There are so many ways to go about finding your 1 rep max (1RM). The following is a method I recommend and use with myself and my clients. I find it to be the most accurate way to find your 1 rep max strength and the best way to keep you safe and avoiding any injuries.
You might not feel like right now is not an appropriate time for you to test your 1RM but read on. You’ll discover some excellent tips to make sure you are performing certain lifts correctly and with proper technique. You’ll also learn cues to look for that will let you know if you might be going too heavy or light.
But what about those that are not weight training or don’t like to train with weights? Can you still test yourself to see if you are progressing? Of course! I’ll cover that too.
WHY TEST YOUR 1 REP MAX (1RM)
For one it’s fun.
A few reasons it’s a good idea to test your strength:
1. It’s a great way to measure progress. Too often we get all wrapped up in the scale. Weighing yourself every single week. Some every day, and some every couple of hours. To be honest, a cup of water or a bowel movement can affect your weight. There are other ways to measure progress than just the scale. If you’re getting stronger that’s a good sign you’re doing some things right.
2. Testing your 1 rep max lets you know your weaknesses. Later in the post, I’ll be going over how to tell if you might have some strength imbalances that you can improve on based upon finding your 1 rep max in the bench press. It’s pretty cool stuff.
Aside from that, testing your 1 rep max gives you an excellent opportunity to see what areas you might need to work on. Maybe you’ve been spending too much time underneath the bar and your bench press is huge but you can’t do a couple of pull-ups.
The most important thing here is to remember to avoid comparing yourself to anyone else. Just because your buddy can squat 350 doesn’t mean you need to. We are all unique and our strength, health, and fitness levels are no different. Comparing yourself to others here is a sure-fire way to get frustrated with your progress.
Focus on your results. Did you make a 5-pound increase in your shoulder press this month? Awesome! That’s an improvement. Maybe you built up to your first pull-up! Sweet! Congratulate yourself.
3. It checks your form and technique. It’s very important to maintain good form and technique when testing your 1RM. For one, to avoid injuries but also to make the lift legit. If you’ve been doing pull-ups but short arming it and not getting into a dead hang at the bottom or not getting your chin above the bar you will soon find out why this is so important.
WHAT DOES A 1 REP MAX DO?
The 1 rep max test is often considered the ‘gold standard’ for assessing your strength. It is simply defined as the maximal weight an individual can lift for only one repetition with the correct technique.
A 1 rep max is the heaviest weight you can lift for 1 rep. A 1 rep max is commonly tested with the following lifts.
- Bench press
But it could be your personal best for a number of exercises, not just those listed above.
Heavy strength training for 1 rep, 2 reps, and 3 reps can help the central nervous system improve muscle growth due to hormone release from the spinal cord.
CAN A 1 REP MAX BUILD MUSCLE?
1 rep max lifts are typically used for displays of strength and not building muscle. However, when combined with enough volume, load, and density they can be used to build muscle. However, I would not recommend this due to the increased risk of injury.
If building muscle is your primary goal you’d be better suited by focusing on progressive overload and rep ranges in the 5 to 12 range.
ARE 1 REP MAX TESTS RELIABLE
According to two studies (1)(2) I found, when 1 rep max lifts are tested correctly they can be a reliable measure of strength. However, as you’ll see below there are a number of things that can influence your performance and test. This is something to keep in mind.
WHAT EXERCISES SHOULD YOU TEST FOR A 1 REP MAX?
You can test your 1 rep max in most exercises. If you are an athlete it might be good to test exercises that are specific to your sport.
But more importantly, you should focus on the lifts you have mastered technically. If you are not familiar with the bench press, deadlift, or can not do a pull-up yet then you would not want to test them. Only test yourself if you are confident in the exercise and if you have been performing it with good form for a few months. You may want a professional to take a look at your form before doing so.
Large muscle groups and exercises that work them are the best to test:
- Bench press
- Back squat
- Overhead press
- The Olympic lifts (snatch, clean, jerk)
For the most part, these are the lifts you will see the most progress in. If these lifts are going well for you the smaller lifts will do the same simply because they are recruited and are used so much in these lifts without directly being worked.
WHO SHOULD TEST THEIR 1 REP MAX AND WHEN TO TEST
Anyone that is interested in getting stronger. If you’re trying to get your incredible hulk on it’s definitely a good way to see where you stand. As long as you are familiar with the exercises and have been performing them with good form for a few months.
If you currently have any lagging injuries that have been bugging you it might be a good time to rest those puppies for now. Get healthy first and then think about strength testing.
