By Henry Croft

Before the advent of modern bodybuilding, with its isolation machines, designer supplements and toxic chemicals, there was a secret weapon which bodybuilders used to grow freakish amounts of muscle in a short space of time. This was a weapon so holy and so powerful that it was inscribed on two stone tablets on the slopes of Mount Sinai while Moses was still on the boob. Sadly, however, it is a weapon that is largely ignored in the air conditioned gymnasiums of today.

And, before you go looking, this isn’t something that you can find online or buy from Tattoo Stan in the alley behind UK Best Kebab.

What is it?

It’s simple, good old-fashioned hard work. And as far as workout regimes go, they don’t come much more basic, tougher or devastatingly effective than the infamous 20 Rep Squat Routine.

The 20 Rep Squat is one of the most famous old-school bulking routines, and for good reason. When performed correctly it will help you build unprecedented levels of muscle at an extraordinary rate. And like many of the most proven and effective muscle building programmes out there, its beauty lies in its simplicity.

The winning formula is essentially:
High Rep Squats + A Shitload Of Milk = HUGE GAINS

Indeed, this routine is also known was ˜Squats and Milk” as, in addition to ballbreaking repetitions of squats, it prescribes a gallon of milk a day (GOMAD).
On this programme you’ll easily be drinking enough milk to put your local dairy farm out of business. And, mark my words, your quads will become so vast that wearing jeans will no longer be an option. Those who complete the routine will be referred to in regal tones as the Quadfather, Thighly Cyrus, Calfin Harris, Liam Kneeson, Quadzilla, Arnold Squatsaloadaweightanegga, Leg Dennis (that was awful), or simply that t**t who hogs the squat rack. (If you have any other leg-related nicknames, please fire them off in the comments below.)

A word of caution, though: 20 Rep Squats is seriously tough.
You’ll need some massive mental cojones to persevere as it makes most muscle building protocols look like your mum’s Icelandic Body Sculpting class.


The origins of the 20 Rep Squat routine date back to the 1930s when American weightligting coach Mark Berry began to tout the benefits of high repetition squats in Alan Calvert’s Strength magazine. Using this ˜new” approach, Berry had been able to encourage muscular growth at monstrous, and previously unheard of, rates in his athletes. Inspired by Berry’s findings, a young lifter by the name of Joseph Curtis Hise (later nicknamed ˜Daddy of the Squat”) began experimenting with squatting for 20 reps.

In his method, the first 10 reps would be performed as normal, and the last 10 reps would include 3 deep breaths between each squat. Hence the other term for the routine “Breathing Squats”. After performing 20 reps, Hise suggested that the lifter should feel like he has just run 2 miles at full speed. And thus, the 20 Rep Squat routine was born.

It has since stood the test of time, having been championed by John McCallum in 1968 and in Randall J. Storssen’s popular 1989 book Super Squats. The latter claimed that 20 Rep Squats could pack on 30lbs of muscle within 6 weeks! 20 Rep Squats was also the routine of choice for muscle legend Tom Platz, who used it to build the “best legs in bodybuilding”. Platz claimed to have squatted 585 pounds for 23 reps!

The Science

Your quads are largely made up of Type II A muscle fibres which respond very well to high rep work. This is the reason why cyclists and speed skaters, even in the endurance disciplines,  have such titanic legs. Just check out the quads on German cyclist Robert Forstemann and you’ll see what I mean! Consequently, bodybuilders also favour putting their quadriceps through high rep hell to maximise growth potential.

The Workout

The cornerstone of every workout in this programme in performing 1 x 20 reps of squats. Importantly these 20 Breathing Squats must be performed at your 10RM.
Doesn’t make any sense, huh? Well the key is in the title. Breathing Squats are quite the different beast compared to your typical squat. As mentioned above, with Breathing Squats, once you hit failure at 10 reps you then take a series of 3-5 deep breaths after every subsequent rep. This will allow you to mentally and physically recharge for the next rep, enabling your body to recruit higher-threshold motor units than it would if there was no rest between reps.

