A 1 rep max is exactly what it sounds like: testing the maximum amount of weight, for 1 repetition, that one can lift with correct technique. Testing a 1 RM (1 Rep Max) in the squat, bench, deadlift, and olympic lifts (snatch, clean, and jerk) are commonly seen in the weightlifting, powerlifting, and Crossfit setting. But do you have to test the 1 RM in order to see strength gains? What is the true purpose of a 1 RM? These are some of the questions our physical therapists at Made 2 Move hear all the time.
News Flash: Testing your strength with a 1 RM isn’t what is making you stronger. Do we love to see a good PR (personal record) on a lift with our patients at Made 2 Move? Of course! But our Made 2 Move therapists would not attempt a 1 RM attempt without a proper training cycle to build strength and technique prior.
What about weightlifters?
Yes, weightlifting competitions consist of three 1 rep max attempts, but the weightlifters you see at these competitions did not get to that level by hitting 1 rep maxes every day. The weeks and months of consistent work leading up to competition is what made them that strong. Weightlifter Sergey Bondarenko recently put it (and he’s not the first to say this): “Maximum weights demonstrate your technique and strength, and moderate weights build your technique and strength.” The 1 RM is just a demonstration or performance of the progress you have made and gives you a number to work off of for reps and sets in the next training cycle.
Working regular 1 rep maxes is very important for those competing in powerlifting or weightlifting competitions, as they have to mentally and physically prepare in order to be ready to fight to the death with the barbell at a competition. These athletes typically have a coach, like our weightlifting coach, Jordan Wigger, of Lowcountry Barbell, that has studied and worked extensively in the field of weightlifting and thus, can strategically place max out days into the training program to best prepare them for competition.
What if I’m not a weightlifter but am just looking to build strength?
So what about those who aren’t preparing for a weightlifting or powerlifting competition? How often should they be maxing out? Oftentimes, people are maxing out more than they should be and this may be negatively affecting their strength gains. Maxing out is incredibly taxing on the CNS (central nervous system), aka the system that instructs your legs to squat, and the PNS (peripheral nervous system), aka all the muscles required to perform the squat.
To break it down further, this essentially means that you’re placing a high level of stress on both your physical and cognitive systems. Testing a 1 RM and taking a lift to failure will take you longer to recover than exercises done at submaximal weights. This means that if you’re constantly maxing out and going to failure, you may be fatigued and the subsequent training days won’t be as effective.
Looking past the 1 RM:
Higher Volume, Lower Weight
For a person just looking to maintain or build muscle, maxing out isn’t entirely necessary and can be mentally and physically fatiguing if done too often. 1Up Nutrition states,”More total work [and done more often] creates a larger stimulus for your muscle fibers than performing a single maximum effort rep.”
Are you someone who is just looking to build and maintain strength, without much care for what your 1 rep max is? If this is you, then performing higher volume (more repetitions) at lower weights may be beneficial. This doesn’t mean to pick up the 5 lb weights and do 100 arm raises. This just may mean doing 4x8 squats, building in weight each week. If you feel confident and strong at the end of you cycle and feel like attempting a new heavy 1 RM after those 5 weeks, then your coach could build this in! This is a far safer and more effective training method than attempting to work up to a heavy 1 RM every other week just because you felt good that day.
Rep maxes are another great way to build strength without going all out for an all out 1 rep max. Rep maxes are essentially, “How many quality reps with solid technique can you do at ___% of your 1 RM?” For example, if your 1 rep max for back squat is 200 lbs, how many reps can you do at 160 lbs (80% of your 1 rep max)? If you don’t know your 1 rep max, you can just choose a weight that feels slightly challenging and test how many reps you can do. This is a motivating alternative that can give you that same feeling of progress as maxing out without significantly taxing your body.
At the end of the day, who should be maxing out and how often it’s done just comes down to individual training goals. Looking to compete? You’ll need a coach that can strategically program training for peak performance at a meet. Looking to build muscle, maintain general fitness, or just define your overall goals? Here at Made 2 Move, we sit down with patients to develop a plan for accomplishing all of these. Reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org to set up an initial consultation today.