Should You Use Heavy Singles In Training?

by Mike Tuchscherer, 10 Jan 2018 In 2013 I met Boris Sheiko at a seminar he was conducting in Vicenza, Italy.  It was quite an enjoyable time and we had several interesting conversations that day, particularly over lunch.  I'm sure it's no surprise and probably goes without saying that we generally agreed on most things coaching related.  But one thing that we didn't agree on was particularly interesting.  He feels that working with 90%+ loads are especially taxing to the lifter.  I do not.  Coach Sheiko (or whoever runs his social media accounts) recently posted about his opinion, so I wanted to weigh in with mine. There's nothing special about 90% loads that makes them especially taxing to the lifter.  It's the high psychological arousal that is highly taxing.  And it's not hard to see that if you look at the context.  Coach Sheiko plans the bulk of his training loads in the 70-85% range.  They go beyond 85% once in a training cycle usually.  So for them, a single at 90% or 95% is heavier than they've gone in months.  So even loading that on the bar is going to get their heart pumping and palms sweating a little.  Yes, in this case the 90% load will be more stressful, but it's because of the psychological arousal.  It's because the athlete isn't used to it.   On the other hand, there are coaches like me who frequently program x1 at 8RPE which works out to be 92-93% typically.  My athletes can handle this every week and show no signs of the dreaded "overtraining".  In the very beginning (first couple of weeks), they will be a bit stressed out by the experience, but after a while, it becomes normal.  It's not any more stressful than any other challenging set because they do it often.  If you think about it, a single at 90% (even 92%) is kinda easy.  You have to execute properly, but it's not like you'll have to grind to complete the rep. It should go without saying that not everyone responds well to this kind of training.  Training must be adapted to the athlete, so if someone doesn't respond well to singles, then we don't program them.   Training with these loads provides several benefits to the lifters.  It's highly, highly specific.  It's training the competition lift with loads that will be seen in competition.  If the lifter is adequately prepared for this from a technical standpoint, then this provides a great training value.  The movements and loads are similar to what is faced in competition.  The athlete can expect to improve the finer points of technical execution as they gain experience at higher loads.  They can improve other neural aspects of strength -- tightness, positioning, inter/intra muscular coordination, rate coding, etc.  It is sport form development -- improvements in strength and technical proficiency at the loads that matter most.   From a coaching standpoint, the singles let me see how the athlete performs with heavy weights.  We can dial in attempt selection, identify problems early, and measure progress in training often.  This last point allows me to see effective trends in training (or ineffective ones) early so changes can be made appropriately.  This helps the training to be more effective in the long run.  You can gauge progress using means other than heavy singles, but singles are usually a bit more clear of an indicator for coaches.   Beyond the training value of performing very highly specific work, getting somewhat accustomed to 90%+ loading is useful in other ways too.  Many lifters have a lot of jitters in competition -- especially before opening squats.  If your opening squat (about 90% usually) is less than what you handle every week in training (92-93%), then that helps greatly with reducing the nerves for the opener.  Then the 2nd attempt (usually 95%) is only slightly more than what you've handled in training frequently, so that gets your attention, but doesn't produce a ton of anxiety.  When you load your 3rd attempt (100%), you'll definitely have nerves for that one, but that's useful energy and it's conserved for the attempts where you need it most.   All tools have limitations and drawbacks.  This one is no different.  If a lifter doesn't have good technical proficiency at lighter weights, then this method is contraindicated.  Otherwise, the biggest limitation is a slight reduction in volume.  The single is a working set that requires slightly more of a warm up, so it may take the place of 2-3 lighter working sets (depending on how much lighter).  This is usually not a problem, but if you are time constrained and in need of more volume, you may want to consider a different approach.   Bottom line:  Singles are a useful training tool if you allow yourself to get over the emotional aspect of them.  They can improve your strength and technique at high loads.  They can give coaches important information for future training adjustments and they can help lifters perform better on the platform.  The biggest drawback is a slight reduction in training volume and not all lifters respond well to the technique -- same as any other training method.  
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About the Author Mike Tuchscherer is the owner and head coach at RTS. He has been powerlifting since 2001 and since has traveled all over the world for competitions. In 2009, he was the first man from USA powerlifting to win a gold medal at the World Games – the highest possible achievement in powerlifting. He has coached over a dozen competitors at the world championships, a score of national champions, and multiple world record holders.