What if there was a workout that involved only performing one set of one exercise, but promised incredible gains in strength and muscle mass? This is the premise of the 20-Rep Squat Workout.
The origins of this workout date back to the 1930’s in the writings of Mark H. Berry, the editor of Strength magazine. Berry was a weightlifter who believed that the fastest way to add strength and muscle mass was to perform heavy squats and consume a high-calorie diet that included drinking a gallon of milk a day. A few years later Joseph Curtis Hise wrote to Berry about the progress he was making performing squats for 20 reps, claiming to have gained 29 pounds of muscle in just one month.
Among the most popular writers in the Iron Game who helped popularized this type of training system were Ironman magazine founder Peary Rader and Strength and Health magazine writer John McCallum. In 1989 Milo magazine publisher Randall J. Strossen wrote a book called Super Squats that detailed the history of high-rep squats.
Although there are several variations of the 20-Rep Squat Workout, the most popular variations focused on performing one set of squats, three times a week on non-consecutive days, for six weeks. The kicker is that the squats are performed for 20 reps, all out. Here is how McCallum described that set: “You’re gonna do one set of twenty reps. And it’s gotta be the hardest work you’ve ever done. You gotta be absolutely annihilated when you’re finished. If you can even think of a second set, then you’re loafing. All the muscle you’ll ever build depends on how hard you work this one set of squats.”
McCallum’s version, which he wrote about in 1968, was designed like this:
Behind-the-Neck Press, 3x12
Bench Press, 3x12
Bentover Row, 3x15
Stiff-Leg Deadlift, 1x15
In most of these workouts, it was recommended that during each squat you take three deep breaths between each rep. The proponents of this system claim that the deep breathing helps expand the ribcage, but the proven benefit is that the rest also provides more rest time between reps, enabling you to use more weight in the exercise and thus recruit more higher-threshold motor units. In fact, you can often perform this exercise with a weight you could use for a 10-repetition maximum (10RM).
Another unique aspect of the 20-rep squat workouts was the use of a light set of straight-arm pullovers performed immediately after the squats. The belief is that the heavy breathing from the squats combined with the stretching of the pullovers would lengthen the cartilage that connects the long ribs to the sternum (costal cartilage), thus expanding the rib cage. Although this chest expansion theory has not been proven in scientific studies, proponents of using pullovers in this manner included Arnold Schwarzenegger and popular bodybuilding writers Don Ross and Ellington Darden.
One issue with the 20-Rep Squat Workout is that it is not as effective for building absolute strength because the intensity level (i.e., how much weight lifted in relationship to your 1RM) is relatively low. This compromise was dramatically demonstrated when Tom Platz and Fred “Dr. Squat” Hatfield faced off in a squat competition in 1993 at a fitness expo in Germany.
Platz finished third in the 1981 Mr. Olympia and Hatfield had squatted 1,014 pounds, which when he did it was the highest result in competition in any weight class. The competition started with each man attempting a 1-rep max; Platz did 775 pounds and Hatfield did 865. However, when the weight was reduced to 505 pounds, Platz completed 23 reps to Hatfield’s best of 12 reps. Yes, a 775-pound squat is a remarkable lift for a bodybuilder, but this example does show that the ability to perform high reps does not translate into low reps as well as you might believe.
Another drawback of the 20-Rep Squat program is that, although brief, it is hard to stay motivated to do it for six weeks. One reason is every time you train you are supposed to try to use more weight or perform more reps (if you could not complete all 20 reps in a workout). Critics of the system believe that training only twice a week may be more productive for long-term gains, and others believe that you will reach a point of diminishing returns long before the six weeks are over, especially if you are an advanced trainee.
If your goal is to pack on a lot of muscle mass quickly and you’re interested in challenging yourself with a legendary Iron Game workout, give a 20-Rep Squat Workout a try.