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Q&A with Matt Thome: High Performance Implementation of 1×20 and Beyond

The 1×20 training system, invented by Dr. Michael Yessis, has created a lot of buzz lately on its ability to get athletes strong, while also having a tremendous effect on dynamic performance measures, such as vertical jump or 30m dash.  The system is incredibly simple, and as such, generates a lot of questions, as well as thoughts as to how and why it works.

Recently, I had the opportunity to do an amazing podcast with Jeff Moyer, Ryan Bracius, and Matt Thome, on not only the 1×20 system but also, the progression through the system, to 1×14, 1×8 and finally, moving onwards to velocity based barbell training and special strength.

The podcast was excellent, and one that was worthy of some follow up questions in a typical text format, so Matt Thome returns to Just Fly Sports in a question and answer session regarding the fine points of the system.

Just Fly Sports: Outside of the 1×20 exercises, what other movements, if any, are you using with athletes in the first stage, such as plyometric hops.  How does corrective type exercise, if you use it, fit in? 

Matt Thome: In the early stages of using the 1×20 progression, we may or may not use any other movements; this all depends on the population of athletes and potentially the calendar.  When beginning with a group of athletes, I prefer to introduce the various components gradually for a couple of reasons:

  1. So that they physically and cognitively have a grasp on what we are currently doing.
  2. Because in the beginning, you don’t need much more than basic GPP to improve performance.

As we progress however, we will begin to introduce low-level, extensive jumps, cutting technique work, and eventually some specialized exercises.

In terms of “corrective exercises” I think we first have to ask, “what are we trying to correct?”  Dr. Yessis is able to create and adapt specialized exercises specific to an individual athlete that can help correct flaws in their technique.  Thus, the “screen” here is a biomechanical analysis of the competition movement.   Not many of us, including me, have the biomechanics skill and eye that it takes to do that.  Normally in our profession when we talk about corrective exercises, we’re referring to general postural corrections, imbalances, and/or asymmetries.  I think that it’s now somewhat widely accepted that attempting to correct all asymmetries or “imbalances” may have a negative impact on performance in certain athletes.  In terms of general postural alignment, it appears to me that, for the most part, if the body is aligned properly it will be in a more optimal position to produce force.  I don’t think this always requires specific corrective exercises, however.  This is part of the simplistic beauty of the 1×20 progression actually: If you train every joint, and eventually every joint action, through a full or large range of motion, with a heavy emphasis on technique, many things just fall into place.

1x20 training system

If you train every joint, and eventually every joint action, through a full or large range of motion, with a heavy emphasis on technique, many things just fall into place. 

Like I mentioned in the podcast, motor control improves and posture/mobility will as well.  That being said, there of course are cases where athletes may have some type of pre-existing issue or restriction that may need to be addressed differently.  I think that the 1×20 also serves as a good assessment in this way: you’re looking at movement in each joint under a light, safe load and you’ll be able to see what happens as the athlete fatigues over the course of the set.  This can help steer your decision making in terms of exercise modifications, additional exercises, and/or mobility prescriptions.

In that same vein, we can use that “assessment” to progress or regress athletes of varying abilities accordingly.  I think any good coach knows how to do this within their system so this probably doesn’t require much explanation.  Once the athletes understand the overall concept and goals of the program, we’ll also allow more autonomy with how they progress; I think that this is an important aspect of individualization.

Just Fly Sports: Can you give a quick overview of how you implement the 1×20, 1×14 and 1×8 sets in your collegiate athletes, over their time with you?

Matt Thome: Football is the most clear and consistent for the sake of this example because all of our freshmen redshirt.  We take about a year to make it through the 1×20, 1×14, and 1×8 with those athletes, so about 3-4 months per “phase.”  This also factors in breaks and spring ball.  It seems that by the end of that first year we can begin to move on to some more dynamic effort work (according to Zatsiorsky’s definition: lifting or throwing a submaximal load at the highest attainable speed; VBT without always measuring velocity).  After that first year we won’t need to do nearly as much GPP for most of our athletes.  The second year has typically averaged about 6-8 weeks per phase and by their third and fourth years we’ll use about 3-4 weeks per phase before moving on.  Each year the athletes probably won’t need as much on the front end (1×20) but will be able to progress a bit more and spend some more time on the back end (1×8 or VBT, depending on the specific athlete and their needs).

