Why We (almost) Never Test 1-Rep Maxes—and What to Do Instead

Why We (almost) Never Test 1-Rep Maxes—and What to Do Instead

A frequent question lifters ask is “When should I test my maxes?” My answer is “Probably never.” In this blog post we’ll outline why we almost never test maxes at Catalyst, and how to measure your progress instead.

In case you’re unfamiliar, “testing a 1RM” involves trying to lift as much weight as you possibly can, for just 1 repetition. Usually the athlete will work up to their best lift over the course of several attempts. The idea is that since you’re only lifting the weight for a single rep, this is the maximum amount of weight you can handle for that lift. Some lifters, strength coaches, and even personal trainers will use the 1RM as part of an assessment process to determine how strong someone is.

My objection to this practice can be summarized simply: it’s potentially dangerous, it doesn’t even provide accurate data, and it can take your training off track.

First – It’s dangerous

The amount of weight being used on a 1RM barbell lift is so far outside the normal demands of training, that many people will struggle to maintain good form during the lift, compromising safety. Even if the lifter can maintain good form, risk is still involved. Indeed, there’s risk anytime you get under a bar, but that risk increases when using weights much heavier than usual. Small errors can have bigger consequences when the weights are very heavy.

Another point of note: the process for testing a max usually involves lifting heavier and heavier weight, until a 1RM max is achieved. But for many lifters, the process doesn’t stop there! Once most people have exhausted themselves with their maximum effort lift, they’ll load the bar even further, and attempt to lift an EVEN HEAVIER weight. This usually results in dropped bars, spotters pulling a bar from you before it crushes you, lots of cursing, and startled bystanders. Does that sound safe?

Second—It doesn’t even provide accurate data

Advocates of testing maxes might say that it’s the most accurate way of measuring progress. But testing a max only provides data about how strong you were THAT DAY. Our day-to-day strength levels differ significantly depending on sleep, recovery from training, diet, electrolyte balance, stress levels, time of day, etc.

My experience has been that using a formula (more on this in a bit) is just as accurate. It’s not perfectly accurate, but that’s the point—neither method is “perfect,” so why take the risk?

Third – It takes your training off-track

Exposure to stimulus requires recovery. This is the entire basis of strength training – we lift weights (stimulus), and then our bodies adapt (recovery). For a decently strong person, the amount of weight lifted during a 1RM will be high enough to require at least a week of lightened training. On top of that, the lifter probably needed at least a few days of “de-load” to prepare for the test, which means that the lifter lost two weeks of training.

Of course, these timetables are just estimates, but they illustrate the point—testing your max requires you to interrupt your training.

By the way, after some of my best competition deadlifts (660lbs while weighing 208, 650lbs @ 198, 605lbs @ 181), I didn’t feel as strong on that lift for almost a MONTH after.

What to do instead—how to measure progress

If you’ve read our article on Kaizen (http://catalystsportnyc.com/blog/53695/Kaizen-Muri-and-Personal-Growth), you’ll already know the answer to this one—you should be measuring progress in the smallest increments possible, trying to be just a little bit better than last time.

If you need to get all amped up and test your 1RM to know if you’re getting stronger, you’re not paying enough attention to your training.

  • Did you do 6 reps at a given weight when you could only do 5 last time? You’re getting stronger.
  • Did you 4 sets when last time you only did 3? You’re getting stronger.
  • Did you complete your 5x5 in 24 minutes when last time it was 24 minutes and 30 seconds? You’re getting stronger.
  • Did you do the exact same workout, with the exact same weights, in the exact same time, but it felt easier? Congratulations, you’re getting stronger.

If I can impress one thing upon you in this article it’s this: Instead of smashing the piggy bank at the first chance you get, put as many coins in as you can.

What if I need to know a 1RM for a percentage based program?

Oftentimes lifters will base their weights on percentages of a 1RM. For example, if the program calls for “5 sets of 5 at 80%” and your max is 200lbs, you’ll be doing 5x5 at 160lbs. So, if we’re not testing maxes, how do we know what number to use?

Earlier, I mentioned that there was a mathematical formula. The formula requires only 2 inputs—a weight that was lifted with maximum effort, and how many reps that was. For example, if last week you lifted 200lbs for 7 reps and you couldn’t have done another rep, 200lbs and 7 reps are your two inputs. Just choose data from early in your workout, while you were still fresh.

If you never train to failure (smart move, by the way), you can just add a rep or two to a good set you performed. For example, if you lifted 300lbs for 4 reps but could have done another, use 300lbs and 5 reps (not 4!), in your formula.

1RM= Weight X Reps X Constant + Weight

Men use 0.033 for the constant, Women use 0.029

Using the data from the examples above:

200lbs lifted for 7 reps (man)= 200 x 7 x .033 + 200 = 246lbs estimated 1RM

300lbs lifted for 5 reps (woman)= 300 x 5 x .029 + 300= 343lbs estimated 1RM


So, should ANYONE ever test maxes?

There’s nothing inherently WRONG with testing maxes—it’s risky and not-that-informative, but I’d be lying if I said it’s not fun. Sometimes you just want to load up the heaviest bar you can and see if you can lift it.

If you are interested in this kind of activity, I would encourage you to try it within the context of a powerlifting meet. Not only will your results be more official, but you’ll have professional spotters to keep you safe. 

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