There is this belief among many trainers that the 1 rep max is something sacred and should only be performed once or twice a year. Often we’re told that it’s “too taxing” on the body to perform a 1RM. Well, I don’t buy it.
I’ve touched before on how strength is the foundation on which all other athletic qualities are built. Basically, if you get stronger everything else increases: endurance, speed, explosiveness, etc. It’s worth noting here that there is a point of diminishing returns to this but that’s only tangentially relevant to the topic at hand.
So to get stronger, it stands to reason that you need to lift heavy things. For novice and intermediate lifters you can get stronger using a much lower percentage of your maximum strength. As the lifter gets advanced, however, the threshold for strength improvement raises. In other words, if strength is your goal, training with 70% of your 1RM isn’t going to have anywhere the effect of training with >90%. Why, then, is the 1RM (and typically training at or above 95%) treated with such reverence and so rarely used? To understand, we need to delve a little deeper into the notion of a “max” and strength itself.
When training for max strength, it’s very important to realize that it is very neurologically dependent. One of the reasons beginner lifters get so strong so fast is that their bodies are “learning” to use more muscle fibers. This is also one of the reasons why, as I mentioned above, beginners can make strength gains with very lower training percentages. The increased neuromuscular efficiency allows them to utilize more of the muscle mass they have.
You see, nobody walks around utilizing 100% of their muscles. But through strength training we can develop the ability of the nervous system to voluntarily activate a higher percentage of them. This is one of the reasons why stronger lifters need to use heavier weights to continue making gains. The nervous system has adapted to recruit a much higher percentage of muscle fibers and requires a significant stimulus to continue making gains.
Based on this, we know that training maximum strength is just as much, if not more, about training the nervous system as developing the muscle tissue. Logically, from here it can be concluded that a larger muscle, with equal neurological efficiency, is stronger. For our purposes right now, though, we are concerned with the nervous system more.
The Max – It’s All Relative
One of the primary reasons that training with maximum weights (generally about 90% or higher) is considered “too stressful” is that many trainers interpret the term “max” to be based on what’s done at competition or in a competition like setting. This kind of thinking is counterproductive though. If you coached a football team, would you expect them to perform at every practice like it was the Super Bowl would you? Basing your training off of a competition, or even tested, max is a bit like that. The Russians knew this and found that a competition atmosphere can add up to 10% to your max. The take home point here is not to base your idea of a max off of some hyped up, stimulant and adrenaline fueled lift. That doesn’t help anybody.
The Bulgarians, on the other hand, train to a max daily. How do they do it without killing themselves? Well, one of the reasons is that they acknowledge the concept of a training max as compared to a competition max. While competition numbers are kept in mind, a training max is anything you are able to lift on any given day with no excess physiological arousal prior to the lift. This can easily be measured by monitoring heart rate prior to the lift or looking at other arousal factors. (Zatsiorsky, 2006)
Basically, a training max is whatever you can lift without psyching yourself up, no energy drinks, stimulants or supportive gear. When you consider a max in that way, it becomes a lot less mystical.
One of the things that I have come to espouse in my training is the concept of keeping everything easy. I rarely, if ever train to failure, and for developing maximum strength I think that it’s a terrible idea. When you’re using the concept of a daily training maximum there should never be any question about whether or not you can get the lift and, as such, no reason to fail. If you are nervous, or not 100% sure you’re going to get the lift, you are outside the realm of a training max. Simple.
As mentioned above, strength training is very neurologically dependent. If you are constantly frying your CNS by failing lifts or killing yourself on a set then you aren’t going to make the best gains. Failure is counter productive for strength as it conditions the body and mind to fail. Ed Coan and Kirk Karwowski, two of the strongest men in history never missed lifts in training. (Gallagher, 2008)
I can hear people out there already screaming “Overtraining!” I’m not saying overtraining isn’t real, quite the contrary in fact. However, what we consider overtraining is striking similar to what is known elsewhere as “staleness”. Zatsiorsky explains staleness as being caused more by psychological stress than physiological, categorized by decreased vigor, increased perception of fatigue, anxiety and depression (almost identical to markers of overtraining syndrome). This is very different from the development of actual overuse injuries. In short, they are not one and the same.
So assuming overtraining is largely caused by psychological stress it’s a pretty easy jump to say that by minimizing the psychological stress you reduce the risk of overtraining. In fact, Zatsiorsky goes on to say that staleness is typically a response to utilizing a competition maximum as opposed to a training max. (Zatsiorsky, 2006) See this all tying together?
This isn’t an excuse to lift like a wimp. However, all the bravado that is usually attached to lifting is put into perspective when you examine training like this. Make it look easy and it will be easy.
Fear Is an Adaptation
Another problem that comes along with lifting maximum weights is fear. Anyone who tells you they don’t have a little bit of fear or nervousness when attempting a new maximum is either lying, has never lifted a max or lifts a max regularly. Fear is a conditioned response and this is another reason that the 1RM needs to be demystified.
When you train on a regular basis with near max weights you get conditioned to lifting max weights. Your body physiologically changes to prepare for max lifting and your mind psychologically changes to stop being nervous about them. This, of course, assumes you are using a good training max and minimizing the physiological arousal that normally accompanies max lifting. If you are constantly failing lifts you are going to crush your body, hurt yourself and become so terrified at the idea of attempting a max that you will never get stronger.
Not everyone needs to train like a Bulgarian weightlifter and max out 13 times a week. Obviously, as a trainer the first thing you need to do is evaluate the needs of your athlete. As I mentioned above, though, there are few people who cannot benefit from being stronger. The important thing to take away from this is to remove the 1RM and max lifting from the pedestal that it has ended up on. Get over the idea that doing a 1 rep max means you can’t lift for a month or you’ll overtrain. Remember that a training max is subjective, not objective, and isn’t anywhere near the same as a competition max.
Gallagher, M. (2008). The purposeful primitive: From fat and flaccid to lean and powerful-using the primordial laws of fitness to trigger inevitable, lasting and dramatic physical change. Dragondoor Publications.
Zatsiorsky, V. (2006). Science and practice of strength training. Human Kinetics.