Breathing Squats – From 70lbs. to 400 x 20
The Breathing Squat by Gordon Comish
In 1969, as I neared my 19th birthday, I came to a decision – I must get strong. Always being the weakest was a bore and I needed strength for my self-respect. I also wanted the symbol of strength – size. As I walked into the local gym, I turned no heads. A 36” chest, 30” waist, 18” thighs and under 12” arms don nothing for people, especially at 5’10” and 136 pounds. My performance was equally unimpressive – 25 pound curl, 40 pound press, 50 pound bench press and a 70 pound squat.
Mike and I lived in Coatbridge, a town of 50,000 people in the industrial belt of Scotland. A man called Pat McShane ran the gym, a stickler for style and someone who spent a lot of time with beginners.
The rule in Pat’s club was that all beginners had to do three 3-month schedules before specializing on Olympic lifting, bodybuilding or powerlifting. They were all good basic six or eight exercise bodybuilding schedules. All my poundages moved well except for the squat. At the end of nine months my bench was 150x10 and my squat was 130x10. The slow squatting progress was attributed to ankle stiffness and took a couple of years to sort itself out, without any remedial work.
Now it was time to specialize. I went through my impressions of weightlifting and I found that I really only enjoyed the major movements of the squat, bench press and deadlift. The rest seemed somehow trivial. I still believe this now, even after more than 20 years of lifting. From the photos in the club, I liked the powerlifters’ shape best – it epitomized strength. There were also the long conversations I had with Mike Thompson. So, it was powerlifting for me. We both became devotees of Anthony Ditillo, whose first book, The Development of Muscular Bulk and Power became our main source of inspiration.
I shall only go briefly through the years up to 1978 because I want to focus on the 1978-1985 period, the period during which my sole purpose for lifting was to squat 400 pounds for 20 reps. It took me seven years from setting the target to achieving it (and translating the 400x20 into a 600 single), and taught me a hell of a lot about the breathing squat.
Anyway, back to the years before the breathing squats. Mike introduced me to a powerlifter by the name of Greer Hart. Greer was Scotland’s leading powerlifter. He has been referred to as “the father of powerlifting in Scotland.” At 203 pounds he could bench 380, squat nearly 600 and deadlift 680. Up to 1973, Greer and Mike coached me in power and power-related movements. In the spring of 1973 I stopped training because I needed the time to study for my final university exams. At this time I was 196 pounds and my squat was 300x1, bench 210x1 and deadlift 350x1.
To find a job, I moved to Chelmsford in Essex, just northeast of London. I was off from training for another eight months because I couldn’t find anywhere to train. Eventually, when down to 157 pounds, I found a club of bodybuilders training in a hayloft behind a pub. I trained there for the next four years, until 1977. There was no coach available, but I got my schedules from Ditillo’s first book. I arranged a circuit of schedules from the bulk and power routines. Each schedule ran for six to eight weeks, depending on effect.
I wasn’t happy with my progress. I realized this was in part due to the fact that I had no coach. I had nobody to check my style and to interact with for training ideas. I made inquiries and came up with Wally Pullum, nephew of the great Albert William Pullum, of Camberwell, London. With an 82-mile drive per workout, I had a coach again. This long drive only lasted a summer, as I changed my job and moved to Dunstable to get closer to Wally’s gym.
Ina matter of a month or so, due to “taking up the slack,” my bench went from 240 to 280, the squat from 330 to 380 and deadlift from 420 to 460, at a bodyweight of 203 pounds. In fact, I ended up with two coaches. The other was a very experienced lifter called Chris Gladding. Between them, they brought me on and taught the value of Olympic movements, particularly for the deadlift.
After a year at Wally’s gym, the year was 1978 and I now had nine years of training and was 217 pounds. I could squat 420, bench 300 and deadlift 520. My chest was 50”, waist 42”, thighs 26” and arms 16½”.
My right knee was never the same after it hit the road in a motorcycle accident. It only hurt when I squatted though. I shouldn’t have squatted, but I had to. I was am member of a league team and we had a contest each month. Each time I squatted the pain and tightness got worse. The squatting power was maintained by a large volume of pulling work ranging from flip snatches, snatch pulls, clean pulls and deadlifts, often done the same night.
