The 1x20 strength training program has become popular in recent years and rightfully so – it is a simple and effective training progression that has fairly wide-ranging application. However, as simple as it seems, there are many nuances that are important for effective use of this program. With this article, I will cover the basics of the 1x20 progression as well as answers to many of the frequently asked questions I've had over the years. I hope that this will clarify some of the misconceptions and help those that are interested to apply this program effectively.
I first learned of the 1x20 program in 2011. I had contacted Yosef Johnson, owner of the publishing company Ultimate Athlete Concepts, and was able to visit him on my spring break to observe his training. During that visit, Yosef shared stories of other coaches who had successfully used the 1x20 program, particularly Jay DeMayo (University of Richmond) and Jeff Moyer (Dynamic Correspondence Sports Training). I was intrigued and interested in learning more. Once I graduated from grad school, I packed up my car and drove to Richmond, Virginia to gain more experience working with Jay.
I could go on about the great experience I had with Jay at Richmond and the incredible number of things that I've learned from Yosef over the years. However, there's quite a lot that I would like to cover, so it's time to dig in.
Background and Rationale
The 1x20 program was developed by biomechanist, Dr. Michael Yessis. I remember speaking with Doc on the phone early in my career and simply asking, “why 20 reps?” Doc's response was something along the lines of: if you want to improve a skill should you it a few times or many times? Of course, skill technique is arguably the most important variable for success in any sport, but this isn't the only reason why starting with higher rep ranges can be beneficial.
- Using a lighter load will allow an athlete to more easily achieve the necessary range of motion in an exercise while maintaining sufficient execution.
- Higher reps have a greater impact on local muscular endurance via increased capillary density. This is important for maintaining technique throughout a competition. An increased capillary network will also allow for improved recovery rates.
- Greater improvements in connective tissue strength. I certainly can't prove that this is the case, however, as we know, tendons and ligaments have very little blood flow. Increasing capillary density allows for improved blood perfusion and thus, an improved rate of nutrient delivery (i.e. protein building blocks). This could be part of the explanation for the extremely low injury rates seen in athletes who use this program; this and simple application of an appropriate training dose.
- Increased strength when compared to higher intensity programs. This is a hard one to swallow for many. However, applying the appropriate (or optimal) dose is the fastest way to progress. With athletes of lower to moderate training ages, we've found that the optimal dose is much lower than what is typically applied. Thus, reducing the volume and intensity allows the athlete to adapt to the training at a much faster rate. I'll expand on this a bit further below.
Applying the Optimal Dose
In 1938, Hans Selye stated: “when an organism is exposed to a stimulus to the quality or intensity to which it is not adapted, it responds with a reaction which has been termed General Adaptation Syndrome.”
And, “It seems to us that more or less pronounced forms of this three-stage reaction represent the usual response of the organism to stimuli such as temperature changes, drugs, muscular exercise, etc.”
In other words, Selye thought that any stressor would result in the three-stage reaction depicted below:
It wasn't until the 1960s that Garkavi et. al. out of the Soviet Union decided to test Selye's hypothesis in order to verify how an organism would respond to stimuli of different magnitudes. Their hypothesis is show below – based on Selye's initial assumptions. (Illustrations from: GAS, Natalia Verkhoshansky, Central Virginia Sport Performance Seminar, 2012)
What they actually found was quite different – that an organism will adapt differently depending on the magnitude of the stressor.
In reality, this conclusion had already been known for many years:
“For every substance, small doses stimulate, moderate doses inhibit, large doses kill.”
- Arndt-Schulz Law (1888)
“Everything is a poison, nothing is a poison, it all depends on the dosage”
- Paracelsus (1493-1541)
So how does this apply to training?
Dr. Yann LeMeur has some great infographics that depict the various stages of fatigue. There are three in particular that I'd like to highlight below: (From Yann LeMeur: “Optimising the training load during the pre-taper phase,” 2014)
Now, if we take a quick look back at the graph from Garkavi, we can see the similarities between a stressor applied at the level of “Acute Fatigue,” and what is labeled below as “Low-Level Impact.”
In the low-level impact reaction, also known as the training reaction, we see no distinguishable alarm phase. The same is true with what we call Acute Fatigue – after 24-36hrs, the athlete already shows a small amount of supercompensation. Typically in training, we expect to see the Functional Overreaching curve and a delayed training effect; this is almost always how we design our training. It appears that the application of a load that leads to Functional Overreaching may result in a greater level of supercompensation, however, there are a couple of key considerations to keep in mind:
- If this magnitude of stress results in several days to weeks of reduced capacity, the athlete will not be capable of achieving high levels of output during this time (less than optimal training) and they will also, very likely, be more susceptible to injury.
- If the Functional Overreaching training load is over-shot due to unforeseen circumstances (sport practice was especially intense or long, sleep was sub-optimal, nutrition was inadequate, academic stress spiked, etc.), we are now walking the line with Non-Functional Overreaching – not a place we want to be for obvious reasons.
With this, along with real-world, anecdotal evidence from athletes of various levels (Middle-School, High School, NCAA DI, DII, and DIII), it appears that taking things slow and applying a precise and lower dose is the fastest way to safely improve an athlete's general strength.
Strength, however, is only one piece of the performance puzzle. Another concept discussed by Seyle was “adaptation energy.”
“…every organism possess a certain amount of ‘adaptation energy' and once this is consumed the performance of adaptive processes is no longer possible.”
