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Originally posted on NaturalStrength.com on February 4, 2000
I am lucky. Yes, I wasted my first four years of training due to ignorance. But then due to the brook "Brawn" I discovered how drug free individuals are supposed to train. I started lifting smart and abbreviated January 1, 1994. I've never looked back. I was 35.
Checking my log from 1994 I found that I struggled with 154lbs for 3 sets of 6 in the bench press. Squats were tough at 132 for 3 sets of 10, stiff leg deads were the same. 2 days per week about 1 1/2 hours per day was finally letting me recover and gain. I was ecstatic! While performing too many movements per workout, I was still making wonderful gains with 5-7 movements per session!
1995 found me squatting 264x20, stiff deads at 275x3x10, standard and close grip benches around 220x3x5. It was a great first year of abbreviated training! I made a lot of mistakes though, and the biggest was still doing too many movements per workout. I cut back to no more than 3 or 4 movements per workout that second year. That put me on the right track with gains coming quicker, but now another problem cropped up. I started becoming injured easily and frequently, and usually my low back. I had badly injured my low back back in high school and reinjured it many times working in the woods as a logger. It was time for some regrouping! I sat down and went over my log. I finally found what I thought might be the culprit. I usually injured my low back on the second or third set of either squats or deadlifts. Time for experimenting.
I had no idea how I would respond to limited sets but it was time to see what would happen with just one top set in both the squat and deadlift. I had no idea how I would respond to such limited work, but I found out fairly quickly! My strength exploded! By 1996 I was squatting 385x5, stiff deads were 330x10 and my bench and close grip were running around 220x10! During this time I also experimented with 3 days a week training. It quickly became evident that I couldn't just add an extra day of movements, I needed to split the already limited movement I was performing, between 3 days.
By 1997 I was stuck again. Mo matter what I just couldn't squat more than 385x5 or bench more than 220x10-12. Something needed to change in order to kickstart some gains again. Cycle after cycle were performed that just barely allowed me to attain my former highs. It was time for some more major experimentation!
Singles training had always facinated me. Why not try something both super-abbreviated and singles training along with it? So I gave it a try. Mondays I worked up to one top single in the bench press. Thursdays saw me performing one top single in the squat. I did heavy ab work both days, but that was it. I started out with 308 for a single squatting and 220x1 in the bench press. Did something this abbreviated work? Judge for yourself. In 14 weeks I squatted 440x1 and benched 286x1! I took a week off and started over again, this time at 363 in the squat and 242 in the bench press. I finished this cycle at 484 and 302 1/2. A little less than 18 months of this super abbreviated singles training saw me top out with a fairly easy 621 1/2lb squat and a 352lb bench! An easy week thrown in every so often just to keep from going stale would be something in the order of a 500x5 squat and a 297x3 bench. This would squeak an extra 4-8 weeks from a cycle.
Looking back I can see why this ended up working so well for me. The first reason would be that I just didn't know any better! No one was around to tell me it wouldn't work! So in retrospect, I conducted a well organized experiment with no external input. Second, I think I was just plain ready for singles training. To this day, nothing I have found even remotely compares to singles for strength gaining in the squat. Nothing! The bench has turned out a little different. Even with the success I had with singles training in the bench press, I have since found that a couple sets of 5 is much more beneficial for me at this time. I plan to try singles training again in the bench press, but that is a year or so down the line. When I feel I have laid a sufficient foundation for a march towards that magic 400lb bench!
In conclusion let me say this. At some point in their training life everyone should try singles. Not a max-out attempt, but a series of well thought out cycles of singles. Be sure that you have laid down a sufficient foundation first though. Then start out very light and work your way back up. You should be able to blow past former singles maximums. Form has to be perfected first, and you have to stay very tight. If you miss your top single, stop for that workout. Come back the next week and you will most likely be pleasantly surprised at how easy it is! Singles are safe. Form is unusually good with a single because of not being exhausted from the previous 9 of a set of 10. In my experience, that is when I have seen injuries crop up. When performing that top single you are very fresh as long as you used a smart warmup protocol. Use warmups, not wear-outs. So when you feel you are truly ready for something different, give singles a try!