the secret to building huge legs fast: 20 REP SQUATS
How I Added One Inch to my Thighs in Just 8 Weeks
by Alec Enkiri | 9/8/20
The Secret To Building Monster Legs
The true secret to building HUGE legs fast is the 20 rep squat protocol, also known as "breathing squats" or "widow-makers." This training method is steeped in tradition and weight room lore. In hardcore training circles there is an almost mythical aura surrounding it. Simultaneously, it is both feared and revered. The idea itself is about as old school and gritty as can be: take a weight that you can do 10 reps with on the squat and then once you have reached 10 reps....do 10 more! Do not rack the bar. Instead take a breath, stand there and rest for a few seconds with the barbell on your back, and then do an 11th rep. Then breathe and rest some more and do a 12th rep. Then breathe and rest some more and do a 13th rep. Repeat this process until you have completed 20, gut wrenching reps. Part way through this set you'll learn why some people call these "breathing squats." If you don't survive the ordeal then your friends will learn why others call them "widow-makers."
Now, can this truly be done with a 10 rep max weight? Personally, I think that is a bit of a weight room fallacy because, well, if you can do 20 reps with a weight then it wasn't really a 10 rep max, was it? I don't really care how much you rested at the top with the weight bearing down on you. Still, the methodology itself isn't really what I want to go in depth on today because that aspect has already really been done to death by others. As the article progresses I will invariably make a few small recommendations for how to plan and execute a proper training cycle using the 20 rep squat protocol, but mostly I just want to talk about my own personal experiences performing 20 rep squats and the myriad benefits that successfully completing a training cycle with them can confer.
And I want to convince you to give the protocol a try yourself! In many respects, the 20 rep squat program is a rite of passage for anyone who considers themselves a true student of the iron game. You aren't really a part of the club until you have experienced it for yourself, but at the same time, it's not for beginners either. You still have to earn the right to attempt the rite.
Well, you can't click on an article about big legs and NOT expect to stare at some dude's dong along the way.
But if you are qualified then this training protocol can pack size onto your thighs like nothing I have ever experienced before, build a level of mental fortitude that is tough to replicate with other means, and enhance your general conditioning while also dramatically increasing your core strength and endurance. That is killing a lot of birds with one stone and it can all be accomplished with just 90 seconds of training per week. The kicker is it takes a pair of big metaphorical stones of a different sort to push your body across this painful threshold and earn all of these hard fought accolades.
But if you think you have what it takes then keep on reading and be sure to prepare your mind for the fight that is to come, and perhaps one day you too will be a part of the true brotherhood of iron: a club that dates back to the old school days of the weight room - before all the fancy painted equipment and pseudo-motivational personal trainers - a club of tough, badass men spanning across centuries who share the common bond of truly pushing their bodies to the limit, to the brink and beyond, to see what they are capable of. This is a small club, but all those who enter it have proven themselves to be cut from a different cloth. If you can punch your own ticket here are the main benefits that will be awaiting you.
You Will Build Huge Legs and You Will Do It Very Quickly
The hypertrophic effect of this training method is like nothing I have ever experienced before. I have been squatting for over 10 years now. I have done front squats, back squats, low bar squats, high bar squats, zombie front squats, pause back squats, pause front squats, pause zombie squats, box squats, tempo squats, and even eccentric only squats! Pretty much any variation of barbell squat that you can think of and I've done it. I have logged more reps and sets and sessions than I can possibly remember. I have squatted 523lbs raw in powerlifting competition at a body weight of 162lbs. I have front squatted 430lbs. I have zombie squatted 405lbs. I have zombie squatted 360lbs for a set of 4 reps. I have back squatted 455lbs for a set of 5 reps and 400lbs for a set of 10. I've pushed my heavy singles, I've pushed my heavy triples, I've pushed my 5's, I've pushed my 10's, I've pushed my 5x5, and my 5x3, and my 3x5, and my 3x8, and my 4x7. I've done Smolov and I've done Bulgarian. I've squatted once a week, I've squatted twice a week, I've squatted three times a week, and I've even squatted 9 times a week (yes, 9 times a week, that is not a typo. One squat session 5 days a week, and 2 squat sessions the other 2 days). Hell, I have even squatted to maximum for 90 consecutive days before.
360x4 Zombie Front Squat PR!
I've done it all, I've tried it all, and pretty much that whole time I had 25 inch thighs. In fact, for years and years I had 25 inch thighs. Then a few months ago I tried something a little bit different - an old method that I had dismissed a long time ago and had not touched in about 10 years: the 20 rep squat protocol. I had dismissed the protocol previously out of naivete. I had no business attempting it when I first did so I was not able to derive the true benefits of it back then, but I am very glad that after all these years I decided to question and revisit that initial conclusion.