“We conclude that adaptation to any stimulus is always acquired at a cost, namely, at the cost of adaptation energy.” (Hans Selye)
I like to envision adaptation reserves, or adaptation energy, as a pie chart – every aspect of the training process, in addition to all life stresses, takes out a chunk of the pie. When working with team sport athletes in particular, we have many physical qualities to develop in order to achieve optimal performance. If we use up too many adaptation reserves on a single quality, it leaves less left-over for all other qualities.
At the crux of this, if we take a lower volume approach to all aspects of training, this will allow for high quality, concurrent development of various physiological traits.
When Yosef first introduced me to this methodology, he said two things that sum up a large amount of the thought process for its application:
- Think of the body as a collection of joints
- Train movements (joint actions) rather than muscles
Here's a list of the most important things you'll need to know to apply the 1x20 Progression:
- Use exercises for each joint/every major joint action. Creativity and coach/athlete preference can be applied here. The important part it to ensure that each joint is developed through a full or large range of motion; hence, the overarching goal of GPP: to develop a well-rounded base. (This includes the use of single-joint exercises – don't think of a dumbbell curl as an exercise to develop the biceps, but a method for strengthening the elbow joint).
- Use 1-2 sets per joint action. Yes, you'll start with 1 set but eventually you'll need to add volume to progress – I'll expand on this more in a minute.
- Execute the program 3 days per week. Same exercises, same sets, same reps. Consistency and change are two variables that are always juggled in training that don't get enough publicity. Athletes of lower training ages require consistency in order to adapt sufficiently. Change with any athlete should be applied in a systematic way, rather than randomly.
- When starting out, undershoot the load. When using 1 set of 20 reps, I'll always tell my athletes to choose a weight in which they know they'll be able to achieve 20 reps without a problem or breakdown in technique. For large, multi-joint movements, this may be about 50-60% of 1RM.
Progression in any type of training primarily comes down to one thing: novelty. If you have athletes who are beginning to hit a plateau in their performance, you'll need to make some kind of a change in their training. When we think of novelty in training, there are 3 primary variables that are most often manipulated:
- Exercise selection
This also happens to be the order of magnitude of the stimulus (volume being the largest and a change in the exercise being smallest) and the reverse-order in which we would change in accordance to the 1x20 progression (smallest stimulus first).
Here's an example to illustrate this point and other nuances of the progression:
An athlete uses a load of 135lbs for the bench press and is able to achieve 1 set of 20 reps on day 1. For his second training session, I would ask this athlete to use 135lbs again and shoot for 22-23 reps. This allows the athlete to practice and improve their technique and effectively adapt to the load. On the following session, the athlete would increase the load to 140lbs and again shoot for a goal of 20 reps. This progression is more of a heuristic for working in groups rather than a rule. The only rule really is: make sure the athlete can achieve the desired number of repetitions with proper technique before increasing the weight.
The athlete would continue to progress in this manor until they reach a plateau: when they are not able to increase the weight or reps for 2-3 consecutive training sessions (some subjectivity is also involved here, i.e. the quality of technical execution). At this point in time a change would be needed. Our first change would be to modify the exercise in some way – maybe switch from a barbell bench press to a dumbbell bench press for example.
Eventually, the program as whole (especially the large, multi-joint, lower body exercises) will also begin to plateau. This is when a larger change is required – increasing the intensity and dropping to 1 set of 14 reps. The 1x14 phase will progress in the same way as the 1x20. Eventually, another increase in intensity, and perhaps volume, will be needed. At this point we typically will switch to an upper/lower split (4 training days per week) and use 1x8 plus 1x14. This split allows for a little more recovery time to account for the increased volume and intensity.
Other Considerations and FAQ's
- Power/explosive exercises are programed in a more traditional way: NOT 1x20, but more like 3-5 sets of 2-5 reps for Olympic lifts and their derivatives. For jumps/plyometric exercises, we'll typically use 1-2 sets per exercise (up to 6-8 total sets) and 6-14 total reps, depending on the goal of the jump, extensive vs. intensive, etc.
- Every exercise, even the small, single-joint exercises, should progress according to what is described above –the goal is consistent, small improvements over a long period of time (move the needle but don't try to force adaptation).
- Progression from year to year essentially involves more work on the back end (1x8/1x14) and less on the front end (1x20). Initially, athletes may spend several months in each phase and eventually they may progress to only 3-4 weeks of each of phase.
- After an athlete gets to the point where they are only using 3-4 weeks of 1x20, 1x14, 1x8/1x14, what do we do for the other 9 months of the year? This is where we will add in more dynamic effort/velocity-based work with “mini-blocks” of strength maintenance work throughout.
- For athletes who need to gain weight, first address nutrition, then ensure they are progressing in the current program, then you can customize this progression to their needs. This would most often involve progressing to 2x14 before 1x8 or even just adding a little more volume to their upper body work.
- Last but not least, this program was developed for athletes of a lower training age. It absolutely works well for this level and athletes of moderate training ages. (This includes collegiate athletes of all divisions, who should be classified as low-level when they begin college). I haven't applied this to higher-level athletes so I can't personally speak to its effectiveness. However, many athletes today have not developed GPP effectively early in their career and this could potentially serve to fill those deficiencies.
“Optimal dose” or “minimal effective dose” have become buzz-phrases in our industry as intelligent coaches have recognized the value in this type of programming. The 1x20 progression is best application of this principle for general strength development that I know of today. Dr. Yessis has created a program with beautiful simplicity to effectively develop a well-rounded, general base without impeding the development of the many other important physiological qualities that an athlete needs to succeed. I invite you give this program a try and see how works in your environment.
Matt Thome, MS, CSCS, USAW
ALTIS Performance and Innovation Manager
PhD Student, Edith Cowan University