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20-Rep Squat Training

20-Rep Opener

Build serious muscle with this intense high-rep training program.

By Josh Bryant, MS, CSCS

The year 1896 was a very important milestone in the strength-training game because it marked the birth of weightlifting pioneer Mark Berry. Berry was very successful, winning a national championship in Olympic weightlifting and becoming the first ever Olympic Games Weightlifting Coach for the United States in 1932 and 1936.

Berry’s legacy runs much deeper than that. He mentored John Grimek, who many consider to be the father of modern bodybuilding. Berry also immortalized his iron game legacy with the mighty pen, authoring numerous strength-training articles and mail-order courses. He was the first to preach squats for muscular bulk and development. To this day, Berry’s teachings help and inspire folks in the iron game.

Hise Arrival

One of Berry’s inspired pupils was J.C. Hise, who was an all-around bad-ass. Always working the toughest types of jobsin coal mines, uranium mills, cement mills, lumber stacking and as a hobby with the hope of striking it rich, searching out lost mines and attempting to stake his own claims.

In the early 1930s, Hise started barbell training. Using the standard-issue routines of the day Hise bulked up from 160 pounds to 200 pounds then flat-lined at 200. But he wanted more. Hise became infatuated with the teachings of Mark Berry after discovering some of his articles advocating the “deep knee bend,” which we now call the squat.

Designing a routine off of Berry’s principles, Hise would perform behind-the-neck presses for 15 reps, full squats for eight reps, rest ,and then do eight more reps. Then he’d remove 100 pounds from the barbell and do a balls-to-the-wall set of 20 reps.

After 30 days, Hise gained 28 pounds from that routine, with all muscular measurements significantly improved. This was in conjunction with a high-protein diet and copious amounts of milk consumption.

Hise wrote Mark Berry and told him of his success, and Hise became an instant celebrity within the small but growing fringe of weightlifters around the U.S.

The Legend Grows

Hise kept squatting. His program eventually became one all-out set of 20 repetitions. Over time, he morphed into a 298-pound behemoth with a 56-inch chest and 33-inch thighs, long before the advent of steroids. Hise advised eating meat at least twice daily and drinking plenty of milk.

As the legend of Hise grew so did the number of detractors who called hog wash on his alleged gains. Many folks traveled across the country to make sure Hise’s gains were real; they were, and naysayers became converts to 20-rep squat training.

Over time, legions of men started using the methods Hise had developed with Mark Berry’s influence.

Some iron game notables, including legendary hard gainer and Ironman Magazine founder Peary Rader, gained 75 pounds after reading about Hise’s method, and there were dozens of others, including bodybuilding guru John McCullum.

Nearly 40 years ago, Rader said, “One of the fastest ways to gain size and strength in the entire body is by following the squats and milk program. This is an old-time routine that has been around for over 50 years, but it works awesome for fast gains. Even if you are a hard gainer.”

The Routine

20-Rep Squats

Full Squat

Stand erect holding a bar across your upper back with your feet about shoulder-width apart, knees slightly bent and your toes turned out slightly. Keeping your head neutral, abs tight and torso erect, bend at the knees and hips to slowly lower your body as if you were going to sit down in a chair. Pause when your legs reach at least a 90-degree angle, then forcefully drive through your heels, extending at your hips and knees until you’re standing again.

Notes: Do 2–3 warm-up sets. For the big set take a weight you believe you can do 10–12 reps with. For each rep take a couple large mouthfuls of air, hold your breath, squat down ass to grass, repeat. As the set goes on, you will need more and more breaths between reps. Toward the end, you may need five big breaths between reps. Keep breathing and you’ll be surprised how long you can keep squatting. Sets can take 2–3 minutes to complete

Dumbbell Pullover

Lie down on your upper back, perpendicular to a flat bench. Your legs should be bent, and your hips low. Hold a dumbbell firmly in your hand by the upper, inner weight plate. Your elbows should be slightly bent, and the dumbbell held over your chest to start. Slowly lower the dumbbell back and down behind your head until you feel a good stretch in your chest. Focus on contracting your pecs to return the dumbbell to the starting position. Once the weight is back over your chest, flex your pecs hard before initiating the next rep.

Notes: Immediately after squats, grab a light dumbbell — no more than 30 pounds is needed. two minutes then move on to the standing overhead press.

Standing Overhead Press

Grab a barbell using an overhand grip with your hands slightly wider than shoulder-width apart. Stand with your feet about hip-width apart and the bar below your chin, but above your chest with your palms facing the ceiling. Press the bar overhead until your elbows are completely locked out and slowly return to the start position.

Notes: Start with your eight-repetition max. Rest for two minutes between sets, lowering the weight in each successive set as needed. Each set should be at or approaching momentary muscular failure. Take a two-minute rest interval before moving onto weighted dips.

Weighted Dips

Place a dumbbell between your feet. Grab the handles of a dip station and lift yourself until your arms are locked out and your body is straight up and down. Slightly bend your knees. Bend your elbows and lower your body until your upper arms are parallel to the floor. Use your chest, shoulders, and arms to power out of the bottom position and come to the starting position.

Notes: Start with your 12-repetition max. Between sets, rest for two minutes, lowering weight in each successive set as needed. Each set should be at or approaching momentary muscular failure. Take a one-minute rest interval before moving onto the bent-over barbell row.

Bent-Over Barbell Row

Standing with your feet shoulder-width apart and knees slightly bent, grasp a barbell with a wide, overhand grip. Lean forward at your hips until your torso is roughly parallel with the floor. The barbell should hang straight down in front of your shins. Without raising your upper body, pull the barbell up toward your abdomen, bringing your elbows high and above the level of your back. Hold the bar in the peak-contracted position for a brief count, then slowly lower along the same path.

Notes: Torso angle should be between parallel and 45 degrees. A slight cheat is okay toward the end of the set. Start with your 15-repetition max. Between sets, rest for two minutes, lowering weight in each successive set as needed. Each set should be at or approaching momentary muscular failure. Take a two-minute rest interval before moving onto stiff-legged deadlift.

Stiff-Legged Deadlift

Stand with your feet close together, with your knees almost locked, letting a barbell hang at your waist with your hands in an overhand grip just outside your thighs. Push your hips back and hinge at the waist, keeping the back flat, going as deep as possible without losing this position. Come back up in a straight line to the start position.

Notes: Perform this move standing on a 3-inch block with no weightlifting belt. Keep knees in a 5- to 10-degree bend. Do one set all-out for 15 repetitions approaching momentary muscular failure.

Final Thoughts

There are many variations of the 20-rep squat routine. I tried to pick and choose from these routines as well using my own input, keeping in the spirit of Mark Berry and JC Hise. These routines are flat-assed brutal and painful! Perform this routine twice a week for if you want to bulk up. If you’re paranoid about the lack of bodybuilding movement’s précis, go in on a third day and perform isolation movements in a peak contraction style.

Lift hard, eat big, and grow!

Time to hit the pig iron!


Josh Bryant, MS, CSCS, trains some of the strongest and most muscular athletes in the world at Metroflex Gym in Arlington, Texas, and via the Internet. He is the co-author of Amazon #1 selling book, Jailhouse Strong. To learn more about Josh Bryant or to sign up for his free training tips newsletter, visit www.JoshStrength.com

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