6 Months of Singles
by Steve Shaw
First a little background. I began lifting seriously in 1986. When I say seriously, it really means I started to focus on progression of weight and maximizing sets. After 2 years of training I was squatting 365 for reps and benching 275 for reps. I didn't deadlift at that time because it was not a popular exercise in the Weider mags.
I learned a valuable lesson during these first 2 years: Progression of weight on the basics is everything.
My basic progression approach during these years was simple: do as many reps per set as I could, stopping just shy of failure. When I reached a reasonable amount of reps I added weight. When designing workouts I often refer to this approach as the "Rep Goal System."
In any case, I used this approach for a very long time and was able to maximize my beginner and intermediate years. Then life intervened. Army, beer, relationships, a career. You get the picture. Bottom line, I strayed from serious training in my 20s to pursue other areas of life.
I have returned to training after layoffs like this twice. Both times I used the same "rep goal" approach, but in both cases my strength returned quickly. This brings me up to 2007.
In 2007 I returned to lifting a few years after the birth of my second daughter. I had been interacting with a powerlifter at work and he turned me on to new ideas and concepts such as wide stance squatting and Westside barbell. We would talk frequently, and it fueled my passion to get back after the iron.
By 2009 my strength had completely returned and then some. I hit a squat max of 500, and my bench was up to 340. I felt superhuman. It is also around this time that I began to train the deadlift seriously.
Unfortunately the next 2 years were a huge grind. I was trying program variation after program variation but my bench and squat had stalled. I became obsessed with doing as many reps as possible on the squat with 405. In early 2009 I was squatting 405 x 5 reps. In mid-2011 I was still squatting 405 x 5 reps. No change at all.
It was around the time of my first meet that I was introduced to the concepts of heavy singles, doubles and triples, and training above 80-85%. Now some of you might think I am an idiot for never training at these intensities, but keep in mind that my lifting life for 20+ years consisted of bodybuilding magazines and muscle building. I also hadn't stepped foot on to a lifting forum or website until 2007.
Long story short, I began using heavy work in August of 2011, immediately following my first powerlifting meet. I committed to the process, and haven't wavered on bit in the last 6 months. As I sit and type this it is exactly 6 months later, and my 3-lift gym total is up nearly 200 pounds. Let that sink in for a bit.
+200 pounds in 6 months.
I recently did a squat set with 505 pounds, 100 more than the magical, mystical 405 pounds I was obsessed with for nearly two years. Though I stopped the set at 4 reps, I could have hit 5 or more reps had it been do or die.
6 months of frequent, heavy training took a squat weight that wasn't budging for 2 years and made it feel like a joke. Yes, a joke. 405 now feels impossibly light, and is merely a warmup rep.
My point in writing this is to introduce intermediate lifters to the concept of heavy singles and their benefits. So without further blabbering, here is what I learned during the last 6 months of training:
Sub-par programming leads to reduced expectations. The limitations of my approach bottled me into thinking I was close to my strength limits. In early 2011 I thought I would never hit a 1500 total. Now I believe a 1900 (or more) raw total could be possible with time and luck.
At some point as an intermediate you need to add work above 80%. Obvious to many of us, but it was a foreign concept to me. Adding in work above the standard 5-10 rep hypertrophy ranges helped me to increase my strength dramatically.
Heavy lifting works even if the programming is sub-par. Perhaps a controversial statement, but true in my case. I spent 6 months dialing in my programming, but was still making ridiculous gains even when some of my choices were less than optimal.
As a beginner to early intermediate, progression and food can overcome sub-par programming. As a late intermediate to advanced lifter, heavy lifting can overcome sub-par programming. Not advocating bad workout systems, obviously, but rather making an observation.
You can lift at 85%+ frequently. I was lifting at 85 to 95% on each lift multiple times per week. The 3 keys were frequent deloading, listening to my body on a given day and doing only what I could, and adding exercise variations when appropriate.
Too many people over-complicate programming. The only assistance work I did during the last 6 months was the occasional set of weighted situps and side bends. With that said, I certainly have a current need for working some weak areas, but I think in general many training programs are too complicated.
Floor deadlifts are taxing. Obvious? Well I out it to the test and found that frequent 90% floor pulling left my upper back taxed. By adding in simple variations like the low rack pull, RDL, or Knee-level Starr shrug, I was able to train the deadlift much more frequently.
