20-Rep Squat Program Results in No Gains

The 20-rep squat program has been appearing online lately, even though its origins go back at least 100 years.  Those who have completed the program boast of substantial increases in muscle mass and squatting strength in six short weeks. However, the true shocker is performing your 5RM for 20 reps by the end of the program. 

I decided to complete this program because it’s difficult for me to get significantly stronger and gain muscle consistently.  This article shares the program I completed, the results I recorded, and what I learned from the 20-rep squat program.  Does it really work for everyone?

Can the 20-rep squat program provide everyone with gains?
Photo by Javier Santos Guzmán on Unsplash.com

A Brief Exercise History 

In terms of exercise, it’s always important to understand what someone has done.  A newbie will always have different results than an advanced weight lifter.  The 20-rep squat program seems like a workout program designed for less experienced lifters.  Furthermore, the strength goals sound incredibly difficult or unobtainable for more experienced lifters.  

I am currently 40 years old, and have more than 10 years of weight lifting experience.  My passion for fitness was reignited in my late 20’s after serving years in the trades and putting on some extra weight.  Suddenly, I desired to be in better shape and achieved this goal with high intensity interval training.  In fact, I performed HIIT for more than a few years.  

Eventually, new goals of increasing muscle mass and strength were born.  I began performing compound barbell exercises for all major muscle groups.  Squats, front squats, deadlifts, hip raises, lunges, presses, rows and many other exercises are very familiar.  For the most part, my primary exercises are done with lower reps, higher load, and moderate rest. Auxiliary exercises are done with moderate reps and load, but less rest time. I consistently adopted a “cleaner” diet and tracked macros to achieve results.  

Personal Records

A few short years ago, I was able to squat 285 pounds for three reps, and deadlift 330 pounds for three reps.  These are my highest numbers at a body weight of 160 pounds.  Sadly, I sold my first squat rack due to an out-of-state move, but continued to exercise with adjustable dumbbells.  Consequently, I did lose muscle mass and strength.  Right now my 3RM numbers are only 235 for the squat, and 275 for the deadlift.  My body weight is down to an all time low of 149 pounds.  

My RMR is 1,600 based on the average of three different calculations.  This means my body requires 1,600 calories per day, before including any activities.  Surprisingly, this is considered to be the average for most men.  I always eat more than 1,600 calories in a day.  In fact, I eat more than 3,000 calories on workout days.  Most calories come from lean meats, eggs, veggies, fruits, nuts and seeds.  Although I do consume some grains, yogurt, cheese, and drink some coffee or beer depending on the time of day.  About half of my total calories are consumed before and after each workout.  

This is a very brief history overview, but it provides the most relevant information.  The 20-rep squat program sounds like a good way to increase size and strength.  However, it doesn’t appear very challenging on paper.  Honestly, I did not expect much from a single set of squats, or the low volume workouts.  Am I a prime candidate for this workout program?

I have never attempted one set of 20 prior to this program.  How bad can it be doing 20 squats?  Let’s dive into the exact program I followed.  

Squat racks are the traditionally effective way to gain muscle size and strength.
Photo by George Pagan III on Unsplash.com

The 20-Rep Squat Program

The idea is to start your first set of squats with a warmup-like weight.  You get the exact number by taking your 5RM squat (remember my 3RM is currently 235 this year), and subtract five pounds for each workout.  There are three workouts per week and the program is supposed to last only six weeks.  That gives us 18×5, which equals 90.  If your 5RM is 235 pounds, you would subtract 90 pounds and begin with 145 pounds.  My starting weight was 125 pounds.  Sounds easy, right?   

The following 20-rep squat program is modified for me personally and is not designed for the average person.  In fact, I would not recommend performing Olympic lifts without training or supervision.  Risk of injury can be very high.  

20-Rep Squat Workout Program

Snatch 3×3Hang Clean 3×3Power Clean 3×3
Squat 1×20Squat 1×20Squats 1×20
Pull-ups 1×20Ring Dips 1×20Leg Raises 1×20
Bench Press 2×12Barbell Rows 2×12Incline Press 2×12
Chest Flys 2×12Reverse Flys 2×12Face Pulls 2×12
Back Extensions x4Barbell Press x4T-Bar Rows x4
Push Downs x4Calf Raises 2×21Prone Press x4
Barbell Curls 2×21Push-ups 2×21Hip Raises 2×21

This is a three day per week program. One or two days of rest follows each workout. The first exercise is for power and helps promote muscle activation, especially concerning fast twitch muscle fibers. The second exercise is the most difficult because of the intensity, which is tracked in the table below.

Exercises at the end of the workout are designed to help stimulate muscle hypertrophy. Exercises with x4 are drop sets completed without rest, and 2×21 indicates an exercise done with a 7-rep variation (bottom, top and full range of motion) for 21 total reps.

