If you regularly incorporate strength training into your exercise routine, it’s quite normal to wonder what the limits of your strength really are. It’s also quite normal to have the desire to test them. Most commonly, this is done by performing a one-rep max (one repetition as heavy as possible). While the one-rep max is an indicator of strength, it is also largely influenced by timing, and many interpret otherwise normal fluctuations in their one-rep max as a loss of strength. This article will discuss the proper place for a one-rep max in a strength and conditioning program, why it is seldom necessary or appropriate, and how to effectively track your strength without the use of a one-rep max.
When a one-rep max is appropriate. Let’s face it, lifting heavy is fun, and testing out a one-rep max can be especially exciting when everything is feeling just right. However, there is a big difference between performing a heavy set and a one-rep max. A heavy set will usually consist of one to five reps. A person who regularly participates in strength training will typically be able to lift around 80-85% of their one-rep max consistently, if they have already established one. A one-rep max, on the other hand, is incredibly time-sensitive and requires much purposeful planning to be truly effective. In preparation of a one-rep max, a competitive athlete (such as a powerlifter) will enter a training phase consisting primarily of sets of one to three reps at 90% and higher followed by a deload week. In short, a true one-rep max is only appropriate when an individual has meticulously prepared to do so.
When a one-rep max is not appropriate. As was alluded to in the previous point, testing a true one-rep max is largely a sport-specific endeavor. Its place in a general fitness program is minimal or otherwise non-existent. And as the name suggests, a one-rep max test is exactly as it sounds, a test. It does nothing to develop strength, but rather, measures the results of the work you have presumably already done. For the vast majority of our time spent training, one-rep maxes (especially when impromptu) only serve to take energy away from the work that actually builds strength. That being said, it is still normal to want to measure the results of our hard work, and it is important to do so. So, how can we do that?
Measuring your strength while on a general fitness program. This is where heavy sets come into play. Heavy sets are a useful training tool because they allow a person to use challenging loads, which is necessary to develop strength. However, weights used aren’t so heavy that they impede on one’s technique. As stated earlier, most who regularly participate in strength training can consistently lift 80-85% of their one-rep max during heavy sets. If you are able to do so, your strength is still intact. If you are progressively using heavier weights during heavy sets, you are gaining strength. No need to stress and sweat over a one-rep max!
It is necessary to measure a person’s capabilities while on a strength and conditioning program in order to determine if progress is being made. However, one-rep maxes are often a detriment to one’s training and have little to no utility in a general fitness program. So, don’t worry if your one-rep max isn’t consistent. It likely never will be. The work you put in consistently from day to day is much more important!