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They are better and safer than growth hormone. They put your entire physiology into supergrowth gear. Their popularity, just like clothing styles (notice suspenders and brimmed hats
coming back?), comes and goes.
They have been called "breathing squats"; however, they would be better described in modern iron-pumping parlance as forced reps, but instead of a training partner putting his hand under the bar in order to assist you to raise the bar for a few more reps, the locked-out, standing position at the top of the squat takes the place of the helping hand. It allows you the extra rest and air-fueling pants to squeeze out another and another and another repetition of maximum effort, until you reach failure.
Back in the 1930s and '40s the standard method of squatting for a bodybuilder/weightlifter was to do a warmup set of 10 reps, then add about 25 percent more weight and perform three sets of 10. These would be fairly hard reps, close to failure, but not exhausting. The weightlifter varied this by doing just one set with the 10-rep weight, then going on to three or four more sets of 5, 3, 3 or 2 reps with increasing weights. Then he might go back to the 10-rep weight for one more bodybuilding set to "finish off his legs with a pump.
With this system both the bodybuilder and weightlifter built a good set of pillars-and sometimes a great set. But it took about three to four years. Then a few extremists reasoned that if you could take a breathing pause after the 10th rep, you could easily do an 11th. And with repeated rest-pauses your 12th, 13th, 14th and 15th reps will be possible. These would be limit, or near limit, repetitions and would force a growth response from the muscles.
The extremists, John Grimek among them, discovered that their hams ballooned and that the whole body responded by growing thicker to the extent of 20 pounds or more in one month in some cases. Is it true, John, that after some of these fast-growth periods you could suck in your gut and tape it at a smaller measurement than your thigh? (That's what I remember reading back in the '50s, when I first tried this growth method.)
Ten and 20 are the numbers that explain this growth system. What you are doing is taking a weight that you would normally find fairly difficult to perform 10 reps with. Then you force yourself with the breathing pauses in between to do 20 reps. You do this after a set of 10 with a warmup weight of about 75 percent of what you are going to use on the hard work set.
During the first 10 reps the squatter pauses for perhaps one or two seconds, taking one breath and then performing another repetition. By the time the ninth and 10th reps are reached, the squatter rests perhaps another second and takes a couple of breaths to steel himself for the last two hard reps. But now, instead of putting the bar back on the squat rack, the growth enthusiast takes three or four breaths and then pushes out rep number 11. He does the same with 12, 13 and 14, each one becoming more difficult but still manageable. Then another breath (exhale/inhale) or two and more precious rest seconds are added to squeeze out reps 15,16 and a doubtful 17.
By this point in the set, maybe even earlier, the masochist wants to quit, his taste for self-punishment satiated. But no, he tells himself, he'll do just one more rep, then quit. Eighteen, just 18. He huffs and puffs several times, gulps another breath, holds it and descends. From the bottom he pushes with his legs, hips, back and rises again.
Now he wants to lie down and die. But he pants some more and realizes that he has only two more to go to make 20. His hysterical brain summons up the reason and will, while his heavy breathing sends enough oxygen to the acidifying muscles to enable him to bravely attempt one more squat! He utilizes visualization techniques, but now they are verging on the psychotic. He imagines that if he does not do 19 and 20 someone he loves will be crushed by the iron. So he attacks rep 19 with all his life-saving courage. He makes it! As soon as he straightens out his legs, he knows that he can do 20. An extra ingredient is added to the rest period. An extra shot of adrenaline, the same spurt that the sprinter feels when he dashes past the 80-meter mark, is fired by the ever-defensive organism into the blood stream. The sprinter actually increases speed to burst through the finish tape at 100 meters. Mr. Wanna-be-big-now bursts through the tape at repetition 20. It's all over.
The agony and the ecstasy begin. He lets the bar down on the squat rack and paces around the room on wobbly legs panting for the next three or four minutes to recover from the ordeal, grinning inside as if he were Hercules, who has just completed his 12th labor.
This one set of squats gives the bodybuilder/lifter more growth potential than all of the other exercises and sets in the workout. The body is a self-healing, -repairing and -recuperating machine. The human organism, as all other animal organisms, is an industry of flesh, bone, blood, nerves and hormones. Its purpose in life is to defend you, feed you and work on your behalf. Growth is the end result of this healing and recuperating.
High-rep, forced squats are so brutally hard that the organism is shocked into defending itself against the onslaught imposed by the brain of the squatter. Therefore, the body puts its many programmed functions to work both chemically and mechanically. The body's organs go to work. They do not want to be caught short of resources the next time the brain orders another set of those 20 squats. No way!
