20 Rep Squat Variations
High rep squatting is one of the fastest ways to add some serious size to your wheels and also to make your body as a whole more efficient at adding muscle to your whole frame by becoming more ďmetabolically efficientĒ. Twenty rep squats have a long tradition dating back to the 40ís as being the number one thing you can do to make your whole body break-out with new growth. They have been traditionally done by taking a weight that you BARELY make the tenth rep with and then, instead of racking the bar, rest-pause (rest and breath) for JUST long enough to get a couple more reps, then a couple more, and again and again until the full twenty have been completed. To say this is brutal is a huge understatement. Unless you have actually tried it with your true 10 rep max weight that you get 20 reps with, you really have no idea what hard training can be like.
While the above described method is the tried and true method of performing 20 rep squats I have been experimenting with a variation that may be even a better method for many people to get the most out of their high rep squatting. Heresy you say! Maybe, but read on, it may make sense when your done reading.
Let me first state that probably only 3 out of 10 people doing 20 rep squats actually do them with maximal weight. Why? Because it hurts so damn bad! Once you start the set there is truly no break from the pain, and a correctly performed set will take from 3-5 minutes to complete. There are three ways people reach failure doing these.
Failure of the cardio-vascular system. In effect your breathing becomes so labored the set is terminated because of oxygen starvation.
Cumulative pain failure. This means the combined effect of muscular fatigue, cardio fatigue, and the pain itself cause the trainee to terminate the set. THIS USUALLY OCCURS BEFORE ACTUAL MUSCULAR FATIQUE TAKES PLACE! While this is not necessarily a bad thing, most people could use a little help pushing harder, and even if you go all out, here is a way to go even farther.
Since itís usually cumulative pain that causes one to terminate the set it makes sense to try to reduce the portion of the set that provides little muscular stimulation, yet contributes to the overall pain that often causes one to rack the bar with many reps left in them. Letís dissect the set a little to see where we run into trouble. After about ten reps (if the weight is correct) you need to stop and rest (like itís actually rest with the heavy-ass bar on your back) and breath long enough to eke out a few more reps. Anyone that has done it can tell you that with a belt on tight and a heavy load on the bar, breathing is a pure nightmare. While the lower back/midsection is statically contracting the whole time and does contribute to overall work performed, itís not really the work we are setting out to do with the squats. Iíd just as soon save the lower back for a set of stiff-legged deadlifts or rack-pulls.
Now here comes the heresy. What if, instead of doing the rest-pause with the bar on your back you rack it and take some REAL deep breaths instead of the half-breaths you get with the bar on your back. Am I suggesting you make it more like two or three sets done with little rest? NO WAY! I am suggesting you only leave it racked about the same amount of time you would hold it on your back. In fact, because you can take DEEP unrestrained breaths you may find your rest periods are even shorter than it would be with the bar on your back. The key to not making this a wimp set that is semi-comfortable is to time yourself doing a 20 rep set without racking the bar, and then not allowing your racked-set squats to exceed this time, or at least not exceed it by more than 30 seconds.
Another excellent variation is to set a time limit of 3-4 minutes and make sure you get at least 20 reps in the allotted time period. And the next time you hit the gym, add weight and DONíT exceed the same time period. Having the luxury of training a lot of people I get to see real world results of what works and what doesnít. I have never seen a properly applied low volume program using 20 rep squats (or deadlifts) as the cornerstone fail. But I have noted many people didnít make the progress I thought they should have. In discussing it with them it seemed they might be holding back on the squats because of the pain factor. I simply had them rack the bar during the rest-pauses and all of a sudden they are in many cases using 25-75 lbs more for squats and overall progress goes through the roof.
Is this bastardizing the time tried 20 rep squat method? Maybe, but quite frankly I care much more about results than tradition. Having a trainee go from 280 x 20 to 330 x 20 in the course of one or two sessions and having them always reach their 20 reps is a great trade off for me. Itís all to common for folks to bail at rep 17 or so because of the pain of the bar on their back and inability to breath. This happens WAY less with the rack-set method. And if you are one of those that TRULY already take your sets to the limit, you will be moving MUCH more weight with less low back stress and probably much better results. Give it a shot and post your results. You might just surprise yourself.