Written by: Kevin Cann
Seems that there is some hate for singles still floating around the interwebs. This tends to be the words of inexperience, but still, these inexperienced coaches are getting this information from somewhere.
I have seen an increase in singles being utilized in many different training strategies. Research shows that the closer one is to 1RM, the greater the increase in 1RM. Many coaches have taken this information and added weekly singles into their DUP programs.
This can negate the decreases in strength from running higher rep schemes for a period of time. This is good coaching, taking the information available to them and applying it to their training models. I love seeing stuff like this.
Most of these singles seem to be performed at an RPE 8. I am by no means shitting on other programs, but instead giving my opinions on the subject matter. Hitting a single of something that I can triple may maintain strength, but it certainly will not improve it.
I believe there is a fear that heavy singles are tough to recover from. Perhaps in the beginning if the lifter is not used to higher intensities. The same can be said about a higher volume program. All I have done for 3 months is singles, a set of 10 may actually kill me.
A heavy single close to max, or at max will be tougher to recover from than one performed at an RPE 8. There are not many physiological resources that go into singles. Research can only induce overtraining symptoms if there is an endurance component. It is nearly impossible to induce overtraining with higher intensity sets.
Higher volumes utilize a lot more physiological resources and there is an endurance component to multiple sets of higher reps. This does not mean that higher intensities do not create fatigue. They most certainly do. However, I do believe that it is more psychological than physical.
With a higher volume program you may get really sore afterwards. This is typically not the case for singles. However, over time it can be tougher to get psychologically aroused for the singles, and research has shown some burnout in studies from constant singles.
These studies are not always performed on powerlifters, who may have increased motivational factors that decreases burnout. However, we should still listen because they are human. I have literally only performed singles for 3 months leading into my competition and I have never felt better. The majority of these days were done in equipment with overloaded weights.
Now, do keep in mind I am a beginner in the equipment. I cannot overload the lifts by that much yet. I would imagine if I just kept doing this, at some point I would not be able to keep it up.
Another argument against singles is for the breakdown in technique. This comes down to how the coach views error in the lifts. Is error a bad thing or a good thing? I believe that error teaches the lifter. The coach needs to know how the lifts will breakdown under heavy weights.
Anyone can look good at 70% of 1RM, but we compete at greater than 90% of 1RM. All errors in the sport of powerlifting are either mental, physical, or technical. Heavy singles give the coach answers to those questions. A single at an RPE 8 does not have a psychological piece tied to it. A single at or near max certainly does. It adds in the psychological component that will be present at competition.
Training is practice for competition. Competition scenarios need to be included in the training scenarios so that the lifter can be best prepared for actual competition. Heavy singles are an important element to this.
If you are a lifter reading this, you can attest to competition nerves. Those nerves can negatively effect performance. Best way to train for that is to get those nerves going in training. This is what heavy singles do.
Louie Simmons uses the terms testers and builders for his exercises. I like this a lot. Each individual has their own testers and builders. The coach can program a tester and get feedback on how the lifter is responding to the current training.
The testers also help show the coach what is breaking down and where to attack the training moving forward. Training involves a coach analyzing a lifter’s strengths and weaknesses and laying out a plan to attack those same weaknesses, whether they are mental, physical, or technical.
I am a firm believer that if the coach wants to attack a physical or technical weakness within the lift, it is more than just attacking a single muscle group. I just do not think it comes down to “X” happens in the squat, so ‘Y” must be weak, and the lifter attacks it with bodybuilding.
This is where an understanding of biomechanics becomes important. The coach needs to find a way to alter the task in a manner that will target that weaker muscle group more. A common example is a weak low back compared to the leg strength.
If I identify this weakness in a lifter, I will use a close stance box squat. The lifter needs to push their hips back onto the box, and the closer stance leads to a greater forward lean of the torso. This basically looks like a conventional deadlift with the bar on the lifter’s back.
In this same wave, I may have them perform conventional deadlifts off 2” mats. This takes the legs out of the deadlift and forces the lifter to utilize more hips and low back in the lift. The coach needs to know their lifter and the volumes may need to work up to doing both of these exercises in the same wave.
