20 Rep Squats: The Ultimate Guide!


20 rep squats

20 rep squats are one of the most effective training methods ever invented. Many old-school bodybuilders like Tom Platz and Stan Efferding will tell you that 20-rep squats were the key to building up their legs. Of course that does not mean that they are easy!

If you have the guts to perform one of the most difficult but effective training methods of all time then this article is for you!

Introduction

  • Part 1: The Science Of 20 Rep Squats
  • Part 2: The Original Super Squats Routine
  • Part 3: An Intermediate 20-Rep Squats Routine
  • Part 4: DC Training 20 Rep Squats
  • Part 5: Stan Efferding’s 20-Rep Squats Routine

In this comprehensive guide I will teach everything you need to know about 20-rep squats. This includes 4 of the most effective 20-rep squat routines of all time!

20-rep squats have a long history in the sport of bodybuilding. Many bodybuilders in the 1960s and 1970s believed that they were the single most effective way to increase the size of your legs.

Tom Platz was a bodybuilder with the greatest overall leg development of all time and he absolutely swore by 20-rep squats! He performed them religiously twice per month with unbelievably heavy weights.

Here is Tom Platz giving a perfect demonstration of 20-rep squats:

20-rep squats are often called “breathing squats.” To perform a 20-rep squat you are going to load up a barbell with your 10-rep max and perform 20 reps with it. No, that is not a typo – you are going to perform 20 reps with your 10-rep max! 

The first 10 reps are performed just as you normally would. You bust out 10 reps in a row without resting at the top of the exercise for more than a second or two. After the 10th rep you lock out your knees and start taking in 1-5 breaths.

The deep breaths are key – you want to get as much oxygen back into your body as possible. Once you feel ready you will squat down and bust out another 1-3 reps. You then lock out your knees at the top position and take another 1-5 deep breaths.

Once you are ready you squat down and bust out another 1-3 reps. This process is repeated until you have performed 20 total reps.

As a general rule of thumb I recommend you perform these squats as high-bar Olympic-style squats or “ass to grass” squats. These are much easier to recover from than low-bar powerlifting-style squats and they work much better for increasing the size of your legs.

20-rep squats are very difficult to perform. They might be the single hardest thing you can do in the gym. Here is what Mark Rippetoe has to say about them:

“Trust me, if you do an honest 20 rep program, at some point god will talk to you. On the last day of the program, he asked if he could work in.”

In this guide I will teach you the science of breathing squats. It’s important to understand why this training method works so well so that you are as motivated as possible when you perform your workouts.

After the science stuff is out of the way I will teach you 4 of the most effective 20-rep squat programs of all time! We will cover the original “super squats” routine, a solid intermediate routine, the advanced “DC Training” system and Stan Efferding’s unique take on 20-rep squats.

I am extremely confident that at least one of these routines will work AWESOME for you! 

Note: if you have any trouble reading the routines presented here then check out this article on how to read a training program. Now let’s get down to business…

Part 1: The Science Of 20 Rep Squats

Unfortunately there will never be a scientific study published on 20-rep “breathing” squats. 20-rep squats are probably the single most demanding training method ever invented. It takes an experienced and highly motivated bodybuilder to pull this training method off.

How in the world can you expect an untrained college-aged subject to perform this training method? You can’t – it’s impossible!

Even though there are no direct studies performed on 20-rep breathing squats we mostly understand why they work so well. 20-rep squats are very, very similar to rest-pause style sets. The procedure for a rest-pause set is simple:

  • Train to failure in the 6-12 rep range, rest 20-30 seconds
  • Train to failure a second time with the same weight, rest 20-30 seconds
  • Train to failure a third time, done!

With a rest-pause set you are training to failure (or very close to it), then resting a little bit so that you can bust out even more repetitions with the same weight. This is actually very similar to what you are doing when you perform our favourite training method: the 20-rep squat!

Fortunately we have some research on rest-pause squats. Korak et. all. found that rest-pause squats produce significantly greater muscle activation in the quadriceps when compared to straight sets (1).

