PR Like a Pro: The Best Way to Test Your 1-RM

I received a question from a reader earlier this week: what’s the best way to test a one-rep max? If you follow me on social media, you know I love good questions, and this is a great one, because there’s no one right answer. But there are some best practices to follow, and I do think most people can improve their strategy for testing a 1RM. 

One very important thing to note: testing a one-rep max is very different than setting a new PR. You should always be striving to hit new PRs whenever you can, but, if your training is on point, those PRs won’t usually be all-out attempts. Conversely, with a good one-rep max attempt, you’ve got nothing left – it feels as though if you had put two more pounds on the bar, you would have missed the lift.

Do you need to change up your strategy for one-rep max tests? Check your answers to these questions.

When Should You Test?

This is easily the most important thing to consider before testing a 1-RM. First: if you are a competitive strength athlete, you should almost never test your true 1-RM in the gym. That’s nothing more than an ego trip, regardless of whether you’re a powerlifter, strongman, or bodybuilder. The one exception might be Olympic weightlifting – training for that sport tends to be pretty different and, I’ll be honest, I don’t know much about it.

Otherwise, save maxing out on competition lifts for the competition. (Obviously, you still need to train heavy, and there’s nothing wrong with taking heavy singles, double, or triples in the gym – in fact, I encourage it with my own clients.)

Here’s an example of what might happen if you max out too often:

Now, if you have no competition plans, then you have a little more freedom in how you structure your training, because your only constraint is your own schedule. In that case, it’s still important to keep in mind that testing a true max is very hard on your body and poses a higher risk of injury than less intensive training.

I recommend that non-competitive lifters test 1-RM strength no more than once or twice a year. That leaves about six months for you to program a full macrocycle – plenty of time for rest, productive training, and relatively low-stress peaking, but not so long that it’s difficult to structure.

How’s Your Training?

Again, there are several things to consider here.  Regardless of when you’re planning to test your maxes, you need to structure your training in a way that prepares your body to handle the demands of an all-out single on one or more lifts. Don’t just crank away on sets of 8-12 and suddenly decide to see how much weight you can put up for 1.  

That’s a recipe for failure and possibly injury.

Instead, follow some sort of periodized routine that begins with a phase of high volume and low intensity and progresses to a phase of low volume and high intensity.  You should be training with 90+% of your 1-RM for at least a couple of weeks before you attempt to lift 100+%. Doing so will allow your body to acclimate to the stresses of heavy weight and low reps. More importantly, it will give you the practice necessary to maintain good technique under those loads.

Usually, technique begins to break down somewhere in the 85-95% range. The more you practice lifting in that range, the better you’ll be able to stay in the groove when you’re maxing out. If you have trouble programming for a 1-RM test, you might want to check out the peaking plan from my Think Strong routine – it’s simple, but should help you to get a hang for that gradual decrease in volume and increase in intensity necessary for long-term progression.

It’s worth considering how confident you’re feeling, too. Now, for the competitors: I’m not a big fan of dropping out of competitions for reasons other than injury or life situations.  As much as I hate to admit it: The quality of your training leading up to a meet isn’t necessarily indicative of your performance at the meet.  So even if you’ve been struggling for the past few weeks, it’s very possible that you’ll show up and dominate on game day. Conversely, and unfortunately, you can feel invincible going into a competition and still blow it.

I hit this 815 triple in the gym about two weeks before my meet — and then only made one attempt on competition day.

On the other hand, if you’re not a competitor, and you’re maxing out in the gym, I see no reason to attempt a true 1-RM attempt if your training has been off for any reason. Again, your only constraint is your own schedule, so if you’re not feeling confident about hitting new PRs, save them for another time!

Many people feel like they’re wasting a training cycle if they don’t max out at the end of it, but that’s simply not the case. The vast majority of strength is built in the weeks leading up to a 1-RM test, not in the test itself. That’s just a demonstration of strength, and it’s largely dependent on how you’re feeling on a given day.

How Should You Test?

Alright, your training is going well and you’ve carefully chosen a time to max. What should test day actually look like?  

I see a lot of casual gym-goers decide to max out without any real plan in mind. This is bad. You need to plan fairly carefully for a good PR: your time frame, your warm-ups, and your actual 1-RM attempts. This is where that “no one right answer” part comes in, so keep in mind that this section just explains how I like to do things.  If you’ve got a different way, that’s perfectly fine – as long as that different way isn’t “wing it.”

Schedule and Time Frame

I’m a powerlifter, and I coach powerlifters, and I am a big proponent of treating 1-RM tests in gym-like mock meets: aka three attempts per lift (squat, bench, and deadlift), and testing all lifts in a single day. That’s not necessary, though. Many people feel – with good reason – that testing multiple lifts on the same day is too exhausting, and prefer to break up their testing over the course of a week or so. If you choose the latter route, here are some tips to schedule your testing.

