Though few exercise programmes maintain a venerated status for long in the Iron Game, the mystique surrounding 20 Rep Squat programmes has endured. As hinted by the name, such programmes require lifters to back squat twenty times before unloading the bar, and in my own experience, lying on the ground questioning your decision-making.
Primarily touted for individuals struggling to build mass or to bulk up their legs, such programmes originated in the 1920s and 30s. That they still exist, albeit with some modifications, is testament to their efficacy and popularity. The goal of today’s post is to highlight the original promoters of the programme, to explore the writers who kept the idea in the public mind and finally to question why the programme remains popular in the current age.
Squatting in the Beginning
As discussed previously on this website, the back squat is a relatively new addition to the lifter’s toolbox. While the act of squatting is itself a natural one, putting a heavy barbell on your back is not. Thus the first instances one finds of squatting with free weights in popular culture depict lifters from the late 1890s and early 1900s using dumbbells in each hand. Aside from this slight modification, squatting at the beginning of the twentieth-century meant squatting on one’s tippy-toes. This custom had its origins in the gymnastic and military programmes of the early nineteenth-century and was, as far as anyone was concerned a century ago, best practice.
When barbells began to emerge for public consumption in the early 1900s, they were generally light which meant once more that light weights and tippy toes was the gold standard of squatting. This, remember, was a time before squat racks, so the idea of loading a heavy barbell on to one’s back seemed impractical and downright dangerous.
Ideas began to change in the 1920s and 30s when ‘flat footed’ squatting (i.e. keeping your heels on the ground) grew in popularity. While I’m skeptical that he invented this technique, the European lifter Milo Steinborn has been credited with initiating a public interest in heavy squatting thanks to the innovative way he brought a heavy barbell on this back.
Coming to the United States in the 1920s, Steinborn wasted little time in integrating himself with the lifting community’s biggest names of the day. Men such as Sig Klein, Alan Calvert and Mark Berry soon began to use heavy flat footed squats as part of their training programmes. The latter two men even devised rudimentary squat racks, which allowed greater ease in back squatting. The way was clear for 20 rep squats to emerge.
Lifters with access to squat racks began to experiment with their new toys. Some used heavier and heavier weights, while others increased to the reps to endurance levels. A small few attempted to do both. Writing for Alan Calvert’s Strength magazine in the 1930s, the aforementioned Berry began waxing lyrical about his heavy weight squat programme, which he claimed to be the best mass builder available. Soon testimonials began to emerge of 10, 20 and 30 pound weight gains accrued from following Berry’s advice. For those interested, a typical Berry workout for beginners from the 1930s was as follows
- Two arm curl
- The lying press/bench press
- Bent forward/over row
- Press behind neck
- Pull over
- Full squat
- Straddle squat
- Leg raises
- One arm Press
- KB swing
- Windup= forearms
- Wrestlers bridge
- Reverse curl
- Two arm press.
One pupils particularly enamoured with Berry’s writings was Joseph Curtis Hise, latter titled ‘The Daddy of the Squat‘ by Fred Howell. Following Berry’s advice regarding heavy squats and a high caloric diet, Howell had actually gone even further. Recognising the potential of heavy weight training, Hise had stumbled across the idea of squatting twenty consecutive reps with the heaviest weight he could use. His resultant 29 pound weight gain in one month was presented as proof of his efforts.
Hise first wrote to Berry in 1932 explaining his programme and his results. Overnight Hise became a celebrity in the lifting community. Berry began to tout the programme in Strength while Ironman’s Peary Rader began to do likewise. Soon thousands of individuals began touting the 20 rep squat as the saviour of hardgainers. Rader’s programmes, which I myself used as a teen new to weightlifting, were incredibly basic and in my own experience, effective. A sample programme from his ‘Abbreviated Mass Routine‘ was limited to
4) Breathing Pullovers – 20 reps (Using a Barbell weighing no more than 20lbs)
Combined with enough calories to feed a small family, it was impossible not to gain weight.
Continuing the Legacy
While Rader, Hise and Berry were the undoubted faces of the 20 rep squat during the 30s and 40s, that mantle was eventually passed on to John McCallum during the 60s and 70s. As evidenced by his ‘Get Big’ drink previously covered, McCallum was a no nonsense training and nutrition writer whose philosophy matched up almost exactly with his 20 rep predecessors. This should come as no surprise, after all, McCallum was a keen reader of Rader’s Ironman magazine during his youth. Like Rader, McCallum believed that modern bodybuilders were shying away from the intensity needed to grow their legs. After a meeting between the two men in the 1960s, Rader, echoing McCallum’s belief, wrote that
This may seem like a repetition of what we have said before, but we find modern lifters and bodybuilders shy away from the squat partly because it is hard work and partly because they are afraid they will get big legs and hips. We don’t have the space here to argue about the values of big legs and hips but will pause long enough to mention that in the last few days we have received many calls and letters about certain bodybuilders who might have become among the greatest of all time except for the neglect of their legs, and I might say hips since these two are closely related.
To combat such ills, McCallum, in his Keys to Progress and periodical writings, frequently returned to the time tested duo of 20 rep squats and a high protein diet. As detailed by strength-oldschool.com, one of McCallum’s simplest workouts from Keys to Progress consisted solely of three exercises
- Press Behind Neck: 3 sets of 12 reps
- Squat: 2 sets of 20 reps
- Pullover: 2 sets of 25 reps
Coming into Current Times
McCallum’s writing career extended well into the 1970s and his legacy even further. Many younger iron addicts were introduced to McCallum and by proxy, Rader’s ideas through Randall J. Strossen’s 1989 work, “Super Squats. Searching online reveals the importance of Strossen’s work in keeping the 20 rep squat idea alive and kicking. The entire premise of the work, gaining strength and muscle mass in a short period of time, was predicated on the 20 rep squat.
For the general public, the work re-iterated the writings of those before Strossen. Strossen’s love of the 20 rep squat was subsequently complimented by other respected names in the Iron Community such as Charles Poliquin, Dan John and Mark Rippetoe. The past decade has seen online communities such as T-Nation, Reddit and Bodybuilding.com similarly promote the 20 rep squat. So although existing on the fringes of the popular lifting community, high repetition squatting has proven a remarkably enduring concept.
‘Ball Busters’, Widow-Makers, Man Breakers. These are words used to describe the 20 rep squat
This is how Mark Rippetoe described the 20 rep squat. You may then, be wondering why anyone would want to undertake such a heinous form of training.
From studying this topic over the past week and returning to high repetition squatting at least once a year, the answer is two fold. In the first instance this programme, if done correctly, works. If combined with a high calorie diet, and by high calorie I mean high calories – there’s a reason why it’s often combined with GOMAD, this programme has consistently increased my strength, weight and muscularity. Judging by the success stories across the decades, my own experience is not a unique one.
In the second instance, the programme is downright challenging. Traditionally speaking you choose a weight you can perform 10 reps with and bust out twenty. Usually by the 15th rep I’m making pleas, deals and bargains with myself. Mentally the programme is tough. I’ve never lasted more than 2 months training before I need to go back to ‘lower’ reps like 10 or 12. The programme pushes you mentally and improves you physically. That is why I believe it’s popularity has endured.
How about you? Have you experimented with 20 rep squats in the past? Let us know in the comments below. Also got anyone interested, Checkmeowt have a fascinating review of the old school squat programme here.
As always…Happy Lifting!
No article on high rep squats would be complete without Tom Platz, check out the Golden Eagle in action below