You don't really know your max effort

My failed PR attempt at 467lbs. Photo Credit: Barbel Strategy member,  Karen Stevenson

My failed PR attempt at 467lbs. Photo Credit: Barbel Strategy member, Karen Stevenson

I’ve been talking about this all week, so sorry for repeating myself here. But there are some of you I probably haven’t bored with this story yet. And it also helps to clarify why I don’t like spending a lot of our training time doing 1RM tests.

I have been lifting for 22 years, if I counted correctly. I’ve done lots of heavy lifts. I’ve been at gyms where we tested often. I often do a low-volume high-weight training cycle for my own work. So I know what I feels like to be at my max effort - or at least I thought I did.

Until last Saturday at the TSC, I had never done a max effort. I mean a real max effort.

Your brain is always in charge (according to the brain…). That means if your grip isn’t perfect, or if your back isn’t perfect, or your stance, or really if anything is off, your brain will back off and cut the effort short.

You don’t even know it’s happening. It’s just what your brain does.

So the only way to really do a max effort is to have something on the line (you hear about people lifting cars off of people…) or to have everything be perfect. It just happened that on Saturday I did as perfect of a pull as I ever have even at a new PR attempt.

Unfortunately, I didn’t make the lift. Karen did get the photo at the high point though, so I did get the bar off the ground! But I do know that just about every single muscle fiber in my posterior chain was on. It’s Saturday night, 1-week later, as I write this and the muscle deep inside my glutes and hamstrings are still sore. My workouts have suffered all week, too!

Immediately after the lift, I had this full body feeling of really giving it 100%. Something I never felt before. It was an enlightening moment - that’s probably why I keep talking about it.

Why we don’t do many 1RM tests

I’ve never been a big fan of test days. They're fun, and I do schedule them to keep thing interesting - especially around the holidays when the gym is dead. But I don’t like constant testing.

One, it wastes a week of practice. Really two. You need a taper week and then a test week. And you can really only get one good test in during that week. Does it really matter if your 1RM went up 5 or 10 pounds? Especially if you have to waste two weeks figuring that out.

Two, it’s not accurate. I’ve often ranted that newbies don’t ever have a real 1RM. And that’s true. Most of the early gains aren’t true strength gains. There are gains that you get just from learning the technique. There are neurological gains you get from just getting your brain wired up properly. But there’s not too much real strength at the beginning.

And now, I’m seeing that even experienced lifters don’t really have a true max effort. Or if they do, you probably only have about one of those a year or so. (I’m probably going to skip the next TSC, I can’t suffer like this for a whole week again!)

So when a program says do 70%, what do you do? For newbies, we don’t care. Just do something that moves fast a pretty. We can always tweak it. The worst thing you can do is go too heavy and start slowing down and making weird compensations for bad movement patterns.

For my experienced lifters, you can base it off of a recent PR. But be smart about it. Speed and technique matter much more. Don’t get caught up in the numbers, go by feel. You want 70% to feel like a 70% effort regardless of the numbers. (For example, I had a 70% squat programmed this week. Technically that meant I should have done 265, but because I was still sore and tired from the TSC I only did 135 and still suffered.)

The current program we’re working on is based on “Light,” “Medium,” and “Heavy” lifts. Nominally that’s 70, 80, 90 percent. But that’s just a guide. Go by feel. If you’re a newbie, keep experimenting. If you’re experienced don’t be afraid to drop the weight if it feels too heavy. It doesn’t make you any lesser of a person.

Max efforts are too hard to really be exact enough to base a program off of. And it really doesn’t matter. You just want enough weight and enough volume and enough frequency of doing the movement pretty. Everything else will work itself out.

Michael Deskevich