To single or not to single, that is the question. No Shakespeare for me, but the subject of singles in powerlifting has been a controversial one as far back as I can remember. World champion A swears by singles. He does little else, why lift anything less than your max? However, world champion B believes singles are a waste of time, strength is not built by rep schemes lower than 5’s. World champion C believes in something in between. How does the average powerlifter reconcile all these different opinions and formulate a power building program that he can follow? I hope this article will provide you with an approach that will enable you to use singles to your best advantage.
To start off, each lifter reacts differently to training as any person reacts to any type of stimulus. Some people believe they gain better under one type of rep scheme over another. This could be because of many reasons. I’ve read such high-tech explanations that certain lifters can activate more muscle nerve fibers simultaneously than other lifters. For those of us who don’t have the latest muscular-fiber-impulse testing paraphernalia lying around the house, we really can’t agree or disagree. At least this sounds good.
Some lifters have mental aversions concerning singles. Reps are easy, but psyching up for a big single can be a little unnerving, hence they cannot muster the necessary mental and physical strength to have great success using singles, especially lifts of 95% and above. Liters who can deal with max weights and new personal records on a consistent basis, obviously stand a better chance of extracting more from their use.
Another factor is comparing apples and oranges. By that I mean that performing rep sets is much different than doing single rep sets. With rep sets, the weight is lighter and has a greater margin for error in their execution. If you rep out a set of 5’s, getting one out of the groove will seldom stop you from getting at least 3 reps. However, on a single rep set, one slight mistake and that’s it. Single rep sets are more of an athletic performance. Think of a single rep set as a pole-vaulter’s vault over the crossbar. This is what Russian Sergei Bubka deals with on a constant basis performing his 20-foot vaults or what Ed Coan confronts when he sets yet another world record.
It would follow that lifters that can execute singles with their most efficient lifting technique on a consistent basis can benefit more than lifters who lack this ability. I stress the phrase ‘their most efficient form’ because everyone cannot use the same lifting style. If a lifter can find his most efficient style and be consistent in its execution over all rep schemes, singles will not present as formidable a challenge.
So now that I have given some reasons why some lifters can gain from singles and some can’t, what about that stuff I promised earlier on using singles to our advantage? First of all, the end goal of competitive powerlifting is to produce the heaviest single rep we can. The judges don’t care what you can do for 8 or 5. I don’t believe a lifter’s routine should be based around singles. The best long-term results will come from a well-rounded routine revolving around the 3 powerlifts and mixture of various rep schemes. Let’s layout a sample of a 12 week squat cycle leading up to a competition. I will list only the rep scheme the week’s workout would concentrate on:
Week 1: Reps of 8
Week 2: Reps of 8
Week 3: Reps of 8
Week 4: Reps of 5
Week 5: Reps of 5
Week 6: Reps of 5
Week 7: Reps of 3
Week 8: Reps of 3
Week 9: Reps of 3
Week 10: Reps of 1
Week 11: Reps of 1
Week 12: Reps of 1
The first 6 weeks build a strong base of power. The next 3 weeks provide a transition period to the contest prep period of the last 3 weeks, while still building power. During these last 3 weeks, a lifter spends his core time on singles, transferring the power built in the earlier weeks and off season and solidifying both his technique and mental preparedness. These last 3 weeks are crucial in preparing for the athletic part of powerlifting, the max single. On week 10, the lifter should attempt a single with 95% or so of their previous max. Week 11 should be around their previous max. The last week, a new max might be attempted. By slowly working into singles, the lifter can build momentum and confidence for the meet while still building strength.
This 12-week routine is just one example. Lifters who have considerable trouble with singles, for whatever reason, may want to start singling 1-3 weeks earlier and start with 85-90% of max. More experienced lifters may not need as many weeks. Some lifters can get by with little or no singles during a contest prep period. One thing to keep in mind is that a single rep is very strenuous for both the mind and body. Too many singles can burn a lifter out before the meet. 1-2 singles per workout may be all that’s required. As I mentioned earlier, there is fewer margins for error with singles, so great attention to form, spotting, and lifting safety must be exercised. If you practice these items on ALL your sets and reps, the heavy max ones will be easier to perform in the safest and most efficient manner. Remember this sage advice and gains will be easier to come by.
To conclude, I don’t believe there is one best rep scheme for everyone. But the end goal of our sport is to pop the heaviest single we can. In order to accomplish this, you must have some degree of exposure to singles. By incorporating singles into your routine in the manner I suggested, you can improve your lifting technique, gain confidence with singles and still build strength.
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