In strength training, a one-rep max (1RM) is about much more than bragging rights. Knowing the maximum amount of weight you can lift isn’t just about getting likes on Instagram. A 1RM is a landmark for quality programming, conditioning, and training.
When it comes to consistent strength training, knowing your 1RM (or at least an estimate) helps dictate multiple training variables and a program’s flow. This provides direction for micro, meso, and macrocycles (AKA short-term, long-term, and even longer-term training cycles). It also helps lifters push their potential from a strategic point of view. If you know what numbers you’re aiming to hit, you can plan — and crush — your training accordingly.
Here, you’ll learn everything you want to know about finding your 1RM, including whether maxing out is right for you and how to estimate your big numbers if it’s not.
- What is a 1RM?
- Benefits of Knowing Your 1RM
- Who Should Know Their 1RM
- How to Find Your 1RM
- 1RM Calculator
- Who Should Max Out
- Who Shouldn’t Max Out
- How to Work Up to Your 1RM
- Frequently Asked Questions
1RM Video Guide
BarBend’s former Fitness Editor, Jake Boly, walks you through all there is to know about one-rep maxes in the video below!
Your 1RM is the absolute maximum amount that you can lift for one rep of any given exercise. A true 1RM will leave you with nothing in the tank. You’ll have the internal feeling of, “I couldn’t add more weight to the bar if I tried.”
Technically, you can find your 1RM for any movement, not just compound exercises and big competition lifts. However, while you could find your 1RM for, say, barbell curls, it’s worth noting that not all 1RMs will carry the same weight when it comes to directing strategic programming.
Plus, maxing out with smaller, more vulnerable muscle groups may increase injury risk while eating into recovery. That may prevent you from getting stronger overall with bigger compound lifts. In that way, some exercises are simply not worth maxing out due to the risk:reward ratio that comes along with them.
When considering which lifts to determine your max for, think about your competition lifts. For weightlifters, that will be the snatch and the clean & jerk. For powerlifters (and sometimes strongmen and CrossFitters), it’s going to be the squat, bench press, and deadlift. Strongman and strongwoman athletes might also need to know their log press max, which you can also generalize into learning your overhead press 1RM.
There are handfuls of benefits that come with knowing your 1RMs and using them strategically. These benefits will slide and shift based on one’s goals, needs, and overall training experience.
The first benefit of knowing or having an estimate of your 1RM is that it facilitates better programming. A great program will be structured to progress strength and adaptations strategically. Knowing your 1RM in the relevant lifts can help dictate flow of training within:
- Macrocycles: Annual or yearly scope of training;
- Mesocycles: 2-6 week blocks that are designed to accommodate various adaptations; and
- Microcycles: 1-2 weeks of training that have a very specific focus.
Within these timelines, programs will often use autoregulatory methods like determining your rate of perceived exertion (RPE). When you base your training in RPE, you judge how difficult a specific weight was to lift on scale of one to 10 (10 being absolute max effort). The basic premise here is listening to your body and adjusting your weights accordingly.
However, many lifters will also want to use percentages and auto-regulation together to provide the best scope for strategic training. The percentage here refers to what percent of your 1RM you should be lifting each week. Without knowing your 1RM (whether exact or estimate), it’s impossible to do this accurately.
Guiding Daily Workouts
Knowing your 1RM for different lifts can help direct your training. When you’re going over your programming, 1RMs can help provide a better lay of the land for where your body is at.
When you’re lifting at a certain level, you might be leaving gains on the table if you don’t know your 1RM and program accordingly. You risk either not challenging yourself enough to make gains or burning yourself out if you push the intensity too high, too often. To say the least, that is less than ideal for longevity in the gym. Being aware of your 1RM gives you guidelines for knowing how hard to push, how often.
While knowing your 1RM in various compound lifts can be important for the direction of your programming, it’s not a necessity for everyone — especially those who don’t have strength-focused goals. So who needs know their true 1RM?
For most beginning lifters, knowing their 1RM isn’t incredibly important because building a foundation of strength and form should take precedence over your numbers. Having a loose idea of your 1RM can be useful — hence, using estimates — but truly maxing out before you’re mechanically proficient can be counterproductive.
If you lift too much too soon, you risk performing a movement with poor form. In the best case scenario, the move will be rendered ineffective. At worse, you’ll hurt yourself.
Intermediate lifters can benefit from knowing their 1RMs. However, there is a big difference between intermediate lifters with just over six months of experience and intermediate lifters with a year and a half of experience. Considering this factor can help direct which type of 1RM testing will be most beneficial.
