Should Beginners Perform Singles in Training?

Written by: Kevin Cann

I was asked this question in a direct message on Instagram by a lifter.  I think it is a very good question and sparks a good discussion.  I also was not even aware that there was this thought process that training should be drastically different for a beginner.

When I first started out with Boris Sheiko, he had laid out his system for his lifters.  The only real difference between level of lifter would be in the number of lifts completed in training and the average training intensity.

However, we cannot forget about the national system that is set up in Russia for athletic development.  Kids between 8 and 10 years old will go to schools that specialize in powerlifting.  Here they will learn the basics with PVC pipes and perform lots of GPP exercises.  All younger children even take gymnastics.

As the lifter ages and matures, the GPP work decrease and the specific work with the barbell increases.  By the time they reach the national coach, such as Sheiko was, they have 10 or more years in the sport under their belts.

Perhaps this is where the thinking that beginners need to develop a base before they start hitting singles comes from.  The logic for sure makes sense.  The problem is, in Russia, they are kids when they are going through that system.  Kids are still developing, and this is the best time period to lay those foundational movements and build a wide variety of skills.

As a coach, I just hope that someone played high school sports before they began powerlifting.  This ensures me that at least they have built some type of athleticism when they were younger and developing.  If someone had never played sports their whole lives and began lifting in their mid-twenties or later, it can be quite the challenge to make them an elite lifter.  There are outliers though that pick up a barbell for the first time and are just naturally strong.  This is an even more interesting discussion.

As a coach would you treat someone who is naturally strong the same way as someone that is not, even if they both are completely new to lifting?  What if they both have been training for 3 to 5 years?  The only thing that differentiates these two lifters is how much weight that they actually lift.

I use percentages in my programs.  This makes the program appropriate for each lifter.  If one lifter squats 600lbs and the other 300lbs, they will have the appropriate weight on the bar.  In the three years that I worked with Sheiko; my number of lifts never increased. As I got stronger, the average intensity of 70%, just increased because it was 70% of a larger number.  The program grew with me in a sense.

Now we can get into the question about the singles.  When I first start coaching, I followed along with what Sheiko had taught me with his system.  We would test 17 to 21 days out from competition.  Other than that time period, we very rarely went over 85% of 1 RM.  It was a lot of submaximal volume to concentrate on technical efficiency.

When it was time to test, I had lifters that suffered in performance because they were not mentally prepared to handle heavier weights.  I had a few lifters that would suffer from anxiety even a couple of weeks out!  They would lose sleep and worry about the upcoming test.

When we would test, the technique would breakdown and the results were often less than we expected.  I do feel there are some physical tools developed when we handle heavier weights, but more than that, the mental aspects were really hurting us.

In Russia, they have 10 years of experience under a bar before they started doing Sheiko’s programs.  They would compete between 4 to 6 times per year as well.  That means many of them had competed 40 or more times.  Lifters with this much experience most likely do not need a lot of practice with singles to be successful.

One thing to keep in mind as well, is these lifters are performing singles in the comp cycles leading up to a competition.  90% singles were very common the week before a test with Sheiko.  The following week we would actually test our lifts, and then 2 weeks later we tested our lifts again on the platform.  That is 3 weeks with singles at or above 90% of 1RM.  If you stretch that out over a calendar year where they compete 4 to 6 times, you have quite a lot of practice with heavier weights and singles.  Much of this practice is done in front of judges on the platform.

I believe singles are an important component to the training of all levels of powerlifters, including beginners.  The singles will allow lifters to work on technique at near maximal loads, but more importantly, the singles build mental toughness.  Heavy singles are the repetition method for the mind to grow stronger and the lifter to develop a strong skill of competing.

The question that I was asked was in regard to building hypertrophy earlier on.  This is also a very good question.  I think this idea just comes from the idea that block periodization is right.  That we need to develop hypertrophy first, than strength, and lastly power.  The problem with this is that the idea is based off of very old science and the practical application of the idea is very flawed.

It for one, assumes that we can predict how long each block should be.  That somehow in 6 weeks we will develop more hypertrophy that can then be taught to contract more forcefully.  This is logical, but quite a stretch.  It also assumes that higher reps are necessary to build hypertrophy.

The SAID principle, specific adaptation to imposed demands, states that the body will adapt to the specific demands placed upon it.  If muscle mass was required to move maximal weights, wouldn’t the body just adapt by growing the necessary muscle mass to do that?  I have gotten much thicker from only doing singles for about a year.  My volume was incredibly low.

The research shows that hypertrophy developed from low and high loads is very similar as long as the sets are taken close to failure.  No one will argue that a single is not the most specific means of training the force required to develop the best skills of the sport.

So if I can develop similar hypertrophy with singles, but greater maximal force capacities, why wouldn’t I want to emphasize singles with beginners?  In any sport, beginners play the sport.  Now, I do not think that singles alone will develop the same amount of hypertrophy as higher reps and volumes.  But, is more necessary?  If the body adapts to the demands placed upon it, and the adaptation to singles is a little bit less hypertrophy than higher reps, is that extra hypertrophy necessary to get stronger? I am not too sure, and I have serious reservations about it actually being a necessary component to future progress. I believe that the body will adapt as it needs to.

Now, with all of that said, I know that we cannot just do singles.  If that was possible, powerlifters would have figured it out 60 years ago.  I have done only singles to experience it and to understand it more.  This will allow me to make better training decisions.  Now, I am adding in more volume with the singles to determine how much is necessary and how recovery and other aspects of training go.

This is not an all or nothing approach.  We use lighter weights to develop technical proficiency of the lifts.  I use density work with the lifts to develop conditioning and also mental toughness.  They may need to finish all of their top sets in 10 to 20 minutes.  This requires short rests and going when they do not feel like going.

We use a lot of variations to target weak areas with the lifts.  This helps to develop an overall strong and resilient powerlifter.  We also perform GPP work, alongside of the lifts.  This may include good mornings, back extensions, overhead press, incline press, straight leg deadlift variations, and we have even begun to add in a bit more.

I see no reason why you would not have a beginner perform singles.  This will allow their mind to get stronger with their body.  If the mind is not strong, the body cannot display its true strength.  Singles build technical proficiency at heavier weights, an important concept for beginners to learn.  Our beginners look like pros on the platform with their technique for this reason.  Lastly, singles are the sport.  In every sport, beginners train the sport.  Powerlifting should be no different.

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