Singles, aka one-rep training, is a tried-and-true, no-nonsense, results-producing, strength-building method that has worked for legends like strongman Bob Peoples and “The Scranton Strongman” Jim Williams to the greatest bench presser of all time, Jeremy Hoornstra. My client Jeremy just broke the raw bench world record in the 242 weight class — a record that stood for nearly 30 years. He benched 675 pounds raw, shattering the previous record of 603.5 pounds.
The Stigma of Singles
There’s a stigma are attached to singles. Many coaches and trainers believe they’re unsafe because they put a lot of strain on your muscles and connective tissue. And it does, which is why this protocol isn’t for beginner or intermediate trainers.
Also, some believe singles demonstrate strength but don’t actually build strength because of a lack of work, but I say “pea hockey” (the Appalachian term for “nonsense”)! Try deadlifting 15 sets of singles at 80 percent of your one-rep max with a 30-second rest interval between singles. You’re working and building strength.
Limit Strength Base
Your limit strength is your base. Limit strength, or the amount of force you can exert in one all-out effort, is the foundation of both athletic training and physique building. In other words, it’s how much weight you can lift for a one-rep max. Limit strength is tested by lifting maximal weights. A max-effort movement is generally classified as 1–3 repetitions with greater than 90 percent of your one-rep max.
Powerlifting is the most effective measurement of limit strength. In all other sports, limit strength is just a component and, as an athlete advances and becomes stronger, decreasing amounts of time are devoted to building his limit-strength base. Powerlifting is limit strength and relative strength—you lift as much weight as possible for a one-rep max. There is no time limit to lift the weight, and you are compared to competitors within your weight class.
The best way to test limit strength is with a one-repetition max in a core movement. Many people question the safety of this practice; but think about it: Form can break down with heavy weight but also with fatigue. Doing a one-rep max, you risk some form breakdown. Doing a repetition max with 85–90 percent of your one-repetition max, you are still lifting heavy weight, but fatigue will also play a role, setting the path for technical breakdown.
Many times injuries happen on a balls-out last rep of a squat or deadlift rather than on heavy a one rep set. The mindset for a heavy single is just that: to perform a heavy single. For max reps, there is no true mindset besides one more and push through the pain. Technique from a psychological standpoint is the focus when maxing; it seems to be put on the back burner for rep maxes.
The Singles Scene
There are different techniques for adding singles training to your routine. Here are some of the most common:
The Dinosaur Training Method, popularized by Brooks Kubik, is doing five singles in one workout, starting light and progressively adding weight each set where the final set should be a max effort. Initially, you can work up to a two-rep max (for a single) on your last set and then weekly make small jumps.
Cluster Training catalyzes strength gains—start by using 90 percent of your one-repetition max, perform a single, and then rest 20 seconds between singles. Do 4 to 6 singles, then rest 5 to 7 minutes and repeat the process. This training is extremely demanding and cannot be used on a weekly basis. Cluster training intensity can be increased or decreased not only by adjusting bar weight but by adjusting the number of singles, the number of cluster sets, and of course, the rest intervals.
Daily Max Training simply means you work up to a daily max. The max is your max for the day, but the key to not overtraining is the max means the most you can lift without “psyching up” or any technical breakdown. Poor form, failure, and emotional arousal cannot be part of the modus operandi for daily max training.
Density Training is a method of performing total work in a prescribed amount of time, approximately 10 to 15 minutes. Select a specific weight and do as many singles as possible within the time frame. Keep increasing the singles within the given time frame or keep the number of singles the same and reduce the time to completion—intensity through density!
Rest/Pause Training is a favorite of old-time strength aficionados. It’s the method Jim Williams used in Rockview Penitentiary to build a world record bench press. Put 85 to 95 percent of your max on the bar and do a single. Rest 15 to 30 seconds and repeat; your goal is to complete as many singles as possible.
Singles Guidelines and Benefits
- Perform singles in a Compensatory Acceleration Training (CAT) style, which is a training method made popular by Fred Hatfield. It’s the process of putting maximum force into the bar each rep.
- Concentrate on technique; singles build technique. Singles also force neural adaptations for competitive lifts. In other words, you lift one rep in a contest so you get more coordinated at lifting one rep.
- Vary the weights; working up to a one-rep max is great, lifting 15 singles is great, 5 singles at 90 to 95 percent is great as well. Doing the same thing all the time is wrong! However, each aforementioned method of singles has benefits.
- Piling more iron on the bar is the most obvious way to progress, but you should also manipulate rest intervals and the number of sets performed.
- Singles help gain strength without adding muscle mass, which is great for athletes looking to stay in the same weight class.
- Try cluster sets. For instance, bench press 90 percent of your one-repetition max for a single, and then rest 15 seconds. Do this for 4 sets. Rest 3 minutes. Repeat. Rest 3 minutes. Repeat. You have done 12 reps at 90 percent!
Single reps aren’t for everyone, especially not beginners. Choose what works for you, what you enjoy, and what’s safe for your level.