T Nation


Full Squats for Strength & Development

By Keith Wassung

When you hear the word SQUATS do you think of an early eighties Dutch punk rock band, or of one of the most demanding, resulting producing exercises known to man. Hopefully you associate with the latter, but in any case the full squat is one of the best overall movements for producing both strength and development not only in the legs, but for the overall body.

Full Squats are something that you must learn to do with the mind as well as the body. A proper combination of mental and physical energies will ensure that you will be able to squat using a total effort and nothing less. I often look back at my training log of 25 years and I observe an exact correlation between squat progress and overall progress, meaning that I made the best overall gains in strength and development when my squat was progressing the most. Another thing I have always found to be true about squats is that you can almost always make increases, for example, I have often gone into the gym, totally confident and ready for my session–and I load the bar to do upper body work, such as bench presses–and there are some days, when no matter how hard I try, no matter how hard I push, the reps that I am attempting to make just wont happen. But with the squat the desired reps almost always came. I think that is because the legs are so much stronger than we even imagine and there is always some reserve strength to get another repetition.

Squats and Systemic Growth

You may be wondering, “Just exactly how do squats promote growth throughout the body?” To begin with, the squat involves multiple joints and muscles which in turn increase the level at which the nervous system must coordinate movement in conjunction with the lifter’s muscle-skeletal system. In the squat there are numerous muscles of the body working simultaneously to provide the stability and mobility needed for this exercise. It has been estimated that there are up to 200 muscles involved in the squat.

The hormonal or endocrine system combined with the nervous system makes up what is known as “neuroendocrinology”. This term describes the relationship of chemical substances that have both neural and hormonal functions. The endocrine glands are stimulated to release hormones by a chemical signal received by the receptors on the gland or by neural stimulation, which is what occurs during weight training. Ever wonder why you feel particularly upbeat and euphoric after a hard workout, even if you are physically drained? Its because of the increased presence of hormones in your body, hormones that also influence our moods. This is similar to the runners high
experienced by long distance runners.

The increase in anabolic hormone levels observed after a hard workout can increase hormonal interactions with various cellular mechanisms and enhance the development of muscle protein contractile units. On neural stimulation from an alpha motor neuron to initiate a muscle action, various signals (electrical, chemical, and hormonal) are sent from the brain and from activated muscles to a number of endocrine glands. Hormones are secreted during and after the workout in response to the physiological stress of resistance exercise. This simply means that the nervous, muscle-skeletal, and hormonal systems are responsible for the effects promoted by exercises like the squat.
There are various hormones, which produce this effect, and the one that most people are familiar with is testosterone. It’s been demonstrated that testosterone serum concentrations can increase with exercises such as the squat.

Squats can increase growth throughout the entire body because they use numerous muscles and this means they stimulate more muscle fibers than say an exercise such as a leg extension or a leg press. The greater the fiber recruitment, the greater the process for potential growth and development in the muscle. Only muscle fibers that are recruited by resistance training are subject to adaptation and the more muscles used in an exercise like the squat the more the muscle fibers are stimulated.


Your squat workout should begin about an hour after the completion of your most recent squat workout. Take the time to sit down with your training log and some good post workout nutrition, and enter your last workouts sets and reps into the log, along with any particular training notes for that day. Then, begin outlining some training goals for the next workout. You have to set specific goals and have a game plan to achieve them. Once your next workout outline is done, write it on a post-it note, stick it on your day planner or your bathroom mirror, any place where you can glance at it a couple of times each day and by the time your next workout arrives, you will be mentally prepared to complete the required sets and reps. Try to eat a high complex carbohydrate meal the night before a squat workout whole-wheat pasta with a ground turkey and marinara sauce works very well. Take the time to properly warm-up, which can consist of some stretching and mobility exercises such as five minutes on a stationary bike pedaling at a moderate pace.


