In the sport of Powerlifting, it’s all about lifting the most amount of weight possible in the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Similarly, many casual gym-goers want to know just how strong they really are when strength training.
This is where the one rep max (1rm) comes into play, a true test of strength that, once you get a taste for it, you want more and more!
But what exactly is the one rep max? How often should you perform it and how should you warm up for it?
In this beginner’s guide, we will look at the one rep max and answer some of the main questions surrounding it.
What is the One Rep Max?
The one rep max is a pretty simple concept to explain. It is the most weight you can lift for any given exercise for one full repetition.
Let’s say your one rep max on the squat was 200lbs. This would mean that you would be able to squat this weight for one full repetition successfully, but if you were to try 201lbs or more, then you would fail the lift. It would just be too heavy.
It is often recommended that testing your maxes is limited to the big lifts such as the squat, bench press, and deadlift, or even the clean and jerk and the snatch for the Olympic lifters out there. There’s really no need to be testing your max on the tricep extension machine for example!
Why Should You Test Your One Rep Max?
Your one rep max is a useful number to know as it can form the basis that your training program is centered around. For example, many training programs base the weight that you should lift each day on a certain percentage of your one rep max to ensure your training is as optimized as it can be.
It is also a great metric to assess whether you are getting stronger after a training program is complete.
And of course, some strength sports such as Powerlifting and Olympic Weightlifting will require you to lift at or near your one rep max in competition.
How Often Should You Test Your One Rep Max
There is no definitive answer to how often you should test your one rep max. Some experts advocate testing no more than once or twice every year, others are less conservative and say as often as 3-4 months is acceptable.
The key takeaway here is that you shouldn’t be testing it every week, a one rep max will tax your body and you must give yourself time to recover. If you’re maxing out every day that you walk into the gym, you’re going to burn out very quickly or even injure yourself.
I, personally, err on the conservative side and would recommend that you only test your one rep maxes after every 6 months or longer.
How to Determine Your One Rep Max
If you’re newer to lifting, it’s completely understandable that you won’t have an idea what your one rep max is. Luckily, there are some reasonably accurate calculations out there, such as the Brzycki formula, that should put you in the right ballpark.
Simply put, these formulae take a working set that you have recently completed and correct it to an equivalent single rep effort, which should be close to where you are in reality.
Take a look at the table below for a quick reference multiplier for various rep ranges.
So, if you can complete a lift for 5 reps at 120lbs, simply multiply this weight by 1.13 and you will get 135lbs, which would be your predicted one rep max. You can then use this number as your basis when it comes time to actually test it!
I’ve also made this even easier by doing all the work for you, simply check out my one rep max calculator where you can enter your lift and reps and it will tell you your predicted max based on various formulae.
How to Warm up for a One Rep Max
It is not advisable to simply walk into the gym, load up a barbell, and attempt a one rep max, this is a sure-fire way to get injured!
Instead, it is a great idea to take your time and slowly work your way up to your max effort lift. This will warm up your muscles and get all the movement patterns burned into your body before you come to the big lift.
This will also be a good gauge of how your body is feeling and how it is responding to the weights that day. If you’re just not feeling it, bail out and come back another day when you’re feeling stronger.
Here’s how I normally approach a one rep max test:
General Warm Up
The first goal when you step into the gym, regardless of whether you are testing your one rep max or just training in general, is to get blood flow into your muscles and joints.
One of the simplest ways to do this is moderate cardio. This could be anything from walking or jogging to cycling, anything that raises your heart rate and causes you to break a light sweat. Note the emphasis on ‘light sweat’, this should feel comfortable and in no way should burn you out!
Spend a good 5-10 minutes at this stage before moving on.
Now move onto a dynamic stretching routine.
The specifics will depend on the lift you are testing. For example, if you were testing your squat, you would want to focus on dynamic stretches that target your leg muscles. Whereas you would want to focus on your upper body (chest and arms) for the bench press.
Again, 5-10 minutes should be enough here but spend as long as you need until your muscles feel ready.
The below video by Jeff Nippard is a good summary of how to warm up for strength-focused training.
Now it’s time to start putting some weight on the bar.
The basic principle here is to start at a comfortable, low weight (for you) and perform a higher number of reps. On the next set, increase the weight but decrease the reps.
This process continues until you get close to your target, at this point you should only be performing one repetition per set.
Allow yourself plenty of time to recover between sets, 3-5 minutes should be about right, but take as long as you need while ensuring that your muscles/joints are still suitably warm.
I have included a simple template to follow below, which should help you work up to your one rep max:
- Set 1: 8 reps at 50% of your 1rm
- Set 2: 5 reps at 60% of your 1rm
- Set 3: 3 reps at 70% of your 1rm
- Set 4: 1 rep at 80% of your 1rm
- Set 5: 1 rep at 90% of your 1rm
- Set 6: One Rep Max time!
So for someone working up to a one rep max of 200lbs, it would be:
- Set 1: 8 reps at 100lbs
- Set 2: 5 reps at 120lbs
- Set 3: 3 reps at 140lbs
- Set 4: 1 rep at 160lbs
- Set 5: 1 rep at 180lbs
- Set 6: 1 rep at 200lbs
Note that this is just a guide and you can tweak and change it to suit your individual needs. As long as you don’t deviate too far from it then you should be fine.
I have also built an easy to use Warm Up Calculator that you can use to calculate each set, just plug in your max lift and it does the rest.
After Your One Rep Max
So let’s say you successfully completed your lift. Congratulations! If you truly felt this was indeed your max effort then stop there and take a few days off, you’ve earned it and your body will need the time to recover!
However, if you feel you could have managed more, then, by all means, go ahead and add some weight to the bar! At this point, it’s advisable to keep the increments small, adding 5lbs per set is best, but if you really felt that things were too easy you could add 10lbs and go again. Just listen to your body and don’t overdo it.
The one rep max is a great way to test your strength and focus your training efforts. Hopefully, now you have all the tools you need to go out and test it.
So go out there and set some new PRs!