The Great Max Out Debate: 7 Questions to Ask Before You Test Your Athletes 1RM

   

In the midst of any training program, the idea of measuring and monitoring one’s limits is a vital part of the equation.  

How much do you think you might improve in a strength training program if you never knew how much weight was on the bar?  The nervous system must test itself to be able to create improved patterning.  

It is important to measure and improve one’s abilities in any training program, but the pressing question is, how and when should the maximal abilities of an athlete be measured, especially in terms of absolute strength.

In other words, how often should I “max out” my athletes in bench, squat, clean, etc. in the course of the yearly training program?

Should You Even Max Out?

As with anything, the answer depends on a few different factors.  There are four “givens” that we need to consider as well when considering getting a one-rep max test in important training lifts:

  • Getting a true one-rep max is very taxing on the systems of an athlete, and will generally cost an athlete a week or so to fully recover
  • There is always a risk/reward to one-rep max testing in terms of injury and loss of training time
  • The biggest benefits of getting a “one-rep max” are also in the cultural and social aspects of the team vs. potential benefits to the actual training program
  • Lifting skill in a 1RM is not the same thing as sport skill in things such as sprinting, agility, and jumping.  Sport is a skill, not a number.

Those being addressed, let’s get into some aspects of assessing strength and 1RM strength through the course of a season.

What are the biggest indicators of progress in your sport?

Believe it or not, the team with the biggest squat and bench numbers is not always the winning team on the field.  Now let me take another leap.  

The team with the biggest squat and clean numbers is not always the fastest team on the field.  

Granted, more explosive, faster players are going to be gifted with the ability to move more weight than less explosive, slow players, but it is very possible to become stronger without getting faster… and even possible to get stronger and get slower.  

I don’t say this to infer that athletes shouldn’t care about getting strong, or that getting strong doesn’t help speed, because it certainly can, but what I am saying is that the relentless pursuit of maximal strength at the expense of relevant sport skills is counter productive.  

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What should coaches be testing?  Sport specific speed and power indicators should be assessed regularly.  

You improve what you measure, so regularly measuring the speed in which players can make it through relevant routes or skill demands is more linked to sport success than a lift number.

Check out this anecdote from a successful, progressive football program that regularly measures and assesses specific agility and speed in their sport.

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1 rep max testing is very popular, especially amongst strength and conditioning professionals, for if one’s job is to get athletes stronger, there is usually going to be an associated test.  Maximal strength, however, is fairly easy to improve, where specific speed on the field is much more difficult.  

Any coach can run a football team through “5-3-1” and see lifts go up.  Not every coach can get their kids faster each year.  

In this sense though, it should be much more rewarding to performance coaches when athletes improve dynamic output numbers, in addition to getting stronger.  

For high school athletes, what do you think college coaches care more about?  The fact that you said you squatted 500lbs (who knows if it was actually to parallel), or that you ran 10.60 in the 100m dash at the state meet (and you can’t lie about the result)?  Smart coaches will recruit speed over strength, every time, just look at the abundance of sub 10.50 100m dash athletes in successful DI football programs, such as Alabama.  

Do you have another way of estimating how strong an athlete is in a given lift?

A good coach can often times watch an athlete perform a lift with a 5-10RM on the bar and have a pretty good idea of how much an athlete is really capable of.   This ability is not too dissimilar from moonshiners to shake a mason jar of hooch and determine the ABV of the product to an incredible accuracy.  

This process is made even easier and more refined when coaches are armed with good data collecting tools, as well as training platforms that allow them to easily assess and collect training numbers.  If you can get a good idea of what an athlete is capable of in a strength movement, enough to estimate the set weights for their next training cycle without doing a full-out max day, this is a better practice than regularly getting a full training max.  

Another option, that I tend to use when acquiring strength levels with my athletes when we do happen to seek weightroom measurement and validation is a “sort of max”, a term I learned from Dan John.  This term could also be likened to the “strong effort” terminology of Soviet lifting.

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A “sort of max” essentially means that you’ll go after a heavy single in a given lift, but don’t seek out failure.  I like to tell athletes to try and leave 5-10lbs in the tank on days that we do hit a “sort of max”, as this practice is safer, and doesn’t take as long to recover from, so we can get back to solid training again more quickly with lower injury risk in the process.  I also believe it a better option than testing a 3-5RM, because there is less lost training time to recover from the effort in the subsequent training week.

In the landmark book “Easy Strength”, Dan John talks about how legendary sprint coach Charlie Francis, whose sprint prodigy Ben Johnson could squat 600x2 and bench 385x3 at 173lbs bodyweight was actually good for a little more than those actual numbers, but they never actually found out by doing a true max, because the risk wasn’t worth the reward.  

Doing a “sort of max” also tends to keep athletes more honest with their technique, especially on things like squats, where athletes are notorious for missing that last two inches of depth, just to hit the lift.  

Are your athletes mentally anchored on absolute strength, or do they tend to favor more “specific” types of training?

Here is an obvious factor that should determine your approach to the assessment of maximal strength, and that is the cultural association with lifting numbers as a benchmark of sport success.  

