the joy of strength training


August 28th, 2009 at 12:01 am

Testing your one rep max

Ever tested your one rep max? Now might be a good time to start!

What do we mean by one rep max?

Your one rep max is the heaviest weight you can lift for a single rep in the chosen exercise. So for example you might want to find your one rep max in the squat or maybe the clean and jerk.

There are several reasons why you might want to do a one rep max session:

Curiosity – just what is the maximum amount of weight you can lift?

Programming – if you are following or constructing a programme based on percentage of one rep max, you need to know what your one rep max is. Online calculators that work this out from your 5 or 10 rep max are not particularly accurate – it’s better to do a proper test yourself

Training effect – going really heavy, up to your max, has a useful training effect. Max singles require the maximum amount of neurological and muscular coordination, effort and force you can possibly muster. Your max lift should be the lift where you recruit the most muscle you possibly can; getting to this point will make you stronger.

But your max is a different animal (and a different number) depending on factors such as whether you have worked up to it over a period of weeks or months and what type of environment you are in.

Powerlifters or olympic weightlifters for example talk about their ‘training max’ and their ‘competition max’. The training max is the maximum amount they have lifted in the gym – which usually means a safe, familiar environment with no pressure and no judges. The competition max is the maximum amount they have achieved at a meet – in an adrenalin-fuelled competitive environment.

Some lifters do their best lifts in competition; some do better in the gym.

Non-competitive trainees who have tested their max usually mean the most weight they managed to lift on a particular day. They may or may not have prepared for that max day.

Dan John offers some amusing but insightful definitions of max here.

For the purposes of this article, I’m talking about testing your max on a given day in the gym. This is not something you need to prepare for specifically.

I do a session like this when I need to know my training max for a new programme. I’ve just done one recently because I’ve had a few months off and I therefore don’t really know where my strength is at the moment.

It should be noted that I did not walk back into the gym after three months and immediately perform a max test. I spent about a month easing back in first!

When are you ready for a max test?

Going to your one rep max is not something that most people should be doing every week. If you are an advanced trainee, this could break you quickly, and if you are a complete beginner, there are better ways to use the time.

I’d say you need to have a good few months training (at least) under your belt before it is worth doing max singles. I didn’t bother doing them for several years.

There are two simple reasons for this:

  1. If you have not been lifting for very long, your single won’t represent your best effort. It takes time and practise to develop the necessary neuromuscular coordination to make your best lift your first and only lift. I explain more about why this is the case in the article What is Strength? Beginners tend to do their best lift a few reps into the set. For beginners, a 5 rep max is a more helpful indication of strength.
  2. You need to be solid in your technique in order to do a good single in the first place. If your technique is not good, you won’t be getting an accurate reading of your strength. Many people need to spend months working on mobility and flexibility in order to achieve a decent squat.

However if you have been training for a while and you are confident with your technique, it could be fun to try your one rep max.

How to test your one rep max

If you’ve never done it before, it’s not as scary as you think! It is also not a standard process, it very much depends on how you best operate. The objective after all is to get your max, not to do a particular number of reps at a particular weight or ‘work your heart and lungs’ or whatever.

The process is simple. Here’s a summary.

  • Do a thorough warm up: first a general warm up for the body, then some warm up sets in the lift you are testing.
  • When you are warmed up, start doing single reps.
  • Take as much rest as you need fully to recover between efforts.
  • Increment the weight in whatever amounts you feel appropriate for you.
  • Keep going until you cannot complete a rep with good form.
  • You’ve got your training max. Go forth and conquer!

Warm up

It is helpful to get your muscles warm and your heart rate up a bit. You’ll want to do some mobility work to loosen up and work out any kinks. Keep it all very light.

Once you’ve got everything going, it’s time to do your warm up sets in the target lift. This is the area people are most unsure about. You need to prepare sufficiently for a very heavy effort. But you don’t want to expend too much energy on the warm up as you want to put it all into your max effort.

The way I work it out is using number of reps. Other people might use percentage of target max or some other method. It doesn’t really matter, so long as you get an effective warm up.