Numerous other studies have demonstrated that sets performed in rest-pause fashion lead to significantly greater increases in muscular hypertrophy and endurance when compared to straight sets, although strength gains were nearly identical with the two set types (2, 3).

Rest-pause sets work so well because they force your muscles to work even longer with the same weight and dramatically increase the time under tension of the set. Your fast-twitch muscle fibers are recruited and fatigued on the post-failure sets which helps to explain the incredible size and strength gains from rest-pause sets.

Of course 20-rep squats are an even more extreme version of rest-pause sets. Here is what a 20-rep squat would look like in the real world:

  • First you knock out 10 reps with your 10-rep max. “Wow that was hard.”
  • Then you take 3 deep breaths and knock out the 11th rep. “That was hard.”
  • 3 more deep breaths, then the 12th rep. “WTF is wrong with my quads!”
  • 4 more deep breaths, then the 13th rep. “Maybe if I take fewer breaths the set will be over faster.”
  • 2 more deep breaths, then the 14th rep. “I take it back – I need more oxygen!”
  • 5 more deep breaths, then the 15th rep. “You mean I have to make it to 20!?”
  • 4 more deep breaths, then the 16th rep. “What the hell was I thinking…”
  • 4 more deep breaths, then the 17th rep. “Must finish set…”
  • 2 more deep breaths, then the 18th rep. “Before I die…”
  • 2 more deep breaths, then the 19th rep. “Take this, logbook…”
  • 6 more deep breaths, then the 20th rep. “DONE!!!”

You are performing way more post-failure reps with a breathing squat than you are with a rest-pause set. The quads respond very well to this type of extended time under tension set.

Given the similarities between a set of breathing squats and rest-pause sets it is not too much of a stretch to say that breathing squats are a science-based way to train!

Pullovers For Expanding Your Rib Cage!?

There’s one last thing I want to mention before diving into the actual routines.

Many bodybuilders in the 1940s-1970s would perform a set of barbell or dumbbell pullovers immediately after their set of 20-rep breathing squats. The goal was to actually increase the size of your ribcage.

No, you cannot “stretch” bone. The goal is to provide a stimulus to increase the size of the cartilage in your ribcage.

On the bottom of each rep you want to lift your chest up as high as possible and stretch out your ribcage. You should feel a deep (but not painful!) stretch on each rep.

Here is a good demonstration:

These pullovers are completely optional. You do NOT have to perform them if you don’t want to.

Many old-school bodybuilders absolutely swear by this training method so I felt obligated to at least mention them here. There is no scientific research backing up the idea that you can expand your ribcage with pullovers.

However, some bodybuilders such as Dante Trudel have proven beyond the shadow of a doubt that it is possible for some people to expand their ribcage this way over time.

What are the benefits of a bigger ribcage? It makes your upper body appear larger. This can be a good thing if you are a bodybuilder.

Just be careful with the pullovers. You don’t want to injure yourself by pushing these too hard.

Part 2: The Original Super Squats Routine

I first read about 20-rep breathing squats in a book called “super squats.” The basic idea is to perform a full body workout three days per week. The core part of the workout is the all-out set of 20 rep squats but you also perform a handful of exercises for the rest of your body.

Here is what your weekly workout schedule would look like:

  • Monday: Full Body Workout
  • Wednesday: Full Body Workout
  • Friday: Full Body Workout

Of course Sunday, Tuesday, Thursday, and Saturday would be rest days. You can choose any three days of the week to perform your workouts as long as there is at least 1 day of rest between each workout.

There are advantages and disadvantages to this type of training schedule and I’ll cover them down below. Here is a sample “Super Squats” workout that you may want to try. Check it out:

Super Squats 20-Rep Squat Routine

  • A1: Back squats (medium stance / heels flat), 1 x 20**, 3/0/X/1, no rest
  • A2: Lying barbell pullovers, 1 x 20, 2/1/1/0, rest as long as you need
  • B1: Bench press (medium grip), 3 x 12, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • C1: Barbell bent over rows, 3 x 12, 2/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • D1: Standing military press (shoulder-width grip), 3 x 12, 3/0/2/0, 120 seconds rest
  • E1: Romanian deadlift, 3 x 12, 3/0/2/0, 120 seconds rest

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise A2, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1, exercise E1.

