Mad Max, Max Headroom, Two Big Macs Please, Etc

This one is coming right at you from the middle of the desert.  I don’t actually know what that means but I needed a catchy lede and that’s all I’ve got after a good long day.

So this entry is about our maxes.  To that end, I’d like to thank Cesar for his question earlier today and especially Paperback 70’s Hardcover Pete for his part in an evolving conversation over the last few months regarding the difference between training maxes and competition/one rep maxes.  It’s my hope that this post helps clarify the purpose and usage of the ‘max’ here at Woodshed.

First a few definitions, and then we’ll backtrack:
Max: The most you can successfully and fairly regularly squat, deadlift, press, etc. for one rep.  This can certainly be an educated or formulated estimate and is meant to be a general, catch-all sort of a term, which will hopefully become apparent over the course of this post.
One Rep Max: The most you have squatted, deadlifted, pressed, etc. for one rep fairly recently.  This is a historical number and an index of maximal effort.  As such, it’s a number you won’t hit every time you attempt it.  True maximal effort is in large part a neurological event–tired legs and a fried brain won’t squat what you squatted fresh two weeks ago even as you haven’t lost any appreciable strength over that same timeframe.
Training Max: A number of your derivation based upon your max, your one rep max if you have one, your goals, your recovery capacity, and a number of additional factors.

The best way for us to differentiate between the three is probably in practice.  Let’s take imaginary Ichabod.  Ick’s been with us a few months and has a pretty solid squat–he has hit 300 for five reps on a few different occasions recently.  Using our formula (Weight Lifted x Reps x .033 + Weight lifted), he’s calculated his estimated max or simply his max as 350 lbs.

However, Ick stayed after class on a Monday night last week.  He wanted to try a one-rep max on his squat because he’d eaten five Big Macs for lunch and felt bloated and strong.  Lo and behold, Ick got sick, figuratively and then literally: he blasted up 372 but then lost his lunch.  Behold, a one-rep max of 372 and a renewed desire to avoid the Golden Arches.

Now, Ick wants to bring his squat up to 405 over the next year.  He’s been reading his Wendler and he’s got a bit of a trick knee that he’s still working his squat into, so he’s fine with a more gradual approach–he wants that 405 to be rock solid, knees out perfect.  So he’s going to set his training max, e.g. the number he’ll squat a percentage of week-to-week, a little bit lower than the 350 he’d been using as a max, and a good deal lower than the 372 he hit under perfect, water-loaded conditions.  325 seems like a pretty solid number to him–if he adds 5 to 10 pounds to that number each month and stays healthy, he should be repping 405 by the end of his training year.

So now that we’ve drawn these distinctions, what do we do with them?

If you’re newer here, the answer’s pretty simple: your max is your training max. We’ve had you rep out a relatively heavy weight, leaving a rep in the tank, and we’ve plugged those numbers into our formula to spit out a max for you.  As a newer lifter, you’re still tapping into the neurological brainstuff inherent to a one-rep attempt, i.e., you’re a lot further away from your ceiling than someone who’s been at it for a while.  You’re safe to add 5-10 lbs to your squat and deadlift maxes and 2.5-5 lbs to your bench and press maxes after each month of regular attendance.  This progress should continue for a few months at least; when you’re struggling to hit the required reps on the last workset of the day, you’ll know it’s time to reset your max.  Dropping it 10% or so usually does the trick.

If you’ve been here a while, it’s a little more complicated and to me, a good deal more artful.  Here’s where we can think about doing like Ick and reverse engineering a goal.  Let’s say you want to press 100.  Your one-rep’s been stuck at 95 for a while and are hella frustrated that you can’t get over the hump, but you are patient enough to decide that you’ll be happy to reach three digits simply by the end of the next school year–eight months hence.  Press moves more slowly, so we allow for a very gradual progression: you’re going to add a pound to your training max each month, starting at 90.  90’s a little bit lower than your one rep max of 95, but you can hit it very consistently so it’s a fine number to work from.  Eight months down the road, you’ll be repping high percentages of 98 and oh by the way, you’ll have hit a TON of reps in the 80-90 range.  Barring unforeseen circumstances, 100 should be a foregone conclusion and you’ll more than likely see 103-105.

Those may seem like small numbers and miniscule distinctions, but extrapolate the principle to a 500 lb. deadlifter: the difference between his training max and his one-rep max may be 40, 50 lbs.  Nonetheless, it’s just as relative–we want you all working at percentages of consistently successful lifts, not neurological events.  The one is your training max, the other is your one-rep max.  It’s my hope that this post helps you start thinking of how to structure your training and your goals around the former number rather than the latter and draws these evolving distinctions with clarity.  As always, here to answer any questions and help however I can.
Post-script to all of this…if you don’t want to do too much thinking about this stuff, follow this decision tree:
1. Set your max by repping out (minus one) and plugging your numbers into the formula from up above.  For most of us who aren’t competitive powerlifters, rep strength is going to be a more accurate and pleasant index of “am I a strong squatter/presser/etc.” than max effort will be.

2. Each month when we reset maxes, add…
a. zero lbs to your squat, press, or deadlift if you haven’t been here very much the last month
b. 2.5 lbs to your press (and/or bench) and 5 lbs to your squat and deadlift if you’ve had a so-so month.
or c. 5 lbs to your press (and/or bench) and 10 lbs to your squat and deadlift if you’ve had a good month.

3. Repeat step 2 each month until you struggle to hit the required reps on your last set of the day.  At that point, drop 10% from your max and go back to step 2.

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