growth at unprecedented rates.
Inspired by his methodology, one of Berry’s students at the time, a young lifter named Joseph Curtis Hise, began designing a routine off the back of Berry’s principles and experimented with squatting for 20 reps.
Hise reasoned that, if you took a weight and performed 20 reps in one set, you would, over time, begin to gain weight.
When it came to the 20 Rep Squat workout, the first 10 reps would be performed ‘normally’, but right after the 10th rep, 3 deep breaths should be taken between squats.
Thus, the 20 Rep Squat routine also received the nickname ‘breathing squats’ which is commonly used today.
After completing the 20 reps, Hise suggested that every lifter “should feel like he has run 2 miles at full speed”.
And Lo’ and behold, the 20 Rep Squat programme was given birth.
The workout has since endured a strong legacy, having been touted by John McCallum in the late 1960’s and through Randall J. Strossen’s 1989 work: “Super Squats”.
Strossen claimed that one could easily gain 30lbs of pure muscle in 6 weeks by performing 20 rep squats.
Squatting for 20 reps was also the workout of choice for the legendary lifter, Tom Platz (famously nicknamed ‘The Quadfather’) who had some of the biggest and strongest legs in the field of bodybuilding.
Just check out this video of him squatting 525lbs for 23 reps. Insane!
As you’ve just learned, the 20 Rep Squat is an old-school bodybuilding routine designed to accelerate your gains.
Following this routine (and ensuring every exercise is executed correctly) will help you slap on large slabs of muscle on your frame at an alarming rate.
And like many muscle-building workouts which have stood the test of time, the routine is very easy to perform – even for the bare faced, acne prone, puberty-infested gym virgin.
In a nutshell,
The workout can be summarised as follows:
High rep squats + a gallon of milk a day = MASSIVE GAINS
The 20 Rep Squat routine, alongside the nickname ‘Breathing Squats’ is also referred to ‘Squats and Milk’.
In addition to completely frying your legs with high rep squats, drinking a boatload of milk a day (usually a gallon) was typically recommended to get the extra bulk you needed.
This protocol is commonly known as GOMAD.
On this workout programme, you’ll be drinking so much milk that you could breastfeed the entire population of San Marino (current size 31,595).
But wait – there’s more.
Your quads will grow so exponentially that ripping your jeans will become the norm, so be prepared to buy a few that are couple sizes up!
However, be warned:
20 Rep Squats is unbelievably hard.
You need some serious mental strength to subject your body through such a grueling routine as it makes most muscle-building routines look like your girlfriend’s ‘legs, bums and tums’ class at PureGym – a pile of shit.
The 20 Rep Squat Workout Routine
At the heart of this training programme lies 1 set of squats for 20 reps.
More importantly, 20 breathing squats must be performed at your 10 rep max.
Why is this so?
The reason being evident in the name.
Once you’ve completed 10 solid reps of squats, you’ll be gasping for air and will need to dig deep to complete the remaining 10 reps.
This is why 3 – 5 deep breaths were typically taken to complete one more rep as you’ll be recruiting more higher-threshold motor units by not resting in between reps.
Because of this:
It’s not unusual for a set to last anywhere between 5 – 6 minutes or even longer.
When it comes to the actual programme itself, there are many variations available which you can perform depending on what you prefer.
Each routine includes 1 x 20 reps of squats as its foundation, followed by a combination pull and push compound exercises.
Note that there is little to no isolation work here as the main objective of these routines are to put on huge size, not accentuate certain areas of the body.
John McCallum’s Original ‘Squats and Milk’ or ‘Breathing Squats’ Programme (1968)
Behind The Neck Press
Bent Over Row
Stiff Legged Deadlift
Scaled Down 20 Rep Squat Routine for Beginners
‘Big 3’ 20 Rep Squat Routine
Bent Over Rows
20 Rep Squat Power Routine
This routine should last for a total of 6 weeks and be performed at least 3 times a week on consecutive days (e.g. Monday, Wednesday and Friday).
Due to the taxing nature of this routine, rest and recovery are extremely paramount to avoid injury.
If you’re not recovering in time before you hit your next session, consider performing this routine twice a week with at least 3 days of rest in between (e.g. Monday and Friday).
Once your body has built up a higher tolerance to the routine, begin performing the 20 Rep Squats programme 3 times a week.
This training programme should be performed infrequently and it is recommended to not return to it after 6 weeks has passed following completion of one cycle.
The key to this routine is to progressively overload your muscles every session by adding an additional 2.5kg (5lbs) of weight to the barbell.
This translates to 7.5kg a week (16lbs) and 45kg (99lbs) over the course of the 6 week cycle.
For most, 20 reps are usually performed at your 5RM by the final week.
So how do you know how much you should be lifting in the beginning?
Work backwards by subtracting the total progressive weight of the 6 week cycle (45kg or 99lbs) from your 5RM.
For example, if your current 5RM on a barbell squat is 120kg (264lbs), you should begin with a weight of 75kg (165lbs) and continue to add 2.5kg (5lbs) to the bar every week for 6 weeks until you reach 120kg in your final week to perform at 20 reps.
Before performing one of the above routines, it’s important you thoroughly warm up your muscles beforehand.
It is a good idea to perform a set of 20 reps with a light weight to prepare your body for the movement and ensure your fully mobile for a heavier load.
I also include 10 minutes of light to moderate stretching before approaching the squat rack to ensure my major muscle groups are flexible and limber to avoid any injuries.
An important component of performing the 20 Rep Squat workout is correct breathing.
This is especially the case when it comes to smashing out those final 10 reps.
Depending on your experience level, you’ll probably have no problem getting through the first 10 reps. However, the next 10 reps are a completely different animal.
