“Building a better athlete is the ultimate goal of the 1x20 training process.” -Dr. Yessis
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Developed by teacher and sports performance trainer Dr. Michael Yessis, the 1x20 program, in its early stages, is exactly what it sounds like. 20 reps working to technical failure. 15-20 sets of the exercises 3 times a week. The program should take ~ 60 min and be done at a 60-80% difficulty level. Efficiency in exercise and skill technique is the basic premise of the program so give or take a little bit on all of these parameters in order to sustain proper technique.
The objective is to target all the joints and muscle groups and their actions in an effort to develop motor learning. With strength training (or any sports related skill), the more you do something the faster the adaptation comes. A big highlight of the 1x20 program is that it keeps reps high but intensity low. Many argue that strength adaptations cannot occur without high intensity training. While this may be true for elite athletes, untrained or youth athletes do not need as high of an intensity to develop strength. Training age plays a large role in the success of an athlete on a 1x20 program.
“Training age refers to the total training time you have in a form of training or sport, regardless of your actual chronological age,” says trainer Dan Forbes, founder of Veteran Athlete. “If you’ve been bodybuilding for six years, then you’d have a bodybuilding training age of six years regardless of whether you are 26 or 46.” For example, strength training and running build very different qualities, but there’s reason to consider adopting new training styles in even narrower spheres. This reason would be due to the larger gains that could be had in a novel skill in which your training age is low.
Training age builds upon the idea that,“magnitude of gain in any strength-related measure is affected by the amount of adaptation that has already occurred” (Baechle 2008). The concept of training age makes room for the 1x20 program in training athletes who are learning new skills or in adults who may be new to fitness. An athlete that has played soccer for ten years but never strength trained would have a strength training age of zero. In this instance, a 1x20 program, because of the high rep numbers, could be beneficial because it would lead to a larger magnitude of gain in developing motor patterns in the weightroom. Improvement in motor patterns and strength would subsequently improve their performance on the field.
GPP (General Physical Preparation)
A 1x20 program is GPP by nature. GPP is not specific to a 1x20 program, as it is included in most other programs (like Crossfit) in developing overall fitness. GPP is intended to provide balanced amounts of work in endurance, strength, speed, flexibility, and other basic factors of fitness. Characteristically, GPP programs include participation in a variety of different activities that provide low intensity, all-round conditioning, with little emphasis on sport-specific skills. The GPP emphasis in a 1x20 program lays a foundation, both in strength and motor learning, that aids in future development of an athlete’s sport-specific skills.
How does 1x20 differ from other strength development programs?
One way the 1x20 differs from other high intensity strength programs is by ensuring that the strength training components are done with as effective execution and technique as possible, rather than as much weight as possible. Dr. Micheal Yessis notes that there are many strength training programs that can develop strength gains but fall short in developing overall athleticism. This is where the 1x20 training program in developing youth athletes prevails. Too often, we assign strength to the top of the list for success in a sport. While strength does greatly increase ability in sport, it is only one factor. We need to focus on all pieces of the puzzle.
Having 15-20 exercises in the session not only allows for general strength exercises, but for sport specific exercises related to agility, speed, power, neuromuscular coordination, and jumping as well. With the 1x20 training sessions being 60 minutes or less, there is also leftover time to work on reaction time, acceleration, change of direction, and strategy if these are not already incorporated into the 1x20 specialized exercises. Strength is just one aspect of many that aid in overall sport performance and the 1x20 allows for skill acquisition in all areas of sport, not just strength.
Long Term Progressions:
Coach Ryan Bracius said in an interview, “1×20 is more of an evolving concept and thought process than it is a system.” Outlined further in Dr. Yessis’ book, the program has phases or levels.
Levels I and II are used by younger athletes in developing technique, general strength, and muscular endurance. Levels III and IV are transitional phases that start to incorporate greater intensity and sports specialization. As you master a technique, you up the intensity by adding weight and decreasing reps or by upping the amount of sets (or both). In levels III and IV, an athlete in a sport with a greater strength demand would drop down to a 1-2 x 14 RM program while an athlete in a sport with a greater emphasis on endurance would increase the reps to 25-30. Level V is the highest intensity and specialization in which many athletes will begin to progress out of the 1x20 style of training.
In its final stages, 1 x 20 would be used for technical purposes, learning or relearning a movement, or in rehabbing an injury. The 1x20 is not intended for youth athletes to do forever, but if it is working, then continue to utilize it. Most often, the athlete will progress to higher intensity and lower reps, but initially, the 1x20 is utilized in developing proper technique that the athlete will carry throughout their career.
Week to Week Progressions:
How does a coach know when to rotate an exercise out or adjust intensity? If a kid shows no improvement for three workouts in a row, the coach needs to change the intensity or movement. Generally, in younger athletes, alter the movement; in athletes over 12 years old, adjust the intensity. If a college athlete starts to plateau after 6 weeks, a coach could adjust the intensity by transitioning to speed strength training, velocity-based training, and jump training.
