1×20 Strength training program – The ultimate guide

I have read about and discussed the popular 1×20 Program made popular by Dr. Michael Yessis for as long as I have been interested in weight training. The program is stated in the name for the most part, but there are a few more surprising facts. Instead of splitting up workout days with parts of the body, Dr. Yessis suggests taking 15-25 exercises, performing each movement for one set of twenty repetitions. He suggests performing these movements three times per week. The first day is supposed to be performed at a rate of perceived exertion around 6 RPE. The goal is to add 1.5-2.5kg per day until the athlete reaches failure. The goal of the program is general physical preparedness and improving movement quality.

By Travis Mash – expert in VBT training

It’s the first program that I ever used, prescribed to me by my first coach Martin Little, owner of Little’s Gym in my hometown of West Jefferson, NC. I haven’t really thought about that moment until our team decided that I should write about the long debated program. I can tell you now that I learned a lot more than I was anticipating. 

Did it work for me? If so, why did it work for me? Finally and more importantly to you, will it work for you? The answer is a definite ‘yes’ to some of these questions and as always the answer is ‘it depends’ to the others. Read on if you want to know the answers. Here’s what you can look forward to learning in the short article:

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History

Who created the 1×20 program?

It’s hard to say who was the original creator. I have heard rumors of several possible coaches and sports scientists that could have been the originator. However, there is one thing that’s certain. Dr. Michael Yessis published the book, The Revolutionary 1×20 RM Strength Training Program, in 2014. However, Randall J. Strossen (PhD) published Super Squats: How to Gain 30 Pounds of Muscle in 6 Weeks way back in 1989. There were some differences, but as you can see, the premise of performing one set of 20 repetitions for an exercise isn’t revolutionary. 

Before you think that I am stealing the thunder from Dr. Yessis, he did base his book on more of modern day science. He made some solid points that shouldn’t be overlooked. We will look at those next. However, later in this article, I will give you some considerations to ponder before running off and prescribing this program to all of your athletes. 

Why did Dr. Yessis create the 1×20 training program?

Dr. Yessis realized that most periodization programs were created by the coaches and sports scientists of weightlifters and powerlifters and designed to improve the one-repetition maximum of their athletes. This makes sense due to the nature of their sport. However, Dr. Yessis felt the programs fell short developing general strength for beginner athletes. He felt the intensities were unnecessarily high. Some of his reasoning was right on, and some was a bit vague. Let’s take a look.

In the early stages of athletic development, the goal is to develop general physical preparedness. Later on, an athlete will need specific specialized exercises at higher intensities to improve their individual sports performance. They will also need individualized programming to account for their specific strengths and weaknesses. Even more important, they will need to focus more and more on their specific sport and less on strength training. For example, a shot putter needs to spend time throwing the shot at various weights and velocities. Weightlifters will need to spend more time on snatch and clean and jerk versus squats, pulls, and presses.

However initially, general strength is used for the following adaptations: 

  • Basic athletic movement patterns like squat, hinge, press, row, lunge, and rotation
  • Strengthening in all the major vectors like lateral, horizontal, vertical, and rotational
  • Muscular strength and endurance
  • Strong connective tissue (ligaments, tendons, etc)
  • Improved circulation especially to the joints
  • Avoid injury

The Science

Over the last week, I have combed through almost all of the scientific literature, and I have read a lot of the sports performance articles. Louie Simmons hit this one on the head when he talked about the “Repetition Method”. Early on in someone’s resistance training journey, it’s a great idea to perform particular movement patterns for high repetitions. We all know that “newbie gains” is a thing. A guy or girl starts benching and their 1-repetition maximum jumps to 15kg/33lb in six weeks. Did they add an unbelievable amount of muscle? Probably not. 

The majority of adaptations early on in a resistance training regimen are neural in nature. The body will start recruiting more high threshold motor units along with higher rate coding (the speed of the signal from the brain down the alpha motor neuron to all the muscle fibers it innervates). They will experience improvements in coordination, which simply means they get better at whatever movement that they perform. 

That concept is easily understood when we look at playing sports. For example, when we first play basketball, it seems impossible to effortlessly shoot three-pointers. However, if we practice daily shooting a hundred or more shots, by the end of the summer, three-pointers are easily made. Did we all of a sudden gain muscle size allowing for the extra strength? No way, remember the neuromuscular system should always be looked at together. 

This concept is the very reason I fell in love with this program when I was eleven years old. I was doing the  same program three or more times per week, and each day I was able to add weight. However, it comes to an end, so it’s important to have your next step planned. We will talk about that in the program section.

