One of the debates that always seems to keep coming up in the strength & conditioning world is the use of max testing in the weight room. And within that debate, there are several sub-debates that follow:
Should athletes even max at all?
Some coaches feel that there is no need because you can tell if progress is being made during training. Others feel that testing is needed to provide formal data that can be used to evaluate the progress and effectiveness of the training program.
Who should test?
Do all athletes, regardless of age or training experience, test or should it be only for experienced lifters who can handle it?
How should we do the “max” testing?
Is it a true 1-rep max test or is it a 3-rep max test? Is it an estimated max based on the weight used and the number of reps completed? Or is it max reps at a specific weight?
How often should you test?
There are lots of questions and opinions on all of these things, which makes weight room testing a hot topic.
Why You Should Use Max Strength Testing
So, I’ll start right off with my opinion first. I’m a big believer in testing and data collection and that includes strength testing and maxing in the weight room. Now I completely understand the point of view that testing is not needed. For one, it’s very time-consuming. You could question whether that time spent testing would be better utilized for training instead. And yes, if you are getting stronger, you know it and your athletes know it. You don’t need a test to tell you that. Some coaches also feel that testing results in athletes just chasing numbers rather than focusing on improving technique. I, however, think there are several reasons why testing is important and why we do it.
Utilizing the Data
One reason is for the hard data that is collected. Yes, athletes are getting stronger, but exactly how much stronger are they exactly? Formal testing can show you that. If you do multiple strength tests or maxes, you can now look at trends that may give you insight to evaluate the training program. What seems to be working? What isn’t working like you had hoped it would? What needs to be changed? And so on. All of these items are very useful when looking at programming and preparing long-term training programs.
Take the Guesswork out of Load Selection
I also program my strength training workouts based on percentages of 1-rep maxes. If that lift’s max has been recorded and tracked, and if I want my athletes to do a prescribed number of reps at a certain percentage of their max, the athletes know exactly what weight they should be using for each set. So for example, if a back squat day is programmed for 1 set of 8 reps at 50%, 1 x 8 at 65%, and then 3 x 6 at 75%, and an athlete has a back squat max of 200lbs, that athlete knows that he/she should be using 100lbs, then 130lbs, and then 3 sets with 150lbs. It takes the guesswork out of load selection.
Why Your Athletes Approve of Max Strength Testing
Testing is also useful for my athletes in several ways, the first of which is for setting measurable goals for their training outcomes. It’s good motivation to have something specific to aim for and to train for. Testing results also show measurable improvement over time, both short term and long term. It’s nice for athletes to know that their hard work is paying off and concrete numbers are meaningful for that purpose.
How to Test Max Strength
So how to test max strength then becomes the next question. For high school athletes, I really like using a rep range and determining an estimated max based on the reps completed and weight used. This was a concept that I first learned about as an intern at the University of Minnesota under Chris Hartman in the mid ‘90’s. It worked so well; I’ve continued to use it ever since. But, let me first explain why I am not a fan of some other testing protocols and why I choose not to use them.
Max Reps with a Set Weight
I will start with what I feel is the worst option – max reps with a specific weight. The bench press test at the NFL Combine is the best example of this. Every player, regardless of position, size, or strength, uses 225 pounds and performs as many reps as possible with that weight. Last year, 216 players did the bench press test and the average for reps completed was 20. In fact, only four players didn’t get to 10 reps. That is a test of muscular endurance, not strength, especially for all the people who got over 30 reps. Strength assessments have to be done using a heavy resistance with low reps and need to be specific for the individual. You can’t do that using the same weight for everyone.
Next is the 1-rep max, particularly with high school lifters. Most high school lifters or athletes would be classified as inexperienced and would likely load the bar up as heavy as possible, so attempting to lift it even just one time is going to be a recipe for disaster and one that has potential for serious injury. The “do no harm” mantra of coaching should always be first and foremost, so forcing kids who are not ready for this style of testing would be in violation of that. The risk vs. reward is definitely not worth it, in my opinion.
