The Battle for 20!

by Sean Toohey

Squatting is no big deal, right? I mean, you drop in the hole and rise again with a barbell nestled comfortably on your shoulders -- crank a few reps and you're done, or if you are looking for cuts you flex your thighs between reps as Ahhhnold suggests, right? No!! No self-respecting LIFTER would ever show such disrespect to his brethren! John McCallum was the first man I read that said it bluntly: "Load the bar with your normal 10 rep poundage. Now do 20 reps. No kidding." This was used again in "Super Squats" by Dr. Strossen and it is worth carving into a plaque and mounting over the squat rack.

20 rep squats are the ultimate exercise in that they take every aspect -- every descriptor of an exercise and turn the volume knob to 10 (or should I say 20!?). They start in your head, and they end in your head.

I squat in the evening. I can't squat in the morning or I would be too anxious to sleep the night prior. Maybe it is an addiction, I don't know; all day long I anticipate what I am attempting that night. I know the sight of the bar, I know which plates will be loaded on which side and in what order. I know the smell of my basement, the echo it makes, everything. And I see that squat happening all day long. By the time I arrive home I'm in "squat mode." Think of it as approximately the same mental attitude necessary to rush a machine gun nest. My wife grins her, "I married a maniac" grin and says not a word. The next hour is what keeps her husband sane, and she knows this. My basement is where the serious psyching occurs and I get down to business right away. Once thoroughly warmed up I nod at my bar. It nods back (don't believe me?) and we go to work. Its a relationship my bar and I have, and it is one of mutual respect. The bar always has my respect, but I must constantly earn this in return. That damn bar is one judgmental bastard and accepts nothing less than a true test before it grants me approval. I must prove myself to a chunk of iron.

Step into my cage, nest the bar into position, rise and test the flex. The day that bar gets too whippy is the day it retires. One step back, check my foot placement and immediately soften my focus. I always know the first rep. It feels much like an amusement park ride that has just begun to move. Down in the hole and up, 5 reps, no rest, lots of breathing. I'm actually feeling it at the end of that 5th rep. I mentioned before that the psyching starts now, and I play a mind game that allows me to psych for one rep and ride the coat tails for another. SIX! C'mon... get Six! SIX.. FOCUS! Down, up, down, up. Six and seven are history and gone from my mind. Pumpers that can out squat me in pounds would rack the bar now, its heavy enough. EIGHT DAMMIT!! GET IT NOW! Bang, Bang. Chalk up 9 reps. My back is getting pumped and the burn is starting. "God Almighty, help me get these reps! Keep that burn AWAY!" More reps... and I notice that the rise from the hole is getting fearsome. By 12 reps I can see the doubt in my mind but I cannot even pay a split second of attention to it or I am done. THIRRRRTTEEEEEEENNNN!!! Ahhh yeah... that hurts. Fourteen and fifteen come after coaxing myself not to die. Sixteen and seventeen just plain suck. I can't say enough about the horribleness of those reps. There is no end in sight for them so you have nothing to anticipate. They hurt because your body is just mashed like a pancake. Your back and legs are screaming at you to let them out of this hell, and they take too long to complete the mission. Your abs are flexed enough that if that bar came off your shoulders you would puke -- the only thing keeping the contents intact is the weight you are fighting. And at this point I know that if I rack the weight I have failed. I also know that every rep I continue through from here is my reward. I like rewards, and I strive on. "YAAAAAAHHHHHHHHH!!" The breath forces itself out now and 18 is done. Nineteen is always doubtful and I'm never sure I will make it given how long 18 takes to complete. The rise out of the hole is pure agony and made all the more miserable by the fact that I'M STILL NOT DONE! Keep your FORM!!! ONE MORE!! ONE MORE!!! YEAH!!! And down I go. The rise out of 20 is fueled by one sentence: "RACK THE BAR!!!" I always get 20 if I get 19. And I rack the bar. I have a hard time adjusting to the feeling of empty shoulders at this point, and my entire body gives out. With luck I land on the bench a mile away from me (1/2 step) and do a few pullovers to assist my breathing. I usually cannot see for a minute or two, and I can literally feel the heartbeat in my neck as I lay on the bench or floor. My thighs fibrillate from the shock and my back is screaming in agony. The pain is severe and immediate. As it subsides I lay there on the ground, thoughtless and empty. My dues are paid and I get to be a lifter for another week. Just to make sure I'm approved I nod at my bar.

It nods back.

And I'm redeemed.

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