There are few things that can be as exciting as a new one rep max (1 RM) attempt in any lift.  Take Benedict Magnuson’s new 1016 pound deadlift.  Yes.  Let me repeat that:  1016 pounds!

Hitting a new 1 RM is a special event in any athlete’s career.  It is the transcendence of many limits, be they physical or mental.  However, caution must be taken by the athlete and coach when implementing these sessions within the larger training regimen.  If you have been following the programming here at Steelworks , you will notice that we perform one rep max attempts very rarely across our different tracks of programming (Fitness, Performance, and Competitor).  Each group’s justifications are different.  In today’s post, I’ll explain why you should limit the amount of times you go after that vaunted 1 RM.

Beginners (<3 months of training)

Newer lifters have no business even considering a 1 RM attempt.  For any new athlete with no prior athletic background,  he or she must have at least 3-4 months of training under his or her belt and the clearance of a coach before a 1 RM attempt occurs.  These types of lifts demand an incredible amount of focus and body awareness that most beginners simply do not have.

While it may not be as sexy, for beginners we develop strength through the use of complexes and moderate rep ranges (3-5 RM are permitted for newer athletes).  We also differentiate the tempo of certain lifts to help teach body awareness and therefore develop good positioning.  Take the front squat.  The barbell in the front rack position can be an awkward one for beginning lifters.  The priority for this lift then should be making the position feel less awkward.  One way to do this is to slow down the descent to the ground in 2-4 seconds so that the athlete can gradually adjust and “feel” themselves into correct positions throughout the course of the movement.  Not only do they develop a better awareness with the barbell, but the added time under tension stimulates the athlete from a metabolic standpoint, too.

Intermediate and Advanced Lifters

Even more experienced lifters with a couple of months or years under their belt should limit how many times they chase a new 1 RM, too.  Intermediate lifters and advanced lifters will obviously have better body awareness and technique and as a result the chances for injury are much lower.  The concern for too frequent dips into the 1 RM bucket are two fold:  One, the effort and focus required for attacking a 1 RM takes away from valuable training time that could be used towards the further refinement of technique.  Remember, every lift that you take is just one more opportunity that your body rewires itself to perform the task at hand.  Perform a lift with crap form too often especially at heavy weight and your body will program itself to lift with those crappy movement patterns.  Two, excessive failure at a 1 RM attempt can shatter the confidence of a lifter.  Too many days in the program spent chasing 1 RMs open up the athlete to frequent failure.  The importance of building confidence to a lifter cannot be discounted to the overall scheme of training.

Depending on the cycle we are usually going after 1 RM once every 4-5 months.  In the meantime, we focus on max efforts in complexes and/or moderate (2-3) rep sets .  Complexes or moderate rep sets force the athlete to lift perceptively heavy weight, but yet limit the total intensity (total load lifted) imposed on the body.  For instance, by the end of a heavy clean pull + clean high pull + clean complex, that final clean is going to feel like a maximal attempt.  This allows the athlete to build the necessary strength and confidence to go after a heavy 1 RM when the time comes.

To clarify, I am not against maximal efforts.  On the contrary, we frequently max out on complexes or moderate rep sets.  The 1 RM, however, should be implemented at certain moments of a properly constructed training program.  Take the time to perfect your craft.  Stop chasing numbers and instead focus on developing the movements and positions that will bring you to those numbers.