One of the most sought after challenges in fitness is to work up to your one-rep max (1RM) on any compound exercise: whether it’s the squat, the bench press, or the deadlift. In lay terms, 1RM marks the maximum weight that you can lift for just one repetition of any given exercise with the correct technique. It is a challenge that can keep your fitness journey fresh and act as a marker of where you are in terms of your strength. This is especially true if you have been working out for a while, and also helps you understand your body and what works best for you.
But unless you are really into finding out what systems work for you, or are obsessed with calculating your strength gains, getting to a 1RM may not really be required. “With any kind of training, the higher in intensity it gets, the higher the risk of injury. If you’re doing a true one-rep max, it means you have a training program in place. You put on your calendar two weeks out that you’re going to do a one-rep max on your back squat, then adjust your training to meet that goal,” writes strength and conditioning coach Albert Matheny in a muscleandfitness.com article titled Should I Care About My One-Rep Max?
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One important thing to remember is that during your one-rep max set there cannot be any compromise in form. Which means it is not something you should push for unless your form and technique have been perfected over time. Once you decide to go for it, make a plan which allows you to make the most of the 1RM day. Make sure you know 7-14 days ahead of time about your attempt so you can arrange your schedule accordingly.
And once all that is done, it is time to choose the right approach on the day. The first, and most important one, is your warm-up, which must be infused with enough mobility drills to make sure your muscles are not cold going into the lift. A T-Nation article titled How to Warm Up for a One-Rep Max is popular enough to be cited regularly on Reddit fitness forums and other threads threads that discuss planning for a 1RM day.
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“It can be a brisk walk, five minutes on the stationary bike, 500 to 1,000 meters on the rowing machine, or anything else that takes no more than 10 minutes and doesn't leave you feeling worn out. You can include some dynamic mobility exercises after a few minutes of walking, cycling, or rowing. The more inflexible or stiff an area is, the more important those mobility exercises will be,” the article reads. A general marker would be to use a foam roller, do your mobility drills, and finally activate the muscle group you are planning to hit.
This activation would involve warm-up sets working up to the 1RM. The most exciting 1RM day is when you don’t know what your 1RM is, so the last lift of the day will always be your new personal record. But you might need to set a ballpark weight goal which you can work out using your 5-rep max. If you don't have that record either, then you will need to bring out the calculator. Given that you have been lifting for a couple of weeks at least before attempting a 1RM, you can choose a weight and do one set of 10 reps to positive failure (positive failure means to end the set despite having a couple of reps still in you).
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Let’s say you bench pressed 50kg for 10 reps. Take at least two minutes of rest, increase the weight, and attempt a set of 4-6 reps. Let’s say you managed to do 5 reps of 80kg. Now subtract the number of reps done in both sets, and then find out the difference in the weights lifted. In our example, the difference of reps between two sets is 5 (10 reps minus 5 reps), and the weight difference is 30kg (80kg minus 50 kgs). Now divide 30kg by 5 reps, which means your incremental weight change per rep was 6kg (30kg divided by 5 reps). By this count, your 1RM range should be bench pressing around 110kg. You can calculate any rep range with this method. This is just an example: bench pressing 110kg for one rep is tremendously difficult and it is worth noting that beginners should not get weighed down (literally) by expectations. Also, every compound lift will have a different rep range calculation since it is scientifically not possible to bench press as much as you can deadlift or squat.
So now things get easier, and it comes down to choosing how to load up towards the 1RM. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Blueprint is a good place to start, but know that it is by no means the only or the best way to go about your 1RM sets. “To get there, work up to the weight with the following rep pyramid, taking ample rest between each set: 20, 15, 10, 8, 5, 3, 1, 1, 1 (max),” the book states. People usually choose between five to eight warm-up sets before hitting their 1RM. You can start with doing 8 reps at 30-50% of your 1RM, then drop to 5 reps at 60%, and so on, till you hit one rep at around 80%. Then start taking longer rests of 3-5 minutes between reps (some people rest even longer) and keep increasing the weight towards your 1RM with just one-rep sets. You can finally decide to beat your 1RM if you can cross it.
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A Journal of Sports Science & Medicine study, titled Reliability Of The One-Repetition Maximum Test Based On Muscle Group And Gender concluded that “a standardised 1RM testing protocol with a short warm-up and familiarisation period is a reliable measurement technique to assess muscle strength changes regardless of muscle group location or gender.” The word ‘familiarisation’ is important to note, meaning that your muscles have gone through the compound exercise you will attempt a few times, hence generating enough muscle memory for a healthy 1RM day.
Pulasta Dhar is a football commentator and writer.
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