If you don’t have ambitions for ever testing your true 1RM strength or competing, you can simply use estimates and calculations to best direct your training and intensities. On the other hand, if you’re an intermediate lifter that wants to compete and push yourself to the limit, you might benefit from testing your true 1RMs.
Advanced and Competitive Strength Athletes
This one is a no-brainer. Advanced lifters and competitive strength athletes don’t only benefit from knowing their 1RM — they need to know and test 1RMs at meets. Competitive strength athletes have to know their 1RMs to program for competition and to create realistic goals. Generally, true 1RMs will be the best bet for this type of lifter.
Even bodybuilders may want to test their maxes. The kinds of high-intensity training involved in testing one, three, and five-rep maxes can help bodybuilders maintain their strength during a diet.
However, if you’re a competitive athlete in a non-strength sport, you will likely not need to test or know your true 1RM. In that case, you can get away with using heavy doubles, triples, or even sets of five to help determine your estimated 1RM. The risk:reward usually isn’t there for elite sport athletes who can’t afford to risk injury on the platform when they need to leave it all out on the field.
Just because you should know your 1RM for daily training purposes doesn’t mean you should actually test it. There are a few ways to find 1RMs and each method should be chosen based on a few different factors. Mainly, you’ll take into consideration your training age, goals, and individual needs. These will help you determine whether you should test your actual 1RM with max out days or use a 1RM calculator to get your estimated 1RM.
These are three main methods you can use to find your 1RM:
The first method for finding your 1RM is with a 1RM testing day. These are days where there’s one goal in mind — maxing out a desired lift or lifts.
For true 1RM testing days, you’ll have to design your program around building up to the big day. You’ll need to prep both your body and your mind for maximal results. Way ahead of time, you should know what lifts you’re planning to max out with. You might choose to do them all on one day, as with a simulated competition, or split your max lifts over multiple days.
You’ll also want to make sure you’re warming up according to the increasing intensities of your workouts. Is your warm-up dialed in and adjusted to prep your body for maximal intensities? Do you have spotters and proper equipment to keep you safe during max attempts?
1RM Testing Pros
- These tests will provide the most accurate idea for where your 1RM is sitting.
- Your results will hold up longer than calculations and add even more accuracy to your programming.
- Testing your true max will increase your experience and confidence under the bar when moving weight at this caliber.
- If you compete in a strength sport, such as powerlifting, strongman, or Olympic weightlifting, you need to acquire a taste for being under maximally heavy loads.
1RM Testing Cons
- Finding your true 1RM is very mentally and physically draining, so account for this before programming max days.
- You may not have access to spotters or the proper equipment you need to keep yourself safe.
1RM Testing Tips
- Rest before this day
- Always use spotters
- Don’t underestimate mental preparation and visualization tactics
- Structure max out days loosely similar to competition formats
- Program your exercises according to their difficulty
- Take some rest in between consecutive max out days
- Rest in between sets
If you’re a beginner or less-experienced intermediate lifter, you might not want to test your true one-rep max. However, it’s advisable to have an estimate for training purposes. There are two main ways to estimate your max. The first way to estimate your 1RM is to do so in the gym, and the second is with a 1RM calculator.
When you want to estimate your 1RM in the gym itself, you don’t have to actually grind through a single-rep PR. Based on your experience level, you can use a well-structured training day and the calculator on your phone to grab an estimate of your max.
1RM Estimate Pros
- You’ll introduce yourself to the psychology of a testing day, even if you’re not going all the way there.
- Estimating your max based on your lifts in the gym can make your calculations more accurate.
- There’s less of an injury risk when you aren’t going all out, and you won’t have to peak as strictly as you do when actually maxing out.
1RM Estimate Cons
- You won’t have the same opportunity to feel a true 1RM grind.
- This method is by nature not as accurate as an actual max attempt.
1RM Estimate for Beginners
After a thorough warm-up, follow the below protocol to find your 1RM estimate. Use moderate weight jumps that you feel confident with, and only go up when your form is solid.
- 10 reps x barbell only
- 8 reps x light weight
- 6 reps x moderately-heavy weight
- 5 reps x heavier weight
- 5 reps x heavier weight
- 5 reps x heavier weight
You’ll then take your final five-rep weight and multiply it by the 1.15, per the advice in the Essentials of Strength and Conditioning 4th Edition. So, your five-rep weight X 1.15 = estimated 1RM.
1RM Estimate for Intermediate Lifters
When you have more lifting experience under your below (more than six months, but less than a year and a half), you’ll be more familiar with your body and how it reacts to different training stimuli. You’re also more likely to have a sense of how to judge your RPE during a given rep or set.
If that sounds like you, try this protocol after a thorough warm-up.
