The Right Way to Test Your One-Rep Max (and How to PR More Often)

Use these strategies to safely improve your one-rep max and hit new weightlifting personal records with more frequency.

Some coaches tell you to forget about your one-rep max because the injury risk of testing it is too high.

I am not one of those coaches. While I agree one-rep max testing isn't super important for non-strength athletes, I still do heavy maximal singles on Hang Power Cleans, Trap Bar Deadlifts, Barbell Squats, Bench Presses and Weighted Chin-Ups with my hockey players.

Aside from the obvious physical benefit of peaking strength, lifting very heavy singles provides mental benefits, as well. Attempting and successfully moving a heavier weight than you've ever done builds confidence and increases your buy-in with the program you're running. You shouldn't overlook the importance of this.

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Some coaches tell you to forget about your one-rep max because the injury risk of testing it is too high.

I am not one of those coaches. While I agree one-rep max testing isn't super important for non-strength athletes, I still do heavy maximal singles on Hang Power Cleans, Trap Bar Deadlifts, Barbell Squats, Bench Presses and Weighted Chin-Ups with my hockey players.

Aside from the obvious physical benefit of peaking strength, lifting very heavy singles provides mental benefits, as well. Attempting and successfully moving a heavier weight than you've ever done builds confidence and increases your buy-in with the program you're running. You shouldn't overlook the importance of this.

On the subject of increased injury risk, all I will say is that I've witnessed thousands of one-rep max attempts at our gym, and I've never seen anyone get hurt lifting maximal weights. Obviously, safe execution takes good technique and some planning.

Having said that, I believe there are a few key tactics that can help you set more one-rep max PRs and do so in a safe, smart manner.

Test in Training

With my athletes, we don't schedule a separate testing day. Doing so would reduce the time we have available for real training, so I don't see the point.

With that in mind, heavy singles are built into our program. An example of a maximal strength phase for Trap Bar Deadlifts could look like this:

  • Week 1: 3x3
  • Week 2: 4x2
  • Week 3: 4x1
  • Week 4: 5x1

The first two weeks, you're lifting at and above 90% of your 1RM (one-rep max.) The goal here is to set a new 3RM and 2RM leading up to the third week. Assuming you manage to do so, a new 1RM is practically guaranteed on week 3. The fourth and final week gives you another chance to improve upon what you did the previous time. So you have two chances to hit new one-rep maxes during the last two weeks of this phase.

My athletes typically hit multiple personal bests during this time. Note that because we limit the heavy singles to just two weeks, they don't burn out from lifting at maximal intensity.

Warm Up the Right Way

The other day, while training at a public gym, I witnessed a guy going heavy on Trap Bar Deadlifts. He was obviously bigger and stronger than your average gym rat, so I observed with great interest how he approached his warm-up sets. Here's what he did:

  • 225x5
  • 315x5
  • 405x5 (last two reps with considerable spinal flexion)
  • 465x3 (with downright ugly form)

Not surprisingly, he got stapled by 500. The weight wouldn't budge off the floor. The fatigue accumulated over his warm-up sets coupled with his degrading technique at higher intensities didn't set him up for success.

The result? His nervous system was fried by the time he got to his one-rep max attempt.

What he should have done instead is forget about max testing on that day and use the next few weeks/months to hone his form. Starting with lighter weights, he should increase training loads over time until he's repping out his previous 3RM or 5RM without any technical breakdowns. Once there, here's how he should warm up for a maximal single:

  • Warm-up set 1: 135x5
  • Warm-up set 2: 225x5
  • Warm-up set 3: 315x3
  • Warm-up set 4: 360x2
  • Warm-up set 5: 405x2
  • Warm-up set 6: 440x1
  • Warm-up set 7: 475x1
  • One-rep max attempt: 500x1 PR!

Bottom line?

Use multiple low-rep warm-up sets with smaller weight increases to turn on your nervous system, keep fatigue at bay and successfully crush a new one-rep max.

Even a Small Jump in Your PR is Still a PR

You hit a new personal best on the Bench Press at 225 last month. Your training has been going well since then and you decide to test your one-rep max today. You figure you're good for 240. So you decide to attempt a 15-pound personal record, only to have the spotter bail you out after the bar hits that invisible wall 2 inches off your chest.

Maybe you were tired from last weekend's games. Maybe you're stressed out because it's exam week. Whatever the reason, you missed the lift. Had you not gotten greedy and shot for a smaller increase, you might not have.

I often see this problem with a lot of young athletes who believe that a new PR has to be at least 10 pounds above their previous PR for whatever reason. This is where micro plates can be tremendously useful. While many conventional plates force you to increase the weight on the bar by 5 or 10 pounds at a time, micro plates allow for smaller, more manageable jumps.

Had this athlete loaded 227 on the bar, he likely would've crushed a new PR. In which case he then could've attempted 228, 230, 232, etc. as long as you felt you had more in the tank. Even if 227 was the most you could do that day, you'd have a new personal best to show for your efforts.

With the failed 240, your best Bench Press is still 225. And failed one-rep max attempts notably increase your risk of injury.

The takeaway?

Set small, achievable PRs often. That will snowball into big, injury-free strength gains when repeated over a long enough time frame.

Choose the Right Exercises

Some exercises are safer to max out on than others, and exactly which exercises those are depends upon the individual. A few factors which affect whether or not an exercise is suitable for one-rep maxing is the athlete's build, their lifting technique, their mobility limitations and their injury history.

Choose movements that don't beat you up and you'll have won half the battle. For example, an athlete who has undergone shoulder surgery in the past probably won't be performing Flat Barbell Bench Presses and Weighted Chin-Ups as a part of their regular training. So it makes zero sense to one-rep max test them on these movements.

Stay away from risky exercises based on your previous injury history. Also, if a certain exercise beats up your joints or otherwise doesn't feel right, scratch it off your list. Same goes for a lift or movement where your technique might be shaky—it's not worth the risk just to find your one-rep max.

And of course, certain one-rep maxes require a spotter or spotters to be performed correctly. One of the most idiotic things you can do is attempt a Bench Press or Squat max without some form of human or mechanical spotter.

Photo Credit: South_agency/iStock

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Topics: BENCH PRESS | PERFORMANCE GOALS | TRAP BAR DEADLIFT | MAX OUT