As such, it’s not uncommon for the set to last 4-5 or even more minutes. When it comes to the precise routine, there are several variations of the 20 Rep Squat to choose from, depending on your preferences. Each variation inlcudes 1 set of 20 reps on squat as its mainstay, in addition to a combination of basic push/pull movements.

John McCallum’s Original 20 Rep Squat Routine (1968)

Exercise Sets Reps
Behind The Neck Press 3 12
Squat 1 20
Pull Over 1 20
Bench Press 3 12
Bent Over Row 3 15
Stiff Legged Deadlift 1 15
Shrug 1 15
Pull Over 1 20
Scaled Down 20 Rep Squat Routine (Recommended for Beginners)

Exercise Sets Reps
Squat 1 20
Pull Over 1 20
Overhead Press 5 5
Power Clean 5 5
Big 3 20 Rep Squat Routine

Exercise Sets Reps
Squat 1 20
Pull Over 1 20
Bench Press 2-3 10
Pull Over 1 20
Bent Over Row 2-3 15
Power 20 Rep Squat Routine

Exercise Sets Reps
Power Clean 5 3
Squat 1 20
Overhead Press 2-3 12
Chin Ups 2 To Failure
Dips 2 10
Deadlift 1 15


The 20 Rep Squat routine should last for 6 weeks and comprise 2/3 sessions per week. Start off with 3 sessions but if recovery becomes an issue step it down to 2. This routine should be used sparingly as it is extremely challenging. As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t return to it for at least 6 weeks after you have completed the first cycle. Personally, however, I would leave it much longer than that.

Weight Selection & Progression

The primary goal is to add 5lbs (roughly 2.5kg) to the barbell every session. Most people are able perform 20 reps of their current 5RM by week 6. So, to calculate your starting weight, work backwards and subtract 2.5kg from your 5RM for every session. If you are working out 3 times per week that is 18 sessions in a 6 week cycle. 18 x 2.5kg = 45kg So if your current 5RM on squat is 130kg you would commence proceedings with a weight of 85kg and add 2.5kg to the bar every session.

Warm Up

Before each set of Breathing Squats make sure you perform a few sets of 10 reps with a much lighter weight as a warm up. I also include at least 15 minutes of stretching and mobility work before I even square up to the squat rack.

Squatting Rules

Squat DEEP (below parallel) for maximum range of motion. No Smith Machines. No lifting belts or straps. If you are not laid out on the floor crying after 20 reps you didn’t go hard enough!


Breathing correctly while performing your squats will help you bust out those last 10 reps. You’ll more than likely get through the first 10 reps without much fuss, however the next 10 will be a different story. Slow down and take deep gulps when you hit the peak contraction of the movement. Take a big breath during the eccentric contraction and exhale deeply during the concentric contraction.


Because you will no doubt be in a horrible place between reps 10 and 20, there is a big chance of failure. Its is therefore essential to squat with safety pins or a spotter.

Pull Overs

Once you’ve finished your squats, crawl over to a bench, grab a dumbbell, and bust out 20 pull overs on a light weight. Old school lifters such as Arnie performed dumbbell pull overs as they believed it expanded their ribcage and added size to their chest (although there is no empirical evidence for this). This movement also functions as a gentle cool down after your grueling trip to Squat City.

Other Exercises

For the rest of the exercises, use a weight which you can successfully complete 20 reps with. These should be nowhere near as taxing as your 20 reps on squats.

Rest Days

If you’re up to it, include stretching and light cardio on your rest days to ease the DOMS, which is going to pretty severe.


Drinking a gallon of milk a day (that’s roughly 8 pints) is another staple of the 20 Rep Squat Routine. If you want to feel like an old school lifter, which is part of the fun of the routine, keep to the milk. Just be careful not to drink just before your workout, as you will throw up. If 8 pints of milk a day seems a little excessive, by all means factor in other protein sources and supplements, provided you are still getting enough calories in.