When taking a closer look at how we progress from session to session, you’ll see that this aspect is very simple as well.  Once the athlete has “mastered” the current load, increase by the smallest increment available (usually 5lbs).  The prescribed reps are really an average of a range (for example: 1×20 actually means 1x about 17-23).  When working with teams it helps to come up with some guidelines here.  I will tell the athletes to start with a weight that they know they’ll be able to hit for 20 reps with good technique (remember, I have smart kids here at Michigan Tech so this may or may not work in everyone’s situation).  I’ll tell them to shoot for 20 good reps on day 1 and on day 2 I’ll explain that we’re working in a range and to use the same weight and shoot for a couple more reps. When they are able to hit that weight with good technique for 20 or more reps for a couple training sessions, we will add 5lbs.  Some athletes may not need to hit the same weight for more than 1 training session but I think it’s better to be safe and make sure they have a good technique before bumping up.  This also gives you an extra day to see most everyone on the team and maybe let some athletes know to hit that same weight for another training session.  As the weight goes up and we drop down to 1×14 and 1×8, I’ve found it helps to have athletes hit the same weight for about 3 training sessions before trying to progress (so about 5lbs/week in the 1×14 and 5lbs every week and a half in the 1×8).  This has worked very well; you’d be surprised how well athletes are able to adapt and progress with this simple method.

Just Fly Sports: Do you use Olympic lifts with the system?

Matt Thome: Sometimes, yes.  I don’t see why there has to be such a dichotomy on this topic; they’re just general exercises.  I actually use them with football but not basketball so I suppose it just depends on the situation.  Out of about 30 freshmen coming in each year on the football team 28-30 have some experience with the lifts.  We also have a nice period during the entire fall semester to work on them.  Most of the basketball players that come in have no experience with the lifts and we also have less time with them.  With this group it makes more sense to work on jumps and jump technique and spend more of our limited time on that.  Either way I think the Olympic lifts can be a valuable tool in the tool box in certain situations.

Matt Thome 1x20 and Beyond

Just Fly Sports: What are some differences between “direct” exercise to exercise transfer, and then more “general” aspects of transfer.  What things from the 1×20 system are you looking to transfer to performance?

Matt Thome: Transfer of training is the term that most of us are familiar with.  Something Dr. Bondarchuk has written about and Jake Jensen and I have discussed while translating/editing his work is the concept of “transfer in the process of sport form.”  “Sports form” was the term chosen to replace “trainedness” as it is more encompassing of all the factors required to peak for competition than simply looking at physical abilities.  In this same way, transfer of training describes how a general, or less-specific, exercise improves performance (i.e. increasing strength in the back squat improves 100m sprint time).  Transfer in the process of sports form encompasses the physiological and psychological components required to improve performance in the competition movement and is thus, more specific (i.e. a 60m sprint out of the blocks improves 100m sprint time).

I use a variety of specific exercises as well as cutting technique work in order to “bridge the gap” between our general exercises and the competition exercise. However, every component of the training system is in there for a reason and serves its own purpose.  This means that the specialized exercises are not necessarily more important in terms improving performance; if an athlete does not have the requisite general strength they may not have a need for specialized movements until that is sufficient.  So in reality, I’m hoping that every component of the training system transfers to an increase in performance; otherwise what purpose would it serve?

Just Fly Sports:  What are some of the special exercises you commonly use with your athletic populations, such as football and basketball?  At what point do these progressions start to get utilized?

Matt Thome: The four most common specialized exercises I use for football and basketball were developed by Dr. Yessis.  I use the paw back and knee drive which relate to specific actions in the flight phase in running as well as a forward lunge and a side lunge.  The aim of these is to improve the push-off in running and cutting ability, respectively.  I also use several specialized exercises for the quarterbacks and kickers.

These exercises could be used as soon as an athlete has a good grasp (physically and cognitively) on what they are doing with the general exercises you’re using.  However, I have found success in holding off on the specialized exercises until year 2.  This way I kind of keep them in my back pocket and use them when needed.  We see a lot of improvement from just the GPP initially and it works out well to focus solely on that to begin with.  When you do plug the SST work in you’ll see another jump in performance.

Just Fly Sports: What other strength training systems had you utilized prior to 1×20, or are there any that carry a component of their structure into what you do after the 1×20/1×14/1×8 has run its course?

Matt Thome: Prior to visiting and talking with Yosef Johnson and being introduced to the 1×20 (which was in 2010), I think I was doing what pretty much everyone else was doing: corrective exercises were growing in popularity along with movement screens and single-leg strength training.  In terms of sets and reps, I never found a great system that sat well with me or made sense.  Everything seemed fairly random and open for much interpretation.  It was basically just GPP and there was nothing wrong with it except for that the results weren’t dramatically great.  I suppose, to directly answer the question, my influences prior to using this system impact my selection of general exercises but not much else.

