The 20-Rep Squat Routine: Old School Strength Training

This routine is a time-proven means of becoming stronger and larger (all other factors being equal). It should be used sparingly because it is extremely demanding. Let’s go old school.

For all neophytes who have no clue how to train hard, I suggest you heed some practical lore from the past. Back in the day when they had no sophisticated equipment, no Internet recommendations, and no super-duper nutritional supplements, those who sought to get stronger and grow muscle had to bust their butts with plain old hard work to achieve strength and size gains. They had only the basic means of stimulating muscle tissue – known as barbells and dumbbells – and the smarts to allow for proper rest and recovery following their training.

Surprise! They achieved results. And it still works today in this information-overload environment in which we reside. But the simplicity of hard work has either been blurred or completely lost from all the fancy stuff that pervades our current training culture. So, if it still works, why don’t you try “old school” and give it a go? Working hard is still the way to go, no matter how you slice it.

With credit given to Randall Strossen outlining John McCallum’s 20-rep squat routine in his book Super Squats, let me tell you about a simple but very difficult program for increasing lower body strength and facilitating weight gain. The 20-rep barbell squat routine. It works. It truly does. But it is brutally difficult.

It goes like this:

Train your lower body twice per week. One session is the 20-rep squat routine and the other is something different like deadlifts, leg presses, or whatever blows your skirt up.

For the 20-rep assault, select a resistance that you would normally use for a tough set of 12 repetitions. With that resistance, perform 20 repetitions. Yes, it’s going to be challenging but find a way to squeeze out 8 more reps to get to the 20-rep goal. You can do it if you focus on the task at hand. Hang in there. Catch your breath between reps. Concentrate on getting one rep at a time.

Once you achieve 20 repetitions, it’s mission accomplished.

squat routine, 20 rep squat routine, 20-rep squat routineNow that you have gutted it out to achieve the 20-rep goal, rejoice in the moment, and then it’s time to move forward. It’s now time to do more. Given proper recovery time, your body will have adapted to the previous 20-rep overload stress and can now tolerate more. It is the biological phenomena called the principle of recovery-adaptation. You did it, your body adapted to it, now you are physically able to do even more.

For the next 20-rep squat workout add at least five pounds to the bar (10 pounds maximum). Your goal again is 20-repetitions. You’re stronger as a result of the previous 20-rep “death march,” so you are capable of achieving 20-repetitions with slightly more resistance.

If you attack it with all-out effort you’ll accomplish it. Remember, you only added a few more pounds from the previous successful session so be confident you will achieve the 20-rep goal. Yes, it will be physically and mentally disgusting, but if you want to improve you’ll find a way to get it done.

Why am I so confident you can do this? I did it back in the day. In the summer of 1990 at a body weight of 185 pounds, I took the 20-rep squat challenge.

My initial squat session was a demanding (for me) 245 pounds for 20 repetitions a la NO-NO-NO (no belt, no wraps, and no lifting suit). It was simply body against the resistance with zero help from supporting equipment, but I did it.

Each week I added ten pounds to the bar and achieved 20 reps as follows:

  • Week 2 = 255 x 20 (ouch!)
  • Week 3 = 265 x 20 (yikes!)
  • Week 4 = 275 x 20 (ugh!)
  • Week 5 = 285 x 20 (yowza!)
  • Week 6 = 295 x 20 (!%[email protected]*!)
  • Week 7 = 305 x 16 (I couldn’t go further. I was done!)

squat routine, 20 rep squat routine, 20-rep squat routineThe inevitable wall was hit and so it will be for you, too. Eventually you will reach a point where you cannot keep progressing. At that point you will have pushed it to the limit both physically and mentally. But savor the moment because you obviously moved up. In my case, I went from 245 pounds x 20 reps to 295 pounds x 20 reps. For me – being a genetic trash bag – that was outstanding progress.

If you have the intestinal fortitude to attempt a new challenge to for the purpose of improving your strength and/or weight gain, try the 20-rep squat routine. Understand it will be both physically and mentally demanding, yet it will be simple to implement.

The 20-rep squat routine in review:

  1. Train the lower body twice per week, once with the 20-rep barbell squat routine and the other with something without squats.
  2. With the 20-rep squat routine, perform the first workout with a resistance that normally challenges you for 12 repetitions. Get 20 reps.
  3. For each succeeding 20-rep squat workout add five to 10 pounds on the bar and find a way to accomplish 20 reps.
  4. Make sure you are completely recovered prior to attempting the 20-rep workout. It will take everything you have to achieve the 20-rep goal.
  5. When you inevitably hit the wall and are unable to achieve 20 reps after weeks of progressive training, at that point you should have made exceptional progress and achieved measurable results.

The 20-rep squat routine is a time-proven means of becoming stronger and larger (all other factors being equal). It should be used sparingly because it is extremely demanding. Old school works if you are willing to work.

Photo 1 courtesy of Shutterstock.

Photo 2 provided by CrossFit LA.

Photo 3 y Em Bhoo ( [CC-BY-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons.