Mutiple Repetitions Optimal to Build Strength? Maybe NOT

By: Brian Carroll

Singles vs. Reps

The best and most efficient way to build strength is a highly debated subject. In all honesty, there really is not a best way, just the best way that works for you. Look at articles online, you will find hundreds of ways to get stronger. You see plenty of people with a variety of methods and a philosophy towards training. To an extent, they all seem to work for their clients and themselves.

Even some trainers with success stories and their own data to back it up will sometimes tout the superiority of their method over anyone else’s. Like the old saying goes, “there’s more than one way to skin the cat”
This holds true for strength training, and I honestly believe that. How boring would this world be if there was only one way to do anything? It would suck, to be honest.

I can’t really say there is necessarily a right or a wrong way to approach this. Wrong for me might be ideal for the next guy, but it’s all highly dependent upon the individual. How long they’ve been lifting, how long they have been lifting heavy weights, how many injuries they are dealing with (and how severe), level of experience and much more. I do think there are wrong ways for longevity and lasting in the strength game, but this is another topic for another day.

Today is about singles versus reps in training. There are some really important things to consider when programming your rep scheme and I’m going to give you some suggestions on how to look at this.
Reps are the only way to build strength on the main 3 lifts, correct?

Wrong, by a long shot.

Now, with that being said; you will not build strength maxing out all the damn time. You will not get stronger if you are grinding heavy reps often, missing reps more than a couple times per training cycle or living at 90% or above for an extended period of time.

Some very strong Eastern European powerlifters are known for tons of singles at a lower percentage and moving them with very high velocity and speed. When visiting Dr. McGill for the second time last year, I was explaining how I deviated from my normal doubles and triples on the squat and deadlift, as I was not comfortable with my form after the first rep. McGill replied “that’s smart and very Russian of you.”

The Russians really like multiple singles to perfect form and dial in technique. They, and many other top lifters, lock in their form to perfection like a finely tuned machine and they nail the lifts when it’s heavy and when it matters; competition day. For them it is basically a practice every time they lift, so the competition is nothing new.

Singles are a great way to approach the bar, practice your setup, perfect your form and do it all at a lower weight than what you would do in a meet. People with a history of injuries, as I have, can sometimes have a hard time staying tight under a bar for 20-45 seconds at a time. The looseness under load, and fatigue, can very possibly end up in an injury.
I can imagine some people will think, “But Brian, shouldn’t you be in shape past 1-3 reps, fatass???”

I understand that, but being under a bar at 85% for a couple reps should be taxing to some extent if your form is perfect. By perfect I mean meet-day-PR-perfect. Why lift with subpar form? Practice makes perfect.
And if your form is in the shitter, you are in trouble. This is all the more reason to scale the reps back when the weights go over 80-85%. This is, of course, my opinion; however I have plenty of results to back this up.

Another key point to remember is we are powerlifters, all that matters is our one rep max, not how many reps we can do at 80% of it.

Reps are the best at building strength?

Everyone is so different, and will respond differently with a large amount of variables to consider. As I touched on above, if you have an injury history, especially a major one, you might want to consider keeping the reps only with the lighter weights and making sure anything remotely heavy will be singles or doubles.

In a perfect world, I will agree that if the lifter is healthy, young, and the weights are moderate to moderately heavy, then reps in the 2 to 5 range are probably ideal. I highly suggest this for your offseason as I outline in 10/20/Life

This would be optimal for staying fresh, keeping loads lower while still getting quality work in with multiple sets of singles. I will never suggest doing singles just because they are lazy and have bullshit excuses as to why they have to do singles. If you are mentally weak, you will find every excuse in the book. Reps are hard, especially if you are pushing them correctly.


Have a bar in your hands, or on our back, for upwards of 25 seconds can be grueling and exhausting. Consider using the higher reps (around 5 reps) for the offseason work. 10 weeks to get your work in with higher reps, then dial in the singles and triples, after that get ready for some singles for competition prep.

It is all setting you up for the day of your meet.

An argument for singles

Reps can be the downfall of a lifter and actually lead to injury as explained in the beginning of this article. I’ve seen many be able to do this with no issue.

I am sure you have all seen the person who grooves their reps and they all look the same. Better yet, have you ever seen the person who gets better as they go with each rep? We all have and typically, this person will not max or hit a test single well. This is a problem. This person has not honed in their ability to get one rep right, the first time, and push with everything they have and explode. This is especially troubling for a powerlifter because all we test with is singles and if you aren’t good at singles, you are missing the boat.

What better way is there to perfect your craft, than to practice how you play? This is not a new concept. This is why we break up the offseason and pre-contest in 10/20/Life.

I do suggest starting with some reps at the start of the 10 week pre-contest cycle, but not everyone will do this and the percentages are around the 70% range.