If you are going to make decent progress in the squat, you have to be properly equipped and probably the most important gear is a decent set of shoes. I often see people lifting in shoes that provide little in the way of support for the foot and ankle, in fact most running shoes are mushy and cause the ankles to buckle slightly inward as the lifter is descending with the bar. Buy a pair of high-topped training shoes, preferably with the ability to tighten the lace around the ankle. If you use the shoes only for your training, they should last for years. Using a lifting belt is a personal decision, though it should be used sparingly and mostly with heavy weights/low rep type sets. The last vital piece of lifting equipment is a strong abdominal region. Having a strong, well-developed trunk region will do wonders for your overall strength. Train the abs in order to make them functionally stronger by doing exercises such as weighted crunches, side bends and frog kicks.


Squatting is a very natural movement; In most of the world especially Asia and Africa people squat to rest, to eliminate, and to perform many tasks including giving birth. I was in the gym last week and a guy approached me and told me he was frustrated with his lifting, etc. I asked him about squats and he told me that he was unable to squat. I told him that must be really tough when you have to have a bowel movement! Human bodies are designed to squat! Having said that, there is a certain learning curve associated with the full squat and its very important to learn and implement the technique correctly. There is an abundance of squatting technique information available in books, videotapes and websites, but the best way to learn is in person. If you need to improve your squat form, find an experienced lifter somewhere near you and ask them for help and advice. You may have to drive several hours to find someone, but it will be time well spent. The experienced lifter does not have to be a world-class athlete to give you quality instruction. You will find that the majority of experienced lifters are very generous with their time and will gladly help someone who truly has the desire to learn. Be sure you listen and take notes on the instruction you receive. You may even want to offer to pay for a steak dinner afterwards.

I advocate the full barbell squat as one of the core exercises in most any weight-training program. If you are an aspiring powerlifter, then you will need to spend some time performing squats in a powerlifting style in order to prepare for competition. I believe that the full squat will be of tremendous value in laying down a proper strength foundation. There are individuals who may have structural problems (knees, back, etc) which prevent them from squatting at the present time. If this is the case, then those problems need to be properly evaluated and some type of corrective or rehabilitative action taken. When it comes to your health, dont be afraid to get a second or even third opinion. I dont have a whole lot of confidence in health care professionals whose only advice is to avoid exercise or activities as I fail to see the positive benefits of physical atrophy of the human body.

Many fitness experts warn against performing squats past the point of parallel for fear of potentially damaging the knees. As a general rule I disagree with those experts though there are certainly individual exceptions. When the full squat is performed correctly and with total control through a complete range of motion, the knees are strengthened, not weakened. According to the American Academy of Orthopedic Surgeons, an estimated 50 million North Americans have suffered or are suffering knee pain or injuries and six million of them will visit a doctor for knee problems each year. The majority of these problems are degenerative in nature and are the result of disuse of the knee joint. Squatting keeps the knee joints mobile and free of pain. There are several joint facets on the inside of the kneecap that are all used only when an individual squats.

When the squat is performed to a parallel depth, it is the knees, which take the majority of the stress involved in stopping the downward momentum of the squat. When the squat is performed to a full depth, this same braking stress is transferred to the larger, powerful muscles of the hips, hamstrings and buttocks. It is obvious that the squat must be performed with a great deal of control and that any type of rapid rebounding, whether it is done at parallel or at full depth will be detrimental to the knees.

The full squat is very similar to the way a baseball catcher squats down to receive a pitch, with the exception that your feet are flat on the floor, rather than on your toes. I keep a baseball mitt in my gym bag and I often take it out and have people practice the catchers squat when instructing on squat technique. To perform the squat, take a medium stance with your toes pointed slightly outward. Place your hands on the bar at approximately shoulder width, get underneath the bar, take a deep breath and expand the chest and stand up with the bar. Take small steps backwards until you reach the place that you wish to squat. Your head should be looking straight ahead with your eyes fixed on a point directly in front of you. If you begin by bending at the knees, your knees will go beyond your toes, which can put them at risk. Sit back, keeping your upper body as upright as you comfortably can, and keep your knees over, but not beyond your toes. Descend into a full squat, staying tight and controlling the weight all the way down without bouncing at the bottom. Then stand up strongly, pushing against the weight and exhaling as you rise. . Keep your abdominal muscles and lower back tight and contracted throughout the movement. Whether you are doing 5, or 20 reps, think about doing 5 sets of perfect singles or 20 sets of perfect singles? this will help you maintain proper form throughout the entire set.

