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Singles for New Strength Increases

There are a great many strength coaches, personal trainers and fitness instructors in this country who do not include singles in their athletes’ programs. They feel that singles are too risky and that their charges and clients might sustain a serious injury by attempting a max single. It’s just not worth it.

Even so, the notion that higher reps are safer than singles is a false one—except, of course, for rank beginners, who really have no reason to be trying max attempts anyway. With a max single you either make the lift or don’t. When there are spotters, as there should always be for anyone going after a limit lift, there’s no problem. With very high reps, however, which is the goal for testing currently, your technique starts to deteriorate, and you become susceptible to some sort of injury—and it may not reveal itself until the next day.

Singles are absolutely necessary for anyone who’s trying to get stronger. Having stated that, though, I must add that there are a number of exercises that should only be done with higher reps. They are anything for the lower back—good mornings, almost-straight-legged deadlifts, hyperextensions and reverse hypers. I also think that deadlifts don’t have to be tested with singles in training. Threes are better—save the max single for contests.

I include singles in my strength programs for a number of reasons. For one thing, they develop a different kind of strength than higher reps. A single rep brings the tendons and ligaments into the movement more than higher reps. A basic tenet of strength training is, the lower the reps, the more the attachments are involved. So fives work the attachments more than eights, threes more than fives, doubles more than triples and singles the most. Why is that important? The key to gaining functional strength lies in the tendons and ligaments more than in the muscles.

Reason two: When you attempt a heavy single, your technique must be precise, or you will fail. That’s not the case with higher reps. When you do fives, threes or even doubles, your form can be a tad off, and you can still get all the reps in that set—but not when you go after a max single, perhaps a personal record. Your groove must be exact, your concentration 100 percent, and you must do every aspect of the lift absolutely perfectly if you are to succeed.

So doing singles helps you improve your form—from making sure your grip and foot placement are right and all your body mechanics from start to finish are flawless. Better technique always translates to more productive workouts and better performances in competitions.

Reason three: Singles help you find your weak points on an exercise. That’s critical to long-term progress, and it’s not as easy as some believe to identify a weaker group of muscles. For example, athletes who are extremely strong in their hips and legs can often camouflage weak middle backs because they’re able to blow the weight up through the weaker area. That’s when they do fives or triples. It’s an entirely different story with singles, however. When they attempt a max single, that weak area will show up immediately.

Knowing what muscles and attachments need to be strengthened and doing something about it right away is imperative if you want to continue to make gains on that lift. Then and only then will you be able to move up on the strength ladder. Allowing a weak area to remain in that condition is simply stating that getting stronger isn’t that much of a priority.

Reason four: One of the best things about having singles in a strength program is that they enable you to break numerical barriers. Strength training is all about numbers: sets, reps, amount of weight used, time spent training, bodyweight, tonnage. And as everyone who has ever done any form of weightlifting knows, there are some numbers that are much harder to deal with than others. When the overhead press was still a vital part of every program, 200 was the first obstacle to overcome. For the bench press and incline, 300 is the number to beat, and 400 is the Mount Everest for squats and deadlifts.

In the final analysis, weightlifting is mastery of numbers. Whenever you succeed in bettering one of those troublesome numbers, they are no longer a concern. That’s where singles come in.

As an example, let’s say a lifter is stuck at doing 295 for three in the bench. He’s tried 300 a dozen times and always failed; however when he did a session at which he limited his warmup sets and then did only singles, he was able to jump right over the dreaded 300 and managed to do 305 and 310. Now, because he has conquered 300, he can do it for reps. A great deal of this is mental, of course, but when it comes right down to it, about 80 percent of strength training is mental.

First things first, however. Before adding singles to any program, you must spend a considerable amount of time establishing a solid strength foundation—and an equal amount of time mastering the technique on all the exercises in your program. If you don’t, the singles will have little positive effect, which would make it a waste of time to do them.

This is accomplished by systematically expanding the workload and honing the form points on the exercises that you will eventually do for singles, which may include the two Olympic lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk; the primary upper-body movements—overhead, incline- and flat-bench presses and dips; and front and back squats. The base work is best done for five sets of five. That sequence helps to prepare the muscles and attachments for the greater stress of the singles, and it gives you the opportunity to focus on this technique.

Building the foundation should take six to eight weeks—even longer if you have a weak base to begin with. Once I see that someone’s base is solid and the form at least good, I add triples to the routine. Jumping from fives to singles is too much of a leap. The threes are ideal stepping-stones to the max singles. The final rep on a set of triples acts much like a limit single, and when you learn how to finish the set with a smoothly executed success, singles will come much more easily.

How often should you do singles? It depends entirely on your strength level. The top Olympic lifers at the York Barbell Club in the ’60s did singles every week—usually not on the same lift, although some did that as well. Intermediates and advanced strength athletes can do singles every month. Very advanced, more frequent than that. I have my athletes flip-flop the singles on the various primary exercises: back squat one week, bench the next, then the power clean, ending the month with front squats or inclines—or some variation of that idea.

Keep in mind that the more often you do singles, the better you’re going to do on them. It takes a totally different mind-set and focus to execute them perfectly, so don’t get discouraged the first few times you try.

Finally, there is the intangible benefit of setting a personal record with a single. While it is indeed encouraging to increase the amount of weight used for any number of reps, singles are the most motivational by far simply because you use the most weight on them.

Bragging about doing 290 for three reps on the bench just doesn’t have the same impact as being able to say, “I can bench 310 pounds.”

So if you’re serious about getting considerably stronger, figure out how to add singles to your strength program. You’ll be glad you did.

—Bill Starr


Editor’s note: Bill Starr was a strength and conditioning coach at Johns Hopkins University from 1989 to 2000. He’s the author of The Strongest Shall Survive—Strength Training for Football, which is available for $20 plus shipping from Home Gym Warehouse. Call (800) 447-0008, or visit


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