Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Journal of Strength: Benefits of High-Set Singles

Journal of Strength
Wednesday, November 12, 2014

     My current workout program is a bit haphazard.  But it’s also enjoyable and effective for my current goals.
     It’s haphazard in the fact that I pretty much do whatever I feel like on whatever days I feel like training.  Of course, to be honest, that’s not entirely the case, but it’s close to it.  There is some structure—I always begin each workout with high-set singles of one exercise.  I rotate between a few different exercises.  Deadlifts, power cleans, power snatches, full snatches, clean and presses, or one-arm dumbbell presses are the typical exercises, although occasionally I will do flat bench presses or squats.  Also, I sometimes do two exercises for high-set singles instead of just one, and I always finish the workout with two or three additional exercises of whatever I feel as if I should do, for two or three sets each of whatever rep range I feel like doing.
     There is structure, true.  But there’s also chaos—or what seems to be chaos to someone who witnesses my training on a regular basis.  Truth be told, there’s really nothing too chaotic about it, for the structure of the high-set singles—the single-pointedness of such a technique—leads, often, to something akin to flow states, and, so, what seems as if it’s nothing more than chaos is really the flow of what my auto-regulated body-mind knows that it should be doing.
     (Typically, I would write this journal entry immediately after training, when the training is fresh on my mind, but I’m rather tired this afternoon, and may be that much more tired once my evening’s session is finished, and I’ve consumed my fair share of grilled salmon and red wine—a pinot, perhaps, or maybe several glasses of a cabernet sauvignon.  So, be that as it may, this entry comes before the actual workout.  But I digress…)
     Tonight I will be doing one-arm dumbbell overhead presses for 15 to 20 sets of 1 repetition—at least, that’s the plan.  And since I haven’t done this workout yet, I have no way of knowing exactly what my auxiliary movements will be, although I suspect something along the line of chins, bench presses of one sort or another, a curl of some sort, and maybe some thick-bar dumbbell deadlifts.
     Last night I did power cleans with a relatively light weight—only 205 pounds—for 10 singles, and then I followed this with some Bulgarian split squats for 4 sets of 10 to 15 reps (each leg), some walking lunges, and some dips.
     My weight was light because I currently have a herniated disk which is pinching a nerve, and causing some pain and numbness in my right arm.  Eight or nine years ago, I had surgery to repair two herniated disks in my neck, and I don’t really want to repeat that, which brings me around to the subject of this entry: the benefits of performing high-set singles.  (My herniated disk is also one reason that good ol’ barbell squats are not on my list of “regular” high-set single exercises.  For everyone else reading this thing, they should be on your list.)
     I enjoy workouts of high-set singles, and I have for some time.   I also think they are, hands down, one of the most effective ways to train (along with high-set doubles and triples, to be fair).
     One of the greatest benefits is that they allow you to get a relatively high amount of work done in a short period of time—without suffering form degradation.  In my workout last night, I was able to perform all 10 singles in less than 10 minutes, and every rep was fast and explosive.
     When performed with heavy weight—90-95% of your one-rep maximum—this becomes even more evident.  For instance, my current max in the deadlift is probably around 500 pounds (I have not done these very heavy lately, due to the pinched nerve, so I’m not entirely sure.)  If I was to put 450 pounds on the bar—90% of my max—and perform 2 or 3 rep sets, I would not be able to do many.  Fatigue would set in fairly fast.  If, however, I elected to perform multiple singles, I would be able to get 8 to 10 reps in without too much of a drop in speed and power with each ensuing set.
     But even when not performed with heavy weights, the workouts are still effective.  This is especially true when doing the various quick lifts.  Cleans and snatches in all of their varieties should not be done for sets of high reps, no matter how many times Crossfit “lifters” do such a thing.  Form degradation quickly breaks down when you exceed 3 reps per set on these lifts.
     But I don’t think it’s just the quick lifts that multiple sets of singles (or low reps) should apply to—I also like them (obviously) with bench presses, squats, deadlifts, and overhead presses.  When you are only doing 1 rep on all of these exercises, technique remains perfect and speed and power quickly escalate over only a few weeks of training.
     When I was teaching martial arts, I never let any of my students perform more than 5 consecutive repetitions of a single movement before taking a short (albeit, sometimes a very short) break.  After a few reps, speed and power are reduced, and form breaks down—even though it’s only slight in advanced practitioners, I’ll admit—this despite the fact that most people would be able to continue with hundreds of reps of each movement if they so chose to.  Obviously, the load is very low when punching air, but form breakdown occurs nonetheless.
     Here’s the thing: when practicing karate-do this way, I would still do hundreds upon hundreds of punches and kicks in each session, just not consecutively.  If I had tried to do them consecutively, then I simply wouldn’t have been able to do enough in each workout compared to doing them non-consecutively.
     Do less early so that you can do more later.
     That’s another benefit.  High-set singles—and their siblings: multiple sets of doubles and multiple sets of triples—allow you to do a lot of work in each session.  If you don’t believe me, then load your bench press barbell with 80% of your one-rep maximum and see how many sets of 5 to 6 reps you can do.  At the session after that one, load it with 80% of your max and see how many singles you can perform—you might be a little surprised when you crank out 50 singles, whereas I doubt you could manage 10 sets of 5 reps[1].
     Another benefit—and this is one my favorite—is that you can recover quicker from high-set singles than you can with sets of multiple reps.  And the quicker you can recover, the quicker you can train again.  And the more you can train, the faster are your gains going to be.
     If you want to get really strong on just a couple of lifts—the power clean and the bench press, for instance—then perform those exercises almost daily for high-set singles.   You may be shocked just how quickly you get really strong.
     But you don’t have to only pick a couple of exercises.  You can certainly do as I’m currently doing and have a lot of exercises at your disposal.  You could even do just one lift per-day using this technique, and train each lift only once-per-week, without adding any auxiliary movements.  Here is what 5 days of training may look like:
Monday: Squats
Tuesday: Power Cleans
Wednesday: Bench Presses
Thursday: Power Snatches
Friday: Deadlifts
Saturday and Sunday: Rest a lot.  Eat a lot.
Next week: Repeat

[1] This is especially true if you’re a power athlete who is “built” for power, for lack of a better word.  If you’re one of those lifters who finds that you can only get about 5 to 6 reps with 80% of your one-rep max before reaching momentary muscular failure, then there’s no way you would be able to manage 10 sets of 5 reps.  This is not entirely true for those of you who have more “endurance” fibers, and can manage to crank out 10 reps—or more—with 80% of your max.

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