I started my second go around with the protocol using 315lbs, which is 60% of my 1 rep max. My original goal was just to hit this weight for a set of 20 reps and go from there. All my other leg training remained exactly the same as it had been in the previous few months - these high rep squats were the only change to the training program. It took me a couple weeks and I managed to hit 315lbs for 22 reps. A couple weeks after that I hit 325lbs for 20 reps. And then a couple weeks after that I hit 335lbs for 20 reps. Along the way I also hit 350lbs for a set of 18 before I finally decided to terminate my experiment...or should I say put it into remission because I plan to revisit it again in 2021 as I have some unfinished business with it.
All told, I did the protocol for something like 9 or 10 weeks, but out of curiosity I measured my legs at the 8 week mark. I was prompted to measure them at this point because they had been 25 inches for so damn long that the visual size difference after 8 weeks of high rep squatting had become staggering to me when looking in the mirror. Turns out they were now 26 inches. After probably 6+ years of having the same circumference thighs they had blown up by a full inch in just 8 weeks. They had grown so quickly that I could literally see and FEEL the difference.
During the protocol I squatted just once a week and I did just one working set of squats per training session. I also missed one week of training during these first 8 weeks. So from the time I started the program to the time I measured my thighs I had done just 7 sets of squats in total. Just 7 sets! Each set lasted approximately 90 seconds. That means that in just 630 seconds, or 10 and a half total minutes of cumulative training time, I increased the size of my thighs by one full inch after years and years of having the same size thighs. Yes, it was painful and yes it was incredibly difficult to get through the training sessions and yes I was very sore for days afterwards, but if you are looking to add some meat to your legs this is probably the single best training method in existence to do so quickly and naturally.
For an experienced squatter with large thighs for his frame this sort of rapid hypertrophy, sans steroids, is nothing short of remarkable. The naysayers will say that this was just temporary cellular swelling, or something to that effect, but I concluded the protocol about 4 months ago now and my legs are still the same 26 inches as they were when I was doing it. Temporary? I doubt it. When I embark on this protocol again in 2021 I will be aiming for 365x20, and to get there my legs will have to become even bigger. How big? Well, there's only one way to find out...
26 inch thighs at 5'6 and 165lbs.
You Will Become Tougher Than Motherfucking Rhinoceros Skin
There is something special about the mental aspect of this style of training. The thing is, it takes a special kind of crazy to push yourself through a set like this because every single rep, from the first to the last, has its own way of feeling incredibly difficult. Embarking on one of these sets, from the minutes and hours leading up to it to knocking out that first rep and staring down the barrel at 19 more of them that can only get HARDER from there, creates a level of mental stress that must be experienced to be appreciated.
The problem is that no one is holding a gun to your head while you do it. If someone was holding a gun to your head it would be easy...because you wouldn't have a choice! It would be do or die. But the problem is that you DO have a choice. If you hit 10 and rack it...nothing happens. The world keeps turning; you keep breathing; and you go to work the next day like nothing happened because there was no physical gun to your head. Except there was a metaphorical gun and something did happen: you bitched out, and you know it, and unless you want to feel that nagging, gnawing, visceral, internal shame coursing through your veins for an entire week until you get a chance for redemption then you will not bitch out. You'll force yourself to push through the set. Every. Single. Grueling. Rep. The bar will bear down on you with every second that passes. Your breathing will become labored. Your legs will begin to shake. Your back will want to fold over like an accordion with every passing second. You'll swear that gravity is actually becoming stronger and time is slowing down.
315lbs for 22 reps! Ow.
But it's all in your head. It's all in your head because anybody can rest there for a few seconds, gather themselves, take a couple recovery breaths, and complete one more measly rep. The problem is that you view the set as a set of 20 rather than 20 individual reps completed in a vacuum. The problem is that your brain tells you that 20 reps is "too many reps," that 20 reps is "too hard," even though your body is more than capable of completing the work. But your brain is lazy and your brain is lying to you because, thanks to the magic of evolution, it wants you to avoid this sort of hard work. Your brain would prefer it if you could just coast through the day and keep energy expenditure to a minimum. This is how you maximize the odds of survival...but it's not going to make you jacked like He-Man and stronger than an ox.
If however, for this brief period of time, this 90 seconds of hell, you can ignore what your brain is telling you - silence that little voice inside your head until the work is completed - then you will increase the threshold of what your mind considers "difficult work." Suddenly things that sounded difficult before won't sound so difficult anymore. Hard becomes medium. Medium becomes easy. The bar is raised and mental toughness and fortitude are cranked up to new heights. Like I said, it takes a special kind of crazy to force yourself to push through something that is so damn difficult, but simultaneously so damn optional, but if you can find your special place and make it to the finish line you will be rewarded with a sort of gritty mental toughness, a fortitude of self, that many, many people seek, but few ever truly find. Just remember that next week you have to do it again, and you have to do it with more weight too!