For larger muscle groups, such as the quadriceps, increase the amount of weight used. For smaller muscle groups, such as the triceps, increase the rep number. These incremental increases will provide subtle, not overwhelming, changes for the nervous system which are advantageous in avoiding training fatigue short term and in evoking muscular adaptation long term.
Limitations to the 1x20 Training Program
A traditional 1x20 program will most likely not increase absolute strength, speed or explosiveness in a highly trained individual if used in isolation. If utilized in highly trained athletes, the 1x20 program serves a very specific purpose.
Purpose 1: Modifications in technique or learning a new skill.
Purpose 2: Coupled with high intensity programming on recovery days or in the off season.
Purpose 3: Rehabilitation of a specific muscle or muscle group
The 1x20 program in Rehabilitation
Following general rehab and clearance by a medical professional, a coach can examine the origin of the injury and build a more sport specific 1x20 rehab program. Exercises in the 1x20 rehab program can be used to target specific sport actions in order to prevent reinjury.
1x20 in the rehab process allows for correction of technique that may have contributed to the initial injury and strengthening of the area, simultaneously solidifying the movement patterns in the nervous system to combat the psychological aspect of injury. Yessis notes that, “not only must the muscles be trained to be sufficiently strong but they must also be strengthened in the same way that they are used in execution of the sports skill.” Because of this, sport specificity must be utilized for selected rehab exercises.
1x20 Programs For Hitting Sports
In hitting sports, some players need to re-learn or fine tune certain aspects of their swing. Using the 1x20 to develop greater flexibility and strength through their core is essential and will translate into a more explosive hip and shoulder rotation. Using the 1x20 for this as opposed to a traditional strength cycle rep scheme allows the athlete to learn the new movements and work high repetitions while also having time to work on other aspects of the sport.
In essence, the 1x20 allows for a breakdown of a proper swing through varied specialized strength exercises specific to the sport. Yessis found that for athletes involved in swinging sports, “most players have insufficient rotational ability of the shoulders and hips, and also do not have an explosive wrist break prior to full extension or abduction of the arms and ball contact.” To relearn correct aspects of the swing, a baseball player could utilize exercises such as a banded or landmine hip rotation to develop the rotational hip ability required for a swing or pitch. The player could utilize wrist flexion exercises, arm abduction/adduction, and triceps extension to fine tune the upper body aspects of the swing. This is one way the 1x20 program could be utilized with higher level athletes.
Below (Figure 1) is an example 1x20 program designed by Micheal Zweifel, a CSCS that has coached players at the collegiate and professional levels. He conducted a study examining the effectiveness of a 1x20 program on his collegiate baseball players. The program was 9 weeks long with training sessions three days a week. The 1x20 program started with 1x20 reps for 4 weeks and progressed to 1x14 reps for 3 weeks, and 1x8 reps for 2 weeks. The control group followed a standard strength training program that included a “3-week block of hypertrophy, 3-week block of eccentric and isometric, and 3-week block of power and specificity of transfer” (Zweifel 2016).
What Zweifel found was that the 1x20 was superior in terms of efficiency, allowing the athletes additional time post workout to implement individualized recovery or prehab/rehab exercises. The 1x20 program displayed comparable, if not better results, for vertical jump, broad jump, and 20 yard sprint following the 9 week cycle. The program fell short, however, in terms of its translation to sport, but Zweifel concluded that this was due to the lack of specialized exercises in his program design. This specialization should have been included, seeing as Yessis emphasizes the importance of sports specificity in elite athletes on the 1x20 program. As with any study, further research is needed on the topic of 1x20 and its effectiveness, but Zweifel reported being impressed with the outcomes of the 1x20 in his baseball players. To read more about Zweifel’s study, click here.
Figure 1: Zweifel’s 3 day 1x20 Program example
Conclusions and Further Research
Further research is needed to state with certainty the effects that a 1x20 strength training regimen can have on athletes, but the variations of the program used and its success seen thus far in youth, collegiate, and professional sports is promising. The success seen in developing physical and technical abilities in youth athletes also raises the question of its potential efficacy in novice gym goers or the elderly population. Further research would need to be conducted to test the effectiveness of the program in these populations.
As outlined throughout, the 1x20 program has many benefits in the youth athlete such as motor learning, capillary action, decreased soreness, and muscular adaptation in terms of both endurance and strength. The program gives each athlete a baseline exposure to a lot of different exercises and movement patterns and helps build the GPP baseline of the athlete so that proper coaching and training can easily transition into more specific training regimens throughout their athletic career. The program can also be utilized in high level athletes for skill acquisition or modification, recovery days, or in rehabilitation from injury.