3- or 5-Rep Test
So, what about a 3-rep test or a 5-rep test instead? Wouldn’t that be safer? Yes, I think that would be safer, especially for inexperienced lifters or beginners. However, it still presents a problem – what weight to test at. The less experience the athlete has, the harder that becomes. It’s even difficult for advanced lifters. Here are a couple scenarios that are common when testing with a specified number of reps:
Let’s say we are testing on the bench press with 3 reps. Athlete A tests with 225 pounds and gets 3 reps easily. Adrenaline is flowing and they are excited to be testing today. So next he tries 245 and gets 2 reps, but fails on the third – so no max. He rests a little and drops down to 235, he just went to muscular failure at 245 and now only gets two reps again at 235. He tries one more time at 230 because 225 was so easy the first time, but now is fatigued from hitting failure twice already, and only gets 1-2 reps and decides he is done. So, his official 3-rep max gets listed as 225. He certainly would have been able to lift more than that but was unable to get more because of his following weight choices for his next attempts.
Athlete B just watched what happened with Athlete A’s bench press testing and decides to take a more cautious approach with his back-squat test. He tries 315 pounds and gets 3 reps. It wasn’t super easy, but very doable, so he tries 325 next. He gets 3 reps again, feeling the same effort as the 315, moves up again to 335 and gets 3 more reps. At this point, he also grinds out 3 more reps again at 345 and then with 355. He tries one last testing set with 365 and barely gets the final rep, so he decides to stop and take that. So now the question is, did he stop because that was truly the most he could do and that is his max? Or did the high volume of heavy reps before that cause him to stop at 365 because of fatigue? Could he have gone heavier if he had made 20-pound increases rather than so many 10-pound increases?
Both of these situations come up because lifters are unsure how they will perform. The excitement of testing can change things a lot for high school-age athletes. A lot of them end up being able to do more than they think. The opposite can also be true. For some people, it’s a lot of mental and emotional pressure and as a result, they under-perform.
As a test administrator and from a time standpoint, testing and re-testing athletes multiple times to try to get an accurate result is very time-consuming. And the more athletes you have the longer it takes.
Rep Range Max Testing
The solution to the problems outlined above is giving the athletes a range or reps to use. For our program(s), we use 1-6 reps. Those that want to do a true 1-rep max can, but athletes can also choose to go up to 6 reps if they’d prefer. I always tell my athletes to choose a weight that they think they can get about 3-4 times. That way if it ends up being a little harder than they expect and they get 1-2 fewer reps, the test will still count. Likewise, if it’s a little easier than they expected and they can get one or two more reps, that will still count as well.
I also had a lot of athletes who had planned on doing a 1-rep max. Then, after the first rep feeling lighter than what they expected, kept going and got a second and even sometimes a third rep. All of these situations save a ton of time by only needing to test each athlete once. There are very few times where I will test an athlete twice on the same lift on the same day. Having a rep range allows the athlete to get a testing set completed in one shot, almost every time.
How to Determine Estimated Max
Here is the formula that I used to determine what the estimated max is:
- 1 rep = 100%
- 2 reps = 95%
- 3 reps = 92.5%
- 4 reps = 90%
- 5 reps = 87.5%
- 6 reps = 85%
To determine the max, take the weight that was lifted and divide by the percentage for the reps that they completed. For example, if Athlete C used 185 on the clean and got 4 reps, that would be 185 / .90 = 205.5. Rounding up, that would be an estimated max of 206 pounds.
Now is it 100% accurate? No, but I feel like it is accurate enough to use for programming workouts, tracking progress, and for goal setting. Over the years I have had athletes try a 1RM, 3-rep test, and a 5-6 reps test all in the same week and it always comes out to within 1-2 pounds. For me, that’s accurate enough to use and makes our testing much more efficient. Plus, it’s probably more accurate for a lot of athletes than using a specific rep test.
One thing to note is that we stop at 6 reps. If athletes get the 6th rep easily and have not hit muscular failure, they have to re–test with a heavier weight rather than keep going for more reps. You can continue extrapolating the formula out further to 8, 10, 12, 15+ reps to calculate a max. Keep in mind the higher the reps get, the less accurate the max becomes. 6 reps are still accurate (and safe for beginning lifters), but even 8 reps start to result in some inaccurate maxes for some people.
Every coach has their own approach to testing but using a multi-rep range for maxing has proven to be very safe, efficient, and accurate for us, which is why I’ve continued to use it for almost 25 years with high school athletes. Everyone needs to determine what is going to work best for their situation. I highly recommend trying the approach to max testing.