Mike was now living in London and we trained together one night a week. One night, Mike and I were standing in the main gym area. He was holding an old Iron Man magazine containing an interesting article on the breathing squat. We discussed the possible use of the exercise to cure my knee. The conversation ranged further into rumors of its value in the sphere of bulk and power work.
The strongest man we knew, Greer Hart, had done 440 pounds for 20 reps. These hadn’t been breathing squats though, just a normal set of squats with enough breathing to satisfy the energy requirements. The breathing squat involved the use of three to five full breaths between each pair of reps. Mike and I agreed on a target of 400x20, assuming my knee was cured.
I was still benching and doing a range of pulling movements. My initial schedule –
Bench press 5x5
Wednesday and Friday
As on Monday except that on Wednesday I would also do snatch pulls and on the Friday I would do clean pulls, both in the same sets and reps as Monday’s deadlifts.
We chose 100 pounds to start with. Slowly, the pain subsided and after four weeks my knee was cured. I was delighted, but what to do now? How do I regulate poundage increases?
I decided to be silly. There was going to be a steady 20 pounds per session increase until burnout. Experience had suggested one of two scenarios – total staleness, or stimulation of the body into a violent positive reaction; shock tactics.
Up to 200 pounds was easy; then it got progressively harder. The 300 set required spotters to be called during the set. I was advised to quit but I knew this wasn’t the limit; 320 pounds would be tried. I remember little of this set after three reps. My back gave way and after two more reps my knees started to come in towards each other. Do the sensible thing and give up?
Of course not.
The set was finished but I couldn’t move. The spotters lifted the bar back to the stands with me dangling from it. I was laid on the floor, gasping for breath. After a minute, my pulse was checked and found to be in excess of 180. This was obviously a stupid thing to do but I hadn’t “felt” a heavy squat for some months. Miraculously, there was no injury or staleness due to my actions.
What should I do now? I dropped the poundage to 180 and began to think about sensible training. A couple of weeks were spent experimenting. In the meantime, I noticed the start of what turned out to be a 28-pound weight gain in about three months, only being terminated by a damaged nerve in my neck. This weight happened with minimal increase in diet. My only addition was a small shake morning and night.
I now settled with doing the squat in a “proper manner” starting with an easy weight and increases of 5 pounds per workout from 180 to 200 pounds. It started to get a bit harder around 200 pounds and progress slowed down. This was a problem because the smallest weight increment was 5 pounds. The sequence of increases was jerky and followed this form:
Week 6: 230 . . .
This cycle was planned to have been repeated over and over again. It would have been had I not pulled a nerve in my neck while traveling back to Scotland, to live. I think, unwisely, I skipped a week or two when it didn’t seem so hard, (instead of making the 5 pound increase over a 4-week period) adding weight in 2 or 3 weeks instead. Sticking with the 4-week progression period would likely have worked better for me.
However, as a result of pulling a nerve in my neck while returning to Scotland (I was to live at home – with lots of mother food – for the rest of the time this article covers), my plans were thwarted. I now found that if I did any more than 3 reps of any poundage in any exercise I immediately developed a blinding headache over my left eye. Now I had to switch to singles and doubles. This was a disaster, as far as my 20-rep squat goal was concerned.
It took nearly 3 months for my neck to repair. In the meantime, I played about with 400 pounds for singles and doubles, always nervous the next time I tried to increase the reps. I lost 14 pounds of the bodyweight gain and now weighed 231.
It was back to 200 pounds on the bar to start again. The next few years of breathing squats can be seen in terms of what I considered natural units. The first of these units was from 200 to 280 pounds.
There were many impressions to absorb and act upon at the same time. The breathing squat is only easy at low poundages. Once over 200 pounds it became hard for me. There is the pain in the chest due to breathing against the weight of the bar. This gets progressively worse as the pain increases. There was also the tendency for my arms to “go to sleep,” which also got worse with poundage. Maintaining concentration was difficult. My whole haphazard act had to be cleaned up.
Concentrating on the lift between workouts and emptying the mind of negative thoughts and emotions helps considerably. Only leave enough brain cells working so you can count the reps. If you don’t do this, the mind wanders and thoughts like, “What the hell am I doing here?” come up quick in the set. Another way to help concentration is to have a rhythmic squat where every rep is identical to the next. That proved to be more difficult to achieve than it would seem.