My method works as follows. I start with a weight I can lift with good form very comfortably for 10 reps. This is an opportunity for me to get the heart rate up, blood flowing and practise the key bits of technique I will need to focus on in the singles. An example of this would be keeping my chest up in the squat. I use the set of ten to really focus on keeping the chest up and driving hard. You want to give your body a chance to practise what it will need to be doing under great stress later.

I then have a rest, maybe 2 or 3 minutes and then do a set of 5, again at a weight where I can get 5 reps reasonably comfortably. Once more I focus on elements of technique that I really want to get right.

From there, I move onto doubles, that is, 2-rep sets. At this point what I’m doing is getting my body ready to feel a really heavy weight. If I went from a set of 5 to a single, the difference in weight would be a bit of a shock. Mentally I might feel that the weight was too heavy. So you get your body used to heavy weights but without wasting energy by doing lots of reps.

I’ll do maybe 2 sets of doubles, again with 2-3 minutes rest in between. Then I’ll start my singles. I start my singles with a weight that is very challenging but that I expect to be able to complete. Psychologically it’s not very encouraging to fail your first single!

I generally take at least 4 minutes rest between single efforts.

If you are testing an olympic lift, the process should be slightly different. Olympic weightlifters generally would not bother doing sets of 5 and 10 to warm up, but will warm up with partial lifts and lower rep ranges. This is because form deteriorates in the olympic lifts much quicker than in the power lifts and it can be counter productive to do high rep sets.

There are specific olympic lifting warm up sequences such as the Burgener warm up which you can utilise to get your technique practise in before moving onto doubles and singles.

Incrementing the weight

Your max effort will be affected by how you increase the weight from single to single. If you make too big a jump up in weight, and fail the lift, you’ve wasted energy on that attempt. However if you increment in amounts that are too small you are wasting energy doing too many lifts before reaching your max.

Don’t get hung up about it – just be sensible. On a lift like squat or deadlift you should be able to increment by at least 5kg until perhaps right at the very end when you might increment by 2.5kg. My own rule of thumb is to increment by 5kg until I get to the point where I really don’t know whether I will make the next lift or not, based on how the last one felt. When that is the case, I switch to 2.5kg increments.

On the bench press, your increments may be smaller, especially if you are female. I tend to increment by 2.5kg for bench press singles. You can get hold of even smaller plates if necessary (that is, smaller than 1.25kg).

Failing a lift

If you fail at a particular weight, usually that is your max. Sometimes though you might feel that the lift was nearly there, in which case you can often rest for a few minutes, come back and try again.

This is your own judgement call. Sometimes you fail and you know that’s it for the day. Sometimes you want to have another go. It’s entirely up to you.

One rule that I have for myself when testing a training max is that I stop when my form starts to deteriorate. If my back starts rounding on deadlift for example, then that is my max lift for the day – even if I still feel ‘strong’.

There’s no point getting yourself injured just for a training max. Where’s the glory in having to take six weeks off for injury?

Of course you should also stop if you are no longer getting your desired range of motion in the lift. If you are testing your max bench press, for example, and you don’t manage to touch your chest with the bar, you should not count this as a max.

General principles

Recover as much as you need to between each lift – you are not trying to get a ‘cardio’ effect from shorter rest periods, you are trying to lift as much as you possibly can. 4 minutes works for me. In my opinion your rest should not be shorter than 3 minutes and can be 5 or over for very advanced lifters.

Don’t expend all your energy on the warm up. It is just the warm up, not the purpose of the session. Everything in the session needs to be geared towards getting that max single.

Have your head on straight. Try not to psyche yourself out but you do need to take it seriously, concentrate, focus and be present in the lift.

Get some help – spotters, or even just friends to encourage you and make you feel better. Doing a max session on your own can be tough and lonely.

Your favourite workout music often helps. If you work out better to music, put some on. Again, the purpose of the session is to get a max, not to make life harder unnecessarily.

Prepare for the day

Exercise some common sense and prepare for the session in advance, in order to maximise your chances of hitting a good number. Have a couple of rest days or light training days before the one rep max session. Get a good night’s sleep the night before and make sure you are well fed and watered on the day.

More suggestions

Got any tips for a one rep max session?

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