Training Methods On Trial: Breathing Squats

Are High-Rep Squats Worth It?

Sure, it’s a big lift with big benefits, but is it worth doing with super high, heavy reps? Here’s the truth about breathing squats.


The Truth About Hyped-Up Training Methods

The training world is full of legendary (and often overhyped) methods and systems. Are they always effective or even worth your time? Despite the anecdotes you may see from people who use them, don’t forget that they likely don’t have the same genetics (or pharmacist) as you.

Let’s take an objective look at some of those legendary training methods. Are they as effective as some believe them to be? I’ll give you my verdict, and whether you agree or disagree, drop your thoughts in the comments.

Let’s start with breathing squats.

What Are Breathing Squats?

Breathing squats are sets of high-rep back squats (20 is the standard), and you don’t rack the weight at any time during these reps. If you need “rest,” you hold the bar in the top position and breathe. They’re hard and heavy, so you’ll take deep breaths between reps in the set’s second half to survive.

Not too bad, you say? Well, sure, except that you must perform those 20 reps with a load you’d normally use for a set of 10, so roughly your 12-rep max.

To be able to reach those 20 reps with a 12RM, you use a form of rest/pause by taking 3-5 deep breaths in between reps once you’ve done the first 10.

Taking 3-5 deep breaths is 8-12 seconds of rest, which will allow you to get one more rep in. Repeat the process until you reach 20. Those who’ve done a true breathing squat set know that very few things compare when it comes to feeling like total crap after a single set of one exercise.

To be clear, breathing squats are not simply doing 20 reps of squats. It’s doing 20 reps in a single set with a load you’d normally use for a set of 10.

Typically, a program in which the breathing squats were the central element had you perform that one set of squats twice a week.

The Impressive Claims

When breathing squats were finding their way into strength training lore, the writing style in magazines (and later in books) was quite different than today. Articles were more hyperbolic, to say the least.

For example, the full title of the book by Randall Strossen was: “Super Squats: How to gain 30 pounds of muscle in 6 weeks.” That was the “modern” book that reintroduced breathing squats in 1989.

That claim is conservative compared to what you could’ve found in magazines from the 50s and 60s, where authors claimed you could gain up to 100 pounds.

So, we have our first claim:

Breathing squats will add muscle at a very rapid pace. High-rep squats were said to be a “growing exercise” that would make all of your lower body muscles grow without needing much else.

Then there’s our second claim:

Breathing squats will build muscle all over, not just the legs, glutes, and trunk, but everywhere.

This is the third (more updated) claim:

The breathing squat helps overall growth via increased testosterone and/or growth hormone levels.

And the fourth claim:

The deep, forced breathing during the squat expanded the rib cage, which made your chest and whole upper body look bigger, especially if combined with barbell pullovers, often included with the 20-rep squats.

Do The Claims Hold Up?

Claim One: Breathing squats will build huge legs by themselves.

Verdict: The breathing squat set done two or three times a week is sufficient to develop the lower body, especially if you have shorter legs and a longer torso. You might want to add a few sets of leg curls and calf raises to fill in the gaps.

Analysis: In the book “Super Squats,” breathing squats are almost the only exercise for the legs. Besides the one set of 20 reps, you do 3 sets of 20 calf raises and one set of stiff-legged deadlifts for 15 reps. The book also gives an abbreviated program with only the squat.

Let’s first look at the program’s effectiveness from an “effective reps theory” perspective. An effective rep is a repetition that strongly affects growth stimulation. To be effective, a rep must recruit a high amount of fast-twitch fibers and put a high level of tension on those fibers (the slower you go, despite trying to go fast, the more tension there is on the fibers). Basically, only reps that require a high level of effort combine the elements necessary to stimulate growth.

In a normal set, only the 5-6 reps prior to hitting failure are considered “effective” reps. For example, if you’re using your 12RM (a weight in which you’d hit failure on the 13th rep), reps 6-12 would be effective. Reps 1 to 5 would simply serve as activation and pre-fatigue to reach the effective ones.

How many of those effective reps do you need to promote growth? For non-beginners, 25 reps per week seems to be the number where significant muscle growth can happen. Up to 30-35 per week might be even more effective. Doing too many might backfire, especially if done for all muscle groups.

