Old School BIG and STRONG
By David Whitley, RKC
Chances are that a lot of you have heard of the 20-rep squat program at some point along the line. It is an old-school approach to putting on size that was common a few decades ago when men were men and drugs were unavailable. You do one set of 20 reps of the squat, plus a few other exercises. Every successive training session you add 5-10 lbs to your squat weight. It has been touted as one of the most effective programs ever designed for adding muscular size and strength in a short period of time, and with good reason; it works!
High rep squats work wonders for building muscular bulk and strength, not just for the legs, but for the entire body. The program is ridiculously simple to follow, brutally hard to do, and extremely productive. It’s so productive, in fact, that I have never, ever heard of anyone who did a version of this program correctly and didn’t gain size and strength. Whenever I have a client who wants to get big in as little time as possible, this is where we begin. I am going to outline a 6-week program that has put slabs of muscle on everyone who has ever followed it. It is time to stop living in Tiny Town. This is your ticket to Hugeville.
Get Your Mind Right
Before discussing the actual program, you must understand the psychology of 20-rep squatting. You can't just go to the gym, put some plates on the bar, start squatting and hope for the best. This program is as much about focus and mental toughness as it is physical exercise – probably more. You have to be mentally prepared or you will not make it. Pain and fear will be there with you, tempting you to stop, telling you to give up. Your body will be screaming for you to listen to them, and the little voice in your head will be begging you to do cease and desist. Tell them to shut up. You’ve got some growing to do!
Squatting a heavy weight for 20 reps will not feel natural for your body. It will hurt. You will feel dizzy and light-headed. You will probably want to vomit. Go ahead. Your body may decide to completely shut down and leave you in the bottom of a squat, unable to rise. Obviously, safety is of primary concern. DO NOT attempt a 20-rep squat program without a power rack or safety pins. Being stuck under a heavy barbell in the bottom of a squat with no place to go while you are gasping for air is not a good scenario.
The Training Program
Let’s jump right into it. The heart and soul of this program is the barbell squat, done for 20 reps. Please notice I didn’t say the “Smith machine squat,” or any other machine squat, for that matter. There are tons of gimmicky machines that promise to deliver a “safer” squat. You’ll be plenty safe as long as you are in a power cage or have sturdy safety pins for your squat rack. Moreover, your technique will always be your greatest safety.
If you are unsure of your technique, find an experienced powerlifter (preferably one who has competed) and ask him teach you form. Proper form includes the following:
• A straight (not to be confused with upright) back. Keep a fairly close grip on the bar and squeeze your shoulder blades together. Push up on the bar slightly as if you were going to do a behind-the–neck press. Do this before you ever lift the bar clear of the pins. The purpose of this is two-fold: It will create a “shelf” just below the traps for the bar to rest on and the tension in the shoulders and upper back will stimulate the upper body while keeping it rigid and safe.
• The feet should turn out slightly for most people and the knees should track over the toes. Do not allow the knees to buckle in at any time. If they do, you will die.
• Your gaze should be forward or slightly upward. Looking down will round your back and compromise your structure. This increases the chance of injury. Your body tends to follow your head. Rolling a bar over the back of your head in the middle of a squat set does not make for productive training.
• Keep the abdomen tight and keep the anus contracted, especially in the bottom position. It sounds strange, I know, but there are horror stories throughout the iron community about people who neglected this important point.
Load the bar, get under it, tense up, and lift it clear of the pins. Step back, take a deep breath and begin. Squat all the way down, at least to parallel. Come back up, take a few deep breaths, and squat again. The further you get into the set, the more of an issue breath becomes. In fact, old-timers sometimes called them “breathing squats”. By the time you get to the last few agonizing reps, you will be doing more breathing than squatting. One of the reasons so much growth is stimulated on this program is that the muscles of the upper body are constantly working to support the weight and to fill the lungs with air. Take as many deep breaths as necessary between reps.
You must keep complete focus throughout the entire set. Convince yourself before you even get under the bar that you WILL NOT quit. The only reason to stop short of 20 reps is going into the hole and being physically unable to stand back up. It is going to happen at some point; you will get into the bottom position and your legs will simply stop working. That’s okay; next time you simply load the bar to the same weight and attack it again.
The length of the cycle is six weeks. This is a good amount of time for building size and strength without going into overtraining and burnout. Longer than six weeks usually amounts to diminishing returns. The standard protocol in the beginning is to train three times per week on non-consecutive days. For example, the classic Monday, Wednesday, Friday schedule works perfectly. If you are not recovering well, you may train twice per week. The first time I tried this routine, I did well with MWF. A few months later, after I had done a couple of 20-rep cycles, I had great results training only on Tuesday and Friday. By this time, I had learned to focus better and was using fairly heavy weights, so the extra recovery was more warranted and well appreciated for me.
