How to Use Stoic Singles to Increase Strength and Train More Often

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This past year, I set sail trying to pick apart Olympic weightlifting training and gymnastics training with the eye to steal the best and most applicable of each to piece together for my own hybrid training philosophy. It’s been surprisingly successful to this point. (Who doesn’t want to be a combination of those two athletes, really?)

One thing I struggled to understand for a long time was how to train at a higher frequency. I was clueless, and had no idea how anyone could make predictable progress (see the end of this article on chaos in training) while doing something like squatting every day.

But, by a mishap, I found my answer — something I call the Stoic Single. It not only hinted at how to train at a higher frequency, but also made me stronger.

On hating medium, and how I approach training

For those that don’t know me, I’m a fan of going either (a) heavy or (b) light. Or, as I wrote about it on my Antifragile post, either (a) do something more than you’re used to or (b) doing something light enough so that you’re ready for (a) when the time comes. As Charlie Francis once said: our highs are too low; our lows too high.

I’ll blame Dan John: I hate medium.

There’s a lot that goes on under the hood of this though. For one, I’m not a huge fan of maximal effort training to failure. Save for mishaps, I never train to failure. Doing more doesn’t always end in more, as no one gets stronger ad infinitum. My body, on any given day, decides whether or not to go for broke, but one thing is sure: my light days always facilitate my heavy days, otherwise, they wouldn’t be very “light” now would they?

Another way phrase this light day facilitation: light days make heavy days easier by not impeding with recovery. Most people have an artificial perception of what “light” means in their mind, likely because we reduce the totality of stress down to weight on the bar.

This is a problem.

The skill of maxing

At some point, everyone that trains with a barbell begins notices that handling a heavy weight is fundamentally different than handling a lighter weight. More often than not, there’s a cusp — a weight goes from tolerable to hrmpphhuuuggggghhhh. My personal example: front squats with 275 pounds. For whatever reason, that was the point where things got dicey (even though my max was above 275).

In Squat Every Day, Matt Perryman talks about how handling near-max weights requires a different skill set than handling light weights, and I think that’s a fantastic way to put things.

The best analogy for this, in my opinion, is of throwing a baseball accurately. You can do a lob toss or you can throw the ball as fast as possible. In each case, the mechanics are the same, but the mechanics are just one part of the equation. The intensity, in some manner, dictates your ability to perform. You might be able to kill the Cat Rack with the lob toss, but what about throwing as fast as possible?

Just get stronger, right…?

For many people, the answer to getting more comfortable at 275 would be to increase your absolute max. The stronger you are, the easier everything else underneath becomes. While I agree with this to some extent, a noteworthy experience in the past made me go another direction.

Anytime I see strength under the guise of skill, I think back to my 40 Day + PLP experiments. (Read Part I, Part II, Part III.) They taught me that strength was more than weight on the bar, and that perception and “amp” could also predict strength. In other words, if you have to snap an ammonia cap, punch yourself in the face, and listen to Mercenary to lift something, you’re not as strong as someone that can lift that same weight yawning.

And so when you combine the three buckets of consideration in

  • Making a light day . . . light
  • Practicing heavy lifting as a skill
  • Tracking emotional arousal

the Stoic Single flew out of the womb.

Psychophysiological arousal and lifting

We are, for the most part, told to go heavy or go home. Pain is weakness leaving the body.

You might be familiar with Westside and their three ways of achieving maximal muscle fiber recruitment:

  • (ME) Maximal Effort: lifting a weight over 90%1RM (it’s worth noting that ME lifts aren’t always taken to failure)
  • (RE) Repeated Effort: lifting a light(er) weight to failure
  • (DE) Dynamic Effort: lifting a lighter(er) weight as fast as possible

There’s also the (SE) submaximal effort method which is generally lifting 70-85% 1RM within a certain range without being taken to failure—this was the method primarily used by the coaches I interned under, and they got great results with their athletes.