I chose what I thought was the ideal stance. Heels about 14” apart, toes at a 45 degree angle to a line drawn from the face. The bar was driven into the traps to provide a stable position. When the knees were unlocked, my bum was lowered in a near vertical line so that it would be placed as close to the heels as possible before driving the bar upwards. This threw the main effort where I wanted it, on the legs.
Another point work mentioning is that the neck stretching action while tucking the chin in to the throat has the effect of activating the back muscles and keeping them tight.
Concerning warmups, a strange thing happened. When I reached about 240 pounds I decided I needed a warmup because the first 5 reps were proving a problem due to stiffness. So, I inserted a warmup set of 5 reps with 150 pounds. I only did the one warmup set and proceeded to do my set of 20. At rep 5, I overbalanced and lost the bar over my head. The weight was restored to the stands and I started over and completed the set. The next workout, I repeated the operation. The same thing happened. For a month, I persevered, but every time I did a warmup my style became shaky between the 5th and 10th reps. Although I only lost the bar twice, several times I had to step forward to stop me overbalancing. So, I dropped the warmup set and it never happened again.
Another problem was how to gauge the hardness of a set – they were all becoming hard. I had two muscle weaknesses. One was the lower back if I slipped in a bad rep by sticking the bum out. The lower back muscles would complain bitterly and take about a week to settle back down. The other weakness was the quadriceps; they became stale very readily and I lost all spring in the squat. The answer here, for me, was to reduce the weight by 10 pounds and stay at that until the “spring” came back. This usually took about 6 workouts.
The climb to 280 had many such burnouts and time taken was about 6 months.
From 280 to 320 was like hitting a brick wall. It was very hard! The effort to successfully complete a full set increased enormously. For the first time, I felt a sense of despair. I could cope, but only just. I pushed myself in a similar manner as with the 200 to 280, but more so. Leg burnouts became more frequent. I tried more food. I tried more rest. Nothing worked. Reducing my pulling work didn’t help. Eventually, I gave up. The period leading to submitting took about 4 months.
I didn’t want to leave the breathing squat altogether. On the Monday and Wednesday I did 5x5, starting with 300 pounds, and on the Friday, 300x20, the latter to be left fixed.
After 4 weeks I was in terror of the Friday night. A good hard single had nothing on the breathing squat. It was no good having a foot in both camps anymore.
I switched to 5x5 on all 3 nights. The initial increments were 5 pounds per workout. I found I was only happy in any set of squats now if I used the breathing squat style. My urges to eat retreated. What to do now?
I’d always reckoned on a 10 pound increase for every rep reduced, so, 300x20 would translate to 500x1, theoretically. This became my 300 to 500 period. Progress came nicely and in 4 months I was doing 420x5. The sequence would be 300 and 340 as warmups, then 5 sets between 380 and 420 with 10 pound jumps.
I was using my same old knee wraps and could tighten them, whereas on the breathing squat they had to be loose enough to last 20 reps before the circulation was cut off. Since my return to Scotland I had been training at the Bellahouston Sports Center, where a beautiful and very rigid squat bar resided, ideal for the breathing squat.
When I was using 320x20 in the breathing squat I wasn’t listed in the pecking order of the powerlifters. Now that I was up to 420x5 they started to notice me. However, the mythical 400x20 in the breathing squat, as a target, left me as an object of humor not to be taken seriously.
As for the bench and deadlift, they continued as before. I could now bench 320 for a single and deadlift 530 for the same. Small improvements, but all my energy was going into the squat.
I then decided to direct the 5x5 in the squat toward a single. When I went above 420 I dropped the reps to 3. When 440 was passed I dropped the reps to 2. Above 460 was to be singles only. A typical night would now be 3 warmup sets of 300, 340 and 380, followed by 5 sets of, say, 400x5, 420x5, 440x3, 450x3 and 460x2. As I passed the top set towards 500, the other 4 sets were distributed as stepping stones. The top single became progressively harder and I doubted I would reach the 500.
On the night of the 500 single, I panicked and reduced the reps inn the earlier sets. The poundages were to be 3x5 warmup to 380, then 420x2, 450x1, 470x1 and 500x1. Everything went well until I hit the 470.
