This One Number Can Tell You How Strong You Are

What's your rebuttal when someone asks, "How much you lift?" How about using the gold-standard of strength — your one-rep max. Knowing this number has utility beyond locker-room (and Instagram) gloating, as it can help you plan a muscle-building workout program and measure your progress.

So... how much do you lift? (Image: FlamingoImages/iStock/GettyImages)

But before you push your strength to the limit, it's important to asses the benefits vs. the risks of testing your one-rep max, as it's not something beginners need to do right off the bat. Here's what you need to know to find and use your one-rep max.

What Is Your One-Rep Max?

A true one-rep max (1RM) is the weight for a certain exercise that you can only move for one rep (and not two!). Said another way, "It's a rep performed at 100 percent of your max effort," says Erwin Seguia, CSCS, physical therapist and founder of Match Fit Performance. Maybe you've heard the terms "personal best" or "personal record"? Same idea.

Theoretically, you can find a one-rep max of any weighted movement. But certified strength and conditioning coach Alena Luciani, founder of Training2xl, says the most value lies in knowing your one-rep max of compound, multi-joint movements like the back squat, front squat, push press, bench press, deadlift, snatch and clean.

"There's no benefit in trying to find a true one-rep max for single-joint, isolated movements like the biceps curl, calf raise or leg curl," she says. "And you can't find a one-rep max of something like a push-up." Makes sense, as push-ups are a body-weight exercise.

Why Should You Care About Your One-Rep Max?

Looking for a way to measure and increase pure strength? This is it, according to Luciani. "If your training program includes weight lifting, testing your one-rep max is the best way to know how strong you really are right now."

And it's essential for getting stronger — and tracking that strength — over time. Most strength-training programs will have you test your one-rep max on day one, she says. Then, throughout the duration of the program, you'll lift a percentage of that weight.

For instance, training regimes may implement something called "progressive overload," which means that one week you might lift five sets of five reps at 88 percent of your one-rep max, and the next you'll lift 90 percent with the same rep scheme. "Then, in six or eight weeks or however long your particular program calls for, you'll re-test it as a way to measure strength gains," says Luciani.

What Are the Potential Risks?

While there's great benefit to knowing and using your one-rep max, doing so requires not getting injured in the process of finding it. "You shouldn't be finding your one-rep max of a movement that you aren't one-thousand percent comfortable with," says Seguia. Don't risk injury by going heavy on a movement you're still learning.

According to him, 1RM testing should be reserved for intermediate and advanced athletes. "There's no reason to test your one-rep max until your at least six months into lifting and really comfortable with the barbell." Going to the gym consistently and lifting moderate weights is adequate for muscle hypertrophy for athletes at this stage in their training, he says.

"And if you're just getting back into the gym after a month or few months off, testing your one-rep max shouldn't be your day one," he says.

Warning

Even if you’re properly trained for going this heavy, it’s important to understand that you’re pushing your body to its absolute limits, says Seguia. “Your muscle tissues have never been subjected to this stress before, so your likelihood of failing the rep is very high.” Having a spotter (or two) is absolutely, 100-percent essential.

“If you don’t have someone to bail you out if a bench press rep is too heavy to bring back to the top, you’re not going to be able to go as heavy and therefore you’re not actually finding your one-rep max,” he says.

How Do You Find Your One-Rep Max?

There are two main ways to find this number. First, the formulaic method. Newer lifters and folks otherwise intimidated by the prospect of finding you 1RM: Luciani and Seguia say this one's for you. This method involves using your max with three or five (or even 10!) reps to predict your one-rep max.

If you've recently tested one of those lifts, you're set. Otherwise, warm-up and start moving heavier weight with good form. Once you have your number, use an online calculator that can predict your one-rep max based on what you lifted for multiple reps.

So, if you ripped out 5 reps at 150 pounds, then your one-rep max is going to be about 169 pounds. "Use your judgement here, if you think that computed number isn't possible for your body, subtract a few pounds and use that," says Luciani.

For most athletes Luciani prefers this method. "I'd rather have an athlete move two reps really well and struggle on the last rep than have someone do one rep with way less than perfect form." Seguia agrees that the formulaic method reduces the risk of injury.

If you're a more advanced athlete and lifter, you might opt for the true one-rep max test. For this test, "You need a proper dynamic warm-up, plan for how you're going to build up in weight and a team of spotters or plan for how you're going to bail if you cannot physically move the weight," says Seguia. It bears repeating: When you're going this heavy, you don't want to be afraid of dropping the bar on your chest or the gym floor.

"Finding your one-rep max is incredibly taxing on your muscles and the central nervous system," says Luciani. "You'll want to start with 10 reps of a weight that is incredibly light to you, then get to your one rep max within six sets."

She recommends taking three to five minutes between sets to give your body time to recover. "You don't want to be doing more than two, maybe three, heavy singles," she says. You'll want to have a pretty good idea of what you can hit. That may mean using that handy online calculator to guesstimate or working with a trainer who knows what you're capable of.

If while testing your one-rep max you fail a rep, Seguia offers the following advice: "Reflect on the failed lift and your body. Did you get 90 percent of the way through the movement and then fail right at the top? Or did the bar get stuck or move incredibly slowly? If you almost had it, try again. Otherwise, lower the weight." Of course, if you got hurt attempting a lift, don't try again.

Tip

Keep in mind: “Finding your one-rep max is the workout,” says Luciani. “You shouldn’t try to do much more at the gym after finding it.” Instead, prioritize recovery. That means eating protein, hydrating and getting adequate sleep. “After taxing your body the way testing a one-rep max does, you need to give it what it needs to repair,” says Luciani.

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