We’ve all seen those guys in the gym –
They go hard, every single session. Each set is an ode to hardcore bodybuilders of yesteryear, as they grunt, grind and heave with all their might to get that weight to go up.
Whether it’s 10 reps, 5 reps, or 2, plenty of people training to get bigger and stronger train to failure on virtually every set. In a way, that’s understandable. We know that in order for a muscle to grow, some form of damage needs to occur. You work a muscle hard, it breaks down, then rebuilds bigger and stronger than before.
Progressive overload is a good thing too. By increasing your volume over time, you’re also going to get bigger and stronger. So surely hitting max-rep sets in every session is beneficial?
You know for sure that you’re working hard, creating muscle damage and (hopefully) contributing to progressive overload.
Does that mean we should be maxing out on a regular basis?
Well, yes and no …
… but mostly no.
Testing your maxes does provide certain benefits, and can be important, depending on what you’re training for. But, when done too often, max testing does more harm than good.
First Up – What is a Max Test?
Most people associate a max rep test with a one-rep max, where you work up to the heaviest weight you can lift for a single rep. If you do powerlifting or Olympic lifting, you’ll be doing these in competition.
But a max test doesn’t have to be just for a single rep. You can do a 2-rep max, a 3-rep max, a 10-rep max – whatever you like.
The key to determining what any maximum is, is the RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) scale. Here’s a quick rundown of this –
RPE 10 = All out maximum effort. (Usually with questionable form.)
RPE 9 = Very tough set. The last rep was pretty much your max, though you could maybe have got out 1 more rep if you really grinded and accepted some form breakdown.
RPE 8 = Still difficult. You had 2 reps left in the tank.
RPE 7 = Moderately difficult. 3 reps left.
We could take this all the way down to an RPE of 1, which is about as difficult as walking up a set of stairs, but you get the picture.
A max set needs to hit an RPE 10. Your form on the last rep (whether that’s also the first rep, or rep 10 of a set) is going to be subpar. It still needs to meet the criteria for a good lift – i.e. hitting parallel on squat, touching your chest on the bench press, or properly locking out your deadlift – but you’ll see a good deal of form breakdown. This might be knees caving on your squat, elbows flaring on the bench, or some spinal rounding on the deadlift.
Maxes for Muscle and Might
Max testing has a place in most peoples’ training routines for one simple reason – it means you’re not taking it too easy.
Without getting into the whole mantra of ‘no pain, no gain,’ a lot of people in gyms simply don’t train hard enough to see any noticeable gains in muscle and strength. Hitting some kind of max at various points in your training means you’re not going to be guilty of this.
When it comes to muscle hypertrophy, three key components play the biggest roles – mechanical tension, muscle damage and metabolic stress . Depending on what type of max test you do, you’re going to get all three of these in large doses, especially if you’re doing a max test in the 8-15 rep range.
If strength is your primary goal, and you’re aiming to pack the bar with more pounds than a biggest loser contestant post-show, then max testing has its place too. Clearly you’re going to shooting for lower maxes here, but anywhere from 1 to 6 reps can be beneficial for strength. The more comfortable you get handling heavy loads for low reps, the more comfortable you’ll be getting on the platform come meet day.
Plus, knowing your training 1-rep max gives you an idea of what you’ll hit in competition.
There’s nothing like a grueling set, or having to psyche yourself up for some heavy doubles or triples to build mental fortitude. And, if you’re hitting up max sets regularly, you can be pretty sure that you’re not going to be leaving any potential gains on the table.
Maxes build grit, courage, determination, and to a degree – strength and muscle.
But there’s also a dark side to testing your maxes, and one that could actually be harming your strength and hindering your muscle.
The Ugly Side of Maxing Out
The obvious downside to going all out on your sets is that the risk of injury is higher. You’re almost certainly going to have to use less than ideal form on your last rep or two, otherwise it’s not a true max.
When you use bad form you reinforce poor technique, put extra strain on your joints and tendons, and set yourself up for injury.
Okay, the chances of you getting injured because you used form that wasn’t 100% perfect on your last rep of a set of curls is pretty minimal, but injuries do usually happen when something’s awry with your technique, so the more often you let your form slip, the higher your risk of injury.
Secondly, maxing out is very tough on your nervous system.
You’ll know this if you’ve ever competed in powerlifting. Even though you’ve only done 9 true reps the whole day, you can feel absolutely exhausted for up to 2 weeks post-comp. This is because your nervous system has taken a battering.
It’s had to bring its A-game to the meet, you’ve needed it to be firing on all cylinders, to be recruiting maximum muscle fibers and a high degree of force and power. In ‘The Science and Practice of Strength Training,’ Vladimir Zatsiorsky notes that frequently training with loads that are near your competition max is highly likely to lead to burnout and plateauing .
There’s also the notion that you just don’t need to max out to build muscle and get stronger.
Can it help?