This type of full body workout is not for everyone. In my experience it works best for beginners and for people who are not very strong. For example if you squat less than 150-200 pounds for 10 reps then this type of routine might work awesome for you.

If you can squat more than 150-200 pounds for about 10 reps then you may have a difficult time recovering from 3 full body workouts per week.

Most intermediate and advanced bodybuilders have a hard time recovering from 3 full body workouts per week. If you are an intermediate or advanced trainee then I think you will find the other routines covered in this article to work much better for you.

Part 3: An Intermediate 20-Rep Squats Routine

If you are an intermediate level lifter then you may find that it is impossible to make progress on a 3 days per week full body routine. If that describes you then it is probably time that you graduate to a different type of training split.

One of the best options for a 20-rep squat routine is the classic upper body / lower body split. The basic idea is to train your entire upper body on one day and your entire lower body on another day. This is an awesome way to train for size and strength gains.

The upper / lower split lets you use a greater variety of exercises to train each body part and gives you a lot more rest in between workouts for the same body part.

Here is a sample 20-rep squat routine that would work great for an intermediate level lifter. Check it out:

Intermediate 20-Rep Squats Routine

  • A1: Unilateral lying leg curl (feet plantarflexed, pointed straight), 3 x 5-7, 3/0/X/0, 120 seconds rest
  • B1: Back squat (feet flat / medium stance), 2 x (6, 20**), 3/0/X/1, 4 minutes rest
  • C1: Dumbbell breathing pullover****, 1 x 20, 2/2/1/0, rest as needed
  • D1: 45 degree back extension (barbell on back), 3 x 10-12, 2/0/1/2, 90 seconds rest

**Performed as a 20-rep breathing squat as described above.

****This exercise is optional.

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1.

For this routine I recommend you perform 2 sets of back squatsThe first set is a reasonably heavy set of 6 reps. You want to pick a weight where you can get all 6 reps without resting at top position for more than 1 second in between each rep. This heavy set will help you to make better overall strength gains on the routine.

After your heavy set of 6 reps you will rest for 4 minutes and then perform your set of 20-rep breathing squats.

You may find that you have to use less than your 10-rep max because you are already fatigued from the heavy set of 6 reps. That is OK. Just use a weight where you can bust out 10 reps in a row without resting too much and try to perform 20 total reps with that weight.

For this routine I recommend you use either a 3 days per week or 4 days per week upper body / lower body split. Here is the 3 days per week version:

Week #1

  • Monday: upper body
  • Wednesday : lower body
  • Friday: upper body

Week #2

  • Monday: lower body
  • Wednesday: upper body
  • Friday: lower body  

And here is the 4 days per week version:

  • Monday: upper body
  • Wednesday: lower body
  • Friday: upper body
  • Saturday: lower body

Both of these training splits work extremely well. The 3 days per week upper / lower split has you training body parts about once every 4-5 days. This is an awesome training frequency that works very well for many trainees.

The 4 days per week upper / lower split is much more popular and has you training body parts once every 3-4 days. This also works well for many strength and physique athletes.

If you are not sure which one to choose then I recommend you start with the three days per week version. If that is too easy then you can go ahead and try the four days per week version. Remember, it is not about how often you train, it is about how quickly you progress.

When it comes to a 20-reps squat routine you should use the training split that allows you to make the fastest strength gains. Of course using a training logbook is critical to figuring this out.

For the upper body day I will let you pick which exercises you want to perform. As long as you are not doing deadlifts for your upper back then you are good to go.

Part 4: DC Training 20 Rep Squats

DC Training is the greatest 20-rep squat training program of all time! Yes, it’s true.

DC Training is an advanced bodybuilding training program invented by Dante Trudel, the co-founder of True Nutrition. DC Training uses many unconventional training methods such as rest-pause sets and extreme stretches to help bodybuilders pack on muscle mass as fast as possible.

