Ah, the 1 rep max. The Holy Grail of strength training. This is what we live and die for, what all of our training amounts to, what all the hours in the gym are building up to: the ability to lift the heaviest weight we possibly can for 1 rep. This is what separates the men from the boys, and with every additional 45lb plate you can put on the side, you know you’re becoming something.
I mean, if you’re a powerlifter, maybe. Otherwise, why do you care so much about it? I’ll tell you: because it’s the highest number you can quote when someone asks you “How much do you lift?” You can take pride when your bench starts with a 3, or your deadlift starts with a 6. Random bystanders will be agog over your prowess that you can hit THAT number, jaws and panties will equally be dropped, and you will officially be “the man”.
But are you strong?
This too I suppose
We’ve once again witnessed the false conflation of numbers equating to strength, in doing so failing to recognize all the factors that contribute to a 1 rep max. Yes, you need to strength to be there to hit high numbers, but other things, such as: shortening the ROM, peaking, increasing efficiency of motor unit recruitment, learning how to use more muscles, manipulation of bodyweight/bloat, etc etc all contribute. It is entirely possible to increase your 1rm by vast amounts with increasing your strength in the slightest. Dave Tate remarks about this phenomenon constantly, mentioning how he can add 50lbs to someone’s bench after meeting them one time by teaching them HOW to bench. This is super cool if you need to hit a lift for a powerlifting meet…but it’s not making you stronger.
In the pursuit of a greater 1rm, many trainees forget that their real goal is to get STRONGER. They believe the 1rm to be a manifestation of strength, but quickly forget their intent and mistake the metric for the goal. This is why “beginner programs’ comprised of low volume and high frequency with low reps have become so in fashion: it allows a beginner to rapidly peak their strength and observe a very fast rise in their 1rm. However, this is also why these programs tend to stall pretty rapidly and leave a beginner in a scarcely better position than where they started. Strength was not built, it was simply realized.
Not like this
It is also for this reason that programs that actually BUILD strength are so looked down upon by beginner trainees: there is no sexy fast acceleration toward an increased 1rm. I have a confession to make; I hang out on reddit’s fitness forum and delight in recommending 5/3/1 to beginners just to watch my post get downvoted and insulted by people who have accomplished nothing in fitness. Why does this happen? Because 5/3/1 (and other programs with logical progression schemes, assistance work, sustainable progression, etc) builds strength but does not peak it. It is criticized for being “slow” because trainees fail to realize that their 1rm not rapidly accelerating is not an indication of slowly gaining strength, but instead a sign that one is actually BUILDING the strength required TO peak.
Strength takes a long time to build. It’s the least fun part about getting big numbers. Technique can be corrected within minutes, leverages can be changed in weeks, new equipment can be bought instantly, but strength is just a constantly, dull, slow, monotonous grind. If one is observing rapid gains in numbers, one must be honest with themselves that these are most likely NOT the results of strength increasing, but instead an example of improved proficiency in the movement, or some other factor starting to click. It can be super exciting, but we must remember our goal here.
If this kid gets it, why can't you?
If you are a beginner, quit worrying about your 1rm, quit testing it, and just start grinding away. Hitting a 2 plate bench after peaking, setting the world’s highest arch, retracting your shoulder blades as far back as they can go and getting your ROM down to 2” will simply not result in as impressive of an result (both for your physique AND your strength) than if you can hit cold, on an average training day, after having not trained the movement in a while. One requires squeezing out every last ounce of strength available for one final push, and the other is a demonstration of an ever present baseline of strength that could be peaked and turned into something monstrous. Plug away diligently, make your progress within a variety of rep ranges, and recognize when strength is actually being built.