One final technique tip: The toughest part of the squat is from about 30 degrees to the bottom. One method to help get through this is the use of your arms to assist the lower body in driving the legs past this sticking point. As you are descending with the bar and reach approximately the 30 degree point, begin pressing upwards with your arms just as if you were doing a behind the neck press. Continue to push upwards as you reach the bottom and begin driving upwards. At about the 30 degree mark (this will vary from one person to another) you can relax the pressure as you feel yourself getting past the sticking point. I only use this on the last few reps of a heavy set or when I was squatting in competition. I know this sounds a little odd but give it a try.

Squats and Flexibility

The primary reason for problems with squatting is lack of flexibility in the hips, knees, soleus, calves and ankles. This can easily be resolved by performing high repetition deep knee bends (another word for squats) with bodyweight only. When I began incorporating high repetition bodyweight squats into my training regime, I immediately noticed a difference in my lower body training. I recovered more quickly from leg workouts, all of those little pops and cricks that have been with me for years disappeared and I was able to run and play sports without discomfort in my knees, ankles and feet.

The second thing you can do is to develop a habit of squatting instead of sitting whenever you can. Obviously, you cannot do this at a business meeting or at church, but you can work it into daily habits such as petting the dog or picking up something from the ground. Do this a dozen times a day for about two months and you should notice a marked increase in your comfort and confidence in the bottom portion of the squat.

High Repetition Squats

I first became aware of the value of high repetition squats (20 or more reps) when I was serving aboard a U.S. Navy nuclear submarine. We had very limited space and my workout area was in the missile compartment, between two ICBM tubes and a set of forward storage lockers. There was just enough room for a loaded Olympic barbell with perhaps four inches of clearance in the front and in the back. There was no room for any kind of squat racks, so I would round up 2-4 guys to work as spotters and would deadlift a loaded barbell to lockout, then would have my spotters grab hold of the ends, then I would let go of the bar, crawl underneath it, assume the squat position at the bottom, stand up with the weight-then do my set of squats, then reverse the procedure to set the bar back on the deck. This process obviously limited the amount of weight I could use, so I had to settle for high repetitions. At the time, I figured that although the high reps were better than nothing I would still lose ground in terms of strength and development. Much to my surprise I found that my legs, my overall strength and my overall body grew like they never had before. From that moment on, high rep squats became a staple in my training program

20 rep squats are tough and demanding, both physically and mentally. They require total focus and concentration and an all out effort. When I am doing 20 rep squats, I find that when I hit number 13 or 14, it is impossible to think about doing another 6-7 reps. I can only focus on getting just one more rep, then one more, then just another one until all of the reps are completed. You may have to use certain mental tricks such as counting the reps backwards or mentally grouping the reps in twos or threes to complete the entire set. As tough as they are, your body will eventually grow accustomed to them and will actually thrive on them. I have found that when people can break through the pain barrier on 20 rep squats, they are then able to train harder on other exercises probably because they finally are aware of what hard work and intensity is all about.

You can perform high repetition squats alone or you can combine them with low and medium rep programs. Just about any routine will work provided you work hard and give it time. The key to growth is progression and overload. I dont care how a workout makes you feel?, how pumped you get, how much your thighs burned, etc. if you are not adding weight and reps to the exercise over a period of time then you will make little if any progress. My first recorded squat workout was 65lbs for eight reps and it was hard and heavy. A little over thirteen years later, I did 600 for eight reps and it was just as hard and heavy weight is a relative issue.