A good time to test your 1RM is right before you start a new training program. This way after the program concludes you can test again to help evaluate the effectiveness of the training.
HOW OFTEN SHOULD I DO A 1 REP MAX TEST
Honestly, if you never do one you’ll be fine. It’s not necessary to test your 1 rep max but it can be a great ego boost. As well as a way to measure maximal strength over an extended period of time.
Basically, if you like numbers and lifting heavy stuff, go for it.
If testing your 1 rep max is something that you’d like to do consistently once every 6 months is an excellent time frame for allowing you to train consistently and progress in your lifts.
HOW TO TEST YOUR 1 REP MAX
- Step 1: Remove all jewelry, hats, glasses, and accessories. You don’t want anything getting caught. Otherwise, it could get ugly.
- Step 2: Wear loose and comfortable clothing. But make sure it’s not to lose that clothing can get caught.
- Step 3: Remind yourself that perfect form is expected during these 1RM testing sessions.
- Step 4: It’s best to test your 1 rep max with a friend, trainer, or knowledgeable partner. If done correctly you will actually fail on your final repetition and in the case of the bench press, a partner/spotter will be needed to help re-rack the weight for you.
- Step 5: Don’t test more than two big muscle groups per day. You will also want to make sure that they are opposing muscle groups. If you test your bench press, I would wait about 10 minutes before you test your weighted pull-up or Back Squat. If you test your back squat that day do not test your dead-lift. Both utilize the legs and lower back.
Beginning the test:
For this example, we will use the bench press. But the guidelines below can be applied to testing any 1RM.
Your spotter will help you lift the bar off of the rack for every set that you perform regardless of the weight. When you have control of the bar you will then let your partner know by saying “my bar.” Your spotter will then release the bar and you will begin your first set/rep.
Step 1: Tempo
The movement of the lift should be 4010. This means that you will take four (4) seconds to lower the bar all the way to the chest, you will then pause for zero (0) seconds at the chest, you will then raise the bar for one (1) second until arms are extended above you. Once you have control of the bar above you your partner will take the bar.
Why do we use a tempo?
So that we have a standard every time you test. The pace at which you move the bar affects your strength. As a test try bench pressing at different tempos. This will give you a good feel for what I mean. Do you have to use 4010 as your tempo? Absolutely NOT! It’s just what I prefer to use. Whatever tempo you decide on just make a note so that the next time you do the same thing.
It’s also very important to be consistent with your hand grip, feet stance, and hand width as well. Take notes of these so that you are as accurate as possible every time you test. A good rule of thumb for testing bench press, shoulder press, and a pull-up is a slightly wider than shoulder-width grip (so your hands are just outside of your shoulders). For lower body roughly the same. So your feet would be just outside the shoulders.
Step 2: First set
You will estimate your 1 rep max bench press. It is totally ok if you have no clue what that might be. Just estimate the best you can. Or use the following resource for estimating your 1 rep max.
For your first set, you will use 40% of that estimated 1RM and perform 4 reps. You then rest for 10 seconds and perform your second set.
Example: estimated 1RM bench press 200# x .4 = 80# x 4 reps
- Second set: Your second set is just like the first. 4 repetitions at 40% of your estimated 1RM. You will then rest for 10 seconds and perform your third set.
- Third set: You will now perform 3 repetitions using 60% of your estimated 1RM. You will then rest for 30 seconds and move on to your fourth set. Remember to keep using the tempo of 4010 for every single set. (Example: estimated 1RM bench press 200# x .6 = 120#)
- Fourth set: Now you will perform 2 repetitions using 75% of your estimated 1RM. Resting 60 seconds after and before moving on to your fifth set. (Example: estimated 1RM bench press 200# x .75 = 150#)
- Fifth set: You will now take 85% of your estimated 1RM and perform 1 repetition. Rest 2 complete minutes before moving on to your sixth set. (Example: estimated 1RM bench press 200# x .85 = 170#)
- Sixth set: You will now no longer use a percentage of your estimated 1RM. What you will now want to do is take mental notes or have your spotter make the decision for you regarding how much weight to add. It’s best to go a little lighter if you are unsure.
Here are some things to look for on the previous set that will help you decide how much weight to add.
The speed of the bar on the way up. Was the bar moving considerably slower on the way up from the chest? If so think about adding only a small amount of weight. If the speed was pretty consistent it’s safe to bet that you can add a bit more.
Was your form consistent? Did you feel comfortable under the bar or did you feel like you might need to start squirming around a little to help get the bar up?