I had two spotters who were having a conversation, I unlocked my knees and sank into the full squat position. Unfortunately, I continued to sink until I was jammed at the bottom. Still, the conversation continued – I had to shout for help. After receiving an apology I got set up for the 470 again. This time I didn’t lose concentration and achieved a good rep, but it was very hard. I estimated my top single was between 480 and 490, but wasn’t satisfied and got set up for the 500.
I unlocked my knees again and sank into the bottom position. When reached, I pulled out all the stops to try to rise again. Very slowly, the bar began to rise. My back gave out, my eyes blanked and my knees came in. But the bar continued to rise. All I remember after this was a voice telling me to stand up. The rep seemed to go on forever. Eventually, I rose to the top, my eyes focused and slowly everything returned to reality.
The 500x1 had taken about 6 months and it was now time for the breathing squat again.
From the time of the pulled nerve in my neck to the 320x20, I went from 230 pounds bodyweight to 245 pounds. I had a lot of back pain near the 500x1, a result of my style cracking up. I needed to improve my form. I increased the width between my feet slightly. This shortened the movement and allowed more room for my hips to be placed over my heels, thereby keeping my back more vertical. The effect was only marginal.
My greatest improvement came when I moved the bar further down my back. The power position with the bar at the bottom of the rear deltoid doesn’t allow an upright position for proper breathing. But there’s an intermediate position just behind the peak of the traps, across the top of the rear deltoids. To make this position as comfortable as possible it’s necessary to flatten the traps by forcing down the shoulders while squatting. It can be done. It gave a leverage improvement and I was still able to stand upright for the breathing. This hybrid form took several weeks to settle into.
As I worked back into the 20-rep breathing squat getting up to 280 was no problem; I was adding 5 pounds per workout. Again, from 280 to 320 was noticeably harder, so I tried harder, adding 5 pounds per week, not 5 pounds per workout as before. Once there was over 320 pounds on the bar I added about 2 pounds per week.
To cover for burnout, every time I had a problem I cut the poundage by 50 pounds and built up again at 5 pounds per workout.
I reached 350 eventually and hit two problems. The first was that I hit a wall and couldn’t sustain more than 350 for more than three workouts. The other was a bar problem. The Bellahouston Sports Center Bar was excellent but the atmosphere in the club was poor. I was now working between the center and a club called Stephen’s Weightlifting Club. The Olympic bar in Stephen’s wasn’t strong enough and caused a wobble in the reps. Apart from breaking my concentration the bar hurt my back. I preferred Stephen’s as a club, but not the bar. However, there was a 6’ scrap bar with a sharp bend about 18” from each end, knocking the ends about 1½” out of line. It was perfect. The bar didn’t roll or vibrate, it was totally dead.
The weight problem was solved by a light-medium-heavy system. My schedule was standard: squat, bench, and now shrugs, 3 times per week. My bench was falling slowly, down to 300x1. I was still on the 5x5 and the occasional short pyramid. I’d decided to drop all pulling work from the floor. In its place was inserted a shrug from the squat rack. The bar was placed at a point 2” to 3” above the knees so that the movement was a partial pull with a shrug, with a starting position of the back high, the knees bent and slid under the bar. Using sets of 5, I built up from 250x5 to 630x5. This was done by adding sets where required, so at one point near 350x20 in the squat I was doing 250, 350, 450, 550, 600, 630, all for sets of 5.
For the light-medium-heavy scheme I chose medium on Monday, light on Wednesday and heavy on Friday, giving me the extra weekend day to recover – I needed that two-day rest. Many weekends I sat in my bedroom, only surfacing for food and the toilet.
I decided to peg the medium at 350. The progression on the heavy and light was to be an equal value above and below the medium. So, if the heavy was 360, the light would be 340 and the medium 350. I nibbled away, slowly increasing the heavy set.
I remember the 380x20 night vividly. The Bella was nearly empty, just a couple of Olympic lifters were there. The bar was loaded and I went through my preparation. The two Olympic men gave me a spot, I did 20 perfect reps, thanked them and they complimented me on my style and depth. I then sat down to get ready to bench. Half an hour later, without benching, I staggered out of the center.
I couldn’t face the club for a week. I just sat in the house. What had gone wrong? I just didn’t know. The fatigue was constant and terrible. I’d had enough of the breathing squat.
This was the end I thought. I reverted back to the non-breathing squat and schedule for eight months.
