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 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.
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.
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.
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.
Breathing squats will build muscle all over, not just the legs, glutes, and trunk, but everywhere.
The breathing squat helps overall growth via increased testosterone and/or growth hormone levels.
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.
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!)
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:
|A.||Seated Behind the Neck Press||3||10|
|C.||Bent Over Row||2||15|
|E.||Breathing Squat (using 10RM)||1||20|
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.
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:
- 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.
- 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 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.
- 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.