- 10 reps x barbell only
- 8 reps x 55% 1RM or 5 RPE
- 6 reps x 65-70% or 7 RPE
- 3 reps x 77% or 8 RPE
- 3 reps x 87% or 8.5 RPE
- 3 reps x 94% or 9 RPE
- 3 reps x 95+% or 10 RPE
From there, whip out your phone’s calculator and toss in this equation, per the Essentials of Strength and Conditioning 4th Edition: three-rep weight X 1.08 = estimated 1RM.
Another popular way to find 1RMs is with the use of 1RM calculators. This a great option for beginners and intermediates because they can provide a baseline level for directing your training and programming.
For those interested in using 1RM calculators to establish an estimate for their 1RM, the requirements are much lower. You just need a knowledge of a few heavy double, triple, or four-rep sessions for a desired lift. The reality is, you only need one number to plug into the calculator. Still, having a few numbers to pull from can increase accuracy.
1RM Calculator Pros
- These calculators are easy to use and more accessible than gym estimates might be.
- With a 1RM calculator, you can get training direction for populations that are not yet ready to fully max out.
1RM Calculator Cons
- This method is not as accurate as truly maxing out.
- You won’t necessarily get to feel the specific sensation of testing yourself on a particular day.
1RM Calculator Popular Equations
When it comes to 1RM calculators, there are multiple equations that can be used. The two most popular tend to be the Brzycki and Baechle formulas.
1RM Calculator Tips
Despite calculators being easy to use, there are a few things to keep in mind when using them.
Remember, a calculator can always have some discrepancies when it comes to accuracy. The tips below can help ensure you’re obtaining the best estimate for your 1RM.
The goal with calculators is to find an average and use that to direct your training, as this will provide more accuracy.
To test your 1RM, check out the BarBend 1-rep max calculator below.
One Rep Max Calculator
For a lot of lifters, maxing out is one of the most exciting parts of their workout program. For people whose main goal is to build strength and add numbers to their lifts, they might be eager to get after their heaviest possible singles.
Experienced, Non-Competitive Lifters
If you have a lot of experience with lifting heavy weight — above 85 percent of your max weight — you might look forward to testing your 1RM. But if you’re not competing, it might be tempting to try to take yourself to your limits pretty much whenever your warm-ups feel good.
But if you bump up the weight toward a max every time you feel good on your first working set, you’ll be risking injury. Not only that, but you won’t be testing your true max if you haven’t peaked appropriately for it. So, for non-competitive lifters, plan it out like a competition — even just with yourself. Schedule out no more than two or three times to max out per year so you can adequately prep and peak for your effort.
Competitive Strength Athletes
If you compete, the whole idea is that you’ll max out. Some competitive athletes might want to save their biggest efforts for their meets. Other times, strength athletes will max out in their own gyms, on their own time. Why? During training (as opposed to in competition), weightlifters and powerlifters are lifting on their own turf with their own timing, without the pressures and constraints of competition. They’re also not generally cutting weight during regular training cycles, so they might be able to hit even heftier weights.
It’s important for all kinds of lifters to have a working estimate of their 1RM. But that doesn’t mean everyone should actually go for an all-out effort on the platform. Instead, these lifters might want to base their training plans on their estimated 1RM.
A lot of beginning lifters will start off learning exercises and practicing in the eight to 12 rep range. That’s an appropriate range for moderate weights that you can use to both build muscle and practice your technique. At that rep range, you’ll build up enough volume to develop the muscle memory you need to become proficient at the exercises you’re practicing.
Newbie gains notwithstanding, you’re not going to want to max out while you’re still in your first six months to year or so of lifting — at the very least. You need to build a stronger base of strength first. You also need to develop the mental and physical focus you need to not let your form break down under pressure.
Strength Athletes with Upcoming Competitions
If you’re training with a specific competition in mind, your programming and peaking should usually be geared toward doing as well as you can. In those cases, you may not want to overtax your body with unnecessary gym PR attempts. While you might want to test out your limits a few weeks or months out of the competition, you may want to avoid pushing too hard when you have an event just around the bend. If you test your maxes too close to the big day, it may impact your recovery and performance when you’re going against other athletes.
Maybe you’ve used a calculator in the past, but you’re ready to leave it all on the platform now. If you’re an advanced lifter, you’ll likely want to find your actual 1RM by performing the max effort lift. But just how do you go about doing that?
When you’re working up to your 1RM, you’ll want to make sure you’re doing it right so you’re getting an accurate read on your max. To set yourself up for success, you’ll want to dial in your preparation months, weeks, and days before, as well as on the day of your attempt.