Amount of Weight Lifted per Week

WeekWeight Loads
1125, 135, 145
2155, 165, 170
3175, 175, 180
4185, 185, 195
5145, 150, 155
6165, 170, 175
7180, 185, 190
8195, 195, 200

During this program the weight on the bar increases 5 – 10 pounds each workout. My weight loads increased rather quickly at the beginning of this program. I was on pace to reach my 5RM by week six, but this became problematic. Weight increases were too large and a compensation was discovered during week four when squats were not being performed with a full range of motion at higher loads.

I continued the program for eight weeks, but never reached my 5RM. After the program, I loaded the bar to 235lbs and was unable to perform more than 3 reps before failure. With the bar completely at rest on top of the spotter arms, I was unable to stand up and complete a fourth rep.

Body Comp & Skin Fold Measurements

Body MetricsWeek 1Week 9
Thigh20″ & 5sf20″ & 5sf
Hips38″ & 5sf38″ & 5sf
Abdomen30″ & 10sf30″ & 10sf
Chest37″ & 5sf37″ & 5sf
Arm11″ & 5sf11″ & 5sf

Lower body metrics are supposed to increase during this program. There were no changes in body measurements, or caliper skin fold tests between weeks one and nine. Weight changes were insignificant.

My bodyweight fluctuates on a daily basis. An increase of half a pound could be from as little as a glass of water. I recorded all of these figures myself with a flexible measuring tape, calipers and digital scale.

Discussing the 20-Rep Squat Program Results

Some programs require four workouts per week, with two back-to-back squatting workouts.  I normally lift 5-6 days per week, but I don’t believe in performing the same barbell exercise two days in a row.  For this reason I did three workouts per week and continued for eight weeks.  Six weeks is not quite enough time to reach your 5RM if you do not make load increases every week.

As you probably noticed from the numbers, there was a hiccup in the middle of the program.  Eventually, I noticed my body was trying to compensate for the load by limiting range of motion.  Some people believe increases in load force the body to activate the right muscles and promote good form. Not only is that incorrect, it is a load of shit! Heavy loads will encourage cheating, bad form and improper use of muscles. People do get hurt this way.

I brought out the bucket to give my body a point of depth and noticed I could not reach it with a heavier load.  I needed to drop the weight back down in order to reach a full range of motion.  Yes, I was using spotter arms, but you can still cheat by bending forward rather than squatting down. That type of cheating is similar to a good morning exercise, and some people attempt to squat that way. It wouldn’t be surprising if many people lose ROM as their loads increase.  You are not really getting stronger if your ROM is decreasing each week.  

Of course, the program may not be free of human error. I used a digital scale and recorded all measurements myself. To my knowledge, the numbers are as accurate as possible. I would have preferred to see some results, but there are no significant changes in the numbers. No gains were made.

I learned several things during the course of the program.  Here are a few of them:

  • Nothing is guaranteed
  • 20 heavy squats are brutal
  • Everyone needs a personal trainer or coach
  • I might just be that guy
Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash.com

Nothing is Guaranteed

It seems like everyone wants to hype up the 20-rep squat program as one of the best ways to increase size and strength.  Everybody is different.  I did the program.  I tried my best and I did not get any stronger.  However, I did get better at squatting 20 times.  You can say the odds are in favor, but you cannot make guarantees for everybody in different situations.  

If we are dealing with a newbie, then yes, there will be gains.  Someone who is new will adapt to everything you throw at them.  An experienced lifter is different.  Experienced lifters require fine tweaks and specific programming.  Can the 20-rep squat program provide results to all lifters? My experience says no, but what if I didn’t try hard enough?

This is what I expect to hear – “You didn’t do it right”, or “You didn’t eat enough”. Of course, there could be some truth there, but you don’t wear my shoes or live in my body. Our bodies don’t work exactly the same just like we don’t have the same thoughts, or find the same types of content entertaining. However, there is one thing on which we can agree; squatting 20 times in a row sucks when the bar is heavy.

20 Heavy Squats Are Brutal

A single set of squats sounds easy, even at 20 reps.  The first week is fairly easy and the second week isn’t too bad.  The third week begins to feel challenging, but the weight is manageable.  After the fourth week, I began noticing the range of motion compensation. 

I was on pace to reach my 5RM, but wasn’t getting nearly as deep into the squat.  I pulled out a 14in-tall bucket and placed it inside the rack.  In order to reach the depth of the bucket, I had to drop the load back down to 145lbs – so much for reaching my 5RM in six weeks. Continuing without dropping the load would only have improved imaginary strength.  I continued the program for four more weeks until reaching 200lbs, and was able to touch the bucket on every rep. 