So you grow, grow, grow-not only bigger, but stronger and more enduring. Your body says, "Next time we'll fool this guy; we'll be ready when he tries another one of those sets of cockamamie squats!"
Thus, assuming healthful nutrition and normal rest, the organism makes this marvelous biological transmutation. The heart, organs and blood stream are put on alert. They not only supply the hardworking thighs and butt with growth materials, but the entire musculature. You've exercised the rest of the body too, and because of the extraordinary demand that the squats have placed on the body, the organic industry is producing a greater amount of growth materials for the entire body: traps, lats, pecs, delts, neck, arms, abs and calves. It's called the secondary effect. Work the largest muscles hard, and all the rest will grow too. It's a law of nature. It never fails. Did you ever see the trunk of a tree grow taller and thicker without the branches doing the same?
If you decide to try these high-rep squats, do not worry about the rest of your training, be you a bodybuilder, powerlifter or Olympic lifter. You all do squats and other leg work. Keep doing the rest of your workouts; simply make the high-rep squats the only leg work that you do. If you are a bodybuilder, cut down on the number of sets of upper-body exercises by one-third to one-half of the usual number. Do three to five sets of two push/pull pairs, such as presses/chins, bench presses/bent-over rows or parallel dips/upright rows. You can cut out arm work entirely, or just do a few sets each of curls/triceps presses.
Powerlifters, cut out all but the high-rep squats for your legs. Do only medium-effort stiff-legged deadlifts instead of regular deadlifts after you have done the squats. Olympic lifters, do the high-rep squats after practicing the snatch or clean and jerk, otherwise you will be unable to summon the coordination and speed demanded by the lifts.
Be sure to do a good warmup set of squats for about 15 to 20 reps before doing the hard sets of 20. The warmup set should be no more than 80 percent of the hard work set. Do just one of these growth sets for the first two weeks. That may not seem like much, but if you are using the recommended amount of weight-the weight you would normally use for 10 reps-it will seem like plenty when you've squeezed out that 20th rep. There is an endurance factor you are trying to train into your organism. It takes a couple of weeks to get accustomed to this hard work for one set. Then you can go to a second set during the third week. Take a full five minutes' rest between the two Herculean labors.
After several weeks you can try three sets, but it is not necessary and may even be counterproductive for 90 percent of us. If you start doing three sets, you will find that either consciously or unconsciously, you will start holding back some of the effort and concentrate on the first two sets, saving yourself for the third labor. So stay with one and two sets.
The high-rep, rest-pause, breathing-squat system should be practiced for only five to eight weeks at a time. It is too demanding to continue for any longer than that. For many, four to five weeks will be ideal. You can gain anywhere from 10 to 20 pounds of mostly muscular weight (five to 10 kilos) in the four-to-eight-week period. I have seen this happen with others, and I have done it myself. When in my 20s I decided to go from the 198-pound class up to at least 220 pounds as an Olympic lifter. In six weeks I went up to 224. I then densified down to 219 over the following three weeks.
Recently, after a serious illness resulting from inhaling insecticide spray, I lost 15 pounds from an already thin 190 pounds, down from my usual 200 pounds. At age 55 I figure I may have half of the growth recuperative ability that I had in my 20s-at most! I am a vegetarian-I eat mostly raw food and no animal products. (Can't expect much, right?) For the last four weeks I have been following this routine:
1. Power cleans 4 x 3
2. Dumbbell presses 4 x 10-5
3. Squat* 2 x 20-30
Chins 2 x 8-15
4. Parallel bar dips 2 x 12-20
5. Upright DB rows 2 x 10-8
6. Stiff-legged deadlifts 2 x 10-8
7. Abs 2-3x10-16
* Do one light warmup set first.
In four weeks I have gained 15 pounds from 175 to 190. At least five pounds of this is because I am eating normally after a few weeks of eating light and fasting. I expect to gain 10 more pounds in the next four weeks.
If I can make this kind of a gain, anyone can! I am a has-been who never was. Although I always had outstanding athletic ability-coordination, speed and flexibility-I never had exceptional anabolic capacity.
Finally, diet is important, but we do not have time or space for that in this article. But I can leave you with one bon mot: greens. Eat lots of spinach, lettuce, parsley, celery and even cooked collard greens. Greens give you vitamin A, calcium, magnesium and other minerals and vitamins that enable you to use your proteins, carbs and fats for growth. Think of the gorilla, the closest animal to man. Over half of the food intake of our primate cousins is made up of green leaves and wild celery.