Wednesday, July 27, 2022

The Psychology of the 20 Rep Squat - Phil Escott (1998)

2021. 190 pages. The demands of the high-performance athlete are huge, with many celebrated for their achievements, and put on a pedestal for admired personality traits such as discipline, sacrifice, commitment and focus. This book seeks to explore the celebrated traits of the high-performance athlete and, by doing so, to increase awareness of the vulnerability that such traits also present. Through discussion with professional sports people and presentation of their own personal stories the book explores obsessionality, masochism and focus, and how these characteristics can enhance performance on the field yet hinder life off of it and may even develop into clinically diagnosable mental health difficulties.   

Hardgainer Magazine Back Issues (first run): 

Hardgainer 2.0 (second run): 

Twenty-rep squats done to a person's absolute limit are so productive that they are practically indispensable to most hard gainers' routines. If you really want to grow without drugs there is no substitute for cycles of full bore squats. 

The strength of character needed to push your body through 20-rep squats is not easy to find for most people. It's much easier to be influenced by opinions that advocate far longer workouts done to way less than maximum intensity.

Is it all hell, then? No. The satisfaction of breaking further into new poundages is extremely satisfying, not only for itself but for the for the physical and mental gains it produces. Anyone who perseveres diligently with a cycle where they are breaking personal records every week on the 20 rep squat, whatever the weight they are lifting, deserves serious respect. The trouble is, too few people want to push themselves that far, and most beginners give up at their first taste of just how hard it is. 

I'd like to share some of the ideas I've applied to keep people at intensive 20 rep squatting, and keep their gains coming. They were primarily devised for myself, as I've no natural will power. I've had to learn tricks to keep me from giving up cycles short of my maximums, and to keep me from racking the bar after 15 or even 10 reps! 

I lifted my first weight at age 29 and never had a huge desire to be big. Strangely enough that attitude is what actually led me to the correct way to work out. After following routines for steroid heads for a couple of years, I read HARDGAINER and BRAWN and the ideas there made sense. A lot of my acquaintances decided they didn't want to chance these abbreviated workouts "in case they lost their muscle"! I wasn't bothered much about muscle, but I knew I was only really interested in the major barbell movements. I followed the principles of abbreviated training, and finally started to grow. Then I got interest in muscle! 

In early 1997 I took over a gym in my home town that I used to train at before I got a power rack and stayed home. I was a bit nervous at first because many of the trainees there have been training longer than me and are stronger. I was worried that they would not be receptive to abbreviated workouts. I needn't have worried, as many of them seemed tired of  conventional stuff and were gagging for a change. I've now had experienced, intermediate and novice trainees on abbreviated programs, and the results have been phenomenal. 

Many who haven't had any arm growth for years put an inch or more on their arms -- and this was without any specific arm training, just heavy routines on the squat, deadlift of stiff-legged deadlift, bench press, a row or pulldown, maybe a shoulder press, and some grip work. Curls are only allowed if somebody is new to the routines and absolutely insists on training arms. They usually happily drop the curls after a few weeks, when they get into the spirit of things. It's so gratifying to have more and more people asking me to write out routines for them once they see the gains piling on the others. I now have total confidence in putting people on these workouts, however experienced they may be.

I have a slightly different view of the Iron Game to most trainees because prior to getting into weights my only form of exercise was yoga, and I only used that as a preparation for meditation. Some of my way of thinking about squats has come from the experiences I had then, and I'd still say the best training aid anyone could have is the ability to meditate. The focus and visualization powers it gives you are worth ten thousand dodgy food supplements! 

Because I believe that the squat is one of the main cornerstones of training, if the the main cornerstone, here are some of the ways I have found to encourage people to get their sets and cycles finished. 

Tips to Squat By

The first thing to get established is that a set of full-bore 20 rep squats should begin the night before. It goes without saying that your eating and sleeping should be in order generally, but it is particularly important to be well rested the night before tackling a heavy set. Eat well, too.

When you are doing one set of 20 reps near your maximum you need to cut out as many variables as you can in order to track your progress as accurately as possible. This could come down to wearing the same shoes, using the same equipment at the gym, and performing each set from week to week in the same manner for a whole cycle, i.e., taking squats to parallel. There is no point adding to the weight lifting if you are not going down as far. Progressive resistance is the key; but make sure you know it is progressive and not cheating.

A good idea is to set yourself up for squats in a power rack in front of a mirror with no weight on the bar. Get somebody to tell you exactly when you are at parallel, look in the mirror and see where the bar lines up with the uprights. Mark the spot so that you know for sure that every rep is the same even when there's so much discomfort late in a set that it feels like you are parallel even when you're only halfway down. There are ways of ensuring you don't cheat reps, but this way works a treat if you have the appropriate equipment. 

Before beginning a cycle it is a good idea to establish some rules for all your sets. The two I insist on are: 

1) If you take the bar onto your shoulders to start a set, the full 20 reps must be completed unless you get trapped at the bottom on the catchers, or you feel that you have sustained some injury (which should not happen if correct form is observed). The bar must never be racked because you are suffering mere discomfort. 

2) Every rep must be to parallel -- no cheating. The proviso is that your lower back must not round. If your lower back rounds at the parallel depth, try a wider stance with toes turned out more. That stance change may enable you to go a bit deeper without your lower back rounding.

With these rules established you need some mental techniques to get you through each set. Squats are largely a head game. You can do those last two reps; you aren't really at failure; it's just your head crying out for you to stop because the general discomfort is so intense. But how do you convince your body of that? 

In watching many people on a 20 rep squat routine I've seen how different characters cope with the intense discomfort, but there are some things that can help all types. When the temptation to put the bar back becomes almost unbearable here are a few things you can try. These principles can be adapted for any exercise.

1. Retreat

This is where experience of meditation can be helpful. There is a place inside us where we are the witnesses of what is happening to our bodies, and retreating there can lessen the discomfort of squatting. Just watch yourself as if you were watching a film. Become disconnected from the pain, observe it, react to it, but don't get overwhelmed by it. Now direct all your muscular effort to the target muscles rather than lose disciplined good form with potentially dangerous results. 

2. Regroup and Set Up

You have just completed a rep and your head is scrambled. This is not the time to rush the next rep, however quickly you'd like the set to end. This will just set you up for injury. Instead of focusing on the pain, breathe, regroup your thoughts, and focus on your form checklist to keep the next rep as good as possible: "Back straight, midsection tight, descend under control, drive up in good form, no squirming." Then go for the rep and get back to the top with your head scrambled again. Regroup your thoughts again, and "enjoy" the next rep.

3. Life or Death

What about if the rep just won't go up? Providing you are sure you have applied the previous two steps, you can now turn it into a life or death situation. Convince yourself that you re trapped under a car or lorry and you have to lift it up or you'll be crushed. This puts a sense of urgency on the rep that will make you realize that you have reserves when needed. A morbid variation of this -- if you've got kids -- is to imagine one of them is trapped -- works for me every time! Ever heard of mothers lifting cars to rescue their children? This is the intensity we need to trigger the growth process! 

The more I see people succeeding or failing on 20 rep squat routines, the more I believe it is a test of character as much as a test of physical strength. But no matter how much character we may possess, failing to make all 20 reps can be very demoralizing and blow a cycle before its natural end. Sets can be blown late in a cycle for various reasons -- bad eating, not enough rest, lack of motivation or preparation, or poundage increases that are too great. Keep the gains coming for as long as you can by keeping all these bases covered. Good Luck! 

Enjoy Your Lifting!  


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