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The Importance of Familiarizing Yourself with Your Maximum Single Lift for Enhancing Strength

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  • Post last modified:September 25, 2023

If you’ve been strength training regularly, you probably have a general idea of how much your muscles can handle. You might be aware that you can do at least eight repetitions on a leg press machine that’s set at a weight that requires a level of strength similar to She-Hulk. Or, you may know that your chest muscles are strong enough to press dumbbells that weigh the same as your dog, at least three times.

But if you want an accurate measure of your maximum strength, you should consider testing your one-repetition maximum, also known as your one-rep max. In this case, fitness experts provide a comprehensive breakdown of everything you need to know about this strength-training tool, including its key advantages for your training program and how to safely perform these superhuman lifts.

What Is a One-Rep Max?

To clarify, a one-rep max refers to the absolute maximum weight you can lift for a single repetition of a specific exercise, while maintaining proper form, of course. According to Natalie Smith, a certified powerlifting coach-practitioner in Portland, Oregon, you typically test your one-rep max during compound lifts, which are multi-joint movements that activate multiple muscle groups simultaneously. Examples of compound lifts include back and front squats, deadlifts, and the bench press. Smith explains that when more muscle groups work together, you’re able to lift heavier weights, which is why it makes more sense to use one-rep maxes during these exercises. Laura Su, a strength coach in Seattle, adds that it’s also common to check your one-rep max for Olympic weightlifting exercises, such as the snatch and the clean and jerk.

While you can perform one-rep maxes with accessory exercises, such as bicep curls or bent-over rows, Su explains that it’s usually unnecessary if you’re already doing compound movements. She states that you would already be getting sufficient stimulation through compound lifts. Instead, you can use accessory lifts to add or maintain volume training in your program, as testing a one-rep max doesn’t provide as much volume.

The Advantages of Knowing Your One-Rep Max

Understanding your one-rep max is essential if you participate in powerlifting, which is a competitive sport that involves testing your maximum strength in the bench press, squat, and deadlift, specifically, according to Su.

Indeed, the objective of the activity is to achieve the utmost single-repetition maximum for every one of those actions, indicates Smith. However, periodically assessing your single-repetition maximum on compound elevations can prove advantageous even if you’re solely a laid-back potency practitioner.

Reveals Your True Power

Not only does evaluating your maximum weight for a single repetition enable you to assess your progress over time, but it also demonstrates your genuine strength at a specific moment. And that knowledge can be valuable for individuals new to strength training, says Su. “It’s a smart idea to evaluate your maximum weight after you’ve trained for a while and perfected your technique and form,” she explains. “It gives you an idea of like, ‘Oh, I’m actually much stronger than I thought. I could be exerting more effort during my regular lifts.'”

Moreover, successfully squatting a massive barbell can make you feel incredibly empowered, adds Smith. “One of the most underestimated aspects of strength training is the psychological element,” she explains. “When you get to witness your own strength and reflect on all your progress — maybe you’re lifting more weight than you ever believed possible — that’s truly empowering.”

Aids in Optimizing Your Training Program

Once you determine your maximum weight for a single repetition, you can utilize it to determine the appropriate weight in other aspects of your training. In a well-designed strength training program, you’ll go through various phases that emphasize different qualities, such as increasing volume or building strength, says Smith. In each phase, the weight you use can be calculated based on a percentage of your maximum weight for a single repetition, she explains.

For promoting muscle growth (aka hypertrophy), for instance, you generally perform six to 12 repetitions of a specific exercise with a weight that’s 67 to 85 percent of your maximum weight, according to the American Council on Exercise (ACE). So if your maximum weight for back squats is 100 pounds, you’ll use a barbell that weighs 67 to 85 pounds to stimulate muscle growth. To enhance muscular endurance, you typically perform more repetitions using a load that corresponds to 67 percent of your maximum weight, according to ACE. “You want to dedicate more time to building strength rather than constantly testing it [with maximum weights],” says Smith. “Using percentages allows you to have a guideline for how much weight to use, so that you’re not consistently going excessively heavy or failing lifts.”

How to Calculate Your Maximum Weight for a Single Repetition

If you don’t currently have access to heavier weights or the appropriate safety equipment (or spotters), you can utilize a few tools to estimate it.

