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Five Mistakes when Testing a 1RM

The litmus test for strength training is and will forever be the 1RM - the maximum amount of weight you can move for one repetition. Although it is not the most useful feat of strength (in a combat and survival situations where ONE large effort is required to return to safety are few and far between), it is certainly the simplest and provides an opportunity for us to put our biggest number up on the board.


Although I am a huge advocate for women finding other measures of strength (like doubles, triples and 10 or 20RMs), I do think it is important to know your max numbers. This gives us a consistent unit of measurement we can base all other training on. This will also give us strength goals and let us know when you are getting stronger.


If you are curious about what is strong and what isn’t, check out my article Strength Standards for Women: https://www.ingripaulineathletics.com/post/strength-standards-for-women


There are a number of mistakes people make when testing their one rep max. Here are the most common...


Only A Single Attempt

One of the biggest mistakes to make is to only test your 1RM once, or to wait for months and months on end before you test it again. From a muscular development standpoint, doing max weight sets of singles, doubles and triples is a GREAT way to build muscle and sculpt your body. If you never want to be bothered doing direct ab work again, work with heavy weigh at max capacity at least 60% of the time.


From a performance stand point, you have to test your numbers more frequently than once every two years. Six months is a nice number. If you are working on building up your number for a specific lift, then it is important that you test that lift every 4-8 weeks to track your progress.


From a mental stand point, testing you lifts frequently will callus you mind. Sometimes it is scary to test lifts. You know how difficult and heavy it will be and there is always a chance of something going wrong (very rare with proper techniques and/or supervision). But most of the time we pleasantly surprise ourselves and do just fine - the weight being easier than we thought.


Another mistake is to only give one attempt on the day of testing. It is a mistake to miss a lift once and then not even try it again. Many times we just psych ourselves out and get scared of the barbell. Or we just need a bit more time to relax before another attempt. Remember that for power and speed exercises we need a lot more time to recover in between attempts.


Short Wait Times

There is a universal rule that is not widely know to laymen about power and speed training. It is the work to rest ratio. The work to rest ration of such training is 1:4-8. This means that if you do a 30 second sprint, you have up to four minutes to rest and catch your breath before going again. This has to do with how long it takes the ATP-PCr (the quick energy molecule) to build back up in the body.


Same goes for weightlifting. Few know they should be waiting 4-8 minutes in between attempts to ensure maximum performance when working with heavy weight. It’s not just with testing 1RMs. This also goes for training complex and explosive movements like the snatch and clean and jerk of Olympic Weightlifting. I have seen many amatures get fed up and discouraged when their technique flushes further and further down the toilet as their training day wears on. They just need some patience.


When testing, make sure you have some space in your day. Finding a 1RM of anything can take anywhere from 30 to 90 minutes - and it can count as your whole workout. Be patient and wait five or six minutes in between attempts on test day to ensure optimal performance.


Large Weight Jumps

When testing our 1RMs, it is so important to take small just at the top end of our ability. That is to say, when you are working at max capacity, it is better to increase to weight by a small amount rather than a large one.


Seem obvious but keep in mind that the “value” of the added weight changes in relation to weight already on the bar. When working at the bottom range and doing multiple reps, it is normal to add weight per set. Upper body would be a 5-10 pound jump and lower body would be a 10-20 pound jump. But, working in the 1-3 rep range changes all that.


I have seen people make a 5 pound jump and miss the lift, only to drop a bit of the weight and add only 2.5 pound for the next three lifts. To clarify: taking a big jump at the upper end of his ability, the athlete missed the lift, BUT taking more frequent and smaller jumps, the athlete lifted MORE weight than he originally missed!


So be slow and take small gains. All this will come back to reward you.


When the barbell bites back

No Lifting Buddy

The most important reason my you need to test lifts with a buddy is because everyone lifts more when people are watching. Just like Game Day is fun, so is testing day! Its a chance to hang out, push weight and catch up.


The second reason is because extremely strong people can pass out from a max effort lift. Sounds scary, right? But don’t worry. Only the VERY strong among us can produce enough force to temporarily stunt blood flow to the brain. Most of us - even one who have been lifting a while - would struggle to produce that much power and force in our body. If you are that strong, it’s always helpful to have someone around for safety. Many lifts (looking at you, bench press) should not be tried alone just for the safely factor. Although, I must say, statistically men are way more likely to hurt themselves chasing a number. Women just don’t have that draw to the extreme as much.


The MOST COMMON second reason to have others around you is feedback and support. Someone to film you so you can critique your own movements is a very useful friend indeed. Even more useful is a seasoned pro who can help you troubleshoot and improve.


Improper Warm Up

Your warm up will dictate how well you do. When attempting a 1RM is it so important that you warm up correctly. You should already have broken a sweat and stretched before you put anything heavier than 50% of your 1RM on the barbell. It is very easy for a beginner to over warm up or under warm up.


Only with time and getting to know your body a bit better, will you find the optimum way of warming up for peak performance. Make sure you have a combination of movements that mimics the lift being performed, stretching/mobility of the back, hips and shoulders, and enough activity to produce a light sweat. Also make sure to stay warm in between attempts by bringing a sweatshirt.

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