The Science Behind the 1-Rep Max

1RM test

“What’s your max?” You know the answer, but do you how to achieve the optimal 1-repetition maximum (1RM) and why it’s important in strength training

Heavy strength training for singles, doubles, and triples can help the central nervous system boost muscle growth due to the hormone release from the spinal cord. Hormones like testosterone and HGH are released usually as a result of very heavy lifting in compound movements.

The compound movements to lift to a 1-rep max (or low-rep, heavy strength) are the deadlift, bench press, standing overhead press, back squat, and front squat. 1RM testing shouldn’t be done with assistance exercises because injury can result from the stress put on the muscles around one joint.


For more experienced lifters, work up to 1RM in a given exercise, attempting the 1 rep by around your third work set. Work sets would decrease in reps drastically as the max effort approaches. This preserves energy for the all-out effort and also keeps the nervous system “used” to lifting heavy weight. 

Sample 1RM test for a front squat
Empty bar: 2×4-6 reps
135 lbs – 6 reps (warmup)
185 lbs – 4 reps
225 lbs  – 3 reps
275 lbs – 2 reps
295 lbs – 2 reps 
315 lbs – 1 rep (approximate 6-rep max)
335 lbs – 1 rep
355 lbs – 1 rep
365 lbs – 1 rep
375 lbs – 1 rep
385 lbs – max effort

To figure out your 1RM without actually attempting it, estimate it by doing a set of 5–10 reps with lower weight. Then, find this weight and locate your 1RM estimation on a 1RM chart that lists the amount of weight you can lift 10 times as about 75% of your 1RM. Another way to estimate 1RM is to use websites and mobile applications that use equations to predict your maximum strength.


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When attempting to hit a new PR, it’s important to get muscles ready for action the right way. We’re trying to stimulate your central nervous system (CNS) to work as efficiently as possible. You’ll need a great warmup routine.

A proper 1RM warmup includes explosive movements in an unloaded fashion to stimulate the CNS, getting the fast-twitch (type II) muscle fibers lit up and ready to rock. During your warmup, complete well below the amount of reps you can do. For a front squat 1RM warmup, try plyometric body-weight squat jumps for 2–3 sets of 4-8 reps then proceed to the protocol on page 1.

In typical weight training sets, resting between 90 and 120 seconds is common practice. While working up to your max effort, rest intervals need to be longer to give your CNS adequate recovery time. Even though your muscles may not feel fatigued, your brain and motor units will be. Once you get to the sets of 2, rest between 3 and 4 minutes between sets. It goes beyond just “catching your breath.”

These tricks of the trade will be the ticket to a new PR in the weight room. Keep in mind, that depending on what exercise you’re training, you may need to increase the load by smaller increments than in the example above. A 25-pound increase in the squat from one set to the next will feel very different from a 25-pound increase in a standing overhead press.  

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