Let’s set the scene. Kate’s been training hard, working her ass off and crushing every session with you. She understands that progress comes in more forms than the scale and you are ready to do some strength testing.
Awesome, so what should we go for? A one rep max (1RM) of course! Wrong. I’m going to lay my cards on the chalk covered table early doors and say outright that the vast majority of your general population clients never need to do a 1RM. In this article I’m going to outline why, and what I view as pragmatic alternatives.
*For clarity, in this instance general population clients are referring to clients that do not compete in strength sports
WHY ARE YOU DOING IT?
Strength testing is often done with the best of intentions. To empower the client, to show progress over the previous training cycle and help inform decisions on where to go next. Whilst laudable, I argue this can all be done with the same rewards, less risk and greater validity when moving away from 1RM testing.
ARE YOU TESTING WHAT YOU ARE TRAINING?
Specific adaptation to imposed demands aka the SAID principle is critical to any training plan. We get better at what we train for.
From a neuromuscular standpoint there is a rather large difference between sets of 10, sets of 5 and sets of 1. If we have spent the last 4 to 8 weeks working predominantly in the 6-15 rep range then jumping down to a 1RM is a different animal all together. Strength is both movement and intensity specific. To quote Dr Mike Israetel, “ The technique and adjustments required for a 90%+ squat are very different than those required for a 30% squat”. To further understand which test is appropriate to the phase of training we must first dive into some periodization.
Regardless of the periodization framework implemented, from Matveyev’s linear periodization (as shown), to block, to Dr Zourdos’s “integrated periodization model” all will work from periods of higher volume and lower intensity “preparatory” phases, to lower volume and higher intensity “peak” phases as the event or meet approaches. To put it simply they work from hypertrophy to general strength and through to peaking . Working under greater and greater loads, taking months to prepare for 1RMs.
Stone and O’Bryant 1987.
ASKING THE ELEPHANT TO CLIMB THE TREE
Hypertrophy phases, as we stated before, are high volume, moderate load training. This is the meat and potatoes for most of our general population and body composition clients. General strength phases, as the name implies is getting stronger, normally in the 3-6 rep range and are often reserved for our more advanced clients. Whilst peaking is the ability to express this general strength in a specific lift at a specific time, aka a competition.These peaking phases, preceding the 1RM attempt, consist of lots of practice with heavy weight (+90%). You practice lifting near to maximal loads before attempting a maximal load. By training your general population client in higher rep ranges and then jumping to 1RM testing you are bypassing the peaking (and potentially strength) phase. You are not testing the qualities you have been training. The body is not skilled in the movement it is being asked to perform and the tissues are not adapted to the loads they are placed under. The risk to reward ratio is skewed, increasing the risk of injury, poor form and potentially ruining the client’s confidence.
Tangentially, if your clients are regularly hitting 1-5 reps, for a non powerlifter I would have to ask if this is the best use of their training time, but I digress.
“THE RISK TO REWARD RATIO IS SKEWED, INCREASING THE RISK OF INJURY, POOR FORM AND POTENTIALLY RUINING THE CLIENT’S CONFIDENCE”
THE TRAINING DICTATES THE TESTING
So I’ve spent the first half of this article telling you what not to do, so how about we discuss what we should be doing! Appropriate strength testing boils down to testing the qualities that we have looked to develop in the previous training phase. It’s really that simple.
The vast majority of the general population’s training time will be spent in the 8-15 rep range. So guess what, that’s exactly what we test. At a novice or intermediate level clients should still be able to make progress on a session or weekly basis respectively. Therefore, simply tracking weight on the bar and repetitions performed we should be able to paint a vivid picture of progression for our clients, regardless of the progression method chosen (single, double, triple, wave).
Are they improving their 8-15 RM’s, are they adding weight, reps or sets? Yes? Then why do you need a “test”? Unless your clients are motivated by pre-ordained tests allow weekly progressive overload to highlight improvements.
