The Psychology of the 20-rep Squat.
20-rep squats done to a person’s absolute limit are so productive that they are practically indispensable to most hard gainers’ routines. If you really want to grow without drugs there is no substitute for cycles of full-bore squats. The strength of character needed to push your body through 20-rep squats is not easy to find for most people. It’s much easier to be influenced by opinions that advocate far longer workouts done to way less than maximum intensity.
Is it all hell, then? No. The satisfaction of breaking further into new poundages is extremely satisfying, not only for itself but also for the physical and mental gains it produces…
Anyone who perseveres diligently with a cycle where they are breaking personal records every week on the 20-rep squat, whatever the weight they are lifting, deserves serious respect. The trouble is, too few people want to push themselves that far, and most beginners give up at their first taste of just how hard it is.
I’d like to share some of the ideas I’ve applied in order to keep people at intensive 20-rep squatting, and keep their gains coming. Most of these I devised for myself, as I’ve no natural willpower. I’ve had to devise tricks to keep me from giving up cycles short of my maximums, and to keep me from putting the bar back after 15 or even 10 reps!
I lifted my first weight at age 29 and never had a huge desire to be big. Strangely enough that attitude is what actually led me to the correct way to work out. After following routines designed for the steroid heads for a couple of years, and getting nowhere, I read Hardgainer and Brawn and the ideas there made sense. A lot of my acquaintances decided that they didn’t want to chance these abbreviated workouts “in case they lost their muscle”! I wasn’t really bothered about muscle, but I knew I was only really interested in the major barbell movements. I followed the principles of abbreviated training, and finally started to grow. Then I got interested in muscle!
In early 1997 I took over a gym in my hometown that I used to train at before I bought a power rack and did my training at home. I was a bit nervous at first as many of the trainees there have been training longer than me and are stronger. I was worried that they would not be receptive to abbreviated workouts. I needn’t have worried as many of them seemed tired of conventional stuff and were gagging for a change. I’ve now had experienced, intermediate and novice trainees on abbreviated programmes, and the results have been phenomenal.
Many who hadn’t had any arm growth for years put an inch or more on their arms – and this was without any specific arm training, just heavy routines based on the squat, deadlift or stiff-leg deadlift, bench press, a row or pulldown, maybe a shoulder press, and some grip work. Curls are only allowed if somebody is new to the routines and absolutely insists on training arms. They usually happily drop the curls after a few weeks when they get into the spirit of things. It’s so gratifying to have more and more people asking me to write out routines for them once they see the gains that some of the others are piling on. I now have total confidence in putting people on these workouts, however experienced they may be. Because I believe that the squat is one of the main cornerstones of training, if not the main cornerstone, here are some of the ways I have found to encourage people to get their sets and cycles finished.
I have a slightly different view of the ‘Iron Game’ to most trainees because prior to getting into weights my only form of exercise was yoga, and I only used that as a preparation for meditation. Some of my way of thinking about squats has come from the experiences I had then, and I’d still say the best training aid anyone could have is to learn to meditate. The focus and visualization powers it gives you are worth ten thousand dodgy food supplements!
Tips To Squat By
The first thing to get out of the way is that a set of full-bore 20-rep squats should begin the night before. It goes without saying that your eating and sleeping should be in order generally, but it is particularly important to be well rested the night before tackling a heavy set. Eat well, too.
When you are doing one set of 20 near your maximum you need to cut out as many variables as you can in order to track your progress as accurately as possible. This could come down to wearing the same shoes, using the same equipment at the gym, and performing each set from week to week in the same manner for a whole cycle, i.e., taking squats to parallel. There is no point adding to the weight lifted if you are not going down as far into the squat. Progressive resistance is the key; make sure you know it is progress and not cheating.