Now, I’m not a huge fan of training to failure or the dynamic effort method for non-powerlifters (just go trick or something), but that’s not the point here. I’m breaking these down to show this:

  • ME – high psychophysiological arousal, heavy weight (trying to break max)
  • RE – high psychophysiological arousal, lighter weight (taking to failure)
  • DE – high psychophysiological arousal, lighter weight (maximal acceleration)
  • SE – medium-high psychophysiological arousal, lighter-medium weight

We’re never really handling a heavy weight unless we mean business. In other words, every time we train with a heavy weight, we’re also training under the influence of ammonia (if you’re into that sorta thing), punching ourselves in the face, and listening to Mercenary. In other words, we’re not really getting a lot of “practice” in with handling heavy weights.

More importantly, we never learn how to perform at a high level without it also being very physically and mentally draining.

Of course, you can’t train frequently if you’re always destroying yourself mentally and physically. But what if you shifted your focus to lifting a heavy weight without much investment? What if you practiced your way to handling near-maximal weights with a stone face?

What if we learn how to perform at a high level without it being very physically and mentally draining?

The benefits of the Stoic Single

As if you couldn’t have guessed, the Stoic Single is all about crushing a heavy weight with zero emotional investment. Volume is kept low to save the body extra stress. Going back to my front squat example @ 275:

  • 5×135
  • 3×185
  • 2×225
  • 1×245
  • 1×275

So warm-up to a weight you’d never miss, but one that’s still rather heavy. Lift it crisply with next to zero emotional arousal. If you’re yawning and texting in between sets, you’re doing it right. Don’t listen to music.

The benefits of the Stoic Single include solving problems that only creep up with heavy weights. For instance, the upper back usually rounds over in some in a heavy front squat, but not in a light front squat. This is just one example, but a lot of lifts have “heavy” problems that aren’t present with “light” weights. You get more work on these problems because you’re training heavy.

You might be wondering how the Stoic Single classifies as a “light” day, and I go back to my original classification: the light day makes for an easier heavier day. One of the benefits of Stoic Singles: your emotional investment drops even when handling a heavy weight.

So, in my case, I learned how to lift 275 without trying, which made everything else above it seem easier. This is the 40 Day + PLP effect in a nutshell.

More practice = more frequency


After toying around with the Stoic Single on my light days, I began to test it out as a means of increasing frequency. I slowly crept front squats in on my traditional rest days, gradually working up to a heavier and heavier weight over time. I always kept the training fresh and emotionless. I never listened to my body until I got a few reps into my system. More often than not, I found myself stopping at 275 even though I had more in the tank. Occasionally, I crept up to 315 without much issue.

As you can imagine, when I did actually go heavy on front squats, they didn’t feel as heavy because 275 became so mundane.

The case and philosophy of higher frequency training

To bring things full circle here, this illuminated my philosophy of high frequency training. You have some sort of pinnacle of your abilities. High frequency training isn’t overtly meant to push this pinnacle. Instead, it’s about learning how to perform at a level closer to this pinnacle with less emotional investment.

So with tricking, for instance, say you can do a jacknife. You might have a few sessions where you do your jacknife balls to the wall, maybe even going for a more advanced variation. But the other sessions, if you wanted to train often, would be all about learning how to do the 540 with less emotional investment. When you can do them amazing while yawning, move into the jacknife. Do the same. Then when you can jacknife when yawning, just imagine what you can do when you actually put forth the energy to kill.

If there’s one thing people are missing…

…it’s the ability to own a heavy weight. There’s really nothing like getting under a bar, not really trying, and putting up something that was previously seen as difficult.

We all have a ceiling that we can’t lose sight of. But that doesn’t mean we can’t also work on our ability to perform under the confines of said ceiling. Sometimes being able to perform at a relatively high level 24/7 is more important than being able to perform at an absolutely high level two or three days per week.

If you want to experiment with the former, give the Stoic Single a try. As crazy at it sounds, I don’t care about much of anything these days save for emotional arousal. I squat or deadlift every training session. I train my upper body every day. From what I’ve found, as long as you keep your cool, your body will also keep its cool.

MAYBE YOU’RE A SUCKER


You can’t fool me.

I know this isn’t your first rodeo, trying to lose fat, build muscle, and build a body you’re proud of.

But you’re not a quitter, which is why you’re here.