Macro Planning for Your 1RM
Before you even hit the actual day of your max tests, train with at least 90 percent of your previous max (or estimated max) for a couple of weeks. If you’re training at high volume — and in this context, even four reps per set is high volume — in the immediate weeks before a max attempt, your body won’t know what to do when you suddenly crank it up to 100 and beyond.
You don’t want to transition immediately from sets of four, eight, or 10 reps to suddenly maxing out. It’s likely that your form will break down and that you’ll increase your injury risk.
On a macro level, when you’re working up to a peak in training, build up over the course of at least eight to 12 weeks. Dial down your form as you lift heavier and heavier. Stay in the very low volume, very high intensity range for the couple of weeks prior to your max attempt. Think heavy triples, then doubles, then singles, at above 90 percent of your previous max or max estimate. That will help your nervous system and muscles adjust to the pressure of such immense weight.
As you increase your load, gradually strip down the volume and number of accessory moves you’re incorporating into your work. By the time that last week or two before your max rolls around, you should only focus on the lift(s) you plan on testing.
It may seem strange to reduce your overall volume so dramatically, but in your meet — or your in-gym max attempt — you won’t be accumulating much volume at all. You want your body to focus on recovery and adjusting to extremely heavy loads right beforehand, and nothing else.
Manage Your Sleep and Stress
In general, it’s much easier to control the factors that impact your workout in the gym rather than outside of the gym. That said, in the weeks and days leading up to your big effort, try as much as you can to get good sleep, eat well, and manage your stress. Maybe that means meditating more than usual, or maybe it means planning ahead so that you’re not attempting to max out the weekend before your huge work conference.
If you feel comfortable, let your family and friends know that you’re about to try something that will be really taxing on your body and mind. Ask for their help in keeping your stress levels low in the lead-up. You don’t have to make any drastic changes to your life, but you do want to make your effort as easy as possible. And maybe these couple of weeks will be a good reminder that you feel better — and perform better — when you’re intentionally sleeping more and taking good care of yourself amidst life stress.
Warming Up for Your 1RM
What do you do on the day of your max attempt? First and foremost, do not skimp on your warm-up. That includes very light aerobic work, dynamic stretching, and specific activation moves that will help wake up the muscles you’ll need for the lift or lifts you’re attempting. Be prepared to double your normal warm-up time on max testing day. If you generally take 15 minutes to warm up, give yourself enough time to devote 30 minutes to your 1RM warm-up.
If you’re structuring your attempt like a powerlifting meet and testing your squat, then your bench, then your deadlift — in that order — feel free to save specific activation moves for the times between different lifts. For example, those scapular push-ups you love doing before bench presses can come between your squat and bench attempts instead of during your overall warm-up.
Ramping Up to Your 1RM
Once your general warm-up is done, do not neglect your movement-specific warm-ups and ramp-up sets. Always start with an empty barbell to get your body ready for the particular movement you’re going to max out on. Move deliberately at all times. Treat the empty barbell with the same respect that you would if it were loaded with multiple plates. That way, you’ll be setting yourself up to move with excellent form.
Progress steadily by increasing the weight by about 10 percent of your current max. Always perform high-quality reps — today of all days is not the time to perform rushed or sloppy reps, even with light weights. Once you get to about 75 percent of your 1RM, switch to moving up by five percent instead of 10 percent. Use your discretion regarding how much you’re increasing weight. This will depend on your max. Five percent of a 135-pound max is a much different jump than five percent of a 500-pound max.
View this post on Instagram
When you get to around 90%, consider it your “opening” attempt — the first lift in a meet. Your second attempt will be in the 93 to 97 percent range. Aim to have that second attempt be your last warm-up rep. Use it to build confidence and emotional momentum going into your actual max attempt.
Based on how your first two attempts are moving and how you’re feeling, opt for a lift that’s five or 10 pounds over your current max. While that would wrap up your competition, if you’re in the gym and your first PR (personal record) moves pretty easily, use your discretion if you want to go for an additional, slightly higher attempt.
Max it Out
Knowing your 1RM can be an incredibly tool for improving programming to get at your goals. When finding your 1RM, it’s important to remember that not every method is created equal. Select the 1RM testing means that best matches your individual needs, and don’t forget to congratulate yourself along the way.
What is a 1-rep max?
A 1-repetition max (1RM) is the absolute maximum amount that can be lifted for one rep for any given exercise.
Does everyone needs to know their 1-RM?
Not necessarily. While knowing 1RMs can be useful for intermediate and advanced lifters to provide accuracy for programming, beginners don’t necessarily need to know their true 1-rep max strength.
Why do I need to know my 1-rep maxes?
Technically, you might not need to know for your training. However, at least having an idea can provide you with better ways to strategic program your training, increase your self-awareness, and enhance your ability to efficiently get stronger.
Featured Image: BarBend