How many effective reps does the breathing-squat protocol give you? If you do it properly (20 reps with a load you’d typically use for 10 reps, using rest/pauses with deep breaths during the set), a set should provide you with 15 effective reps.

In the initial 10 reps, only the last 5 will be maximally effective. But from that point on, any added rep is an effective rep, for a total of 15. To be safe, let’s say that a proper set of breathing squats will give you between 13 and 16 effective reps.

According to most sources using it as the main exercise in a program, the breathing squats are done twice a week (sometimes three times). That would provide us with 26 to 32 effective reps for the lower body. Enough to stimulate significant, even maximal, growth? Probably.

But can the squat alone build the entire lower body? Almost! It significantly involves the quadriceps, glutes, lower back, and adductors. But it doesn’t hit the hamstrings and calves that much – probably not enough to make them grow maximally.

Also, the back squat might not be very effective for the quads of people with long legs, short torsos, and short tibias relative to their femurs. That body structure will bias the glutes and lower back by turning the back squat into a hingey squat. For them, a safety-bar squat or back squat with heels elevated would be a better option for the breathing squat routine. (Don’t try it with front squats!)

Bar-Squats

Claim Two: Breathing squats will make the whole body grow.

Verdict: While the squat is a very good exercise, it doesn’t have the capacity to grow muscles that do not dynamically contract and are under sufficient tension. So, no, at least not from the mechanical tension side of the hypertrophy equation. The squat by itself will not grow a big upper body.

Analysis: The way breathing squats are presented in Super Squats, you get the impression that other exercises are superfluous and the squat, by itself, will grow everything.

Ironically, the routine presented in Super Squats (and other programs built around the breathing squat) includes a lot more volume for the upper body than the lower body.

Here’s the actual program prescribed in Super Squats:

Exercise Sets Reps
A. Seated Behind the Neck Press 3 10
B. Bench Press 3 12
C. Bent Over Row 2 15
D. Standing Curl 2 10
E. Breathing Squat (using 10RM) 1 20
F. Pullover 1 20
G. Stiff-Legged Deadlift 1 15
H. Pullover 1 20
I. Calves Raise 3 20
J. Crunch 2 25

That’s 12 sets for the upper body and 5 sets for the lower body, including calves. If we take calves out, that’s 2 sets for the lower body.

I’m sure people built their whole body using this routine. But I’d say that the 15 sets (2 or 3 times per week) for the upper body had more to do with the upper body development than the single set of squats.

Objectively, two things could lead to a significant amount of muscle growth:

  • Imposing sufficient mechanical tension on the fibers of a muscle while it’s lengthening and shortening.
  • A very high amount of anabolic hormones can, theoretically, increase overall muscle mass even without direct stimulus.

So, are the upper body muscles under enough mechanical tension to promote growth? Probably not. The “core” muscles might get some stimulation and get stronger. But the arms, delts, pecs, and upper back don’t work dynamically and aren’t under a high level of tension. Mechanical loading can thus not promote growth in the upper body while squatting.

This is something I’ve observed quite a bit in athletes like speed skaters who squat but don’t train the upper body. Speed skaters don’t do any upper body work because not only is it not useful, but too much mass in the upper body hurts when they get to the turns on the rink. I’ve seen speed skaters with very big legs and zero upper body. They looked like the halves of two different people glued together.

I’ve seen plenty of athletes with big legs and no upper body from only squatting, but I’ve never seen anyone get a huge (or even decently muscular) upper body by doing only squats. Those who claim the squat gave them growth all over were all doing plenty of upper body work.

Testosterone-Testing-Is-Completely-Bogus

Claim 3: Breathing squats will trigger overall growth by increasing anabolic hormone levels.

Verdict: Meh. Don’t put too much faith in the “anabolic hormones” argument regarding the squat leading to overall muscle growth.

The squat, even in breathing-squat style, will not directly lead to hypertrophy in upper body muscles. However, it might have an indirect effect:

It might help you develop a stronger neural drive, which can be used to improve fast-twitch fiber recruitment in your other exercises, making them more effective. And training hard on squats might automatically mean you’re training harder on everything else.

