The 20 rep squat method is one of those time tested methods of building strength and muscle for the legs and the entire body which is both ridiculously simple and ridiculously difficult. Regarded as one of the most effective programs that has ever been designed for increasing muscular size and strength within a short period of time, the 20 rep squat method is generally underused due to the fact that most people are legitimately scared of it! Back in the days where there were no supplements, the internet, or sophisticated equipment, people still grew muscles and got stronger with straightforward techniques that required simple hard work, and this is probably the quintessential example
The 20 rep squat program was introduced by John McCallum in 1968 and was often referred to as “squats and milk” because lifters would be advised to drink a gallon of milk a day while on it in order to maintain a proper caloric intake for effective results. Famed bodybuilder Tom Platz used the 20 squats program as part of his routine as he built some of, if not the biggest and strongest legs in the history of bodybuilding. If you are up for the test, I cannot think of a single person who wouldn’t benefit from this rigorous style of training!
Basic Points to Note
As I have mentioned before, back squats are not for everyone and they are 100% not necessary for you. However, if you have the natural ability to back squat with good form consistently and can repeat this motion easily, this program is absolutely for you! I have covered correct squat form in previous articles but just as a quick overview of some squatting cues in order to get the best from the 20 rep squat, the following points will be useful:
- Your feet should turn out slightly to allow for a proper squat path, and your knees should track over the direction of your toes. You should not allow your knees to buckle in at any time.
- You should maintain a straight back, which should not be confused with upright. Contract your abdominals and core muscles to limit any possible rounding of the spine.
- Maintain a fairly close grip on the bar and squeeze your shoulder blades together, allowing for a proper resting position of the bar in a comfortable place on your upper back. Push up slightly on the bar as if you were about to do a behind-the-neck press, and ensure that you do this before lifting the bar clear of the pins. This move serves two purposes: It will create a shelf below the traps where the bars will rest on and the tension in the shoulders, and then your upper back will actually stimulate your upper body while keeping it rigid and safe.
- Keep your abdomen tight throughout the entire movement to protect your spine and create more power through each rep.
- Let your gaze be slightly upward or straight forward, as looking too far upwards will round your neck and compromise your structure, increasing the chance of an injury. Your body tends to follow your head so keep your eyes level throughout the set for a consistent squat path.
The 20 Rep Squat Program
A pure 20 rep squat training program will last for 6 weeks and your goal is to add five pounds to your 20 rep max for each training session. Note this is 5lbs total and not 5lbs per side, adding too much weight too quickly will ultimately cause too much muscle fatigue and your body will tire out more quickly than it needs to. Over the course of 6 weeks you will be doing more than enough total work, and adding too much weight is not necessary for maximum results.
You will be squatting three times in a week with a set of 20 repetitions each workout. Since it is only going to last for six weeks, you will need to devote all of your effort to not only complete your training, but also adhere to the rules. This is not a program where it is a good idea to add in other additional exercises. I would even say keep the overall cardio you do to a minimum. Remember, you are doing this gain a substantial amount of muscle mass in a short amount of time. Done let this goal slip away from you!
In order to figure out where to start from, try to figure out your 5 rep max (5RM) and then deduct 5lb from every workout for the period of six weeks. For instance, if your 5RM is 200lb and you train for three times weekly for a total of six weeks, then your starting weight should be 110lb, with a difference of 90lb. Your goal, therefore, would be that after the period of six weeks you will be able to squat 20 reps with 200lb.
You can also go with about 60% of your 5rm, normally that works out to be about the same starting place. This routine requires the best of personal discipline and will power because it will literally bring you to a point that will either make or break you. If you played sports growing up, you will understand this concept from pre-season conditioning. This is not something you will do if you just enjoy going in the gym to get a nice sweat going. To do this program you must understand that there are huge rewards, but it will not be easy!
There are several variations to this routine if you want to make it a little bit easier for yourself, and you need to pick the one that suits your overall ability level. Scaling the training down from three times per week, to two times per week can have a substantial impact on your ability to recover from each session, while still providing you with significant gains. For someone who is more of a beginner, you may choose the two times a week training routine considering your fitness level.
Additional Information about the Program
Load the bar and get under it, tense up, and lift the bar off the pins. Step back and take a deep breath. Prepare your mind for each and every rep, because it will be a difficult journey but worth every ounce of effort!
