Tip 183: The classic 20-rep breathing squats, are they effective for building muscle mass and strength?
Short answer: Yes. I say this because quadriceps are primarily composed of Type IIa fibers and as such respond best to higher reps. Just look at the impressive thigh development of speed skaters and cyclers, even in the distance events.
One of the best high-rep squatters was Tom Platz. Platz, who finished third in the Mr. Olympia, 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. As such, he earned the nickname “Dr. Squat.” The two men started by going for a 1-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 this example is that being able to perform high reps does not necessarily relate to single reps, and this ability is influenced by the neurological efficiency of the athlete. The Canadian National Synchronized Swim Team, for example, at one time had women who could perform bench presses with 135 pounds for 20 reps; however, they had trouble recruiting the more powerful Type IIb muscle fibers and as such would struggle with 145 pounds for a single. Some of this is genetic, as women tend to be less neurologically efficient than men, but some of this 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 also add that many of the fans of high-rep squats promote 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, Don Ross (one of my favorite writers) and Ellington Darden. The idea is that the forced breathing combined with the stretching of the pullover exercise would lengthen the costal cartilage, which is cartilage that connects the long ribs to the sternum. Is this true? I can’t really back this one up with a study, nor I have seen it in real life.
Although many variations of this program exist, generally there is some type of warm-up and you only perform one all-out set of 20 reps. Also, it’s often recommended to take three deep breaths between each rep. 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 each rep. This 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.
Copyright ©2010 Charles Poliquin