Tips for 1-RM Testing

1. The squat and deadlift tend to be much more exhausting than the bench and, if you choose to test it, the overhead press. If you split your days up, you’ll probably need at least two full days of rest after squatting or deadlifting before testing another lift, even if your plan is to test squat, bench, and deadlift in that order. I have found that for most people, a really tough squat test will result in a sub-par bench press test if two full days aren’t taken in between. Conversely, one full day of rest after bench press or overhead press is probably enough.

2. Scheduling more than two days of testing in a given week seems to be pretty tough. I recommend that if you choose to break up your testing, then you try to divide it into just two days: either upper/lower or squat and bench followed by deadlift (and, optionally, overhead press). If you go this route, it may be helpful to schedule a very light training or cardio session between testing days. For example, you could try something like:

  • Day 1: Test squat and bench press 1RM
  • Day 2: Rest
  • Day 3: 20 minutes low-impact cardio, abs, calves
  • Day 4: Rest
  • Day 5: Test deadlift and overhead press 1RM

3. Keep in mind that test days tend to take much longer than regular training days. You need more time to warm-up, more rest between sets, and usually, you’ll feel pretty exhausted afterwards, even if you don’t do any accessory work (and you shouldn’t). For those reasons, make sure to give yourself plenty of time in your day to test, so that you don’t feel rushed and can focus on the work at hand.

Warming Up for 1-RMs

Again, so many people overlook the importance of warming-up, especially when it comes to setting new one-rep maxes. On an average training day, for example, I’ll spend 10-15 minutes warming up, with some light aerobic activity, dynamic stretching, and a few activation movements. On a test day, I’ll spend at least 30 minutes to an hour, giving myself plenty of time to find the right mindset: energetic and warm enough to smash some heavy weights, but not so amped up that I’m unable to focus. When you’re testing a new 1-RM, I recommend that you schedule plenty of time to allow yourself to do the same.

[Check out how these seven famous powerlifters warm-up for squats.]

When you’re ready to get started, again, it’s important to have a plan, even for your warm-ups. Ideally, you’ll being with the bar (135 for deadlift) and progress in increments of roughly 10% of your current 1-RM until you’re up to about 75% of that 1-RM. Depending on your level of strength, you might need to adjust these numbers a bit. If your best squat is 700, for example, I don’t expect you to take the bar and then 115 lbs – go ahead and jump up one plate at a time until the weight starts to feel at least somewhat challenging.

Between roughly 75% and 85% of your current 1-RM, you should switch to increments of about 5% (for example, take a warm-up set with about 80% and then 85%).

Picking Your Numbers

Again, I’m a competitive lifter, so I’m a bit biased, but I like to program test days like I would a prepare for a meet. So instead of starting off with your first heavy attempt as a PR, I recommend taking an “opener” – a heavy single of roughly 89-93% that still moves pretty fast. Then, move on to a “second attempt,” or somewhere in the 93-97% range. This second attempt is really your last warm-up.  It should build confidence in that new PR.

Now, a test day isn’t a formal powerlifting meet, and so you have some flexibility. Take advantage of that! I always recommend taking the low-hanging fruit first, so go ahead and hit a “third attempt” of a small PR – 5 or 10 pounds over your current best. In a meet, you’d be done here, unless you had a record attempt coming up. But since you’re in the gym, if that PR doesn’t feel like a true 1-RM, and you think you have a little more in the tank, keep going! Take another rep with an additional 5-10 pounds, and keep doing that until you either miss a rep or feel like you’ve completely exhausted yourself.

Again, remember the difference between hitting a new PR and testing a 1-RM. This is why I only recommend testing 2-3 times a year: the process is long, stressful, and exhausting, and it’s not really necessary for gaining strength. But it can be hugely rewarding, too.

The Aftermath

After a 1-RM test, whether successful or not, you should probably schedule a bit of downtime: a deload week, or just a complete break from the gym. You probably won’t feel like you need it, and in fact, you might feel just the opposite: really itching to get back at some hard training and keep progressing. But in the long run, especially from a mental standpoint, the break will do you a lot of good. You don’t want to fall into the trap of pushing hard all day, everyday. It sounds good, but in practice, it’s really just a good way to burn out.

I hope this article helps you to hit some big numbers, and as always, questions and feedback are appreciated!

Editors note: This article is an op-ed. The views expressed herein and in the video are the authors and don’t necessarily reflect the views of BarBend. Claims, assertions, opinions, and quotes have been sourced exclusively by the author.

Feature image screenshot from @phdeadlift Instagram page.