The benefits of 1×20 program:

For the first 4-6 weeks, you can expect to gain increased muscle mass and muscular endurance. If you look back at my last article, Muscle Hypertrophy: From Theory to Application, you will see that this style of training is great for getting muscular and improving endurance. You won’t maximize strength or even tendon quality, but you will lay the foundation for doing just that. After spending 4-6 weeks on the 1×20 program, you will have the necessary adaptations both neural and muscular to maximize strength and all the Muscle-Tendon unit properties for strong and powerful joints. 

The most immediate benefits are the improved movement patterns. Later you will see the program, and you will see that you will be carrying out all the major movement patterns in all the major vectors.  By performing the functional movement patterns throughout the entire range of motion under load, you create optimal mobility in the presence of stability. Otherwise, yoga would be superior, and yet we know that hypermobility is related to injury at the same rate or more as immobility. Not to mention, creating laxity in the joints responsible for sprint development like ankles, knees, and hips is linked to slower sprint times. 

Jake Tuura has produced some amazing results for his athletes in the form of faster sprint times and amazing vertical leaps. He uses strength training, isometrics, and advanced plyometrics to increase the size, strength, and elasticity of tendons along with improved muscular power. This leads to my only disagreement with Dr. Yessis regarding the 1×20 Program. 

Tendon Strength is maximized at higher intensities:

The first way I like to utilise Velocity Based Training for Powerlifting is simply monitoring neuromuscular function. Monitoring works best with athletes first familiarising themselves with the device whilst still using traditional methods. I continuously monitor all athletes to understand their individual preparedness/readiness (‘snapshot’ of an athlete’s fitness-fatigue status). For example, when lifting a fixed external load, MV over time may indicate altered neuromuscular qualities [1]. Reductions in velocity may be symptomatic of fatigue, overreaching/overtraining, or detraining/maladaptation, whereas faster velocities could signify improvements in neuromuscular capacity or acute potentiation [12,13]. This unique insight lets you see your training methods’ effectiveness more quickly. It’s like doing 1RM testing every day without having to do 1RM testing. Simply put, if the projected 1RM increases, we are adapting, and if it decreases, we are fatigued. This simple metric provides a significant advantage.

Using velocity to monitor, progress or regress:

If compensatory acceleration is applied, multiple qualities of strength are maximized throughout a 4-6 week program. That means, if the athlete maximizes his or her intent on each individual rep, speed-strength, strength-speed, accelerative strength, and eventually absolute strength is maximized. This is the most exciting aspect of this article. I will give you some specific velocity zones to ensure all of the qualities of strength are maximized. I will also fill you in on ways to use velocity to ensure that you don’t go too heavy or too light based on the suggestions of each day of the program. We will discuss velocity drop off parameters for decreasing the load or even cutting the session all together. 

I’m having fun going over all the science to ensure this program is used for the right athlete in the right program. A lot of the articles I read before writing this article were littered with misinterpretations of the literature, stretches of the truth, and some were just flat out wrong with their information. Yet, most of you are reading this to see the program, so let’s get to the meat of the article.

The program – specifics to an example workout:

Honestly, this is where I am excited to add some parameters that will ensure maximum results and avoid failure. Everything I have read so far is vague and subjective in nature. If you know me, you know that I don’t like being subjective. Let’s look at the specifics: 

Days Per Week/Frequency:

The norm for this program is three days per week, but I also saw anywhere from 2-4 days per week. Based on the volume of this program and the goal of neural adaptations, three days per week seems to make the most sense.

Exercises:

I have seen a lot of variations, but the original program calls for 15-25 movements per session. I’m going to list twenty that I would potentially use, and the first five movements will be governed by velocity. Then I’ll explain how that works. Each of the exercises are to be performed for one set of 20 repetitions.

Coach Mash’s list:

1 x 20 training program - Coach Travis Mash's exercise list

Starting Intensity (Percentages, Velocities, and RPE), and Progressions:

The aspect I dislike the most about the 1×20 program is the overall subjectivity for a program that is supposed to be for beginners. I don’t know about you, but I would have failed miserably. What is a 6 RPE when you are a young athlete? For me, it would be a 20 rep maximum at 10 RPE. All you have to do is scroll Instagram at all the squat and bench singles at a supposed 7 RPE.

Original RPE Recommendation:

Dr. Yessis recommended that athletes start at around 5-6 RPE. Unfortunately, there isn’t a norm listed anywhere for a 20 repetition maximum at any RPE. The further one gets from a 5RM tends to make the RPE scale less effective. However, I have done my best to give you some suggestions. 

