Stop Testing Your Strength and Start Building It!
You should not be lifting your absolute maximum in the gym often!
If you’re doing this every week, or worse, every workout, then you could be really holding back your own progress.
I’ve been there myself…
When I had been training about a year and a half, I had progressed quite well with my deadlifts.
I was deadlifting 175kg for one rep.
The thing is, I REALLY wanted to be able to deadlift 180kg.
180kg seemed like the pinnacle of deadlifting (I know it is actually not). FOUR PLATES! I’d look so amazingly strong! I’d have reached the zenith of gym coolness!
Every single workout, I attempted to lift 180kg.
I never got it.
Week after week I’d load up the bar with four plates, in awe of how heavy it looked, imagining myself locking it out and surveying the gym around me like a king.
Every attempt ended in failure.
I shudder to think what the attempts looked like. I can remember getting the bar halfway up a few times, but these were some SLOW half reps. The form can’t have been pretty.
I never managed to lift 180kg, until I did this:
After months of failing and having to shamefully unload a bar I hadn’t managed to lift, I gave up on trying to lift 180kg.
I dropped the weight down and just focused on getting stronger with lighter weights.
I was deadlifting for sets of 3 – 10 reps. Some weeks I lifted 130kg, others I lifted as much as 160kg, but I didn’t go any higher.
I lifted 130kg for as many reps as I could.
The next week I lifted 140kg for as many reps as possible.
I continued like this until I got to 160kg for as many reps as possible. With a deadlift workout once per week, this took 4 weeks.
Then I went back down to 130kg again but I added 2.5kg to the bar, so I was now lifting 132.5kg for as many reps as possible.
I continued in the same fashion as before, lifting 10kg more each week, but this time with an extra 2.5kg (so it went 132.5kg, 142.5kg, 152.5kg, 162.5kg).
I kept this up for a few more cycles until my 130kg for as many reps as possible had become 140kg for as many reps as possible, and my 160kg had become 170kg.
By the end of it, I was lifting 140kg for the same amount of reps that I was able to lift 130kg for at the start. I was also lifting 170kg for 3+ reps, where it previously used to only be 1 or 2.
God Damn, I’d gotten stronger!
Guess what I did next?
You guessed it, I attempted to lift 180kg.
It went up. Twice.
I’ve continued training in this fashion, and now 180kg is my 10 rep max.
Lighter weights and higher reps are your friend
Lighter weights and higher reps help you to get stronger in other rep ranges. The strength gains you make in a higher rep range DO transfer over to lower rep ranges.
This is all about PROGRESSIVE OVERLOAD
When you adopt a strategy of making tiny, incremental increases in weight or volume, you are practicing progressive overload.
You don’t get stronger by going from Z, to Z + 1.
It’s usually too much too fast.
You have to go back to X and get better at doing X. You need to do X for more reps than before. Try adding incremental weight increases to X, and then get better at lifting THAT for more weight.
Then do the same again with Y.
Once you’ve made sufficient strength gains with X and Y at higher reps, then you might be able to do Z + 1.
Use the fractional plates!
You know those little plates lying around that are 1.25kg or 2.5kg? Use them! Use them together to create unusual weights like 37.5kg.
Who cares if people think you’re strange for doing it? Don’t think “pah, those plates are for wimps.” They are your friends.
If your gym doesn’t have them, you need to either find another gym, or bring your own plates.
And if your gym does have them, but no-one uses them because they are way too strong to bother with some tiny plates, that’s a good sign that no-one in your gym knows how to train properly.
And just while we’re on the subject of light weights…
Light weights and high reps are not for cutting and getting lean. That’s bullshit. Only a calorie deficit can make you lose body fat.
The weight you use doesn’t dictate whether you build muscle or lose fat. You can lose fat and get lean with heavy weights (I actually recommend you use heavy weights).
You can also build muscle with lighter weights as long as you’re using a sensible rep range and the sets and reps still challenge you. The key thing in either scenario is progressive overload and whether you’re eating above your maintenance or not.
Other reasons you shouldn’t be lifting your max every week
We’ve covered how trying to set a new one rep max PR in every training session isn’t optimal for getting stronger or building muscle.
These are some other reasons why always lifting one rep maxes is a bad idea:
- Injuries: You are at much higher risk of developing injuries when you’re trying to set a new one rep max. You are much more likely to have sketchy form. Your elbows may flare out more on the bench press putting your shoulders in a bad position. Your lower back might round on squats, leading to spinal disc compression and putting you out of the gym for a week or more. Even if you don’t injure yourself, you are more likely to develop injuries over time from repeated poor lifting. These injuries can become chronic and be very hard to shift.
- Fatigue: Lifting one rep maxes, and especially failing them, saps a lot of your energy for the amount of good it does. This carries over to the rest of your workout, and even possibly your next workout. Staying within 70 – 85% of your max Is not nearly so taxing and you can continue to get quality work done on your other exercises.
- Less mind/muscle connection: I’ve mentioned how form breaks down with one rep max attempts. Mind/muscle connection is directly linked to this. If you really want to force a muscle to grow, you need to ensure it spends more time under tension. You also need to increase the load from week to week.
For this, you want a good mind/muscle connection. If you take 70% of your bench press max, you’ll be able to slowly lower it to your chest, rest it there with the muscles still under tension for a moment, then power it back up. The whole time you’ll be able to focus on the muscles contracting. The exercise will be performed with much better form. You’ll be able to do it for many reps and sets. Now try and do that with your one rep max. Can you focus on mind/muscle connection? Which scenario allows for the most time under tension? Even just 2 reps done like this with 70% is more volume and tension than 1 rep with 100%. But you won’t just do 2 reps. You’ll do more like 10.
- Poor form gets ingrained: When you’re always lifting sketchy looking one rep maxes, you never actually lift with the best form you could. You never ingrain good form by completing thousands of perfect reps, where all muscles work as they should to move the weight. If you DO ingrain good form by spending most of the time using lighter weights, you’re much more likely to KEEP good form on the rare occasion when you go for that one rep max.
Drastically reducing the number of 1rm attempts I was making in the gym is one of the things that had a huge impact on my progress. I now very rarely lift for one rep. It’s maybe once every 4-6 months. It used to be once a week, at least, maybe even once a session.
Since I focused on lighter weights, mind/muscle connection and progressive overload, my strength and size have moved up considerably.