Clearly, sports like American football and Rugby are more likely to hang their hats on big numbers in the weightroom, as well as getting a big social charge off of things like the team gathering around a lifter trying to hit a personal best weight.   Despite my prior points of athletes systems taking a week or so to recover from a heavy effort day, the psychological dynamics of max out day cannot be underestimated in athletic populations that can benefit from it.  

I would go as far to say that from a pure neurological perspective, true one rep max testing is counter productive to the total sports training process, but, the psychological impact of the process can negate these negatives, and then some, in the right training situation.  

One of the best videos I’ve seen regarding the social dynamic of max out day can be summed up by the following video from Ball State football.  I don’t think I need to explain more, just watch the video.

“Everyone squats and benches… but it’s how excited they are when they do it that matters”

I’ve heard stories of professional football players who didn’t mentally feel “ready to play”, unless they went in the weightroom, and lifted a particular weight.  For these mentally anchored players, it can be important to let them use the weightroom to help with these processes, even when the training prescription for the rest of the group is of a lower intensity.

Athletes who are mentally anchored on strength training will also achieve confidence in 1RM tested gains that can go a long way in filtering into their sport performance on the court.  For these athletes, confidence goes further than taking a down week to adjust the training cycle back “on course”.

Other sports, who don’t have such a strong cultural background or association in one’s maximal limit weights, such as tennis, swimming or even soccer would likely not get the benefits from a social and cultural perspective of “max out day” then do more max strength oriented sporting endeavours.

Whether or not you choose to do true 1RM testing is largely determined by how excited you know your athletes will be to do it, as well as the environment you create for it.  

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What is the developmental level of your athletes?

Pro athletes have different needs then high school athletes.  On top of this, athletes who have already attained a good level of absolute strength, say a 2x bodyweight deep squat, will have much less to gain from developing limit strength vs. an athlete with a 1x bodyweight squat.  An athlete who squats 600lbs deep will also take longer to recover fully vs. an athlete who squats 200lbs.  

The bottom line is that high school and college athletes often have a bigger reason to measure and assess one rep limit strength then athletes who have been strength training for 5-10 years.

These athletes will recover more quickly, and also are guaranteed a strong social dynamic from the process.

Higher level athletes, and those who are getting paid to play, have much more to lose in one-rep max testing than what they have to gain.  I don’t know Lebron James’ strength coach, but I can pretty much guarantee you that he isn’t maxing out on squats or cleans… ever.  

Factor this into your training progression.

As a sport, are your athletes more stable, or mobile?  Are they posturally challenged, or generally asymmetrical?

An important factor in assessing 1RM ability with athletes is their general stability and function. A football lineman, or shot-putter inherently has a lot of muscle mass and related joint stability.  

A 19-year old tennis player is probably asymmetrical and lacks stability in the hips and spine. Which one is going to likely be safer through the course of a 1-rep max, or even a “sort of max” test in the squat or clean?  

Much of what determines your choice of pushing athletes close to their limit will be their ability to tolerate this type of work.  More often than not, the culture of being excited about 1RM testing will be more appreciated by stable athletes, such as football, rugby and track and field/shotput athletes than athletes whose sports don’t lend towards mesomorphic and endomorphic bodytypes.  

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What will the “training cost” of maxing out in a particular lift be?  

There are some lifts that “cost more” to max out in vs. others.  A bench press doesn’t cost as much to max-out in vs. a squat.  A max power clean isn’t as tough on an athlete as maxing out in a full squat-clean.  

If I have lots of time to build athletes up to it, I’ll be likely to go for a “sort of max” in a power clean.  Bench press maxing doesn’t cost much training time in many populations.  

Squats and deadlifts, on the other hand “cost” a lot more time to recover from fully, and also carry a much higher risk/reward.  Ask yourself if it is really worth it on these lifts for your athletic populations.

How is your yearly training structured?

Finally, ask yourself how you plan to factor in any maximal strength testing into your yearly program.  I like testing dynamic, sport specific parameters (such as vertical jump, 4 jump, specific agility, 20 yard dash, etc.) on a weekly basis, rotating on a set cycle.  

If I ever do any “sort of max” work, it is going to be in a pre-determined period, typically after a 6-8 week block of consistent lifting to determine that the testing can happen in a safe manner.   Much of the reason I do “sort of max” weeks, is largely to let athletes know that they are a little stronger physically this year than last (even though I already know by watching their training progressions).  

Some coaching practices have an athlete pushing their limit every 4 weeks, but remember, maximal strength oriented training for more than 7 weeks in a row can start to really dig into the nervous system of an athlete, as far as fast training and performance is concerned.  

Above all else, do not get max strength tests in the first month of training!  This is one of the worst transgressions in the world of strength and performance training for athletes.  I’ve seen this practice, in action in an over-eager DIII football program put kids out for the season, yet nobody ever seemed to figure it out.  

Conclusion

So there you have seven questions to answer in regards to how and when to test your training squads. As coaches, we are always assessing the positives and negatives of anything we do and the infamous one-rep max should not be immune from scrunity!

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About The Author

Joel Smith, MS, CSCS is a NCAA Division I Strength Coach working in the PAC12 conference. He has been a track and field jumper and javelin thrower, track coach, strength coach, personal trainer, researcher, writer and lecturer in his 8 years in the professional field. You can connect with Joel on his website.

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