“What do you bench?”
It’s usually the first thing people ask when they hear that you lift, but finding your one-rep max isn’t just about getting an ego boost (or reality check). In addition to acting as a benchmark for your strength gains, knowing your one-rep max with multiple lifts is a key to workouts that require a specific set of exercises and reps at a certain percentage of your personal max.
Take CrossFit, for example. “It’s is all about measurable results, so a baseline needs to be laid out,” says Daniel Gallagher, co-owner and coach at Jefferson State CrossFit in Redding California. “Revisiting your one-rep max periodically lets you see how effective your overall training program is working for you.”
Knowing how much you can push (or pull) also makes it easier to scale a workout to your strength level. “If the workout calls for 20 reps of a 225-pound clean and jerk and your one-rep max is 155 pounds, you know to scale back to a weight you can move 20 times with proper form,” Gallagher says.
“If you can’t do the lift correctly and pain-free without a heavy load, you cannot do it at a high load.”
What Lifts Should You Max Out With?
Unless you’re trying to post all of your stats on your Tinder profile, there’s no need to figure out your one-rep max with every exercise. Focus on multi-joint moves and ones that mimic everyday movements.
“Everyone should know his or her one-rep for at least the back squat, deadlift and shoulder press,” Gallagher says. “I don’t think it matters how much you can curl, leg press or calf raise; focus on functional movements.”
And don’t forget bench press. Because bench press, well you know, is bench press.
Keep in mind, there’s more to maxing out than just piling on the plates and pushing yourself as hard as you can. As weight increases, so does your risk of muscle strains and tears or joint and back injuries. “Big lifts with heavy loads are serious,” says David Jack, founder of ActivPrayer.com and creator of the Men’s Health 60-Day Transformation fitness DVD program. “Don’t attempt any one-rep max on a movement that you’re not comfortable with and don’t know well.”
Make sure you have the proper form down and a pain-free range of motion with an unloaded bar before attempting to add weight. “If you can’t do the lift correctly and pain-free without a heavy load, you cannot do it at a high load,” Jack says.
Warm up with unweighted movements that are related to your lift. If you’re doing bench press, start with two or three sets of 15 push-ups before putting weight on the bar. If you’re doing deadlifts, try some air squats to loosen up and establish a full range of motion, and three sets of 10 unweighted good mornings. Shoulder press? Try 10 to 15 PVC pipe pass-throughs to loosen up your shoulders.
“And make sure you have a spotter,” Jack says. “Or at least a safety rack to catch the bar if you drop it. That’s lifting 101.”
If you aren’t sure about your form in the gym, ask a trainer if they can watch you to make sure you’re set up and moving correctly through the motion.
Loading the Bar
Wearing yourself out with too many sets can have dire effects on your one-rep max. When you finish warming up and you’re feeling good and strong, it’s time to get down to business.
There’s no reason to sacrifice your health for the sake of learning your strength level.
“Start with weights that are light enough to get five to 10 reps in without wearing you down, then move up to a weight that you can push out five reps of with some ease,” Gallagher said. Finally, bump the weight up in five to 10-pound increments until you’ve found your max.
According to Gallagher, that doesn’t always mean going to failure. If your form starts to go, you’ve passed your max.
“Listen to your body,” he says. “Sometimes you feel like you can lift until you hit failure, sometimes you hit your one-rep and you know not to push it any farther.”
Brain Versus Brawn
Yes, this bears repeating: If you’re not totally confident with the movement, don’t risk injury by going all the way to one-rep failure.
“I wouldn’t attempt it unless you’ve been working with heavier loads with that movement for at least a few months,” Jack says. If you need to, you can guestimate your one-rep max through other means, like using your three rep to five rep max.
A quick Google search will yield dozens of calculators, but Gallagher says a simple (and fairly accurate) rule of thumb is that your 10-rep max should be 75 percent of your one-rep max, a five-rep max is 85 percent, and a three-rep max is 90 percent.
There’s no reason to sacrifice your health for the sake of learning your strength level. Safely track your gains with good form, a solid warm-up, and a great spotter…and maybe a little math.