I believe that this works better than just hitting some lower back accessory work. Now, I do not think it hurts to add in some reverse hypers and back extensions. This is as long as the lifter can recover from the exercises. I encourage each lifter to do both of those exercises one time per week.
However, we cannot just keep hitting competition squats, add in reverse hypers, and expect the weaknesses to get stronger. The change in angles in the lifts themselves are required to strengthen these weaknesses. Does the combination of the 2 work better? Maybe, maybe not.
The change in task also needs to take into consideration the technical breakdown seen by the coach. A common technical breakdown in the squat is when the lifter hits the part where the hips have poor leverage, they will drive the knees forward hard to continue to get the lift.
Of course, the lifter should do what they need to do to lift the heaviest weights possible. I do not necessarily think this is bad, but instead it is telling. This tells me that the hips need to be strengthened. In this case, I may use a wide stance squat.
Wide stance squats will put more emphasis on the hips. If we get the lifter wide enough the center of gravity of the athlete-barbell system will actually shift slightly towards the heels. This shift in COG also makes it more difficult to come forward with the knees at the tough part of the lift. If the lifter comes forward beyond the center of the foot, they will lose balance.
In order for the exercise to punish the technical inefficiency, we need enough weight. A 600lb squatter will be able to get away with technical inefficiencies at 405lbs. The closer the lifter gets to their max, the less they will get away with.
Even to strengthen a weak muscle group, we want heavy singles. If we want to increase the 1RM capability of the lower back, what is the best way to do that? Research states that the best way to increase 1RM strength is to train at or near 1RM. Heavy singles.
These exercises give the coach even more information about the lifter. When we train heavy singles, we can see where each angle stacks up against their best competition squat. If that 600lb squatter can only hit 500lbs on a close stance box squat, we have identified a weakness.
This becomes the angle that we need to build up. I use 3 week waves for each variation. The reason? Because in the past I realized each variation has a 4 to 6 week shelf life. If we end it a bit earlier, I can bring it back in earlier and still get a training effect.
We can keep the close stance box squat, but add chains, then add bands, we can change the bar placement, the bar itself, use pins instead of the box (still make sure the lifter sits back). The coach can be creative here. After a few waves of altering these angles, bring the first exercise back in and see how we did. Often there will be a PR here. If we get a PR here, we can almost be certain there will be a PR in the competition lift.
Now, I would not throw in the competition lift right away after this. The absolute loads are far less than what the lifter is capable of. I typically would find an exercise to bridge that gap. Something they can lift in the high 500s with. Often, we will see a PR on this exercise, sometimes even an all-time PR. After this wave, it may be appropriate to test a competition style squat if the coach wishes to.
Altering exercises like this adjusts the absolute loads. This makes the lifts easier to recover from. I will also replace a max effort day with rep work after the lifter reaches a true max on an exercise. I will also do this when it seems as if the lifter is struggling to recover from training.
All of my lifters have jobs and outside stress. How much gym stress the coach gives them needs to accommodate for life. If I have a lifter with a lot of outside stress, we may alternate each week between max effort and rep work. We can also be a bit more conservative.
My lifters are instructed to leave 5 to 10lbs on the bar for the following week. This is very near max, but not max. Think a conservative 3rd attempt or hard 2nd. The coach can tell the lifter to be a bit more conservative than that. Little less psychological stress induced by training and easier for the lifter to recover from. It can also allow the lifter to build some momentum when things seem to be difficult.
The end of the week is also where we utilize lighter weights to build some rate of force development and technical efficiency. This also gives the lifter a psychological break and allows them to be somewhat fresh when they come back in for max effort work the following week.
Chronic fatigue symptoms that can have negative effects on training do not just pop up when the lifter hits this certain barrier. There are acute fatigue factors each day for sure, but the human body can recover pretty quickly from them. Usually this is within a few hours even. Muscle breakdown may require 2-3 days to fully recover, but this seems to be more of a volume issue than an intensity one. This is why the lighter days and accessory work volume needs to be kept in check.
Each individual will come with a different tolerance to the higher intensities. The coach needs to adjust the training for each individual and their capabilities. Tracking their RPEs, maxes on each lift, and having a relationship with them can help the coach make these decisions. Max singles are training the sport, they should be a part of every program.