It was the old story again, start at 300x5 and build up in the usual way to 470x5, then a pyramid to 530x1. I then kept the poundage constant and tried to increase the reps. I got to 500x5 – this was a very good training period and I gained easily. One day I knocked off another 500x5 and it was so easy I did 2 more reps. On the second extra rep my right knee gave out. It went at the bottom of the squat and I did a “one-leg” 500 pound squat out of sheer panic.
I had no choice but to go back to the breathing squat. What I didn’t know was that this was to be my final run on it.
This time, I had to make sure that all the conditions were correct. I was to train at Stephen’s exclusively using that bar with the camber. My style was optimum, as was my diet. I now benched more than I squatted and did no pulling or deadlifting.
My one fear was not being able to satisfactorily gauge the hardness of a set. Don’t forget that 5 pounds onto a set of 20 reps is a 100-pound loading. I found collars which weighed 1¼ pounds each. So now, my standard increment would be 2½ pounds once I’d worked up to the stage when it would be needed. Even so, I wanted a gauge for the hardness of a set. Suddenly it hit me – pulse rate. I’d registered over 180 on a very hard set, so an easier set would have a lower rate.
I started to squat at 200 pounds and my pulse rate was under 120. Within 2 weeks my knee was cured and I started my 5 pounds per workout increases. Up to 280 my pulse rate never exceeded 130. The 5-pound increments remained until 300 pounds, then I started training medium, light, heavy, as before. This time I pegged the light night at 300. The heavy workout would move up in poundage and the medium workout would be placed midway between the heavy and light workouts. Above 300 pounds I increased the poundage by 5 pounds per week. I had the occasional pulse rate around 140.
Once at 320, things got tougher and I started using the 1¼ pound collars. I was now getting the pulse rate up to 160. This was measured as soon as possible after the set of squats was done and no more than a minute after. With practice, I can say that for me on the breathing squat the ranges of pulse hardness are:
up to 120 no effect
120 to 140 easy
140 to 160 medium
160 to 180 hard
over 180 very hard
I tried to keep my heavy sets as near 160 as possible, but not over 160. If I had a pulse reading over 160, there would be no poundage increase until it was back under 160 again, and then only a 2½ pound increment.
I progressed in fits and starts, but I progressed. This time I had no burnouts and the weight on the bar never fell. Slowly, the 400 drew nearer. The 380 barrier was broached in about 29 weeks from the 320.
My head was the only real problem. I was beginning to panic about something going wrong, and started to get thoughts about shaving my head. I started painting the weights in the club and my strange color schemes are still there to be seen. Five weeks after getting to 380 I was at 390 – two heavy workouts, over two weeks. The 395 went well. Finally, the 400 was in sight.
I spent the entire week in terror. On the drive to the club that day the phantom pains were worse than usual. When I got to the gym the membership had turned out to watch. I got changed and faced the loaded bar. I couldn’t do it and was heading for the change rooms. Two friends were on an intercept course and steered me back to the bar. I went for it.
The club was silent.
I took off the bar and pumped out the 20 reps
and my obsession was fulfilled.
I often wonder now why I didn’t keep going with the twenties. The plan to gradually translate the 400x20 into 600x1 plain didn’t work. I got 450x15 and 500x10, but when I dropped to the fives I seemed to lose fitness and blew out at 530x5.
I then reverted to a normal squat sequence and started my warmup at 300x5, 380x5, 420x5, 470x5, then triples up to 550, doubles to 580, and singles above. This post-400x20 period, getting to a 600 single, lasted nearly a year.
The 600 nearly gave me as many head problems as the 400x20. I think it was the digit 6 that was the problem, so I treated 600 as 590+10. This seemed to ease the situation.
I was also having a friendly race with a gym member to see if I could get my 600 before he got his first 300x1. The casual competition was a boost and eased a lot of the tension. We monitored each other’s progress on a blackboard, leaving messages for each other as we trained on opposite nights.
The 600-pound squat passed without comment and I peaked at 610x1.
To me, the breathing squat has its greatest value as a long-term bulk and power movement. It must not be rushed. If you do, burnout will surely ensue. If in doubt, start with under 200 pounds and use programmed increases – small increases. Allow yourself time to build a tolerance to the exercise and adapt to its demands.
Now that is some hardcore dedication.
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