The 20-Rep Squat Routine!


Have you found your legs won’t grow no matter what you do? If you’re not afraid of Squats, I have the workout for you. This is not a typical leg routine where you do countless sets across multiple exercises, with maybe an easy couple of sets of Squats. I’m talking about the classic 20-rep Squat routine that will get those legs growing! Keep reading and find out more!

The Legendary 20-Rep Squat

The fabled 20 Rep Squat. Even hardcore lifters whisper the name and shudder at the memory of a properly done set of 20-rep Squats. They will be one of the hardest sets you will ever do. 

What We’ll Cover

  • The History Of The 20 Rep Squat
  • How To Do A 20-Rep Squat
  • The Routines
  • Milk? Really? 
  • Setting Up The Routine – A Modern Version
  • Nutritional Considerations
  • Supplements
  • 20-Rep Squat Routine – In Summary

The History Of The 20 Rep Squat

So, where did this routine come from? To find out, we have to travel all the way back to the 1930s. The 20-rep Squat began as part of Mark Berry’s Deep Knee Bend System. His routine was very simple – he advised a full-body routine consisting of 4-5 exercises based around high-rep Squats. 


J.C. Hise, a young lifter under Berry’s guidance, had outstanding success with this routine. With his help, Ironman magazine founder Peary Rader began promoting it heavily in Iron Man and is primarily the man credited with coming up with the first real 20 rep, breathing style Squat routine.


Now, fast-forward to the late 1960s and you have John McCallum, who heavily advocated the benefits of this routine. That was followed by 1989’s “Super Squats” book by Randall J. Strossen, who claimed you could gain 30 lbs in just 6 weeks on the program (partly because he also advocated a gallon of whole milk a day).

How To Do A 20-Rep Set of Squats

If you break this down, it’s really a very intense rest-pause routine. You are handling a max weight for at least double your usual reps and rest-pausing your way to up to 20. Here’s how – take your current 10RM and do 20 reps with it – 20 full, deep reps. As you get deep in the set, you’ll hit failure. Stop and take several deep breaths before you tackle the next rep. That’s why they’re also called Breathing Squats. 


But don’t take 5 minutes, take about 10 seconds – no shortcuts! The key is to bring your work ethic and forget about adding in more leg work. If you honestly think you can do more, you didn’t pick a weight that was heavy enough. 


The bottom line is that this routine is all about hard work – very hard work. That’s the key. You have to pick a weight that’s heavy enough so you fail 6-7 reps before 20, then just gut your way through. 


Then, the original routines would have you get to a flat bench and knock out a set of light pullovers – about 12-15 reps. 


Again: One set, done right, is all you need and all you should be able to do. If you find this easy or go on and do another 10-15 sets of leg work, you’re fooling yourself. If you think you can easily do more, you need to double (at least) your working weight.

The History Of The 20-Rep Squat – The Original Routines


Here’s a look at some of the original 20-rep routine and variations.

The original Iron Man 20-rep Squat routine looked like this:


Press Behind the Neck –  3 sets x 8 reps

Squats – 1 set x 20 reps 

Superset with straight arm pullovers – 1 set x 10 reps (light weight)

Bench press – 3 sets x 8 reps

Curls – 3 sets x 8 reps


John McCallum’s 1968 20-Rep Squat Routine added a little more work:


Behind the Neck Press – 3 sets x 12 reps

Squat – 1 set x 20 reps, superset with

Pullovers – 1 set x 20 reps

Bench Press – 3 sets x 12 reps

Bent Row – 3 sets x 15 reps

Stiff Legged Deadlift – 1 set x 15 reps

Shrug – 1 set x 15 reps

Pullovers – 1 set x 20 reps


The “Super Squats” 20-rep Squat routine took it a little farther still:


Press Behind the Neck   – 3 sets x 10 reps

Bent Rows   – 3 sets x 2 reps

Curls – 2 sets x 15 reps

Squats – 1 set x 20 reps superset with

Pullovers – 1 set x 20 reps

Deadlifts – 1 set x 20 reps superset with

Pullovers – 1 set x 15 reps

Calf Raises – 3 sets x 20 reps


A shorter variation of this routine is:


Bench press – 2 sets x 12 reps

Squat – 1 set x 20 reps superset with

Pullovers – 1 set x 20 reps

Bent Rows – 2 sets x 15 reps


Here’s a variation known as the Big 3 20-Rep Squat Routine:


Squat – 1 set x 20 reps superset with

Pullovers – 1 set x 20 reps

Bench Press – 2-3 sets x 10 reps superset with

Pullovers – 1 set x 20 reps

Bent Row – 2-3 sets x 15 reps


There’s been a lot of variations to this routine over the years, but it always comes down to a full-body routine done 3 times a week. And, it’s based around Squats. As you can see, most versions include pullovers done after the Squats as a superset. The idea was to push ribcage expansion. This is not very effective, but the pullover still has several benefits.


Milk? Really?

Let’s be honest, it’s a simple routine, and it includes simple nutrition: lots of whole milk, as in a gallon a day. Do I advocate that? No, no, and no. 

Why not? 


Back in the day, milk was all they had as far as “protein shakes”. Oh sure, Rheo H. Blair, Bob Hoffman, and Joe Weider introduced protein powders in the 50s and 60s, followed by high-calorie, high-sugar weight gainers. They didn’t have pre-workouts? No way! BCAAs? Nah. Creatine? Nope.

But the 20-Rep Squat advocates, even Strossen, suggested lots of whole milk. Not brilliant supplement science. Since it was whole milk, you could expect a lot of fat gain. Why go that route when you can use modern supplements, like pre-workouts, creatine, BCAAs, and whey protein?