Lactic Acid Can No Longer Burn You
When I first embarked on the protocol my legs would begin scream at me somewhere around the halfway point. The lactic acid had begun to accumulate and it would only get worse with each subsequent rep from that point forward. Standing there with the bar on my back and taking a few recovery breaths didn't do very much to alleviate this issue either. Once the process had begun it was pretty much all downhill from there, and the quality of the remaining reps would suffer because of it. The good news is after just a few short weeks my body began to adapt to and overcome this little problem.
My legs would still be burning during the set, to be sure, but they would burn a little bit less than before and it would take just a little bit longer to get to that point. This turned a very, very, very uncomfortable experience into one that was slightly less uncomfortable overall. I like to believe this allowed me to push these sets a little bit harder during my last few weeks of the program. Pushing these sets harder means one, or two or three more reps in the face of mounting fatigue, which means more muscle, more strength, more endurance, and a more potent overall training effect in the long run as you grow more skilled at pushing these high rep squats to greater and greater depths (no pun intended).
Your Lungs and Your Core Will Turn Into Kevlar
The final take away from my foray into the 20 rep squat protocol was the conditioning effect: conditioning on both the core and on the lungs. In regards to the latter, my first few weeks here were brutal. I was using 315lbs and hitting it for somewhere between 18-20 reps and by the end of the set I was gasping for air. My lungs been battered and crushed and all I wanted to do was lie on the floor for a few minutes and recover. So that's what I did! Typically, for at least 10 minutes I just sat around and waited to feel better, huffing and puffing the whole time, before eventually, reluctantly resuming the remainder of my workout. Contrast that with the final few weeks of the program where I hit 335lbs for a set of 20 and walked away after like nothing had happened.
My best set so far: 335lbs for 20 reps.
A little bit of heavy breathing, sure, but no dramatic collapse to the floor coupled with a protracted recovery period. I just walked away from the rack, took a minute to gather myself, and then crushed the rest of the work. The contrast was stark and, like the rapid change in the size of my thighs, damn near impossible not to notice. The thing is, it's pretty easy to create a conditioning effect in the weight room. But it's NOT easy to create a conditioning effect while simultaneously creating an ultra potent strength and hypertrophy effect. Yet, the 20 rep squat protocol accomplishes all of this. That makes it very unique and incredibly useful given the right circumstances.
Lastly, it's also important to note the conditioning effect that takes place around the core musculature. It's no small feat to support a heavy barbell on the back of your shoulders for 1 and a half or even up to 2 minutes. It's even more impressive a feat to do this while squatting that barbell 20 times. Consider the work that the muscles in the back and torso must perform simply to support this weight for that amount of time, as well as to do it while the torso angle is constantly changing from upright to inclined over and over again. The lats and upper back must remain braced the whole time or you'll collapse forward. The erectors must remain locked into a position of rigid extension or the spine will begin to flex. The hips must work hard to keep you balanced and stable. And all of these muscles must do all of this work the entire time the bar is on your back, and as you fatigue they must work progressively harder to continue to adequately perform the jobs they were already performing. I also think the heavy breathing with all that weight bearing down on you for so long comes into play as a "core" strengthener as well, but I'll save that theory for another day.
When I first started these sets though I could feel my back, specifically my upper back, beginning to collapse by the end of the set. A few times it did and I folded over like a lawn chair. A few times it looked like I had more reps in the tank when watching the replay on camera, but internally I knew I had to stop the set because if I tried another rep I would fold right over up top again. This was my biggest weakness. I simply couldn't support the weight anymore. And while this relative weakness continued to be my biggest weakness during these sets right up until the end of the program, it still improved pretty dramatically. There's a large difference between the upper back surviving a tough set of 20 reps with 335lbs vs. coming undone with 315lbs after squatting it 18 times. After just 8 weeks this is a pretty important improvement on a weakness that is merely being trained as a side effect, and that improved core strength and endurance will almost certainly carry over into other endeavors.
Like I said at the beginning of this piece, I wanted to cover my experiences using this protocol. There are plenty of articles dedicated to how to execute the 20 rep squat program and how to set things up appropriately, but there are not so many pieces explaining exactly what sorts of benefits you can expect from successfully completing this protocol. It isn't just a hard program - it isn't just hard for the sake of being hard - it's also one that is worth the effort. And while building a pair of monster legs is the primary benefit you can expect from it, there are plenty of other ancillary benefits as well that are certainly incredibly welcome side effects.
However, what really struck me most of all wasn't the improvements that I made during this program because many of these improvements are very logical adaptations to this sort of work. What really struck me though was how quickly the adaptations came on. Over the course of 10 weeks I completed just 10 sets of squats and spent less than 15 total minutes under the bar and during that short span of time I experienced all of the aforementioned benefits. That's pretty damn impressive. There is probably not any other training method in existence that can do all of these things at once, let alone this quickly. That reserves the 20 rep squat program a spot in the iron hall of fame. It's a brutal, time tested method that rewards you very quickly for your efforts- perhaps even disproportionately to your efforts. The kicker is, most people ain't got the nuts required to grab that carrot and become a member of this elite club. Do you?