A Case for 1×20 Training – Part 2


A Case for 1×20 Training, Part Two

Part two of utilizing a 1×20 program.

In my previous article discussing the 1×20 training protocol, I go over the basics of 1×20 training specifically with the youth athletes I train.  In this article, I want to go over a bit more of the theory behind the system, as well as what I have coined the three phases of 1×20 Training.

The one thing to keep in mind when reading about or discussing this program is what practitioners of the Yessis System consider the end goal of training: to build a better athlete.  Nothing else matters except building the ability of the athlete to perform on the field, and this entire protocol is build around that concept.

First, a few background notes about the 1×20 system.

Original System:

When training the 1×20 program, again consider that exercises are not considered “main” or “accessory” but rather an entire encompassing program, where the end goal is increased athleticism.  The same exercises are administered usually 3x per week, with some exercises stopping at 20 reps, other exercises performing a 20+ rep out, with a target goal range for every day.  You want to increase either the weight or the reps performed every training day, or simply ensure quality reps are performed for specific exercises.  When progress at a specific exercise stops, you should rotate in another similar movement instead of back squat, you move to front squat etc).  Certain athletes have a specific weakness that needs to be addressed? Simple, add another exercise for that segment, which they perform 3x a day.

The title aside, with the 1×20 program you do not only perform one set of twenty repetitions indefinitely, there is actual progression built in, and many different strategies you can use to implement this program.  When progress at the 20 rep scheme stops, you increase the intensity to 14 reps. After 14 reps, you would increase intensity again to 1×8 reps. At this point, multi-set systems would become beneficial, as you have tapped out the potential for growth with the single set systems.  You can progress different movements at different rates (IE Squats can move to 14s, while specialized exercises stay at 20) depending on the development and adaptation of the athlete.

Why one set of twenty reps?  A better question would be to ask “why do I need to do two sets if I can get results with one?”  Sports performance professionals often discuss the concept of minimum adaptive threshold, however this is a program that actually relies on it.  We all know the research that shows multiple set systems develop strength faster than single set systems, however the end goal of those programs was developing max strength.  We are developing athletes.  Besides, how “strong” do you need to be to be successful at any given sport?  If you require multiple sets of an exercise such as a squat to get a response, could you potentially have maxed out the ability for that exercise to help you play your sport more effectively?  All of these things were considered in the original development of the 1×20 Training system.

“Why not just do a 5×5?” you may ask.  Simple, minimum adaptive threshold dictates if we can get results by still performing one set, then lets do that.  A 5×5 program is higher in both volume and intensity than a single set of twenty, and if there is minimal or no additional gain to be had by doing higher volume and intensity (not to mention opportunity cost of other exercises), why do it?  There is always time in an athletes career to increase the intensity and volume if that’s what is needed to get a result.

For more on minimum effective dose, watch University of Richmond Strength Coach Jay DeMayo on low dose training with the Richmond Spider Basketball Team.

The other hidden benefit of 1×20 programs, and drawback of traditional training programs, is opportunity cost.  Lets say you have one hour to train, every additional set of squats you perform gives you a greatly diminished return on your training investment.  That time and effort could be spent training another exercise which you will get much higher adaptive return on. These other exercises of course may have equal or greater value to the athletes sporting ability than the “main lifts”!  Why would we just toss them aside to make sure we get our sets of squats in?  This program makes sure we get athletes good at a lot of movements and joint actions, not just great at a few.

Lastly, this program builds a huge amount of muscular endurance through the low intensity, higher frequency training of so many types of movements.  Given that most team sports are repetitive in nature, this may contribute as much or more to playing ability than maximal strength protocols can.

Next, we will discuss what I have coined the three phases of 1×20 training.  Athletes can be placed appropriately among the three phases.  For private sector, taking into account the age and training status of the athlete will allow you to effectively build their program.  Young kids will be on the low end of the scale, whereas more developed athletes will be working more intensely with more specialized exercises.  For collegiate and team sport coaches, moving through the three phases throughout the course of the offseason is of course the logical way to approach this method of training.

Phase 1: Movement Proficiency Development

The first phase of the 1×20 Protocol is development of general movement proficiency.  The goal of this phase is to expose the athlete to a wide variety of exercises which work every joint action, plane of movement, and muscle of the body.  This goes against the common philosophy of “mastery of a few before mastery of many”.  It is not uncommon to have new athletes perform 15-20+ exercises per day in this phase, as the goal is to strengthen every potential joint action and athlete may use on the field.

Varying the exercise, range of motion, implement and execution of exercise are all important in building general movement proficiency.  General strength is a byproduct of this phase, especially for young athletes, not necessarily the goal.  By becoming so proficient at so many movements, range of motions and joint actions, we increase the athletes ability to acquire sport specific training and skills.

Of primary concern in this phase is technique: everything must be done as close to perfect as possible.  Weights usually will not be performed to failure often, except on “simple” exercises”.

Phase 2: General Strength

The emphasis of this phase is to build general strength, which is the necessary foundation on which specific strength is built.  While the exercises may be similar or the same as the first phase, the athletes may be older and more mature compared to the first group, and thus more capable of handling intense weights within that scheme.  Since movement and technical emphasis were of primary concern in the first phase, you can focus more on effort within each exercise to develop more general strength.

Instead of a 1×20 Goblet Squat, it may be a 1×20+ Barbell Squat, usually leaving a rep or two in the tank.  Instead of 1xMAX pushups, it may be a 1×20+ Bench Press.  After every 20+ or 14+ set of exercises done, the athlete records the weight and the reps performed.  At this point, the coach can then take every athlete’s workout card and assign weights for the next training session.  For example, if you are doing 20+ on squats, and an athlete squatted 135 for 23 reps, you will probably increase the weight to 140 for the next session, or repeat 135 and attempt more reps.

