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#55 1RM Testing – When and how should it be used?
With the rise in popularity of ‘functional’ training – defined as programming based upon core compound lifts such as Squats, Deadlifts and Bench – has come an increase in the use of 1RM Testing amongst trainers, coaches, and even athletes or general gym goers who train themselves. While 1RM Testing is a valuable tool for measuring progress and developing a baseline for certain programs, there are a few key things to consider before throwing yourself or a client under a bar and pushing them to a max single repetition.
Who is it you are testing, and what are their goals?
Probably the most important thing to consider when testing is your client themselves:
* What level of experience do they have?
As an example, a novice client who has limited or no strength training experience is not an ideal candidate for 1RM Testing; they will (in most cases) not have the required skill to move well under load, let alone significant load, and will often struggle to execute the desired movement patterns with just an empty bar. These clients will require their initial programming to be focused on skill acquisition and developing a base level of strength before any sort of official testing is carried out. Once they are comfortable in the movement and can carry out the programmed number of reps in a correct and consistent manner, a 3RM – 5RM Test might be carried out; if a 1RM is required for programming purposes, it can be extrapolated from this 3RM – 5RM Test.
On the other side of the coin, an athlete whose training age is significantly advanced and can comfortably execute the desired movement will obviously not need to hold off on testing in order to develop their skill acquisition or base level of strength. You will obviously still want to screen their movement to ensure there are no issues they themselves might not be aware of, however providing they move well there is nothing stopping you from carrying out a 1RM Test on Day 1 if time permits.
* What are their goals, and where do you intend on going with their training?
Be mindful of your client’s goals. For example, someone who is only interested in general strength development will of course have very different programing requirements than someone whose training goal is to increase their squat from 1.5X Bodyweight to 2X Bodyweight, as well as different testing requirements. For a client who is just interested in general strength development, there may never be a need to carry out a 1RM Test. In this case, a 3RM – 5RM Test would be more than adequate to determine progress / assist in programming (if your programming requires a 1RM figure to determine submaximal loads). Such a client may also not be comfortable performing a 1RM Test, with the thought of carrying
out a single repetition at significant load at 100% of their capacity too intimidating.
For a client whose specific goal is to increase their strength and numbers in a particular lift (or all 3 of the core lifts), 1RM Testing is in most cases a necessity to determine true progress and current levels of strength. 3RM – 5RM Testing still has its place – for example, in non-standard lifts in which the client might not have as much experience – however 1RM Testing will need to be carried out to determine a baseline initially, and at appropriate intervals throughout their training.
Frequency of Testing
For those clients who enjoy the process of 1RM Testing, and derive motivation and satisfaction from seeing their numbers go up, it can be easy to get carried away and conduct 1RM Testing too frequently. While initially you may see your numbers continue to rise even if you are testing weekly (particularly if the client’s training age is not advanced), eventually your strength and numbers will plateau. Sufficient time must be left in-between testing to allow for the programming and training to work, and to prevent your body from adapting to testing the same lifts. For a regular client, we generally will conduct 1RM Testing every 12 – 18 weeks. There are of course considerations to factor into frequency of 1RM Testing; if it is for an athlete (either in-season or prepping for a competition) you will need to alter this based on their sporting commitments. For someone with an injury – be it minor or major – you will need to ensure appropriate rehabilitation has occurred and they are physically ready to be put under the strain and stress of testing.
An important point to consider is that 1RM Testing is not the only way to measure progress. As mentioned above, some clients find a great level of satisfaction and motivation in seeing their lifts go up and may start to lose focus if there is no benchmarking of their strength whatsoever for 12 – 18 weeks. AMRAPs (as many reps as possible), high volume sets (10 – 20 reps) or reps for time are all great ways of testing strength, and can be repeated to measure progress. The advantage they have outside of testing in a different setting to 1RM Testing to help avoid adaptation, is that they are typically carried out a relatively low loads and are therefore more easily recovered from.
Knowing when and when not to push the limits
This point relates to the 1RM Test itself, and knowing when to push your client harder or draw the line and call it for the day. As with everything we do as Coaches and Trainers, our clients’ wellbeing should be our top priority. A 1RM Test in a typical gym environment should not be pushed to the point where there is complete form breakdown, just for the sake of a gym PR. In the majority of cases, your clients will either be general gym goers for whom strength training is just a hobby, or athletes who are carrying out strength training to improve their sports performance. In either of these scenarios, pushing a client to the point where their form
has been completely thrown out the window simply to achieve a lift that is heavier than their last does not benefit them at all. A complete form breakdown means in most cases that the correct muscle groups are not being recruited, which in turn means they are not overloading and strengthening the desired muscles and more importantly are at risk of injuring themselves. That is not to say that your client should not be pushed – in a true 1RM setting they should feel slightly out of their comfort zone, and feel as though they are giving 100%. Some form breakdown is to be excepted and is of course acceptable. At the very least, your client should be initiating the movement in the correct form and only losing technique after the movement has commenced. If significant form breakdown occurs at the very beginning of the lift, it is usually a good time to wrap up the testing.
Consistency in Testing
The final point relates to ensuring that each test you do is consistent, so that the various results from testing are comparable and accurately represent either a true increase or decrease in strength. For instance, if you 1RM Test a high-bar squat in Olympic lifting shoes at the start of the program and wish to assess how much your squatting strength has improved, you need to re-test using a high-bar setup in (preferably the same) Olympic lifting shoes. For a more casual client, you should at the very least re-test the same variation of the lift (high-bar to high-bar, box squat to box squat etc.). Other external factors should also be controlled / managed as best as possible, to ensure consistent testing. This includes sleep, time of testing, training volume leading up to testing, and nutrition.
There are of course other things to consider when testing, and the more advanced your client and their training program, the more thought should be given to the process. The above information however should provide a good framework for testing the majority of clients.
Photo Credit: Matt McKillop Photography