However, one of the most important aspects of the DC Training program is the 20-rep breathing squat. 

DC training was invented by Dante Trudel in the mid-1990s and was further refined in the early- to mid-2000’s. Dante was a 130 pound, six-foot-1 senior in high school who decided he wanted to become a tremendously successful bodybuilder.

He ended up inventing his own training style that he felt would take him from point A (poindexter) to point B (250-300 pound lean bodybuilder) as quickly as possible.

Dante perfected his bodybuilding training program and reached his goal of becoming a 30 pound lean bodybuilder. Before he knew it he was training an army of amateur and IFBB professional bodybuilders including IFBB Pros David Henry and Dusty Hanshaw. 

For the purposes of this article I will just talk about how Dante organizes the leg workouts on DC Training. DC Training uses an upper body / lower body split performed three days per week.

One of the more confusing aspects of the program is that you are going to rotate through three different workouts per body part. For example:

Week #1

  • Monday: Upper Body Workout #1
  • Wednesday: Lower Body Workout #1
  • Friday: Upper Body Workout #2

Week #2

  • Monday: Lower Body Workout #2
  • Wednesday: Upper Body Workout #3
  • Friday: Lower Body Workout #3

At the start of the third week you repeat the process by performing your upper body workout #1.

Dante has his trainees perform 2 working sets for quadriceps:

  • Set #1: 4-8 reps
  • Set #2: 20-rep “widowmaker”

The initial heavy set is there to make sure you get stronger while the second “widowmaker” set is the main hypertrophy stimulus of the workout.

With DC Training you are actually going to rotate through 3 separate lower body workouts rather than just performing the same workout over and over. Each of these workouts will feature similar but slightly different exercises. For example:

  • Workout #1: Back Squat
  • Workout #2: Leg Press
  • Workout #3: Hack Squat

This 3-way exercise rotation scheme works UNBELIEVABLY well for advanced bodybuilders.

If you are an advanced bodybuilder and try to perform a true 20-rep breathing squat every lower body day then you will quickly burn out. Dante understands this and has you rotate through three different quadricep workouts.

You are still going to perform the same 2 sets of 4-8 reps and 20 reps on each lower body workout. However, by rotating through three different exercises you prevent yourself from over training.

Most advanced bodybuilders find they can progress much faster and for a lot longer by rotating which exercise they perform their 20-rep sets on each workout.

Here is how your lower body exercises might be organized during a full DC Training routine. Check it out:

DC Training Lower Body Workout #1

  • A1: Leg press calf raise, 1 x 7-10, 4/8/X/1, rest as needed
  • B1: Bilateral seated leg curl (feet plantarflexed / pointed out), 1 x 7-10**, rest as needed
  • C1: Back squat (heels flat / medium stance), 2 x 4-8, 20****, 4 minutes rest

**Performed as a rest-pause set: go to failure, take 12-15 deep breaths as a rest break, go to failure, take 12-15 deep breaths as a rest break, go to failure, DONE!

****Perform 1 set of 4-8 reps, rest 4 minutes, then perform 1 set of 20 reps. The set of 20 should be performed with your true 10-rep max and performed in “breathing squats” fashion as described earlier.

Lower Body Workout #2

  • A1: Standing calf raise machine, 1 x 7-10, 4/8/X/1, rest as needed
  • B1: Bilateral lying hamstring curl (feet plantarflexed / pointed in), 1 x 7-10**, rest as needed
  • C1: Leg press (medium stance / full range of motion), 2 x 4-8, 20****, 4 minutes rest

**Performed as a rest-pause set: go to failure, take 12-15 deep breaths as a rest break, go to failure, take 12-15 deep breaths as a rest break, go to failure, DONE!

****Perform 1 set of 4-8 reps, rest 4 minutes, then perform 1 set of 20 reps. The set of 20 should be performed with your true 10-rep max and performed in “breathing squats” fashion as described earlier.

