Even after years of strength training, there are still times when I’m unsure how heavy my weights should be. Most advice is to take a subjective approach – you should increase or reduce the weight you lift based on how you feel, whether directly or inadvertently using the RPE (Rate of Perceived Exertion) scale. But that doesn’t always work. Sometimes, I’ll go into the gym feeling like superwoman, ready to lift the world, before realising I can only do a couple of reps. Likewise, I might feel like I could sleep for England, then manage to lift heavier than ever. It’s baffling.
Your 1RM (also known as one-rep max), on the other hand, is an objective measure of your training ability; it tells you exactly how heavy you are capable of lifting in ideal conditions. This number can help you identify specific rep ranges to achieve different goals, and with research showing that you’re more likely to underestimate how strong you really are when training based on RPE, PBT (Percentage Based Training, i.e., working to a percentage of your 1RM) could help you progress sooner.
Andy Vincent, a strength and conditioning coach tells us: ‘If you try to go off memory or how lifting a certain weight feels, you might end up lifting too much, or backing off miles too much, which can mean you can take much longer to progress. Working with your 1RM (or percentages of this) can be a great way to get you lifting the correct loads for each of your goals, sooner than if you were to rely on how you feel.’
That said, there are caveats. If you’re one of the 14.6k of you who search for 1RM calculators every month, you might want to read this.
What is 1RM?
‘Your 1RM is your one repetition max. It’s the maximum weight you can lift for one rep. It’s a test for maximal strength and is most typically performed on big compound lifts like squat, bench press, and deadlifts,’ Vincent explains.
You’ll be able to execute just one rep; a second will be a total no-no. In the same vein, a 2RM is the max amount of weight you can lift for two reps; 3RM is the most weight you can lift for three reps; 4RM is the most you can lift for four reps and so on.
In 2020, a meta-analysis looking into the reliability of test-retesting of your 1RM was published. It investigated how consistent 1RM results were for each participant, when variables such as the number of sessions each participant had done was changed, and it found that 1RM testing has ‘good to excellent’ reliability.
Sounds pretty solid, right? There’s certainly something in max rep testing and training, but is attempting your 1RM really wise? Keep reading…
How to calculate your 1RM
The easiest and most popular way to calculate your 1RM is to use an online calculator or formula.
‘There are a few formulas that you can use; the main ones being the Epley and Brzycki formulas, or you can use online calculators which work out these formulas for you,’ says Vincent. ‘With these, you can use the weight you use for rep ranges in your usual sessions to calculate a theoretical 1RM.’ So, for example, if you usually do 6 reps of back squats at 50kg, you will input this into an online 1RM calculator, which will then be used to calculate what your 1RM would be.
Top tip from Vincent: ‘The further rep range you are from one, the less accurate the online 1RM calculations tend to be. I suggest not using anything over five reps to calculate. To work this out, you’ll need to test for your 5RM.’ Read on for advice on how to do this in the safest – and most reliable – way possible.
What is Epley’s equation and how does it work?
Most online 1RM calculators are based upon the John Epley equation, which was created back in 1980, Vincent tells us. Here’s how the equation goes:
- (0.033 x number of reps x weight) + weight = 1RM
So, let’s say you typically back squat at 87.5kg for 5 reps. Here’s how you would work out your 1RM.
- 0.033 x 5 (reps performed) = 0.165
- 0.165 x 87.5 (the weight you lifted) = 14.37
- Add 14.37 to the weight you lifted (87.5) = Your theoretical 1RM is 101.87
How should I warm up for a 1RM set?
Bashing out your 1RM involves pushing yourself to your absolute limit. You’ll recruit a huge amount of muscle fibres and put a massive amount of strain on your central nervous system, so you categorically must warm-up if you want to avoid injuring yourself.
Vincent’s advice? ‘Whether you’re testing for your 1RM or going for a 3 or 5RM (which I would recommend, to help you work out your 1RM), you’ll still be lifting much heavier than usual. I would suggest doing 3-6 warm-up sets, gradually building up the weight to your target max.’
If your usual weight is 50kg, for example, implement progressive overload by incrementally increase the weight by 2 or 5kgs until you reach your max. Whatever you do, don’t go full steam ahead and attempt to lift your max from the get-go.
What is the difference between 1RM and PR?
1RM and PR are often confused, but here’s how to differentiate the two:
- PR stands for Personal Record and is the heaviest weight you have ever lifted.
- 1RM stands for 1-Rep Max and is the heaviest weight you can currently lift.
A PR could also refer to rep ranges; 12 reps of a bench press might be your PR, but 10 reps might be your standard.
How can I increase my 1RM?
Now for the interesting bit. Recently, there has been a wealth of research on the efficacy of training to muscle failure using your 1RM in the interest of muscle growth (a.k.a. hypertrophy) or strength; it shows that, in fact, working with your maximum load isn’t fundamental to progress, and the same results can be yielded without working to your maximum.
