Hypertrophy Strength

20-rep squats: the plan you should try once

Dr Emil Hodzovic is an emergency-room doctor who’s competed in both physique contests and strongman sport. He’s a Reflex sponsored athlete and the author of High-Intensity Functional Training

The 20-rep squat plan – you’ll also hear it called ‘breathing squats’ – might be the best programme in the world. I think everyone should do it once. I’d say ‘at least once’, but honestly – once you’ve done it once, you’ll probably never do it again, because it’s such a mental game to get through. A lot of people look at it and go ‘Oh, that’s not much volume’, but the first two weeks are kind of a grace period, and then after that it will end you every single workout. But it’s worth grinding through: over six weeks you might put 40kg on the weight you’re using, and add a tonne of size to your legs, as well as the rest of your body.

The basic plan is simple: you warm up, do single set of 20 squats, then finish off with some sort of full-body workout. The trick is that, after every rep, you should take 3-4 deep breaths each. Go as low as you can on the squats, don’t skip out on depth.  Do that three times a week, and aim to put 2.5kg on the weight you’re using for the squat, every time, for six weeks.

For the starting weight, figure out your rough 10RM and take away 40kg. Add 2.5kg-5kg each week but you must increase it each session. When I did it I started on 80kg, and I got up to 120kg, and that was brutal. It’s really a huge game of mental toughness, because you can always just about manage the reps: but even when you get to ten reps and  you’ve got another ten to go, you’re sweating, you’re shaking, your whole upper body’s cramping.

After that, it’s really up to you what you do. In the ‘traditional’ form of the plan you do a set of dumbbell pullovers with a super light weight, like 10kg or something similar. These help to expand the chest after the “crush” of doing 20 breathing squats. Go straight into at as soon as you can after the squats. You use it as a cool down, one set of 20. Then I’d do three sets of five on a pair of compound exercises – I’d probably rotate between rows, bench press, shoulder press, and RDL – then one set of 3 x 8 on something a bit more isolation-heavy, like biceps curls, triceps extensions, lateral raises or most machines.

By week three it starts to be a bit of a grind, and by the last week you’ll probably just want to get your squats done and go home. It never takes more than about an hour, even if you schedule in a solid 10-15 minute warmup. I’d do kettlebells, light squats, get a bit of a sweat on just before you get started. Do that, do your squats, then go home and eat. The key to the program is both the squats and making sure you eat for it. Traditionally it was called the “milk and squats” program and the simple ‘bulking protocol’ it suggested was to add a gallon of whole milk to your diet (i.e. over 2000kcal and 120g protein extra). That’s a big jump and not a ‘requirement’ per se but the principle is sound (eat more calories and protein).

It seems too easy to work. It might not even seem hard for the first couple of sessions. But it’s a plan that some of the all-time greats have done for good reason. Everyone should try it at least once in their training life, if only so they never have to worry about doing it again.

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