The further you engage in the reps the more your breath becomes an issue, this is why old school lifters often refer to it as the “breathing squats.” This is also one of my favorite benefits of the program itself. As a basketball player every set of 20 rep squats which I do also acts as both aerobic and anaerobic conditioning. Especially the last 10 reps of each set, you will need to take multiple breaths in between each squat. This is a highly aerobic function, which also pushes on your anaerobic threshold. This is extremely valuable to me since overall metabolic conditioning is so vital to my career.
Obviously, when you get to the last few agonizing reps, you will be pushed even more in breathing than squatting. One of the main reasons why so much growth is stimulated during this program is that the muscles located in your upper body are constantly working in order to support the weight you are moving, and also to fill your lungs with air. You should take in as much breath as you can between reps to ensure that you maintain complete focus throughout the set. This incredible full-body stimulation releases a surge of hormones uncharted in almost any other training program. This alone is responsible for a large amount of the muscle growth and it is something that makes this program incomparable too many others.
Make a commitment before you get under the bar that you will not quit no matter what happens, and it is only when you become physically unable to stand back up that you can stop before you reach the 20 rep target. You will definitely encounter this at some point when you will get into the bottom position and your legs will simply refuse to work, it is quite normal. You need to understand this and continue to push every single time you begin your set of 20 reps, because that is how you will grow!
If you do hit a point of failure in this program simply come the next day, load the same weight and attack again; you will certainly get it done! You will do this for a period of six weeks which will provide you with sufficient time to build muscle size and strength without overtraining and burning out. If you attempt to train this program for more than 6 weeks it usually leads to diminishing returns, so attack each session knowing it is only a limited amount of time you will have to go through this difficult program!
You should try to do a light set of pullovers for about 20-25 reps after your squats, as little as a 25lb plate will work perfectly, and you can also choose dumbbell if that is your preference. This can serve as a recovery aid as it will work on opening your diaphragm for proper breathing mechanics. There is no need to stress yourself with a heavy weight here, so find something comfortable and ensure that you stick to this weight throughout the duration of the program. You can also add other exercises based on your recovery ability, and I would try to include at least one pressing movement and one pulling movement for proper upper body and lower body balance. Listen to your body during the 6 weeks you do this program. Do not risk wearing your body down with unnecessary extra exercises, but add in additional simple, non-CNS stimulating movements at your own desire.
In order to get big, you definitely have to eat big. During this program you will certainly consume lots of calories purposely, but do not waste your calories on junk food. You need to consider both the quantity and quality of the calories you are eating. The 20 rep squat was initially known as the squat and milk program because milk was the nutritional secret weapon of the 20 rep squat program. The ideal minimum quantity of milk that anyone who intends to make substantial gains off of this program should take was said to be a half a gallon of milk, while a daily intake of a gallon was regarded as the standard. The reason why milk was consistently considered a great component of the 20 rep program is because it contains high protein which is needed to help build muscle and also prevent muscle loss. Milk also contains calories, saturated fat, and carbs which all can aid in helping your body recover well.
However, I personally am not a fan of drinking cow milk at all (goat milk is a different story). My personal diet recommendation is a diet extremely high in fruits and vegetables, with plentiful amounts of fish. You can add in grains and other forms of carbohydrates at your own disclosure, but avoid gluten at all costs. Calories as a whole are important, but having your body function at a high level during this program is even more important. Feed your body the best nutrients possible each and every day for maximum results!
Active recovery is more important than ever if you take on this program, so don’t be afraid to get out for low-intensity walking or bike rides, even moderate amounts of swimming can be great. I highly recommend that you give yoga a try during this time, and it can be an absolutely perfect post workout activity to help improve your form and ability to squat consistently, while relaxing your body overall.
You can also do daily stretching and weekly or bi-weekly massages to enhance your recovery. You need to avoid strenuous activities like hard sports, as you will need every resource you have to help you build muscle. Believe me, if you play basketball as I do for a living, you need to maximize every single possible recovery method to do this program and play basketball at the same time. I have done it, but it was not easy! You will need lots of sleep; at least 8-9 hours of daily sleep is recommended. Do your best to stick to one routine during this time, to maximize sleep and daily efficacy. It will 100% pay off in the end!
Regardless of anything else come in to each training session focused and prepared to battle both the weights, and yourself! If you can work through 6 weeks of the 20 rep squat program there is no doubt in my mind that any other train program will seem incredible easy to you, and you will have the best year of gains of your life!
Remember to always be safe with the weights you choose and consult your doctor before attempting any type of new exercise program if you are nervous about what could happen. Be safe and push yourself to the body you want!