High rep squats are commonly used in training among different populations including powerlifters, bodybuilders, and weightlifters.
What are high rep squats? High rep squats are squats performed at high repetitions per set. High repetitions per set are considered to be 8 or more repetitions. Some people even go up to 20 reps per set. High rep squats can help with muscle gain, strength endurance, and breaking through squat plateaus.
In this article, I want to break down the following:
- What Is Considered A “High Rep Squat”
- 5 Benefits Of High Rep Squats
- Who Should Do High Rep Squats
- How You Can Program High Rep Squats Into Your Workout
- Important Things To Consider When Implementing High Rep Squats
You may also be interested in my other article where I talk about the Benefits of High Rep Bench Press, especially when it comes to powerlifting training.
What Is Considered A “High Rep Squat”?
There is no textbook definition of what is considered high rep squats, but generally speaking, most people are referring to 8 or more repetitions. Whereas some people consider it to be 12 or more repetitions. Most individuals will explore anywhere between 8 to 20 repetitions for high rep squats, but you do get the occasional “superhero” that exceeds that.
High rep squats are very commonly used by bodybuilders as a staple in their routine. Prolific old school bodybuilders such as Steve Reeves, Reg Park, and Tom Platz are all known to use high rep squats to grow their legs.
High rep squats are also used by many powerlifters and weightlifters in the offseason as a means to grow their legs before they push the intensity later on for strength gains.
Check out my article on How Many Times Per Week Should You Squat?
5 Benefits of High Rep Squatting
The benefits of high rep squats are:
- It’s useful for building leg muscles such as quads and glutes
- It can improve sport performance
- It can build work capacity for strength phase
- It can help you break plateaus in weak points
- It can increase your squat strength
1. It’s useful for building leg muscles such as quads and glutes
Squats are generally a popular and useful way to develop your quadriceps and gluteal muscles. Performing high rep squats can be a very useful way to develop hypertrophy in these muscle groups.
Due to the nature of performing high rep squats, you can fit in a lot of volume of work in a shorter period of time.
There is naturally an inverse relationship between volume and intensity though. That means that you can generally perform more repetitions at lighter weights and lower repetitions at heavier weight.
As we’ll discuss later, you can’t do high reps squats forever, as you’ll want to increase the load eventually and do lower rep, higher intensity training.
Research has shown that training with high load and low load training are both useful and effective at helping you gain muscle strength as well as muscle size. There is some evidence to suggest that higher loads or intensities are more superior at helping you gain strength.
2. It can improve sport performance
Performing sets of high rep squats may mean bouts of activity that last up to 2 minutes. This means that there is a lot of demand on your anaerobic energy systems. These energy systems do not rely on oxygen.
This may have positive effects on sports performance if you perform a sport that heavily relies on these energy systems. This includes sports that often have bouts of intense bursts of activity such as tennis, soccer, football, basketball, or hockey.
Also, performing high rep squats can be a useful way of increasing leg muscle size, if the sport demands you to be generally larger in stature.
3. It can build work capacity for strength/intensity blocks
Performing high rep squats can improve your high repetition strength.
If you are someone who tends to lose their capacity to perform high or even moderate reps, before you plateau fatigue e.g. due to lactate build-up (the burn), performing high rep squats can be useful at improving your repetition strength at higher intensities.
If you can perform more repetitions at higher intensities, then you can potentially increase your stimulus to get stronger.
This makes high rep squats a useful tool to have before going through a training block with higher intensities.
High rep training should be implemented as part of your GPP Workouts – check out my article that explains this concept in more detail.
4. It can help you break plateaus in your squat.
Training at a weight low enough for you to perform light weights means that you can challenge the weak points in your squat with more repetitions.
If you tend to have a very apparent sticking point during the squat, you may be able to do much less reps at higher weights as you plateau quickly during a set.
So the use of low loads and high reps for squats may be useful in getting more reps time under tension at your weak points.
The more reps or time under tension training through your weak points may mean a bigger stimulus to get stronger during those certain ranges of movement.
With high intensities or weights and lower reps, we know that we can generally do less volume. So if you are plateauing with your training, higher reps may help you break through plateaus by improving your ability to perform more repetitions in general.
High rep squatting is a version of the “Repetition Method”. Read more in my article on Repetition Method: Pros, Cons, & Should You Do It?
5. It can increase your squat strength
If you are a novice or intermediate-level powerlifter sets of high reps squats can increase your maximal strength (up to a certain point).
Research suggests that there is a dose-response relationship between training intensity and strength gain.
What a dose response relationship means is that, the higher a dose, the better the outcome up to a certain point. This means that there is a sweet spot.
The more experienced you are, the higher the optimal average intensity you should be working at. The optimal intensity for a more novice lifter is relatively lower compared to an advanced lifter.
Training at lower intensities may look like performing higher repetitions in practice. So if you are somewhere between a novice to intermediate lifter, high repetition squats may work really well at getting your squat strength up.
Research shows a positive relationship between muscle mass and lifting performance across all weight categories in powerlifting. We can say that one of the predictive factors of strength gains long term is muscle size.
Should You Do High Rep Squats
Here are the things you need to think about if you want to consider high rep squats:
Do you need to improve your technique?
If you have good and consistent technique, then high rep squats should be used periodically in your training.
Why is this important? This is important because when you practice a repetition, you make that movement pattern or technique more permanent. The old saying is “practice makes perfect” whereas in reality, “practice makes permanent”.
Therefore, if you need to improve your technique then high rep squats can be the extra practice you need to continue working on your “skill of squatting”.
Have you hit a strength plateau?
If you are plateauing in terms of leg size, you may benefit from high repetition squats. Research shows that there are benefits from using different rep ranges for the purpose of hypertrophy.