I found one chart out there that recommended RPE up to a 15RM:

chart out there that recommended RPE up to a 15RM
Source: https://www.exodus-strength.com/forum/viewtopic.php?t=2967

Percentage of 1RM recommendation:

I used these numbers to create my own chart for a 20RM at 10 RPE:

chart for a 20RM at 10 RPE - 1 x 20 training program

Based on the chart from Exodus-Strength, the 6RPE for the 15RM is 0.064 less than the 10RPE, a solid starting point is:

45% of an athlete’s 1RM

Using Velocity to take out the subjectivity:

This is where it gets fun. Remember when I told you that using velocity would allow you to take your athletes through a range of strength qualities? Here’s a chart I designed based on my own athletes and some of the latest recommendations:

Chart based on Coach Travis Mash's athletes -  1 x 20 training program

On day one of the program, I recommend having your athletes start the 20RM when they hit 1.09m/s (in the case of a squat). Here are some important considerations:

Cut off velocity:

Failure in the back squat, for example, is around 0.3m/s. I recommend keeping things safe, so pick somewhere between 0.4-0.5m/s as a cut off velocity (COV). That means, if the athlete dips below the COV, the set is terminated. 

Progressions:

The program is to be completed three days per week adding 2.5kg/5lb to each exercise on each day. Of course there are some of the exercises that are more bodyweight. You can choose to progress those by adding reps, changing the angle or slowing things down. 

Earlier I predicted that a 20RM would happen around 52% based on the available data. Based on my experience, there’s probably a range between 52-60%. I’m picking 57.5% for my own athletes. Therefore, based on my velocity recommendations above, I am prescribing 0.87m/s (for the squat) as the end of the 20RM progression. At this point, I recommend having your athletes move to a 15RM and start all over. You could then progress it one more time to a 10RM, but then I would call it moving on to a more traditional approach based on the individual’s goals and genetics.

Holistic suggestions for surviving the 1×20 training program

This program isn’t for the faint hearted. If you are trying to lose weight, this is not the program for you. Here are some recommendations.

Nutrition:

The 1×20 training program should be performed during a caloric surplus. Whatever amount of calories you are ingesting at this point should increase. I am not a dietician, but I would personally increase my own by 250-350 calories per day. Protein is the only suggestion that I will make, and I would ask that my own athletes ingest at least 1g of protein per kg of body weight. However, 1-3 grams per kilogram of body weight is a solid range based on Dr. Andy Galpin’s recommendations.

Sleep:

If you can’t commit to at least 8 hours of sleep per night, I wouldn’t recommend this program as an option. For my own athletes, I would suggest 9-10 hours of sleep per night. I should write an article all about sleep because this important aspect of health is so often overlooked.

Who is the 1×20 training program for and who it’s not for:

This is a great program for an untrained athlete. If you have a 16-yr-old baseball player, this is a great starting point. Also for an athlete who has been injured, this is a solid return to training program. If you are an athlete that is experiencing a plateau, this might be the very thing. A lot of athletes were never given a solid base, which shows that a lot of performance programs out there need some work. Dr. Yessis mentions that very thing in several interviews. 

However, if you are an athlete with at least two years of solid training experience, this program isn’t specific enough for your goals. Remember, the principle of specificity should always be a driving principle for athletes. If you need to be explosive, you should train explosively.

Summary

This was a lot more fun to write about than I thought. In case you are wondering if the program worked for me, it worked wonders. For a young athlete, it was exciting adding weight to each movement on a daily basis. It makes sense for athletes or general fitness folks that need a base. With velocity-based training (VBT), the subjectivity is taken out, which puts my left brain at ease. VBT also encourages athletes to increase intent, maximizing the potential benefits.

Like always, if you have questions, email me at Travis@GymAware.com.

References

  1. Hughes DC, Ellefsen S, Baar K. Adaptations to Endurance and Strength Training. Cold Spring Harb Perspect Med. 2018 Jun 1;8(6):a029769. doi: 10.1101/cshperspect.a029769. PMID: 28490537; PMCID: PMC5983157.
  2. Jenkins NDM, Miramonti AA, Hill EC, Smith CM, Cochrane-Snyman KC, Housh TJ, Cramer JT. Greater Neural Adaptations following High- vs. Low-Load Resistance Training. Front Physiol. 2017 May 29;8:331. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2017.00331. PMID: 28611677; PMCID: PMC5447067.
  3. Mersmann F, Bohm S, Arampatzis A. Imbalances in the Development of Muscle and Tendon as Risk Factor for Tendinopathies in Youth Athletes: A Review of Current Evidence and Concepts of Prevention. Front Physiol. 2017 Dec 1;8:987. doi: 10.3389/fphys.2017.00987. PMID: 29249987; PMCID: PMC5717808.

 

Download: How to get started with velocity based training [use case]

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Coach Travis Mash

Travis Mash

Being a World Champion in powerlifting, Travis competed at a world-class level in Olympic weightlifting and has coached professional Olympic weightlifters alongside Don McCauley and Glenn Pendlay at Team MDUSA. Now Travis coaches the most successful weightlifting team in the USA.