After an athlete has a sufficient general base, the shift I then take is mostly influenced by Dr. Anatoliy Bondarchuk and his periodization models.  This is something that I’ve learned and developed in more recent years so it’s not related to anything I did prior to learning the 1×20 progression.

Just Fly Sports: What are some of the methods you’ve been experimenting with when moving to the “1×8” section of the 1×20 system and beyond?

Matt Thome: I’ve tried several different things here.  As Jeff said in the podcast, with certain athletes we may not even need to drop down to 1×8 if they’re strong enough for their sport/position after the 1×14.  In this case we could just move on to VBT/dynamic effort work right away.  But here are a few different routes I’ve gone:

  • When I was at Richmond, Jay DeMayo and I had the basketball guys hit 1×8 for speed and 1×8 for strength per Dr. Yessis’ recommendation and that worked well.
  • This is also usually the time where I’ll start to mix in ¼ squats or other lower body general exercises (step ups, split squats, etc.). I might do 1×8 of a ¼ squat followed by 1×14 of a ½ squat or step up, for example.
  • With my second year non-travel football guys, I’ve used a lower volume of dynamic effort work (3×3) followed by 1×8 of heavy back squat. This worked very to increase general strength in those who were still lagging a bit.  I was actually really surprised that they were able to hit a heavy 8 two days a week for almost the entire fall and continue to progress at the rate they did.
  • With the older football guys we’ll get into dynamic effort work in the summer. We could start during spring ball but in my situation the practices are too demanding to be able to get more quality work in and I only see the guys for 2 hours per week.  As I said in the podcast, Yosef and I have experimented with 3 VBT training sessions followed by 1 session of 1×8/1×14.  We would be doing an upper/lower split during this time period so we would hit a 1×8 day every other week (Thursday/Friday).  We have seen very good results with this (depth jump rebound height, cutting speed, and strength all move along very well) but I think we can push the 1×8 day for maintenance of strength out a bit more; maybe just hit it every third week.

Just Fly Sports: How often should athletes “come back” to a 1×20/1×14/1×8 bracket in the course of their training?  In season vs. an advanced athlete training in the pre-season?

Matt Thome: Elements of the 1×14 and 1×8 are used for maintenance at times even when we are beyond the very general stages for that offseason.  If something has been effective at improving performance than you don’t want to throw that piece away, you want to build off it.  You don’t want to simply move on and lose the qualities that you’ve built.  When you get to this point it’s even more of a balancing act: how little of the very general training needs to be done to maintain those qualities while also allowing for appropriate adaptation energy to be able to adapt adequately to more specific work?  This will vary from athlete to athlete, year to year and will also depend on the nature of your training following the 1×20/1×14/1×8.

We re-address the 1×20/1×14/1×8 at the beginning of each offseason, but as I mentioned earlier, this period of time becomes shorter and shorter each year.  During the in-season period I found a combination of VBT and 1×14 works well.  We can easily autoregulate the load in the 1×14 depending on the athletes’ current readiness (it could be a recovery session, a maintenance session, or a development session).

About Matt Thome

Matt ThomeMatt began his role as the Head Strength and Conditioning Coach at Michigan Tech in August 2012.  In August 2015, his responsibilities shifted to a 50/50 split appointment between Athletics and the Kinesiology and Integrative Physiology Department.  He is currently responsible for the preparation of the Football and Men’s Basketball teams and teaches several courses throughout the year.  Prior to joining Tech, Matt worked as an assistant Strength and Conditioning Coach at the University of Richmond as well as several private sports performance facilities.

Matt received his Bachelor’s degree in Clinical Exercise Science from Grand Valley State in 2008 and his Master’s degree in Exercise Physiology from Indiana University in 2011.  He is a Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist (CSCS) from the National Strength and Conditioning Association (NSCA).

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2 comments

  1. Very interesting read. I would like to know if and how this “system” has been or can be applied to other sports..for example swimmers? If you do know of a coach who say works with these types of athletes and has had proven success with this method, I would be keen to make contact with the coach.

    • Stephen, thanks, I’m glad you enjoyed it! If you’d like to talk more with coaches who have used this method successfully with swimmers I would contact Jay DeMayo at the University of Richmond and Keenan Robinson with USA Swimming.

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