Q: Are 20-rep breathing squats effective for building muscle mass and strength?
A: Short answer: Yes. I say that because the quadriceps are primarily composed of type 2A fibers and as such respond best to higher reps. Just look at the impressive thigh development of speed skaters and cyclists, even in distance events.
One of the best high-rep squatters was Tom Platz, who finished as high as third in the Mr. Olympia. He had arguably the best thigh development of any bodybuilder—ever. He claims to have squatted 585 pounds for 23 reps, and in 1993 at a fitness expo in Germany he took on Fred Hatfield in a squatting exhibition. Hatfield had broken numerous world records in the squat in several weight classes—at one time holding the highest result ever with 1,014 pounds—and he earned the nickname “Dr. Squat.” The two men started by going for a one-rep maximum; Platz finished with 775 pounds, and Hatfield bested that with 865. Then the weight was reportedly reduced to 505 pounds, and Platz did 23 reps to Hatfield’s 12.
The point of that example is that being able to perform high reps doesn’t necessarily relate to single reps, and that ability is influenced by an athlete’s neurological efficiency. The Canadian national synchronized swim team, for example, at one time had women who could perform bench presses with 135 pounds for 20 reps. Even so, they had trouble recruiting the more powerful type 2B muscle fibers and would struggle with 145 pounds for a single. Some of that is genetic, as women tend to be less neurologically efficient than men, but some of it is trainable, according to the law of specificity. If you’re a coach or an athlete, you must have an understanding of how neurological efficiency relates to long-term athletic performance—especially when dealing with young athletes.
I should add that many of the fans of high-rep squats tout the importance of including a light set of straight-arm pullovers after the squats to help “expand” the rib cage. Some notable proponents include Arnold Schwarzenegger, the late Don Ross—one of my favorite writers—and Ellington Darden. The idea is that the forced breathing combined with the stretching of the pullover would lengthen the costal cartilage, which is cartilage that connects the long ribs to the sternum. Is that true? I’ve never heard of a study done to prove it, but then I’ve also never heard of a double-blind study to prove that parachutes work.
Although many variations of this program exist, generally there is some type of warmup, and you perform only one all-out set of 20 reps. Also, it’s often recommended that you take three deep breaths between reps. What is actually happening when you take the breaths is that you’re doing 20 single-rep sets with about 10 seconds of rest between them. That rest enables you to recruit higher-threshold motor units than you would if you did the 20 reps with minimal rest between sets.
If you’re looking for a challenge and a quick way to pack on some muscle mass, then 20-rep squats are worth a try.
Editor’s note: Charles Poliquin is recognized as one of the world’s most suc-cessful strength coaches, having coached Olympic med-alists in 12 different sports, including the U.S. women’s track-and-field team for the 2000 Olympics. He’s spent years researching European journals (he’s fluent in English, French and German) and speaking with other coaches and scientists in his quest to optimize training methods. For more on his books, seminars and methods, visit www.CharlesPoliquin.net. IM