My squats respond to singles, doubles and triples. My squats are flying up, yet I rarely do more than 6 working reps per week over the course of 3 sessions. Each training session, based on how I feel as I am warmup up, I work up to a heavy single, double or triple.
I have made consistent progress using this minimalistic, but frequent and heavy squatting approach, and it has also allowed me to train basically strain free. On the other hand, if I do too many singles, doubles or triples, I was picking up minor tweaks and strains.
Less but frequent seems to work well for squats.
My bench press needs volume. I started with volume singles doubles and triples and made progress. I backed away from this approach and started to use fewer singles per week, and really no doubles or triples. My bench stalled at this point. It is still stalled to a degree, so I am planning on adding more volume post-meet.
I will still be hitting at least a +35 pound PR at this meet, which is good progress for 6 months, but I am not satisfied.
The Slingshot (or Ram) is a must have. The Slingshot has allowed me to train heavy benching 3x a week without any strains. This is a huge change for me. I lived with constant, and often painful shoulder and brachialis strains and pains for 3 years. I couldn't bench above 80% at all.
Getting to 85% is easy. Getting to 85% of my current strength levels was easy. Progression, food, persistence. Moving beyond that is very hard. Not just physically, but mentally hard. It's certainly not for everyone. Each day can feel like entering battle with live ammunition.
This goes for muscle building as well. Some of you won't believe this. I currently have arms over 19 inches and I never do any direct arm work. I am not saying this is optimal for bodybuilding, as I am not a bodybuilder, but it does give you something to think about.
I have never done a lot of arm work, for what it's worth.
Keeping it simple, I believe it's prudent at some point as an intermediate lifter to add in some form of singles, doubles or triples. I am not sold on using high intensity work as a complete replacement for current rep-style work in the 5-10 rep range, but I think they make a great addition. Intermediates still need reps to build a better muscular foundation.
I see very few downsides to keeping both 85% plus work, and work in the 70-80% range. If I was an intermediate again, traveling back to 2009, I would have kept my "Rep Goal System" and added in frequent 85% work. I would also have added in frequent deloads, perhaps every 3rd to 4th week.
During the last month leading up to this meet I pulled back my frequency on heavy sessions, but also shortened my deload periods. This combination has allowed me to peak exceptionally well. My body feels great right now, and I have absolutely no current strains, pains or tweaks.
Awesome write up btb, reading this made me realize that I also get the most of of my squats when I stick with triples and singles. Also the same can be said with my bench. When I was running Metal Militia I rarely went above 5 reps and there was alot of volume. I ran it for 10 weeks and my shirted bench went from 470-490,shirted two board went from 485 to 530. Raw bench went from 295-305. And countless other bench like PR's.
I think if I were younger I probably could handle more squat volume, meaning more singles, doubles and triples. I have tried them in this framework and usually end up tweaking something on rep or 4 if I go too heavy. Don't know why - old age or whatever, but I would be curious to see how my body responded if this wasn't the case.
Bench though I am going to make a run soon similar to what you did and see what happens. To be honest, most times I simply stop bench workouts out of boredom after a few sets. I need to find an engaging approach that doesn't involve 8 singles with the same weight.
Good to hear all this, Steve. I've been advocating a similar approach for a while as well.
One thing I don't understand, though, is how deadlifts are so taxing to many lifter's upper backs...If anything, I find pulling frequently to be harder on my lower back. Perhaps it is due to different pulling methods?
Excellent!!! Really a good read.
Perhaps this is merely a personal bodypart weakness, but when I pull low rack deads I experience nothing like this. I do believe that the upper back and lats take a greater beating the lower you start the pull. I'm assuming this is because they work harder to stabilize the arms and shoulders from a starting position. When standing more upright I am guessing they are not challenged to the same degree.
Sounds minor, but the strength drop off from fatigue in these positions is night and day for me.
Great read and some really good points to think about.
Excelent, Steve. Thanks for sharing.
This was a very good write up Steve, gonna have to give you a call so we can delve further into this concept! I have found that single,double, and triples are my sweet spot for increasing my big three (per JB, Fazc, and your ideas/conversations)
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