Setting Up A 20-Rep Squat Routine – A Modern Version


Here’s the routine I suggest. It’s a 6-week routine. You can do this routine every Leg Day for 6 weeks or you can switch over to a full-body routine for the 6 weeks (I provide examples of both).


So this is a 6-week full-body program done 3 times a week. Two key points. First, if you think you need to add more leg work because, after all, it’s just one set, you’re completely missing the point, and you did the exercise wrong. 


Second, growth is about recovery. You grow from your last workout when you have recovered from it. That means 3 days a week is not carved in stone. Take 2-3 days to recover if needed. 


Use your 10-rep max for 20 reps – add 5 lbs every week. Be safe and use a Power Rack with the long pins securely set to catch the weight if you fail. Warm-up with some stretching and 2-3 light sets of Squats. Use free-weights only, no Smith machines. Belts will restrict your breathing, so they are not recommended. 


Go deep for a full range of motion and complete leg activation. When you fail, pause briefly and take 2-3 big gulps of air. Think rest-pause so we’re talking 10 seconds max. This routine is intense, and your mind will fail first – dig in and push through. Don’t quit until you hit 20 – then hit the bench and do your light pullovers.


Here’s the full 20-rep Squat routine:


Warm-ups – Stretching, core work

Squats – 2-3 very light sets of 10-12 reps


Squats – 1 X 20 superset with 1 set of light pullovers, 1 x 20 reps

When you’re done, you can rest for 3-4 minutes, drink some of your intra-workout (supplement suggestions are later in this article), then:


Bent Rows – 3 X 8-10 reps

Bench Press – 3 X 8-10 reps

Arnold Press – 3 X 8-10 reps

EZ Curls – 3 X 8-10 reps

EZ Extension – 3 X 8 -10 reps


Performance Notes For The 20-Rep Squat Routine


Rep performance: Explosive up, slow and controlled down, continuous tension, no pausing at the top – do NOT look for ways to make it easy! Prove your work ethic! With the pullovers, you’re going for the stretch, not the weight. 

Performance Notes For The Rest Of The Routine


Fail in the 8-10 rep range. All reps are done explosive up, slow and controlled down. 


This is a basic routine, there’s nothing fancy about it. Why? Because you will be wiped out from Squats, so it makes sense to limit the rest of the routine. 


Feel free to substitute exercises on some of these just stay with compound movements and fail in the prescribed rep range. Do all reps as prescribed. I personally would try to push past failure on some of these by using rest-pause. That makes sense since it’s already a rest-pause routine.


At the end of the 6-week program, return to your regular routine. You can do a 20-rep cycle 4-5 times a year if you want to.

What About A Legs/Push/Pull Routine?

You can do a 3-day, Legs/Push/Pull Split if you want to. Here’s an example routine.


3-Day Legs/Push/Pull Split Routine with 20-Rep Squats

Day 1: Legs


Warm up over 3 sets:

20% 1RM x 12 reps

20% 1RM x 10 reps

20% 1RM x 8 reps


1 x 20 reps- use your 10RM


Superset with Pullovers

1 x 20 reps

Take 3-5 minutes, then: 


Standing Calf Raises 

2 sets x 10-12 reps


Seated Calf Raises 

2 sets x 10-12 reps



Crunch 2 sets x 15 reps

Days 2 & 3: Off


Day 4: Push

Bench Press 

Warm up over 3 sets:

Bar x 15 reps

20% RM x 10 reps

40% RM x 8 reps


4 Working sets x 8 reps


Incline Press

4 sets x 8 reps


Overhead Press

4 sets x 8 reps


Side Laterals

3 sets x 8 reps


Close Grip Bench Press

5 sets x 8 reps



Crunch Side To Side

2 sets x 15 reps

Day 5: Pull 

Bent Rows – Same as Bench Press


Pull Ups

1 set x as many as possible



3 sets x 10 reps


EZ Curls

5 sets x 8 reps


Wrist Curl

3 sets x 8-10 reps



Hanging Leg Raise

3 sets x 10 reps



2 sets x 15 reps


Day 6: Off

Day 7: Start Over

Nutritional Considerations


In terms of nutrition, focus on high protein. For example, plenty of lean meats, low-fat dairy, and a good whey protein powder or whey and casein blend for fast/slow digestion speeds. Think 1 to 1.5g per lb. of bodyweight at the minimum. Be generous with your carb intake but go for low glycemic carbs such as sweet potatoes, brown rice, or oatmeal. Start with 2g per lb of bodyweight. Consume 50% of your daily carbohydrate intake in the hours around your workout, and include some simple carbs. Go for healthy fats like almonds, nuts and fish. Keep fat to about 20% of your total calorie intake. Gauge your progress and eat more if you need to – but watch that waistline!



Stop by and build this Stack: 


NutraBio Pre and Post Stack 


NutraBio Super Carb – Mix with Reload (post-workout)


Hi-Tech Precision Protein – Mix with Reload


NutraBio Creatine Monohydrate


5% Nutrition All Day You May – This is your intra-workout. Try freezing it for 20-30 minutes before you train. It becomes a delicious and refreshing anabolic drink!


You can take this further and add anything from a lean gainer to a prohormone, it’s up to you. 

20-Rep Squat Routine – In Summary


This is a routine for hardcore lifters only. To get the most out of it, you have to be willing to work the Squat harder than you ever have. No doubt you’ll think about giving up before you hit 20 – it happens. But stick with the plan, dig in and dig deep, push to your limit, come back, and do it again – with 5 more pounds. If you need more size, this is the routine that’ll get it done. Get ready to grow! 

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