The 1 x 20 method has been around for awhile and for most strength and conditioning professionals, it is nothing new. The concept was developed/popularized by Dr. Yessis and through its success, spread quite quickly to nearly all ages.
In short, the program is predicated on performing a minimal effective dose and building from there. If you only need to do one set, then why spend your time doing anything more?
Another enticing aspect of the 1×20 system is that the total number of reps in a set allows for not only a training stimulus, but a teaching stimulus. An athlete gets the chance to practice the form of a specific movement under submaximal conditions.
Going To Failure
There is a good amount of literature supporting the fact that performing a set to complete muscular failure will ensure maximal motor unit recruitment, maximal emg activation, and trigger a stimulus in all muscle fibers of a given muscle.
Total Volume (tension and metabolic buildup)
Total volume at submaximal loads and reps have also been associated with an increase in hypertrophy. As typically seen in most strength and conditioning settings, sets are rarely taken to voluntary failure. However, the accumulation of volume through multiple sets and reps at a submaximal rep count, in conjunction with total muscular strain and metabolic build up may also be factors that induce hypertrophic response. This is critical in such cases where repetitions within in a set are not taken to complete failure.
Putting It Together
If we combine the mechanisms for hypertrophic response and the 1 x 20 method, we can quickly see a plan starting to come together. The 1 x 20 allows for a large volume directed toward (metabolite build up), going to failure will increase the total motor unit recruitment, and the initial repetitions at a submaximal load will allow for technical practice.
Based on the above information, it would be easy to say that performing all sets to complete failure would be best. However, anyone who has trained will tell you thats not 100% accurate. Yes, the physiological stimulus will be there, but being able to move the next day is also beneficial. The training process is predicated on the fatigue-fitness relationship and the more fatigued you are, the less you can train… and for most of us, we like to train because we enjoy it. So, in order to utilize this method in a fashion that wont leave you in an internal hormonal mess, the modification comes into play with the big movements. For example, going to complete failure with a 1×20 in the back squat is tricky, because there is no guarantee that your target tissues are the ones failing first. It is quite possible that your legs are stronger than your back and that when going to failure on the back squat, you put your erectors on the burner. Thus, a breakdown in form can come from poor erector strength endurance and therefore, put you at risk of injury.
Aside from the possible risk of injury being increased with such a large volume to complete failure, you are also taxing a huge number of muscle. Thus, the magnitude of the stimulus is increased and therefore a much larger internal demand arises. A larger internal demand means greater disruption and possibly unwanted systemic fatigue.
When To 1 x 20?
In my opinoin, the 1×20 to complete failure is best avoided with exercises that are A) Highly technique dependent “olympic movements B) That will put you at risk of injury when volitional failure is reached C) That are highly compound (Squat & Deadlift)
Spotters… This may seem quite obvious, but going to failure means you go to failure, thus any exercise that might need a spotter… needs a spotter.
Exercise selection is quite simple. Use exercises that A) can be done to failure “done with dumbells so you can drop them” B) Are different from each other and are designed to target a different muscle group
Example Of Modified 1 x 20
Back Squat 5×4 @ 80%
RDL 3×8 @ 60%
1 x 20 (to failure)
Dumbbell Bulgarian Split Squat 1 x 20
DB 1 arm Row 1 x20
Back Extension 1 x 20
Lat Pull Down or Pull Up 1 x20
Elevated Barbell Glute Hip Bridge 1 x 20
Cable Face Pull 1 x 20
KB Squat (from floor) 1 x 20
DB Hammer Curl 1 x 20
Calf Raises 1 x 20
Banded Side Steps 1 x 20
Because all exercises are done to failure, it would be wise to allow for adequate rest times between exercises. This can be done in one of two ways. You can either A) time your sets and rest about 2-4 minutes between exercises or you can B) Measure your heart rate and use a standardized heart rate to initiate the start of your next set
Keeps It Interesting
One of the most enjoyable aspects of 1 x 20 is the fact you get to do a bunch of different exercises while still getting an adequate training stimulus. No, this is not a perfect program and depending on how you program it, can be used as a simple way to change things up, or even as a long term method. At the end of the day, these simple concepts can be applied to your accessory work and doesn’t need to be the dominating influence in your training.