One Set of 20 Reps to make better athletes.
You have probably heard of Dr. Yessis before, so today I want to discuss one of his more recent developments in training. Coach Ryan Bracius at University of Wisconsin Whitewater first introduced me to the Dr. Yessis 1×20 strength training protocol earlier this year. Ryan was introduced to the program by Yosef Johnson, owner of Ultimate Athlete Concepts, and who works directly with Dr. Yessis on development and implementation of athletic principles derived from Russian literature and practice.
The program is simple: perform 15-25 exercises per day, using 1 set of 20 reps. The athlete performs the same workout every training day, with increases in resistance after every successful session. My first thought: this is ridiculous.
I didn’t give it a second thought, and continued to have my youth athletes lifting on a two day, full body training program. Each day followed a similar training template with different exercises.
I didn’t revisit the program until a few months later, when I messaged Coach and asked him to explain in further detail what the 1×20 program was for. He explained the program involves doing the same workout every single day, with one set of 20 reps on each exercise using every major joint action of the body. Once adaptation on that workout has stopped, you change the exercises or drop down to 1 set of a 14RM. Again, having always done multi-set systems with my athletes for as long as I have been coaching, a single set of 20 still sounded ridiculous. But I had a lot to learn, and was willing to give it a try.
I continued to read a bit more about it and started to view it from a different perspective: this isn’t just about building maximal strength in youth athletes, this is about teaching kids how to effectively lift, while building muscular endurance, strength and proficiency of movement. Dr. Yessis developed this program on the belief that America in general relies too much on general strength and not enough on specific specialized exercises. By minimizing the length of the workout and maximizing the number of movements you perform, a simple 1 set system could develop a sufficient level of general strength in athletes, allowing them to spend more time on specific strength and skills.
In Dr. Yessis’ book “Build A Better Athlete” he says “in the early stages of training and especially for novices, you should do 15-20 exercises in a typical workout to cover all the major joints and muscles of the body. Because of the need for many exercises, only one set for approximately 15-20RM should be completed. Doing this develops base strength and muscular endurance, and as an extra bonus, you get stronger ligaments and tendons that create more durable joints.” Sounds like what every new lifter needs. Every aspect of this weight training protocol for kids began to click: this is the perfect system for youth athletes.
Youth athletes do not require high intensity or volume to positively adapt to a workout. They will acquire positive adaptations almost every time they perform a lift, be it strength, speed, quality of movement, endurance, or general understanding of the purpose of weight training. With the 1×20 program, novice athletes will have similar strength gains to a multiple set system. However, the athlete will be performing and improving upon a far greater number of exercises and joint actions when compared to a multiple set system. Besides, showing a kid that 3 weeks ago they did dumbbell deadlifts with 35lbs for 20 reps, and today we are using 75lbs for 20 reps is an incredible confidence booster.
Motor patterns are best achieved through frequency and quality of instruction, and performing a movement multiple days per week will decrease time of learning and increase retention of the movements you are teaching. Each athlete will learn to master a specific set of exercises before moving on to a more intense program, and this progression happens at your discretion of the athletes’ development. This general strength and learning period is vital to the growth of the youth athlete.
After the general strength period, the traditional 1×20 program then leads into development of sport specific specialized exercises, which utilize the same motor range of motion, joint angles and motor pathways as those specific to the athletes sport. That, however, is another article all together. (see Read More)
I tried to figure out how I could use this program with my situation, and even which athletes I would even use it with. I made my first attempt at a 1×20 program, and it looked like this:
Athletes would perform this entire list every day, usually taking around 25 minutes. With this workout, my athletes performed:
In addition, we do various single joint movements at the end, time permitting.
I would write the weight in as they used it, and also plan for the next workout. Generally, if we used a 30lb dumbbell for week 1 and they successfully did the set, I will write in 35 lbs for week 2. If that set was not up to standards, we use the same weight the next session and focus on improving the quality of the set. The program is very adaptable and based on the specific athletes’ progress. The main goal when designing the 1×20 is try to work every joint and movement in some way, on a daily basis.
By the time we have performed the same workout 6-12 times, we have over the course of weeks accumulated a large amount of volume with every plane of movement, and increasing intensity on a daily basis.
I now have 5 progressions of the 1×20 protocol that I put athletes on, each with increasing number and difficulty of exercises. Once they get through these progressions we move on to a more intense, traditional multi set system. And after performing hundreds of repetitions of each movement in the previous weeks, I can now trust the athlete to perform the prescribed sets with solid technique.
WHO COULD USE IT
So who exactly would benefit from a 1×20 system? Short answer: everyone. Long answer: it depends on the athlete and the time of year they are in.
For professional and collegiate athletes, a 1 set system with high exercise variety would provide a way to help clear up imbalances by doing 15-20 exercises daily for 2 weeks. By varying the exercises to include mobility, single arm and single leg, prehab, single joint and core exercises, you can prep the body quickly and efficiently for more intense training.
Powerlifters, much like athletes, could benefit greatly by using it after a meet to help correct any imbalances, rehab injury sites, as well as develop general mobility and stability through a solid choice of exercises.
This programs greatest benefit however, in my opinion, lay in its use with general development and foundation setting of youth athletes. The simplicity of the program design, combined with the rapid improvements in strength and proficiency of training make this a program worth trying. It is not as ridiculous as you may think!
Part 2: Cardiovascular Training for Sport In part 1 of this article on aerobics, we took a deep dive into