By Fabio Zonin, Master SFG, SFB, and SFL
After the publication of my article The 5TRM Back Squat Program, I received many comments and emails with questions about the real necessity for an athlete to test his 1RM. Many argue there’s no need to attempt a 1RM in order to determine your maximal strength or if it has improved after a program. And you know what? They are right!
Unless you are a competitive weightlifter or powerlifter, you can assess your maximal strength and/or the effectiveness of a strength program without testing your 1RM. That said, even professional weightlifters and powerlifters are very cautious when it comes to testing their 1RM. In fact, most of them test their 1RM and try for a new PR (personal record) only in competition. And not even at any competition, but only at the most important one(s) of the year. That’s right: a professional lifter usually tests his 1RM and/or attempts a PR only once or twice a year.
There are also some cases in which it is impossible to determine a real 1RM due to the large jumps between the sizes of a training tool—the kettlebell, for example. A girevik may be able to press a kettlebell for multiple reps, but not be able to complete even one rep with the closest heavier bell. In this case, the athlete must presume how far he is from being able to press the heavier bell according to the number of reps performed with the lighter one.
So let’s take a moment to examine two facets of this discussion:
- How you can determine your 1RM based on your training with a lighter weight.
- What a “1RM” really is, as well as when and how is best to test it.
Determining Your 1RM Based on Your 2RM, 3RM, or 5RM
If your goal is to improve your maximal strength but you are not a competitive lifter, why should you test your 1RM? Once you know your 2RM, 3RM, or 5RM, you can predict your 1RM with decent accuracy:
- Your 5RM is roughly equivalent to 85-87.5% of your 1RM
- Your 3RM to 87.5-90%
- Your 2RM to 90-92.5%
Easy! There are plenty of other formulas out there that predict your 1RM according to a certain RM, though I have to say I’m not too fond of most of them. And the higher the RM that you are using, the less accurate your predictions will be. For instance, if you base your calculations on your 10RM, which should roughly correspond to 70-75% of 1RM, you can’t be sure that your 1RM prediction will turn out to be real. The margin of error increases as the reps increase.
There are some constraints to this method, though. As soon as you have assessed that your 2RM, 3RM, or 5RM has improved, you can comfortably say your hypothetical 1RM has also improved. Again, this reasoning works pretty well as long as the RM you have tested isn’t too high. Let’s say you were able to perform 3RM with a certain weight on a certain lift, and after an eight-week program you are now able to perform 5RM with the same weight. Your 1RM has, of course, improved. But, let’s say your RM with a certain weight on a certain lift has improved from 15 to 20 reps. Are you sure your 1RM has also improved? No. You are sure you have improved your strength-endurance, but your 1RM could have stayed the same.
The fact is you don’t know. The relationship between 1RM and a high RM is not reciprocal. If you improve your 1RM, then you can be confident your 15RM has also improved, but you cannot be confident in the opposite relationship. This is another good reason to be Strong…First! I personally wouldn’t rely too much on an RM higher than 5-6 to predict my 1RM, or to assess if my 1RM has improved.
What If You Still Want to Test Your 1RM?
Per all of the above, unless you are a competitive lifter, you don’t really need to test your 1RM. But here’s the fact: most likely, sooner or later, you will want to test it. If you are a strength athlete, one day you will feel the strong desire to test your real maximal strength, as much as a person passionate for conditioning will feel the desire to perform an all-out snatch test and an endurance athlete will want to run a 10K in the shortest time possible. In addition, many of the most effective strength programs are based on the 1RM, so if you want to begin one of them, you will need to test yourself.
But as much as going all-out all the time is counterproductive for strength-endurance and endurance athletes, testing your 1RM too often is counterproductive for you, as well. In the best of cases, your strength will decrease. In the worst, you will get injured.
Do not allow your ego to drive your actions. A 1RM test must be planned in advance and you need a well-designed program that leads you gradually to the test. There are many safe and effective programs that can lead you there. Some of them are based on the Western methodology, others on the former Soviet Union’s methodology. Needless to say, I am fond of these latter, about which you can learn so much by attending one of Pavel’s Plan Strong seminars.
One thing these methodologies have in common is that they both lead you to your test day through a more-or-less gradual reduction of the training volume (NL or “number of lifts”) in the weeks prior to the test. This allows you to face the test in the best possible physical and psychological conditions.