I have heard many different ideas concerning weight selection, and I believe that it is good to begin with the end in mind, especially for a first-timer on this program. Most people can reasonably expect to be squatting their 5-rep max (5RM) for 20 by the 6-week mark. To determine your starting weight, take your current 5RM and subtract 5 lbs for each scheduled workout. So, if your current 5RM is 315 lbs and you are planning to train three times per week for 6 weeks (18 workouts), you should begin with 225 lbs, as 18 workouts x 5lbs per workout = 90lbs. Subtract 90 from 315 and you get 225. Simple enough.
After your squats, do a light set of pullovers for about 20-25 reps. I recommend using a 25lb plate and doing them across a bench, but you can use a dumbbell if you like. Think of this as a recovery aid more than an exercise. Stick with the same light weight for the duration of the cycle.
Other exercises are added based on your recovery ability. You should include at least one pressing movement and a pulling movement but you can add more if you feel like you can adequately recovery from the additional volume. Listen to your body; if it gets to be too much, you can always drop a set or two later. A sample program for someone with good recovery ability might look like this:
Stiff-legged Deadlift: 1x15
Bench press: 2-3 x 10
Bent row: 2-3x15
Military press: 2-3 x 12
I personally am not a fan of single-joint movements such as curls and calf raises in spite of the fact that they show up in most of the “classic” 20-rep squatting programs. I believe that you get enough stimulation through the compound exercises listed. If your ego simple can’t get by without doing a set or two of curls, add them at the end.
For those who tend to recovery poorly, here is a more abbreviated program that has worked for everyone with whom I have ever used it:
Stiff-legged Deadlift: 1x15
Bent row: 2x10
Notice the squats are first here. This is to get the most painful part out of the way early. Rest as long as you need to between sets. You may substitute chins for the rows and bench presses for the dips. Stay away from the pulldown machine and the pec dec; just imagine that you are in a time when such things didn’t exist! If you choose to do dips or chins, add weight as soon as you are strong enough to do so.
After six weeks of this, switch to something else. The classic 5x5 routine is a good choice, as is a more conventional bodybuilding routine. Wait at least six weeks before giving the 20-rep squats another go-round.
To get big, you must eat big. Meat, cheese, fruits, and vegetables are in order. Even though you are purposely consuming lots of calories, don’t fill up on pizza and brownies. You need quality in your calories as well as quantity. The nutritional “secret weapon” of this program is milk. It was a huge component of the original 20-rep programs years ago - so big a component, in fact, that it was sometimes called the “Squats and Milk Program.” It worked then, and it works the same today. A half-gallon of whole milk was considered to be the absolute minimum for anyone wanting to get huge, and a gallon per day was the standard. Whole, skim, 2%…the choice is yours. You may also add your favorite protein powder or MRP to your milk for a boost or for more flavor.
Here is an example of a typical days eating for this program back in the day:
3-4 eggs with cheese
2 slices of toast
1 glass of milk
AM Snack Protein powder or MRP mixed in milk
Sandwich (i.e. meat, cheese, tuna, etc.)
1 glass of milk
Slice of cheese
1 glass of milk
Steak, chicken, or fish
Pasta, Rice, or Potatoes
Steamed veggies Salad
1 glass of milk
Protein powder or MRP mixed in milk.
This is just a suggestion. Customize your food intake to suit your personal tastes, but make sure you eat plenty of food and eat it often. Drink plenty of water throughout the day as well. To make the old-school approach a little more modern, add some EFA supplements to insure that you are getting enough healthy fat. This is a good program for loading up on creatine too. Take care not to eat for a couple of hours before your workout to minimize puking in the gym; most gym owners frown on such things.
On days when you are not in the gym, doing some active recovery such as walking or swimming, as doing so will help reduce soreness. Daily stretching and a massage every week or two will also help in recovery. Strenuous activity such as intense cardio or hard sports should be avoided since you want every available resource to go into building muscle. Get lots of sleep: 8-9 hours per night and sneak a nap in whenever you can.
The 20-rep squat program is nothing new, but unlike so many other programs, it has withstood the test of time. I would be remiss if I did not thank Dr. Randall Strossen at www.ironmind.com for writing the book on it. If you follow the guidelines I have set forth for you, you can realistically expect to gain 10-15lbs in the next six weeks, although lots of people will gain even more than that. Either way, start saving up for new clothes, because by the end of the program, you will need them.
About the Author
David Whitley, RKC is a Russian Kettlebell instructor, strength coach and massage therapist in Nashville, TN. He earned his RKC status the June 2003 certification from Pavel Tsatsouline and has worked as an assistant instructor in subsequent RKC Certifications. He is the first American-born man to achieve the rank of Candidate for Master of Sports and is the 2005 US National Long Cycle Clean and Jerk Champion in competitive kettlebell lifting. He does personalized online training programs, conducts Kettlebell workshops across the US and trains clients privately in the Nashville area. Contact him by email at firstname.lastname@example.org, and visit his website: www.irontamer.com .