What is a one rep max?
If you are a bodybuilder, powerlifter or strength athlete then a one rep max probably needs no explanation. For anyone that normally keeps their repetitions for an exercise within a range such as 10 to 12 and has never performed a one rep max, it is essentially lifting as much weight as you can in a given exercise.
This is usually a term reserved for performing the main powerlifting and Olympic lifting exercises including the clean and jerk, squat, deadlift and bench press, as this is what will be measured in the relevant competitions.
Outside of these competitions there isn’t particularly a need to know what your one rep max is, aside from it being considered the only true measurement of your strength in an exercise.
While there are various arguments for performing as many repetitions as you can with a certain weight being calculated up to workout your one rep max, this is unreliable and not a true measurement of the most you can lift in an exercise.
If you haven’t measured this before it can be difficult to know where to begin and how to build up to testing your limit, particularly in an exercise as complex and potentially dangerous as a one rep max squat attempt. The rest of this article looks at ways of finding out your one rep max, as well as ways of improving it and the steps you might need to go through to ensure the lift is as safe and successful as possible.
Why is knowing your max in a lift so important?
- When looking for a new workout program it can be necessary to know what your one rep max is before starting. This is then used in various calculations to provide educated estimates on how much you can lift for different rep ranges in different exercises.
- Curiosity. Whether you are training for a contest or training for your own personal goals, it can be interesting to know what the absolute limit is you can lift in a particular exercise.
- To give you a measureable target. In order to know how much you have progressed it is necessary to do a comparison on where you are now and where you are in 6 months time.
Knowing that 6 months ago you could deadlift 200kg and can now lift 225kg is a measureable goal which can be used to motivate you towards further successes.
How to find out your current one rep max
While the rest of this article is generally based around the 3 main powerlifting movements of bench press, squat and deadlift, these same principles can be used in any major lift.
The deadlift is really the only exercise that can be performed to complete failure without the need for a spotter, which is often necessary when finding your one rep max.
To find your one rep max in any of these lifts it’s best to dedicate an entire workout to finding this out. Don’t try and think about exercises after your attempt, all of your thoughts must be on this lift.
Start off at a relatively light weight and base how much you increase the weight by on how strong you feel after the lift. The goal is to really get to your one rep max attempt within 6 to 8 sets including warm ups.
Also, you should always leave at least 24 hours between your last workout and this max attempt. This will ensure that you are well rested and your muscles are better recovered.
If any of the muscle groups you use in the lift still feel sore or aren’t fully recovered, do not attempt the max. Take another day off from lifting and focus on getting fully recovered.
Once you get to what you believe to be your one rep max, you should keep performing single rep sets until you hit failure. At this point it will usually be the weight you lifted in the set prior to failure that is taken as your new max. To give yourself plenty of time to recover between these attempts it’s recommended to rest for between 3 and 5 minutes after each lift.
Steps to walk through before a one rep max attempt
Allow plenty of rest between 1RM attempts. Whether or not your first lift was successful, rest 3-4 minutes between attempts.
If you were successful on the first try but know you can do more, add another 10-20 pounds for your next attempt. Keep adding 10-20 pounds until you reach a weight at which you fail. Use the last weight you were successful at as your 1RM.
If you weren’t successful on your first attempt, don’t be discouraged. Simply decrease the weight by 5-10 pounds and try again. Once you reach a weight that you can do for one rep, use that as your 1RM.
For the most accurate results, don’t do a 1RM test for the bench press, squat, and deadlift all in the same workout. Spread them out over a week so that each lift gets its own 1RM testing session.
How to cope with a failed attempt
Failed attempts will inevitably happen, and will do so for a number of reasons. It could be that you didn’t have enough chalk on your hands and the bar slipped from your grip on the deadlift, or even that your hand position wasn’t quite right in the case of the bench press.
The important thing is not to let these types of failure get to you. Unless it is a failed attempt due to fatigue then you can still make the lift, but you need to make sure you get your mind back in the right place.
A failed attempt can make us doubt if we can really move that kind of weight and it’s this doubt that will hold back our own progress more often than any fatigue. When you put your head under that bar on the squat, wrap your hands around the bar on the deadlift or slide your chest under the bar on the bench press you must believe that the only thing that’s about to happen is you succeeding.
You are about to lift a weight that you may never have lifted in your life, a weight that many people may never lift in their lives and it all comes down to that few seconds out of your year. Don’t let doubt enter your mind and don’t think about a fallback plan. Go through the successful lift in your mind a few times, watch yourself lifting the bar and struggling through to complete the attempt and record a new one rep max.
Each attempt has so many factors. From your breathing and grip positioning to your supporting muscle group strength, speed through the lift and diet. But if all of these factors are already effective it only comes down to your mindset, and if you keep this positive mindset then you will consistently make those heavier lifts.