Analysis: Let’s start by considering two scientific facts:

  1. Testosterone can add muscle mass even without a training stimulus. Don’t believe me? Go take a look at this article by Chris Shugart. He quotes a study showing that men using 600mg of testosterone/week, who did not train, gained more muscle and strength than those who trained but didn’t take testosterone.
  2. Big compound lifts like squats can increase testosterone (and growth hormone levels when done with high reps) for a brief, transient period. So it’s easy to conclude that by increasing anabolic hormones, squats can have a muscle-building impact on the whole body. The problem? Those hormonal changes are short-lived and very small compared to the amount of anabolic steroids that speed up muscle growth.

Take the protocol in the study mentioned: 600mg/week. This is more or less 10-20 times the normal testosterone production in men (the daily production in men is around 5-10mg).

If you give a “normal” man 10mg of testosterone per day, essentially doubling his levels, he’ll recover a bit better. He’ll probably feel better and maybe get a little sex drive boost. But it won’t really have a significant impact on muscle growth. And that’s by doubling your levels 24/7!

A review noted that the increase in testosterone post-exercise lasts 15 to 30 minutes and doesn’t have a significant impact on muscle protein synthesis. (1) The same review also looked at growth hormone and came to the same conclusion. Basically, growth hormone spikes 10-20 minutes after a workout and stays elevated for 10-20 minutes. But it has no impact on muscle protein synthesis.

Plus, cortisol (which is catabolic) is also increased. Bigger, more demanding lifts raise it more. So even if the testosterone and GH increase post-workout had an anabolic effect, it’d be counterbalanced by the increase in cortisol.

Claim 4: Breathing squats, especially with pullovers afterward, expand the ribcage and make your upper body look bigger.

Verdict: I give this one a true-ish verdict. Doing 3-5 deep breaths with maximum chest expansion during those labored reps can have a long-term impact on your capacity to expand the ribcage and probably even affect pulmonary capacity. But I’m not willing to say that it’ll significantly change the size of your torso at rest.

Analysis: Surprisingly, it’s possible to train the chest and ribcage to expand more. Chest expansion exercises have been used successfully with elderly smokers. They improved their capacity to expand their chests as well as their pulmonary capacity.

However, being capable of expanding your chest voluntarily and permanently changing the size of your ribcage are two different things.

All of the “picture proofs” and measurements of chest expansion successes from breathing squats and pullovers are made with the subject voluntarily expanding his ribcage for the photo or measurement. We have very little visual evidence or data that the ribcage is larger when the individual isn’t actively trying to expand it as much as possible.

And since “rib cage expansion” went the way of the dinosaur, we don’t have many subjects for analysis. The fact that it disappeared might even indicate that it didn’t work that well.

The Breathing-Squat Conclusion

The approach is a valid way of training your lower body. When done 2-3 times a week, you can definitely grow big legs with it.

Doing those two workouts will give you roughly the same hypertrophy stimulus as if you were doing 6 sets of squats with “regular” 6-12 rep schemes. As such, the main benefit might be the efficiency of the method (getting the same results in two weekly sets as you would with six weekly sets).

The possible increase in pulmonary capacity and the fact that it “teaches you to train hard” are interesting side benefits. However, if you do this protocol thinking it will directly promote more overall growth or a more anabolic milieu, you’ll likely be disappointed.

Reference

Reference

  1. Lim C et al. An Evidence-based Narrative Review of Mechanisms of Resistance Exercise-induced Human Skeletal Muscle Hypertrophy. Med Sci Sports Exerc. 2022 Sep;54(9):1546-1559. PMC.
7 Likes

Oh my goodness I am excited to see this being written about here despite my feelings about the writing itself, haha. Great to dig through these methods!

6 Likes

image

4 Likes

Thanks for the description of these. I had read about these on some training logs, but didn’t know they were distinct from a normal 20-rep squat (like a Widowmaker in 531).

If I’m understanding correctly, the effectiveness of this lies in “rest just long enough to get one more rep” and repeating this multiple times. Couldn’t this approach also be used for any other lift as well? Or would racking it for Bench/OHP, taking a few deep breaths, and cranking out another rep be too exhausting and/or logistically difficult? (I realize you’d lose any squat-specific benefits, though).

1 Like

This would take away from the true idea of the 20 rep breathing set and become more like rest / pause

1 Like

I have to say, though, that I still don’t completely get this. I feel like doing a “regular” 20 rep set involves pausing to breath and “rest” as needed. Does this method just prescribe a breathing rhythm that is done throughout the whole set? I recently did some 20-rep squats not connected to this specific program, and I typically try to get to 10 with as little fanfare as possible, and breath/rest to get through the final 10. But this is different, I guess?

