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It’s been around forever, and while it may seem like an old-school move, the one-rep max has moved into more modern workouts for the everyday athlete. And it’s exactly what it sounds like: setting yourself up to lift your absolute maximum load (while still maintaining proper form) for one rep, and one rep only. But is it totally necessary to load up on weight in order to see how well you can truly perform a squat, deadlift, or bench press? Honestly, it depends on who you ask.
Reinhard Nel, senior trainer and trainer development manager at Dogpound in New York City, says yes, knowing how to do a one-rep max (1RM) matters. “It is relevant irrespective of goals, because increasing the max amount of weight you can lift will improve the amount of weight you can lift for traditional percentage work,” Nel says. “Whether it is aimed at hypertrophy or strength endurance, the rate of perceived exertion decreases as the top end strength is higher.”
Traditional percentage work is what’s happening whenever you lift weight for multiple reps and/or multiple sets. While it can be helpful to know your 1RM to determine just how much you should be lifting in those sets, Albert Matheny, M.S., C.S.C.S, co-founder of SoHo Strength Lab in New York City, says you can get a very close estimate by doing other low-rep, heavy-weight movements. It’s one of the reasons why Matheny says the 1RM actually isn’t necessary for most people and says, “It’s good to have ways to check your progress, but it doesn’t have to be a one-rep max unless your goals are really specific to systemic strength.”
Instead, Matheny recommends going for a three- or five-rep max, as that’ll also lower your odds of getting hurt. “With any kind of training, the higher in intensity it gets, the higher the risk of injury,” says Matheny. If you’re set on busting out that 1RM though, Matheny says you need to do the prep work. “If you’re doing a true one-rep max, it means you have a training program in place,” he says. “You put on your calendar two weeks out that you’re going to do a one-rep max on your back squat, then adjust your training to meet that goal. If you’re just going into a CrossFit class and they say today you’re doing a one-rep max, then you won’t be as effective.”
When the day does arrive, move through proper warm-ups with mobility work (nobody’s busting out their best with cold muscles), and potentially include some activation work, suggests Nel. (RKC planks, banded good mornings, and fire hydrants, for example, will liven up your core, glutes, hips, and hamstrings for lower body work.) And always, always have an exit strategy. “If something doesn’t go exactly right or you fail to execute the movement, you have to know how to move out of the way of the weight,” Matheny says. Depending on what the exercise is (like, say, a back squat), you should plan on having a spotter, too.
Otherwise, the 1RM should be the focus. “Start performing the specific lift starting at light loads, progressively adding weight,” Nel says. “Keep reps low (around three to five), as the goal isn’t to create fatigue but to grease the movement pattern and prepare the body for the intensity that is to come.” A general rule of thumb: Work up to your 1RM in six to 12 lifts.
Oh, and don’t test more than once a month. “It’s really one of those things that the longer you’ve been training, the more you phase out your testing,” Matheny says. “If you’re a top-end athlete, they may do it every three or six months. But if you’re more new, or your training level changes a lot and you’re getting closer to your potential, your percentage is going to change [more often].”