Lower Body Workout #3

  • C1: Seated calf raise machine, 1 x 7-10, 4/8/X/1, rest as needed
  • D1: Hack squat machine (medium stance / full range of motion), 2 x 4-8, 20****, 4 minutes rest
  • E1: 90 degree back extension (barbell on back), 1 x 7-10, 2/0/1/2, rest as needed

**Performed as a rest-pause set: go to failure, take 12-15 deep breaths as a rest break, go to failure, take 12-15 deep breaths as a rest break, go to failure, DONE!

****Perform 1 set of 4-8 reps, rest 4 minutes, then perform 1 set of 20 reps. The set of 20 should be performed with your true 10-rep max and performed in “breathing squats” fashion as described earlier.

Earlier in this article I made the claim that DC Training is the single most effective 20-rep squat program ever invented. I stand by my statement. No other 20-rep squat program has produced as many world-class physiques as DC Training has.

There is certainly no other program that has consistently produced IFBB professional bodybuilders such as David Henry and Dusty Hanshaw.

Unfortunately DC Training system is a relatively complicated training program. No, it is not rocket science but it does take a decent amount of reading to really understand the program and how everything fits together.

If you are interested in learning more about DC Training then you can check out the following article:

DC Training: The Ultimate Guide!

Everything you need to know about DC Training from the basic 2-way split to the more advanced 3-way split is in that article.

Fair warning: DC Training is not for beginners. Dante Trudel believes that you need to have at least 3 years of hardcore training experience under your belt before you attempt to train this way. If you are a beginner then you are better off performing one of the other 20-rep squat programs provided in this article.

However, if you are an advanced bodybuilder and want to make 20-rep squats the cornerstone of your leg training days then DC Training is definitely the way to go.

Part 5: Stan Efferding’s 20-Rep Squats Routine

Stan Efferding is by far one of my favourite coaches in the fitness industry. Stan is “the real deal.” He competed at the highest levels in both bodybuilding AND powerlifting and is now committed to helping other athletes realize their potential.

For the longest time Stan had a hard time bringing up the size of his legs.

Stan’s legs were plenty strong – after all, he could squat 800-900 pounds in his prime! Stan just had a really difficult time increasing the size of his legs for his bodybuilding competitions so that they matched his upper body.

Stan started working with the legendary bodybuilder Flex Wheeler and they finally got Stan’s legs to grow. So what was Stan’s secret? You guessed it – 20 rep squats!

Stan performed his 20-rep sets very differently from the way that Tom Platz and many other old-school bodybuilders did. Stan performed his squats with a weight that was actually right around his 20-rep max rather than his 10-rep max.

Stan wasn’t trying to perform 1 all-out set. Instead he wanted to perform a large volume of fairly difficult sets to create a growth stimulus.

Here is a really simple 20-rep squat routine that Stan Efferding had Chad Wesley Smith perform. Check it out:

Stan Efferding 20-Rep Squat Routine #1

  • A1: Back squat (heels flat, medium stance), 3 x 20**, 1/0/X/1, 180 seconds rest
  • B1: Farmer’s walk, 2 x 100 ft, 120 seconds rest

**Performed with a weight that you can get about 15-20 consecutive reps with. It is OK to lockout your knees on the last few reps in order to catch your breath and finish the set on a strong note.

Here are the training videos: exercise A1, exercise B1.

This is a very simple routine that almost any of you reading this article can perform. These 20-rep sets should be very difficult but nowhere near as hard as a true 20-rep “breathing squat.”

Of course you could add some more exercises for your quadriceps and hamstrings to make it a more complete lower body workout.

When Stan was working with Flex Wheeler he performed some very, very high volume leg workouts. In many cases Stan would drop the 20-rep squats in favor of 20-rep leg presses and hack squats.

Stan loved the leg press because it was a way to train his quadriceps without taxing his lower back too much.