A conversation I had a week ago with a good friend Mike Szudarek sparked this article. He sent me his program to review and pick apart. One of the things I brought to his attention was the reps. I wrote him back, “This looks very good. The only thing is the sets of 3 at the high percentage to a box, make sure you ‘re able to keep your form and not flop on the box after the first few reps. You need to stay tight.”

He immediately wrote back “Great advice, last night my first rep was perfect and felt great, and the next rep I was unable to keep as tight and it was not nearly as good.”

Some will be able to stay perfectly tight on all 3 reps and dial in with no problems. This begs the question, should you do reps if you suck at them? Yes and no. Do them with the lighter weight and get better, but if you cannot stay tight and execute with perfection, then stay with the amount of reps you can do with perfect form.

This also leads into my outlook on training versus meets; keep great form in the gym and listen to your body, but in a meet it is time to let it all hang out. If you have to break form then, so be it but don’t’ make a habit of it often as your body will not last over time.

I’ve used both ways, and had great success.

In my training, and powerlifting career, I have hit 800 pound benches, and deadlifts, in meets by using multiple reps for some cycles, depending on circumstances. Other times I have used singles only and counted on my assistance work for volume and reps. To be more specific I’ve hit world records training both with singles and reps for my meet prep. In the meet that I squatted 1030 at 220 pounds, I used doubles up to 930 pounds and never handled over 1000 in training that cycle. I didn’t even use a reverse band setup for overload work. I nailed a pretty easy 1030 in the meet for the second lightest man to ever squat over 1000. When I nailed my 1185 squat at 275, my back was bothering me badly in training. I never went over 1130 in training, but I used multiple sets of singles in training. For example I would work up to a 1030 for 3 singles, then slapped on the reverse bands for 1130. The 1185 was 55 pounds over my best gym lift, with reverse bands added.


What was the common denominator here, aside from setting the world records? It is very easy to see, I left something the tank, I listened to my body, I moved every lift as fast as possible, I adapted my training to my current situation and I never missed a single lift in the gym.

Assistance reps for higher reps

If you feel like you have to do the reps in training, because you respond to them, then that is up to you. Another thing you will want to consider is keeping your assistance work at higher reps. For example; you work up to 80% for 2×2 on the squat, and move on to your main assistance movement of pause squats. You used the 10/20/Life weak point index and you know that slow and weak out of the hole on the squat; therefore, you choose pause squats to work on it. You would then use the higher reps for things like this, board presses for a weak lockout on bench, and rack or block pulls on the deadlift. There is nothing wrong with using super high reps on these, with reps ranging between 6 to 15 to hammer them. Ideally, you would keep these reps under 8, to keep the weight heavy, and then get your higher reps (10 or more) with something less of a compound movement, i.e. GHR, KB swings, and goblet squats. Remember what I said in the opening of this article; there are many approaches to this.

Assistance work is something you can really lighten the weight on and take some reps with it and work on what is holding you back. This is how you get stronger, by attacking things you really suck at. Some people will be stronger on these movements that they are on the squat, bench and deadlift. Most will be weaker on them.

There is never just one way to train

Josh Bryant’s way is much different than Dan Green’s; Dan’s is different than mine, and so on and so forth. The 10/20/Life approach would be much less volume than a Sheiko routine, but at the end of the day we have all produced amazing results with a variety of strength athletes across the board and around the world.

Different approaches, different ideals with different backgrounds. We all have different rep schemes, approaches and suggest different assistance exercises for our clients’ weak points.

At the end of the day, you have to find out what works for you. If 10/20/Life can offer you just a step in the right direction and put you on a path of being healthy and productive in the gym and life, then I’ve done my job.

Remember, it’s not about 1 or 2 years, or even 5 to 10 meets. It is about the long run and what you do over this time to keep progress moving along. The fast and easy way is not always the best way. Be happy with a five pound PR. Not everyone will hit a 20 pound PR on each lift in every meet. Increasing five pounds every few months, equals bigger PR’s in the long haul.

Remember this simple fact; availability supersedes ability.


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Brian Carroll

Brian is a world-class powerlifter with over two decades of elite and pro-level powerlifting under his belt. Coming back from a devastating back injury in 2012 that broke multiple bones and that most experts said he would never recover from, he has returned to the pinnacle of world-class lifting (while 100% pain and symptom-free) and is now dedicated to helping others avoid the same mistakes that he made in the past through private and group coaching in Jacksonville, FL. Brian’s impressive recovery has given him the opportunity to teach and deliver talks to physical therapists, chiropractors, medical doctors, professional strength & conditioning coaches and experts from all facets of sport, on how to avoid injury, while building anti-fragile strength and resilience in athletes.
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