Some more advanced general population clients may benefit from short strength focused phases of training. Whilst the majority of their work will still be in the 6-15 rep range they many choose to focus some time developing strength in a certain lift. Our testing options include;
1. Estimated 1RM (3 – 6 RM)*
2. As Many Reps As Possible – AMRAP*
*Both should be sub maximal with one or two reps in reserve (8-9 RPE)
Whist it can be client and lift specific, 1RMs can easily be predicted based off the clients 3-6 repetition maximums (there are a number of online calculators) . Simply take 3-5 sets working towards the maximum weight the client can lift in good form for the desired rep target. From there 1 RM’s canbe calculated.
Let’s take the example of deadlifting 100Kg for a 5RM at 9 RPE. Using the table above we can estimate that 100Kg is 77% of the client’s 1RM, and this gives an estimated 1RM of 130Kg.
Example two. We place 85% of the client’s 1RM on a bar and ask them to perform an AMRAP set to a 9 RPE. At this weight we would expect the client to perform three reps. Anymore than three and we know their strength is improving and their 1RM can be re-estimated. Both methods allow a greater number of reps to be performed than a 1RM. This results in greater volume, greater skill practice and lower risk of injury all whilst still accurately predicting a 1RM.
TESTING DONE WELL
So we know the tests we should be looking to administer but how can we ensure they are done safely and effectively.
1. Technical Over Concentric Failure
When strength testing with the general population it’s imperative to distinguish technical failure from concentric failure. A “just lift ” approach, focused on working to concentric failure promotes a load over technique type mentality, exactly what you have spent months trying to avoid! As proximity to failure increases we place a greater demand on technique, so whilst less experienced clients may be able to “lift more” they should be constrained to the limits of their technique. As a trainer provide clear technical parameters that must be adhered to if the set is to continue. Once technical failure results, the set is terminated
2. Submaximal Testing (8-9 RPE)
As previously mentioned, strength testing for your general population client does not have to be maximal. Lifting to within 1-2 repetitions from failure (an 8-9 on the RPE scale) provides enough intensity to estimate 1RM whilst staying far enough away from failure to maintain good technique.
BUT MY CLIENT REALLY WANTS TO LIFT HEAVY!
I get it, some clients just want to lift heavy. I have to start by saying unless your clients REALLY wants to lift heavy (1-3RM) I see no reason to push it. If you are a trainer that pushes 1-3RMs on clients I would implore you to consider your rationale. A more moderate rep range (3-6) has all and more of the benefits and less risk.
However, if the client really wants to do it I see that we, as trainers, have two main roles. Firstly education. Explain to the client the trade off that comes from spending time in very low rep ranges. It is often a poor use of time for body comp clients, demands a higher level of skill and execution and may increase the risk of injury. Secondly, above all else, we must ensure the client remains safe. That means submaximal loads (as previously discussed) and outlining strict technical parameters that the client must adhere to. No if’s, no buts. We never sacrifice form for load. Why? Because a 1RM for an experienced squatter is not the same for that of a novice squatter. To quote the work of Dolan et al (2014) “Our findings demonstrate that experienced squatters may exhibit enhanced technique at 1RM by smaller variations in “balance” throughout the squat compared to novice squatters.”.
Poor form not only increases our risk of injury, it also creates a “false” level of strength as PR’s set cannot be extrapolated to 3, 5 or 10 RM’s with good form.Anecdotally I have found the client that “wants to lift heavy” is also the one that is most likely to “lift at all costs” getting more focused on lifting the weight and setting a record over lifting in a safe and technically sound manner. Sometimes we have to save the clients from themselves. Ultimately this rep range should be used very sparingly and a huge emphasis placed on client safety and technique.
Monitoring client progress is paramount to long-term success. However, the strength testing method must match the client’s goal, phase of their training and current ability if it is to provide a valid and worthwhile measure of success. For most general population clients, despite it’s prevalence in the powerlifting world, it will not be a 1RM. Your clients are not powerlifters, so why keep testing them like one?
1. Dolan, Chad; Schau, Kyle A.; Quiles, Justin M.; Klemp, Alex; Day, Bradford; GarcÃa Merino, Sonia; Graves, B. Sue; FACSM; Zourdos, Michael C. Comparison of center of pressure during the squat between experienced and novice squatters.