Q: I've heard it's not a good idea to train powerlifting with single reps. Is this true?

When I was growing up, a bouncer from the local kick-n-stab bar used to hit the pig iron after slamming down some malt liquor 40s in the parking lot. He said he created this alcohol-fueled workout because it "mirrored" the needs of the job—to be able to drink and throw people out the door.

Just search "sports-specific exercises" and you'll see all sorts of dog-and-pony shows masquerading as sports-specific training. With such charlatanism so common, it's no wonder people sometimes look right past real opportunities for sport-specific training.  

Take powerlifting, for example. It's a one-rep sport: You win by squatting, bench pressing, and deadlifting the most after three attempts at each, always under the watchful eyes of certified officials. If you're being judged on your proper execution of one single rep, you damn sure better have some one-rep practice before you hit the platform.

4 Benefits of Single-Rep Training

1. Technique Enhancement

One of the problems with higher-repetition work when training for strength is technical breakdown. As fatigue sets in, technique breaks down. Instead of trying to grind out repeated reps, train specifically for powerlifting by focusing on single reps. The more frequently you perform singles, the better your technique will become and, in turn, the more weight you'll be able to lift.

2. Accurate One-Rep Max

More than 30 years ago, my mentor and world champion powerlifter, the late Fred Hatfield, Ph.D., aka Dr. Squat, tested hundreds of subjects to see how many reps of various lifts they could do using 80 percent of their one-rep max. The numbers ranged from 3 reps to more than 25.

Can I Build Strength With Singles?

A bench press max calculator will tell you that if you can bench press 300 pounds for 3 reps, your max is 327 pounds. If you can do 300 pounds for 20 reps, it'll calculate your max at 485 pounds. Interesting information—but about as useful as an ashtray on a dirt bike! The only way to know what you can really lift is by performing heavy singles in training. Singles are your powerlifting indicator, not some calculator.

3. Higher-Intensity Training

The fewer reps you do, the more weight you can put on the bar. By default, single reps let you train with higher intensity. If you've never trained this way, you may find that single reps provide a new stimulus and, psychologically speaking, will help you feel more confident lifting heavier weights.

4. Strength Without Mass

Singles provide primarily neurological adaptations, which is to say that they improve your skill at lifting heavier weights. A bodybuilder might be after mass, with no upper limit in sight. Powerlifters, except for the super heavy weights, are restricted by weight class. You want to be as powerful as you can while staying in your weight class.

Can I Build Strength With Singles?

You take the podium not by having more muscle mass than your competitors, but by being more neurologically efficient. You improve your neurological efficiency by training with heavier weights and fewer reps.

Even the powerlifter looking to add mass should train with singles at some point. The combination of single-rep training and higher volume training produces the perfect blend of size and strength.

Guidelines to Training With Singles

  • Perform singles explosively. Put maximum force into the bar as you lift!
  • Nail that technique! Singles force neural adaptations for the powerlifts. Grease the groove by building great technique.
  • Vary the weights. Working up to a one-rep max is great. Lifting 15 singles is great, too. And so is doing 3 singles at 90-95 percent. Variety creates new stimulation and new growth.
  • Vary rests and singles. Adding more weight to the bar is just one way to progress. You can also move forward by varying rest intervals and the number of singles performed.
  • Do cluster set singles. Practice doing multiple singles with intra-set rest periods of 15-30 seconds.

About the Author

Josh Bryant, MS, CSCS

Josh Bryant, MS, CSCS

Josh works as a Strength & Conditioning coach and is certified in fitness training, nutrition, and conditioning, and was recently awarded...

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