A huge issues with powerlifters and strength athletes is we are myopic in our view of strength, and absolute strength or singles is all we ever think.
This is a huge cause of failures to get stronger.
TL:DR - train in the rep ranges you rarely train in, they are the lowest hanging fruit.
To lift something, there are three key issues
1. the ability to recruit muscular fibres
2. the strength of the muscle / its cross sectional size
3. your ability to express strength (mobility, mentality and technique)
A good program will work in the mid to long term, and realise that if you are always prepping or heading towards a single, you will eventually have burnout.
Solid programming should have mesocycles / blocks dedicated to achieving your best in multiple rep ranges for designated sets. The aggregate of the sets is the goal, rather than a single weight
- 5 x 5 @ 80%
- 4 x 10 @65%
- 5 x 8 @70%
- 10 x 2 @90%
For example, if you can bench 100kg, you might be programmed in a block to
1. 5 x 5 @ 70kg
2. 5 x 5 @ 75kg
3. 5 x 5 @ 80kg
If you get the full 25 reps well in this mesocycle, its entirely possible you pushed up your bench. The next meso cycle may be
1. 10 x 2 @ 80kg
2. 10 x 2 @ 85kg
3. 10 x 2 @ 90kg
While the majority of the people reading this would thing max out is the next week, good programming sets up a structure where you rarely (if ever) fail a rep. The next meso may be
1. 4 x 10 @ 60kg
2. 4 x 10 @ 65kg
3. 5 x 8 @ 70kg
4. 5 x 5 @ 80kg
5. Work up to a hard dub
If you think about our three areas, size of muscle, recruit of fibres and expression of power, we've been able to do all of these without burning out and thinking about that max out of 100kg.
In this example, you would be thinking if they made it through all of the above, a dub at 95 or 97.5 is highly possible.
The Reality, it really is a marathon
Most powerlifters have almost no issue with 3s, dubs and singles. Its fun.
If you see a set of 10, its terrifying. A set of 20, and its all jokes how you don't cardio.
Recently, I've been programmed by a new coach (moving to more oly movements) and my first block had a huge amount of 20s. When I questioned this, I got
1. its mentally hard, and everything after is going to be easier
2. its general physical preparedness, you will be in better shape to add strength later
3. Its a effective isometric hold in both the squat and bench, helping you maintain those positions later.
I have not done a set of 20 deadlifts in my memory (I started training at 14 and I'm 39). The pump I had in my lower back actually made me lie down it was so bad, and after a month, I've gained muscle (waist is measuring smaller and I'm heavier) - which I don't recall doing in a long time.
The big take-away
Read any top lifters program, or ask a top level competitor, and they are always doing a aggregate of sets.
Many many beginner or intermediate lifters warm up to one very heavy set, then back off, and this is just easier than doing 5 or more hard sets, where the last few sets take a huge amount of mental strength.
If your strength has stalled, take out a pen and paper and write out some goals for the amount of sets, reps and weight.