You might be a little lost right now.

Maybe you don’t have much motivation.

Maybe you don’t what program or diet to use.

I don’t know…

But what I do know is this:

Everything you need is inside of you.

You’re capable of more than know.

You just have to open your eyes.

My weekly column can help.

Just a small little honest note from me sent every Sunday.

Unless I’m hungover.

And then it comes Monday.

What I’m trying to say is that it’ll come Monday.

26 comments… add one
  • Eric September 3, 2013, 7:54 pm

    Interesting article. So when it comes to a “training day” in regards to nutrition, how do you pick what day you make high carb?

    Thanks

    • Anthony September 4, 2013, 12:16 am

      I have four solid training days per week that are higher intensity. Those.

  • Adam September 3, 2013, 8:11 pm

    How is this different from Ascending Pyramid training?

    • Anthony September 4, 2013, 12:17 am

      Emotionless and keeping it that way.

  • The Real Will September 3, 2013, 8:58 pm

    I am a HUGE fan of high frequency training and I think I’m going to experiment with this one. Just like you were talking about, I don’t go up in weight just because I made my reps with my heaviest set…not until I own that set. Even if I hit my reps, if I struggled too much on the last rep, or my form wasn’t that great, or whatever, what’s the point in adding more weight to the bar? Thanks for sharing your info Ant. Another excellent article.

    • Anthony September 4, 2013, 12:17 am

      Thanks.

  • Anthony September 3, 2013, 9:24 pm

    Top article Anthony!

    What do you think of incorporating Stoic Singles on the squat say x2 per week with soccer training x7 weekly(in season) to maintain or even increase strength?

    • Anthony September 4, 2013, 12:18 am

      I’d think it’s all about priorities and how seriously you want to take soccer.

  • Anon September 3, 2013, 11:16 pm

    How this relates to myomutant program?

    • Anthony September 4, 2013, 12:18 am

      It’s a strategy I recommend when the time is right.

  • Yannick Noah September 4, 2013, 3:38 am

    Awesome post sir. May i ask if there are any limitations/better options towards the type of exercises that can be done with stoic singles? Thank you

    • Anthony September 10, 2013, 3:47 pm

      It depends on what you currently do. I find that if you’re squatting and DLing, FSQs are best as they save face for the lower back. It all depends though –

  • Milo September 4, 2013, 6:45 pm

    It sounds like you are attempting to maintain para-sympathetic dominance during training. Very interesting. You can also accomplish this by controlling breathing patterns (4 count inhale, 8 count exhale), belly (diaphragmatic) breathing, and breathing through your nose as mouth breathing off gasses excessive CO2. Maintaining para-sympathetic dominance in training can accelerate gains and have a profound effect on your life outside of the gym. Good article.

  • Robert September 5, 2013, 9:47 pm

    Hi Anthony,

    just want to start by saying great website. I found it last week, and I really identify with you, and I’m glad to see there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

    I really wanted to ask you for your help, because I am a psychologically a mess. This whole diet thing has been killing me for almost over a year, when I started learning about bodybuilding. I read many books, and I tried to come up with the right diets, with the right amount of carbs etc. and it was really stressful because I wasn’t able to, and I really tried trust me. Then I keep trying things that don’t work for me. All I wanted was just something I could just follow because trust me it is so goddamn frustrating when you go to nutritionists and you know more than them. Nutritionists that not only don’t know what skinny fat is and how to treat it. They don’t say it, but it’s pretty obvious by what they tell you do .
    Recently I have gone to a doctor who’s has got like a national award is a complete supporter of a similar to the Atkins diet. I wanted to go there because I wanted to speak to someone who actually knew something about the subject. He did, but not about my problem as far as I’m concerned. You have absolutely no idea how frustrated I felt when his expensive BIA machine(both feet and hands) told him that I had, listen to this, 12 % bodyfat. I apologize for the words, but for fuck’s sake, there is just no way I have 12 % bodyfat. I don’t blame him, I blame his stupid machine. I look exactly like your before picture, and you know that is not 12 %. I am more like 15 or 20%. It’s like being obese and being told you look great you know? What he told me to do was a low carb diet, mainly with protein and fat foods, but he said not to worry about calories, but instead eating healthy and not feeling hungry. From my blood results, he told me I had hypothyroidism like my mom, so now I am taking some specific medicine for that, and he also gave a couple of vitamins I was lacking and some fiber recommendations.