Performing sets of squats using certain rep ranges tend to trigger muscle hypertrophy but through different mechanisms depending on the rep range.
If you have been training through a certain set of repetitions for example low repetitions, your body adapts to the stimulus and eventually resists against the stimulus. This is why we may reach a plateau.
As a way to break through the plateau, we can then use high repetitions to stimulate our leg muscles differently to before and this will still be useful at gaining muscle size.
Are you injury-free?
If you are not carrying any lower body injury particularly in the back, hips or knees, then high rep squats can be an option for you.
It is important to understand that high rep squats can be very stressful for the muscles and joints, especially if they are done to lower reps in reserve i.e. closer to failure.
If you are carrying preexisting pain or injury, performing high rep squats can be damaging in parts of your body that are already vulnerable. Therefore, it is important that you not pursue high rep squats with pre-existing issues.
Check out my article on How To Avoid A Powerlifting Injury.
Sample High Rep Squat Program
So how do we put high rep squats into a program?
Here is an example of a high rep squat routine for the purpose of hypertrophy of the leg muscles over 8 weeks.
8 Week Intermediate Training Block
Note: (RPE = Rate of Perceived Exertion, RIR = Reps in Reserve)
Percentages are based on your latest 1 Rep Max of your back squat. There is a 7-week progression with a final week deload.
|WEEK||DAY 1||DAY 2|
|Week 1||3 sets x 15 reps @55% or RPE 5/ 5 RIR||4 sets x 10 reps @ 60%|
|Week 2||1 set x 15 reps @ 57.5%2 sets x 15 reps @ 55%||4 sets x 11 reps @ 60%|
|Week 3||2 sets x 15 reps @ 57.5%1 set x 15 reps @ 55%||4 sets x 12 reps @ 60%|
|Week 4||3 sets x 15 reps @ 57.5%||4 sets x 13 reps @ 60%|
|Week 5||1 set x 15 reps @ 60%2 sets x 15 reps @ 57.5%||4 sets x 14 reps @ 60%|
|Week 6||2 sets x 15 reps @ 60%1 set x 15 reps @ 57.5%||4 sets x 15 reps @ 60%|
|Week 7||3 sets x 15 reps @ 60%||4 sets x 12 reps @ 62.5%|
|Week 8 – Deload||3 sets x 10 reps @ 60%||4 sets x 10 reps @ 65%|
Frequently Asked Questions: High Rep Squats
Here are some frequently asked questions that I get when people ask me whether they should do high rep squats:
Do high rep squats count as aerobic or cardiovascular training?
High rep squats may feel like it is aerobic training as you might find yourself out of breath. You may even find your aerobic fitness increase as a side effect. High rep squats are still considered to be a form of resistance training that primarily uses your anaerobic energy systems i.e. creatine phosphate and lactate energy systems.
How many sets should I do for high rep squats?
If you are not accustomed to performing high rep squats, start with 3 to 6 hard-working sets per week as a starting place. If you are somewhat trained ie. an intermediate lifter with a handful of years of experience and used to squatting with higher volumes, you can try between 4 to 8. Advanced lifters can go for between 5 to 10 sets.
How do I deal with my arms or hands falling asleep during high rep squats?
If your hands are falling asleep and you are wearing wrist wraps, they may be too tight. It may also be because you are too passively holding onto the bar, in which case you will need to hold the bar more active. In other words, grip the bar stronger, and actively pull it down into your back. You can also try widening your grip on the barbell.
Should I train to failure with high rep squats?
You should not train to failure with high rep squats. With lighter load training, you should train closer to failure to engage those high threshold motor units that are responsible for most of your strength and size gains. High threshold motor units are bundles of muscle fibres that tend to be triggered when your muscle experiences high tension – so walking or jogging does not engage those. However, if you train high rep squats to failure, it can negatively impact how much work you can do for the rest of the session or even week. Being 2 to 5 reps shy of failure is an appropriate level of difficulty for your sets.
How do I recover from high rep squats?
You should ensure that you sleep well, have sufficient protein and macronutrients to recover from training and manage your other exercises well, especially lower body exercises. For novice to intermediate lifters, you should space your high rep squat session out from other intense lower body sessions out by at least 2 to 3 days. Having sufficient rest between sets and exercises during the session will help you recover from high rep squats within a session. At least 2 to 3 minutes rest between sets and rest at least 5 minutes after your high rep squats are done.
Can I do high rep squats with front squats?
You can do high rep squats with front squats but it is not recommended. The reason is due to the nature of the bar positioning being close to the neck. If you fatigue during the set and slowly push the bar into your neck in an attempt to not let the bar fall, you may end up restricting blood flow or your airways. This will lead to a risk of fainting and therefore be a health and safety hazard.
High rep squats can be a useful tool for growing your legs whether it is for bodybuilding or off-season powerlifting or weightlifting. It can dramatically improve your work capacity in your lower body and improve strength endurance.
As a priority prerequisite, your technique should be very good and consistent. This is therefore inappropriate for anyone who has not established a foundation of good technique such as absolute novices.
My ultimate recommendation is to start with a low number of sets per week so you can get used to the physical demand of high rep squats if you are not used to it. Avoid trying to go overboard with too many sets as you may find that you are unable to complete many sets fully early on. Due to the high rep nature, it can cause a lot of fatigue so managing the programming well will be important for sustainable progress and gains.
About The Author: Norman Cheung ASCC, British Powerlifting Team Coach
Norman Cheung is a powerlifting coach and an accredited strength and conditioning coach under the UKSCA. He has been coaching powerlifting since 2012 and has been an IPF Team GB coach since 2016. He has experience with coaching a variety of lifters from novices to international medallists and international university teams. Along side coaching, he takes interest in helping powerlifters take their first step into coaching. He currently runs his coaching services at strongambitionscoaching.com