Thanks for the reply, simo.

If you read the book, Randall describes the breathing set in some detail. The idea is to stop and take 3 of the biggest breaths you can take between every rep, like a really big breath and then some more. Not bang out 10 and then start to take breaths for the second part of the set. This makes the set take a long time to finish which in itself allows some time for the legs to recover so you can finish the set but also adds a new dimension as your body fatigues under the weight over time. I find doing a 20 rep set of squats where I bang out reps quick at the start and then breath more towards the end is completely different to a 20 rep breathing set. Only way to know for yourself is to take your current 10 rep max for squats and give it a go. The add weight for the next workout and do it again. Do this 3 times a week for 6 weeks and you will understand the difference.

3 Likes

Perhaps

2 Likes

Funny you should ask

There’s a reason you try to get through those first 10 as fast as you can: try doing it with 3 deep breaths between each rep instead and you will HATE rep 7. There’s nothing worse than artificially slowing down a set of 20 squats as you feel the bar cut into your back and your hands going numb knowing that you STILL need to breathe and squat through more reps.

You get to rep 17 and you are SO close to the finish line but those 3 goddamn breaths between EVERY rep are STILL there.

2 Likes

This sounds awful. Watching a bit of the video, though, I now see the cadence of the approach. I’m not saying I’m going to try it myself, but at least now I feel like I could if I were appropriately motivated.

I’ve seen Breathing Squat/Super Squats sprinkled throughout the Logs recently, so I’m glad to know they are. Hats of you to and the others for giving this a consistent go!

2 Likes

Definitely worth giving a go dude. The “secret” is two-fold. Part of it is the breathing squats, and the other part is adding 5lbs per workout each workout for 3 workouts a week, meaning 90lbs total in 6 weeks. People like to look at Super Squats in a vacuum, but it’s not the ONE workout that is doing it: it’s doing what it takes to get from workout 1 through workout 18.

And there’s room for variability! Since tearing my hamstring, I’ve kept the load the same and have worked on adding REPS each workout instead. Today, I managed 24…and died.

2 Likes

In the book The Comfort Crisis, the author talks about how people, particularly in first world countries, have relatively physically easy lives. He also talks about how seeming out hard physical challenges is good for our physical and mental health. That’s the use where I see super squats fall into, as a hard physical challenge.

1 Like

That’s impressive. The best I did was 315.x 20 and I was squatting 585 and front squatting 485 at the time… granted, I was training for olympic lifting and was used to sets of 1 to 3 :slight_smile:

8 Likes

No joke: you just made my week. That’s huge praise. Thanks for writing it.

I’m also more than certain your squats looked like squats vs my abominations, haha.

3 Likes

Wow! That’s impressive. Why 24? Simply because there was no chance of a 25th rep or because the program calls for going beyond 20 if possible?

Given I keep finding myself doing things these days I said I’d never do, I imagine it’s just a matter of time before I give it a go. I’ll tag you when I end up succumbing to the peer pressure.

2 Likes

If you watch the video, you’ll know why 24, haha.

I got 23 last time, so 24 was necessary for progress.

3 Likes

“How many of those effective reps do you need to promote growth? For non-beginners, 25 reps per week seems to be the number where significant muscle growth can happen. Up to 30-35…”

Christian, did you mean per session? Similar to Chris Beardsley’s recommendations?

1 Like

I squatted 315 x 15 fairly recently.

Unfortunately, I wouldn’t classify this effort as “breathing squats” because I did that set in 60 seconds on the dot. If the bar wasn’t a slippery Iron Grip, I could have MAYBE squeezed out 2-3 more reps before collapsing on the floor.

I’ve fixed my form a bit and slowed down since then, for me this is closer to doing “breathing” squats with a power bar:

After I get tired of doing 5/3/1 in a few months to a year, I want to run Super Squats as intended just to see what my body is capable of.

Before I get started, I will also need to invest in a puke bucket from Home Depot.

4 Likes

No. Chris, and Paul Carter (who heavily base his stuff on Chris’) recommend hitting a muscle once a weel so those effective reps numbers for them are both for a muscle in a session and in a week.

Every exercise is a breather if you’re fat :grin: