Today’s article is about how you can safely break into lifting heavy singles (and doubles and triples) for the first time. Many trainees are intimidated to lift heavy, low rep sets, and some are afraid of getting injured in the process. These are legitimate concerns, and I’ll address them below.
If you want to kick things up a notch, slap more weight on the bar, and increase your strength, then the following information is for you.
But first, let’s address a myth about heavy singles, doubles, and triples:
Will Heavy, Low Rep Sets Cause Injury?
Many people associate singles, doubles, and triples with an increased chance for injury. I can understand this. After all, there are tons of YouTube videos of people struggling with a load that almost crushes them. Trainees twist, contort, grunt, bounce, and use other techniques for heaving up a weight.
Maybe you’ve seen videos of powerlifters grinding out new personal records, or you’ve heard of people blowing blood vessels, getting a bloody nose, tearing pectoral muscles, or other gruesome tales about injuries acquired from individuals lifting heavy loads.
This is important – if you use proper form and a weight you know you can dominate, your chance of injury is low with heavy, low rep sets. If you’re not positive what proper form is in regards to the big compound exercises, you’re definitely not ready for heavy triples and singles.
I’m not going to encourage or promote grinding out heavy weights in this article, so get the image of powerlifting and setting world records out of your mind – this is about safely breaking into progressively heavier lifting.
Bottom line on the safety issues of heavy, low rep sets: when performed correctly, heavy singles and triples are not dangerous. Heck, you could even make the argument that heavy singles and triples, when properly executed, are actually safer than high rep sets.
Think about it – if you’re doing a 20 rep set of squats, you have to be very mentally focused, especially as you get into the middle, and towards the end, of the set. Fatigue accumulates, you’re exhausted, and you run the risk of getting sloppy in an effort to get the set over with. This is when your chance of injury is high.
However, when you’re performing a single rep, or a triple, you can maintain complete focus and concentration since the set only takes a matter of seconds to complete.
Are You Ready for This?
Before we go any further, you need to ask yourself an important question – are you physically ready for heavy triples, doubles, and singles?
If you’re a beginner trainee or just started to train with big, compound, free-weight exercises, then you’re not quite ready to apply the information in this article. You would be best served reading and putting into practice the information in 11 Beginner Strength Training Tips or check out the complete Beginner Strength Training 101 Tutorial.
However, if you’ve been lifting for at least a year and have built a solid strength base on some basic barbell and bodyweight exercise, then you can start easing into some heavier lifting.
Where to Start
Your training experience up to this point determines where you will begin in regards to heavier lifting with lower reps.
If your training has consisted of 10 or more reps, for example, you shouldn’t dive head first into heavy singles. You need to “break in” to heavy lifting with something more appropriate, like heavy sets of 5 reps.
Easing your way into heavy, low rep sets is a good idea as opposed to going full bore on heavy singles. Take your time. You want to be able to train months and years down the road, so don’t risk injury.
The Quick Start Guide
Here’s the simplest explanation of breaking into heavy, low rep sets for the first time.
- If you’ve been lifting primarily with sets of 10 reps or higher, start with heavy sets of 5 reps. For the sets of 5, start with a weight you know you can handle for 7 or 8 reps.
- If you’ve been lifting with sets of approximately 6 reps, start with heavy triples. For the triples, start with a weight you know you can handle for 5 good reps.
- If you have experience with heavy sets of 3-5 reps, go ahead and give singles a try. For the singles, start with a weight you know you can handle for 3 good reps.
Do you see the pattern? No matter what heavy, low rep set you begin with (singles or 5 reps) you are not going all out on those sets. This is important when you’re breaking into heavy, low rep sets for the first time. In all of the above scenarios, slowly increase the weight over the next few weeks to allow your body and mind to adapt to the new, heavy loads.
Now let’s get into some more detailed information.
What Not to Do
- Don’t be intimidated! Many trainees, especially women, can be very intimidated when they lift a heavy, challenging weight for the first time. Just use proper form and a load you know you can handle, and there’s nothing to worry about.
- Don’t attempt a weight you think you can manage; start with a load you know you can dominate. This will build confidence and get you used to handling heavier loads.