During this phase of training, some specialized or sport specific exercises are introduced.  This phase can go as long or as short as necessary, depending on your season, which athletes you have, how strong they are, how strong they need to be to play their sport at a high level, and the time of year.  A key point I want to reinforce again, the back squat and bench press max are NOT the only general strength goals, they are two lifts of many that need to be strengthened adequately to increase an athletes ability to play their sport.  You can achieve this level of necessary strength using the 1 set progression 3x per week, while still performing 15-20 exercises daily.  Think of building strength THROUGH movement proficiency.

Phase 3: Specific strength

This phase comes after the general strength phase, with the emphasis of the phase being development of abilities that translate directly to the field.  Specialized exercises for basic abilities such as running and cutting, as well as sport specific exercises, are emphasized leading up to the dates of competition.

Specialized exercises for running include:

Standing bent leg pawback

Standing straight leg pawback

Calf raise

Knee Drive

Explosive Lunges

Specialized exercises for Cutting:

Leg Abduction

Leg Adduction

Ankle Inversion

Ankle Eversion

Lateral Lunge Variations

General strength is either continually trained, or maintained, throughout this phase.

However, one major difference in this protocol vs others is the emphasis shifts away from general movements like squats, and towards specialized exercises that specifically train the movements needed in sport.  Exercises are chosen based on the laws of Dynamic Correspondence, initially developed by Dr. Verkhoshansky and summarized by Dr. Yessis:

  1. Exercise must duplicate the exact movement witnessed in certain actions of the sports skill.
  2. Exercise must involve the same type of muscular contraction as used in the execution of the skill.
  3. Exercise must develop strength and flexibility in the same range of motion as in the actual skill.

This is a key distinction using the Yessis method of training compared to “traditional” methods, where variables of general exercise such as speed or time of movement are manipulated but exercises stay the same.  If you are training speed squats, the idea is that you are still training the squat, not specific movements.  While its closer to specific and can be used as a multi-set main lift, it is still a general exercise.

As with most linear programs, the idea of general to specific can be viewed as more of a continuum rather than hard lines of what is being trained.  You can train all of these abilities at once, however the general emphasis of what is being trained will be different depending on the athletes age and ability, as well as the sporting calendar.

As you can see, the shift from movement, to general and ultimately specific strength all happens with a common principle: forget about sets and reps and focus more on the movements you are strengthening.  The shift from GPP to SPP happens almost ENTIRELY via exercise selection and intent of training.  The more proficient you are at a host of general movements, the more you will have the ability to quickly acquire and use sport specific ability.  General strength training exercises will set the foundation for specific strength training, which will ultimately allow you to excel at your sport.  A phrase that has always clicked for me when training general athleticism rather than specific is, “on the sidelines”.  Do you want to have the “fastest guy on the sidelines”, “strongest guy on the sidelines”, “most conditioned guy on the sidelines” or “best guy on the field”?  Yes, this is an obtuse way of looking at training, but at least it makes senses to me.

Ready for Q&A? Good, me too!

Q: This is ridiculous.

A: I know, that’s what I said too, at first.  Then I tried the program and realized its way more normal and effective than you would imagine.

Q: I still don’t get it, why do one set of twenty reps, wouldn’t a traditional conjugate program work better for gaining strength?

A: Yes, yes it would.  But are we trying to develop athletes, or gain strength?

Q: We are trying to develop better athletes by gaining strength, and increasing the neural output ability of the athlete. If I can accomplish those goals by doing a traditional program instead of one set of twenty reps, why wouldn’t I do that?

A: True, but remember our job is athletic performance, not strength training.  Strength training is a part of that, but only to the effect that it increases their athletic performance.  If getting the athletes stronger will no longer make them BETTER, should you still do it?

Q: Get em stronger and let em play, I say.

A: *crickets* No, make them better at stuff they need to get better at, I say.

Q: This doesn’t work.

A: Yes it does.

Q: If you had to explain this program in one sentence, how would you do it?
A: It’s a flexible program that relies on doing the minimum possible to get the maximum value, to increase an athletes ability to learn and perform sport specific motor abilities.

Q: This program looks like it will be great for kids, but for high school athletes and above I think a more advanced program would work better.

A: This is usually the first assumption people make with this program (including me).  Let me warn you though, as you begin to mess with this system and see its value, you will gradually want to implement portions of it with your older and more advanced athletes.  Looking at what athletes require to be great at their sport, and then placing them on the correct portion of the continuum, you will quickly find doing one set 3x a week as opposed to 3-5 sets 1x per week is a far more efficient way to train.  And on that thought, if such a radical change in the philosophy used works for kids, why cant aspects of it be introduced and implemented with high school, collegiate or professional athletes?

Q: Isn’t this the same thing as HIT training?  This isn’t the 80s, bro.

A: No, however, as someone who has experienced HIT training before I can assure you I understand where the confusion comes from.  This program is focused on technique, specific exercise selection, frequency of training, exercise progression, and as stated, movement proficiency.

About the author 

Steve Olson, MS, CSCS

Steve is a strength and conditioning coach, gym owner, and founder and CEO of Strength Coach Pro. Prior to founding SCP, Steve owned Excel Training Designs, a company created to help coaches better learn and use Excel for programming. Steve also owns a strength and conditioning gym in Cary, NC, and has his bachelors and masters in Exercise Science.

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