My Classifications: PR, 1RM, 1TRM
Let’s now go a little deeper into the concept of the 1RM. There is actually more than one way to look at a “1RM” and I’m going to share my definitions with you. My personal classifications include the PR, the 1RM, and the 1TRM. They all refer to the weight that you can lift for one rep with maximal effort—but in different conditions. These classifications also provide some clues as to how often they should be tested:
- PR refers to the weight you lifted once in your life, and you don’t know when or if you’ll be able to lift it again. Probably your form wasn’t perfect, but the lift was legal (meaning, in a powerlifting meet you would have received at least two white lights out of three). It was a very special day, you felt incredibly strong physically, and you were psychologically ready to conquer the world. You did the lift once, but you don’t own it.
- 1RM refers to the weight you lifted after following to the letter a strength cycle in all of its phases. You planned ahead and it took several weeks of consistent training to prepare you for that lift. On the day you attempted this lift, you were in perfect physical and psychological condition, and you were psyched up before attempting it. The lift was legal and the form was good. Again, you did it, but still you can’t say you own it.
- 1TRM refers to the “technical” one-rep max, which is the heaviest weight you can lift for a single rep with perfect form, without having followed a strength cycle for several weeks, and without the need to psych up for it. Basically, it’s the weight you can lift on any good day at the gym after a few “preparation” lifts with lighter weights. You own it. It usually settles around 95-97.5% of your 1RM.
It goes without saying that attempting your PR is something you shouldn’t do more than once or twice a year or, if you are a competitive lifter, only during a main competition. And when you do attempt your PR, you must be in extremely favorable physical and psychological condition.
You should only test your 1RM after having followed a specifically designed strength program, and these programs usually last eight to twelve weeks. And since not all strength cycles include a final 1RM test, my personal suggestion it that you test your 1RM no more than two or three times a year. And again, on the testing day you must be in optimal physical and psychological condition.
What you can test more often is your 1TRM. On a training day in which you feel particularly strong, you can challenge yourself with a couple of heavy singles, and sometimes try to go even heavier, up to a 1TRM. When you do, never overestimate your strength, always use good judgment, and always be very cautious—injuries are always around the corner.
I personally wouldn’t push myself to a 1TRM more than once every month or two. Keep in mind that you want to avoid failing at a lift. Every time you fail, you take several steps back in your journey toward strength. We improve in what we practice, so if you practice success, you improve your capability at succeeding. If you practice failure, you improve your capability at failing. It’s as simple as that.
For the Best Results: Work Off Your 1TRM, Not Your 1RM
Finally, when you undertake a strength program based on percentages of your 1RM, never calculate your training weights according to your PR. Since you don’t own your PR, you could end up overestimating your training weights. You can, of course, base your calculations on your 1RM, but I personally believe it is often much wiser to base them on your 1TRM—and I have experimented with this on myself.
Trust me, the difference in terms of the weight that you will load on the bar in a regular training day is minimal, but it can make a huge difference in terms of safety and results. Let’s say your 1RM in the back squat is 200kg and your 1TRM is 195kg (95%1RM). This means that 75%1RM is 150kg and 75%1TRM is 142.5kg. 7.5kg may seem like such a small difference between the two training weights, but the difference is enough to ensure that you will always perform all of your reps with perfect form and that you will avoid failure. Maybe your ego won’t be as happy at the beginning of the program, but it will be at the end of it when the time will come to test your new 1RM.
In the next article of this series, I will offer a more advanced variation of the The 5TRM Back Squat Program, this time based on your 1TRM and with a volume progression that recalls that of the Plan Strong methodology.
Fabio Zonin is a Master SFG, SFB, and SFL. He is a former powerlifter, natural bodybuilder, and owner of fitness centers. He was the first Italian to accomplish the Beast Tamer Challenge and has been a Master Teacher for FIF (Italian Federation of Fitness) for almost two decades (1994-2012). He is also the Ground Force Method National Director for Italy.
He is the Former vice president of the AINBB (Italian Association of Natural Bodybuilding), and has trained many athletes at national and international level in natural bodybuilding, powerlifting and other sports.
He has authored numerous articles for Italian popular magazines and websites dedicated to fitness, bodybuilding, and strength training, and has worked with to leading Italian companies in the field of sports equipment, body composition evaluation software, and nutritional supplements.
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