The majority of people reading this could probably take their best squat for 4-5 reps and with some goal planning, hard work and determination, squat the same weight for 20 reps by the end of the year. This would be more geared to the beginner to intermediate lifter. This will change your entire body, and not just the legs–this will of course take adequate food, water and rest. A 160lb guy could easily add 10-15 SOLID, lean pounds of muscle after a year, and there is a HUGE difference between gaining 10-15 pounds and gaining 10-15 lean pounds. You will also find that 20 rep squats will change your base metabolic rate, which should allow you to burn fat more efficiently 24/7. There are not many people who are willing to do this, but the rewards will be worth it.

You have to develop and maintain the proper mental toughness and discipline which is necessary for you to reach your own potential. This toughness is largely the ability to deal with pain, fatigue and discomfort associated with hard and progressive training. There are tens of thousands of people who want better strength, development and conditioning and they are totally committed to spending two or more hours a day, six days a week in training, they are willing to buy supplements, equipment, they are willing to do just about anything except to include and embrace pain, fatigue and discomfort as necessary in their training. In fact, everything they do, everything they buy, every excuse they make is to avoid pain, fatigue and discomfort at all costs. The closest thing that I know to a “lifting secret” is this: Once you are willing to be uncomfortable at times in your workout, it does not take long for you to get used to it, in fact you may look forward to it and thrive on it. This is when you will embark on the journey to achieving the potential that lies within you.

I hope a few people take this challenge.

TOM HANKS: Why are you quitting

GEENA DAVIS: because it just got too hard

TOM HANKS: Its supposed to be hard, if it was easy, everybody would do itit? the hard that makes it great

A League of their Own

Keith Wassung

Best post I’ve read in a long time.

A very good post. I think i am goin to add some of those into my training regiment. And once again i must add VERY good info.

Great Post! I love squatting…but none of my pants fit =(


I could not agree more with your post. Especially the part which refers to the 20 rep squat program.

Those who have never done such a program really need to add it. I still do 20 rep squats for a six week span probably three times per year or so. The value of doing this program cannot be over emphasized!

Without question a great post which I very much enjoyed.

Thanks Kieth!

wipes tear from eye

Dude awesome, thats all I can say.

Thank you

Great post. Great advice.

gotta love squats… Nothin else like em, that’s for sure.

Lance Armstrong: Hey, aren’t you Peter La Fleur?

Peter La Fleur: Lance Armstrong!

Lance Armstrong: Ya, that’s me. But I’m a big fan of yours.

Peter La Fleur: Really?

Lance Armstrong: Ya, I’ve been watching the dodgeball tournament on the Ocho. ESPN 8. I just can’t get enough of it. Good luck in the tournament. I’m really pulling for you against those jerks from Globo Gym. I think you better hurry up or you’re gonna be late.

Peter La Fleur: Uh, actually I decided to quit… Lance.

Lance Armstrong: Quit? You know, once I was thinking of quitting when I was diagnosed with brain, lung and testicular cancer all at the same time. But with the love and support of my friends and family, I got back on the bike and won the Tour de France five times in a row. But I’m sure you have a good reason to quit. So what are you dying of that’s keeping you from the finals?

Peter La Fleur: Right now it feels a little bit like… shame.

Lance Armstrong: Well, I guess if a person never quit when the going got tough, they wouldn’t have anything to regret for the rest of their life. Well good luck to you Peter. I’m sure this decision won’t haunt you forever.

Nuff said.

Great post, as always Keith.

I agree, great post. But I have a few questions. When you do 20-rep squats, how many sets? Do you do multiple sets of 20, or just one all-out, balls to the wall set? Also, how frequently would you train the squat, just once a week or more often? Finally, do you do any other leg work during these periods, i.e., extensions, curls, hack squats? I want to give this a try, so I would greatly appreciate any suggestions anyone has.