Here is a 20-rep leg workout that is similar to the ones Stan performed while working with Flex Wheeler when he was training for his IFBB bodybuilding pro-card. Check it out:

Stan Efferding’s 20-Rep Squat Routine #2

  • A1: Unilateral leg extension, 2 x 20, 1/0/1/0, 90 sec rest
  • B1: Leg Press, 2 x 20**, 2/0/1/0, 90 sec rest
  • C1: Hack Squat, 2 x 20**, 2/0/1/0, 90 sec rest
  • D1: Walking lunge w/ DBs, 2 x 20, 1/0/1/0, 90 sec rest

**In-between sets take 20-30 sec and sink down into a deep squatting position to achieve an occlusive stretch on the quads. This stretch will have a synergistic effect with the rest of the workout in stimulating quadriceps hypertrophy.

Here are the training videos:  exercise A1, exercise B1, exercise C1, exercise D1.

The heart of this routine is obviously the seven sets of leg presses. Stan found that when he first started doing this exact routine he was using pitiful weights on the leg press. The high reps and short rest periods were very difficult on both his muscles and his cardiovascular system.

Over time his strength shot back up and he was once again knocking out very heavy sets of 20 rep leg presses with very short rest intervals. Now THAT is a good way to build a pair of big legs!

If you are looking for a 20-reps leg training routine but the old-school “breathing squat” routines don’t appeal to you then I highly recommend you give one of Stan’s routines a shot.

Many other IFBB professional bodybuilders such as Ben Pakulski have used similar lower body routines to build up their world-class legs. There is a reason guys like Stan and Ben keep coming back to 20-rep leg routines: they work!

If you want to learn more about the way Stan Efferding designs his bodybuilding and training programs then you simply must check out the following article:

The Stan Efferding Training Program!

It has everything you could ever want to know about how Stan trained for his IFBB pro card and set multiple all-time powerlifting world records!

Conclusion

20 rep squats

20-rep squats are one of the most effective bodybuilding training methods of all time. If you are not making any progress with building bigger legs or if you are stuck at a training plateau in the squat then I highly recommend you give one of these routines a shot.

It does not matter to me if you perform a “Super Squats” style routine, a DC Training style routine or a Stan Efferding style 20-rep squats program. They all work extremely well. Just make sure that you pick a program that is appropriate for your experience level.

For example the DC Training program would be a poor choice for most beginners while the original “Super Squats” routine performed 3 days per week would be a poor choice for an extremely advanced bodybuilder.

If you perform any one of these routines then you have my utmost respect. 20-rep breathing squats are probably the single-most difficult training method ever invented. As Dante Trudel used to say, you have to be “two screws short of a train wreck” to train this way!

Let’s finish this article with a quote from Tom Platz, the undisputed king of 20-rep squats: 

“When you promise yourself something, make a commitment, you can’t give up. Because, when you’re in the gym, you have to fulfill the promise you made to yourself. The people who can self motivate – in any field – are usually the ones who win. Regardless of talent.”

Thank you for reading and I wish you the best of luck in your strength training journey!

References

1. Korak JA, Paquette MR, Fuller DK, Caputo JL, Coons JM. Effect of a rest-pause vs. traditional squat on electromyography and lifting volume in trained women. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2018;118(7):1309-1314. doi:10.1007/s00421-018-3863-6

2. Korak JA, Paquette MR, Brooks J, Fuller DK, Coons JM. Effect of rest-pause vs. traditional bench press training on muscle strength, electromyography, and lifting volume in randomized trial protocols. Eur J Appl Physiol. 2017;117(9):1891-1896. doi:10.1007/s00421-017-3661-6

3. Prestes J, A Tibana R, de Araujo Sousa E, et al. Strength and Muscular Adaptations After 6 Weeks of Rest-Pause vs. Traditional Multiple-Sets Resistance Training in Trained Subjects. J Strength Cond Res. 2019;33 Suppl 1:S113-S121. doi:10.1519/JSC.0000000000001923

Dr. Mike Jansen, PT, DPT

Thanks for checking out my site! My name is Dr. Mike Jansen and I'm the founder of Revolutionary Program Design. If you want to reach your size and strength goals faster then you've come to the right place. My goal is to make RPD the #1 strength training resource available anywhere in the world. So grab a seat, kick back and relax. There's never been a better time to lift weights or to learn the art and science of strength training program design.

Recent Posts