Training is not testing. Displaying strength is not (always) the same as building it. You’re training to develop certain qualities and capacities that will make your body more effective when you test it.
Max effort method consists of lifting loads that are in the 90-100% range, and prescription is not limited to working up to your best single lift on the day.
How Maximum Effort Works
The nervous system decides how the muscles will produce force to overcome a resistance. It can increase force production via four mechanisms:
Recruitment of muscle fibers. The more muscle fibers are recruited when doing an action the more force you can produce. And the more fast-twitch those recruited fibers are, the higher the force output. So the first way to produce a stronger muscle contraction is to become efficient at recruiting more muscle fibers, and becoming especially efficient at turning on the most powerful fast-twitch fibers.
Rate coding/firing rate. Your body has a limited capacity to recruit muscle fibers. The way to increase force production once it becomes hard to recruit more muscle fibers, is to increase the firing rate of the recruited fibers. Every time a muscle fiber fires it produces force. So the faster it can fire, or the more twitches it can do per unit of time, the more force the muscle will produce. Past the beginner stage, improving rate coding/firing rate is the main way the body adapts to producing more force.
Intramuscular coordination/muscle fiber synchronization. This means having the recruited muscle fibers fire in the most advantageous pattern to execute the movement. It doesn’t always mean firing everything at once. Sometimes the best recruitment pattern is not simultaneous. In the slow-speed strength movements – deadlift, squat, bench press, military press, it almost always is.
Muscular coordination. This refers to how the body uses the various muscles involved in the movement. For example, the antagonists must relax at the right time to allow the agonists/prime movers to do their job, but not so early that you lose stabilization. If the antagonists don’t relax enough you’ll be fighting your own body, on top of fighting the weight. If they relax too much you might lack stability, get injured, or not have a strong foundation from which to push off.
– Modified except from T Nation –
The last two elements are done through frequent practice of movement. The more often you practice a lift under a significant load, the better your intramuscular and muscular coordination will be.
Rate coding/firing rate and muscle fiber recruitment are the elements improved the most via the max effort method. And in intermediate and advanced athletes, gains come almost exclusively through rate coding.
As long as you’re training in the 90-100% range you’ll get the proper neurological adaptations. So it becomes a matter of what load and set/rep scheme will allow you to do the most work without significant drawbacks while staying in that 90-100% zone.
A 2-3 rep set puts you in a better mindset for success. On a max effort training day where you are building up to max on the day (vs. testing/competition for 1RM), a beginner/novice athlete may purposefully build up to max effort 2-3 rep sets in the 90-95% zone rather than singles for this very reason.
Attempting a set of 2 or 3 reps implies that you’ll succeed on the first rep. So right off the bat you know that the set will have some degree of success. It’s just a matter of how many successful reps you achieve.
This will make you more confident when approaching a lift. Confidence in the face of a max effort can make a huge difference in the success of a set.
Why is the second rep often more solid than the first one? This is due to both a potentiation/activation effect and also because the first rep gets you in a better groove.
If you’re shooting for a 1RM there will come a point where you have some doubt about being able to lift the weight. This can knock your confidence and ultimately your performance.
On your way up to a 2 or 3 rep set you’ll almost always get that first rep. Sometimes it might be harder than you expected, but you should always be able to get it.
When approaching your limit you might reach a point where you know after one rep that you won’t be able to complete the second one. You can simply rack the weight. You still had a productive set even though you only did a single.
When working up to a 1RM it’s harder to evaluate if you can make the single rep or not. When you unrack the weight you might feel like you can do it, but midway through you realize you can’t. That can lead to bad form or a missed lift, which could lead to injuries.
It’s easier to judge if you can get a second rep once you do rep one. How the rep felt tells you a lot about how much you have in the tank and if you can get that second one. With a set of one rep, when you approach limit levels you don’t have that tool to tell you if it’s safe to attempt the lift or not.
Some people have the experience and discipline of knowing as soon as they unrack the bar if they can make it or not. These people are less likely to fail on a max set. They’ll know when it’s safer to re-rack the weight instead of attempting it.
When in doubt, estimate a lower 1RM. It doesn’t matter where you start; it’s what you end up with that counts; just know it will take you a few more minutes to get there.
You’ll hit your max in as few as 5 sets or as many as 10 depending on your strength and the technical difficulty of the lift. The stronger you are, the more warm-up sets you’ll need to get to your top number.
Below is a basic guideline to help you plan your preparatory strategy (weights and reps) for the desired outcome. If you require to expand the number of sets, these will likely be inserted between set 5 and 6 (on the chart) and be doubles or singles at ~93-97%
Warming up for a PR is an individual thing — some do better with more volume, some with less. You may need different strategies for different lifts and different circumstances, i.e. if you’re are lifting in the cold or if you’re feeling really stiff on the day.
- use convenient weights whenever possible to minimise the number of weight plates on the bar and make transitions easy.
- when you jump to the next weight on a warm-up set, the increase shouldn’t be any bigger than the previous increase.
- once you get up to 80% of your 1RM, stick to one or two reps. More than that, and you’ve turned a warm-up set into a work set.
- on a testing day once you hit a new max, increase the weight 2-5%, rest 5-15 minutes, and try to hit another, (if time allows). Avoid the temptation to add any more than that. It’s easier and more exciting to hit a series of PRs on your way up and the momentum makes you feel like you have superpowers. You don’t want to jump too much, fail, and then strip weight off the bar for your next attempt. It probably won’t work, since failure creates fatigue and negative momentum.