Man I am in total agreement on the 20 rep scheme. I just added a 20 rep day into my weekly rotation.

This is week 4 after starting this. The best thing I think is one you touched upon as well. Finishing a set of 20 rep squats, or even deads, bench, any compound movement, but yes squats in particular is more about mental failure than physical failure.

I find it is almost always true that if you can get say 12-15 in a set, many times it is more a point of forcing your mind to do the remaining reps and keeping your form in check, etc… The body is willing if you can just force the brain, make it beleive.

It will make you stronger in both the mental and physical aspect of training and life in general.

Thanks for the great post.

To throw in my answer to the last posters question from my stand point. I am doing the 20 rep scheme once a week and do 3 sets. I super set them with 120second rest between each movement. It is brutal, But gets better and you will be adding weight fast if you have niot been doing high rep work. I alternate the excersizes between squats, front squats, deads, hack squats, These are also full body w/o’s so I do all that as well.

Thanks again Keith AWESOME POST.


You can do one set or two sets, that is a personal decision. What do DO NOT what do is to do multiple sets and hold back on your first set since you know you have a second set. If you are going to do more than one set of 20 reps, I would suggest that you modify the second set, ie, do the second set with much less weight and stop each upward motion 3 inches short of lockout, so that constant tension is maintained, or, do a set of ten in the front squat and immediately get under the bar for ten reps in the back squat with the same weight (brutal)

With regards to frequency, again its a personal decision-keep a detailed training journal-this will help you know what works best for you (I have kept a training journal for 27 years) You have to find what works best for you-strength and development is as much an art as much as it is a science. Bear in mind that there are a ton of factors that come into play when you are planning training frequency. (1) what else are you doing-if you are doing a lot of heavy deadlifts, overhead presses, etc. then you may not want to squat quite as frequently as if you were doing something less strenuous (2) Recovery Time: When we think of recovery we tend to think of muscle recovery, but there is a lot more involved than this such as the tendons, ligaments, the endocrine system, nervous system, these all have to recover as well ( this is why I am a STRONG advocate of full body sessions) All recovery times are not equal, meaning just because 48 hours have passed, does not guarantee recovery-those days might have been filled with final exams, sick children, eating on the run, deadlines at work, distractions, etc, etc. You have to factor this into your training. My advice is to schedule your training sessions, but allow some flexibility so that you can move a workout up or back a day or two as needed. I prefer to squat 3 times in about a 14-16 day period, but each of the workouts are different rep schemes-I call this T3, which stands for Timed-Total-Tonnage and I would be happy to detail this in a later thread if anyone is interested.

One final thought-just about everyone eventually “burns out” or goes stale in the 20 reppers-so do them for a certain time frame, say 8 weeks and then move on to something else. Come back to them when you are ready and like an old friend they will be waiting for you.

Hope that helps


A year ago, I gained 14 lbs in 5 weeks with the 20 rep breathing squat routine (one set every 5 days)

Not all of it was lean, admittedly, but my friends were just amazed at how much bigger and stronger I was. I was also doing weighted dips, chins, and side bends.

An awesome post, and an AWESOME routine.

Great information Keith, thank you! Regarding a lower-rep scheme (8-12), how many sets do you feel is a good amount? Considering of course the intensity is high. I currently do 4 sets of 8-12 reps. Thank you.

good article, you should have sent it to TC to have him run it.

My personal favorite squat program is the T3 (timed total tonnage) routine. With this program, you have three workouts, 5x10, 5x5, 5x3, performed in a sequential fashion. On your first squat session, after a sufficient warm-up, you load the bar with a weight that allows you to achieve 10 hard repetitions, but not 11. The weight on the bar is then reduced to the highest possible poundage that you can still squat for 10 hard reps. This process is repeated for all five sets. The total tonnage for each set is then calculated by multiplying the weight x the number of reps. For example 225 for 10 reps would equal 2250lbs. If you only get 9 reps on a set, then multiply that accordingly. Add up the total weight lifted for each of the five sets. this is the total tonnage for the entire session. It might look like this.