A good idea is to set yourself up for squats in a power rack in front of a mirror with no weight on the bar. Get somebody to tell you exactly when your thighs are parallel to the ground, look in the mirror and see where the bar lines up on the rear uprights. Mark the spot so that you know for sure that every rep is the same even when there’s so much discomfort late in a set that it feels like you are parallel even when you’re only halfway down. There are other ways of ensuring you don’t cheat reps, but this way works a treat if you have the appropriate equipment.
Before beginning a cycle it is a good idea to set some rules for all your sets. The two I insist on are:
a. If you take the bar onto your shoulders to start a set, the full 20 reps must be completed unless you get trapped at the bottom on the failing bars, or you feel that you sustained some injury (which should not happen if correct form is observed). The bar must never be put back on the rack just because you are suffering mere discomfort.
b. Every rep must be to parallel – no cheating. The proviso here is that your lower back must not round. If your lower back rounds at the parallel depth, try a wider stance with toes turned out more. That stance change may enable you to go a bit deeper without your lower back rounding.
With those rules established you need some mental techniques to get you through each set. Squats are largely a head game. You can do those last two reps; you aren’t really at failure; it’s just your head crying out for you to stop because the general discomfort is so intense. But how do you convince your body of that?
In watching many people on a 20-rep squat routine I’ve seen how different characters cope with the intense discomfort, but there are some things that can help all types. When the temptation to put the bar back is becoming almost unbearable here are a few things you can try. These principles can be adapted for any exercise.
This is where experience of meditation can be helpful. There is a place inside us where we are the witnesses of what is happening to our bodies, and retreating there can lessen the discomfort of squatting. Just watch yourself as if you were watching a film. Become disconnected from the pain, observe it, react to it, but don’t get overwhelmed by it. Now direct all your muscular effort to the target muscles instead of squirming and losing the form with potentially dangerous results.
2. Regroup and set up
You have just completed a rep and your head is scrambled. This is not the time to rush the next rep however quickly you’d like the set to end. This will just set you up for injury. Instead of focusing on the pain, breathe, regroup your thoughts, focus on your form checklist to keep the next rep as good as possible. “Back straight, midsection tight, lower under control, drive up in good form, no squirming.” Right, go for the rep and get back to the top with your head scrambled again. Regroup your thoughts again, and “enjoy” the next rep.
3. Life or death
What about if the rep just won’t go up? Providing you are sure you have applied the previous two steps, you can now turn it into a life or death situation. Convince yourself that you are trapped under a car or lorry and you have to lift it up or you’ll be crushed. Puts a sense of urgency on the rep that will make you realize that you have reserves when needed. Got any kids? A morbid variation of this is to imagine one of them is trapped instead – works for me every time! Ever heard about mothers lifting cars to get their children out from underneath? This is the intensity we need in order to trigger the growth process!
The more I see people succeeding or failing in 20-rep squat routines, the more I believe it is a test of character as much as a test of physical strength. No matter how much character we may possess, though, failing on a weight can be very demoralizing and blow a cycle before its natural end. Sets can be blown late in a cycle for various reasons – bad eating, not enough rest, lack of motivation or preparation, or poundage increases that are too great. Keep the gains coming for as long as you can by keeping all these bases covered.
Cycling The Workouts
Cycling weight training is a fairly straightforward affair. Once you feel you have got to the limit of your training capabilities, you stop and rest for a week or so. This is far better than going on regardless, as this can lead to major loss of progress and motivation. If your body says, “Stop”, then stop. When you are rested you can resume your training at around 70-80% of your previous maximum. Increase the weights slowly until you are at your previous best, and if everything has gone according to plan the momentum gained from the rest and gradual build-up will carry you beyond your previous best to new levels of strength and size, until again you reach a new limit and have to rest for a while.
All athletes cycle their training through the year in much the same way, attempting to reach their peak during the competitive season for their particular sport. A far more natural way to do it would be to follow the seasons according to Ayurveda and plan your yearly training around those principles.
And don’t forget to take care of those muscles joints and keep them limber with regular Hanna Somatic Movement and/or yoga sessions! Good luck!