- Don’t grind out a single rep. You need to leave a couple reps in the tank. For example, if you want to lift a solid triple, start with a weight you know you could lift for five perfect reps.
- Don’t psych yourself up for a lift. Approach the bar, and lift it. Don’t put any emotion into it. Don’t huff smelling salts or head butt a walk right before the lift. You’re performing a single, not going for a true one rep max at a powerlifting meet.
Here’s a visual example of what not to do when you start performing singles for the first time:
(fast forward to the 45 second mark to see Jen rip 315 pounds)
Both of those videos demonstrate a max effort lift. In my case, I got psyched up and ready for battle. I stood alone in a corner chalking up my hands, getting my mind ready for the lift. I was determined to pull that 330 pounds off the floor and wasn’t going to stop until it fell out of my hands or I collapsed on the platform. I was practically worked up into a frenzy because that’s not a lift I could hit every day. As you saw in the video, I had to fight for a few seconds to get the bar to break from the floor.
Jen had the goal of pulling 6 wheels (315 pounds) before the end of the year, and she attacked that lift with the same attitude.
Why am I saying not to do what Jen and I demonstrate in the videos? Because we’re experienced with lifting heavy singles. We know how to grind out a rep, as you saw in the videos. For someone who is just starting to get into singles for the first time, grinding out reps is counterproductive.
You need to build your strength in the beginning, not test it.
What You Should Do
- Use a power rack with safety bars, and a spotter. This is especially important for exercises like squats and bench presses. Safety first.
- I was hoping I wouldn’t have to state this, but I will: use big, compound exercises. Squats, deadlifts, and presses are appropriate exercises for heavy triples and singles. Single joint movements like skull crushers and lateral raises are not.
- Warm up properly. Don’t just slap a lot of weight on the bar and go for it. Take your time working up to the singles and triples. This prepares you mentally and physically and builds confidence as the weight gets heavier.
- Dominate the weight (start with weights you know you can handle and don’t go for a true single, double, or triple max). I already mentioned this, but it’s worth repeating.
- Leave a couple of reps in the tank. If you’re lifting with triples, use a weight you know you could get for 5 solid reps. If you’re doing singles, start with a weight you know you could lift for a triple.
- Start and progress slowly. You’re better off performing triples with a weight you could handle for 5-6 reps for a few weeks to break you in to progressively heavier loads. Take your time and don’t rush things.
Here are some visual examples of good, solid singles and low rep sets.
As you can see, especially with the singles, these ladies could have rested a minute or so, and repeated the same lift. They finished each single (or set) strong and with some left in the tank. There was no grinding, grunting, or struggling. That is how you want your heavy, low rep sets to look when you break into heavy lifting for the first time.
Finish each set strong!
I first read about wave loading many years ago in this article by Ian King.
This has become one of my favorite ways to introduce people to lifting heavy weights via singles, doubles, and triples for the first time.
In simple terms, wave loading means just what it implies – you alternate the load and reps from set to set in a “wave” format.
There are numerous ways to use wave loading, but here’s a simple example (warm-ups not included):
- Work set 1: 135×5
- Work set 2: 150×1
- Work set 3: 140×5
- Work set 4: 155×1
- Work set 5: 145×5
- Work set 6: 160×1
- Work set 7: 150×5
- Work set 8: 165×1
As you can see, the “wave” consists of only five reps and singles. You could just as easily use sets of 6 and triples, or triples and singles.
How to Use Wave Loading
- Slowly increase the weight and make small jumps from set to set. In the example above, the weight only increased 5 pounds on each single and 5 rep set.
- Start with higher rep waves to build confidence and break into heavy, low rep lifting. A good starting point would be to use a wave of 6′s and 3′s. After a few weeks, you can switch to a wave with 5′s and singles, or triples and singles.
I should mention that wave loading is best used with big, compound barbell and bodyweight exercises like squats, deadlifts, presses, and chin-ups. Dumbbells are too risky for singles and triples, in my opinion.
Now you know how to safely add weight to the bar, and you have a great training protocol – Wave Loading – that you can use in your workout program.
All that’s left for you to do now is hit the weight room!
Get to work and continue Training to be Awesome!
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