First, you have the option of utilizing online calculators, such as the one provided by the National Academy of Sports Medicine, which determines your approximate one-rep maximum by considering the weight you employ and the quantity of repetitions you are capable of performing for an exercise. Alternatively, you may consider your five-rep maximum, recognized as approximately 87 percent of your one-rep maximum, as Su suggests. For instance, if you can successfully complete five repetitions of a deadlift with a load slightly exceeding 60 pounds, your estimation for the one-rep maximum for this exercise would be 70 pounds. Should you prefer to avoid performing all the calculations yourself, refer to this convenient chart from the National Strength and Conditioning Association. It will assist you in establishing your projected one-rep maximum based on the weight you are utilizing and the maximum number of repetitions you can manage.

On the other hand, you can utilize the Brzycki prediction equation, a formula commonly employed in exercise science studies, to approximate your maximum lift for one repetition, if you feel like utilizing your calculator. In this formula, the maximum lift for one repetition equals the weight utilized in kilograms divided by [1.0278 – .0278 (maximum number of repetitions performed)]. Let’s assume you can perform six repetitions of bench pressing with 25 kilograms (about 55 pounds). Using this equation, your estimated maximum lift for one repetition in this exercise would be approximately 29 kilograms (nearly 64 pounds).

Just remember that the online calculators, charts, and formulas may not be completely foolproof, and factors such as technique, gender, age, and recovery from your previous workout can all have an impact on your maximum lift for one repetition, says Smith. “The only way to truly know your maximum lift for one repetition is to test it, but these tools can be beneficial,” she says.

How to Safely Assess Your Maximum Lift for One Repetition

If you’re prepared to evaluate your maximum lift for one repetition, don’t simply enter the gym, load the barbell with as many weights as possible, and attempt to lift it with all your strength, says Su. First, you’ll need to adequately prepare your body for the heavy lift that is to follow. “You want to strategically warm up in a manner that minimizes fatigue and optimally conditions yourself to lift a heavy weight,” she explains.

Commence by performing a few mobility drills to loosen your joints, then execute your initial set with only a barbell, says Su. If you’re using dumbbells, start with a pair that weighs approximately 50 percent of your estimated maximum lift for one repetition, according to ACE. After each set, increase the weight by 10 to 15 percent and decrease the number of repetitions, she suggests. As the load approaches your estimated maximum weight, increase the load by only 5 to 10 percent and perform just one repetition until you reach your maximum, she says. Aim to complete no more than eight sets to minimize fatigue, she adds. Between each set, consider taking a three- to five-minute pause to allow your muscles sufficient time to recover from the demanding lifts, adds Smith.

  • Perform 5 to 10 repetitions with a barbell
  • Do 5 repetitions at 135 pounds
  • Complete 3 repetitions at 185 pounds
  • Achieve 1 repetition at 225 pounds
  • Succeed at 1 repetition at 250 pounds
  • Manage 1 repetition at 275 pounds
  • Accomplish 1 repetition at 300 pounds

Ideally, it is advisable to have one or two spotters present while testing your maximum weight for a squat or bench press. According to Su, there is a possibility of getting stuck at the bottom of the movement. In such a scenario, the spotters can assist in lifting the weight if you fail to perform a heavy rep. If having spotters is not feasible for you, you can use a rack with safety pins. Position the pins an inch or two below the lowest point of your squat or chest press. If you need to abandon the movement, you can simply rest the bar on the pins. Su suggests that a deadlift can generally be done safely alone, as you have the option to drop the weight if it becomes too heavy.

After experiencing the satisfying feeling of testing your maximum weight, it may be tempting to include it regularly in your training routine. However, Smith advises against doing so. She warns that if you constantly focus on testing your strength, you are more likely to injure yourself. Additionally, constantly testing the same thing hinders progress. For this reason, Smith recommends limiting maximum weight checks to once every eight to twelve weeks.

During this time period, it is important to concentrate on building strength and training with weights at lower percentages. Smith suggests starting with lighter weights and performing a higher number of repetitions. Gradually increase the load while reducing the number of reps to build strength leading up to your testing day. For a customized plan, it is worthwhile to consider working with a strength coach who can guide you through the necessary steps to achieve your fitness goal.

When it comes to your next assessment, it is important to have realistic expectations. Smith points out that expecting a substantial increase in the weight you can lift is usually not realistic. Instead, anticipate a modest improvement of only five to ten pounds from your previous one-rep max, which is still an impressive accomplishment. According to Smith, consistently adding five pounds to your lift can add up significantly over months and years. Therefore, it is crucial to be patient and view building strength as a long-term endeavor rather than a quick achievement.