Programming Notes | The Widow Maker

If you’ve been following along for a bit, you’ve probably noticed that a 20-rep back squat has been popping up in our strength portion from time to time. The 20-rep back squat – or “the widowmaker” as it’s affectionally referred to in the lifting world – is an effective way to build muscular stamina, mental will power, and big strong squattin’ legs.

Malika Back SquatThe original 20-rep program consisted of doing a 20-rep back squat 3 times per day for six weeks. In this program, one would take their five-rep max, subtract 90 lbs from it and use that as their starting weight. Each day, five pounds would be added until the end of the cycle, where you would be doing your previous 5-rep max for a set of 20 (the math: 5 lbs/day * 3 days/wk * 6 wk = 90 lbs increase in weight). As it may sound, the program was meant to be grueling both physically and mentally. As with any linear progression model it relies on the mind deciding that you can always do five more pounds and then forcing the body to comply. Towards the end of the cycle especially, the set of 20 is meant to be performed with at least a deep breath taken between every squat – not a continuous twenty as one might do for a set of five. In addition to the obvious mental gains, the program would elicit some serious hypertrophy (gain in muscle size); as your muscles begin to fatigue, weaker and smaller muscles are called upon to help out. By activating and stressing more muscles, the whole system grow rather than relying solely upon the large muscle groups that tend to do most of the heavy lifting.

Ultimately, this squat program (and most squat programs in general) becomes rather difficult to implement in a class setting like ours. Experienced and advanced athletes could benefit greatly from it from a pure strength point of view, and the muscular stamina and mental fortitude it offers has obvious cross-over benefits for our metcons. However, the prescribed volume is way more than necessary for even intermediate CrossFit practitioners. Additionally, imagine a new member fresh off their On Ramp trying to hop in in the middle of such a program when they have little to no idea of their capabilities. Our general CrossFit programming must be modular to best accomodate people’s schedules, start dates, and fitness level.

As such, we implement a 20-rep back squat once a month or so as part of our general strength program as a test to see if our strength is still increasing and to harvest some of its benefits. Ben Bergeron of CrossFit New England and explains the importance of a 20-rep lift in his program as “20 reps is enough to ensure we are developing more than just maximal strength. We are looking for strength endurance, stamina, and efficiency in our movements. In addition, 20-reps, buy generic viagra.”

Our approach to a 20-rep squat is this: if it’s your first time ever doing a 20-rep back squat, start at 60-65% of your 1RM back squat. That’s your weight for day one. Every time you see it pop up after that, increase your weight by 10 lbs. If the previous time was extremely difficult – borderline impossible – then only increase by 5 lbs. If it was easy and you pretty much did 20 straight without really pausing, you may want to take a bigger jump. The goal for a well performed 20-rep would be doing the first 5-8 as consecutive lifts, then breaking up the subsequent reps into smaller portions with breaths as necessary between to allow the legs a bit of rest and brace the nervous system for the next squat to come. Once you have found the weight that feels this way, stick with the 10 lb increases for as long as possible. If you are still making beginner’s gains of 15-20 lbs on your back squat every 4-6 weeks, this means we’ll be keeping up with our increased strength. For more experienced lifters approaching a plateau, this will provide a new stimulus that will help break through and further with the focus and determination necessary for even the most daunting of workouts.