Vincent now rarely uses 1RM testing or training with his clients, adding that, aside from it not being essential for muscle mass and strength, ‘It’s hugely taxing, and your chances of injury are very high.’ But the theory of using max repetitions still goes: ‘I would suggest working towards improving your 3RM or 5RM instead,’ Vincent advises. ‘This will be a lot less taxing, but you’re still lifting close to your 1RM.’
Here are his top tips for getting the most out of your 3RM and 5RM training.
- Work on speed and power. ‘Using 75% of your normal max load for 3RM and 5RM training, practice making each lift as explosive as possible. This will make you more capable of increasing your 3RM and 5RMs, when it comes to your standard (non-speed) training.’
- Master your form. ‘Do technical sessions where you set aside more time to focus on the pattern and form of each lift that you’re doing. The better the understanding you have of each lift, the more able you will be to use the right muscles and build them.’
- Find your weak areas. ‘Where are your sticking points? Is it that you are weakest when you hit 90 degrees in your squat? Is there a particular point in your bench press that you struggle with? If you know what is holding you back, you can select other exercises specific to your weaknesses, to help you train and overcome these weak spots.’
What percentage of my 1RM should I be lifting for my goals?
Knowing your 1RM (or as close as) is all well and good, but using that number to determine how heavy you should be lifting according to your specific goal is, well, basically the whole point. As mentioned, research shows that PBT (Percentage Based Training), could help you progress faster than if you are to choose your weight based on RPE, so here’s an overview of exactly what percentages you should be shooting for, as advised by Vincent.
1RM percentage: ‘65-75%. You should perform sets of 3-6 reps, focusing on maximal power.’
Goal: Muscle growth/hypertrophy
1RM percentage: ’70-85%. This will vary because you can build muscle at every weight, depending on your experience with weightlifting, but if we generalise and you execute sets of 6-12 reps, you should look to lift 70-85% of your max.’
1RM percentage: ’90-95%. It’s a common misconception that you should lift 100% of your max load to build strength; it’s smarter to train at 90-95%, to ensure you can maintain good form and technique. That said, I wouldn’t recommend this unless you are extremely experienced.’
1RM percentage: ’60-65%. Again, this depends on your definition of endurance, but if you are aiming for around 15 reps per set, go for 60-65% of your 1RM. Just remember that percentages of your 1RM become less and less accurate as the reps performed move further from 1.’
How can I test for my 1RM, safely?
By this point, it’s probably pretty clear that, based upon the recent research, Vincent is an advocate of 3RM and 5RM training over 1RM. But if curiosity is getting the better of you, here are his pointers for testing for your 1RM as safely as you can. These also apply to testing for your 3RM and 5RM.
- Do it with a training partner, both for confidence and so they can spot you and help if you get stuck.
- Do your exercises, such as squats and bench presses, with a gym rack. That way, you can set up the safety rail just below the bottom position of the lift, so that you can drop the weight and get out safely if needs be.
- Only test if you have good lifting experience under your belt. If not, stick to your 3RM or 5RM.
How can I use my 1RM in a workout?
‘Honestly, I’d say the risk of executing your 1RM outweigh the rewards,’ Vincent affirms. ‘Stick to 3 and 5RMs; they’ll get you close enough to your 1RM for you to be able to work out the percentages and weights you should lift for your goals, while significantly reducing the risk of injury.
‘Doing three or five reps still allows you to build strength more effectively than if you were to do 8-10 reps. It’s all about low volume and high load training. Doing a high volume of reps is what causes the accumulative fatigue that stops you from doing more, not your strength. If you reduce the volume you are doing, you’ll be able to lift more, and thereby build strength.
‘Always do these max rep sets at the start of a workout; you don’t want to be fatigued when doing the hardest part of a session. And make sure you always do this; if you do them first one week, then at the end of your workout the next, your results won’t be comparable, so you won’t have a true picture of your progress.’
What are the cons of 1RM testing and training?
- Research shows that training to muscle failure isn’t necessary for you to build those muscles and improve your strength.
- You run the risk of injury.
- It’s not practical. You’d need to test for all of your compound lifts, as you’ll have a different 1RM for every lift.
- The use of PBT of your 1RM isn’t reliable, the further away from 1 rep you get. Vincent says PBT is no use when you start to do 10 reps.
- 1RM testing is extremely taxing on your body.
So, should I bother with my 1RM?
If you don’t have experience with it at this point, probably not. Percentage-based training (PBT) is worth experimenting with, as studies show that it could help you achieve your goals sooner than RPE, if you don’t feel that you’re as in tune with your body as you’d like to be. Your 3RM and 5RM are just as useful, without the risks that could come with your 1RM.