You want to ensure you’re body is fully upright and erect with the bar supported by your arms and core to ensure you’re in a comfortable position to take a few deep breaths,
It’s important to stress that your breaths need to circulate right down to the pelvic floor rather than stay stuck in your upper torso to ensure your respiratory system is getting sufficient oxygen to all major muscle groups.
During the eccentric (lowering) phase of the exercise, inhale through the nose all the way down with a slight pause at the bottom. Then, during the concentric (lifting) phase of the squat, exhale slightly out of the mouth as you explode back up.
Breathing this way will ensure you are in a good state to complete 20 full reps and avoid feelings of nausea or even passing out!
As it will no doubt feel like you’re squatting the earth for the final 10 reps, you should ensure you have taken some safety measures to reduce your chances of injury.
Having a spotter or safety pins (or maybe even both) to keep everything in check is generally a good idea, and something we definitely recommend.
Just make sure your spotter doesn’t get too up close and personal like Leonardo DiCaprio, otherwise you’ll be in an even more uncomfortable place.
Behind The Neck Press
I’m not a massive fan of the behind the neck press exercise and much prefer a standard military press (either standing or seated) due to less strain placed on the shoulders and neck.
Injuries can occur with any exercise, just ensure you’re properly warmed up and have good mobility in the joints first before attempting the behind the neck press.
Once you’ve finished crushing it in ‘Squat City’, waddle over to a bench, grab a light dumbbell and smash out 20 reps.
Early proponents of this exercise (including Arnold Schwarzenegger) believed that pullovers increased overall chest size and expanded their ribcage due to its natural elasticity and strengthening of the coastal cartilages already worked through the heavy breathing from the 20 squats.
Whilst this makes sense in theory, there’s a lack of supporting evidence which concludes this.
This exercise does serve as a gentle cool down from squatting some heavy ass weight.
For the rest of the exercises. select a weight where you can comfortably complete each rep and set with no issues.
These should be nowhere near as gruelling as your 20 rep squats, however you must ensure you progressively overload your muscles during these exercises throughout the 6 week cycle for maximum results.
Drinking a gallon of milk a day (around 8 pints) is central to the overall routine.
If you want to feel like an old school bodybuilding badass, which is part of the beauty of the routine, stick to the milk.
In spite of that,
There’s no doubt that some will find drinking that much milk a day slightly excessive or even quite sickening (myself included).
If this is the case for you, just ensure you’re continually eating towards a calorie surplus on a daily basis and are perhaps factoring in a diverse range of protein sources or supplements to aid the muscle building process.
The 20 Rep Squat Routine is a ‘back to the wall’ workout designed to put your body through a world of pain.
This routine is recommended for intermediate to advanced lifters (those who have between 2 – 5 years+ lifting experience) as most beginners are likely to run the risk of injury due to a lapse in form or not be able to train with enough intensity which is what will give you the best results.
Some beginners might be reading this and think:
“Come on… it surely can’t be that difficult, right?”
Looking at it another way, your quadriceps are mostly made up of Type II A (fast-twitch) muscle tissue which responds positively to a lot of volume.
Because of this, endurance-based athletes commonly deploy maximum tension in this muscle group during training to give them an explosive edge in their sport.
And it is that ‘intensity’ placed on the quadriceps which makes them grow at a mammoth rate.
20 rep squats is no exception to this either.
So unless you’ve successfully built up a higher tolerance/threshold for high rep work over time, this routine is not for the feint of heart.
With that said,
I’d argue that 20 Rep Squats is more taxing mentally than it is physically.
You’ll almost have to dig deep from the pits of your soul to summon the strength and energy to hammer past the final 10 reps of your 10RM after your body screams:
“F*ck this you crazy son of a b*tch, are you trying to kill me!?”
If that wasn’t enough:
If you do manage to complete the 20 squats and still have your sanity in check, having the will to then pick yourself up the floor to complete the other exercises is a completely different ball game.
The mere sight of another weight will make you feel like Kirby Roy’s crotch after being hammered by 1,100 pounds of brute force from a vicious Thai Kick delivered by an American Gladiator.
20 Rep Squats is a routine well worth breaking the pain barrier for as it’s so effective.
After completing 2 separate cycles of John McCallum’s orgininal ‘Squats and Milk’ workout, the gains have been nothing short of wonderful.
It is also a far more conducive programme compared to the workout splits you read in fitness magazines and across the internet based on the results you’re likely to see.
One thing about the milk, when I did this routine for the first time, I followed GOMAD to the letter.
In the process, I ended up putting on around 3kg – 4kg of weight (most of it fat) and had the farts like crazy. After all, I was drinking around 31L of milk a week!
I’m pretty sure that I accounted for 90% of my town’s dairy business as others went through a milk drought.
Also, unlike others who might argue, this routine is primarily a mass building routine and not a strength workout.
Whilst you might see some increase in strength, 20 Rep Squats mainly targets endurance, intensity and physical size.
But as this routine is so tough, it’s better used as a way to break through a plateau or to shake up your central nervous system every now and then to keep your body guessing.
The 20 Rep Squat workout is a punishing routine which will push you to the brink of physically and mentally breaking down.
But, if you can work through it, the rewards will be tremendous.
Several factors will come into play in terms of how you will develop: none more so than your diet and your mentality.
Eat like a king every single day and maintain a mindset that Vince Lombardi would be proud of, and you’ll be on a surefire way to making all kinds of gains.
But the bottom line is this:
20 Rep Squats is a straightforward, no frills and agonising way of getting huge.
Back To You
Have you tried this routine?
Fancy giving it a go?
Let me know your thought and comments below!
Joseph is the Founder and Editor in Chief of CheckMeowt. When he is not sat at the computer guzzling down the nearest thing with protein in it, he can be found pulling up the world in the gym. Occasionally, he is best described as socially unreliable and easily distracte.