Powerlifting, weightlifting and strongman athletes have the common goal of building strength. Different methods and equipment are used, but all their athletes strive for perfect form, speed, mobility and strength. Sooner or later that strength will be tested. This blog post will cover various aspects of testing strength and setting goals. So, why would you even max out in the first place?
Input for program
In many programs training loads will be a certain percentage of the athlete’s (estimated) 1 rep max (1RM). An estimated 1RM is derived from a real 2, 3 or even 10RM. There are many 1RM calculators to be found online, but beware of using higher rep maxes as input, as the estimation generally becomes less accurate. Another thing to consider is your work capacity, which can differ from lift to lift. I, for one, am terrible at handling multiple reps on the deadlift. This results in 1RM estimations that are far too low for me.
Determining openers for a meet
Competitive powerlifters and weightlifters have to have a plan for choosing attempts at competitions. Testing strength pre-competition is an essential part of this. Knowing what you can handle for one, two or three rep maxes will help you (and your coach) a great deal with choosing openers. It can also determine the strategy for the meet as a whole. You might be far more competitive in another weight class at a certain point and without testing you could have overlooked this fact and wasted time or have no time at all to adjust your game plan.
Of course not everyone competes and many lifters just like to lift for fun without the hassle of weight classes, rules and sexy singlets. Maxing out on a lift every once in a while does give you a better idea of your progression and makes comparing programs or progress easy. Setting a PR is always a huge confidence booster and for many, the reason to train more often, harder and smarter. The flipside is that you could get greedy and want to set PRs every session or at least very often, in which you probably won’t succeed in unless you’re a true beginner. So keep your ego in check and enjoy your grind to a big PR instead of getting your 1-10RM bingo chart filled out.
When to test?
It’s clear there are serious benefits to testing strength. The next question is: when is it best to do so?
Follow the program
Many programs have some sort of strength test built in. After running a program for a while it often has the lifter do an AMRAP (found in sample programs by Greg Nuckols) or a 1RM test (found in multiple Sheiko routines) for evaluation purposes. This will keep the program updated with the progress of the athlete. This type of testing is usually found in programs for intermediate and advanced lifters. For more general programming information, you should check out Daniel’s blog post.
Or your gut feeling…
Some days training is just awesome and everything feels light. These days are excellent for setting PRs! That is, if you are not following a strict program with test days already built in. This method works best for novice and (to some extent) intermediate lifters in my opinion, because absolute loads are relatively low and it helps to build a lot of confidence. As part of meet prep
Say you are preparing for a meet and you have yet to determine openers. You have no idea what kind of progression you made during the program and the program itself does not call for a reassessment. In powerlifting you would want to test your max at least 3 or 4 weeks out. Any sooner and it can hinder the tapering any later and it can hinder the deload phase, which is recommended for the last few weeks. Also make sure you don’t test too often (on a weekly basis) and not too far out of the meet (several months). The information has to be recent and the impact of testing should be kept to a minimum.
How to test?
So, you’re determined and ready to test your max. There are some final things to take into account.
Mock meet or single lift?
If you are planning your testing day it could be like a meet, including attempts and all three lifts on the same day. This is very taxing on the body so many people prefer to test lifts separately, spreading it out over the course of a week or maybe even two. I like to test squat and bench on the same day and do deadlift after a couple of days of rest. I also make sure I have spotters and someone who could give commands.
I cannot stress this enough but warming up and stretching is essential! Risk of injury is always present but it increases in max effort attempts when form often breaks down. Start warming up with light weights and work your way up while decreasing volume. Typically, my last warmup is either a single or a double at 90% of my opening weight.
After maxing out on a compound movement it’s best to do some cardio or very light strength training. Some extra blood flow will speed up recovery and make you much less sore the next day.
Gym vs Meet PRs
Meet PRs should always be the priority for competitive strength athletes. The mental aspect and the atmosphere of a meet is incomparable with a regular gym situation. Most lifters perform better on the platform than in the gym. This can be contributed to a proper deload and tapering allowing for supercompensation, along with the competition mindset and peer pressure. Greg Nuckols has written an in-depth article about how the mind affects strength performance. He is one of the better sources of information around so make good use of it!
Another argument for prioritizing meet PRs is the fact that only meet lifts are valid for official records and qualifications. But does it then mean there is no reason to go all out in the gym and find out what you’re truly capable of? Some would indeed argue that you should preserve energy and focus for when it really matters. A prime example is Boris Sheiko, a renowned Russian powerlifting coach. In his opinion one should not test their true max, especially not in the gym. Instead the lifter should focus on relatively safe attempts to build a better total, even it means that the lifter still has a bit left in the tank. Knowing one’s true max can form a mental barrier and even cause a plateau. I will get more into this subject in the next section. Avoiding grinders, minimizing risk of injury and unshackling the mind are key to long-term progress.
Goals & Milestones
Congratulations! You have discovered your max and maybe even achieved a milestone lift. However, the lifting game never stops and you have to set a new goal. Even though most people don’t have trouble setting new goals, there are a couple of mistakes that are often made. It’s a marathon, not a sprint!
It takes time for the body and mind to adapt to bigger weights, more volume and new motor patterns. Don’t expect unlimited linear progress or perfect technique any time soon. Yes, it becomes increasingly difficult to make gains. But the beauty of powerlifting and weightlifting lies in the fact that practice does make perfect. Especially in powerlifting many competitive powerlifters in the open class are in their 30s. Peaking in powerlifting does not often occur at early age. Especially in equipped lifting you’ll see plenty of masters (40+) still hitting lifetime PRs. The number 1 ranked lifter in the Netherlands is Pjotr van der Hoek (a total badass), who competes in the Masters I class. Check out his world record equipped bench press here.
Obsession with milestone lifts
Many lifters have the same goals and more often than not those are ‘milestone lifts’. Most people remember their first time benching 2 plates (100kg) or are still in pursuit of this goal. Other common goals are a 2-3 times bodyweight deadlift or 200kg squat. Of course it’s very motivational to set major goals like these but what’s often overlooked is that it may take a long time before you actually reach those goals. Again, drop the ego and use smaller plates for micro loading and actual progressive overload. I have made this mistake in the past and wasted time squatting 150kg because I refused to increase weights by less than 10kg and 160kg proved to be too heavy every time I did try it. What you should be doing is set smaller, short term goals as well as big goals. Ignore nice round numbers or huge weights you are not even close to lifting. Jonnie Candito (bless his brows) has a video covering this subject with some nice examples.
No shortcuts in this race
You should be familiar with most of the discussed concepts in this blog post. The ugly truth is that consistency, progressive overload, building and not testing strength, setting goals and leaving your ego at home will get you results. It’s easy to credit success to PHD’s or genetics but in the end it’s the hard work, dedication and perseverance that make the difference.