  1. 225 x 10 = 2250
  2. 205 x 10 = 2050
  3. 195 x 10 = 1950
  4. 175 x 10 = 1750
  5. 160 x 10 = 1600

TOTAL 9600lbs

Record this number in your training journal. The next time that you perform squats, you will do the exact same thing except that you will do 5 x 5. Record all of the sets and the total tonnage achieved. The third squat workout is 5 x 3 and then you are ready to start over with the 5 x 10. Your only objective is to increase the total tonnage of the entire 5 sets. You do not necessarily have to increase the weight on all 5 sets to do this. My goal was always to increase the first and heaviest set by at least 2.5-5lbs and then to increase at least one or more of the remaining sets. You should also have a set time in which to complete all 5 sets.
You are only comparing to the total tonnage of the 10’s to your last workout with 10’s, the 5’s with the 5’s and so on.

The tens will usually require a bit more time to complete than the fives or threes. It does not matter what time frame you set as long as it remains consistent. The first time you attempt this entire cycle, you might find it a bit difficult in correctly selecting weights than you can get for the required reps. This is perfectly normal, just stick with it and eventually you will become very accurate at weight selection.

In this program, the tens are the most physically challenging the threes are the most mentally challenging and the fives are somewhere in the middle. I have found that each of these separate workouts helps the other. After you complete the heavy triples, the weight used in the 10?s feels light by comparison. After doing a grueling 10?s workout the 3?s are almost like taking a break. The frequency of this program is an individual decision. I think that doing all 3 sessions in about a two -week time frame is a good starting point and then you can make adjustments as necessary.

In all my years, I have never seen a better or a more consistent result producing program that the one described above ( 10-5-3) for developing a foundation or strength. It is heavily borrowed from Bill Starr with some modifications, mostly that you dont do it 3 times in one week. He also refers to it has heavy-medium and light days. I prefer high reps, medium reps and low reps, because trust me, the “light” day of tens, is anything but light and anything but easy and whe you rack the weight after the fifth set of ten, you are so relieved to not have to do that for at least two more weeks. Many years ago, I had a guy named Roy approach me, he was a recon marine, tough as nails, about 5’8", 170lbs, little or no bodyfat and he has been training for about 6-7 years and was stuck at a 500lb squat. He wanted to get his squat up to around 540 in hopes of going to the All-Marine PL camp. I told him about this program and he laughed at me saying the volume was way too low to produce gains, but he agreed to give it a shot. The first day we did tens-after the 3rd set he vomited, after the 4th set, he vomited really, really hard, I did not have him perform a 5th set, he recovered and came about 5 days later to do the 5’s, after about 6 months on the program, he weighed a solid 185lbs and qualified for the PL camp with a 630 squat and other gains in the rest of his lifts.

I think that there are many good programs out there and if I was still competing, I would likely use some form of a Westside Template-but even with that, I would still do the 10-5-3 a couple of times a year or in the off-season, then use WS to get ready for a meet.

Its a great program, but certainly not “the” program, but I have always gained on it and anyone that I have ever know that has used it has raved about the gains. The guys that have struggled with it and then quit did not take the time (4-6 weeks) to really learn how to select the proper weights for each set-this takes some practice.

I hope that helps

Keith W.

Thank you for sharing a wonderful article!

Your mom does squats.

Hi Keith,
Thanks: a very good post.
About 8 years ago I used the 20 reps Squat and the pullover or Rader’s chest pull(for rib cage expansion) for a year or so, in a general total body simplified routine as suggested by Mc Roberts and Strossen.
Some years ago I read Mc Callum’s “Keys to progress” where this 20 reps Squat is used for Chest,Back,Arms specialization bulking programs as well but I never tried them.
It would be interesting in a future forum to discuss typical routines in which you use the 20 reps Squat.