    Now, beyond the fact that I hated being told that I had 12% by a machine who is proven scientifically to make many mistakes, what I really, really , really hate is ironically (due to your chaos solution) chaos. All I wanted, was to just be able to follow something, without worrying whether it was working or not, because it was. I really don’t care what I have to eat, I just want something I know will work. I don’t want to waste my time.

    So I come to you to desperately ask for help. I have read your articles, and subscribed to a few things of yours, but they take a few days to arrive. And I just want to start working out, but I can’t until I have everything right. So your e-mails clearly sound great, but they are taking too long(no offense) for someone who is really desperate. So the first thing I would like to ask you, would be if there is any way I can access all the e-mails for things like the chaos solution etc. without having to wait many days. It really is killing me man, no joke. It is so frustrating, I just feel like not trying to get a better body and simply accepting I am like this.

    The second thing is, can you just tell me what to do? And please don’t just write buy my pdf because not only my mom can’t afford it, but just because I feel I just need someone that understands me, to talk to me. It is unlikely I can just follow any diet you suggest, since my mom might not like the fact I am not following the doctor’s advice, but I might be able to convince her. But if I did keep on with the low carb could it work?

    But what do you think is the best approach? I am looking for something I don’t need to count extensively calories, or I will go mental, dead serious. You can be honest with me, and could you really help me all the way to the end, as in give me a detailed answer? I am really sorry, I am sounding really arrogant and demanding, but I am really desperate, and I would so much appreciate your help .

    What I would like would be do x and by the summer you will be at the state y. Also, if you could give me somewhat of a pep talk on how to deal with this enormous stress it would mean the world to me.

    Thank you very much, I hope you can find some time to help me.

    • Anthony September 10, 2013, 4:04 pm

      My reply to you would be this: if there was a one track “set it and forget it” solution, don’t you think everyone would follow it and the world would be a better place?

      I have posts upon posts upon posts of free content here. I have diets that I used, training programs that I used, and I wrote them all in my free time to give to others that are kind enough to visit this place. I suggest you start there and refine your questions.

      No, I can’t provide you with a silver bullet because it doesn’t exist. Sorry.

      If you aren’t strength training with a barbell, start there. No excuses. Pick up rocks if you have to. Buy a door frame pull-up bar. Do push-ups every day. Do something. You spent enough time writing this that could have otherwise been spent training. All of the tools you need are here for free. Go back in my archives and get to work.

  • Lenin September 6, 2013, 4:36 am

    you just reminded me, i have work to do with my 540.. still a way to go..

  • Omar November 6, 2013, 5:05 pm

    I love this article. I found that listening to music amps you up and seems to make you push harder….but then i tried not listening to music and the energy for my workouts came from a calmer more grounded place. Instead of forcing my body to do work with music (Listening to old dbz tunes ha!) the silence of no music kept me in tune with myself and me and my body were able to workout TOGETHER to accomplish our goals.

  • Joey January 2, 2014, 7:10 pm

    What % of my 1rm should I lift for a stoic single?

    • Anthony January 3, 2014, 3:23 pm

      Putting a number on it defeats the purpose.

  • Jordan Hornblow June 24, 2015, 12:38 am

    Hey Anthony, great article! I recently listened to your appearance on the Road to Ripped podcast which lead me here.

    At the moment I’m training my main lifts three times per week. I aim to hit the maximum weight I can for 4-6 reps. Once I hit 6 reps, I put the weight up in the next session. The intensity is usually pretty high. I’m going to replace one of these days with a ‘Stoic Single’ day. From what I understand, the idea is to keep volume low (train singles) and keep it chill (just hit the rep and move on). Does that sound about right?

    • Anthony July 17, 2015, 12:07 am

      I’m not quite sure if I can explain it better than I did in the article. Your interpretation seems about right.

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