Maxing Out: Singles Vs. Reps

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Article written by Matt Mills
The sport of Strong(wo)man requires a combination of strength, power, speed, and even endurance at times.  Possessing all of these skills is a difficult thing to do, as just about any competitor will have a weakness at one of them.  The great thing about Strong(wo)man is that every contest is completely different.  One show you might have to be in a last (wo)man standing event, where the weight increases each round until there is only one competitor left. Next competition the weight may be extremely light and over 20 reps gets the win (on a side note, I hate events like that).  There will always be moving events in Strongman, so conditioning is a must to move weights quickly.  However, the overhead press and the deadlift is where we see the most amount of changes from contest to contest.  A max event will require slightly different training then an event of extreme high reps.  


Over my years of competing I have also noticed a big difference in the amount of reps the lighter classes will achieve over the heavier competitors.  This of course is not always the case, but it is something myself and many other competitors have noticed.  At last year’s Nationals for example, the car deadlift was extremely heavy but the heavy weight competitors never broke double digits, with the winner only getting 6 reps.  Now compare the heavyweight repetitions achieved to the 175lb class or the now “fitness” class, where the winner got a total of 16 reps!  When it comes to a car deadlift you can never really tell exactly how much weight you are lifting BUT, when it comes to Nationals, you can expect the weights to be extremely heavy.  This is something to take into consideration when programming based on your weight class.


Some of you may argue that no matter what whoever is the strongest will win both the max event and the rep event.  I would have to disagree with this, as I have seen the strongest lifter get burned out rather quickly once the reps get over 10, while the “bodybuilder” type competitor will be able to keep going into the 20+ rep range.  A famous example of this is Fred Hatfield aka “Dr. Squat” the first man to squat 1000lbs vs the original Quad Squad member Tom Platz.


In 1993 Germany, the squat gauntlet was thrown down and the two were set to face each other in a max squat event, and then 525lbs for reps.   With not much surprise Hatfield was able to squat 855lbs while Tom Platz maxed out at 765lbs.  Moving on to 525lbs for max reps Hatfield “only” managed to get 11 reps, while Platz was able to squat 525lbs for an amazing 23 reps all while smiling!


Tom Platz was known for his high intensity workouts and very high volume training to develop his massive legs.  I’m sure most of you reading this are not interested in stepping on the bodybuilding stage, but having both maximum strength and conditioning will probably pique your interest.  Now, I will be the first to tell you I hate doing extremely high reps, and even in my training I will rarely go over 10 reps.  In the sport of strongman you have to be ready for just about anything, so both aspects must be trained.  

With that being, said maximal strength should always be your goal, so let’s get into how we can work on both.  I’m sure we have all asked a great lifter at some point what’s the best way to deadlift more (or whatever exercise you wish to improve) and the answer is always “if you want to deadlift more weight, deadlift more often.”  To the beginner lifter, this can be a little frustrating as they are most likely maxing out every week grinding out ugly reps, and eventually reach the dreaded “plateau” in a short amount of time.  What I take this to mean is to simply use the main lift as your accessory work, and it’s one of the reasons I was able to increase my deadlift by 50lbs in the last year.  First we build strength by performing low reps typically 5 reps or less.  Building muscle in the hypertrophy zone is anywhere from 8-12 reps, where most bodybuilders train.  

I like to combine both ways of training to not only build strength, but also conditioning for the exercise.  Start by choosing a rep scheme in the strength range; let’s say a heavy 3 reps is the goal for the day.  Once you achieve this weight you will then drop down to 65-70% of this weight to perform “speed reps.”  For example if you deadlifted 500 for 3 reps you will then drop to 340lbs.  This is where you will be getting your volume work in so now perform 6 sets of 4 reps.  Each rep will be as fast as possible, and here comes the tough part.  We are trying to build conditioning at the same time so the rest period will only be one minute. By keeping the rest periods short, we will also be working on building muscle.  For the 4 week mini cycle your goal each week is to slightly increase your heavy triple, and then add 2 more speed sets until you reach the 3rd week.  The 4th will be a much needed deload.  Starting with 500lbs on the deadlift the program will look like this:

Week 1Deadlift                500 x 3

                Speed Deadlift  340 6 x 4 (sets x reps) 1 minute rest

Week 2Deadlift                                510 x 3

                Speed Deadlift  340 8 x 4

Week 3 Deadlift                                515 x 3

                Speed Deadlift  340 10 x 4

Week 4 Deload

This will be a great way to get ready for an event that will be you know will be higher repetitions.  By the 3rd week you will be performing 40 reps in a very short amount of time, so you will be building great endurance to go 20 or more reps when it comes time to compete.  

Now let’s look at a last man standing event which is a crowd favorite at any show.   In a last man standing event there is a set weight to begin with that every competitor must do to move on.  Every round the weight increases a certain amount until there is only one competitor left.  Most people train this event just trying to increase their one rep max, but with this event you are most likely performing a lot of reps until you even come close to what that might be.  When it comes time for the event many competitors are not prepared for the high volume that they fall short way before their actual 1RM.   

Also once competitors start dropping out your rest time in between lifts will also drop making this event even more difficult.  Again training economy must be built up to withstand the volume of this event while increasing your one rep max so the answer again is “deadlift more.”  We are going to take a slightly different approach this time, but with the same general set up.  Since you will only be performing one rep at a time the goal each week will be to reach a heavy single, BUT you are not going to grind out a max rep until the 3rd week.  This is very important to follow, as you are not building strength by grinding out heavy singles every week. Like I said before, you will only stall out fast.  Also just to be clear, I am using the example of the deadlift but this setup can be used for any lift you would like to increase.  

For the first week, set a goal for yourself to work up to a heavy single, but this does not have to be a new PR just yet.  You should leave a little in the tank, so you know you can increase it next week.  Let’s say you get up to 600lbs on the deadlift.  For your speed reps you will now be working at 75% so the weight is now 450lbs with 90 seconds of rest.  Now instead of increasing the amount of sets like last time, we will now increase the weight each week as that is the main goal while training for this event.

Week 1 Deadlift  600 x 1

                Speed Deadlift  450 6 x 2 90 seconds rest

Week 2 Deadlift   610 x 1

                Speed Deadlift  465 6 x 2

Week 3 Deadlift   620 (PR week)

                Speed Deadlift  475 6 x 2

Week 4 Deload

Using either of these programs will prepare you for any event you are training for.  Also these mini cycles can be repeated for as long as they continue to work for you.  Start each cycle over with your new max and use the given percentages to continue both increasing your weight and training volume. 

 

  • I am doing two contests in August. The one at the beginning of the month has a deadlift for max and the one at the end of the month has an axle deadlift for reps. With the time crunch I will be facing, would you recommend taking a deload week after the first contest, then doing the first two weeks of your high rep training using the third week for the contest at the end of the month?

  • You’re probably taking at least one week of a deload before your first contest so you should be able to get back into training right after. If you are feeling beat up after the contest then take it easy for a few days but try to push the event training that week because you won’t have much time to prepare for the next. I have been in that same boat many times, Just make sure you get enough rest in before the second contest and you will be fully recovered.

  • Matt, when you are training either the heavy triple or single how are you working up to that weight?

  • That’s a good question and one I was thinking of writing an quick article on. I think I will this week Matthew so stay tuned for that! What I will say quickly is to not do a ton of reps leading up to heavy weight. Too many people burn themselves out before they even get close to 90% of their max. If you are going for a triple then start out with sets of 5 with super light weight going to triples once you get past 75%. The set before I’m going for that heavy weight I will only do one or two reps so I save my energy for that max set.