Squatting this much weight 20 times is brutal.  It’s so uncomfortable I feel like stopping at rep number five, but continue.  Rep 10 is very challenging and I continue.  15 reps is almost unbearable as my head feels like exploding, but I persevere.  I can hardly squeak out the final two reps after two total minutes of time under tension, or longer.  That’s a long time under the bar!

The time under tension is so long, my head feels like exploding

The average person is not going to complete a program like this.  It’s beyond uncomfortable.  Together, the load and time under tension are (not) a force to be reckoned with.  It’s definitely not for the casual lifter. 

A single set of squats in the 20-rep squat program makes the rest of the workout seem like a warmup.  I’m still not sure why this program is becoming popular again, but it is not for everyone.  I’m probably not the only one whose results lacked gains, but it sure feels like it based on other reviews.  

Everyone Needs a Personal Trainer or Coach

I used to think personal training was only necessary for those who need help, or don’t know what they are doing.  Coaches during my youth were not completely invested in improving our athletic skills, so that may have something to do with it.  Anyway, during the 20-rep squat program I learned that everyone can benefit from a trainer.  

A coach can almost always get more out of you than you can get from yourself, when they do the job.  Athletes, high income families and individuals concerned about their health hire personal trainers or coaches.  The rest of us pretend like we know what we’re doing.  If we all knew what we were doing, coaches wouldn’t exist and we would be the epitome of health.

Coaches exist because we all need help improving ourselves

Even personal trainers can benefit from having a trainer.  Hell, I wouldn’t mind having a trainer monitoring my form and workout program.  Perhaps I might have lifted 205lbs, or have been told to skip the 20-rep squat program in favor of something better.  A good coach will never say, “Hey, just do the 20-rep squat program for six weeks and you’ll gain 30lbs of muscle”.  That’s nonsense.  

I Might Just Be That Guy

You know that guy?  He eats a lot, but he’s always lean.  That guy lifts weight, but doesn’t always look like it.  He seems really strong for his size.  He does strength training programs and uses progressive overload, but doesn’t really gain any weight.  There are a few strong ectomorphs out there, right?  

About a year ago, I completed the “Beast Body” workout.  The workout is a blend of training styles designed by a dude who refers to himself in the third person – The Beast.  It’s a high volume, three month program designed to improve muscle mass.  The entire program can be done with adjustable dumbbells.  It often seemed like I was lifting more than the buff dudes in the videos, even though I weigh in at 149lbs.  Maybe they weren’t trying very hard.  

Guess how much I gained during the Beast Body Program?  If you guessed nothing, you are spot on because I did not gain a single pound after 12 weeks.  The 20-rep squat program wasn’t quite as long, and the volume is definitely lower, but the results were equally unspectacular.  

I’ve completed several types of workout programs and set variations including: high volume, high intensity, drop sets, isometrics, tempo and plyometrics.  Maybe I have a muscular atrophy issue, or hormone levels that are consistently out of place.  Maybe I’m that one guy who couldn’t make gains during the 20-rep squat program, despite going far beyond my comfort zone the past few weeks.  

What About Diet?

Diet is important. Some people suggest eating a ton of food or doubling protein intake.  Yes, more food will lead to weight gain, especially higher caloric foods. I’m not interested in basic weight gain or bulking (aka getting fat). I’m only interested in gaining good weight.  Many lifters don’t care about the type of weight gained as long as it is climbing. However, I don’t eat fast-food, doughnuts, or products with 20 ingredients I cannot pronounce.

Youth athletes don’t gain muscle by recording macros, timing meals, or getting as much sleep as possible. At least, that’s not how things worked when I was in high school. We gained weight without even knowing about that stuff, or what we were doing in the gym. I never ate pre-workout and post-workout meals. I ate two meals a day and a couple of snacks. Stressors would run high, but I never got the coveted 8 – 9 hours of sleep during the week. Despite all of that, I still gained muscle.

If gaining weight these days means eating 300 – 400 grams of protein per day or 5,000 total calories, you can forget about it.  That is not very affordable even if you are buying eggs.  A few pounds of muscle shouldn’t break the bank.  If you want to tell me that I need to drink a gallon of milk everyday to gain weight, I’ll tell you to go flex in the mirror. Enjoy posing in front of yourself and I’ll enjoy being that guy.

Hiking with dogs is much more fun than a 20-rep squat program.
Good thing hiking is our favorite activity

What Are Your 20-Rep Squat Program Results?

It’s a good thing hiking with my dog is my favorite activity. Hiking may not build much muscle, but neither did this workout program. We gain life experience and adventurous views out on the trails, which is far more than I gained performing 20 squats. Of course, your results may be entirely different.

I can’t say I will ever try a program like this again. I have the necessary perseverance, but the lack of increasing the size of a single muscle cell anywhere on my body is truly demotivating. Have you completed the 20-rep squat program, or another workout program guaranteed to pack on pounds of muscle? 

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