Sure, but it really isn’t essential for the most part. Muscles don’t need to be annihilated to grow. They need to be stimulated with adequate volume, a moderate to high degree of tension and stress, and to be placed under gradually increasing volume over time.
If maxing out is more likely to hamper your continual volume and strength progression, then actually, you’re going to find yourself picking up a lot more injuries, hitting a lot more plateaus, and potentially even getting weaker throughout your training career.
It’s Not One Size Fits All.
There’s a big difference in how beneficial or detrimental maxing out can be.
Clearly, if you’re trying to squat your 1-rep max every single workout, that’s highly likely to bring about some nasty side effects, and cause you to get weaker.
But even this isn’t necessarily damaging. There have been well-documented cases of guys who’ve experimenting with performing 1-rep max attempts on different squat variations every day for a year, but there’s a difference here –
In the more well-known examples of this, the guys involved have usually varied what type of squat they’ve been doing, and have only worked up to a training max for the day, based on how they’ve been feeling. To put that in perspective, if their true squat max was 405 pounds, then one day they might front squat 275, the next they’d back squat 365, the next it’d be a pause squat with 315, and so on.
Is this the smartest way to train?
Probably not, but because they’ve based their max on how they’re feeling that day, not on their best ever max attempt, it’s not as detrimental as if they were trying to add pounds to the bar every single session, or shooting for what they’d hit in competition.
For most of us though, maxing out on squats or deadlifts every single workout would be a recipe for disaster, regardless of whether that was for a 1-rep, 3-rep, 10-rep max or anything in between.
An exercise like a curl, a pushdown, or some calf raises though?
Well, that’s a different matter.
Because these movements are far less demanding on the nervous system, and because the loads you’ll be using for them are lighter, maxing out, hitting an RPE of 10, or using a little body english to move the weight up and get a couple of extra reps really isn’t the end of the world. In fact, if you’re always quitting whenever you get to an RPE 8 on these as to maintain perfect technique, you’re probably leaving muscle gains on the table.
On the whole, you want to avoid maxing out too often on compound, free-weight lifts, as the stress on the joints and nervous system is high, as is the risk of injury.
Isolations and machine movements are generally safer though.
You Get Stronger from Training, Not Testing
There’s a common trend to think that competing powerlifters should be maxing out more regularly, as they have to perform their 1-rep maxes in competition.
But if anything, the opposite is true.
You don’t really get any stronger by testing. All that happens is you hit your nervous system hard, put yourself in a riskier position, and your body has to dig deep into its recovery reserves, meaning you’re going to need to deload for a week or two post-test if you want to avoid over-reaching, and feeling beat up and burnt out.
A properly programmed powerlifting or strength-building routine will have phases where you perform some kind of max test, but yet again, working around an RPE 8 to 9 for the most part is going to be a much smarter, safer, more effective way to approach your workouts.
Programs such as Westside Barbell implement the max effort method, where lifters do work up to regular maxes in training, but once again, this is usually based off how they feel on the day, rather than having to hit a specific amount of weight for a specific number of reps. Plus, they regularly utilize different variations of their main lifts, so may do a conventional bench press one week, board press the next, close-grip the week after, and dumbbell presses on week 4, before going back to conventional bench in week 5.
Chances are, they do hit some kind of new max each time they train, but their intention is to go in and handle a heavy load at a high perceived intensity, not to set a new personal record at all costs.
The same goes with most DUP templates that prescribe AMRAP (As Many Reps As Possible) sets.
The goal here is to work hard, to dig deep, to feel a little sick and to push yourself hard. But you don’t have to burst a blood vessel, get a nosebleed, or cause yourself an injury all for the sake of beating the weight or reps you hit last time.
Working to an RPE 9 and leaving a rep in the tank is perfectly fine.
Your rate of muscle and strength gains aren’t determined by how often you can throw up in the gym, how many injuries you can train through, or whether you set new PRs every workout. They’re determined by your consistency, your intensity over time and your ability to progressively overload while training smart.
The Bottom Line
Max testing has a potential place in everyone’s routine.
But it should be specific. Unless you plan on competing in powerlifting, there’s little point testing your one, two or three rep max. And even if you do plan on hitting the platform at some point, you don’t want to be maxing out too often. While doing so might cause a little extra muscle breakdown and force your CNS to work hard and adapt, the effect on recovery needs to be taken into account.
Maxes are a great way to monitor your progress, but they’re not the magic pill for muscle size and strength.
Play it smart, keep a bit in the tank, and only hit maxes when your training program calls for it.
- Schoenfeld, Brad J. “The Mechanisms Of Muscle Hypertrophy And Their Application To Resistance Training.” Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24.10 (2010): 2857-2872. Web.
- Zatsiorsky, Vladimir M, and William J Kraemer. Science And Practice Of Strength Training. Champaign (IL): Human Kinetics, 2006. Print.