If you have to bounce the bar off your chest, can not come down into a full squat (hip crease slightly below knees), or chin over the bar in a pull-up it is a no rep. Also if your hips come off of the bench when bench pressing. Same goes with your feet. They should remain planted on the ground at all times.
Is the bar staying even? The bar should move evenly throughout the rep. If it begins to lean in one direction because of dominant strength to one side it is no rep.
You want to try to find your 1 rep max between sets 7 and 11. Beginning with your seventh set you will now want to rest 4 minutes after each attempt to allow for complete recovery.
You also might be wondering why we did so many sets and started off so light? Strength training is primarily a creatine phosphate or central nervous system workout. What we are doing by warming up this way is lightning a fire under our nervous system’s ass and waking it up so that it knows what it is about to do.
Think of it like this. When your alarm goes off in the morning you usually are not quite awake right away. It takes a few minutes of moving around to get going. The same thing applies here.
WHAT SHOULD MY 1 REP MAX BE?
This will vary on your experience, training age (how long you have been training with weights), age, gender, technique, exercise performed, there are countless variables that come into play. Heck, you might get distorted by a runny nose or something and not quite perform as well.
There is no real 1 rep max you should have. Realize that this will change dramatically if you are new to working with weights or have not been training for very long. And if you have been training for a while these numbers almost seem like they never budge so be happy with any small changes.
However, some good goals to shoot for if you are new to weight training are as follows.
- Bench Press your 1.50 your body weight by 1 rep: 150lbs weight = 225lbs bench press
- Back squat 1.75 your bodyweight for 1 rep: 150lbs weight = 262lbs back squat
- Deadlift 2x your bodyweight for 1 rep: 150lbs weight = 300lbs dead-lift
- Bench press your body weight
- Back squat 1.25 your body weight
- Deadlift 1.5 your body weight
If you can not do these don’t stress. It takes time and consistency in the gym. The above is just something to strive for if you decide to hit the weights. Get on a program that you enjoy and find effective and you’ll be there in no time.
If you are a more advanced lifter here are some good goals to shoot for.
- Bench press 1.75 times bodyweight for 1 rep: 150 x 262.5lbs
- Back squat 2.25 times bodyweight for 1 rep: 150 x 337.5lbs
- Deadlift 2.75 times bodyweight for 1 rep: 150 x 412.5lbs.
- Bench press 1.25 your bodyweight
- Back squat 1.75 your bodyweight
- Deadlift 2 times your body weight
WHAT IF I DON’T LIFT WEIGHTS BUT WANT TO TEST PERFORMANCE IN OTHER WAYS
There are tons of tests that you can do to measure different types of performance based on your goals. You can test aerobic performance, muscular endurance, strength, anaerobic power, agility, and body measurements. Detailing each would make this post about 3 days longer than it already is so here are a few good links you can check out if you are interested in exploring some other testing options.
WHAT IS THE BEST EXERCISE TO TEST YOUR 1 REP MAX IN
I hate putting things in a box like this. But, since you’re asking – Imma do it.
The best exercise to test your 1RM is the bench press. It gives you an idea of where all your other strength lifts should be. This has been concluded through years and years of research by numerous strength coaches. Below is the gist of it based on a 200 pound 1RM in the bench press
- Bench press 1 rep max: 200
- A supinated chin-up (palms face you): Your goal would be around 87% of your 1RM in the bench press
- Example: 200 x .87 = 174lbs.
This includes your body weight plus any extra weight added. So if you weigh 150 pounds you would be including roughly a 25-pound dumbbell, weight plate, vest, or whatever another method you use to add extra weight.
- Incline bench press: Your goal would be to be around 91% of your 1RM in the bench press
- Example: 200 x .91 = 182lbs.
- Dips: Your goal is to be at 117% of your 1RM in the bench press.
- Example: 200 x 1.17 = 234lbs
For dips as in pull-ups, this weight includes your body weight.
Why are these beneficial? Well if you can bench press 2 times your body weight but can’t knock out a pull-up with a little extra weight you may need to work on that to balance out your muscles. It makes a huge difference in injury prevention.
Our muscles work together. If your chest is super strong but your back is weak it pulls on those muscles, thus risking injury.
FINAL THOUGHTS ON 1 REP MAX
In all honesty, testing your strength and 1 rep max should be a fun learning experience. Is it my way or the highway? Absolutely not. There are other ways you can go about testing your 1 rep max and other calculations you can take into account to figure out if you have any weaknesses.
If any of this was at all confusing please do not hesitate to give me a call or email. I am more than happy to clarify things. There is a ton of information here.
Again, the post will be up all week for digestion and re-reading. Love it or hate it? Agree or disagree? Let me know in the comments.