Why Do I Program Heavy Top Singles?

If you follow any of my athletes or have generally just followed my posts, you probably notice a lot of top singles, so why is that? It’s not just an excuse to lift some heavy weight, but instead has some very distinct purposes within training.

I originally started having people do these top singles almost 4 years ago before it was even the popular thing to do, with the thought that they gave a potentiation effect that would improve performance on back down sets. While I still think that was a decent application in theory, it didn’t work out like that. 88% or more for a single is fatiguing, so I believe that fatigue masked any potentiation effect, and something like preceding squats with box jumps would be a better application of the PAP principle. With that being said, I still saw benefit but at the time couldn’t explain completely why. But after seeing these implemented for the past 4 years and gaining understanding of the sport and its demands, I think I can dive into a better reasoning of why these top singles can be of value for most lifters. While there are more, I see 3 main reasons that these top singles are beneficial and that I keep programming them for the majority of my athletes.

Skill Practice

The fact is that we compete in a sport that tests our ability to generate our optimal levels of strength in the form of a 1 rep max squat, bench press, and deadlift. It is also a fact that training specificity is a main factor in the progress of any goal, and it does not get any more specific than a 1 rep max when it comes to powerlifting. The issue is though that a true 1RM is fairly fatiguing and carries a high injury risk, so most people are not programming weekly 1 rep maxes for all their lifts, and many just try to stay away from heavy singles altogether except for close to the meet. I’d rather be somewhere in the middle of those two extremes. A top single programmed in the general range of 88-93% is something that even on someone’s worst day they should be able to hit fairly easy, so it keeps athletes away from grinding through reps and or even worse, failing a rep. 

The fact is that a top single is a different mindset than setting up for a set of 5. The cues we process, the mental strategies, and the knowledge of having only 1 rep to perform to our best is a different approach and something that needs to be practiced. So for this reason, for most of the training year I have a top single programmed once a week for squat, bench press, and deadlift. This helps to continue the skill practice of a 1 rep set to the point that it just becomes second nature. The problem I have found with the “stay away from heavy singles” group is that come meet day those athlete’s will be scared and nervous. They haven’t touched weights in this manner in training, and now going out to hit an opener that maybe they’ve hit 1-2 times this entire training cycle is a bit nerve wracking. But if that athlete instead has been practicing a top single with that opening weight every single week for the past year, it will be second nature, just another day in the gym. Confidence breeds strength, and top singles help to instill confidence in intensity ranges that many are scared of.

Adaptation To Heavy Weights

One of the biggest arguments against heavy top singles is the fatigue they induce. And I agree, if you are not used to doing them and all of a sudden start adding them in, they will be fatiguing. But that is the exact reason to do them. Our body adapts, and as we continually perform these top singles week after week our body starts to become more efficient at recovering from them to the point that they feel just like any other set. This also will translate in being able to recover better once a peaking block comes around. I usually find my athlete’s do not get overly beat up during a peaking block like some do, and I believe one of the main reasons is because that every single week for months they have been hitting a top single in the 88-93% range on all 3 lifts, so that intensity range is nothing new to them.

Use To Gauge Training

Not only can these top singles have a training effect, but I find them to be of great benefit in programming and auto-regulating training. If you are trying to estimate your 1 rep max off a set of 6 that was taken to a 7 RPE, good luck. But if you are trying to gauge your 1RM off a top single at a 7-8 RPE, well that might just actually give a pretty decent estimate. I would probably say 70% of the athlete’s I currently coach are having a top single each week that then is used to calculate their training for the rest of the week. With the benefits of Excel, this is as simple as the athlete rating the RPE of the top single in the document, and the formulas I have programmed then calculate a 1RM based off that top single and automatically recalculate their training for the week based off the projected 1 rep max. As an online coach I cannot be there to adjust training when it needs to be, so this top single instead does this for me and acts as the “coach” when I cannot. While I have some people on percentage based programs, I find autoregulated programming to be far superior because we can account for strength gain and loss. You are not stuck to a training max for weeks on end, but instead this top single can adjust training weekly to each individual’s current strength levels.

And while this is a loose interpretation and application of this, if you are familiar at all with Bondarchuk’s training systems, he had certain exercises that were his gauges/tests for progress. His athletes would perform them weekly to see how training was transferring to the things he really wanted to see improvement on. These top singles are acting in that same way for my athletes. While it matters how they perform on all their movements, the fact is that these top singles are their weekly “tests” to see how the program as a whole is transferring to their ability to output maximal force during a heavy top single.

There are more reasons top singles can be of benefit such being able to see if there is form breakdown at heavier weights, seeing someone’s confidence with at higher intensities, and even just a small ego helper when athlete’s just want to feel something heavy because they are powerlifters. But the main reasons really boil down to the training effect they can induce and the ability to use them to gauge training. I do not thing it is an end all be all to training, but I also wouldn’t have programmed them for the last 4 years if I didn’t think there was a great transfer effect. We are powerlifters and our goal is the achieve the highest 1 rep max squat, bench press, and deadlift, so let’s practice that!

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