A little over one year ago I reached out to Austin Baraki in desperate need of coaching. Thankfully, he didn’t hesitate to accept the task and we immediately got to work. At first, he “triaged” my situation by correcting a number of technical errors that he observed after watching some of my training footage. After that, he made several changes to my current training routine; cutting out a lot of “fluff” and putting more emphasis on the things that mattered: the main lifts and their close variations. All of this made sense but one aspect of the program that stood out to me was the introduction of weekly singles (a single refers to one repetition). I remember the first time I saw “Squat: 1 rep @ RPE 7” and thinking “What is the point of this?” I have since learned the value of regularly performing singles and this article will list 3 reasons why they can be a helpful training tool for you.
#1. Sports Specific Training – This term gets a lot of flak by the strength training community because it’s often associated with BOSU balls, mini parachutes, overpriced vertical jump trainers, and resistance bands. A quick Google Images search of “Sports Specific Training” will provide some comical entertainment for any barbell enthusiast. However, the truth is, powerlifters can benefit from regular exposure to sports specific training, i.e. singles! Squatting, benching, deadlifting, and pressing circa-max weight is a skill that should be practiced.
Before working with Austin I never performed singles in preparation for a meet. My program of choice would always look something like this:
- A few months out, perform heavy sets of 5. Slowly continue adding weight and once you I could no longer perform sets of 5, drop down to 3 reps. Continue adding weight while performing 3 reps until needing to drop down to doubles. I would save the single for meet day because that’s the only time it matters, right? I used to think performing singles in the gym was ego-driven and potentially injurious.
- I have also tried a number of percentage based programs that had me start with 60-65% of my 1 rep max. Overtime, that would increase to 70-75%, 80-85%, and finishing with around 90% for an AMRAP set (as many reps as possible) which usually ended up being 3-5 reps.
One of the problems with these 2 approaches is the lack of practice with singles. I would end up competing in meets having no real idea of what my attempts would be. I would approach my 2nd and 3rd attempt thinking to myself, “I have not touched anything near this weight since my last meet!” This type of thinking is not helpful and it would actually work against me most of the time. I remember my attempts being physically and psychologically taxing because my nerves would get the best of me.
Fast forward to October, 2017 in Oakland, CA at the USSF Fall Classic and I find myself approaching each attempt with a feeling of confidence and certainty. As I grab the bar I feel like I’m back at the office; it feels routine. Leading up to this meet, Austin had me perform squat, deadlift, and press singles every week. As we got closer to the meet I even performed heavy singles with close variations of the contested lifts; pin squat, paused deadlift, pin press, etc. Frequent exposure to heavy singles during meet prep was tremendously helpful from a psychological standpoint. Additionally, the improved skill acquired from daily practice with heavy singles helped my performance at the meet.
Consider this, I took my squat from 235kg (518lbs) in late May, 2017 (PR at the time) to 250kg (550lbs) in October, 2017 (as well as adding 40lbs on my Press and 30 lbs on my deadlift). During my training cycle leading up to my 550lbs squat, I performed weekly singles with 500+ lbs. I never squatted 500lbs for any of my working sets. My heaviest set leading up to the meet was 495×3 reps. I’m not saying this was by design or that it was right or wrong, but it’s something worth noting. I might be speculating here, but had I not performed any singles during my entire training cycle, thus never handling 500+lbs, my mental approach going into that meet would have been much worse. Technique cues would’ve been thrown out the window and my nerves would’ve got the best of me, again.
#2 – Singles can determine working weight for the day – Whether you are working with RPE or percentages, daily singles can help you calculate working weights to nearly the exact intensity for that particular day. For example:
If I worked up to 500×1 @ RPE 8 that would set my estimated 1 rep max at ~545 lbs.
(1 rep @ RPE 8 = about 92%)
If my first set was 5 reps @ RPE 8 I would know that 440 lbs would be my target weight.
(5 reps @ RPE 8 = about 81%)
Determining working weights with a percentage based program is even more straight forward; just use a percentage of your estimated 1 rep max based on your top single. This is the most accurate way of prescribing the correct intensity for your training sessions; much more accurate than calculating off of old PR’s that you set months ago.
It’s important to note that these singles do not need to be @ RPE 10. Typically, 1 rep @ RPE 8 is enough to simulate loads that would be used in a competition . 1 rep @ RPE 8 is about 92%, which is heavy enough to need to focus on technical execution and psychological preparation, but not so heavy that the lifter grinds out the rep with suboptimal form or incurs more stress than necessary for the optimal adaptation. 1 rep with 92% is not terribly stressful compared to a triple at 92% , i.e. a 3RM, or a single at RPE 9. Additionally, after a few weeks of exposure to this new demand you get better at recovering from it. If anything, the mental psyche up can be psychologically taxing but it’s just another form of stress that we can recover from and adapt to. In Austin Baraki’s words “gradually increasing weight week to week (on singles) seems to make these sorts of efforts feel less taxing from a physical and psychological standpoint – after all, it’s ‘not heavy’ compared to what you already did last week – and therefore is less fatiguing over all.”
#3 – Singles can be used to monitor progress within a training cycle – Monitoring daily/weekly singles will provide useful data showing which lifts are trending up, or not. It has the benefit of being both very sensitive and very specific to strength improvement while not costing a lot from a training resource perspective compared to a 5RM. Ideally, your singles at a given RPE would continue trending up from week to week. If you find that they are trending down for several consecutive weeks, it’s time to make some adjustments. Being able to monitor progress from week to week or block to block is much more useful than being unsure of your progress for an entire training cycle because you don’t practice circa-max singles. Some programs prescribe AMRAP sets (as many reps as possible) to estimate progress but I still think circa-max singles are a better tool because they are highly specific to your sport.
In closing, regular exposure to singles should not be reserved for competitive powerlifters; recreational lifters can also benefit from it. I have not met many lifters who do not want to see their 1 rep max go up; everyone wants 315, then 405, 495, 585, etc. you don’t need a platform to test your 1 rep max. Singles can also be a useful tool for accurately gauging working weights at the appropriate intensity, all the while monitoring progress within a training cycle.
Bio: Alan am a United States Marine Corps veteran who currently owns a gym in Sacramento, CA called Untamed Strength. I have competitive experience in Powerlifting, Strongman, and Olympic Weightlifting. My personal training clientele is primarily general population. I also coach group Strongman classes at Untamed Strength. He also is the proud owner of a luxurious beard. You can see more of him (and the beard) on YouTube and he can be contacted by any the links below: