Training stuck in a rut? Confused about all the complex workout systems with combinations of supersets, tri-sets, and giant sets – prescribed with confusing variations of light, medium, and heavy poundages? Want to take a break with a ridiculously simple workout system that increases strength and muscle mass fast? Then consider the workout philosophy, “One Lift a Day.”
One lift a day workouts entail focusing on one multi-joint exercise in a single workout. This training approach has been around for so long, and there are so many variations of it, that it’s difficult to determine its origins. However, one sport that has embraced the concept for over a half a century is weightlifting.
Unlike bodybuilding or sports-specific training in which pumping iron is used to achieve a specific goal, such as physique transformation or athletic fitness, weightlifting is unique in that the barbell is the sport. A lifter performs snatches and clean and jerks in training, and performs those same lifts in competition. Also, because of the technical complexity of the lifts and the lower number of reps performed, a large number of sets are needed to adequately warm-up for the heavier attempts and to achieve sufficient training volume. The problem is that performing both the snatch and the clean and jerk in a single training session is not the best way to perfect the technique of the lifts.
A relatively lighter weight is used in the snatch than the clean, and lifters have found that performing one lift before the other can adversely affect the timing of the second exercise. For example, if snatches are performed first, a lifter may try to pull the bar too fast off the floor in the clean. Pulling too fast off the floor in the clean for one’s strength level may cause the lower back to flex excessively, reducing the acceleration on the bar and placing excessive stress on the spine. If the clean is performed first, the lifter’s lower back may become too fatigued to achieve optimal speed during the lift.
For these reasons, weightlifters often design their workouts such that they only focus on one lift per training session, with the addition of an auxiliary exercise, such as a pull or a squat. In fact, Bulgarian weightlifting guru Ivan Abajiev said that following the concept of training specificity, he could see weightlifters only performing two lifts in training: the snatch and the clean and jerk, with no squats.
Other Iron Game athletes have used the concept of one lift a day are powerlifters. A powerlifter might focus on the squat on Monday, bench press on Wednesday, and the deadlift on Friday. Bodybuilders have also used the concept to bring up a lagging body part that was hurting their symmetry, such as devoting a single workout session to overhead pressing exercises to widen their shoulders and thus improve their V-taper. In effect, these bodybuilders are practicing structural balance.
From a training intensity perspective, performing one lift a day may increase the intensity of the exercise. Bulgarian strength coach Angel Spassov lectured to strength coaches in the US in the late 80s and early 90s that testosterone levels would achieve their highest levels in about 15 minutes into the workout, and maintain that level for about 30 minutes; after 30 minutes testosterone levels would decrease, and as such the quality of the workout would suffer.
Using this idea as part of their scientific foundation, weightlifting coaches from Bulgaria designed their workouts to last about 45 minutes. However, to achieve sufficient volume in their workouts, their athletes would train several times a day. For example, a lifter might snatch in the morning, clean and jerk in the afternoon, and squat in the evening; many Bulgarian weightlifters who won Olympic gold were known to train five times a day, six days a week, using this system.
In the late 80s, this idea of one (or a few) lifts per training sessions inspired the creation of a popular bodybuilding workout by Leo Costa and Dr. R.L. Horine called “The Bulgarian Power Burst System,” which presented the idea of a bodybuilder performing multiple training sessions a day and performing relatively few exercises each workout. However, it should be noted that when asked about the program at an Eleiko Strength Summit in 2011, Coach Abajiev said that he was not consulted in the development of this workout system nor had he read the book written by Costa and Horine.
From a psychological perspective, one lift a day workouts provide a refreshing change from traditional workouts. Knowing that you only have to go all-out in a single exercise may increase your motivation to train. On a more subjective level, there is research suggesting that focusing on a single exercise may have advantages over training multiple lifts in a single workout session.
In 2012, researchers from the Norwegian School of Sport Sciences presented a study that looked at the differences between training 3 days a week and extending that same workout to 6 days a week. This study involved 16 powerlifters (13 men, 3 women) who had competed in national competitions. The workouts lasted 15 weeks, with the athletes performing 3 or 6 weekly training sessions. Total training, volume, training intensity and exercises for both groups were nearly identical. The authors concluded, “Dividing total training volume into 6 smaller sessions was more effective than the traditional 3 sessions per week regime both for the increase in 1 RM in squat and bench-press, as well as for the increase in thigh muscle CSA
The lifts performed in a one lift a day training session should be those that involve a maximum amount of muscle mass. To use an extreme example, a bench press would be better than a triceps kickback. It follows that a leg press would be more effective than a leg extension, but a squat would be more effective than a leg press. Here is one simple example of a weekly “One Lift a Day” program:
Monday: Back Squat
Wednesday: Military Press
Friday: Bent-Over Row
Saturday: Bench Press
How many reps and sets to perform for each exercise depends on the training goal. Lower reps would develop the highest level of relative strength, medium reps functional hypertrophy, and higher reps, hypertrophy and strength endurance. Using a back squat, for example, the set/reps could be programmed as follows: 6-8 sets x 2-4 reps (relative strength), 4-6 sets x 4-6 reps (functional hypertrophy), 4-5 sets x 10-12 reps (hypertrophy). Combinations of these loading parameters could also be used, such as alternating between phases of functional hypertrophy and hypertrophy for those who want to develop high levels of size and strength.
Although the core idea of this workout is one lift a day, often an auxiliary exercise using the same muscle groups is included. Mark Rippetoe, in his book Practical Programming for Strength Training, offered this example:
Monday: Bench Day + Assistance (shoulders and triceps)
Tuesday: Squat Day + Assistance (hamstrings and lower back)
Thursday: Press Day + Assistance (chest and triceps)
Friday: Light Squat + Deadlift + Assistance (back)
Expanding on this idea, Rippetoe says on Monday the sequence could be bench press, seated dumbbell press, seated triceps extension. As for reps and sets, he said for the bench press you could do 5x5 on week 1, 5x3 on week 2, and 5x1 on week 3; the remaining exercises would be performed for 3-5 sets of 10-12 reps each week.
Another appealing aspect of the one lift a day workouts is that because there are more rest days between a lift, you can supposedly train harder. No need to cycle your training intensities among “light, medium, and heavy” workouts. So rather than have heavy/medium/light days in various combinations, you simply perform the heaviest weights you can for that day based on the number of reps prescribed.
One lift a day workouts would probably be more effective for immediate-level trainees (i.e., those with at least one year of training experience) and advanced trainees. It’s not to say that a beginner cannot make progress on this type of workout, but that they may achieve better results with a more conventional program that has a greater training frequency for each lift.
If you want to try a simple, proven weight training system that has you going “hard and heavy” every workout, “One Lift a Day” workouts may just be the workout system for you.