One of the more frequent questions we receive from new and intermediate lifters is how often they should be testing their one rep max (1RM). I am going to briefly discuss what I feel are appropriate times for 1RM testing, and some errors I see some athletes commit when following structured programs.
Simply put, it is my opinion that new athletes aren’t really in need of testing a 1RM for quite a long time, and even intermediate athletes do not need to test single maxes very frequently. I used to think that new and intermediate athletes should be testing a 1RM, as you can see in some of the older programs I have written. To me, new athletes don’t need to test 1RMs for a few reasons. The first reason is elementary: 1RMs do not really contribute to strength. For new and even some intermediate lifters, a 1RM amounts to little more than mental masturbation to make yourself feel better about what you are doing.
This seems to be suitable to athletes across all strength sports: A new lifter would gain much more benefit from higher volume training, even a 3RM or 5RM would be more suitable for someone whose primary goal should be building strength, muscle mass, and joint/tendon thickness. This leads to the second error I see with lots of 1RM implementation: 1RM testing does not increase muscle mass, joint thickness or strength in any worthwhile amounts. 1RMs are mostly a stressor on the CNS, and while “frying the CNS” isn’t really our worry here, newer lifters should be focused more on increasing muscle density and strength.
Now, this isn’t to say that heavy singles can’t be a useful training tool. Sometimes we put heavy singles into newer athlete’s programming, but there is a difference between getting in lots of volume of a lift, and then adding a little amount of weight for 4-5 singles. We do this, knowing that it is not their max, we simply want them to get to feel some heavier weights and build some confidence under load, without making their confidence and technique go down the drain when a true 1RM is approached.
The third error I see committed when following programs based off percentages are lifters that can’t resist testing a 1RM on a day they feel good, a day that doesn’t call for testing. I definitely understand the desire to test a new max when I am feeling good, the issue is that the progress of a program can be altered when an intermediate athlete tests a 1RM out of turn. I said “intermediate lifter” because I don’t feel that percentage training is an efficient way to train new lifters. I am not alone in that mentality, for reasons that were stated above: New lifters need volume and multiple rep maxes, not 1RMs.
Intermediate lifters still will benefit from multiple rep maxes, rather than monthly or bi-weekly 1RM. I consider competing as one of the stages of being an intermediate lifter, and competitions are an appropriate place for 1RM testing to occur, usually on the third rep attempt. Leading up to a competition is still not an appropriate time to test 1RMs, in my opinion. Instead testing heavy doubles would be more beneficial until the lifter gains more experience and muscle memory with the movements.
You will see in some our training videos that we spend the majority of our time on 3-5 rep maxes, for nearly every lift. We are still at a level that allows us to perform higher volume that will increase our 1RM, thus keeping us from the necessity to perform singles often. It is indisputable fact that submaximal loads for higher reps are extremely beneficial for increasing overall strength, and because of this, 1RM will not lead to an increase in strength in a similar way whatsoever. The strength comes from submaximal rep training, and the strength is present whether or not you test the 1RM.
Keep yourself from mentally masturbating in the gym by constantly feeling the need to test a 1RM. Instead, spend your time developing strength through the 2-6 rep range for strength, this will increase your overall max without wasting time on a lift that may make you look cool, but ultimately isn’t making you stronger. Save the max singles for competition.
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