My Thoughts on Heavy Singles and Athlete Preparedness

Written by: Kevin Cann


I have been coaching athletes for a long time, but powerlifters for only 2 and a half years. As I learn more and gain more experience, the more adjustments I make to our programs to make sure that we are putting our best foot forward.


One thing that I have changed is how often we take heavy singles.  By heavy singles I am talking 90% or higher.  At one point we very rarely touched 90% or higher before a test. In fact, we would touch 90% 1 time before a test.


This was due to technique first and foremost.  Once the weight starts to get to 90% we usually see a drop in technique.  Also, I was under the belief that 90% of 1RM and higher was stressful and risky for the lifter.


We had very good success in doing this.  However, we are always looking to be better.  I am constantly scrolling through Instagram looking at what the most elite lifters are doing in their training.


I saw that many of them were lifting heavy much more frequently than we were.  I also saw that they were making much faster progress than we were.  This part did not bother me as I have a greater focus on long term success with my athletes.


No one is making a living lifting weights.  My goal is to keep them healthy and making steady progress over time.  If you add only 10kg to your total over 10 years that is 100kg.  Regardless of where you are now, that more than likely makes you competitive.


Now, we are putting more than that on our totals a year, but hopefully you get my point.  I see others lifting heavy more often but have my concerns. This leads me to do some research. This is where I was introduced to the acute:chronic workload ratio (ACWL).


The ACWL helps us monitor a lifters preparedness by measuring fatigue vs fitness.  The acute workload is the lifter’s workload in a 7-day period.  The chronic workload is the average over a 4 week period.  The ACWL is calculated by dividing the acute workload by the chronic workload.


I choose to use training volume as the workload.  Let us look at an example in this case.


Week 1: 30,000lbs lifted

Week 2: 25,000lbs lifted

Week 3: 22,000lbs lifted

Week 4: 32,000lbs lifted


The average workload in the example above is 27,250lbs.  The acute workload represents the fatigue and the chronic workload represents the fitness. When looking at this, if the acute training load is low and the chronic training load is high, the athlete is well prepared. If the acute training load is high and the chronic training load is low, the athlete is at risk of injury.


For example, after a meet where volume has been very low for the 2 weeks before the meet and the 2 weeks after, we need to be very careful with how we approach training.  We need to slowly bring up the chronic workload.


Anything over 1.50 has been shown in research to increase injury risk.  .80-1.30 seems to be the training zone that most sports are looking for. Let us continue with the example above. Let us say I really want to push the volume with 40,000lbs lifted in 1 week.


I would take the 40,000lbs and divide it by the chronic workload of 27,250lbs.  This gives us a ACWL ratio of 1.46.  This puts us outside of the desired training range and closer to injury risk.  35,000lbs would be more appropriate here as the ratio with that weight is 1.28, right in the sweet spot.  A lighter week should not be under .80 ACWL ratio as we don’t want a loss of fitness.


This also allows me to see when it is appropriate to push training and when we need to just run the numbers.  This is where our precision sets come in.  When timing is appropriate we will work up to a heavy triple usually and use that number as our new 80% moving forward.


If the program calls for something under 80%, the athlete will use the true percent of their 1RM. If higher than 80% they add that percentage to the bar.  For example, if the athlete has 85% in their program and squat 500lbs, they would add 25lbs to the 80% number.


These numbers remain constant as they run through the block.  Each time they train with that weight it becomes less stressful to the athlete, both mentally and physically.  Technique may not be perfect with these sets, but I am ok with that.  The other day we will work on technique.


The more the athlete practices with the heavy weight, the better the technique gets over time. Technique doesn’t need to be perfect in training when we have a heavy day as long as the rules of powerlifting are being followed and the lifter is not doing anything that will hurt themselves. We will take the variations for technique to heavy singles over time and we see quite a bit of carryover when we test.


Now, we don’t want a triple that looks like garbage.  However, slight breakdowns on the 2ndand 3rdrep are ok.  Can’t worry so much about technique that it hinders strength gains.  There is a time and place for technique work.  On squats it will be the other squat training day that week.


This also allows me to see the improvements that the lifter is making.  The triples should look easier and more technically sound over time. As the triples become easier we start to challenge the variations with heavier weights.  This is how we keep the ACWL ratio in check and the athlete progressing.  Doing both at the same time could put us over the desired ratio and risk injury risk.


As we approach competition the triples will become doubles and singles.  This lets volume dissipate and the intensity to come up.  The athlete is better prepared to handle these heavier weights due to the exertion load of those triples.  That 3rdrep is very difficult for the lifter. Usually, more difficult than a single at 90%.


Due to the Precision sets, my lifters are taking 90% on a pretty regular basis.  If a heavy triple is truly 85% of !RM and the program calls for them to add 5%, they end up taking 90%, many times for 1-3 sets of 2 repetitions.


In this last block, I had lifters take PRs for very fast singles in training.  For example, Mike hit 445lbs for 2 singles 3 weeks out from his test.  At his test he hit 495lbs for a 55lb PR in 4 months of training with me.

(Mike loves being the model in articles so here you go Mike)



I knew the 445lbs would be an easy single because I was monitoring his preparedness and his overall effort in training.  The new Excel spreadsheets will be monitoring this for every lifter so that we can find each lifter’s ideal ratio for the biggest training effect.


This is actually what I was trying to track with the fatigue points many moons ago.  That was unsuccessful as the RPEs are too subjective.  However, science had already figured this out for me and thought of that idea.  Training load is a more concrete number that we can use with proper tracking of data.


This last test for PPS went EXTREMELY well.  I look forward to more of that as we get this nailed down more.

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