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Start building strength rather than testing it

Do you still have the same 1 rep max that you had a year back, or maybe even worse, 5 years back! If you said yes, then dont be disheartened because you are not alone. Starting from lack of consistency, poor recovery and many other mistakes which are so common, you could very well be stuck because of one major crime in the weight room. And that is, you are testing your strength when training and not building it! Yes, while we all like to brag about how much we deadlifted or benched in our last workout, over a period of time if you are not making any progress then people will get bored of hearing the same numbers again and again.

One of the biggest challenge for many trainees out there is to be able to check their egos at the door and focus on training smart. And it is an even bigger challenge if you set very high standards for yourself and also happen to train in a gym full of really strong guys. Hey, make no mistakes I am also one of those guys who often fails to keep his ego in check and ends up doing more than what I should have. After all you dont want to be second to anyone. And while that may make you feel good for a while, in the long run however your lack of progress will not feel so great, and even worse when those who began after you or were weaker than you start lifting more than you.

There are many for whom ending every session with the feeling of "I still got it" or "I can still do it", is far more important than focusing on getting better. And what better way to test strength than to do your actual 1 rep max lift. You will be surprised how often trainees will feel obligated to lift their 1 rep or 2 rep max every single time they train for their working sets, since they fear that if they dont do so then their 1RM will go down.

The truth is that doing your 1RM is a way to test strength and not to build it. You should do a 1RM test once in a while after building upto it by training with submaximal weights for many weeks prior to that. And if you have been progressing with submaximal weights along the way then you are more likely to hit a higher 1RM than trying to increase it every second week. For eg. in the excellent strength training book 5/3/1 by Jim Wendler, the author who is a former powerlifter suggests often training with weights much lesser than 90% of your 1RM to get stronger. And based on the success that the readers are having with the program I can safely say that you do not need to train with your 1RM to get stronger.

Infact unless you are a competitive powerlifter or will be tested on your 1RM for making it into a sports team, you do not really need to ever go any lower than 3 reps in your training, and even higher like 5 reps will be better. Plus do keep in mind that if you do a 5 rep set then the idea is not to do it with your actual 5 rep max, but rather with your 6 or preferably 7 rep max. Yes, training to failure all the time is also another way to slow down your strength gains. If you are always struggling to get the last rep, then adding pounds to that exercise will mean that the number of reps will go down or you will have to depend on your spotter to get the weight moving, neither of which is ideal for your strength gains. On the other hand if you stop a few reps short of failure and the last rep flies off rather than becoming a grinder, then you are much more likely to make it on all the reps when you add some weight. This is something the oldtime strongmen understood very well and thus stayed away from grinding reps when strength gain was the goal.

You can still do some training to failure with the assistance work and bodyweight exercises, but for your main lifts stop 1-2 reps before failure on most occasions. And if you like to test your 1RM then do that no more than once every 4-8 weeks. Focus on working with submaximal weights and you will get stronger too. For eg lets say a hypothetical lifter's 1RM on the squat is 350 pounds. Now instead of squatting 350 every session he will do better if he does 5 rep sets without hitting failure. So lets say that he uses his 7 rep max and does 5 reps, which would mean that he squats about 80% which is about 280 pounds. Now if he can work upto being able to do 8-9 reps with 280 he would still get stronger! And the next time he "tests" his 1RM he is very likely to be able to squat more, even if it is small increment.

Now as I mentioned before that if someone is used to showing off his 1RM every session, then the idea of cutting back and doing a 1RM only once in a few weeks will require a lot of ego swallowing. But hey, even most powerlifters do a set with their true 1RM very rarely, so its a very common practice even by the best. So to recap, follow these steps and you more likely to get stronger in the long run, with far fewer injuries:

  • on most occasions do your working sets with 80-90% of your 1 rep max 
  • test your 1RM once every 4-8 weeks, and testing even more infrequently maybe better
  • avoid training to failure on your "strength" sets on most occasions

Remember, you do not want to be one those guys who love to "show off" the same bench press weight for years without adding a pound! Rather focus on getting stronger the smarter way.

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