In December I wrapped up a workout block I called the “EMOM Workout” (you can see the details here). In the spirit of experimentation, I’ve started something completely new (for me) a 1 x 20 workout.
1 x 20 Explained
1 x 20 is an established – if not well known – workout methodology made popular by Dr. Michael Yessis.* I heard about it on the Rugby Strength Coach Podcast with Chris McCormack, Director of Athletic Performance at Gardner Webb University in North Carolina. I followed up with the podcast host, Keir Wenham-Flatt about how it might work with my high-school rugby players. He recommended 1 x 20 for them, so I decided it was time to time to do some research!
In very simple terms, 1 x 20 describes a workout program where you perform 1 set of 20 repetitions of as many as 15-20 exercises that cover all the major muscle and joint groups. You perform the exercises with strict form, with weight that allows you to hit those last few reps with strict form, but difficulty nonetheless. Increase weight as the load becomes easier, if not daily. Workout as often as your body allows (I’ve seen some S & C coaches recommend 2-3 times/wk, and others as much as 5 times/week).
As you progress – which can take years – the program becomes what I would consider a more traditional strength workout: lower reps, higher weight, fewer sets.
Benefits of 1×20
Time. A couple of benefits touted by Yessis and others include the time it takes to complete a workout: fairly quick, since it’s pretty simple. Personally, I’m usually out of the gym between 45 to 60 minutes (my 3x/wk workout contains about 19 sets). Even at an hour, the 1×20 is a much more efficient use of gym time than other workouts I’ve used. Some 1×20 schemes I’ve seen include between 12-15 sets, and clock in at about 30 minutes. (Note: I often increase my recovery time between sets, which, in turn, increases my overall workout time. By moving quickly from set-to-set, you can decrease your gym time).
Connective Tissue. It’s also easier on your joints and ligaments than traditional strength workouts. Ligaments and connective tissue, because they don’t have access to a large blood flow (like muscle tissue) don’t adapt as quickly under stress. Often injury happens when you progress too quickly in weight before your connective tissue has a chance to adapt. 1×20 limits the stress placed on your connective tissue in any one movement. I can tell you from personal experience that this has been a huge benefit to me. I’ve worked with some fairly heavy loads in workouts like 5×5 (300+ lb deadlifts, 250+ lb bench press, 250 lb+ squats), and my knees, hips, back and shoulders seemed to be in a constant state of ache. Since switching to the 1×20, I’m often amazed at how pain-free I am walking up stairs, running, or jumping in every day activities.
Gainz. Although the increments are generally small, even as an experienced lifter, I have seen slow but tangible gains. There’s nothing wrong with small and incremental; if you’re looking at your health from a long-term perspective, small and incremental gains in strength, athleticism, and connective tissue health add up to big gains over time. And if you aren’t backing off because of injury or time constraints, those increases will snowball.
Drawbacks of 1×20
Effectiveness. The 1×20 system is geared toward young and inexperienced athletes. If you’re already an experienced lifter who finds gains hard to come by, 1×20 probably isn’t for you.
Pump. This may sound odd, but hear me out. I love the “pump” and soreness I get the day after a good workout. It makes me feel like I’ve done something big (although whether you’re sore the day after a workout doesn’t correlate to whether it was any more effective than a workout that doesn’t make you sore). One thing I like about 1×20 is that I’m not terribly sore after a workout, which makes it easier for me to go back to the gym the next day. But I don’t have the “pump”. My youngest son has struggled with 1×20 because he isn’t sore after a workout. He feels like it isn’t working for him, even though his numbers are consistently increasing.
Pride. Starting the 1×20 is embarrassing, or at least it was for me. Since I’ve been working at a rate of 5-8 reps for so long, hitting those last five reps between 15 and 20 was incredibly difficult when I first started. I had to drop my weight down to teeny-tiny dumbbells in many cases. I went from being a fairly remarkable gym personality to being less than average. Granted, after 8 weeks, my numbers in most sets have increased dramatically. But it takes several weeks for your body to adapt. Swallow your pride for the sake of the long-term view.
Who is 1×20 For?
I began this circuit because it was recommended for young and inexperienced athletes/lifters. I’m a high-school rugby coach, and many of my athletes have little to no gym experience. I wanted to be able to recommend a regimen for them that would allow them to make substantial gains, but not beat them up; rugby is hard enough, I don’t need my kids getting beat up in the gym. Before I made a recommendation to my kids, I wanted to try it for myself. That being said, even though I’m not a “young and inexperienced athlete”, I’ve still seen substantial strength and endurance gains over the past 8 weeks. I’ll most likely continue for another 6 weeks or so to see if I hit a limit.
If you’re an experienced lifter and find yourself over-trained or recovering from injury, I’d recommend 1×20 to get you back into training.
If you’re an in-season athlete and insist on lifting during season, 1×20 is a good way to train without overdoing it.
As a 51 year-old, I’d say 1×20 is great for older lifters who want to stay in shape, but aren’t trying to compete in any kind of master’s level power-lifting competition. It’s easy on your joints and easy to recover from.
I like 1×20. It’ll probably work its way into my training cycle once/twice a year or so. I’ve had a good response to it, and so have many S&C (strength and conditioning) coaches, especially in high-school / college athletes. If it helps, here is my own, personal 1×20 routine (1×20-Workout.xlsx) (updated 6/26/2018). Use it at your own risk or for your own benefit. Let me know how it works for you!